Wednesday, July 29, 2009

All Old-School Games Promote Tinkering

I came across this post by Matt Finch here, and wanted to offer a small comment on it. The specific quote is reproduced here:

"The tack I've taken with Swords & Wizardry is more along the lines I would have taken with OSRIC if I'd had all the benefits of hindsight. And Swords & Wizardry, unlike the other clones, has an outside agenda of promoting the idea that hobbyist gaming is about taking a basic, open-ended rules framework and then building the custom van at the gaming table itself."

I don't think it is accurate to create this dichotomy of pro-tinkering vs. anti-tinkering. I always assumed by default that all games, and especially old-school games like the retro-clones, promote hobbyist customizing. It's always been in the nature of gamers to do this. I would suggest that there is no way to specifically "promote" this in a game other than to support open gaming by making the material open game content. We shouldn't confuse a product that is more polished as not promoting tinkering. BFRPG, then Labyrinth Lord, and then Swords & Wizardry made their text open game content, in that way supporting open gaming and open development. I think the only clone one might perceive as discouraging tinkering is OSRIC. Part of the reason the whole thing was not made open game content is because some of the contributors to the project are afraid people will change 1e and publish 1e variants.


Badelaire said...

"I always assumed by default that all games, and especially old-school games like the retro-clones, promote hobbyist customizing. It's always been in the nature of gamers to do this. I would suggest that there is no way to specifically "promote" this in a game other than to support open gaming by making the material open game content."

Quoted for truth. I don't think, outside of the very specific "tourney rules" movement, there has really been any RPG that discouraged "hobbyist tinkering". Even such codified games as GURPS actively support taking the rules and tinkering with them to make what you will.

I've got nothing against Swords & Wizardry, but I don't like that whole "imagine the hell out of it" attitude, because it gives me the impression that the game designer's attitude is that other games don't let you or want you to "imagine the hell out of them".

Yeah, it's a rules light system. Yeah, it promotes creativity on the part of the GM and the players. Big effing deal - I've got whole shelves of games that are a) rules light, and b) promote creativity.

Again, nothing against Finch or his game. But this attitude that the "OSR" and all the games that come from it, and in particular S&W, promote "rulings not rules" yadda yadda yadda, totally ignores a massive chunk of the 90's indie gaming movement and a lot of what came from it. Yeah, looking back on it now, there is a bit of an elitist stink around the "Forge-ite" collective, but really, The Forge was the tail end of a movement that started years before and really hasn't died since - the OSR crowd, in word and deed, is quickly looking to have more in common with Ron Edwards & Co. than "D&D-ers" ever had before.

Sorry if that tweaks anyone's nose. I'm not saying that to be insulting - I actually think it's something of a good thing - but the comparison is probably not a popular one.

Robert Fisher said...

The similarities between the oldest games and the newer “Forgesque” games was the first thing I noticed when I discovered that classic D&D and classic Traveller were the games I was most interested in playing.

But back to the topic at hand. I completely agree with you, Dan. However...

I think there is something to be said for going farther in promoting customization. That starts with being something that you do say explicitly often rather than just being something that’s assumed.

Providing the text in an editable format as well as a ready-to-print format is another. (Although, Microsoft Word? Really? People actually still use it?) And which version is the primary one that people will be presented with first? Which is the one that takes looking past the first download link to find?

Presenting the rules as subsystems/modules that can be mixed and matched...some of which may be mutually exclusive would be another way.

(Imagine having a web page where you click a bunch of checkboxes and the download a customized text that you can then open in your word processor of choice and finish tweaking.)

I’m not saying any of these are the right thing to do for every system. I’m just saying that: Yes, all games promote tinkering; but it is possible to do so more explicitly.

Sham aka Dave said...

Dan, I don't think that Matt's comment was meant to create a tinkering dichotomy. I really love LL, and S&W has slowly grown on me despite some of my own initial old-veteran grumblings.

I tinkered with AD&D 1E for darn near 30 years before I realized OD&D was more suitable for my incessant meddlings. I am one of those fans who missed Moldvay B/X, using Holmes, some OD&D and then 1E exclusively up until recently. There's a lot of us out there, too. Tens upon tens of us!

S&W has done a good job of identifying and selling around the very essence of what has been drawing fans such as myself back to 0E, and that is the DIY aspect. I don't think anyone doubts that they can tinker the hell out of LL as well.

Our little coop at THM Games will be happily supporting both LL and S&W in the future. If there's one retro-clone I'm going to pick up and use unaltered, it's LL. I require a little more info than is found in S&W to do that. I need to prep and tinker more, plain and simple.

LL has carved out a good niche in the OSR community, and you have done more to add credibility and vibrance to the scene than you can ever be thanked for. But thanks anyway! :-)

Dan of Earth said...

This isn't about LL vs. S&W. My only point is that all these games have the DYI aspect.

Wulfgar22 said...

"I think there is something to be said for going farther in promoting customization. That starts with being something that you do say explicitly often rather than just being something that’s assumed."

I think this is an important point. A lot of people will play the rules as they are assuming that they are the rules for a reason. They might houserule a few things but on the whole they'll play as is.

What S&W has done is explicitly state in the rulebook that you need to come up with your own need to order to play the game. It actively encourages it with side boxes throughout advising on some possible options. I think a lot of people who weren't used to this level of tinkering have found this very liberating.

Of course, you can do the same with any of the old school games...but it is not explicitly stated nor is it so actively encouraged.

Dan of Earth said...

I never intended this to be viewed as an anti-S&W post. I get what you're saying Wulfgar, but many other games (including LL) offer optional rules or discuss in text where there are possibly alternatives, etc. Just as an example, it's true that I haven't advertised the house rule nature of LL but that's because people do it anyway and it goes without saying. Now, what I'm about to say shouldn't be interpreted as anything negative about S&W, but to me if someone is advertising a game as somehow "extra" conducive to house ruling it strikes me as pure rhetoric. Which is fine, it has been an effective advertising tool, so that isn't meant as a criticism. It's just that it creates a false comparison, by creating an artificial sort of "this game has this" and by implication the others don't.

Badelaire said...

I agree with this sentiment 100%.

Classic advertising technique to claim you've got something that other products also have, but because the other products aren't talking about it, the implication is that they don't have it. I'm not saying it's "bad", but it just doesn't make me all warm and fuzzy either.

Dan of Earth said...


I like the idea you have, and I think you have mentioned it elsewhere before. I think that something like that might be possible, but it's out of the range of my ability to produce at the moment.

Wulfgar22 said...

"I never intended this to be viewed as an anti-S&W post."

And it doesn't come across as such. And for the game of choice is LL.

You say tinkering and houseruling goes without saying...well, I'm not so sure. Up until recently I have always pretty much played the rules (of any game) as they are. It has only been the advent of S&W that has opened my eyes to the pleasures and possibilities of tinkering (with any and all old school games)...and that is because it is explicitly encouraged. Of course, as you say, tinkering is not solely the province of S&W but, perhaps, other old school games should advertise the fact more...and the pleasure to be had in doing so.

Robert Fisher said...

I’m not really talking about LL or S&W, but just in general. In response to...

I would suggest that there is no way to specifically ‘promote’ this in a game other than to support open gaming by making the material open game content.

I say: No, there are ways to specifically promote tinkering.

Now, to go a bit further, I’ll say that there are some good reasons to do so:

(1) I’ve had arguments with people about this issue. They have been genuinely surprised when I’ve shown them actual text in oD&D or B/X that promotes tinkering. So, that text is worth while.

(2) As much as I’m not crazy about Wizards’ 3.5e D&D, I find their Unearthed Arcana very inspiring. Yes, I was tinkering with 3e from the moment I got the books, but UA really does encourage and inspire me to tinker.

I’d say: Yes, all the old school games and their retro-clones are tinker-friendly. But it is possible to specifically promote tinkering and to varying degrees.

Dan of Earth said...


I believe you, but how do you actually promote tinkering other than just saying "please tinker"? I just want some examples of how you think a good way to do this is.

Akrasia said...

I've played both S&W and LL recently, and I've used house rules for both.

IME it is (marginally) easier to house rule S&W, simply because it is a more minimal system. Recall that LL is based on a version of the game (B/X) that deliberately tried to 'fill in some of the gaps', so to speak, with 0e. One is almost required to house rule, to some extent, S&W (or at least employ a lot of GM 'rulings'), whereas LL is easier to use straight 'out of the box'. LL has more structure than S&W.

Given S&W's minimal nature, I don't think that there is anything wrong with Matt highlighting the DIY nature of S&W. I don't think that anyone is going to conclude that LL (or BFRP, or OSRIC, etc.) is not also amenable to a DIY approach!

Anyhow, I certainly agree that all old school games have a strong DIY element.

Robert Fisher said...

Haven’t I listed a few ways to promote tinkering already?

I think Risus Companion is a book that promotes tinkering.

Or Fudge. Heck, it has the opposite problem. Everyone thinks you have to tinker with it to play it at all no matter how many times SOS points out that he and others have run it straight.

Here’s an idea: Publish a game inspired by Gamma World based on the LL rules. Include a section on how to mix and match the two games. (^_^) already did.

Or a book that adapts the LL rules to be more like oD&D. Oops, you’ve already done that too. (^_^)

Having said all that, though, I still think the number one way to promote tinkering is to say “please tinker”. Often.

1. Call ’em guidelines instead of rules
2. Say "please tinker”...often
3. Make the guidelines modular
4. Give examples of tinkering in the form of optional guidelines/alternate subsystems
5. Have design notes and “behind the curtain” sidebars to give people the understanding that enables and encourages tinkering.

A lot of this you certainly are doing. So, I do think Matt’s “unlike the other clones” was unfortunate wording. But it seems that he felt tinkering could be encouraged more, and so that was something he was trying to do.

Badelaire said...

Some really great idea. Not to self-promote here, but in designing my Tankards & Broadswords RPG, I've employed many of these ideas to very plainly state "these are options, not iron-clad rules". I've got a number of text-boxed optional rules, as well as editorializing "desing notes" sections where i offer ways to cuatomize or personalize the rules for a GM's specific implementation of the game.

I still maintain that it is every GM's duty to make any rules implementation they use their own, but I can understand how many GMs who don't naturally gravitate towards this idea may need a bit of writer-originated prodding.