Graphical Discussion

Graphics are a fantastic way to make arguments. Not only do they express information in an interesting, digestible way, they are also hard to argue with because you end up engaging the graphic rather than the underlying argument. This becomes doubly problematic when the graphic is particularly clever, and the point of disagreement is strongly open to interpretation.

This all stemmed from something I read on Jamie Mishler’s generally fantastic blog. Go check it out first. The rest of this won’t make much sense without it.

So, for those who did not recognize it immediately, that was a re-interpretation of the classic D&D alignment chart, with the mix of the good/evil and law/chaos axis Mishler pushed it through a lens that I would best summarize as that of the “Old School” movement, and in doing so managed to capture some of the things I like least about the movement, leading to my somewhat tongue in cheek response:

Now, I wouldn’t have created it if I didn’t think there was some truth to it, but it is a petty thing, and in its own way it’s no more useful than the original image which is is responding to. But what it did do is make me step back and look at my own opinion of the Old School movement.

So, what’s Old School? In the loosest of senses, it’s a movement that has seen a bit of a resurgence of late, based on the premise that the best of gaming can be found in its roots, in the “old school” games like very early D&D. What exactly those best things are, and where the line is drawn for which games are old school is something of a matter for debate, but that is the sort of debate that keeps the internet warm at night. If you want a less off-the-cuff description I would strongly suggest starting with James Maliszewski’s blog, Grognardia. I don’t agree with a lot of what he posts, but he makes his case well, and he’s responsible for my accepting that the old school movement is more than simple knee-jerk conservatism.

Anyway, to come back to the diagram, I admit it instantly got in my craw to stake out that upper left corner as “High Adventure”. That’s one of those squishy terms that tends to get used to mean “The stuff I dig in my sword-swinging.” I tend to view it as a term that most gamers have fair dibs on, and defining it as Gygax/Arneson while occupying other segments of the graph with terms which many players would be indignant to have applied to their game smacks of serious one-true-way-ism (with a healthy side of rose-colored-lenses).

Now, here’s the rub. I’m quite sure it wasn’t meant that way. The Old School has no shortage of One-True-Wayism and snobbery, but so does every other segment of the RPG hobby. They are no better or worse in that regard. We’re enthusiasts and we tend to express it badly, and the illustration was almost certain meant in good fun, celebrating the things that he loves about the game and highlighting them in a clever way. I would be absolutely _shocked_ if there was any intention to denigrate any other gamers.

And that is probably where I would plant my one genuine frustration with the Old School, and I’m not even sure I can call it a complaint. There is a myopia to the movement, and while there are exceptions, there is a trend that is hard for me to get my head around. These are people who think long and hard about their games, and I respect that a lot. But the thing that’s odd is that normally if I encounter someone who thinks that much about games, I usually expect that they have exposed themselves to a breadth of games, creating a wide foundation of knowledge. This does not hold true within a lot of the Old School writing I’ve seen. The knowledge is heavy on the depth but with a much smaller emphasis on the breadth, and that results in weird conversations where I see people (very smart, thoughtful people) talk about problems they’ve encountered with systems and they are really working to find a good fix for. What’s jarring is that these are often problems which I have seen a dozen games fix in a dozen different ways, (and I’m not talking crazy hippie indie-hugging games – Just plain old gamestore shelf games, some of them decades old) but these smart, thoughtful people have not even considered that the answer might have been found outside their zone of preference.

I can’t get my head around that, and it is ultimately why the old school makes me uncomfortable, as much as I resonate with ideas like the use of setting and player challenge. I think they’ve got a lot of admirable goals, and some good tools for making them go, but I ultimately feel they’ve chosen to enter the ring with one hand tied behind their back.

It may sound it, but I don’t consider this an indictment. The fact that I am troublesomely promiscuous in my gaming doesn’t mean that’s how I would expect everyone else to be. I have some envy of the old school and their brethren, people who have found the one tool that serves them so well that they have no interest outside it, whether that tool is some flavor of D&D, Storyteller, Rifts, Amber, Fudge or something else. The one thing all of these folks have had in common is that they have made one big decision, and in doing so, they have freed themselves to move on to something else they value more. They make the entirely reasonable assessment that the drawbacks of their chosen system are more than offset by the benefits of just not having to worry about it.

But it’s not for me.

So with that in mind, I retooled the diagram again, with an eye on fantasy gaming in general, and I think it ended up with something that strikes a bit more of a balance – respectful of the old school and other approaches, but also making my own case that there are a lot of different ways to have fun swinging a sword.