Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 5 - Most old school RPG owned

We'd like to welcome Governmental Tinlid on his
return engagement here at Out of My Mind.
The question for Day 5 brings in a lot more uncertainty than the previous prompts, for what is 'old school'?

The oldest game I own is Maelstrom, for sure. The book pictured is the one I have; it's a 1984 printing that retailed not as I claimed at £4.99, but at the princely sum of £1.95.

Looking back over it, what really shines through is the almost stream of consciousness layout of the text. The rules are presented pretty much as they come up (most glaringly, the Endurance cost of casting spells is seamlessly attached to a paragraph which begins as the example of casting spells) and there are sections which are clearly the writer, Alexander Scott, just waffling and trying to show his working out. It also contains the classic statement that players should 'remember that women are weaker than men, and will be at greater risk in combat', a statement with no mechanical support which is therefore just an assumption of fact (Scott was a teenage boy when he wrote this, and it was the 80s; we can let him off, I think, but it's interesting to note).

But I'm not sure if Maelstrom is actually old school. The wealth of class (living) specific skills fits the bill, but other than that its design is actually pretty far from the classic 'old school' mould. Character creation is largely non-random, and the only significant random element is one not touched on in most old school games, age. You pick a living and roll to see how long it took you to train, adding that to your base age (14, or slightly higher for nobles), and if you get too old, you start having limits on your attributes. The attributes are also percentile-based and directly rolled, in contrast to the derived values common in old school games, and bought up with a points system.

I'm willing to bet that a more determined man
than I could count the stars on that cover.
So, if we define old school as conforming to the traits of the dominant 'tribe' of RPGs from days of yore, then we're looking at something considerably newer as my most old school title.

Stars Without Number is one of a number of games produced in the 21st century using a very 1970s sensibility. Character generation is heavily randomised, each attibute ranges from 3-18, but is only really important in as far as its value derives a bonus or penalty from -2 to +2, and different types of roll use different sizes of dice (Maelstrom sticks to 6 and 10, but SWON rocks pretty much everything from 4 to 20).

I was going to ponder when random generation started to be replaced by point builds, but Maelstrom kind of answers that. The two have always, or at least for a long time, coexisted, and the distinction is more of choice than of era. I guess that the point build comes from a growing desire for play balance, where all PCs have the same basic potentials, and I suspect that this in turn has been promoted by the rise in prevalence of a PvP approach. Partly due to the development of games with a more morally grey setting than classic fantasy, and partly to the increasing influence on tabletop and live-action roleplaying of computer-based MMORPGS, the dynamic of roleplaying has shifted, in the average, from 'players vs the world' towards 'character against character'.

And perhaps in the end, that's the real distinction between old school and new school, that in an old school game like SWON, there is a basic assumption that the PCs are working together; they aren't just the PCs, they're the Party.

Your mileage, as with any definition in... well, more or less anything, may vary.

Come back tomorrow for Day 6 of #RPGaDAY, in which I talk about the games I want to play, but never do... or something related at any rate.