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Old School Rules

Old School Rules

My second favourite place to read articles about gaming (NoHighScores being the first, obviously) is Edge Online. And it was there that I learned the news that two well known names in video game design history, Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall, were joining forces on a kickstarter campaign to fund an “old school” RPG. The modern incarnations of the genre being apparently, in spite of being “epic” and “wonderful”, in need of some competition from the aged paradigm of stat-crunching. The article from which I learned this asked the pertinent question of what, exactly, the label meant. That pushed my nostalgia buttons sufficiently to make me want to try and answer the question for myself.

I grew up with both computers and with pen and paper role-playing games and I can’t recall a time when the link between the two was not obvious. Gathering other gamers together for role-playing sessions is hard and if you want the full effect of slowly developing a group of characters they suck in immense quantities of time. Computers promised a solution to both issues, allowing you to get your fix any time you wanted and speeding up the campaign arc.

The initial offerings I came across were interactive fiction games, which I found and still find charmless, frustrating things. They have all the book-like limitations of trapping you inside someone else’s imagination without the benefits of character development and absorbing narrative. And the experience of dealing with language parsers drives me to a level of incoherent fury unmatched by anything else in my gaming experience. These were not the things I wanted, where an inventory was a clumsy box of puzzle solving tools rather than a roster of legendary weapons and magical armour.

So the first time I got wind of something that smelled like my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, my delight was incandescent. It was original Bard’s Tale and I was ten. I had no idea how to play the game properly, and I didn’t care. I would carefully roll up a party, lovingly name them and clothe them in skins of iron and steel before setting out into the brutal dawn of Skara Brae where they would stumble into enemies and be torn apart like mewling babes. Whereupon I would go back to the inn and repeat the process over and over, ignoring homework, meals, bedtime, until I was dragged protesting from my dream world, eyes round and red from wonder and exhaustion.

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This happened because I was expecting a replica of my childish D&D experience where the heroes went out and slaughtered monsters, collected the loot and went out to slaughter more powerful monsters. I think I solved exactly one of the horrible battery of puzzles the game slammed in front of the player like iron doors, which was how to get into the first dungeon. And once the euphoria of that discovery wore off and I realised that what I’d found was nothing more than a faster way to get my callow band of heroes slaughtered, my interest in the game began to wane.

The Bard's Tale
But unbeknown to me, The Bard’s Tale was just the most popular and visible cap on a mushrooming world of computer role playing games. Ultima had been born five years before and, although I would not play a game in the series until the early 90’s, had set down many genre conventions. After The Bard’s Tale and the home computer revolution they began to sprout in earnest. And why not? On the limited hardware platforms of the time action games looked awful and played in a sticky, halting fashion compared to their arcade counterparts. Role-playing games offered the majestic worlds of wonder and the grand sagas that we craved from both pen and paper RPGs and computer games.

What all the early role-playing games had in common was an obsession with numbers. Character ability scores, experience levels, weapon bonuses, spell counts. That’s where the focus was, or at least the focus of most players. Sure some of those titles were filled with cleverly conceived plots and marvelously inventive settings but what the pen and paper role-playing crowd who lapped these things up really wanted was a computer simulation of their favourite games. And that meant stats and power curves, building up experience points and hoarding loot. It is, as we well know, an incredibly addictive model of game play so titles that stuck to the Dungeons and Dragons formula sold well, got well reviewed, and spawned copies until it became the dominant model in the genre.

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Inevitably actual licensed Dungeons and Dragons games eventually began to appear, the first being Pool of Radiance in 1988. But what’s striking about this release is that came after the first video adventure game that struck new ground in the genre, Dungeon Master. With its real time play, peculiar repetition based experienced system and mix of tough puzzles and twitch combat it moved the focus sharply away from number crunching and toward action. The stats were still there of course, buried in the character screens, but for the first time the player didn’t really have a clue what the number represented, what they were for. So obsessively tweaking character builds for maximum power became futile.

Dungeon Master

Dungeon Master laid, arguably, the groundwork for the modern concept of the action RPG. But while people raved about it they kept on lapping up the stats based model. They did so because it was a better mimic for their other hobby and because that reward-response reinforcement is so amazingly powerful. So while technological developments allowed first map-based tactical combat and then real-time combat the numbers stayed totally in the heart of things.

What changed the game finally was Diablo. One hundred percent real time and a character stats system stripped back to its bare essentials, it arrived at a time when computer gaming was becoming increasingly seen as an ordinary everyday activity and not the preserve of Dungeon and Dragons nerds. And it proved that the reinforcement model was just as addictive for mainstream gamers as it had been for the pen and paper role-players before them. From there, slowly, the action RPG model took over as the dominant one and evolved toward pinnacles of near-perfection like Dark Souls and The Witcher, whose difficulty made them once again the playthings of hardcore hobbyists. Video role-playing had come full circle.

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Until now, and the kickstarter calls for a new stats based role-playing game to challenge these behemoths of modern technology. It is, as others have observed, a little sad that kickstarter is so often used to stoke the dormant volcanos of nostalgia than to drive innovation. But what I find especially odd about this new project is that as far as I can see, what I consider as old-school role-playing never went away.

If you go trawling around the stony bottom of the internet you will find many, many stats-based role-playing games that will give you many hours of enjoyment without costing you a penny. Just like the arthropods you might find under the real stones of a real stream they’re often ugly and will bite you if you’re not careful, but they’re there. From fan freeware modelled on the console JRPGs of our teenage years to the untold legions of lovingly maintained Roguelikes they will satisfy your desire for stats-based, reinforcement model gameplay to the very brim.

So what does that leave us with from a kickstarter project? A new story, that’ll likely follow any number of tiresome fantasy conventions, perhaps. A graphical update that still won’t be able to match the best looking action RPGs on the market, certainly. But ultimately, and ironically quite unlike the trailblazing adventures its supposed to simulate, this seems doomed to re-tread some very well worn paths indeed. I’ll be sticking with Angband and my action RPGs.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

13 thoughts to “Old School Rules”

  1. I’m that dork. Y’know, the one who plays the weird tabletop RPGs. No, not those White Wolf numbers, though I’ve definitely tasted of their fare. No, I’m talkin’ ’bout them thar “story-games”, odd, misshapen creatures that they are.

    I bring this up because among the slice of that community that I observe and partake in, there seems to be a similar urge, an “Old School Revolution”, if you will. It’s a return to the ideas, notions, themes, and fun-bits of old tabletop RPGs, like the very first editions of D&D. It’s a mirror to the nostalgia that’s driving forward so many revivals of old-school computer RPGs, as well. It’s interesting that the same drive has cropped up in both spheres at the same time.

    But then, the part of the OSR and the tabletop RPG community that I watch isn’t just reviving old stuff, without an eye to innovation. Yes, the principles and ideas are coming back, and yes, there are just some plain revivals of old rules (haven’t played it, but Lamentations of the Flame Princess seems to be pretty much original D&D rules — not a bad thing, but seemingly not innovative in rules). But there are also attempts to mash up the old ideas with new, to improve on them, to enable them. There are attempts to innovate, even while recalling what came before. So, is that possible for PC RPGs, as well? Or is it just too difficult, due to what old school PC RPGs were actually all about?

    If old-school computer RPGs are defined by stats and number-crunching, then I’m not sure how to innovate. But aren’t there other parts of old-school computer RPGs upon which to build palaces of new ideas? Wasn’t Legend of Grimrock praised quite highly for being simultaneously a shrine built to the games of yore, and something a bit new? (I’m actually asking on that last one. I’ve played a bit of Grimrock, but I don’t think I even have the frame of reference necessary to determine if it’s still just a clone of old games with modern graphics, or if it does anything new.)

    The thing that seems to have most potential for innovation in the examples you cite is not the stats-based nature of the games, but the way that many of the oldest games somehow successfully conflated you, the player, with you, the protagonist. I remember my father drafting maps, scribbling on sheet after sheet of graph paper, while he was playing The Bard’s Tale. I remember loving it. Nowadays, we’d probably look at that as just a hassle (and we might not be wrong), but it had the effect of putting the burden on the player, and involving the player in a way that most modern games don’t.

    I’m probably just rambling, especially because I do think the notion of forcing players to make their own maps would go over today like a lead balloon. But I think there are still kernels and nuggets in there. Not in enormous complex and difficult puzzles, but in the notion of successfully fusing the main character and the player through gameplay.

    Regardless, thanks for the article, sir. It’s given me plenty to chew on. I was thinking of backing by default (I like Brenda Brathwaite and her work), but…well…don’t I already have enough of this style of game? Do I really need another? Or should I hold out for something simultaneously old and new, nostalgic and innovative? (Because, y’know, those are so common, they come around all the damn time. /sarcasm)

    I’ve more thinking to do.

  2. What would it take for a videogame to actually be a decent White Wholf game-master? It can handle your die rolls just fine. But it can’t replace the table. It doesn’t know what kind of role-player the gamer is.

    Mister Barnes, slothboy, and others have said a bunch of thoughtful things about this recently. “Old School”, to me, was real-life DMs overturning die rolls and letting awesome spontaneous ideas succeed, because they were awesome. As far as videogames are concerned, nothing like that has really happened yet.

    1. I definitely agree, Mr. Coyote (Mr. Blue?). The judgment of an actual person, sitting across from you, running the game, is something that no video game RPG has ever been able to capture — it’s why tabletop RPGs still hold a very special place in my heart. The Old School Revolution in tabletop RPGs that I spoke of above is definitely about elaborating upon just that idea you describe, at least as far as I understand it. That said, I have no idea how you capture that element of tabletop RPGs in a feasible fashion (feasible including the notion of commercial feasibility, not just functional feasibility).

      But still, there has to be something to old school video game RPGs outside of just the number-crunching, doesn’t there? Some element that can be recaptured and elaborated upon? That’s more of what I’m interested in. You identified what made old-school tabletop RPGs great, and the Old School Revolution in tabletop RPGs actually is attempting to both have that same element of judgment and “letting awesome spontaneous ideas succeed, because they were awesome” while also improving upon it, creating better means to facilitate it, innovating in the same space. That’s why the OSR seems interesting and successful to me; new and old, enmeshed together to create something stronger than either.

      So I guess what I’m trying to get at is:

      (A) What, then, besides number-crunching, is the exclusive killer app of old-school computer RPGs? Is there any?
      (B) Why can’t we innovate on THAT killer app, build on that, repeat it as well as improve upon it?

      To my (A), I still feel like there’s something to be said in how my recollections of old-school computer RPGs made ME feel like I was in the situations on the screen, while modern-day video game RPGs make me feel like I’m playing a character who’s in the story being told in the game. I don’t know how you answer (B) with reference to that killer app, though.

  3. I don’t really equate “Old School PC RPG” with tabletop RPGs. Even back in the day, when “Old School RPGs” were “New School RPGs”, they never filled the niche of tabletop games. They’ve always been their own thing. I played my first tabletop RPG when I was six years old and over the last 32 years since then, I contine to play tabletop RPGs. I’ve been playing videogame RPGs for pretty much just as long. You can never fully recreate the tabletop experience, because you’ll never have the improvisation of other players and the GM and endless possibilities that arise when playing with other people. Computers just can’t do that, especially if they are trying to tell some kind of narrative.

    I agree that the most successful RPGs (both old and new) “successfully conflated you, the player, with you, the protagonist.” I think that sums it up wonderfully. But, to me, it was never about making maps in Bard’s Tale or any other kind of similar task, but rather connecting with my characters in some way and getting ivolved with the story. I was able to do that in Bard’s Tale(s), Wastelands, Ultima I-V, Autoduel, Fallout 1-3, Draong Age 1-2, Mass Effect 1-2 and many others. A good RPG does this, new school or old school. When a good RPG clicks with me, I engage with the characters and stories, I try to think like my character would think, act as he/she would act, etc.

    I guess this still doesn’t answer the question as what constitutes an “Old School RPG.” I think that’s a hard thing to answer, because I am sure it means different things to different people. We all played the same “old school RPG” games, but likely got very different things out of them.

    1. @Navigator: come down here to this tab; I suspect all three of us are having the same conversation.

      Anywho. The Secret World had conflation in its design: removing level systems and investigation missions. Removing traditional classes meant that, if you wanted to *be* a paladin or ranger or whatever, you were simply required to act like one, and you weren’t automatically given a stereotype weapon. The investigation missions created a 2012 version of hand-making your own maps.

      A lot of players resisted the very idea of the investigation mission: they didn’t appreciate being forced to use their real knowledge base and thought process to advance their character. That’s the attitude that sometimes encourages me to say that most RPGs these days are *not* RPGs: if you’re not engaged on your character’s behalf – if you’re just there to kill time and exercise a power fantasy – you ain’t doing it right.

      How do we get to better choices – more meaningful choices? Personally, I think technology has beaten us on this one. Back in the day, the things a game designer could provide for you were numbers and text. You supplied the imagination, and a lot of the side work, yourself.

      So in the old school, if I give you a choice between three tracks with different outcomes, I’m writing three blocks of text. Now, I have to hire an art department and coders for every block of text I write.

      But today, if we’re going to make Skyrim, we have to accept that we can either have characters who actually react to our decisions, or beautiful robots that don’t care when we put baskets on their heads.

      I personally wouldn’t mind more meaningful games that are “technically inferior”…but then, I played and enjoyed “Analogue”.

      1. Loved Analogue. Absolutely loved it.

        On the conflation of protagonist with player: I agree with you, Ajax, in that most successful RPGs get me thinking as my character, empathizing with him or her, considering actions from his or her point of view, making choices with his or her morals, etc. But what I had meant (and failed to convey) when I described Bard’s Tale and conflation is the difference between playing a character and playing myself. You’re right, that most successful RPGs do conflate player with protagonist successfully, so I need to amend what I said. The old school computer RPGs like Bard’s Tale made the protagonist the player. There was no other protagonist, no character to slip into, no past to appreciate, no morals to assume. The character was just you. This was reinforced by the fact that you, the player, had to do all the little things that you, the character, would need to do. So unlike with my ME Shepard named Honor Shepard (I’ve liked that name ever since Honor Harrington), who (at least in my head) has her own sense of morals and beliefs and whatnot, the Bard’s Tale protagonist has nobody’s sensibilities by mine, as the player. I know that people still play RPGs like that, but what I’m trying to get at is that those old school computer RPGs seem to have been better at making ME the main character.

        On the problem of graphics: Coyote, you’re absolutely right. The need to expend tremendous effort and resources for every single different choice that the player makes is definitely hampering the capability of modern RPGs to offer many meaningful choices. This is a tragedy, when a lot of what makes RPG playing fun is those meaningful choices.

        That said, insofar as I’m trying to figure out what from old school computer RPGs can and should be carried forward and innovated upon, I’m not sure that meaningful choices were critical in old school RPGs.

        I admit that I have not played the Ultima series, which as I understand it did have meaningful choices, and therefore might be exactly the counterargument to what I’m saying. Is that the case? Were old school RPGs significantly more meaningful-choice-driven than I give them credit for?

  4. I personally am hoping that returning to the “old school” type of RPGs means getting to a point where the mechanics of playing the game aren’t separate from the story-telling. A lot of the modern action RPGs focus all their mechanics on combat and relegate player agency to simple dialogue choices, and I think this really limits a players ability to interact within the world.

    1. I’d be satisfied with the realization that mechanics *are* story. If you give me control of John Marston, and he regrets his past, why can I shoot so many people at random?

      1. Hmmm. McHoger, do you have an example to illustrate what you mean? I think I understand, but I want to be sure. What I’m envisioning is something like Spec Ops: The Line, where there are moments in which you must make a choice, but the choice you make ultimately comes down to where do you point the targeting reticle and when do you click the mouse button (pull the trigger).

        Coyote, to me that starts getting into complicated territory, mostly because of the problem of infinite interpretation. Why can you shoot so many people at random? Well, because Marston regrets his past, but he’s a creature of violence and his past made him who he is. He might hate his past, but he can’t escape it, and he’ll forever repeat it. So the fact that he shoots so many people at random is just a commentary on that.

        …is what I would say if I wanted to throw out a bullshit answer to your question. What I’m trying to actually say is that it is often possible to interpret strange PLAYER actions as making sense in the story, but that’s often a stretch, and often kind of annoying. The only other option is to constrict player freedom, and in that whole open-world genre, which RDR was so desperately clinging to, “constricting player freedom” may be the three nastiest words around.

        So maybe the answer is to have a character who’s not like, “I hate having shot so many people. I won’t shoot people moving forward,” when the game is all about shooting people. Maybe the answer is to have a character who says, “Talking to people only ever makes it harder to shoot them. I can’t shoot a man I’ve talked to, so I’m not going to talk to them.” And then make the story about the mistake the character makes when she talks to someone she had intended to kill, and can’t bring herself to do it anymore. The key difference there is that the rule still helps to explain an oddity of game-play (Q: “Why doesn’t this character just stop to talk to these people, instead of shooting them in the face?” A: “Because she refuses to talk to people, because if she does, there’s a chance she couldn’t bring herself to end them.”), while also being at least a barely functional element of storytelling.

        The above, obviously, is off the top of my head, and probably not all that good. But would that do better at satisfying you, Coyote? Is that what you’re aiming for? Or am I totally off the mark? Would you prefer John Marston to say “I ain’t shootin’ them!”? Like how in many FPSes, when you aim your gun at an ally, the gun automatically drops low so you can’t shoot your teammates? Or is that missing the point?

        1. The ending of RSR actually has the kernel of the right answer in it.

          *ANCIENT SPOILER*

          Right as John Marston leaves the barn, he goes into RedDead mode or whatever, but he dies anyway. That’s mechanics as story – he knows that the only way to get the coppers to leave his family be is to give them their shootout.

          But the first big failure of this is that you can shoot the antagonist in the action sequence, but he remains magically un-shot in the movie sequence. Either script a different ending for shooting the guy, make him impossible to shoot, or give up the idea.

          The problem continues when they give you control of his son. Hunting down and killing the Fed is supposed to be a thematic message – the sins of the father are visited upon the son, and son starts down the path to evil. But they make the mission hidden and optional, and they don’t force the player to take that mission *first* – meaning that the player can go off and tie a hooker to a railroad track before the kid is *supposed* to be evil.

          If the story is worth telling, I submit to you that limiting player action is worth the trouble. No sandbox is perfect, anyway: you must restrict player choice somehow. Why *not* thematic or story limitations?

        2. There’s a quest I remember from Fallout 2 where you needed to assassinate a mob boss. You could just walk in guns blazing and kill him and all his men. Or you could use your speech skill to seduce his daughter, then sneak off while she is asleep and rig the bosses safe to explode with your explosives skill.

          Or you could go with something simpler like have low intelligence dialogue options.

          Contrast that with where Bioware is now and how the put great effort into making all your character building apply to only combat. It got to the point where the fighting in Mass Effect feels completely isolated from the dialogue sections.

        3. And that sucks. In an attempt to tie this back into the OP, it’s like using mechanics to split the player three ways. Instead of the computer crunching your numbers and die rolls, but otherwise getting out of your way:

          *It’s throttling back your dialogue choices to only what can be graphically supported.
          *It’s limiting your true gameplay choices to “how do you want to shoot?”, but those aren’t character choices. Stealth/Punchy Shepard can talk exactly the same way as Run/Shooty Shepard, so there’s a disconnect there.
          *You are no longer required to add your own input. No map drawing, no Deus-Ex-style out-of-the-box thinking.

          I want to say: Mass Effect is still a badassed franchise. (My ardor on the single-player/multiplayer thing has largely cooled.) But in the context of the OP, *this* is what’s missing from games today. Game Best Practices have, to paraphrase a newcomer on the Borderlands thread, split pretty evenly between Skinner boxes and interactive movies.

          I’m afraid that “getting back to an old school RPG” might add up to “MOAR stat-whoring”, which would disappoint me. But given that I missed the Ultima era completely (didn’t own a PC), a new one would be awesome.

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