I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Old School Ramblings #4 - Stop looking at the character sheet

One popular distinction of old school RPGs is that it focuses on "Player Skill, not Character Abilities", as Matt Finch famously puts it:

Original D&D and Swords & Wizardry are games of skill in a few areas where modern
games just rely on the character sheet. You don’t have a “spot” check to let you notice
hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a “bluff” check to let you automatically fool a
suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a “sense motive” check to tell you when
someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for
traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale
you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if
someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth. In a 0e game, you are always
asking questions, telling the referee exactly what your character is looking at, and
experimenting with things. Die rolls are much less frequent than in modern games.

The explanation is clear and very useful (as the rest of the book), but the term "Player skill" is equivocal and a bit misleading. Most of my frustration with 3e and 4e D&D is that it requires a significant amount of player skills that I'm not interested in improving or acquiring.

In 4e, for example, it seemed that most of our choices were about what power to use, and at what time. A skilled 4e player would be able to use the right power at the right time, and there were lots of powers, specially at high levels (yes, I see a similar problem with old-school MUs, IF they get to choose their spells, which isn't necessarily the case).

3e, on the other hand, requires quite an effort in character building: there where too many options and combinations, some of them way better than the others. I never had the skill or the interest in building the perfect character, nor do I appreciate "player skill" being able to build an overpowered character (or the lack of it causing characters to be useless).

Now, I love choices. They might be my favorite thing about role-playing. But the choices I like are similar to "do we let the goblin go or imprison him", not "should I use a Burst 3 or Blast 2 spell"; “do we tell the king what happened or lie”, not “which feat is better”.

I don't like looking at these things for too long.
My favorite definition of this aspect of old school play come from Randall Stukey (here):

"System mastery is not required. Players do not need to know the rules to play (and play well). They can simply describe what their character is doing in plain language (not gamespeak) and the GM will tell them the results of their action or what they need to roll. [...] The system mechanics are not purposely designed to be interesting for players to manipulate but to get out of the way so the stuff going on in the campaign is the center of attention. It's not about what mechanical features a character gets as the campaign progresses but about what the character does in the campaign."

(Read this too; Randall has great insights about old school play and RPGs in general).

There is a lot of important knowledge on those lines.

The bit about system mastery is specially. As time goes by, I realized I'm into this "natural" or "spontaneous" form of role-playing, that seems to be instinctive to children or people who never played an RPG before. See the cases of Toby and Max, for example.

This has little to do with "player skill" or even "role-playing versus role playing"; instead, what interests me is the time we spend looking at the character sheet. Or engaging with dice, tokens, mechanics, etc.; this is not how I want to spend most of my session.

Okay, you can look at this one, it looks amazing (from Doomslakers).
Of course, a group of players that are very familiarized with the system and their characters can make things run smoothly even with "rules-heavy" games. But it seems obvious that games that can be easily and quickly  grasped by children or beginners have the upper hand on this matter.

In fact, this has little to do with rules-heavy or rules-light games. Fate RPG, for example, is quite simple, but you have to constantly engage with game mechanics in the form of tokens that are supposed to be passed around frequently. AD&D, on the other hand, is TOO complex for my tastes, and still considered "old school" by many people (maybe because so much of the complexity is in the GM's side).

The important bit, as Randall says, is that the mechanics are not purposely designed to be interesting for players to manipulate. They should be fast and get out of the way. It is a matter of FOCUS, like most things. When you have a challenge in the game, you don't focus on the character sheet. Instead, think of the situation being described.

This is why I avoid talking about "player skill" or "rules light" when explaining why I like this style of play; "I don't like spending too much time dealing with game mechanics" makes things clearer in my opinion.

Or, if I’m the GM, I will just advise players to stop looking at the character sheet.