Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Creative Play, or The New-Old School

Recently, I was asked by a professor at BYU to run a gaming session for some of his students. The class is on the theory of Games and Play, and as their homework for next class they need to play a tabletop RPG. I agreed and, not wanting to overwhelm the (most likely) newbie students with a lot of rules, sent them a link to the Swords and Wizardry SRD and sat down to read one of their published modules in preparation.

As I've gone over in some previous posts, I love old-school gaming. I love hiring henchmen, I love finding creative ways to beat or escape from unstoppable monsters, I love 10-ft poles, and I love having to fast-talk the guard, find the secret door, and disarm the trap all without a roll of the dice.

The thing is, I also love modern gaming; I love calculating builds, I love difficult tactical combats, I love investing in the story of a character, and I love using a host of powers to turn the tide of a critical fight.

As I read Bill Webb's introduction to the module and read his discussion of how he runs his games at home, I realized something: Spheres of Power is a personal attempt to marry the two.

Old-School gaming is not just about being rules-light; it's about rewarding player creativity. Players jam doors with metal spikes, use 10-foot poles to prod the dungeon floor, and use complicated rope tricks to get from point A to point B across any obstacle. Heck, some creative uses of abilities became so standard they were even codified in later editions (In the 2nd Edition Handbook, the Light spell gave directions for how to use the spell to light up someone's eyes to blind them, as this creative use of the spell become so popular it was practically standard use.)

Being a Pathfinder supplement first, Spheres of Power codifies its rules in a very modern-game sort of way, detailing everything it can for complicated builds and tactical combats, but as I do more and more development on it, the more I'm realizing I keep erring on the side of encouraging player creativity and open-ended mechanics, in a way that feels very Old-School to me. I may have used Pathfinder spells as bench-marks in the beginning, but more and more as I write and re-write the spheres and talents, I keep moving away from distinct packaged powers and more towards power-based guidelines.

Just yesterday, I sat down with the Warp sphere and realized that some of the talent divisions felt too spell-like to me; one talent (Call Object) for summoning an object to one's hand, but another (micro-portal) for using a readied action to grab a projectile out of the air. This division would make sense if I were writing spells, but logically speaking, if you can already call an object to your side, why couldn't you grab an arrow out of the air? I mulled it over; a clever player would use Call Object to grab a projectile and I'd certainly let him do it, but by having a talent dedicated to the maneuver, the Exclusion Principle ("if you need a feat to perform an action, you therefore can't perform that action without the feat") seemed to say it wasn't how the power was 'supposed' to be used. In the end, I cut the projectile-focused talent and added a mention to Call Object detailing how to use it on objects in the air.

The great, and also strange, thing about the F20 tradition (games involved in, or evolved from, D&D) is the subtle shift each mechanical variant brings to the game; there are a million versions of the same fantasy theme, and each one fits a little better, or a little worse, into each individual playstyle. As for the particular way the Spheres adjusts playstyle, only more development, playtests, and backer's surveys will determine how and how well this adjustment plays, but development always goes a little better when one has a philosophical goal to aim for and the New-Old School sounds like a good goal to me.

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