Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Unfocused is the Focus!

If you're an RPG geek, that's one thing (and a pretty great thing, too!), but there are also hardcore RPG nerds.  Unfortunately, I fall into that category as well.  An RPG nerd doesn't just like playing roleplaying games, rolling dice, and pretending to brandish his sorcery and sword.  No, he wants to look inside RPGs to see how they work, what makes them tick.  The nerd explores all the tiny molecules of RPG design which casual gamers and regular gaming geeks probably find boring, tedious, or just a waste of time.

The above link talks about the 1st edition of Vampire: the Masquerade.  Here’s the crux of the argument (or first major argument worth discussing).  The game doesn't define exactly how it should be played.  Instead, it offers many different possibilities... some of them are interconnected, others quite exclusive.  That's another defining aspect of old school.  Early D&D gave DMs and players the raw tools; barest essentials.  A road map.  The vague promise of adventure... clashing steel, hurtling balls of fire, and scantily clad Elven maids.  

How to play the game is never explicitly defined.  Yes, there are examples of play included in several rulebooks, but a couple pages of "actual play" doesn't cover a fraction of the infinite possibilities.  The multitude of paths to choose from is hinted at, but never whittled down to just one.  That's the beauty of old school RPGs.  They let you wander… to triumph, flounder, or discover your own kind of weirdness.

Of course, this creates an entirely new foundation of what old school RPGs are and how to judge if a specific RPG is worthy of being part of the old school renaissance.  A term I believe should be broadened if it does not include 1st edition Vampire: the Masquerade.  Three characteristics defined an RPG’s qualifications: non-standardization, subjective nostalgia, and date of publication.  Now, there's a fourth characteristic:  multi-focused.

With multi-focused RPGs, the game play isn’t necessarily about any one thing in particular.  It begins with a few staples, and then everything to follow is a free-form narrative created by the GM and heavily influenced by the players.

Some might say that such old school rule descriptions are "bad" or "confusing" simply because they don't spell out every little detail of how the game should be played.  I don't agree.  Ambiguous rules are not a bug - they're a feature.  But then, I like doing my own thing.  As a life-long DM, Storyteller, GM, etc., I need enough creative rope to work with.  Occasionally, I'll hang myself by accident.  Them's the breaks.  Without the chance of failure (no matter how small) there's no excitement or drama.  Player characters require it, so why not Game Masters?  Risk makes the story worth telling in the first place.

In the olden days, Dungeons & Dragons was about going into dungeons, however loosely defined, killing monsters, and looting their treasure.  Similarly, Vampire: the Masquerade is about playing a vampire who lives by night, drinks the blood of humans, and tries not to be discovered by humanity.  And yet, within either of those parameters there is a lot of play.  No two D&D or V:tM campaigns/chronicles are alike even though all of them are roughly similar.  Can the same be said of Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Rifts, or later editions of D&D and V:tM?

On the other hand, isn’t every RPG capable of fluid, story-based “sand box” type play?  Yes, I think so.  However, modern games seem to favor a singular focus, one particular style of play over others.  Certain games force players and GMs into a style or way of gaming because the rule book outright states "that's the way you play this game".  Later editions of V:tM spent more time telling people how they “should” play the game, what a chronicle is supposed to look like.  Although, revised Vampire rule books still recognized all the chronicle variations that could exist for Storytellers and players alike.

So, if you're as big an RPG nerd as I am, you might get a kick out of skimming the posts on that link (some of them, at least).  You might ponder the notion of gaming focus... what's too vague, what's too concrete, and if an unfocused RPG can be the focal point?  Vampire: the Masquerade became an undeniable RPG phenomenon in the 90's, and is still discussed today.  In my opinion, it's worth trying to understand why. 

If you have an opinion, then please feel free to share it by commenting below.  I won't necessarily agree with what you say, but I'll be glad you said it.


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