Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Barsoom, OD&D, and Story Games...

Robyn and I love stories, but neither of us are what might be called a story gamer.  As a crusty old grognard I prefer the traditional model, with a clear division of labor between the referee and the players.  Everyone stays in their lane; and if players want to influence the story they do so through the actions of their characters.  Robyn, a computer RPG enthusiast, is more inclined to consider what the players want from a game, whether getting an animal companion or possessing some unique piece of equipment.  Between the two of us we steer a middle course, although we both tend towards making desired opportunities available within the context of a game and leaving the characters to seek these out on their own…

So we’re talking about old-school gaming as we know it, as opposed to so-called story gaming, where some degree of collaboration takes place.  Depending on the system, a group might work together to determine the nature of the setting and even the powers of its villains.  Slaying a dragon isn’t just something that might happen during play, but something specifically negotiated beforehand.  Robyn and I draw the line here because it feels less heroic.  We have little power over who pulls up next to us at the stoplight.  We’re acted upon by any number of external forces beyond our control, and success depends largely upon our ability to deal with this.  Of course, we can set personal goals and take steps to achieve them; but at no time is success, much less the opportunity, guaranteed.  This is the only way true heroism is possible.
Story gaming seems anathema to the old-school way, although Robyn and I subscribe to a different strokes/folks mindset.  Certain rather outspoken personalities have referred to story gamers as swine.  Ouch.   I think (and fervently hope) they’re being hyperbolic.  Gaming is just too trivial to say anything about one’s character.  Even so, old-school enthusiasts know why they like the way they play and feel like they can defend their preferences.  The feelings run deep, and we’ve grown accustomed to thinking it’s been that way from the start.  Sorry, but it hasn’t.  Some collaboration between the players and their referee has always been there, and the social nature of the experience was well understood from the beginning.  Don’t believe us?  Check out this direct quote from OD&D’s Monsters & Treasure… 
“If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics.”

In short, the players and the referee can work together to write the specific abilities (read: statistics) of the monsters they encounter, which is not unlike deciding the characteristics of the campaign’s primary villain in true story-gaming style.  This grievous sin is enshrined in old-school’s Holy Scriptures and by the one person who should have opposed it!  Now this referred to miscellaneous large insects or animals, but included (potentially) Banths and similar pulpy creations not formally covered in the rules.  Gygax clearly understood that the campaign, any campaign, really, would be a social contract between its participants.  He could have left this to the referee alone (which ultimately happened), but he didn’t at this early juncture in the hobby’s history.  Collaborative, story-gaming elements were there, albeit in small ways, and I contend that they continue even in the most traditional fare.
But the rulebook isn’t the game; and as early as 1980 I was working one-on-one with my players to establish what their characters wanted and took care to make these opportunities available.  Was this story gaming?  Aside from introducing whatever opportunities they wanted for their characters, my players were at the mercy of a world they couldn’t anticipate and could only influence through their personal choices.  And this was assuming they even survived their expeditions into the underworld!  When Jarl the Red said he wanted to eventually procure a griffin mount, I expected him to make queries and do the legwork.  But I also threw out offhand references to the griffin breeding grounds in the context of a local complaining about attacks on their livestock.  The rest was up to Jarl, which is to say that in forty years of gaming I’ve determined that there’s no hard line between the different modes of play, just a sliding grey scale.  Old-school thrives on a strict division of labor between the players and the referee.  Even so, the line between this and story gaming’s more collaborative approach is broad and fuzzy, with plenty of room to stretch.  We bring this up only to point out that Gygax seemed to know this from the very beginning; but also because a good GM knows their options and the fundamentally social nature of the hobby...


  1. When I start a campaign I'll have each player provide the following for their character:

    3 Immediate Goals
    3 Long Term Goals
    A list of Friends/Contacts equal to their maximum henchmen
    Cultural context of their background

    And then I weave that into the tale of the ongoing adventure, and in some cases, use it to help me build the wider campaign setting (not that the players are allowed to know that).

    I would in turn detail for them their family, and a few old enemies; you can choose their friends, but you cannot choose family...

  2. I can ask about a previous career a character may have experienced, who their family was in general, if any, and their basic story as a family. Additionally, I'll ask what as a player they enjoy out of the game.

    That is their initial input. The game world cares not for the characters stated goals nor do I. Feelings, passions, desires and goals will emerge from play.

    Making sure the players are on the same page with the game, with each other, can We all gel is what I think is more important. Is their buy in with the GMS vision of the game they are about to run.

    Not shitting in anyone's soup here, but this is my go to GM stance.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about buy-in from the players. That's what it's all about...

  3. I really like your example of the Griffon. It doesn't seem at all like a story game, outside of the emergent story, which is really what separates it from say, Yahtzee. My experience of story games (running Dungeon World specifically) is that the stakes can be a little mushy.

    However, I've incorporated one DW "move" in my game to great effect: Last Breath. It actually came up last session when my player's fighter sacrificed himself to the Big Bad to save the party, resolving his two line backstory at character creation.

    He narrated his personal Valhalla and then we consulted the dice. He rolled snake eyes (the worst result of that move) and he let the character go. It was a nice moment of story game in an otherwise cruel OSR world.

    1. Cool! I definitely think this sort of balance is necessary for maximum enjoyment. And it's lots of fun to GM as well...