Today, I'm wrapping up 2021 by starting my series of posts discussing the points Prince of Nothing brought up on his blog regarding the value/benefit of old school D&D play compared to both newer forms of play and the artpunk movement. And of course, we need to start with his initial statement of why all this even matters:
0. The resurgence and longevity of the oldschool playstyle is no mere happenstance but an indication that there is something fundamental to its merits which modern TTRPGs largely fail to capture.
On its surface, there seems nothing to argue or quibble over. It's an opinion. But, it's worded as a fact, so let's take a deeper look at it and what it means. Or at least my interpretation of it. Feel free to disagree!
Have people continued to play older versions of D&D all the past nearly 50 years? Yes. That's a fact. It can't be denied. And I'm talking about people who started with the old woodgrain box sets of OD&D and still prefer that edition. Sure, they have probably tried other editions of D&D. Probably other RPGs. But they keep returning to OD&D. The same with 1E AD&D and the various box sets of Classic D&D.
I'm one of the people who tried lots of stuff, still plays other games/versions, but prefers older D&D to newer. And IMO, yes, there's just something to the older editions that resonates with me more than the newer ones. The first question is, what is it?
Personally, I think it's something I've actually seen quite a few people mentioning lately. Old school D&D is focused on treasure. Gold = XP. It's not classes and levels. Not Vancian magi. Not the tropes. For sure not alignment. Gold = XP. That's it.
Gold = XP provides the impetus for GAME PLAY. I was just talking to my son last night about various RPGs. One member of our group wants to run another Black Hack family game this weekend. But in those games, we get leveled up after every X game sessions. Doesn't matter if we're sitting around town chatting with NPCs for 3 hours, or risking our lives in some gods-forsaken hellhole fighting monsters. We'll level up after X number of sessions. So why are we mucking around risking death? We should be sitting around playing cards with Dieter the Town Gambler all session, or hitting on the barmaids/stable boys, or wandering around town just seeing what's there. Do that for enough sessions to level up. THEN maybe go fight some monsters. And just why are we fighting the monsters anyway? Because like Mt. Everest, they're there? There isn't even XP for killing them like there is in 5E!
XP for treasure gives us a reason to go adventuring. It's a goal everyone shares. And it drives play. THAT is the "something fundamental to its merits" that Prince of Nothing is talking about. Game play always has a default motive for when nothing else is motivating play.
But there's a second question we need to ask. If that quality is so fundamental to old school play, and other games/editions fail to include it, why have the vast majority of gamers moved on to newer editions of D&D and/or other RPGs entirely?
Well, the answer to that is quite simple. Gold = XP is definitely a merit of old school play. Having a default motive to fall back on is nice. But it's not the only motive of play, and isn't a universal motivator. And for some people, the motive to play is to EXPERIENCE. They want to get into the head of their PC (especially if that PC is very different from themselves). They want to explore strange landscapes and social situations. They want to be taken out of the everyday. That is what the artpunk movement is targeting. I think it's also a big draw of a lot of the indie/storygames crowd. And also a big appeal of games like 5E and Pathfinder, where the number of fantasy races allowed keeps growing and growing and human PCs become the oddity rather than the norm.
And I'm not saying these are the only two motives of play. I'm sure there are many more. But since Prince posted his list of axioms as a response to the popularity (or at least high sales volume and critical acclaim) of artpunk products in the OSR, that's the only other one I think we need to discuss right now.
So on this statement of intent, I agree with the opinion being shared, but don't think it is quite as concrete as Prince's wording makes it seem. At least as I read it, there is an unstated "And this is why old school D&D is better."
I'm happier with my boiled down version:
0. Older D&D has merit as a game.
It's stating the opinion in a way that people can, and will, still disagree with, but it's not implying something lesser about other games or newer editions that don't share the same merits.