Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Old and New School - differences highlighted.

Critical Role recently permanently killed a character (gasp!) and this has caused me to think about character mortality in the OSR, vs character mortality in post circa 2000 games. Although D&D has a long, storied and significant lineage, it has drastically changed the way character deaths are handled.

In 0E, 1E, 2E and BECMI, character death was a foregone conclusion. It was expected that party members would die. The rules encouraged this. Save or die was a common theme. Poison, petrification, spells and traps all had the ability to kill a character at any time, usually without warning. Even falling from a moderate distance could end a character's life. Combat was fast, brutal and final. 

In 3E that all changed. Insta-kill poisons were rare (or downright unheard of in some places.) Negative hit points became a thing. This alone took a lot of danger out of spells, traps and falling. Character deaths became more and more rare as the editions evolved. With 5E, you have to fail 3 death saves after hitting 0 hp, before making 3 in order to die.

Its obvious that these are vastly different schools of thought. But, why? I have a few theories on this. First, generating a character eats more time in later editions. With more abilities, classes, races, and spells than the earlier editions, this is a fact of life. Poring through the books to make that perfect character changes how the character is viewed. They become more than just a fun diversion. They are work. And nobody likes to see their work wasted or destroyed.
Second, death feels like failure. Failure to keep that paper person alive. In video games, that failure is okay. You just re-load a save, and try again. But, in RPGs, that failure is possibly permanent. In OSR style games, it is even likely.

The likelihood of death is to the detriment of current games. If players don't feel like their characters can die, there is no true risk. Sure, there can be setbacks, like being captured or robbed. But, the players know they can hunt down whoever hurt them or captured them. They can take revenge. And all will be well again.

Earlier editions would punish characters for not playing intelligently. Open a door without searching for traps? Save or die. Learn from a success or failure. Know that your paper person was 2 numbers away from death. Or did die.
In post-2000 games, this is not as true. Players usually suffer a temporary setback for not playing smart. They take some damage, and may need to use a short rest to recover. There is no learning curve.

Story Trumps Rules
This statement is true in new editions, but not in the OSR. Again, this is because of deaths. If a central character to a story dies, that story unravels. In early editions, the over-arching stories were familiar archetypes that could plug-and-play the heroes. The Temple of Elemental Evil doesn't care which heroes came in. Only if they could be stopped. Llolth, the drow and the Giants had a plan that had nothing to do with the heroes. But, heroes came anyway. Because of the stakes to the world around them. 
Largely, WotC does the same heroic story archetypes. And they are a lot of fun. But, the villains machinations continue on regardless of the heroes who attempt to intervene. The heroic tale is generic. It has to be to mass market.
Video RPGs like Critical Role or Jordoba can delve deeply into the characters' desires,goals and motivations. Because they are highly specific campaigns that deal only with the characters in question. But, do they need to? Would the DMs of these videos be worse DMs if they used a generic script like Temple of Elemental Evil?
Why then, does story trump rules? If story does trump rules, why play a game at all? There are games available that writing the story is the rules, like Dungeon World. If story is the goal, the rules should facilitate it fully. Vampire, The Masquerade did this in the nineties and it has evolved over the intervening years.

There is enough room in the design space of RPGs for both schools of thought to co-exist. They are both great ways to play, although vastly different. If you have tried one style but not the other, I would recommend playing the untried type. You may be surprised by the results! To paraphrase Matt Finch, "whatever version you play, imagine the hell out of it!"


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