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Feb 17 2012

Terminology of Gaming: Traditional Games

If anyone checked out my addiciton to podcasting post and how I’m trying to deal with it, or at least turn it into something positive, then they know I listen to a ton of podcast’s. In doing so I hear a lot of weird terms being thrown around the podiosphere. The guys over at The Jank Cast use “Trad gaming” and “Story Now games”. I heard the Podgecast  talking about character driven games but not in the way that I would of defined them. If your a podcast listener you’ve heard lots of people using various words like Plot and Plot points, Drama, Pathways, interaction, Roleplaying vs Rollplaying, 3.5, OGL, D20, Savaging something, Bennies, GMless games, Mechanics reinforcing your games style, Gamerati, and a host of other terms and concepts which sort of float around while the gamer’s try to figure out what they mean. Since so many people think a variety of things, and I like to take an academic view of everything, I figured I’d define some terms for myself starting with what “Trad” or Traditional games are in my opinion.

Traditional Games

The best article I could find on the web concerning traditional gaming was on the Socratic Design blog from 2006. Here are the bullet points:

  • The GM is imbued with ultimate authority.
  • The GM is charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game.
  • Players play one and only one character.
  • Players are encouraged to stay in ‘Actor Stance’.
  • There is a Task Resolution System.
  • Difficulties are set by GM fiat.
  • A GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties.
  • Character Advancement is tied to increasing statistical values.
  • Characters can die.
  • Dice are used as the sole randomizer for play.
  • There is an assumption of long term play.
  • A Character’s goals are not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation.

I’m not sure all these point still stand up today but I think it’s a good place to start.

Does the GM still have ultimate authority in traditional games? I think so. I’m not saying a good GM doesn’t make it feel like the players have more control, or even invests his players with power, but in reality the rules of most traditional games state a GM has all the power when it comes to the world at large. The narrative control is his. The players can effect the world, but the GM decides if the players actions have any lasting effect. Players can call bullshit, not play anymore, or even attempt to derail the game, but they don’t have any real mechanical recourse to alter the story besides with their actions. If their actions aren’t taken into account by the GM, which according to the rules is the GM’s right, then the player effectively has no power. I understand people don’t play games this way, but old school games have these rules and ideas explicitly stated. It does raise some interesting questions about games existing today. I wonder if 3.5 D&D is a traditional game. The rules have a bunch of mechanics empowering the players if they act in specific ways: Grapple, jumping, tumbling, killing, spell casting, and a lot of other actions are specifically defined as if it was a war game. The GM doesn’t have ultimate authority over the game so does that mean the 3rd edition of D&D isn’t a traditional game? I’m not sure. I always thought it was. What do you think? Maybe I misread something in the PHB or DMG somewhere.

Is the GM in charge of creating the entire plot and setting for the game? I would say yes. I can’t think of a single traditional game exception where the players have control over the plot of the game mechanically. Call of Chuthulu, Runequest, Paranoia, 1st Edition and 2nd Edition D&D, and any World of Darkness game would be considered traditional. They all rely on a GM to create plots and settings in their rules. Can a GM be influenced by a players idea’s or a characters actions? Sure, if the GM lets their players influence them but the players have no mechanical recourse to influence the story. So a game like 3.5 D&D fits the bill, but a game like The Dresden Files by Evil Hat Productions doesn’t. The game has the players help with creating the setting at the beginning and can influence the plot by helping to decide on which themes the game will revolve around. Kicking it back to the first point The Dresden Files has something called Aspects which can be placed on scenes and NPC’s. Characters also have them. These aspects can be leveraged to create scenes the players want but not to such an extreme where they have real control. The GM is still in charge. I would conclude The Dresden Files is more of a hybrid, but only because of the setting creation segment of the game, not the scenario play. Is 3.5 D&D the opposite where the players have a lot of control over the scenario play but no control over the setting and plot creation? What do you think?

This is getting a bit long so I’ll be cutting it here for now. Feel free to chime in on the first two points and when I come back with part two I’ll question some more about what makes a traditional game.

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