Edition and playstyle wars

6 June, 2009 at 11:24 am (linkedin, rpg theory) ()

Mostly inspired by Donny the DM’s posts, namely this and this, the first of which was shared by Jonathan Jacobs of forthcoming Nevermet press on Google Reader.

Donny somewhat mischaracerises the extremes of sandbox play, also misuses GNS and makes a number of assumptions, but I thought it would be nice to engage his actual point, too.

I hope I am not misrepresenting Donny too severely. By my understanding Donny’s point is, to steal a term from another field, ecumenical. Donny wants to say that old school and 4e play are not that different after all. Donny’s argument is that since ridiculously extreme sandbox play and ridiculously extreme railroading don’t really work, everyone must actually play in the middle ground and hence in pretty similar way.

There is a number of weaknesses on the argument in addition to misrepresenting railroading. Donny is pretty focused on D&D and it shows. D&D assumes lots of combat. Donny’s argument also assumes lots of combat. Further, not all ways of playing map meaningfully to the railroading-sandbox axis. My normal style of game mastering is story-focused but I don’t plan ahead and hence can’t railroad; there is no point in mapping this to the railroad-sandbox axis. This is not a big problem as one can fabricate a ridiculously extreme version of my style, too, and use argument similar to what Donny used. I will assume that this applies to all possible ways of playing.

The key claim remains: Since all extremes are implausible, all styles of play must be pretty close to each other and fundamentally similar. My perspective is that the claim is too ecumenical, but still has a kernel of truth hidden in it.

First the true part: Certainly, all of roleplaying shares many similarities. Certainly different play traditions have much to learn from each other. I mix and match techniques from old school play and indie games. Philippe, a 4e afficiando if there ever was one, experiments with random encounters. 4e with the focus on encounters has something to teach if one is willing to look carefully, but they really ought to read and play some indie games so as to get a handle of skill challenges, which are a pretty blunt instrument. More importantly: It is possible to enjoy playing in styles that are not one’s favourite, as long as one is willing to approach them with open mind. (Also, having less edition wars would be nice.)

Nevertheless, people play in different ways. I hear some even like railroading and pre-plotted adventures! Hard to accept, but true. The differences are real. Some styles of play demand very much a different perspective for them to be enjoyed. Donny himself illustrates this by the following comments:

As to gathering information. <snip> You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to – stomping off blindly indeed :)

No, you do neither of those. You give them the information that they could gather, maybe influenced by dice rolls. Maybe it guides to some interesting adventurous location that you have designed and placed somewhere, but not because you want the player characters to go there, but because you want to present going there as an option. When designing the sandbox, you place a bunch of interesting locations there and create a bunch of interesting random encounters, because you want to know what the players will do to them. In play you don’t guide them around; their characters are an adventurous bunch or so involved in the situation that they will certainly undertake some interesting project or stumble upon something interesting.

That is; instead of director who has a story to tell or encounters to guide the players through, the GM thinks of himself (or herself) as an arbitrator who can’t wait to see what the players do with his sandbox. A different frame of mind. Certainly one can mix and match, for example by creating a sandbox with very strong theme or by creating an adventure with many genuine choices that take it to different directions. Regardless, the extreme but playable cases are pretty far from each other.

As a conclusion I say that those weirdos over there do play in genuinely different way, but once you accept that the difference exists, you just might be able to enjoy their activity, too. Or maybe not. But at the very least you would be likely to learn a bit and get a new experience. Celebrate the difference.


  1. Stuart said,

    I just posted something about my approach to RPGs you might find interesting – it falls outside of the common oldschool / newschool and GNS type categories.


  2. njharman said,

    Is there some sort of blog carnival on this subject I’m not aware of? I’ve read a few posts about it this morning. This one was thought provoking.

    btw I believe the axis is sandbox/storypath not sandbox/railroad.

    > is story-focused but I don’t plan ahead
    What do you mean by story-focused? I don’t see how you can have a story without planning or some sort of scripting. And you can railroad just fine without planning ahead. In fact a lot of railroading occurs cause the DM failed to have a plan (even if it’s just roll on this random table).

    • Tommi said,

      This is a very secret blog carnival; so secret, in fact, that nobody knows about it. It may have something to do with echo chamber effect.

      Storypath is probably a better term. I think I’ll remain biased in my own blog, though.

      What do you mean by story-focused? I don’t see how you can have a story without planning or some sort of scripting. And you can railroad just fine without planning ahead. In fact a lot of railroading occurs cause the DM failed to have a plan (even if it’s just roll on this random table).

      Can you elaborate on what you mean by railroading without planning ahead? My personal (expanded) definition of railroading is that it means denying players the choices they should have according to rules or old practices, but I’d like to know your take on the subject.

      By story-focused I mean that the purpose of play is, to significant degree, to create a story. The game focuses on character goals and drama created by them. There are narrative coincidences and things often move by the speed of plot. Sometimes big parts of narrative are skipped as uninteresting. The world pretty much revolves around the player characters.

      There is focus on creating some story, as opposed to focus on playing out the pre-planned story, or story being an incidental and unintended by-product of play, which is an approach that I take when running D&D.

      I fear I don’t have the words to properly communicate what I mean.

      • njharman said,

        No, I think you conveyed your meaning well.

        Interesting. When I try to focus on story (as a DM) I end up pre-planning too much and railroading. So I’ve decided to swing to the opposite extreme plotless/sandbox/exploration. Although, you have given me much to ponder…

        For me railroading is a spectrum. One thing it means is having scripted encounters/events having encounters/events that will happen to the players regardless of what they do. The players have choices but they are for the most part meaningless. For instance: DM needs players ambushed by the Dread Pirate Roberts so they can capture him and reveal important plot element Foo. The players may choose to stay in town, or go north or south or head out to sea. No matter what they choose they will get ambushed by the Dread Pirate Roberts and he will survive to reveal his plot element.

        Railroad without planning would be fudging dice/rules so that a character won’t die. Or if DM needs PCs in Paris and despite huge “plot this way” sign they go to Milan. A spontaneous railroad would be to DM fait mechanical problem with plane PCs are on and have it diverts to Paris. The DM is forced to railroad because he failed to plan for any option other than go to Paris.

        • Tommi said,

          The greatest influence on my style has been Burning Wheel, which lies halfway between traditional and Forge games. It is a bit heavy on rules, but the design philosophy felt very natural and engaging. Many people hate it with a passion, too. If you are interested, I recommend reading D7’s take on the game: http://d7.pipemaze.com/blog/tag/burning-wheel/

          I agree with your characterisation of railroading.

  3. oberonthefool said,

    njharman : You can have story without planning (or at least without planning the plot) ahead by letting the characters’ actions BE the story. Instead of telling the players a story in which their characters happen to be involved, let THEM tell YOU a story that happens to be set in a world you facilitate.

    You make an interesting point about railroading due to lack of planning as opposed to over-planning. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but there’s some truth to it.

    • njharman said,

      > “letting the characters’ actions BE the story. Instead of telling the players a story in which their characters happen to be involved, let THEM tell YOU a story that happens to be set in a world you facilitate.”

      This is what I would call sandbox play. All RPG’s produce a story, even non-roleplaying games such as MTG and D&D miniatures produce a story. The main difference is “Does the DM know what the story is ahead of time.” If they do then it’s a storypath/scripted/railroad/whatever you want to call it. If they don’t then it’s sandbox/exploration/whatever you want to call it.

      Tommi has made me realize there’s another axis separate from that and it is “story as major element” That is characters are the focus, the world and events revolve around them, slow/”boring” bits are fluffed around or sped over, players have story based goals and the DM facilitates them. The other end is the old-school style were players are regular dudes and dudettes that have decided they want glory and gold, that an easy way to achieve this is to go take it from others. Focus is on the players not the characters. Characters come and go(often), they get to name level, build a castle, and are retired). The challenge and fun is to survive. There’s a story here but it’s not the focus, the play is the focus. It’s all about the journey not the destination.

      I like to play and DM both of those styles. But in the past, DMing story focused games I’ve fallen into “deciding on the story ahead of time” which I do not like. This thread and other recent posts have really helped me see a third way and I believe I will do much better with story focused DMing in the future. Yay internets!

      • oberonthefool said,

        The terminology I’m familiar with are “story-before”, which is when the GM has the plot pre-planned, “story-after”, in which looking back on the game, the players can tell the events as a story; and “story-now”, in which the creation of the story is the game.

        It’s a subtle distinction in terminology, but a vast one in terms of play agenda; and I think is perhaps related to, but separate from, the “sandbox – railroad” axis described in this discussion.

  4. Donny_the_DM said,

    I read the arguments, I understand them, and I wistfully dream of them – and then I think about this applied to my group and want my head to just explode and get on with it : )

    You are correct in your assumptions that 1.) I am speaking only of D&D. and 2.) I run very combat-centric games. Neither should be considered “bad” for purposes of playing style – I should hope.

    Excellent job of grasping at my point! I could feel myself flailing around it, but was helpless to do more than bury it more english. BTW – I didn’t so much “misuse” GNS theory, as attempt to repackage it in accordance with the reality I see whan actually playing it.

    After reading a LOT of “Old-school renaissance” articles, I came to see that even in a group as clannish and narrow of spectrum as that crowd – there was still an astonishing amount of variety. In fact, the only real similarity between the games they play are that they all use heavily houseruled versions of the same games.

    I say again that every houserule is a mere tweak towards a subjective optimum, based on ones idea of where on the GNS graphic they fall on.

    This is the heart of my gamist compromise, we do whatever we need to do to make the game fun, regardless of whose toes get trampled on. In my 4E game, healing surges are like mini-action points. They are a measure of heroic willpower, and as such are useful for a variety of things. Why? Because I could. Because it was fun. Sometimes the town is full of people to talk to. Sometimes I subtly “encourage” them to burn it down. The DM’s job is not being scribe to a wandering troupe of comedians, any more than it is their job to goosestep when they hear the band play. Merely the act of gaming is a compromise. Everyone trusting everyone else to do their jobs. I’ve run games for groups that were hopeless. They had to be spoonfed every little detail or they would just sit and cause trouble. Or the group that does what THEY want dammit – and nobody is getting in the way.

    After thinking about it, I’d have to say that my point is D&D is Chaos theory put to prose, with swords and magic.

    • Tommi said,

      Here’s a question: Do you accept that people can play roleplaying games in fundamentally different ways?

      The greatest dividing lines I see are storypath/scripted/railroad – old school/sandbox – indie/player-empowering/volatile . (These can’t really be mapped to GNS categories in any nice way.)

      By misuse of GNS terms I mean that you are actually talking about the GDS, while wrongly using narrativism when what you are referring to is dramatism. GDS does not claim that the styles are mutually distinct.

      GNS, on the other hand, is very arcane theory that is only worth learning if one is unsatisfied with one’s current play. Also, the creative agendas are terribly, horribly named; they sound like common words while having arcane meanings. I think I’m just going to stop correcting people, because it is of so little use. Even the hardcore big model theorists are using different terms nowadays.

      • Stuart said,

        Neither GNS or GDS as you’ve described it account for adventure game style RPGs run in the style of Zork, Maniac Mansion, Myst etc. Those aren’t sandbox or storypath. They’re not gamist tactical combat games, and they’re not indie player-empowering games either. They’re not overly concerned with character acting / wear a costume / talk in 1st person as your character styles of gameplay either.

        Even if that’s a minority approach to RPGs today, the Mentzer D&D basic set which was published at the height of RPG popularity in the 80s included this type of gameplay quite explicitly in the players book.

        • Tommi said,

          I don’t think any finite theory can separate all playing styles that could be separated.

          I read your blog post but still have hard time seeing what is different and unique in your style. It may be because I play in similar way or it may be because I just can’t look at it from the right angle.

          Care to help?

          • Stuart said,

            Check the comments. Failing that, try looking up “Adventure Game” and “Computer Role-playing Game” on Wikipedia and compare + contrast. :)

  5. Donny_the_DM said,

    Is the literal difference between the gaming styles more like a focus over A and Z with some stuff between, or B-Y with the rest as mere details?

    The trip over the destination.

    The means justifying the ends?

    God this is soooo subjective. What a can of worms : )

  6. Tacoma said,

    Simply put, old school play requires a good referee. The rules aren’t complete and so the referee must make many decisions during the game. He’s not making new rules. When people houserule they’re usually just trying to codify what ad hoc rulings they always seem to make because they come up all the time. Old school games have just the rules that come up all the time.

    New school play has many more rules. The reasons for this are unclear and probably not the same for every designer. It may be a natural outgrowth of the game design. But it’s really just laying out systems that for whatever reason seem to favor complexity and completeness. Even creating rules for situations that almost never happen. This puts less on the shoulders of the referee; he doesn’t need to worry about game balance because everything is balanced, he doesn’t need to worry about risk and reward because it’s all laid out for him.

    The effect is to take power from the referee. Sure he can always make an ad hoc ruling, but the printed rule is right there. This and the shift away from the OGL might stifle creativity in the 4E community, but this is difficult to disentangle from the huge momentum of the 3E OGL and the revival of the old school movement.

    So we have disempowered referees who because of this run much similar games. If everyone follows the same rules and procedures, looks to the same modules for inspiration, and doesn’t look at anything else then their games will be similar. The game railroads the referee! And certainly it railroads the players.

    But it’s not all bad. A poor referee would have a hard time running an old school game. He needs confidence, knowledge of the rules, and a broad base of other knowledge. He needs to be fair, but able to sacrifice realism and game balance when neccessary. The quality of the referee determines the quality of the game. In a new-school game everything is laid out in a way that any referee can handle it. Even a poor referee can run a reasonably good game. And a great referee won’t be hamstrung by the system enough to turn his game bad.

    But a great referee is better off with a game system that allows him more flexibility. The same goes for players. I don’t mean a freeform game. I don’t know what that game would look like. But you don’t want a 576-page rule book or a library of thousands of pages, you don’t want to spend an hour generating a character or running a fight (any fight!). That doesn’t mean you need to limit it to three 50-page rulebooks and five minute chargen.

    But from what I’ve seen the new stuff is either quirky and funky, or else horribly bloated, or cribs heavily from old school games so much as to really be a retro-clone. Then again, there are some old games that are too funky to play or horribly bloated. Just because it was made before 1990 doesn’t mean it’s good, nor is every game made after a bad one. Take each on its own merits. But you can bet that every game will run differently!

  7. Danny said,

    The interblogwebcom ate my long comment.

    Recap: Game systems that are dramatically different from each other and require different skills and input by the referee and players will end up with different game sessions. Railroad? Sandbox? It’s more complicated than that.

    And games exist in the extremes. They just don’t flourish. An argument based on a premise that bad games don’t exist must fail or else find a better premise.

    • Tommi said,

      Akismet likes putting the first comments of every commenter in the moderation queue. Nothing was eaten, I hope.

      I’m not quite certain about old school games being inherently more difficult to run, but they certainly do require different skills. A good 4e game master must, for example, be at least decent at playing the tactical combat mini-game, which is very much not a concern for most other roleplaying games.

      Personally as a game master I feel stressed with rule books that cover too much stuff; am I actually supposed to remember all of that? No way. Give me a simple resolution method that can be used anywhere and everywhere so that I can focus on the game, not on memorising a bunch of generally mediocre rules.

      • oberonthefool said,

        That’s why I love Don’t Rest Your Head. As GM, all I need to worry about is “how much Pain do I want to inflict this roll?” and the rest takes care of itself, more or less.

  8. Callan said,

    Hi Tommi,

    By sandbox, I’m thinking you mean something like as GM you have some notions about the game world you give, and players, upon hearing the details, imagine what might be in X direction and head that way to find out. What is in X direction might be prewritten, or the GM may think “Ah yes, what the players think would be there, mostly would be and I hadn’t thought of that myself”. Ie, players exploration is actually inventing the game world, to a degree (by degree I mean it most likely conceeds to prior structure of the game world). So that quote in your OP is way off in suggestion it’s just rolling a random direction. What a drab idea of sandbox that person has?

    Though for myself, I’m gamist inclined and players getting resources for doing nothing (or for doing very little) takes the punch out of play. I have an inclination to prior prep simply to try and avoid letting ‘freebies’ in that undercut my agenda.

    On story gaming though, I have to say, some guidance has to happen or I think (I’m not sure, but I think) it’s like the most deluded roleplayer in the world, from the narratavism essay. Guidance doesn’t mean prescripting (though it technically can mean that). But it atleast means in play, aiming for and partly inventing scenes which might have some emotional issue. These things don’t just pop up by themselves, as the nar essay also notes and I’d have to agree with.

    • Tommi said,

      Hi Callan.

      I pretty much agree with everything you write here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: