Thursday, December 8, 2016

My reaction to a guide to running seriously old school

I read Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks without a real idea what I was getting myself into. I assumed I was reading something along the lines of the Grimtooth's Trap books. Instead, what I really found was the philosophy of someone who's been running games for decades.

The premise of the book is giving a dungeon master a tool kit for making players' lives more interesting. The goal isn't to kill the characters but to challenge them in a way that makes good storytelling.

What was probably the most interesting part of the book for me was the section before  it gets into the dirty tricks, Bill Webb's house rules. A big focus of the house rules is to slow down advancement. Take the time to get to know your character.

He's also a big proponent of simulation. One of the most fascinating examples of this is having players describe how they deactivate a trap as opposed to rolling a die to see if they can deactivate it. I'm torn between finding that really neat and completely unreasonable. After all, your character might be a master thief but you're not.

An interesting element in the dirty tricks section was, if the players have too much money, do something like start a holy war or put them in charge of a province. In other words, do something that's basically a campaign for the sake of making them spend money.

Needless to say, Bill Webb is an old school, back to Gygax kind of dungeon master. He makes a bunch of references to the good old, pile up the dead characters, Tomb of Horrors. This is some serious, pre-Reagan RPG philosophy. 

There are some things I don't care for with this approach. Webb seems to have problems with players using the rules to gain advantages. While abusing the rules can be a real problem, Webb seems to push it to the point of punishing players for learning to use the rules.

It's important to remember that, back when RPGs were still extensions of miniatures games, the role of the DM really was to compete against the players, as opposed to a neutral referee or a friendly collaborator. But I think there are good reasons that changed.

And I have been in games where the DM has had an antagonistic relation with the players, although in one case, the players started it. For me, it ultimately becomes not just frustrating but boring.

This is more of a personal note but I also question the time of time wasters, something that got its own section. Having a party waste an hour on a fake door might make for a good anecdote but when you have to carefully budget your game time, the idea is just infuriating.

HOWEVER, while I don't like several elements of Webb's DMing approach, it did take me back to the days when I was able to be in a weekly campaign and spend years slowly developing both characters and storylines. It is an incredibly rich and engaging experience. It is a very rewarding way to explore role playing.

Old school elements like slow, gradual development and low fantasy and simulation, detail heavy mechanics aren't bad things. They are fundamental elements to the development of RPGs AND they have not been superseded. 

Bill Webb's book didn't leave me with a desire to play under Bill Webb. However, it did bring back fond memories of another part of my game in life.

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