problem with / awesome thing about
...classic D&D is it's not focused around any one way of playing.
So I was walking around Montreal today, where everything is French, and I realized that the frequent inability of the garage rockers of DIY D&D and the prog rockers of story-games and other forms of aggressive new-schoolery to understand what each other are on about isn't just a philosophy of gaming thing. It's a philosophy thing. A French philosophy thing, to be specific.
I know, I know, but trust me. Trust me. You trust me, right? Hold on...
The Han vs. Luke issue points it up: Han is the Old School character whose heroism is basically incidental, whereas Luke has an epic heroic destiny from birth since his dad and the Force is strong with him and all that. The whole story is wrapped up with Luke the way Hamlet is wrapped around Hamlet.
Luke's dilemma has the symmetry, structure and choices of classic drama, Han's adventures (or the ones we imagine he has) are more picaresque.
So what Han is is an Existential character. Big "e".
We don't have to go into all the ins and outs of existentialism in this post on this blog about D&D, what's important here is:
It reached the height of its popularity around World War II when Jean Paul Sartre gave it it's most recognizable-to-us form and it was basically a philosophy that caught on in an environment where everybody was asking:
Hey, there are Nazis, what do we do?
So the idea is people are defined by their actions. You aren't your stats, you're what you choose to do with those stats. Existence precedes essence, as Sartre said. You don't have any "essential nature" aside from that which you've done. I very purposely--more and more so every time I do a script--give characters no back story. The way you find about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue as Walter Hill said. Character background is what happens between levels 1 and 6, as Gary Gygax said.
More importantly--for this point I'm making here--than actually being sure of all the ins and outs of the philosophy is just being aware that certain aesthetic ideas were attached to the word "existential" in the public mind: The lone figure in a landscape, cowboy movies, bold abstract paintings, lone heroism. Individualism, too, to some degree.
Likewise we don't have to get into the real guts and history of the next philosophy to leach its way into the public consciousness over the course of the 20th century: post-structuralism (aka deconstructionism). We just have to know about it's pop version.
Basically post-structuralism was a philosophy developed while people were all asking the question:
Well, ok, those Nazis were bad, right, but can we be all smug and say we're not like them? No, they were products of an environment. How do we make the environment not produce Nazis?
The post-structuralist big idea is that everybody is enmeshed in social structures and they are affected by them and (according to some of them. anyway) there is no acting or thinking outside these structures and ideologies.
The pop version of post-structuralism is basically heavily associated with critiquing every cultural product from prison architecture to zombie movies from the point of view of how they might eventually make people act like Nazis. Some of these folks are lovely people and smart and clever, some of them are the kind of drooling submentals who call themselves progressives but still wish you would stop drawing boobs.
Post-structuralist aesthetics emphasizes groups, social behavior, the collective.
(Note every argument about edgy art in games seems to devolve to: "What's good for most people" vs. "Your right to like, make, or promote something without being considered a Nazi". Note both of these philosophies--like most philosophies that catch on with large groups of creative people--are generally philosophies of the left. They boil down to a more paternalistic left vs. an anarchistic one. Also: since we're talking about culture and not politics, and so the question isn't: What should the laws be? they're: What constitutes good art or good fun? these positions don't map cleanly onto existing nameable political divisions.)
To existentialists, art and things like art are, at most, a means to an end (the end usually being encouraging folks to hang Mussolini from a meathook or understand the nature of freedom) or an expression of what people are like. To post-structuralists, art and things like art are much more important: as important as art is to conservatives and traditionalists--and for the same reason--art is a thing that influences your behavior whether or not you want it to.
The same goes for rules: the existentialist sees rules as one more thing you might have to ignore or get past or weigh as the price of doing what needs done. To post-structuralists, rules create mental structures that influence people in subtle ways.
On the surface level, the difference between existential and postmodern aesthetics is obvious in the actual games:
90% of what goes on in White Wolf games makes no sense outside a complex social context and social pressures, Dogs In The Ohmygodyou'replayingagameaboutMormons is entirely about seeing the social grid as an interesting and influential environment in itself, Type IV defines roles and teamwork more powerfully than any other combat game I know of.
Meanwhile, in classic D&D, beyond "never split the party" (whether issued for the DM's convenience or the PCs' survival), classic D&Ders as a group have no particular shared conception (that is--no conception they could all agree on across the DIY D&D world) of how the PCs should or shouldn't fit into a larger social context--how the PCs fit with each other or with the gameworld. It's a game full of tombs no-one else has picked over and clerics without congregations. (And the post-structuralist Newie would say that's because the rules don't suggest it, and the DIYer would say Well if I wanted to have my priest have a flock I could. And they are both right, they just care about different things.)
There's the question of freedom and creativity. To the DIYer freedom is the freedom of the PC to make the choice in the game and define the PC through those midlife choices (not through decisions made before the PCs "born"), to the Newie freedom is the freedom to define the nurture or the nature that decides which questions get asked in the first place--Sir Chauncey Middleton Paladin-Ackeworth probably won't ever have to make the whole steal-bread-to-feed-his-family choice. Both narrative control and extensive character building tools are about deciding the kind of story/genre structure you want you game to operate in.
The Newie seems to say: let's have a tale of ____ and ______. The Old Schooler says: whatever you've got, hit me, and we'll find out what I'm made of.
But this is all surface--there are many exceptions to these "rules". The biggest difference is in how the games are designed and how people evaluate these game designs:
The DIY D&Der will tell you that you can pretty much do anything with classic D&D.
The most important words here are "you"--that is, any individual, and "can"--that is, it is possible.
New schoolers will tell you that most people tend to do certain specific things with classic D&D.
The most important words here are "most people"--meaning, the community, the average consumer, the guys at your FLGS who answer the ads--and "tend to"--that is, what activity is encouraged.
To put it another way: DIY D&Ders are judging the game based on what can be done with it and judging it rad. The new schoolers are judging it based on what the social collective has, as a group, done with it, and finds it wanting.
The DIYers pull obscure games apart for their useful parts, the Newies judge famous or milestone games in terms of their impact.
(Not irrelevant: in the System Does Matter essays that were so important to the Forge, Ron Edwards talks a lot about disappointments caused by gaming with random people who had different ideas about how games should work--at conventions, etc. That is: the overall. Whereas in these blogs, people tend to talk about how this group or that group, specifically, worked or did not work. That is: the possible.)
That's why you see New School people writing articles saying "In truth, most old school games I've seen tend to..." and, if you're a DIY D&Der, you immediately scratch your head and go "Why would anyone care how most games tend to end up?"
DIY D&Ders don't care what the rules or the artwork or the setting suggest, they care what can be done with them. Newies ask: take away the rules, artwork and setting and what's left?
The question is how much communicating needs to be done by the game itself, as opposed to by actual human gamers.
Seen through this lens, the otherwise incomprehensible debate about James Raggi's version of D&D that I linked to at the beginning of this post becomes easier to understand. Why does this game have rules for investing in real estate and prices for 17 different kinds of boats if it's about Weird Fantasy? Because it's not really a Weird Fantasy Role Playing Game by your definitions, Newie. It's a game that is supposed to be able to do everything over the course of a loooooooong campaign, just like D&D does, but be Weird a little more often and maybe a little easier to run.
Newies imagine a world where you choose Weird Fantasy Role Playing off a shelf with every game in the world on it because tonight you want to grapple with the dilemmas specific to a world of Weird Fantasy. DIYers are imagining you'd get Weird Fantasy Role Playing off a shelf with 30 other flavors of D&D on it because during your next 90 weeks of throwing yourself up against D&D you'd like to push the Weird a little more than you did in the last 90.
The Newies tend to be obsessed with creating rulesets that will result in Exactly The Right Buttons Getting Pushed for anybody who buys it, no matter how dumb they are, whereas the D&Ders tend to focus on outlier customizations of their own game that they know might only apply to a tiny handful of campaigns.
The DIY D&Ders don't really care what the game (a device for communicating with a collective) is about, they care what the GM (a device for communicating one-on-one with a small group) is about and about creating repositiories of possibilities for all games. LOTFP can be seen in this way as not so much a new game as an attempt to export practices associated with the D&D GM known as James Raggi to your table.
The Newies appear to want a thousand different games that will each communicate transparently what they're about to anyone whereas the Old Schoolers seem to want one game that is specifically tailored to the very precise needs of their own single group and yet has the flexibility to go on and on and on with that group in an ever-changing campaign forever, being about whatever the group wants it to be about until they finally get to be 60 years old and kill Orcus.
Why is Carcosa or Plansescape a hack for D&D and not just a whole new game about whatever Planescape or Carcosa are about? Because then you can make one single campaign that's Vanilla and then Carcosa and then Vanilla and then Planescape and then Eberron and then Dark Sun and then d20 Stormbringer and then Vanilla and then whatever on and on forever.
So: A million rulesets that do one thing each, aimed at a million gaming groups, or one game that only works for one group but allows it to do a million different things.