Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fever-Adled Thoughts on Old-School and Indie Gaming

Here's a lesson kids: pneumonia is a bitch.  And that's one to grow on.

I am mostly better now after 3 weeks of this darn thing.  My brain is unfortunately still pretty sluggish, but it hasn't entirely given up on gaming yet.  Those gaming thoughts have been pretty scattered, so forgive me if what follows seems a bit confusing.

Right before I was stricken, I was noticing (and to some degree participating in) the excitement over Steve Kenson's impending super-hero game, ICONS.  There was a torrent of enthusiasm over at rpg.net.  And I share some of it.  I have a great regard for Kenson's skills, particularly when it comes to super-heroes.  I think that the original Mutants & Masterminds was a pretty darn good piece of design, even if it's a bit too cumbersome for me to play (the Second Edition, unfortunately, is even more cumbersome).  Yet, I have a number of products for that game because they are almost uniformly good whether you use the system or not.  And that is largely due to Kenson's enthusiasm for his topic.  You can actually feel his love for super-heroes whenever he writes about them.

That's the first point of contact with Old-School gaming.  Even though M&M isn't much like D&D and even though Kenson doesn't write like St. Gary, both of them are a pleasure to read because of their enthusiasm.  You can tell that they both loved what they were writing about and both of them actually wanted to play their games.  I won't say that old-school is anti-commercial--that would be a bit silly--but I would say that one of the hallmarks of old-school thinking is that gaming is, you know--fun--and we want to do it.

Thinking about ICONS led me back to what has been my favourite supers game for some time now: Chad Underkoffler's Truth & Justice.  T&J is a product of the indie movement whose patron saint is Ron Edwards and which has a generally nasty relationship with Ye Auld Game.  The indie movement is associated with hating many of the hallmarks of old-school D&D: anti-leveling up, pro-story, and so on.  But T&J, aside from being a great supers-game, is also the game that made clear to me how much indie gaming has in common with old-school gaming.

For example, I only really understood the abstract nature of D&D combat once I got T&J's abstract combat.  Gaming Theory lacked the language to express this back in the day and, as with many things in those days, players were rather assumed to know how things worked without being told.  Of course Hit Points  are abstract!  Nobody can just ignore scores of arrows sticking out of their chest.  They are a measurement of how long you can participate in a battle and they go up as you get better.  You aren't learning how to become super-human; you're learning how to better dodge, parry, and stay the hell out of the way.  Of course armour doesn't make you harder to hit!  What it does it make it harder for you to be injured by the sharp end of pointed stick.  Of course combat is abstract!  Each round takes sixty whole seconds.  Lots and lots of things are happening--swings, jabs, feints, dodges--and therefore you can't literally be swinging your sword once and rolling to see if it hits.  The whole thing is not task-resolution; it's bloody conflict-resolution before anybody knew how to express it.

As we all know, that lack of terminology was unfortunate and the assumption that people already knew how to play wasn't a terribly successful design strategy.  It led to people quickly trying to "fix" the game.  Look at the much-beloved J. Eric Holmes edition from 1977.  It's easy to miss it, but he "fixed" combat so that each round takes five seconds rather than sixty.  That totally changes the abstraction; five seconds really is one swing and thus we move from conflict-resolution to task-resolution.  Recall the endless, excruciating debates in the pages of Dragon Magazine about how falling damage is unrealistic because high-level characters can throw themselves off of cliffs and walk away.  Indeed, think of any of the "unrealistic" arguments from the reality-obssessed 1980's.

And I, for one, was right in there.  I gave up Ye Auld Game for all those reasons.  It was unrealistic and horribly broken (although I didn't know that term back then).  Which brings me back to Truth & Justice and indie games.  Here I was reading a game wherein Spider-Man is routinely punched in the girlfriend.  And I got it.  Abstract combat, conflict resolution, and the primacy of making rulings rather than consulting the rules.  It made me look back at Ye Auld Game in an entirely new way.

At the same time, it made me realize that the indie games were not fighting old-school gaming. They were fighting the new-school: the school of gaming philosophy that began in the simulationist, more-rules-equals-more-reality Eighties, and for which the endless lists of Feats from edition 3.141 serve as convoluted poster-children.  For me, indie gaming runs hand-in-hand with old-school gaming and I freely swipe ideas from one for the other.  I hope that others in this little Renaissance are willing to look at these other games.  Not only are they good, but they allow us to avoid the ludic myopia of which we are not infrequently accused.

And that's one to grow on, too.