Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Great Retrogaming Debate

Though retrogaming typically refers to computer consoles, I also use the term to refer to roleplaying games (though I saw the Chatty DM refer to it as the "Old School Renaissance" on this post).  Bear with me for a second while explain some meta-nerdosity.

As noted previously, I came to gaming in the late nineties, and started on the Storyteller system by White Wolf.  I came to Call of Cthulhu and the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and now my collection is so bloated that I'd be hard-pressed to unravel that tangled skein.  Regardless, by the time I assembled a group that wanted to play fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, I had read a lot about gaming.  I was well-acquainted with the flak Wizards of the Coast received for D&D 4e, and even some of the arguments about it (namely that it attempts to emulate the styles of MMOs and computer RPGs in an ironic bout of recursion).  However, it wasn't until I started looking around for D&D stuff that I became better versed in the debate.

In planning the aforementioned 4e game, I had several players who were new to the hobby, and all but one are new to D&D.  They showed interest in dungeon crawls, and I decided that I wanted to include some classic references and classic dungeons to help the new players score a little geek cred.  Of course, this led me in search of the aforementioned classic dungeons (and I'm now amassing a weird little library of first and second edition AD&D books, and even a few basic/expert D&D books), which brings me to the present.

I came across this post about the Hickman revolution on the blog Grognardia (which I would be inclined to recommend, particularly if you want to know about the history and early traditions of D&D, as well as RPG retrogaming in general).  Go ahead and take a little time to read it.  I'll wait.

If you didn't read it, it's basically about how Tracy and Laura Hickman saved D&D by introducing heavy, story-laden modules (they're probably best known for the Ravenloft module and the Dragonlance setting).  Before this time, modules were comparatively simple, generally just being wargaming scenarios with little pretense as to why the characters are doing what they do, only that they are facing the dangers of what might possibly be a dungeon that possibly contains a dragon.  This in the hope that they become richer and more capable.

However, he then says that the Hickmans' meddling is what splintered the hobby into the various factions today, and that the hobby lost something through the introduction of this imposed story (it is now pretty much assumed that story elements will be included in any published adventure).

It's a valid argument, but I'm not certain I agree.  Admittedly, I'm biased; I went through the trouble of giving you a synopsis of my gaming background to so that you would know that I started gaming in the post-Hickman era.  However, I'm still not sure I can even objectively agree with the argument.  The hobby has people who want to play a game vs. the people who want to tell a story (I daresay this has been true since the beginning), and they still have that option.  Though the inclusion of story as an innate function of RPGs has occurred since AD&D second edition, and most games have a section on running the game that focuses more on storytelling techniques than charts and tables, it's still out there, and it's still talked about.  Most games suggest against it, but ultimately concede that there's nothing wrong with pure hack-and-slash gameplay if that's what your group wants to play.  D&D still has a section (albeit a small one anymore) about running the game as a pure game; you spend an evening running the monsters in the dungeon against the adventurers in a dungeon, and that's it.

Ultimately, I'm not certain the Hickmans depleted the roleplaying hobby by emphasizing story elements, as that's still largely the purview of individual Game Masters.  Though there's some debate about it, I hold to the GNS Theory, and suggest that there's a game for every type of player.  The game is still whatever you make of it.

P.S. If you want to make your brain bleed, feel free to follow up your visit to Grognardia to this post on Wax Banks, just to get a feel for the debate.  Like Grognardia, it makes some good points, but also features arguing on the internet (although, unlike Grognardia, a lot of the venom comes from the author).

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