Alternate Title: GURPS old-school, yo.
Maybe I need a manifesto for my games. Or some kind of statement of purpose.
I mean, I looked at Matt Finch's old-school primer recently. It's a good document and it really would give you the tools to understand what the hell an early-edition game would be like if you've never played one. I don't have one for my game.
Then I looked at this expanded one, here, and felt like, okay, it's largely a laundry list of what the GURPS rules aren't. Which is amusing in a way, because I'm using them for running B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, building a megadungeon, and if I excised all rules descriptions from my summaries you probably wouldn't know what game system it is except from spell names. Maybe. Maybe you'd just wonder what pulp writer's story Stone Missile was from or why a Fireball did so little damage.
The first definition, by virtue of only specifying a few things about early-edition D&D-clone games, is pretty broad. The second, not so much - the more narrow the definition, the more that gets excluded from old school. It's clearly aimed at defining old school and new school D&D, which is fine, but as written it'll exclude some very old games indeed. Just goes to show you that the more you define, the more limiting the definition is.
In way, though, both of them tell you what to expect from an old-school game.
This leads to a (for my part rhetorical) question:
Is GURPS Dungeon Fantasy old school or new school?
GURPS has been around since 1986 (Earlier if you count Man-to-Man) and the core mechanics haven't changed much . . . I could still dig up my Man-to-Man NPC sheets and use them in play (although they'd be a tad weak, and I'd have to ignore their missile weapon range notations). Their point values wouldn't sync up but you'd hardly notice that outside of character generation. That's pretty old right there . . . it's "competed with 1st edition AD&D" old. But it's got skills (gah!) and lots of rules (double gah! Oh AD&D had lots too) and it uses funny dice (oh wait, maybe it doesn't, it's the rest of you guys using funny dice! I swiped mine from an old Monopoly set!)
But really, does it matter?
My Dungeon Fantasy game is very much old-style if not old school. I've got more in common stylistically and thematically with guys running randomly generated NPCs into a hole killing monsters and taking their treasure than with guys running games with deep characterization and plot-centered play, regardless of game system.
But what makes it old style? It is the dungeons? The dwarven fighters? The 10' poles? The lootz?
Maybe I need a manifesto for my own games. A "GURPS Dungeon Fantasy as run by Peter" document. Or maybe just some guidelines.
We'll start with a quote from my last session:
"This game combines the worst of new-school and old-school gaming. You are limited by your character's abilities, like in new-school. And you're punished for your mistakes as a player, like in old-school."
This sums up my game pretty well. Player skill is critical. My game is unforgiving of player mistakes. Forgot to say you were looting the body? You didn't. Didn't mention tapping for a pit? Well, sucks to be you, make a DX roll to avoid the fall!
But at the same time, player skill doesn't replace the character sheet. You can't exceed the character as defined. Case in point, one very smart guy I know dropped in and ran two NPC halberdiers for me. He had a great idea about how to discern where a secret door could be, using his real-world knowledge of architecture and design. I didn't let that fly, because he was running average IQ former caravan guards who didn't know a secret door from a solid stone wall. If he comes back to game (we're hoping he has time) and runs an Artificer (from GURPS DF 4) I'm totally going to encourage this behavior. Another case in point - a great description about how you disarm a trap doesn't mean you disarm it, it means you get a bonus when you roll for it.
If the player is good at tactical combat, is that okay? Sure. If another memorized every monster book in existence, can he use that stuff? Sure, I have no problem with that - I probably changed some of it anyway. But if he knows how to mix gunpowder, should I let him? Eh, what's your character's Chemistry skill? None? Okay, go for a default roll and good luck. It's the same, to my mind, as making guys who are good at real-world combat roll to hit or to pull off some aimed shot.
To put it another way:
Effects are character dependent, decisions are player dependent.
I think that's pretty old style, personally. The numbers we base your rolls on, and the effects of your decisions on, is on your sheet. But what you can try to do is limited only by your imagination and the situation you find your character in. The difference between "old school" and "new school" games might be the number of defined traits, and number of hard rules for determining effect. But it's a difference of degree, not kind. We're all rolling at some point. In my games, you can try to leverage whatever player skill you have. But your character and your rolls tell us what happened.
Speaking of rolls:
Whenever possible, roll in front of everyone.
I, also, believe in the oracular power of dice. Or at least, I know that randomness is fun, and adds to the game for everyone. It's even better when you roll for numbers everyone either knows or can easily derive in front of everyone. Damage rolls, hit rolls for mooks with a known skill, critical hit table rolls, etc. - roll right in front of everyone. I often just dump the dice over the screen and say "Take that much damage!" without even looking. I'll roll against unknown targets behind the screen, to preserve mysteries like the Will score of the opponent or if there is really a secret door or how many turns it'll take before the reinforcements arrive. I may pretend to roll for stuff that's predetermined, but I don't fudge dice in game.
How about this one, going back through every GURPS game I ran:
"You can die in any random combat. And I'm actively running the NPCs like people - they'll try their best to kill or their best to survive."
This. I run the NPCs for keeps. They don't want to die, or lose fights. I'm going to run them like I think they'd really act, and when I'm not sure I'll roll to see. I don't stack odds. I play the rules fairly and the NPCs use the same rules as you to adjudicate their actions.
Balance is for rewards, not challenges.
I don't pretend you can win every fight. Some might be pushovers, some might be fatal. I'm not scaling challenges to your level. I do scale rewards to challenges, though. The tough monsters have the good treasure. If weak monsters had it, the tough monsters would take it away. If the trap was trivial to disarm, then someone probably would have done it already. If they didn't, there must have been some difficulty that made it too hard to get there or find the spot.
And as discussed before:
I don't provide solutions, I provide problems.
Finally, the world is there for you to change.
This isn't one of those game worlds where you can't change anything. It's all there for you to change, kill, destroy, or build on. My job is to be an impartial judge, not a defender of the canon material. Kill Eliminster. Burn Rivendell. Knife Conan in a dark alley and take his stuff. Whatever. You're the (potential) heroes, or at least the protagonists, and it's your playground. Be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions (see the bits about dice, balance, rules adjudication, etc.) but you can also reap the rewards. Don't be afraid to whack the important NPC, he's got no plot protection. There is no Lord British here.
That's probably not complete, but it'll do as a manifesto of the game.