Friday, 8 February 2013

The Old School is Pathetic – A Rant


A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable.

Pathetic [pəˈθɛtɪk] 
adj.
- arousing pity, sympathy or compassion,
- arousing scornful pity or contempt,
- miserably inadequate,
- affecting of moving the feelings.
From the Greek pathos: suffering.


Now that I have your attention, are you ready? Ok? Ok.

What I am arguing is this; old-school D&D, WFRP1e, early WFB, W40K1e, and other old school fantasy games, hell even Fighting Fantasy, all have a healthy dose of the ‘pathetic aesthetic’ running through their design. Not only their art, but also the setting and the game design itself. This is in contrast to many contemporary games, which have abandoned the pathetic aesthetic in favour of a concentration on designs - art, setting, and the game itself - which evoke awe (or at least, are meant to). Hereafter, this juvenile aesthetic will be referred to as TEH AWESUM. A lot of people have written lately about what the OSR means (or means to them). I could have posted some photos of the lovely products of the OSR that are in use at my gaming table. Ho hum; you can buy those books from Lulu too, you'll learn nothing from me there. Instead I will introduce the pathetic aesthetic, which I think binds the best elements of a diverse Old School of gaming together, and suggest some reasons the gradual elimination of this aesthetic from contemporary gaming. 

None of this is to say that Old School games did not contain plenty of  things designed to make the gamer go 'wow!', but these were (almost always) tempered with elements that aroused pity over awe. And do not confuse the pathetic aesthetic with being 'dark' or 'gritty' of with the laughable labelling of material designed to titillate teenagers as 'mature'.

Consider Fighting Fantasy. Juvenile reading, yet possessing a far more genuinely mature aesthetic than many  contemporary games. Titan, the world of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, is one in which there are umpteen master wizards (mostly bad or mad), in which YOU might fight animated statues, ride on griffons, fight a topiaric monster etc. A world of high magic. And YOU will have a minimum SKILL of 7 and STAMINA of 12, making YOU far more powerful than any normal man. But the design of the books as a game produces the pathetic aesthetic; there are plenty of death traps, and choices that lead to the lines 'Your adventure end here'. And even if these are avoided, YOU are more likely than not to die in a way that isn't dramatically satisfying, whether through slow attrition or the lack of a magic gee-gaw. And look closer at the setting; are there are more pitiable bunch of monsters than the inhabitants of Firetop Mountain or the Citadel of Chaos?  Much of the world is pitiable, the ever-present prospect of failure renders YOU pitiable. And that is before we consider the YOU that is the Creature of Havoc.

Consider the design of Old School D&D. These are games in which PCs typically have low hit points, are subject to Save or Die effects, and in which adventuring includes an emphasis on resource management (what could be more pitiable than being trapped in the Underdark with no food, dwindling light, and a Cleric who went dungeoneeing to kick ass and cast Cure Light Wounds, but is all out of Cure Light Wounds?). And these PCs are the product of random character generation - which is a feature of many games with the pathetic aesthetic - the opposite of point-build character design. One manifestation of the pathetic aesthetic is about playing with the hand that [cruel] fate has dealt you, not choosing flaws and drawbacks, whether for dramatic effect or as an exercise in character optimisation. D&D PCs can still do awesome stuff. They are far better than a 0 level human,  and a skillfully played adventuring party can put terrible monsters to the sword (and spell and burning oil, and henchman's spear and wardog's teeth). But if the players want their PCs to do this, or to experience other awesome elements, they have to find it through play, not in what is written on their character sheet before they even begin. And they might well die trying in a way that makes little dramatic sense. A D&D PC is not Aragorn, destined to return as the King, and they might not even die like Boromir. In both creation and death a D&D PC might well be pitiable.

WFRP1e. Do I actually need to say anything here?

Roleplaying games take place in the imagination, so it is the system (and setting) that produces the aesthetic  of the game as much as the visual art. At least, that is my excuse for having written so much without mentioning the art! Early D&D art shows brave men and women  (and Elves, Dwarfs and Halflings) engaged in dungeoneering, a high risk activity. And if something is risky, then there  must be a good chance of failure, of [permanent] negative consequences. These adventurers are frightened, likely doomed. The same is true of WFRP1e and Fighting Fantasy. Even when the adventurers are doing something awesome, they are not TEH AWESUM superheroes that dominate the aesthetic of contemporary games.

In miniature gaming the visual aesthetic is more central; you are shoving little men across a table. But look through the photos of the battles in early WFB – those Dwarfs look wide-eyed with fear as the Skeletons climb the hill towards them. And what are the Dwarfs defending? A farmhouse, perhaps. What does the equivalent picture for WFB8 look like? The Dwarfs are on steroids, huge hulks with snarling faces, and they are not defending a barn but the legendary Tower of SKULZ. Think of the early scenarios and the characters they contain. In the Magnificent Sven you might play a disgraced Dwarf inventor scrabbling for treasure and reputation in Lustria. In Terror of the Lichmaster you play a handful of Dwarf miners and a hamlet of ordinary humans as they defend their homes from the terrifying undead led by Mikeal Jacsen. These are pathetic battles, and all the more interesting for it.

Oh, and as for Rogue Trader; have you ever seen a universe so filled with the pitiable? And Realms of Chaos? Those were awesome books, but they were about playing once mighty heroes that were destined for ruin as a post human monster...

The loss of the pathetic aesthetic in fantasy gaming has to do with a number of things. When I were a lad, all this were fields, and computer games gave you three lives and then you started from the beginning again. Computer games now are amazing. They tell stories that critics compare favourably with contemporary books and films. But to ensure that you see these stories, these games are built on a playstyle of save, save, save; catastrophic failure, or even serious negative consequences, are never permanent. Unless you choose them to be (or have made a metagame mistake in your save strategy). Success is given, if you put in the time (and read the walk thrus). Computer games dominate our broader gaming culture, and the removal of a genuine risk of ignominious failure - an essential part of the pathetic aesthetic - has been largely removed from this culture.

Computer games have influenced table top RPGs in other ways too. When someone recommends that you use a computer programme to manage the bookkeeping required to create and run an RPG character, it should be a joke. But it is not. High levels of complexity make it difficult to provide for and accommodate player choice in play. How can a GM make stuff up on the fly with such complex 'natural laws'. This results in a front-loading of player choice, concentrated in character design. Naturally, many players optimise and go for TEH AWESUM. And, if a GM cannot accommodate player freedom in play, the 'railroad' that the players walk down has to be one at which they will succeed. The more the game is a railroad, the more any failure is the fault of the GM rather than a result of player choice. It is not pathetic if the GM kills the PCs, just weak.

And then there is 'balance'. Contemporary RPGs are seemingly designed so that all PCs, when  properly optimised, contribute equally to an encounter. 'Encounter' has been reduced to combat (that the PCs can win) or a skill check (‘social combat’? that’s wrong on so many levels), and 'contribute' to a mechanistic intervention. So all characters need to bring TEH AWESUM as if this was an MMORPG. Ugh. Smash the computers and sing the name of Ned Ludd. But not before I have finished writing my rant on this one.

Fantasy miniature gaming has seen the malign effect of tournament play and another intervention of 'balance'[1]. The drive to balance gradually eliminates the pathetic elements of the game leaving only TEH AWESUM. Of course, the designers could have kept these games as being about pathetic Dwarfs and pitiable monstrosities, but once one army had a unit that could bring TEH AWESUM to the table... (see the next paragraph). Curiously, a balanced battle should evoke pity. Want to see a real balanced battle?  Try the Somme; two armies lined up against another, with little manoeuvre, no subtlety, just endless bloody grind and big bombs. Yup, WFB8 with tournament-optimised army lists. But if we are all children who think the big bombs are TEH AWESUM...

You young folk just don't know how to have fun these days! Not proper fun anyhow, what with your Xstations and would Wiboxes. Games companies moved from catering to older hobbyists to targeting a younger, casual market. Well, a couple of the big beasts did, but these monsters dominate the tabletop gaming culture, and what they think gaming is, or should be, matters. Targeting a younger market is good business sense; there is more money in it, and the market refreshes constantly. Do I, as an adult gamer, need any more Dwarf miniatures? No. Will I ever? Well, I will never need more, but I might buy one or two, maybe even go on an eBay binge from time to time. Which makes me a bad customer, even if I am a good gamer. But this younger, casual market is not the kind that will enjoy a pathetic aesthetic, they are not going to wait for awesome things, they are not going to work for it, and if they do have to spend many sessions playing their snowflake PC into awesomeness, they are not going to accept that their Dragonborn Paladin has died a dramatically meaningless death. They deserve better, they have been told, as they have put in the work to get there. The notion of games as work is another malign influence of  computer games; grinding up levels rather than playing for the sake of playing. Who would have thought that it would be older people trying to teach younger people about the virtues of play for its own sake?

An unwillingness to accept the pathetic aesthetic stretches to adults too, who have mistaken fantasy gaming for a storytelling medium (or some dramatic art). They want plots and story, and they want it first. Old School play places the game first – the act of play – and if there is a story to be told it the story of play. A standard denigration of Old School games runs; "Why would I want to play someone who might die at level one? I want my PCs to have a story like the heroes of fiction." To which I say, "read a book, watch a film, idly daydream, or play a computer game (save early, save often)". Proper fantasy gaming embraces the pathetic aesthetic. It not only defines it, but the pathetic aesthetic is done better by fantasy gaming then any other medium. Any other form of fantasy gaming is badwrongfun![2]

[1] Did these game designers learn nothing from Appendix N? It is the conflict between Law and Chaos that is exciting, not Balance!

[2] I am smiling when I say that. But if you look in my eyes you will see that I really do think that you are playing it wrong.

54 comments:

  1. Bargle mate, this is gold. You hit the nail on the head. Without the possibility of loss/failure, there is no drama!

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  2. Great rant! Some nice thoughts and observations here.

    Not sure you'll win hearts and minds with the "pathetic aesthetic", it's too pejorative, we might consider phrases like "gritty", "low-level", or perhaps "existential nihilist". Much lays in space between an adventurer and a hero.

    It's a tiny exception from mainstream AAA console games, but there are other things like say, NetHack or Dwarf Fortress, which are totally "pathetic" - as in last game of NetHack, I tried to mount a horse while carrying too much stuff, fell off, and died. On level 1 of the dungeon. Such occurrences are given the acronym YASD - Yet Another Stupid Death, and are seen as the player community as part of the entertainment that the game provides.

    The second digital issue - character generators. Heck I've started writing one, for Fighting Fantasy no less, in BBC Basic screenshot here, the aim is actually to increase the nihilism: Life is cheap, you have died, roll another [Y/N]?

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  3. Dang I'm 42 and I feel like I'd better get off your lawn....that aside, fun rant, not sure "pathetic aesthetic" really encompasses the spirit of what you are describing (or the more common use of pathetic is going to deflect understanding or appreciation for your point). Also not sure I'd arbitrarily assume that today's graphic quality in art and design is definitively any more or less juvenile than the retro-faux 70's art style we see in so many OSRs; I can guarantee that my appreciation for D&D and its other games back then was based on highly juvenile tastes. The fact that later generations were inspired by and advanced from what came before is a reflection of change over time, but the inherently juvenile nature of the art remains the same, ultimately....just much nicer looking.

    In the final paragraph you suggest adults (of whom I might sort of include myself) have mistaken the pathetic aesthetic for storytelling....but isn't it more accurate to say they have shifted to a different focus, one which has some trappings and relations, but is otherwise different? I don't think these people are confused about whether storytelling is, in fact, part of what you describe; I think instead they have rejected it for something else they find more rewarding.

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    1. I don't want anyone off my lawn, regardless of whether you're a Cluedo man (like me) or a Monopoly fan (badwrongfun)!

      What I was trying to say in the final paragraph is that placing an emphasis on (before the fact) storytelling, rather than the game (and after the fact telling of stories about what happened) can be seen as a flight from the 'pathetic aesthetic'. If the GM is being advised to fudge dice rolls and manipulate player choice to ensure that the plot is followed, then pitiable consequences are entirely at the whim of the GM, and if he's a good storyteller they won't be (dramatically) meaningless. If the game is about the story (rather than an old school system shoe-horned into producing story, then while there might be negative consequences, these are part of telling a story or exploring a theme.

      That's why I said that I think that fantasy gaming can do the pathetic aesthetic better than any other medium - no other medium kills of its heroes in meaningless ways. It might seem that you grim and gritty books and films do so, but they have authors. Games do not - they have a GM, but the outcome of a risky situation is in the hands (at least partially) of the dice.

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    2. Thanks for clarifying, and I am inclined to agree. I think a good way of looking at it is like this: in reading a story, you're presented with a narrative that is (if done right) unexpected and interesting for the reader, but behind the scenes the author has it all plotted out, and his success comes from keeping the machinery of the writer's process hidden from the reader, who remains caught up in the story and not what's behind it. A good gaming approach does something similar, but maybe its important to regard the GM not as the author of the tale, manipulating the strings behind the curtain, but as himself a participant, and the rules serve as a necessary medium of fair arbitration to allow both player and GM to get that same sense of excitement and uncertainty at the outcome of the story. The problem crops up when the GM confuses his role as being like that of an author, rather than a mediator, perhaps. Thus why a GM who fudges a die roll to save a PC has effectively cheated himself out of a better gameplay experience (as well as his player) in the misguided cause of being fair or keeping a plot steered a certain direction, while a more organic and exciting experience is to be had when the player and GM both accept that sometimes the game itself leads you down a different...and better...story than you could have ever imagined.

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  4. I think you hit on a lot of good points here, but defending the "pathetic aesthetic" doesn't really work for me. It'd be much more effective if you talked instead about the "Tyranny of TEH AWESUM", which I think is the real problem here.

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    1. I can see what you mean, but I was trying to stress the virtues of the 'pathetic aesthetic', even with my (self-deprecating) rant against TEH AWESUM.

      Just to be clear, the 'pathetic aesthetic' doesn't necessarily involve playing a crapsack peasant, though that might be a part of the way that one game evokes it. The reason I wrote about Fighting Fantasy first was two-fold [1] it is a high magic world, and [2] that even with the worst rolls YOU are a competent character. A SKILL 12 Fighting Fantasy character - 1 in 6 of all characters randomly generated - is a demi-god. But he doesn't have plot immunity, and the risks of catastrophic negative consequences are still real.

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  5. Hello Dr Bergil! A stimulating article indeed, and one that led me to to post something of a reply on my group's blog. I'd be honoured if you'd pop your smoking hat on and join us for a convivial brandy and a chat :-)
    http://talesfromthemaelstrom.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/old-school-vs-old-school.html

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    1. I'll drop by and try to answer your points and explain myself.

      Mine's a dark rum, though.

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  6. That said, we don't always have to start out "pathetic". We can start out as awe-inspiring and balanced with each other and the game can still be intolerant of stupid mistakes, free-form, and include permanent consequences for your actions.

    Case in point: 4th Edition D&D session I played in had us pitted against a gang of kobolds which killed my character (at level 1), and we spent the next 5 sessions getting the necessary resources together to resurrect him.

    By the time we finished that game around level 5, we had learned not to trust our characters' powers as much as our good decisions. Which doesn't sound at all like the railroady, video-gamey, hand-holding games you seem to think modern RPGs are.

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    1. I don't think that characters have to be pathetic for the game to evoke the 'pathetic aesthetic'. It is an intermix of setting, art, and system, but particularly system. A system that minimises (or even forbids) pitiable consequences is one that will find it hard to evoke the 'pathetic aesthetic', no matter its setting or art.

      I'm also not arguing that D&D4e can't be played in a way that evokes the 'pathetic aesthetic' - though its settings, art, and robust and powerful PCs mitigate against this. Indeed, plenty of stuff for AD&D1e and 2e is pretty far from evoking the pathetic aesthetic, even though the system, played by the book, was unforgiving.

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    2. The issue raised about D&D4 was about the fact that most game encounters are handled via micromanaged dice mechanics & and a narrowly defined set of character skills. If an action isn't listed on a character sheet, players won't try to do it, which I don't like about modern gaming.

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  7. I guess Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World were the first of Teh Awesum, then, with their CON #d6 HP, and melee weapons still doing just D&D level damage while energy weapons do hands-full of d6?

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    1. I've not played them, so I can't say. From what I've read they sound awesome, not TEH AWESUM.

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  8. I believe what I say, I'm making no excuse for the post, but does the self-deprecation not come across?

    I think that everyone who has left comments here gets it, but out there...

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  9. I'm all good with the OSR reclaiming old ways of play, but can we please lose the machismo and the "Guess we're tougher than you anime-loving 4e-playing balance-correctness types" posturing? Maybe you were intending self-deprecation, but inevitably you make a lot of weird implicit assumptions about modern gaming and how different it is.

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    1. The very first line is: "A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable."

      If that doesn't make it quite clear that the style in which I am making my points is one that is designed to take the piss out of ME, and MY prejudices, then I'm not sure what would.

      But machismo? We're all pretending to be Elves!

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    2. I am afraid it does not work that way. I know from bitter experience that anything you say online will be used against you in utter and solemn seriousness, no matter how tongue in cheek.

      I actually had a much less incendiary version of this rant in my mind for a few years - that 'TEH AWESUM' is empty calories, basically, and awesomeness is relative - but every time I considered posting it, I reminded myself some people still consider me the Internet equivalent of Emmanuel Goldstein for writing some posts about fun back in 2006 and 2008.

      Online discussion is well and truly dead. Well, welcome to the Hate Machine and good luck.

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  10. This is nicely said. Personally, I think the wording of "pathetic aesthetic" is a good choice as well.

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  11. Well written!

    My games of choice were inevitably Chaosium, namely Stormbringer (1e if you please) and CoC, in which you could be awesome (a la runeswords and sticks of dynamite) but never bring TEH AWESUM (because these only ever postponed your doom at the hands of whatever unbeatable monstrosity you had angered, or resulted directly in it due to an untimely fumble). Both these games had delicious pathetic aesthetics, which their source materials also had in spades.

    I think that in a way D&D led to the power creep resulting in TEH AWESUM through abuse of leveling and magic items, which were decried as Monty Haul back in the day, but termed a good character build in the latest obsolescence of Ye Old Game. The OSR's return to the dungeon, fetishization of 0e and 1e, and revival of the weird a la LoFP (I always read that as Lord of the Fresh Prince...) and Carcoza I see as all antidotes to TEH AWESUM. But since the roots of TEH AWESUM are in the DNA of DND, can it every truly be controlled?

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  12. "Success is given, if you put in the time (and read the walk thrus). Computer games dominate our broader gaming culture, and the removal of a genuine risk of ignominious failure - an essential part of the pathetic aesthetic - has been largely removed from this culture."

    Sounding very true. We have a conjoined Anglo/American culture that is all too ornamental. Winning is seen as way to be seen. So why not have games reflect the culture; a culture that rewards vacuous victories – after all it would be an easy sale. (Just look at the changes to WHFB 8th edition: RANDOM CHARGE DISTANCES caused an uproar from the long time game veterans. Heaven forbid somebody fail at something. Just hearing some shell-shocked veteran spittle through his teeth that he just might lose a game based on a dice roll is a very telling indicator of what our culture has devolved into.)

    "An unwillingness to accept the pathetic aesthetic stretches to adults too, who have mistaken fantasy gaming for a storytelling medium (or some dramatic art). They want plots and story, and they want it first. Old School play places the game first – the act of play – and if there is a story to be told it the story of play. A standard denigration of Old School games runs; "Why would I want to play someone who might die at level one?"

    I would stay away from the term “pathetic”. Sure pathetic might work in a world that gives everyone a trophy for their efforts, much like video gaming, but it harms people who think they should, or deserve to win just for the sake of winning. Long gone is the craft or industry associated with these games: creation of a scenario or adventure and co-operative game-play/storytelling. We have substituted craft with ornament, and thus have a generation of ornamental winners who can not understand Old School: “Why would I want to play someone who might die at level one?”

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    1. Okay, this right here, this is what I'm talking about, and this is what posts like this, no matter how "jokey", lead to. This idea that difficulty is a virtue in itself and that anyone who plays less-lethal or more carefully designed games (where if you die it's because you did something stupid and not because the rules are messed up or because the GM threw something at you that you had no way of anticipating) is better than those shallow vacuous storygamers- this is toxic. This is like saying your interest in hardcore deathmetal marks you as more discerning than a fan of Duran Duran.

      Enough with the psuedo-Randian "we're breeding a culture of sissies!" alarmism which has no place in discussion of a goddamn recreational activity. You are not manlier for playing grittier elfgames.

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    2. Ayn Rand has, thankfully, no traction on this side of the Atlantic, outside of the nuttier end of the Tory Party (and Steve Jackson, curiously).

      But, regarding your deathmetal vs Duran Duran point (and, on that, give me le Bon et al.), are we to abstain from any discussion of the quality of the things that our culture/s produce? Is all that we can say limited to, 'I like this, you like that, fair dinkum?' Can't we say, for example, that the later series of Diagnosis Murder (van Dyke family ensemble nonwithstanding) are crap, and that it never was a patch on Quincy? And doesn't it follow, even if we don't say it explicitly, that making such an argument also says, '... and if you prefer Diagnosis Murder to Quincy then you are wrong'. Do we always need to add the caveats, 'in my opinion', 'I think', etc.?

      And finally, the rant isn't about the virtue of difficulty, but of the virtue of the pathetic aesthetic. Fragile characters might be part of some, even most, of the games with the 'pathetic aesthetic', but it is not the only, or even necessary thing. Some 'Futurist' paintings had aeroplanes in them, but not all, and there are plenty of paintings of aeroplanes are not Futurist. I've described some of the elements of the what I'm calling the pathetic aesthetic in fantasy gaming, but whether a game falls into this category is a measure of familial resemblance, not a recipe.

      But more, the pathetic aesthetic very much IS NOT about the suffering of players. It IS NOT about 'dick' GMing - I don't include any traps in my games these days that don't contain forewarning. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are full of 'dick' GMing, by the way, but that's something that might work for a solo gamebook but shouldn't be replicated in a tabletop RPG. So, not being about making the players suffer, why would I expect them to grow more manly by playing these games? The generation of the pathetic aesthetic might, though, be about the suffering of characters - including the PCs.

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    3. "Enough with the psuedo-Randian "we're breeding a culture of sissies!" alarmism which has no place in discussion of a goddamn recreational activity. You are not manlier for playing grittier elfgames."

      Nice "Tu quoque"!

      However, the point remains that by having a game where the players/characters are not in danger, endangered, or even involved, leads to a rather boring game.

      Now how are you going to answer the argument? (Mentioning Duran Duran, Ayn Rand or goddam recreational activities whilst banging your fist on the desk does nothing for your argument.)

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  13. It's a gross mischaracterization of modern gaming to say that the characters are never in danger or that the players are never involved. That's a very large strawman. Just about every game has the potential for failure (even non-lethal games like Toon or Ghostbusters)- even if there's the expectation that you'll eventually triumph you still have to work out how.

    The point of Duran Duran vs. Cannibal Corpse is not that "it's all subjective"- there's such a thing as craftsmanship, of course, but there's a difference between the craftsmanship and the aesthetic. Duran Duran made 80s dance pop but they were arguably very good at it- they put in effort and wrote lyrics that weren't just predictable crap and seriously tell me "Union of the Snake" isn't the jam. Style is just a choice, the work is in the execution.

    The problem is there are those who think that darker and grittier are inherently better, or can't articulate that virtue without inadvertently or otherwise crapping on the non-gritty, and I think when you start characterizing opposing virtues with language like "everyone gets a trophy" you start to muddy the waters between stylistic preferences and moral standpoints.

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    1. Aesthetics is more than a choice between equal valid choices. Seriously, do you think Simon LeBon and Varg Vikernes share the same politics? Rhetorical question.

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    2. ... besides, neither of which evoke pity. Maybe Tears for Fears (Mad World) vs. Status Quo (Rocking all over the World) would be more apt.

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    3. If you don't pity Francis Rossi you have no heart, man!

      I should say, I'm happy having Queen's We are the Champions (or better yet, Flash!) playing in my head as an imagined soundtrack to part of my gaming. But it isn't on endless loop, and when I look back on this mental playlist after the events of game have played out, I want there to be a fair chance that such a choice will seem 'pathetically' ironic.

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  14. But it isn't about being 'darker or grittier', though those things can be part of a game that evokes the pathetic aesthetic. It's about the real risk of failure - failure that isn't always heroic or meaningful. Of course, practically all games include some risk of failure - it is about degrees or risk and the type of failure that is important.

    But when you write, "Just about every game has the potential for failure [...] even if there's the expectation that you'll eventually triumph you still have to work out how" I struggle to work out just what kind of failure it is that doesn't preclude eventual success.

    [Please do assure the folks at RPG.net that I'm not the kind of 'dick GM' that thinks gangrape is 'gritty', or whatever new mis-characterisation of this post is doing the rounds there now ;-)]

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  15. Great post!
    It took me a moment to get what you were on about... 'pathetic aesthetic' threw me off the scent since it seems pejorative.
    One thing I've noticed amongst my gamer friends of late is a general dislike of TRAGEDY. They speak as if player death or failures do not make for good stories... forgetting all those wonderful heroes of literature and mythology who died memorable/horrible deaths.
    There is something masturbatory about 'TEH AWSUM'... this desire to edit away any possibility of consequence, failure or death (folks in the U.S. do not like to acknowledge those things even exist).
    For me, I need to know there is consequence, real chance for failure, permanent death waiting in the wings for any of it to matter. Talk about 'dramatic'... how is winning one pitched battle after another (healing surges in between of course) in any way 'dramatic'? It's not... it's pointless and boring.

    Oh, and fuck Ayn Rand! Silly hag.

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    1. This aversion to tragedy is endemic, I think. To break away from RPGs, I feel that ths is the reason so many people had an issue with Mass Effect 3, to take an example...the game's different endings were each equally tragic in different ways. Everyone I talked to who disliked them didn't like the endings because in none of them did they come out on top triumphantly.

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  16. By the way, this post started quite a discussion on Facebook, with Kasks and Mearles weighing in:

    https://www.facebook.com/bpoire

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    1. I can't seem to see that. Does it involve more people that I respect calling me a disgraceful dick?

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  17. Like anything in life, it can be split into three groups: people who vehemently attack the message, people who staunchly defend it, and a final group who call for calm and advise just playing the game.

    Then there are the remainder who are lost, having either only read the title or are completely clueless to what they are responding to. Maybe it is better you can't access it...

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    1. "Maybe it is better you can't access it..." Perhaps.

      I've already got at least one book on my shelves by a writer who I admire, which will, for a short while at least, remind me that he thinks I'm an arse everytime I use it in play. I don't need a shelf-load of that... ;-)

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  18. Just got turned on to your page, and I love it...

    However, I will forever despise you Bargle for killing my companion with magic missiles in that Red Box solo adventure when I was a youth. Revenge will be mine!

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    1. I have died innumerable deaths across the multiverse of gaming... will I never have paid for the death of Aleena?

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    2. Til the last hand rolls the last die. Even then, villain you will still not have suffered enough!

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    3. Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!

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  19. Great article. These are concepts that I've been articulating for years. Thanks!

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  20. Bravo on post and discussion. I went through two bags of popcorn!

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  21. Nice read.... actually, it was quite pathetic! 8')

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    1. Hah! Self-abasement is part of any good rant.

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  22. I find an interesting disconnect between your love of being able to lose, and your contempt for 'balance' in a game. What the instant-gratification kids want isn't balance, it's an imbalanced game that's tilted in their favor. Whether it's D&D or Warhammer.

    Your post does remind me though of when I used to teach at a local Art College. One day we got our first batch of "Millennials", and I was floored to see so many kids dripping with technological gizmos and addicted to Facebook. But who had never actually used this technology to create anything of their own. Ever. Something which I'd never encountered before, but have many times since.

    Such as when I go out test the wargame I'm writing by taking it to the local shop. The 24 and older gamers are always interested, and ask me about how it works, offer suggestions, etc. Yet the Millennials floor me because they just stand there, mouth open and google-eyed. Utterly amazed that such a thing is even possible. Creation is an act that they have no experience with. "You... you MADE this?" Then they back away and shoot uncomfortable glances my way. Like I'm some supernatural creature.

    So maybe you're running up against this cultural change, and mistaking it for 'style'?

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  23. Wow, I'm kind of blown away by the nostalgia. Were you going for the "Back in my day we had to walk ten miles to school, uphill both way!" style deliberately?

    I read through this, and I couldn't really find an actual benefit of playing a pitiable, weak character. These are games. It's a rule-bound activity designed for entertainment. It seems silly to say that having fun must have some element of unpleasantness involved, or that having fun must involve feeling pathetic.

    There's a difference between challenge and suffering here. Challenge and difficulty are what require the use of logic and tactical thinking in games. A lack of challenge removes the game aspect, and it is purely an exercise in group storytelling. Suffering, on the other hand, is about forcing the player to experience unpleasant situations in order to proceed. Tossing people into unwinnable situations, or forcing them to feel useless are cases like that. In real life, we have to deal with lots of situations that suck like that. However, why does a game need to do that? As I mentioned before, games are entertainment, not some kind of purifying ordeal. Suffering and being pitiable is not a necessary component. Would you refuse a gift one the grounds that you did not suffer to get it? Would you forfeit a soccer football match if none of your players were hurt? On the other hand, if the DM of your 1stEd DND just told you 'Rocks fall, everyone dies, the end.", would think that would improve the game experience.

    Also, as an actor with some experience, I know that there is a certain challenge in playing a role without rehearsing for it - that's Improv. However, choosing a role and doing your best to bring a character concept to life is also challenging. It also doesn't matter if the play is a tragedy or comedy, they both involve skill in portraying the role. In fact, I would say that random chance robs a classic tragedy of its power - characters in tragedies don't fall because they are screwed by fate, they fall because of a character flaw.

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    1. "Were you going for the "Back in my day we had to walk ten miles to school, uphill both way!" style deliberately?" Errr, yes. Quite obviously. I wrote; "You young folk just don't know how to have fun these days! Not proper fun anyhow, what with your Xstations and would Wiboxes" and "When I were a lad, all this were fields". Now, being a real life Yorkshireman, if you heard me say it aloud you might think it serious - but you can't read my accent. If this, and the fact that the post starts "A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable" doesn't tell you that the style was a deliberate choice, then I don't know what would. Winking smilies all over the place?

      But the bulk of your comment seems to confuse player character suffering with player suffering. I have addressed that here:

      http://drbargle.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/player-character-suffering-player.html

      "On the other hand, if the DM of your 1stEd DND just told you 'Rocks fall, everyone dies, the end.", would think that would improve the game experience." That's being a dick GM, so no.

      "Also, as an actor with some experience..." I don't think that fantasy gaming is about amateur dramatics, but that's another post.

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    2. "In fact, I would say that random chance robs a classic tragedy of its power - characters in tragedies don't fall because they are screwed by fate, they fall because of a character flaw."

      That's why it isn't the 'tragic aesthetic', but the 'pathetic aesthetic'. If a game promises the PCs a tragic end, that's as bad as promising them a heroic success. There has to be the very real risk of pathetic fate (which need not always equals death, but in a game of mortal combat it surely must be a real possibility) in order for the tragic/heroic PC fates to mean anything. If I wanted to enjoy a story in dramatically meaningful fates were ensured, I would read a book or watch a film.

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  24. Excellent article. Now that I've had some run-time to think on it I'ld say the conflict between the pathetic and teh awesum is a big one.
    As a GM I want the players to get involved in the world, the story and eventually foil the foul demon Arch-Duke McNaughtypants. I also want them to feel that every battle could be their last.

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  25. One of the best articles I've read in a long time. You've also possibly explained the revulsion I feel when seeing most of GW's latest releases, miniature-wise. They seem to be a design equivalent of a house at Christmas with far too many lights on it...

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  26. I don't agree with your assertion that the game should come before the narrative, but you are dead on in your assertion that point-build games cater to the Teh Awesum attitude. This is why I like there to be as much randomization as possible in the character creation process. Traveller does this particularly well. My system of choice is Basic Roleplaying though. Regarding your position on narrative versus game, I have three words for you: Call of Cthulhu.

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  27. A very good summary of what I like in my games (I'm 36 and been playing for a while). I want hopeless chances and gallows humour in my predicaments. I liked your sentence about the Dwarves defending a barn in some desolate nowhere just hoping they'd make it through the night.

    I do think some modern games have that going for them though. Faster Than Light is a great indy game where you're essentially up against it from the get go and your chances of survival are next to nil & board game wise, you can look at games like Ghost Stories (just really tough).

    Role Playing games are as much about your player base as your chosen system and as the DM/GM/Story Teller you *can* weave an heroic death for zero gain into the story but it's tough. I've not played Pen and Paper with any younger role players though I have had people from back in the day whose only goal was to 'win' and they designed their characters to to do just that.

    I'll always remember playing Dungeon Quest back in Uni and dying 75-90% of the time without fail.

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    1. Cheers novafix - I like your Ogryns by the way.

      I will say, with regard to RPGs, it isn't about killing PCs, it is about ensuring that they have the possibility for failure. Not failure that is meaningful from a story point of view, but certainly failure that is meaningful in so much as it results from player decisions and character actions. It is neither 'rocks fall, everyone dies', nor is it, [fudges rolls to ensure that...] 'Svenn dies a heroic death saving the kingdom'. But it certainly can be the case that the players, in attempting to save the kingdom, decide to take the risky mountain pass, don't hire a local guide, and [roll on random tables] watch their characters die as result of an 'encounter' with a rockfall.

      I am a fan for failure arising from 'play' - which I think of as the decisions that the players make to have their characters interact with the world, not 'story' or from dice that are rolled absent of any player decision. An example of this would be an adventure in which the PCs must pass through a 'funnel point' that requires a Saving Throw - well, that is success or failure entirely down to a dice roll, with the players' decisions irrelevant. Now, if the players choose to go the risky route, that their PCs fate hangs on a dice roll is the product of a decision they have made.

      Ack, I'm rambling again...

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