Saturday 21 May 2011

Old School gaming - my take

Thanks to Porky over on the Porky’s Expanse blog, there’s been a fair bit of chat recently about ‘old school gaming’, in particular as it relates to 40k, in the form of Rogue Trader. As someone who likes to mess around with this type of gaming, I thought I’d set down what it means to me.

Just to clarify, this is my own view of things, and not necessarily that of the other guys in the group who contribute to this blog. I’m sure they’ll be happy to chip in with their own views too. I’d also like to ensure anyone who cares that I play all manner of games, including the most recent editions of Warhammer and the likes, so I’m not preaching or trying to convert anyone away from their favourite game!

What I regard as ‘old school’ isn’t primarily about rules, miniatures or background setting, though these undoubtedly come into things with the type of game we play. To me, ‘old school’ is all about freedom and entertainment. It’s treating a game as a cooperative, story-driven activity, though one person is still actively trying to ‘win’ (because the characters represented by his miniatures are often fighting for their lives!). It isn’t competitive and it certainly needs no FAQs – the rules are just there to provide structure, not to confine the action.

I’d actually go a bit further, and make something of a leftfield suggestion. I’d say that we live in an increasingly technical, specialised society, and as such those who think primarily with the left hemisphere of their brains (that dealing with logic, reason etc) dominate many aspects of our world. ‘Old school’ harks back to a time before the rise of the ‘left brain thinking’, technological society, when the right hemisphere (that dealing with creativity and intuition) was more important than it is now. I’d back this up by observing how people fixate over the wording of rules, rather than over the possibilities they present, and how some people are always saying that ‘they’ understand the rule, but that ‘someone else’ may not.

So, to yank the steering wheel back and haul the juggernaut of nonsense back onto the hardpan, Rogue Trader is, for me, representative of everything I want from gaming. As a rules set, its all over the place, but that’s fine with me. It’s far from the most sophisticated of sets in content or execution, but its built in such a way that GMs and players can easily get under the hood and tinker to their heart’s content. Furthermore, the setting is incredibly open, relying as it does on familiar and well-loved archetypes, meaning that almost any cultural motif can be riffed off of, plumbing untold depths of creativity in us all.

For me though, the best thing about it is the way the rules continuously refer to this nigh-extinct being known as a ‘games master’ – a player who, because he actually wants to do so, sets aside his participation as a belligerent (for want of a better word) and assumes the role of ring master, entertainer, referee and conductor (as well as host and sometimes griddle cook!).

I’m a GM far more than I am a player, and I love nothing more hobby-wise than creating the whole set up for my mates to enjoy, including the table, miniatures, story and special rules. Fortunately, I have a small group of friends (and more on the interwebs) who feel the same. Other people struggle to convert their mates to this type of gaming, which is understandable, but worth pursuing. If you succeed, you’ll find this type of game is at once incredibly ‘grown up’, but at its source entirely childish, as you’re effectively entertaining, even channelling, the child within.

I may have strayed in preaching then, for which I apologise! Anyone have any thoughts on this issue?


  1. Some good points - and we'd expect no less! The left-brain-right-brain idea is intriguing, as is the idea of the grown-up-child contrast. It didn't feel like preaching at all, just a friendly passion.

    That central view of what old school is for you is a great summary of my personal understanding of the OSR concept too - cooperative, story-driven, the interest in winning being a reflection of the situation described, the rules structuring not confining, and overall about freedom and entertainment, getting under that hood and making the game right for the day.

    I realise others might have very different feelings about what the OSR is, but that's even better - the OSR's really a forum, an open space for us all to explore the vast range of possible options.

    Looking at the GM idea, I think one of the issues for many people of this kind of play is that need for a third person, meaning three people on the same page and in the same place at the same time. Entirely possible, but just a little trickier to pull off. I'd agree it's well worth the effort though, and the GM arguably has the most fun!

    I'm very interested in the idea of a virtual GM, a system which would do some of the work a GM usually does, just for the potential it would offer to gamers feeling that barrier.

    Anyway, I'm glad you posted this. Inspiring musings, and a great read. I'd be very glad to read anything the other guys might have to say too.

  2. I think for myself I use the rules as a framework when I GM a game. I am the least literary amongst our group, and I sometimes can find myself struggling to come up with original game elements.

    I do agree with Colonel Kane, in that when playing the rules are less important than the story. It is beholden to the GM to ensure that both sides enjoy the game. Porkies idea of a virtual GM is ok, but I would rather see it as two gamers using their particular game to tell a story.

    To put that statement into context, I was playing a regular game at WHW (Maj Hazard refers to these as boring tournament games) and throughout the game a fun theme came to the fore and we just went with it. Even though I had my opponant on the ropes at the end, with only 3 Orks left I stopped the game and declared the draw as it was at that point because we had had so much fun. I didn't need to force the win.

    I know that I'm more interested in playing than being the GM, even though I do enjoy dropping surprises in when I get the chance. I think for me the thrill is in creating a story while dealing with all the events that the GM and opponant can throw at me.

    Sorry it's not an essay, but I will post again if I come up with more.

  3. I'm 50/50 on the virtual GM idea - my own instinct would be to write a rules set that has guidance for a GM, but doesn't assume you have one. You can then add in a load of fun charts and events that go some way to introducing the sort of overview a GM would have.

  4. @ Martini Henrie - That's a great argument and anecdote and got me thinking differently about the idea. It's still percolating. I see that point about dealing with the challenges of player and GM very well. That is definitely one of the attractions of being a player, being up against it and looking for the openings and the story.

    @ Colonel Kane - I've been giving the virtual GM real chunks of time lately. I've got something limited worked out for running psuedo-mysteries or incomprehensible conspiracies, but it's stunningly rudimentary by comparison to what a GM can do. Your thinking is a good way to go I think, around some kind of more organic core.

  5. Sorry to come so late to this conversation, but my delay is prompted by other obligations, and not lack of interest; this topic is insightful and helpful in that these posts are becoming something of an old school manifesto.

    I do think the chance to do something creative and tactile has been the most fun part of dusting off old books and miniatures and coming up with stories and characters bring them to (back) to life.

    I think the left/right brain concept is spot on. These older- I prefer vintage- systems, or rather vintage style of play, is how I choose to spend my limited hobby time these days because they are so different from the current, highly precise rules and FAQed style of play. I think this may be the same reason people choose to ride vintage motorcycles when newer bikes offer a hundred technical, design and even safety improvements. I can’t help put recall that I used to think those bikers crazy.

    I was recently inspired by this site to come up with an old school game complete with a 30 page background book for a local gaming event: Last stand at Dogmeat (digital copies available upon request). It was a big hit and tons of fun, which got it’s inspiration here- keep it up the great work!