A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable.
- 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
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
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
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
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'
. 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
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
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
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!
 Did these game designers learn nothing from Appendix N? It is the conflict between Law and Chaos that is exciting, not Balance!
 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.