Apr 6, 2021

Six Cultures of Play

In this post I am going to present the taxonomy of the six main play cultures as well as a few notes about their historical origins. I am doing this to help people from different play cultures both understand their own values better as well as to encourage stronger and more productive cross-cultural discussion.

There are at least six main cultures of play that have emerged over the course of the roleplaying game hobby. There may be more: my analysis is mainly restricted to English-language RPG cultures, tho' at least three of them have significant non-English presences as well. In addition to these six cultures, there's a proto-culture that existed from 1970-1976 before organisation into cultures really began. 

A culture of play is a set of shared norms (goals, values, taboos, etc.), considerations, and techniques that inform a group of people who are large enough that they are not all in direct contact with one another (let's call that a "community"). These cultures of play are transmitted through a variety of media, ranging from books and adventures to individuals teaching one another to magazine articles to online streaming shows. A culture of play is broadly similar to a "network of practice" if you're familiar with that jargon. 

Individuals in the hobby, having been aligned to and trained in one or more of these cultures, then develop individual styles. I want to point out that I think talking about specific games as inherently part of some culture is misleading, because games can be played in multiple different styles in line with the values of different cultures. But, many games contain text that advocates for them to be played in a way that is in line with a particular culture, or they contain elements that express the creator's adoption of a particular culture's set of values.

The Six Cultures

1) Classic

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly". This is explicit in the AD&D 1e DMG's advice to dungeon masters, but recurs in a number of other places, perhaps most obviously in tournament modules, especially the R-series put out by the RPGA in its first three years of operation, which emphasise periodic resets between sections of the adventure to create a "fair" experience for players as they cycle around from tournament table to tournament table playing the sections.

The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge. At some point, PCs become powerful enough to command domains, and this opens up the scope of challenges further, by allowing mass hordes to engage in wargame-style clashes. The point of playing the game in classic play is not to tell a story (tho' it's fine if you do), but rather the focus of play is coping with challenges and threats that smoothly escalate in scope and power as the PCs rise in level. The idea of longer campaigns with slow but steady progression in PC power interrupted only by the occasional death is a game play ideal for classic culture.

This comes into being sometime between 1976-1977, when Gygax shifts from his early idea that OD&D is a "non-game" into trying to stabilise the play experience. It starts with him denouncing "Dungeons and Beavers" and other deviations from his own style in the April 1976 Strategic Review, but this turns into a larger shift in TSR's publishing schedule from 1977 onwards. Specifically, they begin providing concrete play examples - sample dungeons and scenarios, including modules - and specific advice about proper play procedures and values to consumers.

This shift begins with the publication of Holmes Basic (1977) and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1977), before eventually culminating in AD&D (1977-1979) and the Mentzer-written BECMI (1983-1986) line. Judges Guild, the RPGA, Dragon Magazine, and even other publishers (e.g. Mayfair Games) get on board with this and spread Classic norms around before Gygax and Mentzer leave TSR in late 1985 / early 1986. Judges Guild  loses its license to print D&D material in 1985, and the RPGA's tournaments have shifted away from classic play by about 1983. Most of the other creators at TSR have shifted to "trad" (see below) by the mid-1980s, and so the institutional support for this style starts dries up, even tho' people continue to run and play in "classic" games.

Classic is revived in the early 2000s when the holdouts who've continued to play in that style use the internet to come together on forums like DragonsfootKnights and Knaves Alehouse, and others, and this revival is part of what motivates OSRIC (2006) to be released. NB: This is the only name in this essay where it's not an autonym used by the practitioners themselves, tho' Gus L. of All Dead Generations is interested in many of their ideas and does call his own style "Classic".

One weird quirk of history is that people who were trying to revive classic in the early 2000s are often lumped into the OSR, despite the two groups really having distinct norms and values. Some of the confusion is because a few key notable individuals (e.g. Matt Finch) actually did shift from being classic revivalists to being early founders of the OSR. Because both groups are interested in challenge-based play, even if they have different takes on challenge's meaning, there are moment of productive overlap and interaction (and also lots of silly disputes and sneering; such is life).

This intermingling of people from different play cultures who initially appear to be part of the same movement but turn out to be interested in different things is pretty common - story games and Nordic LARP go through a similar intermingling before they split off into different things (more on that in a sec).

2) Trad (short for "traditional") 

Its own adherents and advocates call it "trad", but we shouldn't think of it as the oldest way of roleplaying (it is not). Trad is not what Gary and co. did (that's "classic"), but rather is the reaction to what they were doing.

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision. The PCs can contribute, but their contributions are secondary in value and authority to the DM's. If you ever hear people complain about (or exalt!) games that feel like going through a fantasy novel, that's trad. Trad prizes gaming that produces experiences comparable to other media, like movies, novels, television, myths, etc., and its values often encourage adapting techniques from those media.

Trad emerges in the late 1970s, with an early intellectually hub in the Dungeons and Beavers crew at Caltech, but also in Tracy and Laura Hickman's gaming circle in Utah. The defining incident for Tracy was evidently running into a vampire in a dungeon and thinking that it really needed a story to explain what it was doing down there wandering around. Hickman wrote a series of adventures in 1980 (the Night Verse series) that tried to bring in more narrative elements, but the company that was supposed to publish them went bust. So he decided to sell them to TSR instead, and they would only buy them if he came to work for them. So in 1982, he went to work at TSR and within a few years, his ideas would spread throughout the company and become its dominant vision of "roleplaying".

Trad gets its first major publication articulating its vision of play outside of TSR in Sandy Petersen's Call of Cthulhu (1981), which tells readers that the goal of play is to create an experience like a horror story, and provides specific advice (the "onion layer" model) for creating that. The values of trad crystallise as a major and distinct culture of play in D&D with the Ravenloft (1983) and Dragonlance (1984) modules written by Hickman. TSR published Ravenloft in response to Call of Cthulhu's critical and commercial success, and then won a fistful of awards and sold tons of copies themselves. 

Within a few years, the idea of "roleplaying, not rollplaying" and the importance of a Dungeon Master creating an elaborate, emotionally-satisfying narrative had taken over. I think probably the ability to import terms and ideas from other art forms probably helped a great deal as well, since understanding trad could be done by anyone who'd gone through a few humanities classes in university.

Trad is the hegemonic culture of play from at least the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, and it's still a fairly common style of play. For an example of a fairly well-thought through style of trad by someone who's been influential on the last 15 or so years, check out S. John Ross's RPG Lexicon. 

Both of the next two styles emerge out of problems with trad, especially the experience of playing Vampire (a tradder-than-trad game in its authors' aspirations), but the details of that are larger than this essay can contain so I'm just going to mention it and leave it for another time.

3) Nordic Larp

This is again an autonym. The "Nordic" part is more about origins and mass of the player base than a true regional limitation of any sort. The "Larp" designation is part of the name for reasons that are unclear to me, even tho' its ideas started in tabletop roleplaying, and its philosophy and aspirations are realisable in tabletop games just as much as in dress-up games. (Edit: Spelling it as if it wasn't an acronym is a shibboleth of Nordic Larp, so in keeping with the autonym principle I've edited it to follow that convention when referring to the culture, but kept the activity as LARP)

Nordic Larp is built around the idea that the primary goal of a roleplaying game is immersion in an experience. Usually in a specific character's experiences, but sometimes in another kind of experience where player and character are not sharply distinguished - the experimental Jeep group often uses abstract games to affect the player directly. The more "bleed" you can create between a player and the role they occupy within the game, the better. Nordic Larps often feature quite long "sessions" (like weekend excursions) followed by long debriefs in which one processes the experiences one had as the character.

Embedding the player's character within a larger story can be one way of producing vivid, absorbing experiences, but it's not necessary and may even interfere with pulling it off (especially when done badly). Nordic Larp players emphasise their collaborative aspects, but when you drill into this, it's a rejection of trad's idea of a single DM-auteur crafting an experience, and the collaboration is there in service of improving immersion by blending player and character agency more thoroughly.

I think LARP conjures up images of people doing fantasy cosplay, and there are sometimes elements of that in some Nordic Larps, but I actually think the trend has been away from fantastical games to scenarios and set-ups that are closer to real life since it allows the incorporation of modern architecture, technology, and other details from the real world to facilitate immersion.

Nordic Larp's first major publication that I know of is the very self-conscious Manifesto of the Turku School by Mike Pohjola in 2000, and I think the early community is in dialogue with the Forge crew, tho' the two groups have very different ideals of play. By 2005 you have specific groups like Jeep developing these ideas, and in 2010 you get the publication of the Nordic Larp book. Nowadays there's also a wiki and an official website

Nordic Larp is the part of roleplaying that seems to receive the most grants and funding for academic study. I'm never sure why, tho' I suspect some of it has to do with the interest in commodifying LARP ideas to create immersive entertainment experiences for tourists at mega-resorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. I'm not going to link to any specific individuals connected to Nordic Larp who have jobs there to avoid doxing private individuals, but they exist (please don't dox anyone in the comments, either).

4) Story Games

Again, an autonym. Most people who dislike them call them stuff like "Forge games" or "post-Forge indies" after the Forge indie RPG forums. "Indie RPGs" was a term for these at one point as well, but I don't think it was particularly distinctive or edifying, and evidently neither did the adherents to this culture since they mostly abandoned it. Here's a post discussing the origin of the term "story game" from Across the Table.

The Big Model is notoriously obtuse and post-Forge theory has a lot of ideas I strongly disagree with, but I think a fair characterisation of their position that doesn't use their own terminology is that the ideal play experience minimises ludonarrative dissonance. A good game has a strong consonance between the desires of the people playing it, the rules themselves, and the dynamics of the those things interacting. Together, these things allow the people to achieve their desires, whatever they may be. "Incoherence" is to be avoided as creating "zilch play" or "brain damage" as Ron Edwards once called it.

The story games crowd, to their credit, is willing to be very radical in terms of techniques towards that end - both the mechanics proper and the development of positions (story gamers often call them "Creative Agendas") like "narrativism" are meant to produce consonance and avoid dissonance on as many levels as they can picture it happening.

Story games starts with Ron Edwards in 1999, when he writes System Does Matter and sets up the Forge. By 2004 you have the Provisional Glossary and the Big Model, and one million arguments on the internet about what is or isn't "narrativist" and how much brain damage RPGs are causing, etc. The Story games forums themselves are founded in 2006 as a successor to the Forge. For the past decade, the big cluster of story game design has tended to orient itself around "Powered by the Apocalypse" games patterned after or building on Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker.

BTW, if you want a great example of someone applying the cultural norms of story games to a game that was written to be played in a trad way, The Sacrament of Death by Eero Tuovinen describes his experiences doing just that.

5) The OSR ("Old School Renaissance / Revival") 

Yes, it's this late in this chronological listing. And yes, the OSR is not "classic" play. It's a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition. 

The OSR draws on the challenge-based gameplay from the proto-culture of D&D and combines it with an interest in PC agency, particularly in the form of decision-making. The goal is a game where PC decision-making, especially diegetic decision-making, is the driver of play. I think you can see this in a very pure form in the advice Chris McDowall gives out on his blog for running Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland. 

An important note I will make here is to distinguish the progressive challenge-based play of the "classic" culture from the more variable challenge-based play of the OSR. The OSR mostly doesn't care about "fairness" in the context of "game balance" (Gygax did). The variation in player agency across a series of decisions is far more interesting to most OSR players than it is to classic players.

The OSR specifically refuses the authoritative mediation of a pre-existing rules structure in order to encourage diegetic interactions using what S. John Ross would call "ephemeral resources" and "invisible rulebooks", and that the OSR calls "playing the world" and "player skill", respectively. Basically, by not being bound by the rules, you can play with a wider space of resources that contribute to framing differences in PC agency in potentially very precise and finely graded ways, and this allows you to throw a wider variety of challenges at players for them to overcome. I could write an entire post on just what random tables are meant to do, but they tie into the variance in agency and introduce surprise and unpredictability, ensuring that agency does vary over time.

I tend to date the start of the OSR from shortly after the publication of OSRIC (2006), which blew open the ability to use the OGL to republish the mechanics of old, pre-3.x D&D. With this new option, you had people who mainly wanted to revive AD&D 1e as a living game, and people who wanted to use old rule-sets as a springboard for their own creations. 2007 brought Labyrinth Lord, and the avalanche followed thereafter. The early OSR had Grognardia to provide it with a reconstructed vision of the past to position itself as the inheritors of, it had distinct intellectual developments like "Melan diagrams" of dungeons and Chris Kutalik's pointcrawls, and I would say it spent the time between 2006 and roughly 2012 forming its norms into a relatively self-consistent body of ideas about proper play.

6) OC / Neo-trad

This is the only one of the terms that isn't fully an autonym, tho' "OC" can be appended to a "looking for game" post online to recruit people from this culture consistently, so it's closer. I also call it "neo-trad", firstly because the OC RPG culture shares a lot of the same norms as trad, secondly because I think people who belong to this culture believe they are part of trad. You also see this style sometimes called "the modern style" when being contrasted to the OSR. Here's an example of someone who calls it "neo-trad" elaborating a very pure vision of the style (tho' I disagree with the list of games provided as examples of neo-trad at the end of the article). On Reddit, "OC" is often called "modern" as in "the modern way to play" or "modern games".

OC basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players' roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. OC culture has a different sense of what a "story" is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce "fun" for the players.

This focus on realising player aspirations is what allows both the Wizard 20 casting Meteor Swarm to annihilate a foe and the people who are using D&D 5e to play out running their own restaurant to be part of a shared culture of play. This culture is sometimes pejoratively called the "Tyranny of Fun" (a term coined in the OSR) because of its focus on relatively rapid gratification compared to other styles.

The term "OC" means "original character" and comes from online freeform fandom roleplaying that was popular on Livejournal and similar platforms back in the early 2000s. "OC" is when you bring an original character into a roleplaying game set in the Harry Potter universe, rather than playing as Harold the Cop himself. Despite being "freeform" (meaning no die rolls and no Dungeon Master) these games often had extensive rulesets around the kinds of statements one could introduce to play, with players appealing to the ruleset itself against one another to settle disputes. For the younger generations of roleplayers, these kinds of games were often their introduction to the hobby. 

I think OC RPG emerges during the 3.x era (2000-2008), probably with the growth of Living Greyhawk Core Adventures and the apparatus of "organised play" and online play with strangers more generally. Organised play ended up diminishing the power of the DM to shift authority onto rules texts, publishers, administrators, and really, to players. Since DMs may change from adventure to adventure but player characters endure, they become more important, with standard rules texts providing compatibility between game. DM discretion and invention become things that interfere with this intercompatibility, and thus depreciated. This is where the emphases on "RAW" and using only official material (but also the idea that if it's published it must be available at the table) come from - it undermines DM power and places that power in the hands of the PCs.

These norms were reinforced and spread by "character optimization" forums that relied solely on text and rhetorically deprecated "DM fiat", and by official character builders in D&D and other games. Modules, which importantly limit the DM's discretion to provide a consistent set of conditions for players, are another important textual support for this style. OC styles are also particularly popular with online streaming games like Critical Role since when done well they produce games that are fairly easy to watch as television shows. The characters in the stream become aspirational figures that a fanbase develops parasocial relationships with and cheers on as they realise their "arcs".

No Quizzes, No Buckets

When I first presented these on a forum, someone joked that I ought to create a quiz for people to determine which culture they belonged to, but I'd rather not. Truthfully, I think most individual gamers and groups are a blend of cultures, with that blend realised as an individual style. The play cultures are more like paradigms - they cohere at the level of value and reflection on what "excellent play" could mean (put more formally, they share teloi of play). To be a part of a play culture is in some sense the capacity to recognise when someone else is playing in accord with a set of values you share with them.

My main purpose in the above taxonomy is to help people better understand that there are distinct paradigms of play that esteem different things, tho' they can be sutured together (with all sorts of fun results) in concrete situations. I doubt this list is exhaustive, and there are probably cultures I've left out as well as ones that are yet to emerge. The purpose of the list is mainly to briefly illustrate that there are many different values of play, and to discuss the logic animating some of the more well-known ones.

The original purpose of this essay was to talk about OC roleplaying, since I think it's the least well-characterised out in the wild, and most characterisations are relatively pejorative (see the above "tyranny of fun"). There also tends to be a lot of confusion between people working within the paradigm of OC and trad, since they often use the same terms to refer to very different things. 

Also, without wanting to be a jerk, OC roleplaying tends to be the default paradigm of new players coming to the hobby through streaming, and thus has the largest group of people who are low-skill and ignorant of the history of roleplaying. I'm hopeful that articulating their values and relation to the larger hobby will encourage them to develop OC roleplaying culture in interesting and robust ways, while also steering them away from arrogance about the universality of their vision.

I am hopeful that the above taxonomy will help people to apprehend and navigate the differences between cultures and styles rather than constantly running into dead-ends as it turns out that the baseline assumptions about play that one is working from simply aren't shared with one's interlocutor(s).

I unfortunately can't respond to comments on the blog directly, so if people leave comments or questions about the above taxonomy, I will collect them up and respond in a blog post.

34 comments:

  1. Thanks, this is really informative. Especially interesting to me is the difference between Classic and OSR on the one hand, and Trad and OC on the other.

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  2. Thanks for this, especially for articulating "neo-trad" as a style - it's something I hadn't really thought of as its own category before.

    I do notice that character immersion only seems to be an explicit goal of Nordic LARP, but anecdotally the appeal of this seems to be quite wider! When I notice people articulate why they don't like storygames, or when I try to articulate that myself, what seems to come up most commonly is that things like PC-NPC asymmetry and narrative currency break immersion. These people are most commonly coming from a trad, neo-trad, or trad-influenced OSR perspective - certainly not "pure" versions, but one where I'm confident that the immersion influence isn't picked up from hanging out with the Nordic LARP scene! So I think this immersion goal really does structure a lot of how those practices work, especially in terms of preferred play procedures.

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  3. Also (I realize just after submitting) I don't know how much the two OC/neotrad strains naturally fit in with one another - that is, the player-focused version coming out of charop boards and the version coming out of streaming and podcasts. I haven't listened to Critical Role, but I do remember listening to Glass Cannon for a few seasons and it was extremely trad in its focus on providing a narrative story through traditional gameplay mechanics, something practically demanded by that kind of format. My intuition is that those coming through Critical Role are imbibing a version of GM-led narrative play-with-traditional-mechanics moreso than player-led charop, even if both are things that grognards can get fussy about.

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  4. This is a REALLY good essay.

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  5. This is a great description of the different play cultures and I appreciate the clarity by which you've identified the assumptions and styles for each.

    I think there's something to be said for how the influence or popularity of different cultures wax and wane with the times. I imagine editions of D&D can be roughly mapped to the rise of each one of these play cultures, either as a promotion or rejection of the prevailing style of play.

    How do you see these trends continuing in the future? As a millennial/zoomer, I see friends following streamers and Twitch content to a level near-parallel to TV, and I can only imagine that influence continues to grow. One of the effects of streamed games like Critical Role is how "siloed" new roleplayers are in terms of their expectations and assumptions regarding RPG play. Someone new to the hobby may only be exposed to the OC/neo-trad as the "right" way to play.

    Are

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  6. responding to matthias, i wonder about that too. i suspect that charop and critical role-esque "performance play" that basically resembles cathectic improv are at odds to some extent. however, the folks in the space seem to deny it.

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  7. Nice work - this is helpful as a frame; particularly breaking out strands like trad and storygames. This was a fuzzy spot for me.

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  8. This is a fantastic analysis. Likely to spawn lots of debate and disagreement by those who don't carefully read the caveat that "most individual players and groups are a blend of cultures". This is especially true in a group like my weekly group: I started Classic, back in 1979 (but have "evolved" into OSR), two of our group were more Trad, with 2e, two are more OC/Neotrad, and the other two I just plain don't know. The cool thing is that our various play styles each bring something cool to the table, and we enjoy the amalgam of them all.

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  9. Great essay, and thanks for the shout out. I think after reading your description my play-style is more "Classic" or "Neo-Classical" perhaps? It may seem not as my design focus is on A) Filling in gaps in Classic rules that were likely assumed to be part of the war gaming inheritance of the Lake Geneva crew (e.g. Hazard/exploration dice and slot encumbrance) B)Varies considerably from the aesthetic of D&D vernacular fantasy. Goals and methods sound pretty similar though.

    Thanks for putting this together - it's quite convincing and really points out that the difference in play style are as old as the hobby, which is a useful distinction to push back against nostalgia driven gatekeeping and misunderstandings.

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  10. The reasons Nordic larp (and it's "larp", all lowercase - we have fought for this) stuff is the focus of so much academic study and gets grant money are not related to the GCC. I suspect the misunderstanding arises from one single project undertaken some years ago in Dubai by a company that has since gone out of business. The actual reasons are that many people active in the scene has entered the academia and universities in Tampere, Gothenburg and Copenhagen have solid game studies programs. The Nordic countries also have fairly generous grants programs for this kind of thing, and these things influence one another. A larp designer can point to a body of academic and para-academic literature on Nordic larp, and therefore has legitimacy in the eyes of the grants committee (nowadays some of the cultural funds have actual experts on board). They get grants, the field gains credibility, and it's easier (it is never easy) to get future grants.

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  11. Insightful stuff, and much to think on.

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  12. Really shrewd, this is one of those rare insights that's both elegant and novel enough to make one exclaim "oh gosh, of course!" Interestingly, until now I generally ascribed to there being three broad cultures: Old-School, Trad, and Story-games, but they only somewhat covered the bases; splitting each in half is something I wish I'd thought of sooner (especially since I was already mostly aware of the split between Classic and Revival behind the facade of the OSR).

    One criticism: I don't agree with your evaluation of the actual-play values of story-games, it's too focussed on the dialog around them. I think a more accurate description is that story-games believe that systems can (and to some degree are obligated to) evoke distinct experiences. There are other nuances like questions of authority, but that's the main thing. This clarifies why nordic-larp is distinct; where story-games say "rules support experience, immersion isn't a thing," Nordic-larp says "rules obscure experience, immersion is the *only* thing."

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    1. I agree. Also, I would stress that story now games (much like OSR) are also incredibly pro-player agency. Story now games typically resist the pre-authoring of story (hence "story now" contra "story before") and GM force, particularly when it applies to GM as author and adjudicator. IMHO, both OSR and story now games are counter-measures to GM authorship in Trad gaming.

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  13. What you list as 'neotrad' seems to be several styles conflated into one.

    Is it players trusting the rules to be well-written such that the GM is just another player, and they can trust the rules as written to work out?
    Or is it players frequently *modifying* the rules, as listed in the 'Tyranny of Fun', for gratification or ease of streaming?

    Or perhaps it's the real largest RPG segment - "players who want to play an interesting character, but are forced to default to DnD as their system because that's what people around them are playing"?

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  14. Great stuff. The distinction between trad and neo-trad as "GM-centered storytelling" vs "Player-centered storytelling" is not something I'd seen articulated before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Similarly with the distinction between classic and OSR. Something I frequently like to point out is that certain OSR-isms like McDowell's "all traps should be obvious, the fun & challenge is figuring out how to bypass them rather than rolling dice to find them", while useful, seem explicitly at odds with the actual old school rules what with their 1-in-6 search checks everywhere. I think that tension is what I've been seeing.

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  15. Thanks for this, I love learning more about the history of the hobby as it enriches my understanding of the 'why'.

    I came into the hobby through watching streaming, so the OC/Neo-Trad style was my first exposure and what I sought to replicate in my first games. There is, however, a lot of vestigial content/practices/themes in D&D 5E that are not well explained by the current rules. Only by diving into more history and studying other ruleset, especially those in the OSR community have I finally begun to understand the 'why'.

    For example, the 5E cleric feature 'Turn Undead' seemed like a 'meh' to me the first time I read through it. "Why would I want to scare undead monsters off? I want to fight them!" But working through Old School Essentials and the OSR ethos I recognize now this was a valuable skill to bypass some fights that might have otherwise been lethal. I had already assumed that if I was fighting undead it would be a balanced fight and I'd have a chance to succeed.

    I'm now looking to migrate my table to a more DM-friendly OSR style game. But what I gain in flexibility as a DM, the players will lose in durability and super powers. My players love the trappings of the OC/Neo-Trad but it's difficult for me as a DM to maintain.

    For that reason, I think a lot of the OC/Neo-Trad DMs will either migrate or burn out and we'll see an increasing backlash as tables explore other options.

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  16. > responding to matthias, i wonder about that too. i suspect that charop and critical role-esque "performance play" that basically resembles cathectic improv are at odds to some extent. however, the folks in the space seem to deny it.

    Right, and they even have a term for that denial: the "Stormwind Fallacy," that you can't play and provide a backstory for a character you've put optimization work into. As phrased here (and there), I think this critique of a false dichotomy is absolutely correct: you can indeed take your 1-20 build and play them as a fully-fleshed out character, certainly no less than you can when you take a bunch of OSR tables as your mechanical starting point.

    I guess my issue was that I was thinking too much in terms of "player-led" and "GM-led," and thinking of things like narrative arcs and so on as inherently GM-led. But I wonder if what leds something of a unity to the neotrad style (not that it, like all the others, doesn't contain contradictions) is an assumed social contract with something like:

    1) The player will present a character to the group. Both mechanical stuff (like "builds") and backstory elements are an expression of agency and artistry on the player's part.
    2) The GM is expected to provide (i) an escalating series of balanced encounters (a bit like the "classic" model)! and (ii) "narrative arcs" that fit the characters, their backstory, their personalities, and so on.

    Through this, gameplay and narrative are fused in purpose in a way that would make (a hypothetical, less cranky) Ron Edwards happy.

    But someone like George (great comment btw!) might be better able to articulate if that fits what they're seeing from OC/NT spaces.

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  17. I think your taxonomy is great. I don’t have enough experience with your group 6 to comment on whether it’s 1, 2, or many groups (as others have suggested), but the rest looks very solid.

    But a quibble with your history: Story Games (the culture of play, not necessarily the specific label) predate the Forge and predate Edwards’ essay. There were commercially published story game-style RPGs in the ‘90s, and glimmers of the playstyle at least as far back as the late ‘80s. The Forge didn’t create the playstyle; it validated, popularized, and to a degree codified, it, in the processing creating a new taxonomy and vocabulary (largely supplanting the existing (conflicting and not-widely-used) taxonomies & vocabularies for that playstyle).

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  18. This feels like it's inflated with complex jargon for no reason and the explanation loses half the readers (I say this after coming from a discussion on a dnd discord about this article). Next time, can you include a simplified explanation in layman's terms so that it would be easier to understand, as is, 4 and onward get confusing. Is nordic supposed to just be people like to roleplay?

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  19. Really interesting. If you're following up any time, my systematising brain wanted more reasons why these are distinct philosophies rather than just shifts in emphasis over time. I think the last bit about individuals and groups having blended styles fitted better to the body content than did the intro about values and taboos.
    On immersion, I think this was a consideration well back into the last century, if you want to find the roots of 'Nordic larp'. I'd have to dig through my collection to date it precisely but I think there was a Dragon feature back in the 90s on fear and atmosphere in horror games, fundamentally about the emotional experience aspect of play. Less seriously, the very early Knights of the Dinner Table satirised the trend with the eyebrow removing fireball generator and the steam tunnels incident.
    BTW, writing acronyms with only an initial capital or none at all is not at odds with them being acronyms. The Guardian style guide for example says all caps is only for initialisms pronounced letter by letter (eg USA), initial cap for most acronyms (eg Nato) and no cap for acronyms known mainly as words (eg laser). Seems like the Nordic larp crowd want to be a proper word?

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  20. Coming from non-english RPG culture highly influenced by Japanese RPG scenes, and OC roleplaying culture (which is not same as TTRPG). There is this trend that focuses on the characters personal drama and especially their relationships. I will call this a Shipping culture myself.
    This culture focuses one two things. One is role playing, to figure out how the character will act in certain situations. Whole plots and situations are just tools for the character's narrative. Two, the relationship. This culture focuses on the "special, irreplaceable" relationship between two characters, and how this relationship develops through certain circumstances. What I find this different from general OC culture or more traditional shipping culture is that the characters themselves are extension of the players. Although still being two different entities, immersion is huge part of this culture and sometimes it reaches the point of virtual dating. Which was originally derived from OC role playing communities that are much, much more older than this trend in RPG scene.

    Rules associated with this culture mostly comes from Japan, but I think any 1 on 1 RPG rule can be associated with this. Examples I know of is 《Stellar Knights of the Silver Sword》 and 《Unsung Duet》.

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  21. Brilliant essay. Really insightful and thought-provoking. I especially liked the distinction between "Classic" and "OSR", which I hadn't really thought of before (having bought into the idea that OSR was a resurrection of how RPGs were originally played). However, I think you're absolutely right. Might there be a "proto-Classic" style in the dark ages before the Classic style was codified by AD&D and tournament play? I'm thinking mid-1970s Greyhawk / Blackmoor. Looking at the OD&D wandering monster table, for example, and contrasting it with the B/X wandering monster table (as Martin Ralya has done: https://www.martinralya.com/tabletop-rpgs/wandering-monsters-odd-vs-bx-dd/ ), it doesn't scream "fair" challenge to me. If anything, it seems crushingly arbitrary and unfair (an unfairness that AD&D would smooth out).

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  22. Interesting.

    I tend to view it from a much earlier perspective that predates D&D with war games at the root. i.e. The games with play surfaces and minis being a regression to a war game RPG. Pathfinder is a good example of this style.

    What you are describing does not really jive with in play behavior. The Classic Style is Traditional Play methodology and comes from Arneson's Blackmoor, 1971 to present. I've watched Arneson's group run games and this is what they do.

    OSR and FKR ascribe to Traditional Play methods. I'd say that how people describe their games may not be in line with what they really do and the Community is really diverse.

    You might want to consider the changes within D&D as being related to the extent of Mechanization via rules, and the polarity in play experience created by how much mechanization exists vs.the extent that a referee simply makes rulings and or is being bound by Rules As Written. That is at the core for how RPGs come into existence.

    We all see different elements when examining RPGs. Again, I tend to lean toward the perspective that one needs to look at what the people do when they use their rules. To what extent are they bound by the rules and to what extent are they binding things together with Role Play Methodology.

    You can see my ideas on the subject in this 2+ hour movie here:
    https://vimeo.com/ondemand/sobfinal/354448963

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  23. I think "neo-trad" and "OC" should probably be a bit separated. This is partially for genealogic reasons. In the linked post about "neo-trad" style, a number of Free League games are mentioned (as well as games developed by Free League and distributed by Modiphius). These have their origin in a particular Swedish game design milieu where the term "neo-trad" was in use at least as early as 2006, in association with the publication of the game Noir by Marco Behrmann and Petter Nallo. Focus has always been on taking certain player-centering mechanics from story games and placing them within a more traditional framework. Grabbing stuff from FATE, Solar System and Powered by the Apocalypse seems popular. However, certain of the features described, such as rapid gratification, charop and focus on curated content, are not really part of this.

    The "OC" style, which is more born out of freeform internet roleplay, streaming and the popularity of 5e, is probably something like a decade younger. I'm not as familiar with it, and I would also presume that it is still in the process of taking shape. However, it contains so many new elements compared to the "neo-trad" style described above that I think it would be fairer to treat them separately.

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  24. Some rather academic and confusing words for a kid's game.

    We once just had a rulebook. People would follow the rules. Those rules set options and tone. A Ref would change rules less to fit player desire and more to discard what doesn't work.

    Confused by "taxonomy" (the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms). I would think players classified by social interaction, which has been done many times--power gamer vs social gamer--would be simpler and clear.

    Game systems might promote an order of organisms, but I have just not played many of these kinds of post 2000 storyteller games. Role-play may be a shitty term; adventure gaming may better describe what some players like myself do as a hobby. Too many things are called rpg, even White Box DnD is hardly the immersion style found in the examples online (read Mercer+Coville).

    Could be the problem many see with DnD is that it's popular but isn't useful for what many (most) enjoy.

    I game for comradery of overcoming challenges, to move to end points and allow characters to earn more options in future play. What pattern is that on the punchcard of taxonomy, caveman?

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  25. "I game for comradery of overcoming challenges, to move to end points and allow characters to earn more options in future play. What pattern is that on the punchcard of taxonomy, caveman?"
    -george rahm
    Classic I think. Maybe OSR, we'd need more data to say for sure.

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  26. This article is fascinating, but it's a bit weird that you're claiming OC/Neo-trad didn't emerge until the 2000s, because most of what you're describing about it matches how we played RPGs from 1989 onwards, and the person who taught me to play that way was older, and claimed her group played that way. Plus, the level of importance of the DM and the question of how important fun was and how valued input from the players should be was a significant point of debate from the early '90s onwards, on the early internet. So I recognise the Trad/Neo-trad divide, but it's definitely older than you're describing. As others have said too, the conflation with OC doesn't entirely make sense - whilst some of that stuff may have happened at similar times, and there's crossover, I don't think it's really the same thing.

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    1. Lee Davis-ThalbourneApril 19, 2021 at 1:37 AM

      I think it's worth noting that play styles do not equal cultures here - yes, the OC/Neo-trad style of play has existed for a long time, but it only more recently began to become an identifiable *culture*, independent of individual or group play-styles, something that is taught and transmitted outside of the actual game session.

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  27. I appreciate this taxonomy - most of the other attempts at trpg taxonomies I've seen don't acknowledge the existence of OC play, or don't distinguish it from storygames. I'm primarily OSR with some experience with PBtA storygames, but I've also got one foot in the fandom-derived OC space and I agree with your frustration at its poor characterization. I have tried to run what was in retrospect a hybrid OSR/OC game, using some storygame-derived bits of game design to try to bridge the gap. It went ok in general but not on that front - the disparity between those two play cultures was a constant tension and storygame techniques did not make for an effective bridge, possibly because I was treating storygame and OC play as basically interchangeable at the time. I'd like to try making a similar hybrid again sometime, but I think I'd want better characterization and theory of OC play to make it work.

    I agree with the other comments that your category of OC/neotrad is conflating at least two cultures of play, though. I would split out trpg-forum-derived charop and fandom-derived OC play as separate cultures of play with separate histories, and "neotrad" might be it's own third thing as well although I'm much less familiar with it. A couple further thoughts to try to characterize OC play better:

    I think it tends to carry with it a broader "fandom" ethos and approach, although I'm not sure how to describe that beyond just a vibe.

    With regards to the roles of players and the GM, I think OC play is characterized by a high level of player-led pre-planning. Both storygames and OSR have a strong norm of "play to find out what happens" (the phrase is PBtA, of course; the norm is at least as strong in OSR games but rarely stated as explicitly. "prep scenarios not plots" might be the closest OSR catechism), and my impression is that in trad games advance planning is mostly the realm of the GM. OC play includes not only bringing a character to the table with a backstory fleshed out as "an expression of agency and artistry" (to quote Matthias's nice phrasing), but often also includes the player planning out in advance how they want their character to grow and change as a person and potentially specific emotional and plot beats to hit along that arc. This is shared with/developed in collaboration with the GM, whose role is then to make sure that their plot incorporates all the plans of all their players along with whatever they have planned that the players don't know about. This isn't set in stone at character creation, players often change how they want their arcs to go in response to things that happen in-game and communicate that with the GM who changes their plans to incorporate it etc. etc. iteratively. I suspect this tendency comes out-of-character planning talk in freeform fandom RP, but I wasn't directly part of that scene so I don't know. I think this style much more closely approaches "collaborative writing" than any of the other cultures of play, but it retains players (and characters) reacting during play to things they didn't expect, which is one of the strengths of ttrpgs in general.
    (You could make an argument that charop also includes a similar style of player-led pre-planning that GMs design their own plans to accommodate, since builds are often planned out many levels in advance and GMs balance around that, but I still think it counts as a distinct culture of play).

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    1. Continued from above (ran out of characters, whoops):

      With regards to the desired experience of play, I'd tentatively characterize it as a) creating a character and gradually developing them as, again, "an expression of agency and artistry" in itself, b) being a fan of the other players characters (in the fandom sense) and seeing how they develop, c) playing out interactions and relationships (not necessarily romantic, but sometimes) between those characters as Pepp describes, and d) the question of "how would this character react to xyz unexpected situation, not only in terms of what they would do but also in terms of how they feel about it and how it affects them going forward". Of those four, c) and d) are certainly not unique to/definitive of the OC culture of play, but a) might be. PBtA games explicitly invoke b) ("be a fan of your character") but in practice I feel like that means something slightly different between the two cultures of play because of the distinction between strict "play to find out what happens" versus the inclusion of iteratively planned character arcs.

      There's also something to be said about how OSR and storygames seem to be largely made by and for amateur-game-designer-GMs and spend a lot of focus on curating experience of play through carefully tweaking rules and/or GMing technique, while OC play seems to be much less so and takes the rules more at face value.

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  28. I am afraid that this does not ring true to me:

    1. The were LARPS in the 1980's, though not named as such. This was because the edge of roleplay intersected thing such as the SCA.
    2. Wargaming was a big source of people especially in the "classic" and "traditional" modes of play. See Matt Colville on youtube for example. The want "tables" and to roll dice.
    3. The trials and tribulations of getting dice meant that whole swathes of people reject the notion out right. This is seen in the Roleplaying in Amber.
    4. The is a element of whimsy in many of the figures in the game industry that is not captured.
    5. The OSR in not the only style which reacts to the more modern sense. I am thinking of Hârn specifically. In a word, the are looking for "crunchiness" rather that "ease of play." Also "Empire of the Petal Throne" is not "ease of use."
    6. Comp Sci need to be highlight as a large influence.
    7. Styles of fiction and anime need more attention: people often wanted to make some specific character from a specific source, that influence their "culture."

    I could go on, but this looks like a first draft not a final product - as sort of "one man's look at the hobby," rather than a seriously though out system.

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  29. 1Levels note TnT no Alinements.
    2Alinements LG ,saintly beautficatic
    Skills Runequest( cults links )<> traveller ,no LG : space opera
    TFtrip gurps advantages /disadvantages
    Paranoia cuthul ;great feel
    Vampire 🧛‍♂️ social attacks
    Levels ,not levels
    Orcs trolls low Cha ,poor Languages ? Default to Str intimidation
    Or TnT RQ trolls high Cha command many ?
    Richard Dawkins ' beast mode?'vs social (not reasoning ?) Attack???

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  30. Very interesting stuff. Thanks!

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