The choice of “Old School” as the 2nd Anniversary post series on Gametime was a good one. It’s really helped tease out some possible fundamentals about how different eras have approached our hobby.
In my post on TORG I drew a distinction between the middle two eras: the Adventure Era (Old School) and the post-Adventure Era (New School). Morgue and Luke contributed their own responses to this idea, and Luke attacked the problem, albeit somewhat obliquely, in his recent post on WOD.
A reasonably obvious, but nonetheless interesting, part of the distinctions we’ve been making between different games is about their clarity of purpose. One of the common points raised in our Old School summaries was that games were explicitly intended to emulate some or other genre, but provided no mechanical means to do so. This is something which still carries on today, though better writing technique and sheer volume of practice have improved the situation.
Let’s talk then, about an incontrovertibly Old School game, AD&D 1st Edition, compared to a pretty undeniably New School game, V:TR. What is the difference between these games?
Well, really broadly, the mechanics in AD&D 1st cover only a small, a very small, part of what might go on in a game: combat. Nods are made in later supplements to skills and so on, but basically the idea of AD&D 1st ed is that you fight things. What you do otherwise is up to you.
There are two ways to look at it, and the way that’s been presented in our discussion of the Old School is that this offers poor genre support for “Swords and Sorcery” generally. It doesn’t tell you anything about the game that doesn’t involve going somewhere, killing what you find there, and taking it’s stuff.
The other way of looking at this is that it doesn’t prescribe any of those things. When I was still playing AD&D 1st, the need for rules outside of combat didn’t really feature too prominently in my thinking. If there was some NPC-negotiation to be done, we negotiated. If there was some ancillary skill, like repairing a cart, to be done we just adjudicated it. Does my hero have a background that supports the notion he could repair a cart? yes/no. Simple. It wasn’t important to the story, or to what we wanted to achieve, so why have rules for it?
Another important feature of the game engine is that it covers an extremely wide range of characters. The difference between a 1st level character and a 20th level character is vast: but surmountable. Anyone starting out as a 1st level Mage dreams of the day when he’ll one day command 9th level spells. So characters have an inherent trajectory built by the use of classes and levels.
One way of framing all this is that there are very few limits on characters in the game. In fact, a diversity of skills, races and attitudes is encouraged in most cases. The level-track provides an inherent story momentum (get XP, gain levels), but really not much restriction on what form that story will take.
I’d like to characterize this as having a strong Initial Condition, or starting point for a game, but weak Boundary Conditions, or limitations on the stories available.
You might think of this diagramatically as a string between two points: character level 1 and character level 20. Rather than a staight line, the string meanders above and below the axis defined by these two points. The easiest route is direct, but there is no real restriction on the string meandering as it pleases in between those points.
In comparison, Vampire: The Requiem, has rules for almost every aspect of the character and the game. From their ability to engage in violence, to their ability to repair cartwheels, from their personality traits to their special abilities.
Furthermore, it is based around a pretty major and fundamental restriction on the characters: they are vampires. The books give you some idea about what this means, but little idea of what to do about it.
If you think the point of the game is to maim and kill across your city, then you can do that. If you think the point is to hide in a basement in denial of your monstrous aspect, you can do that too. Whether submission to the Beast or ascension to Golconda is your aim, the system will let you strive for it; and you can move backwards and forwards on any “success” track that you pick for that story.
Rather than freedom, this represents a wide set of restrictions: the system restrictions. The
What this means, in effect, is that once you start the game there is no strong inherent story trajectory. Characters are dropped into a widely-specified and restricted situation. You are Vampires, you must feed leading to the attendant moral troubles, your actions are subject to systemic control – you will be forced to frenzy under some circumstances, and your humanity score will restrict how depraved you can be without penalty.
I’d characterize this as having a weak Initial Condition, as in it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do in the game, and a strong Boundary Condition, because what you can do within the bounds of the game and system are restricted.
You might think of this, diagramatically, as an odd-shaped loop. The game can happen anywhere and move anywhere inside the loop, but there are lots of stories ruled out by the way the game is built.
These two axes give us a way of thinking about games that isn’t related to the historical D&D/Old/New/Indie epochs that I originally talked about. It gives us some ability to try and think about games in terms of the ground rules that the games set themselves.
Looking at our recent list of Old School games, we can see that they can be roughly described in terms of these pairs:
Stormbringer – has a weak Initial Condition, because there is no inherent story trajectory, and weak boundary conditions, since the rules don’t guide play particularly well.
Maelstrom – is confused about its Initial Condition: they don’t match the kind of game implied by the rule-set. Assuming you buy-in to its stated “adventure” purpose, it has a weak boundary condition, because the rules don’t particularly guide or restrict you.
Dragon Warriors has the strong Initial Condition of Adventure! but its rich setting details and built in story/world exploration also have strong Boundaries.
MERP – has that strong story trajectory, but rules which allow the same kind of meandering that AD&D does.
This can also be used to directly talk about comparing a lot of Indie games with Old School games, whereas our language up until now makes this difficult beyond a comparison at a fine level of detail. Games like Sorcerer would have both a strong initial condition, and strong boundaries. That would be, at a guess, the defining characteristic of Indie games.
Some games, like Spirit of the Century, despite their indie innovations and brilliant writing, then get pushed back into the same camp as their elder cousins Adventure! and the like: little real initial impetus, few real boundaries. Their story-grammar helps with this somewhat, but I think that this nails why some very good gamers I know have struggled with both games.
What names we would give to these four categories (strong/strong, weak/strong, weak/weak, strong/weak) I’m not sure. But I suspect that you would, in general, argue that games which can provide both a strong story trajectory and strong boundaries, are the games more likely to more consistently produce a good gaming experience. Those which are weak in both axes will produce extremely variable results.