Saturday, August 6, 2016

Waxing on Gaming Autobiographica

I first started playing RPGs by hacking together a functional game out of just what I could glean from the AD&D1e DMG. I later moved into Alternity, Cyberpunk, and then I was all over the place. Back then, I played games the way most people did—or maybe still do—without a hell of a lot of thought about design, "creative agendas" or any of that.

My big shift came when I discovered The Riddle of Steel. It was in many ways, unlike anything I'd ever seen. It completely challenged my ideas of what role-playing was or could be, how games should be run. The combat system was like nothing I'd ever seen. I had already been a major history nerd, but it was through TROS that I'd developed a love of HEMA and all that was entailed. I was too late to the party to be around when The Forge was kicking hornet's nests, but damned if I didn't pursue The Riddle.

The next big shift came for me in discovering Burning Wheel. This was nowhere near the paradigm shift that TROS was, but it was perhaps the clearest demonstration I've ever had of the idea that "system matters." In both my own Burning Wheel experiments and those I've watched/listened to (I have a weird fascination with actual play recordings) I've gained a huge appreciation for how the system influences and informs play.

At that point in my life, I don't think you would've been able to convince me to play D&D if you paid me. My few attempts to experiment with it again were... painful. My experiences with 3.x and pathfinder were abysmal. When 4th edition came out, I couldn't even finish my read of the player's handbook. Striker? Defender? Controller? Ugh. I couldn't get past the terminology. In my mind, it immediately left me thinking about MMOs. Would we be drawing aggro and baiting spawn points next? This is without touching that the game designated which classes were "leaders" of the party (we'll decide who leads our party among ourselves, thank you). Making this impression even worse, I watched Chris Perkins DM a 4e game on youtube. It was a four-hour session which took place entirely on a battle map. It started with the party in the dungeon with some exposition to put them there, followed by three or four combats interspersed with a couple skill challenges. Read: someone had to throw some dice at something. It took them four hours to run four fights. I wouldn't be playing 4th edition. (Later, I did actually come to appreciate it as a kind of combat-based dungeon crawling board game, I just wouldn't want to run it as a D&D game.)

The next weird step in my gaming evolution was encountering the practically unheard of Chronica Feudalis. This was a system I found so interesting and hackable that it actually prompted me to start blogging about it. The original blog those took place on has long-since been abandoned, though I've migrated several of the most interesting posts here. Oddly enough, one of which is in my "Popular nonsense" stuff on the sidebar, making it my number 2 most all-time viewed post. I guess someone out there has heard of this stuff after all.

What struck me most about CF was just how flexible it actually was. The structure of the wounds and maneuvers system gave me nearly as cinematic and bloody combat as I was getting from TROS (or, by this time, Song of Steel -- the game that would eventually be rebranded as Band of Bastards). Was it meant to be used in such a bloody faction? I have no idea, but some of the most bloody and cinematic combats I've ever played were in a hacked version of Chronica Feudalis.

Perhaps the most radical departure for me in this was just how simple it actually was, by comparison. How quickly it played and how little effort as a GM it took to run. I can safely blame Higgins for introducing the game to me. I had previously been playing a great deal of Savage Worlds specifically because it was relatively simple for players to wrap their head around. When I'd argued for SW to be a relatively rules-light game (how naive I was!) Higgins scoffed and rightly put me in my place. He may have been nicer than that, but I certainly remember there was scoffing.

This is when I bumped into the OSR movement for the first time. I had already had a lot of fond memories of AD&D as a kid. For whatever reason, I never really mentally categorized those experience into the same box as my encounters with 3.5 or 4e D&D. They seemed like completely different kinds of games. It wasn't until I started getting into the OSR scene that I understood why.  They were  fundamentally different types of games. Whatever one might say about indie games and The Forge, the whole culture will get you thinking about how games are designed and played, even if you disagree with their conclusions.

I was hooked pretty quickly. I'm not sure if it was my newfound craving for simplicity, a touch of nostalgia, or that the games so openly embraced a lot of things that I'd sort of lost sight of from in
Somewhere between my newfound craving for simplicity, a touch of nostalgia, and an open embrace of a lot of things I'd lost sight of somewhere along the way. Likely, all of the above.

I have to really credit the OSR scene for bringing a lot of balance back to my gaming tastes. There's a lot of people out there who like to try to pit indie/nar/forge types as being in one camp and OSR as being two opposite and non-overlapping things, each vying to be the One True Way and the other being badwrongfun. I've gained a lot from both communities and I greatly enjoy both kinds of games. They provide radically different experiences, and in a lot of ways follow the same "system matters" ethos. In a curious way, they even both seem to be a response to the same thing - dissatisfaction with "Adventure path" (read: railroad) style of GMing and systems that are bad at what they are supposed to be doing.

I actually had a reason for going into all of this besides my own nostalgia. I have a handful of topics that have been digging at me for a while now, but I thought they could use some context before I began. Unfortunately, this post is far too long already. So those will wait until next time.

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