Thursday, July 15, 2010

Old School ≠ Kill-n-Loot

“Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don't waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren't meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.” - Dungeon Crawl Classics website

“Of course, if your players are not money grubbing tomb-robbing misfits, they are probably doing something wrong in the first place and don't deserve to level (I hear alot about these new-agey indie/story games). Isn't this a core conceit of old school rulesets? “ - Lord Bodacious (in a comment to my last post)
These two quotes I think crystallize a strong notion among many people that old school RPGs are, at their core, all about killing monsters and stealing treasure.  I have never understood this stereotype. Not only do I not understand it, I think it’s harmful to the public perception of our hobby (read this stinging and highly critical Gygax obituary if you haven't already) and I think it has very little basis in reality.

Look, I have complete respect for my pals that like to spend their hours imagining they’re running around a maze, stabbing orc babies in the face, stealing little “Gold Pieces”. This is a cool weird diversion I thoroughly enjoy myself on occasion. I do not believe, however, that this mode of play best represents the heart of 70s-style paper and pencil gaming. I think it mostly represents (1) the first early-70s experiments where wargaming began mutating into RPGs at Dave Arneson’s house, (2) early-80s D&D fad gaming, and (3) current 4e “D&D Encounters” boardgame-style play. So, yes, from the earliest days of D&D there have been kill-n-loot gamers, but I don’t detect a significant association with this play style specifically with 70s RPG culture. If anything, kill-n-loot mostly represents the style of play I see in the 4e RPGA rooms at modern gaming conventions. If you want to go by the numbers, kill-n-loot is thoroughly new school, strongly appealing to the modern generation of gamers weaned on World of Warcraft and console games.

I must admit that the only dungeon crawling I was doing in 70s was on the floor in diapers, so I have no first-hand experience of the play styles of the era. Thus, in my broaching this topic I willingly open myself to criticism and retort. I do see, however, much evidence that kill-n-loot wasn't the only game in town in the 70s.

Many printed artifacts in particular soundly reject the hypothesis that all prominent mid-70s gamers focused on kill-n-loot dungeon crawls. My favorite of these is Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR 1975) - a self-contained OD&D-based game that has pages and pages of compelling storylines, weird campaign settings, and awesome NPCs. The players’ goal in EPT is to advance in standing in a complex and socially stratified city-state. Sure, you can kill weird alien monsters and get some money on the way up the social ladder, but killing and looting isn’t the point. To me, EPT is what it’s all about. This is the spirit of the old school RPGs I love the most. There is so much more mind blowing RPG material from the 70s with highly imaginative settings and scenario possibilities: Metamorphosis Alpha (TSR 1976), Traveller (GDW 1977), City State of the Invincible Overlord (Judge’s Guild 1976), Gamma World (TSR 1978) and on and on. Kill-n-loot? What?

Furthermore, the oldest DMs I’ve played with – guys who have been gaming continuously since the 1970s using old school rulesets - all have imaginative story arcs, complex homemade worlds, and awesome NPCs. Although I’m sure they exist, I personally don’t know any 30+ year RPG veterans that run kill-n-loot campaigns. Convention one-shots? Yes. Campaigns? No. And campaigns are what it’s all about – just read the OD&D rulebooks.

So where does the loot-n-kill stereotype come from? Certainly many of the early (and celebrated) TSR and Judge’s Guild D&D modules had paper-thin scenarios emphasizing killing monsters and stealing treasure. As well, the rules of most D&D editions require killing and looting to advance in level. Okay. But there are two assumptions at play if you want to extend these facts to say “Old school RPGs are all about looting and killing”. The first assumption is that the primary goal of most D&D players is to advance in level. In my experience, this is not accurate at all. In my two current campaigns my players are showing almost zero interest in playing-to-level. It’s almost like piles of treasure are a nuisance to them. It's not just my game - as the comments to my last post and this post by Jeff Rients illustrate, many DMs running old school D&D campaigns, including Dave Arneson himself, house-rule to give experience points and allow leveling for activities other than killing and looting. The second assumption is that D&D is the prime representative of old school gaming. Now, I love classic D&D and play it more than any other game, but there was a Cambrian-like explosion of other highly imaginative RPGs and supplements in the 70s that deserve more recognition (and table time).

Ultimately, evidence and anecdote lead me to the impression that a significant portion of mid- and late-70s RPG activity was centered around creating interactive experiences where players could “walk into” a story such as Robert E. Howard, Brian Aldiss, or Jack Vance would have dreamed up. This is what I think of when I hear “Old School RPG” and this is what John Eric Holmes was excitedly trying to describe in his 1981 book Fantasy Role Playing Games. As far as I can tell, racking up Gold Piece Points in a tedious proto-videogame has no particular relationship with old school gaming.