Shrugging their shoulders they began to discuss the route... and, nervously, the leader of the group gave instructions for the way back...
It'd be easy to roll your eyes and tut at the pedantic nature of asking players for directions when retracing their steps in the dungeon. Yet, this scene comes from a game I ran for 3 twelve/thirteen year-old boys at the school club just last week. They were grinning from ear-to-ear once they realised that, after a two-week gap, they had remembered the route back. One of them told me he got a real kick out of having to solve the problem.
It gets worse. This particular group of players has just rolled up their first set of characters using the Swords & Wizardry rules. They had to do this because they suffered their second TPK (total party kill) in that dungeon.
The first set of adventurers was chosen from a selection of 6... and they died, throats ripped out by Giant Rats. The second set, who got a quite a bit further into the dungeon and then decided on that turn-around above, lasted maybe another hour before they got overwhelmed by Ghouls. Paralysis sucks.
What was the reaction of the group? Whining about how unfair it was? Asking why the dungeon was "so unbalanced"? Screaming insults at the GM because of the effort they'd expended on the dungeon so far? No. None of those.
A deep breath was taken and slowly exhaled. A exchange of glances from player to player, followed by a couple of slight nods of the head. And then, with a smile on his face, the boldest of these players turned to me and asked: "Can we roll up our own heroes this time? We'd like to have another go."
Experimenting With Teenagers
I've been experimenting on teenagers. Not chemicals or anything medical, don't misunderstand me. Just experimenting with them using roleplaying games.
Last year I opened the club and we played the "New School" rules set, Pathfinder. They liked that well-enough to play through the Beginner's Box dungeon and then start to play another adventure. Once we got out of the dungeon, though, they lost interest. I was taken aback but just rolled with it. The question was, however, "why?"
We fiddled around the edges of roleplaying since. A false start or two with various games because I couldn't pin down what they so obviously wanted. I was kind of blinded by my own preconceptions and ideas, to be honest.
To be clear: they wanted another dungeon. They wanted to beat it.
I gave them "The Temple of the Iron God". I rolled out Swords & Wizardry. We've had 5 sessions, 2 TPKs, have killed 7 heroes, lost one player, are about to gain a new player, and rolled up the next set of heroes. I've also allowed them to level-up these new characters to Level 2.
Right now, they are hooked. They want to "do" that dungeon. They tell me they've learned a lot too: to make a map, to back out of fights when they look too tough, to sneak past the goblins and ghouls, not to let the big nasty out of the cage, and to leave the big bowl of silver coins alone. They tell me all of this with big smiles.
What Does "Old School" Mean To You?
For a while I thought that "Old School" just meant D&D retro-clones or playing 0E. The story above would seem to reinforce that idea. But it's not just that. Actually, the system doesn't particularly matter.
Old School is about a style and approach to roleplaying games that I've found myself missing. And it's not just nostalgia. It's about recapturing a way of playing that had me sitting in that player's chair, grinning from ear to ear, while my hero lay in a bloody and battered heap.
Old School has some qualities that I'm only just beginning to quantify and reflect on. The following points are a starting point... where I am up to right now. They are not definitive or complete.
Old School includes:
- A group of relatively weak characters who, over time, given some skilful play and luck, will become heroes of note.
- Adventures which present situations in which the players of those characters must be challenged to guide their would-be heroes through to a hard-earned victory.
- Stories in which the outcome is unknown and dependent on the skilful play of the players, not just the roll of dice or the pre-determination of the GM.
- Dealing with what you are presented with and not expecting it to be "fair" or "balanced".
- Detailed description of most actions taken by both the characters and the NPCs, instead of reliance on a die-roll to test some statistic on the character sheet.
- Generally less-detailed rules and perhaps more detailed setting; the focus of the GM is moved away from the rules mechanics and towards creating and presenting each imagined scene.
- A consensus between players and GM in which all understand that poor play will lead to character death.
Maybe that's not what it means to you... but it's definitely what I've been discovering with my teen group.
One Step Further...
I'm taking things another step forward this week. I'm about to experiment with my adult group too.
(Sshhhh. Don't tell them.)
There are some major differences with my adults in what they want. A simple dungeon, for example, will not be enough. They want a different level of sophistication in their gaming. They just haven't figured out what it is yet... but they know it's not a return to D&D4e kill-hunts and they tell me it includes investigation and roleplaying, not roll-playing.
Enter the OSR.
We're going to try out my theory.
Here's what I am going to do:
- Show them a choice from some pre-generated, relatively weak heroes who (if played long-term) have the potential to become something great.
- Give them an adventure which presents situations in which the players are challenged to guide their would-be heroes through to a hard-earned victory.
- Present a story in which the outcome is unknown and dependent on the skilful play of the players, not just the roll of dice or the pre-determination of the GM.
- Provide the players with a mystery to be solved and a challenge to be overcome, without much regard to how "fair" or "balanced" the situation is for the characters.
- Focus on providing and requiring detailed description of scenes and actions, and not allowing them to just "get away" with making a simple die roll off their sheet.
- Using a simpler, lighter rules set to help take the focus off mechanics: we're going to try Castles & Crusades.
- Make sure the players understand that character death is a possibility avoidable through skilful play and a bit of luck.
This Is Scary
Experimenting with my gaming groups is scary. The reason is that not everyone is going to enjoy the experience.
In my school group we lost one player. We are also gaining a new player. The reason for the player loss was that he didn't really want to PLAY.
Some folks come to the session to unwind and hang out with friends. This one lad wasn't really too interested in the game as much as he was wanting to hang with friends. When the game got hard... and he couldn't just drift through to the end... well, he walked.
The new player has heard about the game. He has heard about the TPKs. He tells me that he likes to play games that are fun but challenging. He tells me that computer games get boring because, although they look great and have cool stories, he knows that (given enough effort and game saves) he'll eventually complete. It's not called winning any more, by the way: it's called "completing" a game. This guy wants to win.
Roleplaying games don't have winners, do they? Isn't this the thing that we tell ourselves and even print in every rulebook of any salt? Hmm. Depends on how you define "win".
RPGs are about winning as a group. Together we struggle with the challenges and, if we are smart and a little bit lucky too, we get to beat those challenges. Our characters improve as a reward for our win... whether with XP, treasure, honour, kudos or just by being asked to take on another challenge.
For me, Old School involves genuine risk. Characters sometimes die. They get pounded by circumstance and tested by challenges. With good play and some luck the players win.
Goodbye to "completing the mission".
Welcome to "beating the challenge".