UPDATE: There’s been a lot of discussion on social media about this post, and I’ve been reading it, and I do want to admit that this article was written right after a long discussion with someone and probably should not have been so emotional. I don’t mean to say that all older players are like this, nor do I mean to say that all conflict in gaming is bad or that no actions should ever have consequences. I was trying to address a very specific type of play – where one player/GM decides they can do whatever they want to another with impunity, there is no discussion about it with the player in question, and the rules/organization supports it – but I ended up writing a thing that was a bit too broad.
I’m also showing my age, because when I said “Old School” I meant “3.5, Nero, and OWBN,” and a lot of the folks coming in to the comments thought I meant “First Edition.” I have no experience with gaming before the 3.5 era, so I shouldn’t speak to it and didn’t mean to. This is also my bad.
I believe in living with my mistakes, so here’s the article, still unedited.
There’s two schools of thought when it comes to playing games with our imagination: The old school and the new school. In the olden days, the days of thousands of sourcebooks and mechanics and tables for every action, the philosophy of how to run a collaborative storytelling game, like a LARP or a tabletop RPG, was an antagonistic one. The idea was always that the players would be working against those who were running the game. The players would do their best to break the game in any way possible to hoard personal power, and the GMs and Storytellers would do their absolute best to find ways to punish the players and torture their characters. This is the school of thought of many of today’s roleplayers, and its one they cling to very dearly, because it’s the world they grew up in.
It is also, of course, bullshit.
This mentality led, for years, to a style of play that was not only unwelcoming, but actively excluding to new players. As the DMs of the world looked as hard as they could for ways to punish their players’ ideas, the players would pass this toxic mentality on to anyone new who dared to sit at their table. You didn’t understand a rule? Didn’t read the background of your race carefully enough? Welp, now I’m going to take something away from you because I can. It’s an alpha geek, hyper masculine style of play that was the only style of play for a long time.
Nowadays, of course, things are different. Narrative and collaborative storytelling are gaining more and more traction. Nordic LARPs are bringing in thousands of players across the country. Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition includes ways to collaborate with your fellow players, and games like FATE are entirely about telling a story together. But every now and then, a Bastion of the Old Way rears their head and begins talking about how much better it supposedly was, back in the day. So let’s talk about that.
Games can absolutely be about character conflict. That is one of the driving forces behind telling a good story. But two characters who are going to be in conflict should absolutely understand that conflict going into it. There are players who love the absolute darkness and despair of the World of Darkness, for example, but not everyone wants to play that game and it should be made very clear to them in advance what kind of game and themes they’re going to be getting themselves into.
I’ve seen a lot of complaints recently about collaborative storytelling and emotional check-ins “breaking the immersion” of a game. This is not true, factually. In every single game of the Old School variety, you are constantly breaking immersion by throwing chops, pulling cards, rolling dice and saying “I do this.” It does not break your flow in the slightest to ask another player if they’d be ok with you screaming in their face for half an hour, or murdering their character outright for a simple misunderstanding.
What these Old School players are really holding onto is not consistency, or immersion. They’re holding on to power. They don’t want to have to ask if they can, because then they might get told no. But gaming is not, I repeat, not, a power fantasy. Gaming is an opportunity for you and your friends to tell a really good story. A good story is not one that is told when one player dictates all of the action because a slip of paper says they’re more powerful.
Let go. Work with other players. I guarantee you’ll still have fun, and you might find yourself less angry when you stop trying to win.