Tuesday, June 5, 2012

[RPG] Dissonance

I know, without any real preface or explanation, that I don't like OSR and/or old school stuff. It's just not for me. That doesn't bother me. I know what I like... it's pretty simple stuff.

What's simpler than 4 chords and incredible attitude?

Jeff had a really interesting post recently about the apparent lack of a first level as he sees it in the Next iteration of D&D. He went on to talk about what he DOES like in a game, which generated a metric crapton of comments. His follow up post had a real eye opener for me. One of the guys responding made an off the cuff remark about CoC, which struck me in a very particular way.

I don't enjoy a fragile first level character for a D&D game. It makes me all kinds of mental to consider that my D&D dude might die the first session out of the gate. (I don't like a D&D game at all, really; but that is beside the point.) However, I fully enjoy (and expect!) a fragile " first level"character for CoC. I LOOK FORWARD to the inevitable decrepitude, insanity and/or mangling of any character facing the Eldritch horrors, but not for D&D.

The question of the day for me boiled down to: Why?

What makes one character being a meat puppet unconscionable, while the other is gladly given as grist for the mill? I have absolutely no illusions that if I were playing, my CoC character could live long enough to gain a lot of experience or make a prestige class; and I am totally ok with that. Reconciling that against my angst about a D&D character's prospects becomes something I want to do, just to keep my head from spinning.

I have a thought or two, but I'm hesitant to put it out there right yet. I'd love to hear whether any of you have similar dichotomies, and if so, how you reconciled them with each other.


  1. It's all about the genre and the expectations.

    In a D&D environment we know (through books, movies, etc.) that heroes gain items, grow in power, and eventually mow through all the minions before eliminating the big, bad guy. It's assumed when we start out at 1st level that our little six HP rogue will one day have mad skills, magic armor and weapons, and double digit HPs. Maybe they own a town or something.

    Now CoC on the other hand is another ball game entirely. What do we know, what have we read? Nothing good for the regular human schleps that stumble upon unspeakable horrors from beyond space and time. Just reading a forgotten tome spells your doom. You're dealing with an alien consciousness that defies logic and sanity, horrors that move in between dimensions we've yet to discover. Bugs that stick your brain in a jar. There are no heroes in the CoC world, you know this is your fate before you roll your first die.

    1. This is my mentality in a nutshell. I didn't want to put it out there for fear I'd poison the well, but this is really WHY I think the way I do...

  2. Hmm, for me it's not what genre I am playing. Be it D&D, CoC, Champions, etc. (Ok, except maybe not Paranoia!). When I build a character for a campaign I like to have a reason for said character being there, and a decent background, something that I can sink my teeth into.

    Maybe I put too much into my characters, cause it can hurt when one dies (or loses a level, etc.).

    That's the thing, "You know your fate", but does your character? Even in CoC, I play like I am going to survive...until I get swallowed by something.


    1. For the most part, I agree. I am very, very hesitant to do a one-off because I like my characters too much. However, if the game is sufficiently silly (like Paranoia) or conversely insane, I gladly bust out a disposable dude.

  3. I can kind of see where you're coming from but at the same time it makes it all sound mechanical and I get the impression that's not what you mean.

    To clarify, it sounds to me like if there is cool bonus stuff to be had later on and you know that going in, getting killed off early in an undramatic fashion (a near staple of OSR D&D) seems like something of a let down. I kind of agree, while at the same time I don't really care much for crunch related rewards in the later game.

    Is that really what it's all about?

    I am more with Anonymous Tom above. If I invested any real time and effort to make a character I like and care about I want him to live at least until the end of episode/session one.

    Since I am such a comic book and Star Trek geek I'll put it in those terms:

    "The new Legion of Superheroes Academy recruit who dies in their first appearence was never supposed to get the spotlight or his own series."

    "No one cares if we see Mr. Jankowitcz again as his red shirted self is beamed down with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a very, attractive blonde in a blue mini-dress who has ties to Spock's past. One of these people doesn't matter. I don't want to play Jankowitcz"

    1. My thoughts were not really intended to be about the mechanical aspect at all. I was really after the mindset and why one game brought out a desperate distaste while the other gave me no qualms at all.

    2. "If I invested any real time and effort to make a character I like and care about I want him to live at least until the end of episode/session one."

      Hm. This response is going to be a little bit half-baked; I'm thinking aloud as much as replying to you, so please don't think I'm picking sides or trying to persuade you or anything.

      I like the OSR's "nobody cares about your backstory, your character is being defined in play" approach. I don't make much pre-play emotional investment in characters any more, because I want to discover them through playing them, not define them (or have to define them) before I started.

      To extend the Star Trek analogy, we don't know about Picard's family in the first episode and we don't need to know about them to know what kind of dude Picard is and for him to do Picardy-type things. We find out about that... when it's important. When he's established.

      I think what I'm trying to say is that my character's daddy issues - for instance - are not important. What's important is what my character does in play, and if at some point it becomes apparent that there is a consistency to what my character does which might be motivated by her having daddy issues, then I might go back and write a little story about her daddy issues - once it's clear that that's important, once the character has existed long enough and been played enough and become interesting enough to warrant me investing time and energy in doing that.

      I don't believe in the "we never find out, it's NEVER interesting or important" approach. I just think it's worth waiting and devising through play, rather than doing in advance.

      And maybe that's 'retconning', but is retconning a sin in the RPG? Can we judge RPGs by the same standards that we judge, say, Star Trek? The RPG isn't a transmitted narrative, a story authored by me and told to you - it's an experiential one, authored in the act of telling it. Unlike the authors of a transmitted narrative, we can afford to live in the moment - let the past and future be defined by the active, played-in present.

      I think. Like I said, just thinking aloud.

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  5. This post brought to you by "Error 503 - Hope You Didn't Put Any Thought Into That Comment - Y U NO MAEK COPYPASTA NUB"...

    Here's how it is for me. While I agree with Mik's comment about the genre of the game coding our expectations, I think there is a mechanical dimension to it as well. Specifically, character generation. Specifically, how much of a ball-ache it is.

    In games where making a new dude is a ball-ache (i.e. many of them), I'm not going to be pleased if my dude dies and I have to go through that ball-ache again, with the additional ball-ache of retroactively applying levels and experience to my dude, before I can get back into the game.

    Being in the game is after all the point of being there. There's resonance to a death, and there's mourning, and that's good and dramatic and moving and one of the best things about the RPG as a pastime, but it can't go on too long because someone is out of the game. I'm leery of games where the expectation is 'oh well, my dude is dead, let's roll up another generic dude', that's too far the other way, but I also don't like sitting around for the rest of the session Not Being Involved.

    In games where making a new dude is not a ball-ache, I can make the dude quickly and focus on getting back into the game. That's basically what appeals to me about the OSR systems; it's not the genre of the games (so many pledge allegiance to module and megadungeon in a way that leaves me cold and dead inside), it's the removal of so much of the cruft that so many big name RPGs put between the player and the play.

    1. No, wait... the other one got through...

      File Blogger under 'ball-ache' as well. Ah well. This version's better written. Let's go with that.

    2. Building a character's story on a foundation of gameplay is an interesting idea, Von. I might try that sometime. For me, I think, the reason for the back story is to give me an idea of who this character is, what they're like and how they act. I need to prepare this in advance because I'm not quick or spontaneous enough to come up with it at the table and I'll just end up playing myself. I need more than stats on a page to make this character come alive in my head.
      As for the original idea of the article, I've played so many 1st level characters. Our group starts a campaign, plays a few sessions (2-10), then life gets in the way and we don't play for a few months. We start talking about playing again, the idea of continuing the last game comes up, but there are reasons to start a new one (character ADD, lost character sheet, new DM, etc.). I like hacking up goblins once in a while, but we all want to face those badass monsters with AC 27 and 130 hp. I want to do play a character who does something *shudder* epic (damn you NPH).
      I've never played CoC, but my understanding is that you throw 1st level characters against those monsters, your brain explodes and that's about it. I should check it out sometime.