Friday, September 11, 2009
Old School Emphasis: Character vs. Adventure
I've been following an interesting thread over at the Swords & Wizardry boards, wherein new member "Peregrin" is looking for advice on running old-school games. It's always nice, imo, to see a younger gamer "raised" on 3.5 take a look at the older editions, and Peregrin makes some very insightful observations, the kind you can probably only get from someone who is first experiencing the game, as opposed to returning to it, like a lot of us are.
This statement, in particular, struck me:
"For me, I guess, floating around in different 3.5 circles was like watching people who enjoy tuning up cars more than driving them. They got more joy out of getting new parts than they did actually going out on the road. Now, not everyone was like that. But I've met a lot of people who seem more passionate about char building than about the adventures their char goes through."
And by "struck me", I mean "blew my mind", as Peregrin has managed in 3 or 4 sentences to sum up my dissatisfaction with later editions of D&D.
While this is certainly a process that began in 2E with the addition of kits and "character options" it seems like the main focus of most of the post-2E material published has been aimed at character optimization. A character is created, optimized, tweaked, honed, min-maxed, and point-assigned, down to every minute function and aspect. Heck, in 3.5 you could even min-max your skill rating in something like Profession: Sailmaker or Perform: Poetry.
As a counterpart to this, the DM was now expected to provide appropriately challenging "Encounters" for these optimized characters to overcome. Not too hard, not too soft, just right.
Now, take a minute and digest that.
You, as a player, develop your character. Say its Bolgar the Holy, Paladin of Tyr. You optimize the hell out of him. If your Fortitude save is lacking, simply "take a level" in another class to boost that stat. Then maybe "take a level" of "Radiant Swordmaster" to improve your damage output against undead, and "take a level" of "Blistering Warshield" to boost your AC, etc, etc.
Now I, as DM, take your character's level and abilities, and that of the other players' characters, into consideration, to design the most ass-kickingly safe and appropriate series of Encounters to test their mettle in, each carefully tailored to the right CR and EL.
Obviously, this is a far different experience from running, say, Keep on the Borderlands with B/X. What's not so obvious, is why this different paradigm exists at all.
The kneejerk reaction is to blame the publisher for putting out all that character option nonsense to begin with. But for many players, character optimization isn't nonsense at all. They like it. If those splats didn't sell so well, WotC wouldn't keep churning them out. And really, its just a somewhat more math-intensive version of what we all used to collect Dragon magazine for - new classes and options and whatnot. How many of us played a class out of Dragon Annual, like the duelist or bard? Or one of the "paladins for every alignment".
No, I'm slowly coming to the realization that the difference may be a whole lot more simple and fundamental than I thought.
Lack of good, solid, adventures.
The kind that can be dropped into any campaign setting, challenge a range of levels of characters, and are widespread enough in distribution that everyone is playing them, and enjoying that "shared experience" buzz we all got from sharing our Tomb of Horrors or Lost City stories with folks from other groups. The kind that serves as a centerpiece of the game for weeks or months of play, allowing the roleplay side of the campaign to develop organically (as opposed to a recommended story line from an Adventure Path-style product) as the players begin to interact more and more with their world.
I think the OSR really needs a "showcase" adventure. It needs a Keep on the Borderlands or Temple of Elemental Evil of its very own, something shared from group to group regardless of whether they're using LL, S&W, OSRIC, or the systems that orignally inspired them. That's not to say there havn't been some great adventures released for the RCs, there certainly have been. But I think the emphasis of the last couple of years has been on honing the rule sets themselves, diligently recreating the spirit of the three big old-school games into three faithful and marvellous RCs. I'd love to see that level of commitment put into recreating something as epic and iconic as the G or A series of modules.
I've spoken in the past about a Rosetta Clone, one system for the OSR to band together around, but my opinion is changing in gradual degrees. I think a "Rosetta Dungeon" would be more appropriate. Adventure may really be the heart and soul of the old-school gaming experience, not choice of old-school systems (each one, honestly, being good enough to justify repeated play), so lets see some creative mind out there make us all a "Flagship" adventure to rally behind, and most importantly, share.
What do you think?