Old School, New School, Rules, and What It Means…

…well, what it means to me of course. “It” may mean something completely different to you. What is “it” anyway? Well, here’s where I’m going with all of this.

I don’t consider myself an Old School gamer — but I love to read all the stuff that comes out of the OSR and the amazing work everyone is still doing as they poke at and tinker with the old formula. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the way shields work… and the discussions are in-depth, interesting, everyone has their own take, etc. I also have been thinking more about my position that system matters less than group…

I don’t consider myself much of New School gamer either. I don’t like FATE, and in general “story games” leave me cold. I’ve written about that before so I’m not going to spend much time on that here. I do like a lot of new games though. Despite my love/hate relationship with 4E, I really enjoy (for example) the new Gamma World from WotC. By that token, I keep reading and trying the newer games because there is always something to learn and experience — and it never does you any good to get caught up in ruts. But as I’ve been thinking about what turns me off about a lot of new-school games I realized (thanks to several conversations) that one issue might come down to the way the games are designed to really focus. That is, they do certain things well (because they want to encourage those things mechanically) while leaving design space empty (or even discouraging mechanically) for other things to ensure that the game works the way it is supposed to — whether for genre emulation or what have you.

Ultimately, I think I’m like a Galactus* of games. A game devourer. I’ll try anything once (at least) and I usually like most games enough to come back and play them again — even if I know they aren’t going to be one of my games of choice in the long run. I mean, heck, I still get the urge sometimes to play WEG’s Masterbook.

Add to this heady mix my playing around with BADASS and Technoir in the last week or so and what I realized about those two systems that really sets them both up in my mind as things I need to talk about (and already have with BADASS). Technoir is another thing altogether. As I prepped for a playtest of Technoir I realized that I would probably not be able to run it successfully. I still intend to try — but I’m thinking I’m going to have some problems… mainly because of a burning building. I’ll come back to that.

So all of this taken together got me thinking about two stories… The first is The Lady or the Tiger. The other, I couldn’t find a link for, and I’m not even sure where I heard it the first time, so I’ll summarize it shortly here and apologize to the original teller (and please understand that I make no claim to this being my own story and if anyone knows where this came from I’d love to know.)

The basics of the story are as follows. There is a vain and powerful king — prone to fits of doing whatever he pleases in the moment. A peasant displeases him. The king then orders the peasant killed. The peasant cries out to the king, “Don’t kill me, I can make you more famous than any other king in history.” The king stops the executioner and asks what the peasant means. The peasant explains that if the king will spare his life for one year, he will teach the king’s horse to talk. And wouldn’t the king be the most amazing king ever if he had a talking horse? The king thinks on it and realizes, hey, if he fails, I can kill him in a year. So the king agrees and spares the peasant’s life. When someone then asks the peasant, “what are thinking, you can’t teach a horse to talk” the peasant replies… “Yes, but I’m alive, and I have a year… who knows, the king could forget, or he could die, or I could escape, or — maybe the horse will learn to talk. But for now, I’m alive.”

Now, for me, those two stories are important when I think about game design. I don’t really want a game that forces me to choose between the lady or the tiger. No matter how beautiful the lady, I don’t really want to make that choice. And while I realize that all games have some level of this, what I prefer is a game that opens up possibilities by simply giving me tools to craft what I want out of it. That is to say, I prefer to be able to tell the King, I’ll teach your horse to talk… Because no matter how you look at that story, it is all about inspiration and upside. Even the king — heck, he might delay gratification in not cutting off the guy’s head, but he can always kill him later — and who knows, what if he did teach the horse to talk?

This is getting longer — and I think I’ll come back with a part two later about what I ran into with my attempts to play Technoir and burning buildings… it will give me a chance to discuss attributes a little too.

Ultimately, what we prefer in a system is up to us. If you’re having fun, that’s all that matters, but systems get there in different ways, and that’s what makes a difference to me.

As always, thanks for reading.

*Please note that the author does not in any way claim to be a cosmic entity — though it sure would be awesome to have heralds…

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