Welcome To The Divide

I was just reading Steve Kenson’s blog the other day, and noticed this post on West End Games’ use of hero points. One point he puts forth is that the dividing line between “modern” and “old-school” games are the use of player-controlled “backup” currency, e.g., hero/action/edge/FATE points, possibilities, drama dice, bennies, etc. That’s a solid idea; it’s one of many steps in modern games to promote ingame player agency, the ability for Average Joe Gamer to step up to the spotlight: less of a “will I succeed at this” but more of a “how awesome will it be when I succeed.”

So, if you’ve ever glanced on a big bulletin-board like RPG.net or EN World, you might notice that the Trad Games vs. Indie Games” debates are second only to the Crisis on Infinite D&D Editions filed under “annoying geek disparities.” On the one hand, we have a return to the good old days of yore, back to the original D&D-style game influenced equally by miniatures wargames and ’60s science fantasy: you know, the OSR movement.  On the other, we have an explosion of new games following the cinematic, more narrative-driven side of RPGs: things like FATE, The One Ring, Dogs in the Vineyard.

The stereotype of OSR gamers is that of neck-bearded old fogies counting squares and reading Gor novels; the indie gamer stereotype is that of an elitist hipster who doesn’t “run a game” but “shares in a collective narrative experience.” And rarely the two shall meet (despite the many attempts to include FATE-like Aspects in OSR games).

Granted, most of this is because gamers, by nature, are oddly possessive and confrontational about their favorites; I’ve seen people get into heated arguments over which edition of Legend of the Five Rings is superior, or why Shadowrun 4th ruined the game line’s legacy by incorporating a wireless internet matrix. But taking a step back, the two camps approach gaming from different but similar angles.

From my experience, people in the Trad Games camp put more emphasis on games as … well, games. Not to be confused with gamist, and all that weighted and dated terminology, but that they approach games from the left-brained side (to use more dated terminology), more from a mechanical or tactical standpoint. RPGs have always had a strong gaming element; D&D sprung from a wargame, and many old-school games use those kinds of elements: class/level systems; a linear progression of power scaling; random tables to generate specific content; an organized sense of order, time, and space, if not the use of maps and miniatures.

You can also look at the HERO System or GURPS, probably the finest incarnations of the type: mechanically sound, highly logical, with a fine-tuned sense of balance within their mechanics (which are based on real hard math, by the by).

Meanwhile, the indie gaming movement is less interested in the mechanical game angle, but the roleplaying angle, the story angle, maybe even the social angle. Gaming, by nature, is kind of a social experience, with a group of people coming together to create fictional characters within a fictional world, and then making things interact: with each other, with the world, making some story out of it. Indie games are less concerned with rules and mechanics, and more with developing the narrative, having a unique and entertaining story. (I think even indie game fans can understand why indie gaming is seen as weirdo hippie stuff by the gaming community as a whole.)

Of course, this probably isn’t as clear or concise an idea as I’d want it, and it’s painted with the brush of generalization rather than some accurate, objective study. Many OSR gamers prefer their old game style to “modern” tactical games (Pathfinder, D&D 4th) because the lack of constraints means they have more freedoms—freedom to world-build, freedom to create their own mechanics, freedom to expand the rules or find interesting new ways to use the ones they’re given. And even the loosest indie storygame still puts emphasis on the GM—to combine the disparate concepts the players come up with into a narrative of some kind—and has some form of rules and mechanics in order to maintain a sense of challenge, keeping boundaries, however broad.

The push to ingrain story and character within an RPG campaign dates back to WEG’s Star Wars d6 and TORG, then follows a trail through White Wolf, 7th Sea, Deadlands, and others, only to split off into the various indie games of today. Back to the original point, it became less about will we succeed—will the character die, what if I fail—but to how well will I succeed. The goal isn’t some wish-fulfillment fantasy where everything a player wants comes true, but to provide the option–the potential—for characters to do something spectacular. A limited, but powerful, opportunity for players to have agency, walk into the spotlight, and do something memorable.

It’s a mode of thought where rewards are less about what you owned, or how high your stats are growing, or which powers or feats allowed you to do what; the reason I like the various games listed above—7th Sea, TORG, Exalted—is because your rewards are based on what you’ve done, what you do:

  • The Old White Wolf games based your experiences on things like Heroism (selfless, epic actions) and Learning Curve (what the character learned); to grow in power, how many orcs you’d killed mattered less than your character’s actions and development
  • TORG gives you bonuses via the Drama Deck’s cards; gave you even more bonuses for changing the situation by introducing running subplots; and by working together with other players—trading, playing, and exchanging cards—you could earn major rewards, or keep the initiative/action in your favor
  • Games like 7th Sea and CthulhuTech—even many d20 games, like Eberron and Spycraft—give you a cache of drama or action dice, as emergency backups for use in critical situations or to make things properly cinematic
  • Exalted and 7th Sea give you instantaneous rewards for being properly cinematic: Exalted gives you stunt dice to add to your dice pool when doing something cool, while 7th Sea provides you with extra drama dice for undertaking the same kind of heroic actions

As a player, these systems reward you with further potential to do interesting things, when you take a chance and do interesting things. Games like FATE further that potential by expanding the boundaries of what you can do, how you manage to do things, and—best of all—provide rewards when you screw up or choose to make things interesting.

Some thoughts, at the least.

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