Marathon man

Here’s a film story I heard (& I think it’s probably apocryphal) which also seems, to me, applicable to RPGs.

During the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed awake 24 hours straight and ran and ran and ran to be out of breath for certain scenes that take place during and after an epic running scene.  His costar Lawrence Olivier asked him what he was doing.  Hoffman said he wanted to be exhausted for the scene.  Olivier supposedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

This kind of sums up the communication breakdown in new school/old school edition war (which I sometimes fan the flames of here, being irascible myself).  The old schoolers are more like Olivier, I think.  For them, everything that happens in the game (characterization, awesome stunts, etc.) can be achieved by playing your character.  You don’t need something on your sheet to let you swing on a chandelier or whatever.  You don’t need five pages of character background and hooks to feed your GM.  You just play.

The new schoolers are more like Hoffman.  They want to prepare before the game (“building” a character, writing up goals and motivations, etc.) and want something in the game to specifically enable the awesome stuff they want to do.  Hoffman runs and runs to get sweaty and out of breath, so his character will be convincingly out of breath.  New schoolers want a  list of feats and a complement of combat options so they don’t “have to do the same thing over and over.” (OK, maybe the analogy is breaking down here.  But my idea is something like this: Hoffman wants his performance to be convincing, so he wants real beads of sweat … new schoolers want the results of their actions to be predictable, so they want skills and feats etc. written down on their sheets… capiche?)

Doesn’t mean either is a bad actor.

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Published in: on December 4, 2011 at 8:00 am  Comments (11)  
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  1. I think the difference isn’t so much what you want the characters to do so much as what you want the game-reality to be like (Shared Narrative Space in the indie rpg vernacular.) And you’re kinda right about the processes involved. I guess I’d put it down to what I’d call the “death star” effect, or what Terry Pratchett calls “Narrative Causality.” See, at the end of Star Wars, unless you’re particularly dense, you know…I mean know, that the death star is going to be destroyed. It has to be or the story sucks. That “million to one shot” has a probability closer to 1.0002 to 1. If you’re playing for the story/narrative aspects, rules need to simulate that Narrative Causality…not the rational causality that we’re used to in the real world. (Assuming any of us could agree on what those might be.) What’s important in this way of thinking is not that the Death Star is destroyed, but the precise manner of its destruction. (And the story of how we got to that point in the first place.)

    Your thoughts above mirror one of the main arguments by proponents of 4e…”Roleplaying doesn’t depend on rules…just do it.” The source of friction being that you can’t reproduce the themes or motifs of common inspirational fiction without rules respecting narrative causality. That is…Luke Skywalker shouldn’t be killed by stormtroopers in Mos Eisley. Nor should, Ben.

    AFAICT, no edition of D&D has ever explicitly acknowledged narrative causality. However, the DMs screen and instructions on fudging roles have left it up to individual DMs. I think its one of the reasons that satisfaction with DMs is so highly variable. Its also one of the reasons that PCs have an easier time as we move through editions.

    • Ooh…also, as far as wanting to prepare pages of background information etc….I don’t see that as a difference between old and new school. The difference is what they feel is important to put in that work. Allow me to illustrate with three words: “Encumbrance” and “Spell Lists”. Heavily narrative games don’t usually bother with either.

    • Hmm.
      I think I’m a little unclear on what ‘new school’ RPGs generally are doing.
      But I think: If Luke and/or Ben die in Mos Eisley, that is still a story…and if Luke fails his shot at the Death Star in that battle, the story doesn’t necessarily suck, it’s just a different story than we expected. Maybe Han will escape that mess when Luke is killed in the death star ‘alley’ and come back later with a better plan. I think what irks me about the whole idea that RPGs are ‘about telling a story’ is that I think story is emergent. You *can*, as DM/adventure writer, tell a story. That’s new school to me. You can also put a bunch of stuff in motion and how the players deal with it creates a story; that to me is old school. I could be talking about something totally different than what you are … I’m still not all that clear on what ‘narratives’ in RPGs are supposed to be though. Have not spent much time trying to decipher the “forge” theorists, who seem intentionally inscrutable. “Six inches of mud looks as deep as the ocean.” Your comment made more sense than 90% of that.

      If the big deal with new school RPGs is that they are aware that the PCs are going to win and think the whole point of the game is figuring out how to make that happen in an interesting manner…well color me bemused. I find a lot of fun in thinking, “Oh fuck, we are so screwed, there is no way we’re going to beat this…” and then beating it…it is hard for me to bracket my knowledge that my PC is almost certain to make level 20 and fulfill an ‘epic destiny’. 4e tells me “Plan out what you PC will look like when he’s a hero, superhero, and demigod” and that sounds an awful like promising me: “This level one schmuck you rolled up WILL end up a demigod.”

      Which is a better game: Westworld when it is functioning properly and you get to win 1.5 barroom brawls, rob two trains and gun down Wild Bill Hikcock… or Westworld when Yul Brynner decides “I’m not throwing this shootout, you’re gonna have to fight me tooth and nail just to get out alive.”
      Not sure any of this is what I said in the original post, but it’s an interesting conversation.

      • Well, the New School indie rpgs are doing a lot of different things, so its hard to pin them down. Some are aimed in different directions. Heck, to my mind, Old School Hack is pretty new school. I’m also with you on the Forge theorists being intentionally obfuscating.

        RE: the Death Star. I agree about Luke’s shot. Note that I said: “the Death Star is going to be destroyed” not “Luke will destroy the Death Star”. Remember that goofy GMless supers game we played (Capes!)? You could have an event “the Death Star gets destroyed” with all the players competing over who gets to narrate how it finally does: Luke’s torpedo, Luke goes kamikaze, Han does something, Vader’s ship get’s blown into it….whatever. That’s a pretty deep-end narrative game. The players don’t even get attached to a single character.

        The Shared Narrative Space (or Shared Imagination Space) is just what we all agree happened in the game. (Don’t pay any attention to what anybody else says to try and make that more complicated. :)) Now, what is that /supposed/ to be…that’s just determined by the playgroup’s desires. In some ways, your comparisons at the end there are false dichotomies, but your enjoyment of one vs. the other isn’t. Narrative games aren’t necessarily deterministic w.r.t. an individual character’s survival or development. I’m also not sure what in the heck to call 4e. Its like a strict skirmish game that clothes itself in some narrative wording….or is it?

        I honestly don’t think of 4e as very “new school” at all (except maybe as in opposition to “Old School”). To me, the differences between older and newer editions (possibly excepting 4e) is just a matter of the size of brush you use to paint a picture. Older editions painted with big, wide rollers, while newer editions use increasingly smaller sizes to give increasing flexibility and detail. You say that you can add all the cool jazz through “acting,” but really you can’t. Its not relevant if you declare your character is going “all out to hit him” your AC and Thac0 remain unchanged. Your undying hatred of the Evil Duke and his men has no bearing (favorable or not) in the results of your rolls. Your bow-shooting fighter will be just as expert with an axe he just picked up as with the polearm he found last week (barring the 0.00002% of fighters who didn’t specialize in longsword or bastard sword.)

        Oh jeez, this post is getting long…Criminy, Mike! don’t hit on so many dimensions of roleplaying at once!

        • Hmm… yes, i think I was lumping 4e in with the indie/forge whatever games and they are more different than alike. I should probably not be using the term ‘new school’ at all — I am not sure it means what I thought it means…

          When people talk about ‘narrative control’ etc. that is pretty irrelevant to 4e.

          I remain unconvinced that there needs to be mechanical enhancement of stuff like “My fighter is an archer” and “Charge, creaming bloody murder” but I am definitely in the minority there. Even Tom likes more differentiation among characters. Maybe I’m being stubborn about that.

          We’re also probably not that far apart on the use and abuse of character backgrounds. It can add depth to the game and game world. I was the one who lobbied for some of that in Tom’s C&C campaign a couple of years ago where we all made up a bit of story and a homeland…

          Anyway these terms old school and new school are less and less meaningful the closer we look at them, I think.

          • Probably true about terms.

            Let me pose you a question…or perhaps re-frame yours. See, I’m thinking there are two (somewhat separate) things going on: mechanically detailed character rules (feats, etc.) and narrative concessions.Old School Hack, for instance, has narrative concessions through the expenditure of Awesome Points. They give players a mediocre level of input. However, they are obviously a very “cheap” mechanic in terms of rule weight. That would in contrast to something like…I dunno, 4e’s proliferation of powers. Which generates lots of rule weight, but not a lot narrative control. (I think I’d still say it generates some, but not in the way the indie games would generally appreciate.) Fate’s Aspects are somewhere in the middle (I think.)

            Generally speaking, I prefer the rules-lite approach. Not because its a problem as a player, but as a GM, increasing detail in the system makes the prep time more fun than its worth. Having run a games with a wide variety of complexity, I have rarely seen mechanical complexity (at least on the part of the NPCs) to be worth the time or intellectual investment. However, for me, that is entirely independent of the narrative control issue.

            As far as “My fighter is an archer” goes, even AD&D(1e) published gobs of new classes in Dragon Mag. Which, at that time, was the only way to get new class abilities. I mean, there must be some level of detail to define the class, otherwise we’d all write “Hero” on our character sheet and let the details play themselves out. (Which is basically the premise for one weird game I played a long time ago whose name escapes me.)

            This is actually an important issue to me (intellectually if not emotionally.) I’ve been trying to formulate an “Advanced Old School Hack” without adding a whole lot of rule weight. Drawing the line between what counts as a class vs. abilities is a tricky business. Then there’s the issue of abilities and refreshing them…

            • Regarding the (my) conflation of the issues, I think 4e’s press releases may be the culprit…it was sold (as was 3e to some extent) as being a mechanical fix to narrative control problems…problems that only exist if your DM and/or other players are asses…crap like ‘balance’ and ‘can I do x’….

              Anyway, I like rules light for the same reason.

              Advanced OSH … well given that OSH is really a stripped down 4e, I’m not sure I see the point, but I’d be interested to see where that goes. I’d like to see more choices of classes and stuff on the character sheet that is not 100% mechanics. Something irks me about reducing stats to their bonuses and things like that. I mean 11 vs 12 on a stat may not affect the modifier but it does lend some gradiation to characters.

              Re “Heroes” — Funny enough, Tom & I have worked, off and on, on developing a game where there exactly two classes, Heroes and Wizards, and each basically buys a few specific abilities/powers/class features/whatever you call it. He likes to tie them to C&C primes, I like to tie them to alignment or general ‘background’, we’re still trying to figure that out…the problem is that NPCs would get more complicated as you say. So we keep going back to more classes… and even looking at the notion of ‘kits’…could 2e have been better than I thought?

  2. There does seem to be like a couple of different topics here. I guess I do fall more into the category of new school gamer. I do like to hash out a lot of my character during generation. To me it is just part of the fun of the game. Ironically, I also like actors such as you described Hoffman above. In my opinion, no matter how good of an actor you are it doesn’t come across the same as if you have some knowledge or experience of what you are trying to act.

    I guess I need to get my mind set more in tune with your “Old School” ways Mike. I wouldn’t feel as invested in my characters and get upset when he is killed off by a crazed jawa passing by the cantina as I am leaving.

    • Nothing wrong with investment, I just think it arise from playing the PC. I’ve tried the ‘let’s construct a precious snowflake with backstory and goals and stuff’ and it seems to inhibit adventuring…everyone wants to pursue the goals they wrote up before we began playing.

      I don’t think everyone has to play THE ONE TRUE STYLE(tm); but I think a better game arises when we limit ‘backstory’ and leave more room for character development through play.

      • Another point is the fact even once you drift one way or the other there are still other paths to take from there.

        Just like you mention there are people that want to pursue their story path before anything else. I have never really thought of it that way.

        In fact I am usually shocked when something from my predetermined background story actually does come up. Just like when Tom gave us all the little side quests from the last campaign. Sure I asked town folks and such when we ran into them about my goal but when things actually did show up it was usually a shock. I never really felt pressured to seek it out nor did I feel I had to pressure Tom in progressing my story.

        I guess there are many sides to all of us gamers!

      • I guess my question would be “Why does there need to be an adventure outside those background goals?” I mean, if I were GM’ing a campaign where folks had bothered to come up with that information, I’d use it as much as possible. In fact, to my way of thinking, that’s its primary purpose. That being said, I’ve also run games (using rather minimalistish rules) where we started with barely an idea of what the PCs were.

        I do think there is a limit to how much background can successfully be built-in to the characters before play. I even think that some games go way too far into it. I’ve even been guilty of that. (Although my players at the time enjoyed it far more than I thought they would.)


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