A Point of Similarity

So, all of my recent posts have been about the Old School Renaissance, and my old school D&D game. If you look to the posts that started this blog, you’ll see that I was quite enamored of indie RPGs and forge theory and the like. At first glance this seems like something of a flip-flop, but it was actually from the indie “scene” that I discovered the OSR and became fired up to run a D&D game. And one game design specific thing I think can be found in both camps is a distrust of “skill systems”. Now, plenty of old school games use and love skill systems, and some indie games use them to great effect, but it’s one of the things taken for granted in late 80’s – mid 90’s game design that is significantly absent from the earliest D&D or the indiest of indie games.

Here’s the thing: skill systems make a *whole lot* of sense. Once you’ve accepted the premise of deciding things about a fictional world by rolling dice, it’s a very short jump to decide such things should be made regular and to hang together. Especially if any of your justification for your rules is in “modeling” the real world (even if it’s as simple as stats like strength, intelligence, et cetera). So, it’s no surprise that skill systems were introduced to the hobby in its very first few years.

There’s a few potential problems with them, though. The worst is probably the fact that the implicit assumption of a skill system is that if you don’t have the skill you can’t do it, and that if you do have the skill, you must use the skill system to resolve something. This puts you in a position where your master driver character both has to roll to do routine driving and face the chance of failing and is prohibited from cooking, because there’s a cooking skill in the big list of skills and you didn’t take it. Now, of course, I’ve picked some especially heinous examples, and plenty of GMs and rules systems have work arounds to prevent such annoying instances, but the that is one of the logical directions for skill system-based play to go in.

So, if you look at pre-supplement OD&D or at lots of cutting-edge modern indie games, you do not see any sort of regularized universal skill mechanic, and I’ve come to believe that this is a beautiful thing. Don’t get me wrong, my anal-retentive, simulation-loving side gets giddy discussing intricately nested area of expertise-skill-focus-specialty type systems that are elegantly executed. But I’ve come to appreciate the complete opposite as well: replacing any attempt at yoking every possible situation to a rule system with faith in the judgement of one or more players at the table. That’s the whole reason the GM/referee role was invented in the first place: a disinterested 3rd party’s judgement is one of the most flexible tools you can have for providing open-ended excitement.

Have advances in game design reduced the necessity for relying on unaided referee judgement? Certainly. Is properly guided referee judgement obsolete and useless? Not on your life. I’d argue that Original D&D, at its best, stumbled upon some of the best stuff that is designed into modern systems through its default fallback position of “let the ref decide”.

As such, I have made the conscious decision to *not* include any skill systems, proficiencies, or what have you into my D&D game, but I’ve taken ideas from Apocalypse World and others to heart when it comes to constraining and directing what my actual role as ref is, and I hope the result is a fun game.

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2 Responses to “A Point of Similarity”

  1. My experience is much like yours. I’m a hard-core indie gamer and will gladly run the newest half-finished Jason Morningstar or Vincent Baker ashcan over pretty much anything that comes out of the big publishers. I am, however, equally at home with old-school games for the same reasons: they step aside and let my friends and me have fun in a shared imaginative space, providing rules only for those things that absolutely need them. And sometimes, the things you absolutely need rules for are smashing the heck out of goblins.

    I honestly don’t see much difference between the OSR and the indie movement. In fact, I’d argue that the OSR is very much part of (and maybe a result of) the indie movement, but one that’s focused on providing a specific type of game experience. Off the top of my head I can think of three “indie” games that are aimed at recreating the feel of an old-school dungeon crawl and one small-press game (13th Age) the designers of which explicitly describe it as trying to do both old-school-stuff and story-games-stuff.

    • From what I’ve read on Old School Blogs over the last few months, I think that most guys in the OSR came to it for the same reasons the indie movement came about (dissatisfaction with the big name publisher games) but that it was more a case of parallel evolution than it was coming from the same movement and ideas. So, I’d say that defining it as part of the indie movement very much depends on how you define “the indie movement” and that’s one hell of a contentious topic.

      But yes, I’m currently reading through Dungeon World looking for things I can port into OD&D painlessly, without actually turning it into Dungeon World (even though I *really* want to play Dungeon World now).

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