Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Confession: I Am Not An Old-School DM

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about Wampus Country, and what I like in a game I'm running (as opposed to a game I'm playing), and I've had some realizations, I'm afraid.

I'm not very old-school at all.

Let me explain what I mean by that.  When I first started getting back into older editions of D&D and decided to use Labyrinth Lord as the engine, I spent a lot of time swimming around in the OSR blogosphere and reading related material.  I didn't absorb everything I read - a lot of it didn't hook me as interesting, as I'm not into the minutiae of the different early versions, or "how Gygax did it", or any of that; but there were things there I saw as valuable that I wanted to try to emulate.  I wanted to do Wampus Country as a kind of fantasy Oregon Trail, y'know, with a hexcrawl.  Because hexcrawling is an old-school thing to do, and I wasn't really hyped up on megadungeons or even dungeons-of-normative-size.

So what did I do?  I started up a campaign and promptly ignored the things I said I was going to do.  There's been exactly zero actual hexcrawling going on in Wampus Country.  Now, some people might have this epiphany and take the opportunity to double-down on old-schooling it in order to bring the campaign back in line with the original goal.  But that's not where I'm headed.

See, things keep cropping up.  You know how when you're getting a setting going, you can look at a picture and tell whether it "belongs" in the setting or not?  And how you sort of do that with rules as well?  I've been having issues with some rules.  Death, for one.

It came up through play, at least, so that feels relatively pure if we're keeping score.  I had to make the call as to whether PCs died at zero hit points, or could go to -10, or negative CON, or whatever.  And it bothered me.  Really really bothered me.  Not because I have a hard time killing off PCs - I've done it in the past and not lost any sleep over it - but because contemplating this particular rule didn't feel Wampus.  At all.  I didn't know where I wanted the lethality line to lay because I had an intrinsic problem with the way that line looked in general.  Didn't know what to do.

Drowning in angst, I was lifted to safety by a couple of my G+ players who plainly stated the thing I'd been struggling to wrap my brain around:  Wampus Country isn't about dying.  Yes, PCs can die, and I'm sure someday someone will be the first, but that isn't what the setting is supposed to be about.  It's supposed to be about tall tales and fairy tales and awkward humor and silly NPC voices and all of that, just as much as it's supposed to be about exploration and lost valleys full of weirdness and occasional gunslinging.

What really fits the fairy tale model better - and let's give Keith full credit for the nomenclature here - is "It Gets Worse".  Nobody dies halfway through a fairy tale, they get...complicated.  So we agreed to try it that way and see how it worked out.  TPK'd by ogres?  Party wakes up in the stewpot, because [in lieu of massive death] It Got Worse.  Fall out of a hot-air balloon?  You're not splatted against a mountainside - you're plucked out of the air by a giant bluejay to be fed to its young, because It Got Worse.  This is how heroes end up unwillingly married to the Hippopotamus Princess and all that kind of crazy stuff that is 100% Wampus.  The fairy tale structure is one of frying-pans and fires, where the clever protagonists spend their time spinning every It Got Worse back into an advantage.  THAT'S what I wanted.  I can't expect PCs to try tall tale things - like roping and riding a cyclone, let's say - if normal physics (real-world OR D&D) are in play.  It just won't work.  So, instead...It Gets Worse.

That sorted, I felt much better.  Is it some sort of narrative-control regime?  Well, no, although it does feel a bit like script immunity, the players aren't setting stakes and throwing chips in my face or any of that - I'm still the DM.  It might have root-beer-scented stickers on it, but it's still my Viking Hat.

That change led me to reexamine everything I'd been doing with the campaign.  (This was all contemporary with some strife at work which was a catalyst for General Introspection 2012 - you know how these things occasionally go.)   Some things had changed to accommodate both the FLAILSNAILS thing and the expectations of my player base - or, more fairly, what I assumed were the expectations of my player base.  That was crazy-dumb.  Nobody signed up for Wampus Country expecting Castle Greyhawk.  Why did I think I needed to put dungeons and crap in there?  I mean, some dungeons, sure, fine, but we've spent more time in dungeons than I would have projected, and why?  I have no idea.  Projections of expectations of blah blah.  We've spent more sessions underground than we have in the mythic wilderness.  WAMPUS FAIL.

So it all resonated back to an earlier conversation I'd had with Evan, wherein I boldly stated that I didn't need or want a lot of METAL in my D&D.  It was a touch-and-go exchange for a bit there where I thought I might be coming off sounding as though I were criticizing someone else's playstyle or DM-style, but by the end of it I think we understood each other.  There's a difference between Erik the DM and Erik the Player.  Erik the Player is perfectly content to rock out in someone's heavy-metal sword-and-sorcery setting.  I will stab Serpent Kings all goddamn day without complaint.  But campaigns are often an expression of the DM - and that's what's so great about them all being different - and Erik the DM is totally NOT METAL.  Which is why any attempts I've made to ape the "old school aesthetic" - however honestly, with whatever well-meaning intentions - always feel hollow and unsatisfactory to me in the end.
Segar would be perfect to illustrate Wampus Country, by the way.

I am who I am, and there's nothing wrong with that.  I'm big into the comedy thing.  It's foolish of me to expect myself to run anything that doesn't have a certain lightness, a certain optimism, and a lot of room for humor (broad or otherwise) in it.  That's who I am.  I like running a light game with a decent amount of silly in it, and I like occasional narrative flourishes that would make a grognard's eyes bleed.  And so what?  Nobody shows up at a They Might Be Giants show to hear Black Sabbath (although TMBG covering Sabbath would be awesome in a ha-ha way, and that's exactly what me running Tomb of Horrors would be like, if you're following my metaphor).  And that's the lesson - not just for me, but for you.

Be who you are.  Figure out what your 'thing' is - understanding that your 'thing' might be something different in a year or five - and kick ass at it.  Your campaign is some facet of you; it springs from your experience, what you're into right now, and all of that.  Acknowledge that connection and run with it.  And if that means you aren't what you thought you were, good.  That's called growing.

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.     --Jorge Luis Borges


  1. yes goddammit. Although for me my journey of realisation has been that I'm not as original as I thought and what I often really want is Baarsoom.

    But I am totally ripping off It Gets Worse. That is genius... and kinda like what happened in Carcosa Wacky Races without my intending it.

  2. Yeah, I think It Got Worse is going to be one of those ideas that rides and rides. I can just see it applying to a lot of games that I've had a great time playing until death reared it's ugly head.

  3. Beautifully said. Thanks for posting!

  4. thanks for the mention, Erik. I'm pretty happy with the idea of It Got Worse.

    It just occurred to me that an article I wrote last autumn about an alternate hit point model might be a good fit here. On Hit Points and Healing has more information.

  5. The On Hit Points and Healing is brilliant!!

  6. I love It Got Worse. And Wampus Country is top of the must play g+ list games

  7. Nice! It solves what to me is the biggest problem with character death, removing the player from play. And it's no disincentive to players learning to play more wisely either -- I'm sure a player who keeps getting ribbed for 'getting the party into the stewpot again' will start thinking his moves through more! :-)

  8. This is a fascinating post, I'm glad I found it!

    I have a pretty different background. I am a Pathfinder GM, and I've slowly become more and more intrigued with the ways of the OSR. I remain adamantly a modern GM, but I love games with high lethality and low dice rolls. I've incorporated a lot of that into my Pathfinder game, and I my players have enjoyed it.

    The "It Gets Worse" vision of a low lethality game is genius. I could see myself running a game with that, despite my preference for higher lethality.

    Thank you for posting this!

  9. @Jacob Sampson

    Thanks, Jacob. I tried to shape the new model after how I have seen the game actually played (most damage gets healed between fights, fairly trivially). That it (more or less, within the limits of the model) acts as I have been told real world fights tend to work _and_ fits the "mix of skill and luck" idea that has been haunting D&D forever makes it a good fit for me.

    Also, I have a response or followup to this post at Death vs. It Gets Worse you may enjoy as well.