Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Inalienable Rights & the Prison of Numbers

There's a lot of talk about old school on RPG blogs and forums.  What is it?  How is it defined?  Does it actually exist?  Can it be utilized today?  This post might just be more talking, I don't know... Hopefully, it's not too all over the place.

Old School D&D gives players the expectation that their character can do more than what is written on the character sheet.  A PC's rights are implied.  Modern D&D assumes (at least how the rules are written and the game is generally played) that a PC is only as resourceful as the paper his abilities are written on.

I'm not saying limit character optimization.  Optimize all you want, but not the paint-by-numbers kind of "balance fetishization" and "numberswank" (yes, the internet has taught me many wondrous things!) you might find in 3rd, 4th, and Pathfinder.  Instead of point buy/build or specialization kits which come with their own limitations, why not have each player describe his character - appearance, mannerisms, favorite sayings, personality, prior experiences, proficiencies, specialties, and whatever aesthetic considerations the player is going for.  Then, at long last, we could minimize the numbers which will inevitably strangle all the fun out of our game.

What Old School gamers realize is that the game is not the rules... the game is something far grander and deeper, containing all the nuanced complexities of a realistic fantasy world.  Imagine feats and prestige classes  without all those numbers attached to them.  There's a lot of cool stuff in there.  Of course, it's all too unnecessarily cumbersome and bloated for most OSR gamers.  But take away most of the numbers, and everything becomes possible.  Words alone are fine, but when they're combined with too many numbers, they become a prison.  Take cleave, for example.  A great idea.  Then add the prerequisites, 5' step, once per round, cleave as requirement for additional maneuvers, etc.  It's almost not worth bothering with.  What if you, as a gamer, stripped feats and niche classes of the superfluous?

When you have a 60 page rulebook, a lot of stuff has to be implied.  If a character wants to pin an Orc to a dungeon wall with his polearm or fire multiple arrows in one round but with less accuracy or cast a spell with increased intensity to the point where he's physically exhausted after the effort, they should be able to attempt it.  In fact, that sort of thing should be encouraged.  Imagination is key and must be communicated effectively.  Let the GM decide on a modifier, complication, or unexpected twist before a die is rolled.

Which brings me to my next point.  Dice decide general outcomes, GMs narrate the specifics!  The dice have a tale to tell, but it's a vague, big-picture, macro kind of story.  A GM has to interpret those dice depending on all sorts of relevant details... the character's class, race, ability scores, instrument used, spell components, momentum, darkness, emotional state, and what the GM knows about the antagonists.  He also has to mind the story's pacing, mood, difficulty, obviousness, etc.  His micro-vision, detail-oriented retelling is the game's reality.  What the GM says goes... and yet, players have the right to question or petition him for an alternative interpretation or ruling.


P.S.  Shane Ward's anecdote reminded me of something that happened to me last week...

If it seems straightforward, then just a simple d20 roll is good enough for me.  If it's really outside the box and seems like it might be a really cool long-shot, then I give the concept a 33% chance of success. 

There was a stalagmite creature in a cave below Clear Meadows (this is for Liberation of the Demon Slayer if anyone's curious).  The party was seven 1st level character's strong, so I made the whole cave full of these Roper-esque things.  The thief who was busy dislodging a luminous green crystal from a cavern wall got hit.  In LotDS all damage is exploding.  Also, these were brand new convention dice I purchased a half hour before the last LotDS game I was running at the Game Hole con.  I kept rolling natural 4's and ended up with something like 19 points of damage!  That player's ex-thief was impaled upon the creature. 

Earlier in the session, one of the wizards rolled an "age stone" mercurial magic effect when casting a certain spell a la Dungeon Crawl Classics.  Basically, it smoothed and weathered stone within a 20' radius of the wizard.  He banked on damaging the stalagmite creatures with the magical side-effects from that particular spell, so he cast it.

It sounded awesome as hell, but potentially inadequate unto the need.  I rolled my percentile dice (keep in mind that low is better).  I rolled a natural 01.  Hoody-hoo!

I told the player that all the stone things writhed in agony and then were eroded away to nothing.  Yes, he took them all out with an ingenious idea and a lucky roll of the dice.  That's the kind of unscripted, anything-can-happen, old school game I love.  It was a fantastic moment in the session, and one that we'll both remember for years to come.