Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wanting to Say "Why Not?"

Once upon a time, I took role-playing games very seriously. I looked down my nose on anyone who failed to dedicate themselves to creating a level of realism in our shared world, be it through the use of stupid or silly character names (“Boba Fett”) or the desire to play a ninja in a strictly Western European-type culture. How dare they sully the artistic creation that serious role-players like myself were attempting to forge?!

Strangely, as I’ve grown older, I’ve adopted a less tyrannical approach to gaming. Instead of outright snobbery, I now meet such desires with a live-and-let-live attitude—provided the player himself isn’t a complete affront to common courtesy and can play and share well with others. I’m not above such occaisonal flights of fancy myself nowadays. I did create the Octopus character class after all.

This growing acceptance for the semi-serious or “unrealistic” elements of the game has led me down some paths I’d previously be loathed to tread. Without this attitude, I would have never come to accept my mantra of “Stop worrying and love the dungeon,” resulting in a slightly less enjoyable Stonehell and a more staid Dungeon Alphabet. I continue to encourage this open-mindedness in myself at every turn.

It’s a tough fight, though. I keep oscillating between the desire to completely accept the absurd and my previous well-intentioned but straight-laced mindset. I’ve strapped myself to the bungee and made it to edge of the bridge, but I just can’t quite jump.

Some may not see this as a problem. Others might even interpret the desire to open my mind to the outrĂ© as the first step toward game degeneracy, convinced that such a path leads only to Arduin-like levels of madness—TIE Fighters strafing wizard’s towers and the like. I can’t fault these folks, for I was once like them.

Now, however, I find myself reading some of the accounts of older games and thinking that we’ve definitely lost a part of this hobby’s rich heritage to the expectations of realism and common sense. One has to look no further than Men & Magic (“There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top”) or “Excerpt from an Interview with a Rust Monster” (The Dragon #14) to realize there once was a very cavalier attitude to role-playing which has nothing to do with armored guys on horseback.

One of the reasons I’ve found solace in the OSR is because that “Devil may care” outlook isn’t completely lost here. As the trend of science-fantasy campaigns demonstrates, the OSR is a lot more accepting of weird ideas tied together with nothing more than some house rules and good intentions. Unfortunately, we’re not completely without prejudice.

I remember reading a thread on one of the boards some months back regarding character classes to be included in a new version of one of the retro-clones. The usual suspects were suggested: illusionist, ranger, paladin, monk. I was disappointed in the lack of vision these suggestions represented. Granted, these are the expected choices and the book wasn’t looking to expand any minds.

Regardless, it seems that we’ve allowed ourselves to dig a pretty deep rut over the last thirty-six years when we can’t easily think beyond the usual handful of classes. As much as I’ve determined that 3rd edition isn’t for me, I’ll give it a nod of respect for attempting to address this issue with prestige classes, despite their flawed (for me) execution.

Some may argue—rightly perhaps—that the game doesn’t need any classes beyond those already in the common parlance. This was 2nd edition’s stance after all: every profession can be portrayed adequately by role-playing one of the existing classes in the proper manner with slight adjustments. New, specialized classes just cluttered the playing field and overwhelmed the player with choices. But this mindset isn’t a benefit if you happen to like having a lot of choices.

With my newfound acceptance for the oddball in the sandbox, this battle of opinions regarding classes has become my biggest hurdle to overcome. I see the logic in staying with the established few, but the wahoo part of my brain wants samurai warriors, cavemen, crash-landed aliens, bounty hunters, goblins, and sentient polar bears represented in the party—so long as the players want them too. I know I have that gear in my head, but, so far, I’m just grinding metal every time I try to engage it. I can’t quite make the leap yet from “How Come?” to “Why Not?”

Not that I’ve given up trying, though. I’m continuing to tinker with the Crabaugh Method from Dragon #109. If I can customize and update that method to something that fits my tastes exactly, I know I’ll have found my personal character class Rosetta Stone. Little discoveries like the dwarven craftsman class from Liaisons Dangereuses inspire and excite me to keep working on a “unified class method” suitable for my own use. While this search remains underway, I’m continuing my own quest to find a personal happy median between the vanilla and the tutti-frutti of role-playing ideas and attitudes.

I may never get to the point where I can take a troll to lunch, but at least I’ve become unbiased enough to meet him for coffee.


James Maliszewski said...

Great Post.

Sham aka Dave said...

Undoubtedly you know that you and I have followed the same patterns in our decades of gaming, although I went from gonzo to uptight and now find myself standing in what I consider a happy medium.

I think you answered your own question, though, when you wrote:

so long as the players want them too.

I like to think fans of the old style want nothing more than the three core classes and some basic options like Dwarf and Elf in their rules not because they don't like a little gonzo, but because they often prefer to do the rest of the imagining themselves.

When you make your world, or read someone's supplement to the rules, that's where I'd expect to see the new stuff, like Amazon Mind-Benders and such.

Robert said...

I can very much relate.

The older me has an appreciation for “anything goes” that the younger me never did. Yet I still find it hard to actually put that into practice.

On classes, my current viewpoint is this: Start with a few generic classes that are always allowed but allow specialized classes as one-offs.

Michael Curtis said...

I'm not trying to force a choice on anyone, as I know that always goes poorly. Largely, I find myself engaged in a mental exercise to broaden my own mind. Kit-bashing new character classes and ideas has become a test of my ownself to see if I can escape the classes rut in the event that someone is ever looking to play something outside the norm.

It's a fun experiment, but also a frustrating one, if only because it demonstrates how staid I can be when I really want to soar on flights of fancy. But that encourages me to continue at it until the mental walls come tumbling down.

BigFella said...

"Why Not?" is the predecessor to "Why?" in creativity.

The first thing you discover as you begin to explore is that anything is possible. That's the "Why Not?" that comes when you question or discard habits and orthodoxies you pick up from childhood and society.

Once your vistas are opened, you need to chart a course. Being able to travel in every direction is the same as not moving. You need to select, to define, to give what you're doing a shape. That's the "Why?".

Once you have the overall "why" of your campaign or whatever, then instinct can guide you on the "Why not?"'s that pops up. In some contexts, having a ninja pop up in Louis XIV's court at Versailles is perfectly rational, in others, it interferes with the idea.

In short, there's no hard and fast rules that say what elements should go where. If you want ninjas in powdered wigs, then go for it, but once you've got that world set up, it should have a certain cohesion and should be true to itself.

Timeshadows said...

This brought a warm smile to my face. :)
--I know you can do it. :D

Anonymous said...

Great Post.

To quote one of my players' daughters:

"I want to be a vampire hobbit, but a good one, with friends and a pet monkey like on Pirates of the Curribeanne".

I like the basic races and classes but I like to dabble with the combinations. I think my first was a Dwarf Burglar - good at mapping and lockpicking.

Michael Curtis said...

That's a perfect example of what I'm trying to balance. I can cope with a Dwarf Burglar without problem and part of me loves the vampire hobbit with a monkey. I need to reconcile those two halves somehow.

The Iron Goat said...

I'll be really interested to see if you can come up with some sort of unified concept. The part about having to come up with a unique power progression for each is what usually kept me from allowing that kind of freedom. We did a few of the standard one-off, "everybody play as a monster" kinds of things bitd, but those were easy.
I suspect once that power progression balance WAS in place, a fair amount of players would lose their desire to play as character X. Often, it seems, when a player says "I want to play as a Stone Giant!" what's really being said is "I want to be overpowered and steamroller through everything!"

Rusty said...

In the end, what harm comes from doing something different or new within the context of an RPG? I say more enjoyment, less fretting (coming from someone who suffers angst for at least 24 hours before each gaming session). Mulligans work even better in the RPG world than they do in golf, unlike other recreational activities like sky diving.

Anonymous said...

As a player I like how some new classes allow, even demand, you to approach them differently(Skathros' Godi, the Buffoon, my Whitebox Mystic) to the basic archetypes so I like having the option.

The most important thing as aDM is does the race/class serve the setting. If it does, go for it, unless it's a duck barbarian.

EY said...

I agree that as long as the players have fun there is no issue.

I would also say that there is not even a real need to mix the two styles if you don't want to, as long as you are open to playing in either style.

I game with my kids on occasion nowadays, and they prefer more whimsical, fairytale-like adventures with a hodgepodge of elements that make things fun for them. On the otherhand when I game with my regular group, the style is a lot more "realistic".

Dan said...

I have definitely gotten more wahoo in my gaming preferences. I used to be a straight-laced realism nut, with preferences for stuff like Harn with little magic, and now I'm much more willing to add in power armor from Carcosa into my game. I've realized that I don't have enough free time to waste it trying to have this perfect recreation of the world.

Anonymous said...

It's a good conversation to have, but I think the lens of "realism" is a dead-end.

It's hard to claim that a ninja in the Sun King's court is any more unrealistic than a 20-tonne flying reptile.

What's more useful than "realism"? I'm not sure. "Genre expectations" maybe.

Pulp Herb said...

One has to look no further than Men & Magic (“There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top”)

Interesting you mention this. As I was getting my Mithric Initiate ready to post on PtGPtB I remembered this or at least the similar text in Holmes. I wanted to contrast it with the text on the same topic in AD&D.

James said...

I've been working through some of the same issues myself. I could now, run a Blackmoor game, utilizing the Egg of Coot. I still draw the line at Runequest's Ducks. :)

Eli Arndt said...

First off, greast post and a lovely first post to read from your blog.

I have been a victim of this. Creating rich worlds with such intricate and delicate design that I cannot find a way to fit the samurai on the viking bus. Fotrunately, I have got over this.

It is still a battle but I have tried working on finding way not to just wave a hand, but to work with players to fit their vision and mine into a workable medium. If the player wants a Ninja where there is none, then perhaps that part of the world might need its own society of hidden assassins. Same rules with a new thematic overlay and poof!

Brutorz Bill said...

Excellent post. First time visiting your blog. I was a "Why Not?" back in the day...I'm happily finding myself returning to those old roots, in part thanks to the OSR and blogs like yours.
Love the Octopus Class!

Kevin Mac said...

I've gone back and forth over the decades. Since for my 1st ed. I still use the game world I created as a kid, I tend to be a bit conservative about what happens in it and what lives in it. I allow something along the lines of a Samurai or ninja coming to the West, or somebody running a "Bugman" or something - but I don't think I'll being going all Arduin Grimoire any time soon.

Blair said...

"...and sentient polar bears..."

When I first started playing 3rd edition the DM had a copy of Savage Species and I wanted sooo badly to play a black bear PC. No luck with the DM, guess he never read "Hiero's Journey"

Badmike said...

"This was 2nd edition’s stance after all: every profession can be portrayed adequately by role-playing one of the existing classes in the proper manner with slight adjustments."

Kidding, right? The common flame bait for old schoolers are the plethora of races, classes and kits to be chosen in 2E. Heck, they even had the "Book of Humanoids" where you could roll up a orc fighter, centaur ranger or ogrish shaman.

If anything, 2E was much closer to OD&D's "wild and wooly" style than anything offered during the 1E years, where dicates on classes and such were firm and never to be questioned.

BigFella said...


Yeah, when you're playing a wizard setting grizzly bears with owl heads on fire with your fingers, "realism" is kind of a dodgy proposition.

On the other hand, suspension of disbelief is kind of like a bank account, which you can overdraw from if you aren't careful. However it's up to the GM to establish the "credit limit" if you will permit me to further mangle the metaphor.

Which is why the real focus should be "consistency". If that means consistently gonzo, then so be it. It's really about narrative expectations.

bliss_infinte said...

I've learned to let the players have a good time. I feel as long as I get what I need, as a DM, out of the gaming experience and the players do as well, even if it's not quite the same 'vision', then everyone has a positive experience at the table. With age has come a way more flexible sense of the game (which is great 'cause I don't think I had that when I was younger).

One of my players made his character a half dwarf/elf. The old part of me would have thought, what the heck is that, it doesn't make sense, it's not in the rules. But the player is passionate about the vision of a character and has made it work in terms of character pathos, etc and so, why not? What does it hurt? Maybe I'm running the campaign but, in the end, we all are creating it. It's a collaboration and it's best, I've learned, to just roll with it.

Anonymous said...

Very Good Post. As I see it, so long as it fits the game, players ought to be allowed to play something different now and again.

Why not increase the fun?

There are of course games (say Pendragon)) where you are limited to one type (Knights only) and others where Anything Goes.

The trick is finding a comfy medium for your group and knowing which players you can say yes to and know to.

As for a Talking Bear. Why Not? Bears Rule

Michael Curtis said...

Kidding, right? The common flame bait for old schoolers are the plethora of races, classes and kits to be chosen in 2E.

I was refering to "core" 2E, where it was decided that classes such as barbarians, cavaliers, assassins, and the like were removed as class choices, the argument being that these were merely fighters and thieves played in a certain manner, and even the early kits weren't too far away from the baseline classes.

metamorphosissigma said...

Well written, except for the numerous diction errors. Sigh. Mal would point them out, but he's too polite.

Chad Thorson said...

I've been working on a setting for T&T that's a little tongue-in-cheek as far as humor goes. I've got Hillbilly Hobbits (Hobbillies), scummy elves (Drek Elves), Goblin Cultists, Zombie muscle for a Necromancer Crimelord (Ju Ju Jones) etc.

I still haven't run a game in the setting but hope to soon. But yeah I agree with you "Why the hell not?"

thekelvingreen said...

I've been playing a dwarf hillbilly in a friend's infrequent 4e game. It's a reskinned barbarian, so it's rules-legal, but even so, I'm pleasantly surprised at how accepting the rest of the group are of old Cletus Pickswinger. ;)

In other words, I'm in broad agreement. Anything goes, as long as it obeys the Rule of Fun.

Keith Sloan said...

Great post and lots of food for thought.

I may have to introduce a dwarf hillbilly NPC into my campaign!

Mike Schulz said...

Oddly enough, a player in my shiny new AD&D game would only play 1st edition rules if he could name his PC 'Bobba Fett' (and he has seen Tom es ses Chums).

So I've got an neutral-indifferent Druid named Bobba Fett from Mandalore, a dwarf who feels like George Costanza's dad and an otherwise generally motley crew.

One session in and I'm remembering why D&D was fun back in junior high.

Anonymous said...

I tend to run a dangerous (many a PC death) and darker (meaning evil continues to gain strength) game and campaign, but we do a LOT of laughing at the table, and I allow hare-brained, crazy tactics as well. I don't dictate what the PC names are (we've had some really silly ones - a thief named Pique Yerpokitta, frex) and we've gotten into some hilarious "conversations" between PCs and NPCs.

If you and your players are having fun, that's what counts. It's a game. It's supposed to be fun, relaxing, and not like real life.

Nagora said...

Having played almost exclusively in lighthearted games for decades, I'm currently more interested in something serious, if not necessarily "dark". I'm all gonzo'd out.

As to classes: if the class name doesn't evoke a mental image close to what the class does, then the class is a bad idea.

Of the "traditional" classes, that makes "cleric" the dud of the group, although "magic user" could be a bit more evocative.

What's interesting about this idea is that what makes a good class is culturally dependant. Younger people than me, brought up on different stories might react totally differently to a class name, just as I, and many other UK players reacted badly to a "Cavalier" class which had nothing to do with the Civil War ("Knight" was the correct name, IMO). Similarly, "monk" worked for me because Kung Fu was on TV at the time and it was the first thing I thought of. Older people without time to watch so much TV probably found it almost inexplicable that the character did so much damage with their bare hands (not even a crucifix).

Endy said...

Wow. These are some interesting ideas, especially reading them as I am. I'm probably younger than you, but then again I didn't get into gaming before the late '90s. I definitely have noticed evidence of this:
"Regardless, it seems that we’ve allowed ourselves to dig a pretty deep rut over the last thirty-six years when we can’t easily think beyond the usual handful of classes."
In conversations I have with other gamers, old and new. What happens to the spark of new storytelling when we keep trying to tell "new" stories with the same basic building blocks?

richard said...

I know the point of the "ninjas at Louis XIV's court" example was to state that it all depends on one's genre/convention setup, but it's a peculiarly plausible mashup to choose: Alexandre Dumas' stories about the period abound in preternaturally devious spies and assassins - ninjas in all but name - and if you really, really need your ninjas to be Japanese, well, ships were passing between France and Japan right up to the "Tokugawa closure," and after the closure there was still indirect trade and communication through the Ryukyu islands. My own favourite point of departure would be the Embassies between France and Siam, though: we know that King Narai had a bodyguard of Samurai who remained in the country after "closure" and that there was great interest in France regarding Siamese affairs and products; a Siamese at court would be both an intriguing novelty and a potentially powerful partner. If I ran this setting Phaulkon would be my arch antagonist - both dangerous and vulnerable, he'd be ever scheming, ever credible, brokering and empire-building: the PCs could knock him down in Siam and he'd just pop up again in Burma or Aceh or Macao. Available character classes include spy, Jesuit expert, gunner and funerary acrobat-architect.

Jape77 said...

>If it does, go for it, unless it's a duck barbarian.

Alright -- that's it! I can take one duck crack, but two brings the Quack-Fu!!


Actually, I was going to comment anyway -- but thanks for the lead-in, guys.

Michael, I was originally opposite from you when I first started. My dungeons were chock full of anything goes (one level was populated by the alien blancmange from Monty Python's Flying Circus, and characters were forced to play tennis against them for their life).

Our first DM let us create any character we wanted, and I insisted on -- yes -- a duck barbarian based on the famous Howard the Duck cover (

By the time my younger brother had joined the group however I had gotten all serious and "real" and got mad when Rick let him roll up a Vulcan -- and madder still when he let him keep the character after he was killed on an adventure and turned into a wraith.

I raved "You CAN'T have an UNDEAD VULCAN in a dungeon party!!" -- at which point my brother phased thru the floor and drained all the levels from my barbarian duck, killing him.

What followed was the infamous War of the Brothers as, for the next year, we would spend every adventure trying to assassinate each other's characters. The funny thing is, 35 years later, nobody recalls the details of those 'serious' games, but everyone remembers the Brent/JP Wars with great laughter.