Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Response to the Grognardia essay "More Than a Feeling"

James Maliszewski posted this essay over on Grognardia, which really rubbed me the wrong way. Which lead me to try to write a paragraph in response, which lead to this response. I figured I'd post it here, as the topic might generate some decent discussion.

His essay is here.

GROGNARDIA: More Than a Feeling

My response is below. I couldn't post it over there because it was too long.

I think the very idea of a rigid definition flies in the face of what the old school renaissance represents. Plus, it is totally subjective as to what old school is. It varies from person to person. Some just want the nostalgic feeling of playing an old game they used to play when they were 13. Some just want fast resolution with less rolls. Some want megadungeons. Some define it as strict adherence to a certain ruleset or clone. Who cares?

I guess my question is, what does it matter? If someone asks you what old school is, define it however you want to. It is different for everyone and will be defined differently by everyone.

Even that 13 page essay by Finch which summed up what old school was all about

listed some things that not every group in 1976 did. OD&D was, from what I understand, the most heavily houseruled game in existence. Hence AD&D. Look at your own game James, and the huge changes you implemented to the core rules.

This old school thing has a life of its own, and it is driven first and foremost by FEELING. People felt dissatisfied with what they were playing, and wanted to either capture or recapture another feeling while playing. For some it was a feeling they used to have when playing at age 13, for some it was trying to feel what those others were talking about.

This game is driven first and foremost by feeling. We don't play it for any other reason. It's a feeling of fun flavored with various aspects of whichever version of the game we are playing. To the extent that a ruleset or adventure or DM flavors that feeling with something considered by players to be old school, its completely subjective as to what that thing is which gives the feeling, because the feeling is subjective.

You can't objectively create through definition that which creates a subjective feeling in a player.

I think in trying to define it you will fulfill the prediction made by EN Shook on Lord of the Green Dragons here:

Wherein he basically predicts that old school degenerate into fundamentalism. This post of yours seems to be leading the charge.

I have to ask what purpose would a definition serve? So you can give the 2 minute elevator sales speech to someone using terms consistent with everyone else? To what ends? So the game grows? So more people play? So more sales are made of old school clones? What's the ultimate goal you are shooting for? What's the ultimate vision you have?

The only thing you say as to a reason why it matters is:

“If the old school is just a feeling, then it's purely subjective and beyond our capacity to argue for.”

And “Likewise, when a player of such games claims he's doing so "in an old school style," I have no recourse but to accept him at his word and move on, because no argument could possibly be offered to disprove his feeling that he's playing an old school game.”

And “If one actually believes, as I do, that games like OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so forth offer something unique that no game published in the last 20 years can match, then we ought not to rest our case too heavily on nebulous quasi-emotional impressions. I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school that there's very little need to invoke feelings at all.”

What’s this big need you have to argue in favor of a particular game or group of games? Who cares? To argue implies that you think you’re right. And to a certain extent, you may be. For some people. But it’s all subjective and based on the feelings those people would get if they played those games. Nobody plays a game because of the nature of the mechanics of it. They play because the mechanics help them to create a game that makes them feel good playing it. If you think those games might do that for a person, then just recommend those rulesets to those people. No definition needed. No need to argue

The reasons you like old school games are yours, and might be shared by many people. However, your reasons for liking old school games may not appeal to a ton of people who nonetheless play older rulesets. To think that your reasons are the right and true reasons to the extent that you feel the need to fix definitions so that you can better argue your case that old school games have a lot to offer, I think you slip into arrogance. People argue because each thinks they are right. How can ou be right when this whole thing is subjective and driven by feelings?

You can't control this thing. It will grow with or without a definition. People will keep checking out different boards, games, blogs, and make their own definition of old school based on a feeling. They might even start up a game and call it old school–and the game will be something completely different than yours. Those players then have a definition of old school in their heads. They spread that definition far and wide.

Old School to me is like a constantly mutating virus, changing all the time by interacting with its host's DNA, the DM's and Players, and then getting passed on to others. Rather than making them feel sick, this virus makes them feel good. All based on feelings. Who cares if the virus is different from one player or DM to another, as long as it makes them feel good?

If people ask me what an old school game is I just point them in the direction of certain boards, blogs, rulesets, essays and clones. I let them figure it out for themselves. Sometimes their definition of what old school is comes close to mine, sometimes its radically different. But when they say they are laying an old school game now thanks to their investigation of the various websites and games, and I see that they are happy, I say good for them.

I don’t see how your strict definition of what old school is actually grows the old school renaissance. Since there are so many definitions out there, most of which seem to be based primarily on feelings, if you exclude them because they don’t share your definition, you just shrink the members of the old school renaissance as defined by you. Which leads to accusations of bad/fun/wrong. Leading to alienation. Leading to people dismissing us as a bunch of crotchety old people who don’t welcome new people unless they enter the renaissance on our terms because of our definitions. Is that the result you are looking for?

One last point I want to make is that feelings drive this industry. Feelings either for or against are what makes people do or not do something. People are not rational creatures. You assume you can lay out a Mr. Spock style rational argument in favor of one system and get people to play? What's more convincing, an essay based on clear definitions of something laying out the logical reasons why something is good? Or a friend, who when asked why they like their particular style of old school game, gushes out with joy and enthusiasm all kinds of subjective reasons, but puts them out there with such a FEELING of happiness that its infectious and gets that friend to ask if they can join in their game? Which option will grow the old school renaissance more?