Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Five Prerequisites for Player Skill

>>old school play is just a bunch of people sitting around playing “guess what’s in the GM’s brain”

No. Just… no.

First off the rules cover maybe 20% of what happens in play are there and they’re so simple that they quickly become invisible. They are also there so that you can kill player characters en masse for their stupidity without it looking like you have it in for anyone in particular. Death is a sticky thing and if you’re going to deal it, everyone at the table has to know that that they had it coming.

The extreme deadliness of the dungeon means that you can let the characters get away with anything that isn’t covered by the rules. If it sounds plausible and fits the scenario, let ‘em do it. You don’t even have to make them roll dice most of the time. My thinking is… if you only have two hit points and your chance of living through five or six sessions is as low as I think it is, then I may as well give you the benefit of the doubt wherever I can….

So say you are down with what little rules there are… and you’ve played a few sessions and got killed a few times. You’re officially on notice now. Maybe you can even look at who died and why they died and then leverage that into some new tactics. But your dungeon master has this giant mega-dungeon all mapped out and stocked, right? Do you think you can waltz into the tenth level, get the Amulet of Yendor, and then waltz back out again…? Ever? It doesn’t work that way, though. The game is not balanced. It’s incredibly hard and it gets harder and weirder the further down you go. It’s a death trap.

Your typical new school player does not expect to have to think or plan. But if you look at the cover of the old Player’s Handbook, what are the characters are doing? You know… besides looting the bodies? They are planning their next move, that’s what! They have to because they are not going to get spoonfed a climatic final scene with a boss monster that they just so happen to win with their last hit points regardless of what they freaking decide to do.

So after doing that for a bunch of sessions where does that leave you? “Let’s go map the northwest quadrant this time. Look at these maps… there’s gotta be something important over there. And you remember these obvious clues we picked up a few sessions ago? Let’s pick spells and equipment that can be good for that and wear lighter armor so that we can move quickly. Oh yeah… let’s hire some extra help, but pay them a really good percentage in treasure recovered because we’re not going to be getting any loot this time anyway!” That kind of planning generates a serious amount of player engagement– people can get so serious about it, it’s like they almost forget it’s just a game….

That it’s impossible to get the Amulet of Yendor in a hundred sessions doesn’t matter. The players are the ones setting objectives that they think can be achieved, weighing risks, and hashing out their next move. This is why it doesn’t matter what particular ruleset you use for old school play in a given module– if things are a little harder or a little easier it doesn’t matter because the players are the ones that are going to find the sweet spot as far as challenge goes. They’re going to blow through a lot of encounters like they’re nothing… and then stay just a bit too long and get taken down by their own pride. Every session they will learn more about how to play well. Every session will reinforce the following things:

  1. death is a real possibility
  2. the players have full autonomy– they can totally walk past your dungeon if it smells bad to them and follow some random throwaway plot hook you made up when they were in the tavern
  3. the rules that exist are simple or (at the very least) fully internalized by the players
  4. the game play area is extensive  and well defined (or… at least… sketched out in the large and possible to be filled in at a rate that is faster than the players can explore)
  5. the players are not entitled to happy endings, canned narratives, fudged die rolls when they deserve to die, a free pass in a challenge just because they have an elaborate TV-show style solution that makes sense to them, or scads of perks just because they’re really earnest in their method acting

All of these components are prerequisites for player skill to be possible. If you cheat on any point, you kill it. If you think player skill is bunk or if it’s just about cooperative and improvisational world building… then I have to ask which ones of those five prerequisites do you tend to skimp on most in your games…?

This is of course not to say that one play style is superior to another. Indeed, I don’t kill my daughter’s characters and we do quite a bit of collaborative story telling when we play. I personally find that kind of constant creativity and story telling to be burdensome at times. It’s quite freeing to define a situation, have a clear set of rules, and then just turn the players loose and see what happens. When I do that, the rules framework takes a huge load off of me– I’m no longer responsible for crafting a resolution that looks like the result of player skill when it really isn’t. All I have to do is adjudicate the game and let the players be responsible for the story.

Yes, they can totally wipe out miserably. But the potential for that is what creates the dramatic tension. It’s just like Jack McDevitt said at Madicon: when the zombies attack… that’s the moment that something goes wrong with the starter in your car! So let the dice fall where they may. When things go crazily wrong… that’s when the fun begins! (And if everybody dies, just be glad it only takes a few minutes to roll up new characters….) As anyone that ‘s played Nethack knows, an amusing and pointless death is its own reward.

(This is in response to the post “What is Player Skill?” over on The Rhetorical Gamer.)

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14 responses to “The Five Prerequisites for Player Skill

  1. Pingback: Jeffro’s take on player skill vs. character skill… « E.V.T.S.

  2. Chris Mata May 17, 2012 at 8:45 am

    “First, it’s not a story, it’s a game. Second, you don’t win because you’re heroes. You’re heroes if you win.” Jonathan Foster

    • Chris Mata May 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

      A quote from my first, best, dungeonmaster. He leans more towards the adversarial DM vs Players school of thought. He believes in everyone bringing their A game and then high fives all around if the players win. There is also no crying in OD&D. :)

    • jeffro May 17, 2012 at 9:25 am

      That is exactly what I’m trying to articulate. Thanks!

  3. earlburt May 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    That Player’s Handbook cover in my favorite piece of D&D artwork ever. And it ranks super high among all RPG artwork. The reason is that it is one of few illustrations that don’t feature the combat side of the game, but rather the role-playing side. It is one of the rare, actually mature, images in the game.

  4. migellito May 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Wow, a thousand times this. Why was I not already following your blog?! Time to fix that.

  5. freddyboomboom May 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    My very first D&D game I played in, in 1980, my half elf cleric died after about a half hour of play.

    I distinctly remember it was because we had been walking for a while but stopped to talk to someone, and I sat down under a tree. I didn’t know there were carnivorous trees…

    Yes, this was AD&D (aka First Edition), why do you ask?

  6. Pingback: Weekly Assembly: Database as Firehose | The Gamer Assembly

  7. Runeslinger May 31, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Good post. Sometimes, like the Rhetorical Gamer implied, it can feel like we are yelling at the sky for all the good trying to explain this stuff does. Like anything else,the way you do it is often the only way to do it unless someone can realign your perceptions to see the rest of the options. You taking Keep on the Borderlands to a con to give younger gamers a taste of how things can be done differently is one of the best answers to this issue I have seen in years.

    • jeffro June 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      This was just a rant, but hopefully… somewhere… it articulates something that isn’t spelled out in Matt Finch’s primer on old school play. I know the first time I read that I was scratching my head in unbelief. (I gamed heavily in the 80′s, but mocked the lameness of TSR products for much of that time– except for when we were playing the atrociously fun third edition of Gamma World…!)

      • Runeslinger June 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm

        TSR produced its fair share of lame products, and earned comnensurate allotments of mockery, true enough. That said, the experimentation which has continued since then across the hobby can, for those who remember the stages of development, highlight approaches and their benefits. The disconnect between an old school earned victory approach and a newer school shepherded story arc is just one that is invisible to gamers with less exposure to earlier games.

  8. guesswhatisinthegmsbrain July 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    I agree with many points but… You didn’t actually address the quoted part. Old school gaming because of it’s strong interest in challenging the players is more vulnerable to assumption clash and thus “guess what’s in the GM’s brain”. When players say what do you mean the magic trap works like that! That doesn’t follow from the rest of the magic system as we have experienced it! or something similar that is a result of assumption clash that comes from failing to intuit unspoken parts of the GMs GMing style. Other styles of gaming are less harsh with the penalties for this. A fair amount of PC deaths are required before the players fully understand the GMs style, what sort of challenges they will throw at them, and what sort of solutions the GM thinks will works and what solutions the GM thinks are stupid.

  9. Pingback: Revisiting Matt Finch’s Zen Moments of Old School Gaming | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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