The “school” in Old-School Renaissance is West Point
Ye olde TL;DR - RPGs were originally wargames, meaning old-school gaming requires wargaming to succeed.
Recently, I read a thought-provoking piece on Brian Rideout’s blog, Welcome to the Deathtrap. In the post, “‘What is Role-Playing?’ A Different Approach” he reclaimed sorely deserved affirmation for the “roll-playing” breed of players, from the “role-playing” ones who enjoy practically all of it these days.
I appreciated Rideout’s initiative and deference to gaming history in making his case. However, I felt that it fell short in one crucial dimension: insofar as the original RPGs and the OSR games that hearken back to them were intended to be played, they truly favor “roll-playing” over “role-playing”
My aim in pointing this out is not to tell you how to play vintage and OSR RPGs. Rather, this post is contributed to guide those who wish to play in the RPG hobby’s original mode.
Rideout labors deliberately to put “role-playing” and “roll-playing”--what I call “acting” and “gaming”, respectively--on equal footing. I understand not wanting to disparage anyone’s idea of fun, nor will I. At the same time, though, I will contend that RPGs were, at their inception and by design, wargames. That’s why “game” is in “roleplaying game”. Systems have since emerged that diverge from their martial roots, but that old and old-style RPGs have a distinct tactical thread is undeniable.
I use Rideout’s piece as a foundation for my point because tracing his steps leads near to where I’m going with this. So, let’s start where he does.
Apt as it is, he doesn’t stop at simply observing that the acting mode is so “privileged” in RPG praxis today that it practically subsumes all others. For instance, he notes that the proto-RPG Braunstein introduced the concept of roles as tactical niches for characters controlled by the players.
The absorption of this conceit into RPGs is the linchpin of his assertion that “roll-players” are playing a role: an adventurer trying to be successful at adventuring.
To this end, he argues that “When a player makes choices to follow genre tropes, then, they are playing that role. Whenever they make decisions or take actions to make sure they survive their encounters with the traps and tricks of the dungeons, they are fulfilling that role. When they are making choices that build up their character's capabilities with their specific skills (even if it is min./maxing), they are playing that role.”
This idea deserves a closer look. In the way old-school RPGs are structured, mechanically and philosophically, this is not one sense in which “role” was understood, but the sense.
Put down the pen and pick up a sword
Allow me to present my evidence. Exhibit A is the expression of as much by Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. Quoth he: “If a game is nothing but role-playing, then it is not really a[n] RPG, but some form of improvisational theater...”
The surface reading of that is that the game isn’t meant to be primarily free-form acting, but closer reading reveals more. It’s easy to say, “sure, rules are important” but why is that? The reason is that problems can only be solved through resolution, and resolution requires adjudication.
Gygax clarifies exactly that, adding “Rules are necessary for a structured game, doubly so when it is based on fantasy where no real facts are available to the participants.” The rules give you a foothold where you would otherwise be sure to slip.
You had one job
Exhibit B is also something Gary said. When asked what makes a good “RPGer”, among other qualities he cited “Knowledge of the genre and his character’s role”.
This compact nugget requires some chiseling apart. If Gygax meant character traits or backstory by “role”, why would he need to remind players of this? Since the character is of one’s own making, wouldn’t one intimately know that? Also, if he meant “role” to signify a character’s personality profile, why would he bother to prompt you to have “knowledge of the genre” in the same metaphorical breath? Theoretically, any character traits can exist in any setting.
The more plausible explanation for linking “genre” with “role” is that he is exhorting players to meet the needs of the party, problem-solving in a fantasy environment, given a character’s abilities. A character’s role is their functional job in the party. In a fantasy world, that role is very different depending on if the character can cast magic or fight stalwartly.
Hit the jackpot, and the next level
Finally, there’s the way the game measures progress. Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) only gives characters experience points (XP) in two ways: by killing enemies and hauling off treasure.
There’s nothing stopping players from portraying their character’s persona while carrying out these tasks, but doing so is not requisite for obtaining XP. On the other hand, XP will be gained by neither slaying nor snatching if any character’s operational role in the party is neglected.
The author notes that later editions awarded XP for roleplaying, and I’m not against that--far from it, I regularly award just such XP. But what I am saying is that this didn’t get you anything in OD&D, because XP was only awarded for actions that directly evidenced the playing of roles: problem-solving and combat.
Again, I can’t stress enough that you should play games the way you want to play them. But if your aim is roleplaying the old-school way, it pays to keep in mind just what kind of roles the game expects you to play. To be precise, it pays in gold pieces.