Magician: Greetings, wise one. I have long since observed you, and read some of your writing. Yet I confess, the essence of your teachings eludes me.
cOSRates: My lessons are not some great mystery, but the original and most natural way to play. It does, however, require clearing your head of all the clutter of modernity, as it is forged out of false assumptions. Only once your mind is unpolluted can you see the simplicity and elegance of the old ways.
Magician: Simplicity is the right word. That’s the part that’s always been a stumbling block for me. I like rules. They can guide and shape the experience. Yet you preach ascetism when it comes to game mechanics. Your game systems are so simple they are interchangeable.
cOSRates: I have nothing against rules, either. But they should serve a puprose, to fairly arbitrate situations that frequently come up. Why would you want to learn rules you may never use? Why would you trust a distant game designer to judge a unique situation at your table better than your own GM can?
Magician: That’s the issue, isn’t it. Trust. I trust a distant game designer to know how their game works, and to foresee complications I may not consider when they create the rules, even rules that won’t see frequent use. I don’t know if I trust myself, much less a GM I may have only just met, to do the same. You mentioned fairness. That’s what I want, too.
cOSRates: Without trust, how can you play? If you can’t rely on your GM to be impartial and fair, no amount of rules will save you. Why look to guidance in rules, when advice on running a game is so easy to find in plain text? Why put shackles on the GM and on the game itself on the off chance they will fail you? You spoke of knock-on effects of rulings. Those only really are an issue in complex games. That is some of the clutter I mentioned. Simplify. Free yourself. And if a ruling does become a problem, it’s still not a rule. Change it, change the situation, adapt. You are the GM, that’s how the game works. Nothing is written in stone, it’s not even written on paper.
Magician: It does seem like the old school way of playing fosters an antagonistic relationship between players and GM, though. There certainly are plenty of horror stories of power-tripping GMs, or players who pulled a fast one on the GM. The latter, predictably, are hailed as heroic, further reinforcing the antagonism. And that’s before we get to the perhaps more common situations where neither side is actively trying to screw the other, but have different ideas on how things should work, or what they find fun. With rules to guide them, it’d be easier to find common ground. Still, I take your point that trust is foundational.
cOSRates: You mention “fun”. I suspect we’d have different definitions. In my eyes, overcoming adversity is fun. Outsmarting the enemy is fun. Beating, truly beating the dungeon is fun. For the victory to be meaningful, there has to be a real chance of defeat. If you go into my game expecting to be a hero, you may well be disappointed. Which isn’t to say there aren’t power-tripping GMs or antagonistic players, of course there are. But we’ve had a long time to figure out and perfect the playstyle. If they deviate from it, that’s on them.
Magician: But why would you want to play a character that doesn’t end up the hero of the story? Our hobby immitates the stories we love, lets us live them. It’s not much of the story if the protagonists die at the hands of random orcs. It’s not satisfying.
cOSRates: You say death at the hands of random orcs is not satisfying, I say guaranteed victory over the random orcs is not satisfying. Our hobby is inspired by stories, yes, but it doesn’t immitate them. Unlike stories, roleplaying games are interactive. It may not be much of a story if characters die stupidly, but it surely is a game. And that’s another thing. A bad roll or two can kill a character, that’s true, but the character had to do something to get into this position. It was the player’s decision that got them killed, not the roll.
Magician: I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me. Yes, I don’t think heroes should die to random orcs. But that doesn’t mean their victory should be guaranteed, either. How they win, what they have to give up, what consequences this victory causes, that’s what’s interesting to me in a random fight. Should the characters lose the fight, I’d be more interested in seeing them captured, to find out how they proceed from there. And to your latter point, granted, characters had to make a decision or three to get to the point of rolling dice – but why make them dread rolling dice in the first place? The game is about fighting monsters in dungeons, is it not? Then why make the actual fighting undesireable?
cOSRates: And now it’s you who misunderstands. The game most certainly is not about “fighting monsters”. It is about overcoming the dungeon by whatever means necessary. The players know combat is deadly. They know a trap can kill their character at any moment. It is a test of their skill, not of the numbers on their character sheet. If they win through brute force – great. If they die – too bad, better luck next time, hope you learned your lesson.
Magician: Fine. Perhaps I turly am too accustomed to the modern interpretations of D&D, I cut my teeth on the 3rd edition, after all, and I know it’s not to your liking. To be honest, it’s no longer to my liking, either, though probably for different reasons. Anyway, let us go back a bit. You say there is no expectation of PCs being heroes in your game. That you’re not trying to tell a story at all, but play an interactive game, governed by players as opposed to storytelling rules. You talk of outwitting the enemies, of picking and choosing your battles. I suspect you may be fooling yourself. It is a story, just not necessarily a story of heroes saving the world a dungeon at a time. It’s a story of foolhardy people in dangerous circumstances. They may become the world-saving heroes, but they will probably die in a gelatinous cube long before that. The narrative conventions are different, but they are still obeyed. And it’s a fine story to tell, no better or worse than the story of heroes actually saving the world, or any other. Which is why proclaiming it to be the best and only true way of roleplaying is mystifying to me.
cOSRates: Some of my disciples do get overzealous, it’s true. That’s on them. Though, of course, we receive just as much of inane criticism as we dish out. Regardless. If you wish to call it a story, if that helps you wrap your mind around the concept, go ahead. It’s not the point of the game, not how I see it. Still, if it’s story you’re after, riddle me this. You talk of heroes, but what makes them heroes? How can they be heroes if their victory is preordained? You play to find out if their victory will be Pyrrhic, to see what they would do to reach their goal. “Roll 2d6, on 10+ you are awesome, on 7-9 a puppy dies but you’re still awesome, on 6- you get kicked around, then roll again.” I play to see if they can manage to be heroes, to be victorious. Which game is more heroic?
Magician: I think I get it now. You see the game as a collection of problems to overcome. That’s what dungeons are. Players have to earn their victories, earn their meaning, or they become yet another object lesson decorating the dungeon walls. And I’ll admit I see the allure. At the same time, I now realise “heroism” was the wrong angle for this discussion. “Interesting” would have been better. Many of the modern games, like the Apocalypse World you mock, have identified what they find interesting, and actively create such circumstances. For instance, ammunition is only interesting if it runs out, so there’s no need to track it, you can instead have a rule to say when it runs out. You talk of earning victories. But you have to earn interesting events in your games, too.
cOSRates: Damn right, you have to earn them. I won’t even address the ridiculousness of having a special rule for ammunition running out. I create volatile circumstances and put PCs right in the middle. Interesting things can’t help but occur, that’s how the game is set up. You just… cheat. Cheat and proclaim an interesting thing has happened. It’s hollow.
Magician: And that’s where we differ. I want different stories, not just the one you tell. I want interesting events, and I’m happy to “cheat” to get them.