Rulesets Have No Expiration Dates

There’s a strange notion I’ve run into a couple of times during the latest bout of Old School Renaissance arguments – namely, that the rules of old D&D editions are somehow “obsolete”.

Let’s get this straight: no roleplaying game that I have ever seen has come with a “best before” date stamped on it. There is no exact science behind game rule development that has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last thirty-odd years, like computer or mobile phone technology has. Beyond the physical properties of the product, there is nothing, nothing, objectively better about a game that has been released in 2010 as opposed to a game that was released in 1978.

Some ideas are, of course, newer than others. There has, certainly, been innovation, with people coming up with new ways to do things and new things to do. Separate race and class, classless systems, logarithm-based systems, point-based systems, percentile systems, diceless systems, dice pool systems, storytelling mechanics. However, most of it is just applied mathematics (with the exception of the stuff that isn’t, like the fortune cookies in Tähti), and that crap has been around for some millennia now. Whether the execution of a ruleset is actually mathematically valid, whether you get the probability spreads you intended, is just a matter of numbers and if the numbers are wrong, they’ll be just as wrong if they were crunched today as they’d be if they were crunched thirty years ago. That is the only objective thing, and the rest is preferences, taste and fashion.

Then, there are some aspects of games that really do become obsolete, such as when the technological development passes a sci-fi game by (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2020. It’s been ten years since I’ve even seen an NMT phone outside of a rerun on TV.). I am also told that a number of early Palladium games list homosexuality as a mental illness, and there’s probably any number of fantasy and semi-historical roleplaying games that have content loosely based on interpretations of history that have since been discovered to be inaccurate. I couldn’t cite any examples, but it’s my understanding that some of the armours in certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons fall into this category (though, if we’re entirely honest, a historical analysis of the equipment chapter of any edition of D&D would make anyone who seriously cares about such matters weep).

Rules, though… Rules keep. The OSR games are an obvious example, but they’re the ones that provoked this neophiliac brainfart in the first place, so let’s look at some others. Call of Cthulhu was first released in 1981. Now, six editions and 29 years later, it’s still the same game, it’s still good, and people are still playing it. Pendragon is another. 25 years and five discrete editions, and the brilliance was already there in 1985. The Traveller character generation system from 1977 still rocks, especially once they tweaked it to fix the death-at-chargen issue. Dungeons & Dragons looks actually anomalous in the extent of the changes between editions, especially between the second, third and fourth editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re less separate editions of the same game than they are separate games.

Of course, different rulesets are good for different things. Pendragon has a laser-like focus on emulating the very specific tone of a very specific telling of the King Arthur stories. Some of the modern storygames are written for playing one single specific story. Deathwatch is probably completely pants for playing anything that doesn’t have Space Marines in it. The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is very good for annoying me. The interesting thing is that the different editions of D&D have very different focuses and support very different playstyles. Characters in the older editions tend to be fragile things, which gears the game towards a more careful, exploratory and cerebral approach to exploring a dungeon – and while they’re not exclusively dungeon crawling games, the environment does default to the dungeon. I don’t think this really changed until AD&D 2E, which seems to be geared to run any kind of fantasy game, as we can see from the myriad of innovative settings developed for the edition. 3E and D20 took this even further, redesigning the entire ruleset from the ground up to be a flexible, universal system. From this point of view, 4E is sort of a return to the roots in its tighter focus (namely, annoying me and tactical combat), except that they found some completely different roots to return to.

In short: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because you don’t understand or like the playstyle doesn’t mean it’s bad. However, if the math doesn’t actually go the way they thought it did… then it can be bad.

In the interests of fairness and balance, I will soon be tackling an irritating rhetorical tactic often used by the other side of the debate.

The Random Bard Table

The genre site Topless Robot had a “Create a Random RPG Table” contest this past week, inspired by the legendary Random Harlot Table in the 1E DMG.

The existence of that table still boggles my mind.

I found out about it from Mxyzplk, and, since I had nothing better to do, whipped up the Random Bard Table in about fifteen minutes. Didn’t win, but did get an honourable mention, which was nice. You can check out the other honourable mentions and the winners here.

As for the Random Bard Table, it is reproduced here for your convenience:

Roll a d12 and consult the following table to see who’s performing at the tavern tonight.

  1. An adventuring half-orc storyteller who makes no embellishments, speaking the plain truth of his adventures. Clever listeners can determine the exact locations he speaks of.
  2. A lute duo comprised of a half-elf and a gnome. After the performance, the half-elf tries to pick up a woman, his desperation increasing as the evening goes on and nobody takes the bait. The gnome goes upstairs with the comeliest serving wench.
  3. A rogue modron, who “sings” well-known ballads in an emotionless monotone. The staff and customers are terrified of this strange creature but dare not do anything about it.
  4. A gypsy fiddler and his comely dancer wife. After they have left, several patrons discover their money pouches have disappeared. Everyone immediately assumes that the gypsies are to blame, though in reality they are innocent.
  5. A lillend, who is under a magical geas to perform at this tavern one night a year, every year. Her music is beautiful but immensely sad, and she draws a huge crowd.
  6. A travelling halfling from a few towns over, who is cajoled into singing some halfling songs. In the middle of the third song, he vanishes into thin air, scaring the patrons.
  7. A local musician, whose ditty actually tells the story of how he is having an illicit tryst with the blacksmith’s wife. The blacksmith isn’t as dumb as he looks, but he is drunk, ill-tempered, and present.
  8. A trio of guitarists from the southern lands, who sing and dance and play. In actuality, they are assassins with weapons hidden within their instruments, who will kill a target sleeping in one of the inn’s rooms during the night.
  9. A cursed piper, whose music inevitably drives the rats in the kitchen and the cellar into a frenzy and draws them into the common room.
  10. A middling singer who gets increasingly drunk during the evening, and will eventually vomit on the nearest player character’s lap.
  11. A large singer who is actually a disguised leading member of the opera company in the big city, fleeing from the assassins of a jilted noble lover, but unable to keep from performing.
  12. Nobody else is willing, so the other patrons will hassle the party member with the highest Charisma or visible musical instruments until he takes the stage.