Choosing Left or Right: different priorities in old-school and drama-oriented play

A little while back, I joined a group of friends who are heavily immersed in the OSR scene (indeed, some are even major luminaries or publishers). They are quite curious about a variety of games, and so I offered to run some more drama-oriented or character-oriented games for them (what some people would refer to as ‘story games’, whatever that might mean to you). We’ve had some fun but also some growing pains and challenges. Switching game styles can be tough, if you have familiar habits and techniques from your usual preferred kind of play! After the games, we’d spend some time discussing and debriefing.

One of those conversations happened over Discord and a player found it interesting enough that he put it up on his blog. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting, as well, or even useful.

There are a few comments on the blog post, now, and it even got translated into Italian over at another forum (La Locanda), if you can read Italian or are good with Google Translate.

If you’ve had similar experiences or challenges, or have a different take on how to teach or communicate (or learn/practice) such ideas, I’d love to hear about it.

The blog post:

The Italian discussion:

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To give this more context, I think it’d be valuable to extract some of the examples you gave me in private of how the players were “not getting it” and it was like playing two different games at the same table.

Interesting tidbit about Italian RPG culture which might be worth splitting into its own thread: in my experience the people that hang around self-identified OSR spaces in Italy never have the problem that you’re describing, or if they do they tend to solve it within minutes of starting a session. At least, that’s what happened when I tried playing stuff like Trollbabe or my game in development Inquest with them.

I’ve ascribed it to this reason, more or less—forgive my foray into ethnography, and I might be getting some stuff grossly wrong here, which older folks should feel invited to correct.

My impression is that there are two kind of players that self-describe as old-school practitioners—with no judgement intended toward both groups: (a) players that have always been playing the same way for decades and are uninterested in changing, and (b) players that have discovered the playstyle recently, and are excited about how emergent and unpredictable it feels compared to the railroady methods that are common in mainstream circles.

  • Italy never had '81 Moldvay D&D, but more than that, never had the play culture of D&D that culminated into Moldvay as a beginner text. The first D&D we got was the '83 Mentzer Red Box, which arrived in '85—which is the one with a choose-your-own-adventure as a teaching tool (terrible idea, in my opinion). When it arrived, I don’t think we ever developed the wargamey playstyle. Most people just moved from Mentzer Red Box straight into AD&D2 (and the oft-lamented Dragonlance playstyle) without much difference in how they played, and in fact no difference between the Advanced and Basic lines was ever advertised in Italy.

  • Additionally we are completely lacking in faux-archeologists, pretty much anyone I’ve spoken to agrees that whatever they are playing right now is a current interpretation of old rules, and they’re not actually summoning the ghosts of Gygax & Anderson.

Therefore, (a) group doesn’t exist, and the entire crowd is made entirely of (b) people, that are in a particularly experimentative mood and not creatures of habit. In fact, very often I hear people in self-described Italian OSR spaces having played Trollbabe, or The Pool, or Monsterhearts—some of them don’t like them, but they’ve earnestly attempted to play them!

And I think this explains my observation that they tend to be more receptive to this playstyle than the players you experimented with.

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Yeah, that makes a great deal of sense. I don’t have access to a large enough sample size to really say whether my experience here is in any way generalizable; I only know that it came up with this group (and not even all its members). I think it’s telling that one of them thought this post was insightful enough to share on his blog - that gives you some sense of where they were coming from.

The other time I did this was in New York, with two other folks from the Red Box D&D scene there. We played The Shadow of Yesterday, and we had a blast. No problems engaging at all.

However, the reactions were also interesting:

  • One player immediately sat down and started rolling 3d6, down the line, for Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc.

I asked him, “what are you doing? TSoY doesn’t have those stats.” He explained that he has to roll up a stat line, because otherwise, “how would I know who my guy is?”

That was amusing!

  • After the game, one of the players declared that he had a great time but didn’t know if he would ever play it again.

He explained that it was very stressful for him. (From my perspective, the player was super engaged and loving the game; there’s no doubt that we all really enjoyed the game, and I loved how emotionally invested he was in his character and in the game. Really proper, high-stakes, emotionally invested play that was about as good as it gets!)

I’ll never forget what he said… something like: “See, in my usual games, the worst thing that can happen is that my character gets lost in some subterranean cavern and torn apart by some monster. But here… oh, man! That young lad I cared for was having trouble with his drinking problem, and he’d clearly fallen in love with the wrong girl! That was scary!”

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That sounds like the game working to me!

I generally don’t say this, because I think a lot of discussion regarding “I like this” and “I don’t like that” is mostly gentlemen’s agreements to avoid the tough discussions that are necessary to reach mutual understanding on why we like what we like.

But in this case it really looks the guy got it! I think it’s pretty legitimate at this point to say—it may be not for you, and that’s O.K.

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My impression was the same. It was one of my favourite games of all time, and we all had a blast.

I suspect that this particular player went on to play more games in this style after all :wink:

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@Paul_T, if you don’t mind, I report here for our English-speaking friends my answer to your post.

Hi Paul Thanks, for sharing this. I come from an OSR background player and your words resonate with my experience.

(A funny example was when I set up a scene for one particular character: he came to check on his friend - someone who worked with him for the cartel - and found him horrifically maimed in his own house, a warning from those he wanted to betray. How would the player react to this? Well, he leaned into his “OSR” instincts and started searching the space, moving along the wall, checking the walls. It was kind of comical. We get used to playing in certain ways, I suppose!)

I had a similar issue while playing the PbtA Fantasy World with @Froggy . Basically in that context I’ve played strategically rather than to play to find out and discover who my character is. The situation changed dramatically after a debrief with Claudio and some reflections from Alessandro Piroddi (i.e. the designer) on this forum. Whereafter the later session has been more successful by simply playing my character for who is – rather than doing what it would be more convenient. We’ve played one of the best moments for me as player this year: my Knight (a Ronin in a South-Est Asian-like setting) tried to be loyal to his former clan (the army that was attacking ) while struggling to save as many innocents as possible from a slaughter during a siege impossible to win. When you advocate for the character and their wishes, then the energy that you talk about happens.

Don’t misunderstand: if you come from an OSR experience, you are still advocating for the character but in a different sense: you advocate for what is convenient for them as treasure hunters and explorers and not as people. You need to switch simply to another form of advocacy where you make choices on the basis of the character’s personal traits, morality, and emotions. Instead of saying “Make an arbitrary choice” as if you are choosing between left and right in a dungeon, I’d ask to players with a story similar to me: “Ok, if you have no idea, think: how this you’d make you feel if you had been this person in this context?”. Asking this question helps this sort of players most of the time.

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This reminds me of a Locanda discussion about “D&D Realism” (not the term we used there, but it does feel to me like capitalist realism iykwim :stuck_out_tongue: ).

You took part in that one discussion yourself @Paul_T and this might be beside the point, but I bring it up because it does offer some insight into this kind of response in my opinion.

Setting aside D&D for a while, and just focusing on the idea of “assumptions about games we don’t even know we have”, I think the trouble is that RPGs are like thirty different hobbies in a trenchcoat and a lot of people don’t acknowledge that. Everyone just assumes that the thing they’re playing is what roleplaying is.

If your baseline unconscious assumption is that the point of the game is choosing whether to go left or right, ie. engaging with exploration and tactics to get to the end of the dungeon, you’re going to approach every game like that until you can break out of that frame of mind.

If you think of “your guy” as a sum of their stats who’s a convenient tool for you to explore dungeons, the idea that the point might be to focus on their feelings will be a bit of a culture shock. As @LordPersi said you assume you’re there to advocate for them as dungeon-delvers, not as people.

You found a great way to explain how to make the transition, I think, so kudos.

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This topic really interests me! I’ll add this not to counter what Paul is saying, but to add my own wrinkle (which I hope complements the discussion so far):

Over the last few years of jumping back and forth between playing a lot of the Pool and a lot of Tunnels & Trolls, I’ve found that games like the Pool benefit immensely when decisions like “do I go left or right” (albeit sometimes on a larger scale: “do I go upstate to confront the cultists at their compound or stay in the city to try to keep an eye on my scheming co-worker who I’m pretty sure tried to have me killed?”) really matter and that games like Tunnels & Trolls really benefit when our characters develop attitudes toward and opinions about NPCs, events, and other components of the ongoing situation. (“Yes, that wizard is offering a nice reward for us to undertake that mission for him, but he’s kind of a jerk so we’re going to help out those goblins instead.”)

As noted by the observation that newcomers to either approach seem to have less difficulty jumping from one to the other, I think the underlying activity remains more similar than not, and a lot of the perceived differences have to do with expectations passed along by the hobby culture.

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