Old Skool: Bad ol’ games…

In the last few years, one expression that has become increasingly frequent when discussing RPGs is “old school” (or “old skool”). It’s not always clear what one means when using it, but most people are referring to a mythical era where rules were simple, you didn’t need to think too much in order to game, and every game kicked ass. Coincidentally or not, the people waxing nostalgic about this mythical past usually refer to dungeon-crawlin’ as an art form.

Let me tell you, young Jedi: I was there at the time, I gamed, and I feel no nostalgia. I’m surprised I stuck with role-playing games when initially they had so little of what I was looking for: to vicarious live The Lord of the Rings, Aliens or King Solomon’s Mines. I was utterly and completely disappointed with dungeon-crawlin’ though fortunately I found other players who also wanted more story and adventure in their gaming. And eventually, more and more games that appealed to my sort of gaming started appearing.

Right now, I going through this little memory lane because, in preparation for an upcoming game of Joshua BishopRoby’s excellent, excellent Full Light, Full Steam, I started re-reading Space: 1889. Oh my. What an interesting study in contrasts. I last played Space: 1889 about a year ago in ‘s excellent, tremendously fun Voyage of the Olympic. At the time I just re-read what I needed to make a character (it had been years since I’d played before that), and skipped the background. We all agreed at the table that the system sucked, but we still had a good time because John kept us out of really painful rule sub-systems.

Now I’m reading the book again, this time with an eye strictly for setting and atmosphere material. Whereas last time I just wanted the system bits, this time I only want the setting bits. It’s not as easy as one might think because the book is written with what looks, 20 years later, like a very strange structure. Background and crunch are intricately dove-tailed throughout, and liberally mixed with GM advice and genre considerations; we’ve grown used to a certain way of laying out RPGs that is not used in this older game. I should mention here that in terms of background, I really love Space: 1889; although weaker on the pseudo-tech it tries to emulate, it’s extremely rich as an overview of the period and the genre.

Yes, games have changed, though certainly many had already been published at the time that were more “modern”: WEG’s Star Wars and Ghostbusters, Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica; Skyrealms Publishing’s Skyrealms of Jorune; and R. Talsorian’s Mekton are all examples of games which, if I recall correctly, had much more modern approaches and GM advice. Heck, by the time Space: 1889 was published (1988), RPGs had been around for 15 years. But it was not only published nearly two decades ago but also written by an author whose forte and great love was for strategic miniatures games, Frank Chadwick. Chadwick has some amazingly insightful observations on Victorian society, but definitely envisioned this game as being run on rails (how fitting for the era!) by iron-fisted GMs.

The example adventure (which is uncharacteristically stuck in the middle of the book!) is like a bright neon invitation to either (A) ignoring your players’ interests, contributions and ideas or (B) being completely unprepared for the moment they throw this little adventure off the rails by doing something not listed in the text.

  • It completely ignores party composition or what abilities the PCs should cover. In short, any group will experience the same events the same way.
  • It strings a long series of filler pseudo-random encounters, climb checks and notice checks that must be successful, regardless of the high probability that an average group of starting characters would fail most.
  • It never considers all the alternate actions and approaches PCs might take to solve the various challenges: what if they kill an important NPC early on? What if they avoid a fight and manage to rally the opposition? What if a genius scientist in the party manages to solve a technical challenge early? Etc…

In short, I love the source material, but I’m amazed that anyone ever thought it was a good idea to try running a game this way.

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