Wednesday, June 1, 2022

On RPG Play-sytles, Part 3: Classic Playstyle versus Trad Playstyle versus OSR?

In April 2021, a fruitful essay appeared called "Six Cultures of Play," by blogger Retired Adventurer, receiving a lot of deserved attention. It seems to have established some terms for further and ongoing discussion since then.

In this entry I address the distinction construed there between the earliest two "cultures of play" and how they differ from what is known as the OSR (Old-School Revival).

The essay rightly calls the OSR "a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition." For some reason, this instance of the claim (which is true) seems to have registered with gamers who read this essay while earlier, similar statements did not.

One reason for the growing acceptance is that gamers who care about these things have begun to digest Jon Peterson's book of late 2020, The Elusive Shift (which I reviewed here). This book is leading even the most dogmatic and grumpiest OSR-aligned players to admit that the neat "old"/"new" distinction to which they have laid claim, in favor of the "old," is mostly spurious. The distinctions between the play-styles called "old" and "new" today were drawn already in the 1970s (not by those names and not so neatly), but simply forgotten since then, only to be reimagined as a new issue in this century.

Another part of the success of the distinction in the case of the "Six Cultures" essay is its simultaneous coining of two other non-negative terms for older styles of RPG play: "Classic" and "Trad(itional)." This gave substance to the distinction: there were two old ways to play that were not OSR. They could be named.

What were the two old styles, then? Retired Adventurer calls them Classic and Trad (Traditional).

He describes Classic play as challenge-based:

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly."

He states that Classic play was articulated around 1976, when Gary Gygax began to define modes of D&D play, revising his previously expressed idea that it was essentially a free-for-all, do-it-yourself game. He did this as he developed the idea of tournament-style, competitive D&D.

Retired Adventurer describes Traditional play, which he says came into being in the late '70s, as about narrative (story):

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision.

 I have encountered discussion in forums since this essay appeared trying to parse Classic and Trad play-styles and to come to grips with them. They sometimes seem to treat them as two mutually exclusive approaches to RPGs.

My conclusion is that, although it's useful in principle to distinguish challenge-based play and play motivated by a GM-authored background or story framework, the distinction of these two play-styles is not valid for the '70s (the period when it allegedly came into being). Retired Adventurer is definitely correct about the OSR (it really is a romantic reinvention), but Classic and Trad are not so easily distinguished at any time, least of all the 1970s. They coexisted inseparably because they designate activities connected to two simultaneous pleasures of RPGs.

In fact, players were interested in emotionally satisfying narratives from the start, and DMs were expected to be leading creative agents in the generation of an epic tale, with players also having a large role in that. How would I know? After all, I started late, in 1981. Well, we can listen to older gamers and what they have to say.

Take this recent interview, posted by Matt Thrower interviewed Stephen R. Marsh, who contributed to OD&D, AD&D, and the X of B/X D&D. The interviewer's article is written in roman type, and Marsh's words are in italics.

B/X as a system is still played today as part of what’s become known as the Old School Renaissance or OSR. It’s an approach to adventure role-playing that frames it as much as a challenge as a story. Character creation is fast and players are encouraged to enjoy the difficulty of weak stats and come up with clever solutions to traps and combat encounters. The DM, in turn, has to run the game as a fair adjudicator.

For Marsh, this is partly a question of practicality. ‘The actual old school way of play was so varied that it pretty much can encompass just about any style of play,’ he recalls. ‘At the same time, the Renaissance tends to be purer. That is, people tend to be much more likely to hold to the rule set rather than mix and matching, which was more common back in the day.’

Notice the discrepancy between the point of the article and the point Marsh is making.

The article is trying to make a point about the OSR, I suppose to distinguish it from 5e play at large today. The OSR is characterized here as being about challenge more than story. This is a distinction that is drawn today, but Retired Adventurer locates it as having emerged in the 1970s as Classic versus Trad. But if we look at what Marsh is quoted as saying, it contradicts this very point in the article in which it appears. Marsh said that there was no distinct "actual old school way of play." The OSR, he rightly notes, tends to focus on rules purity, but that does not reflect just how it was done in the old days. (This also underscores the truth that the OSR is new.) He says people played in all different ways in the old days. This seems to be in response to the proposal he was asked about, that old-school play was supposedly specifically challenge-oriented. The interviewer seems to have gone looking for support for the new "OSR" idea, got a polite "no such thing" in response, but used the statement, regardless, to support the point that it's not how most people play today.

The article continues with a quote from Dave "Zeb" Cook, the third full-time game designer hired at TSR.

Cook agrees. ‘I'm not sure anything is genuinely old school unless it is arguing about the proper way to play the game, he laughs. ‘Ever since the start of RPG's, groups have played the game differently. Everything from style to interpretations of ambiguous rules and homemade rules for all those holes created a range of different flavors.

There you have it from somebody who was there: nothing is genuinely old school, not even style of play. Only debates about play-styles are old-school, he quips--but those debates have never ceased, so they can't be merely old-school.

These remarks, coming from early player-designers who worked at TSR during its "Gygax years," should carry more weight than the internet musings of relative youngsters about what's really "old-school" or the romantic back-projections of the guys who were (like me) munchkins in those days.

 An early Classic/Trad distinction?

If there was no distinct old-time play-style, what about the Classic/Trad distinction? The idea that storytelling, characteristic of the alleged "Trad" play-style, was a later priority seems to be contradicted by other testimonies. Let's look at just a few.

One is a recent interview with Lawrence Schick, author of the fan favorite AD&D adventure module White Plume Mountain (S2, 1979). Schick reminisces about playing back at Kent State with Tom Moldvay (responsible for the 1981 Basic D&D set). Schick describes how he and Moldvay were increasingly interested in collaborative storytelling after spending hours preparing each session. He said,

One thing Tom and I discussed more and more as our campaigns evolved was the collaborative nature emerging from RPGs. The more we got into storytelling, the more we noted that the game story wasn't complete without the contributions of the players. We spent more time thinking about how to draw them in, get them invested, make them actors rather than reactors. These were lessons I carried with me to TSR, and on after that into video and computer game design.

Several of the characterizations of their play in the '70s described here run counter to the common conception of the OSR as well as an alleged early discrepancy between putative Classic and Trad styles of play. They conceived of their games as including storytelling, plain and simple. Referees painstakingly designed their worlds in advance, plotting ways to draw the players in, in the style of now-derided "auteur GMs." This is what Retired Adventurer calls "Trad," but here it occurs seemingly earlier, not in the wake of Dragonlance (as OSR-oriented D&D fans sometimes allege), but arising spontaneously among players who were engrossed in their games.

We can go back farther than that. A few months ago, I corresponded with a senior GM who began playing D&D in 1974, a few months after the game came out. He was a big part of the early West-Coast scene. (I leave his name out because I didn't ask for permission to cite him.) He ran games two nights per week straight from '74 onward, wrote a continuous stream of D&D 'zine articles, and eventually designed some RPGs himself.

I asked him specifically whether his games evolved gradually from games about challenges into storytelling. He told me that the story or background narrative and the idea that the campaign was an unfolding epic was there from the start:

I always had a background to my campaign.  As the players advanced, they started getting involved more and more in the politics and economics of the [dungeon name] area. The long-standing "bad guy" ... turned out to be the brother of the king who ruled [dungeon area] ... The players didn't find out about this until a good 5-6 years into the campaign, when they finally managed to capture [the bad guy] and turn him in to the [king's representative].  The epic tales were there from the beginning with mine -- and while I don't recall the details of them, just about every one of the other campaigns I ran in had their own backstories, legends and myths (either nearly from the beginning, or becoming clear to the players by the end of the first year or so).  It was a time of great adventure and creativity; it still exists, but the totally creative worldbuilders are a smaller percentage of the DMs now (there are probably just as many of them, but the total number of players has gone up so much, that they're a smaller percentage and perhaps harder to find as a result).

In light of these testimonies from players who were in college when D&D first came out and playing soon thereafter, and who played a large part in the early development of D&D, I think we cannot posit a historical distinction between "Classic," challenge-based play on the one hand and "Trad" play aimed at an emotionally satisfying narrative on the other as historically distinct schools of play, social groups, or modes of enjoyment. The two were not distinct.

It seems, rather, that all early D&D players were prone to discover emotionally satisfying narratives through the initial framework of a dungeon adventure that soon blossomed into a bigger campaign.

These were not separate or distinct cultures.

I suspect that players who experienced D&D solely as a series of challenges (if they existed) were ones who didn't play with one group for long, not an otherwise distinct social group. Early DMs normally designed settings for their games, spending many hours on their development.

I'm not saying that it's not useful to distinguish the cultivation of challenges in play from the cultivation of satisfying narratives. I'm saying that they were never separate. I think that the variety of enjoyment deriving from these games explains why they caught on as they did. It's the power of these games to please individuals in so many different ways that turned it into a thriving subculture phenomenon. And to this day, players debate peevishly, and short-sightedly, about which kind of fun is original or "right." Of course, there isn't any such thing.

In my view, the multiplication of RPG styles of play was immediate. That is, no two groups played D&D the same way, from 1974 onward. Yet they all blended different components inherent in the new kind of game. The first effort to regulate play-style for D&D was Gary Gygax's. It manifested as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Here I agree with Retired Adventurer, as I do about most aspects of his essay. But it's pretty clear that the characteristics of what he calls "Trad play" were simultaneous with the beginnings of D&D and didn't appear late in the '70s. The two were not separate.


  1. My rule has always been that the OSR is made up of folks who play older-style rules the way they wish they had played them back in the 1970s and the 1980s. It's not the way they (we, really) actually played them, but the way we aspired to play them but never could get our brains around and push our friends into doing.

  2. Having been involved in conversations with the Retired Adventure regarding this, I think you are misinterpreting parts of his argument. I believe he is not talking about when these styles elements emerged as style elements, he is talking about when they emerged as _cultures_. That is, when you had groups forming that started to prioritize challenge over storytelling (and I would suggest this refers in particular to structured storytelling), and when groups started to form that prioritized storytelling over challenge, and more importantly when people started identifying themselves as belonging to one camp or another.

    I also think he understated in his essay the degree to which one culture could include elements of the other. That is, I don't think he sees these play elements as ends of a continuum, or as mutually exclusive.

    If you want to see his thoughts that arose from discussion after the publication of his essay, you can check out the following thread the read the entries by Pseudoephedine:

    1. Hi, Beoric. Please note that I'm responding to the "ongoing discussions" (mentioned at the outset here) about his essay more than to the essay itself. As I wrote, "I have encountered discussion in forums since this essay appeared trying to parse Classic and Trad play-styles and to come to grips with them. They sometimes seem to treat them as two mutually exclusive approaches to RPGs." I can't cite those more ephemeral discussions.

      Most of his readers did not have those conversations with Retired Adventurer that you had. Instead, readers have taken it two refer to Six Distinct Cultures of Play without the subtlety and blurriness intended. As you point out, it was understated (though that added to clarity of definition in the six alleged ideal types). I have assumed all along that he too did not believe that these were cultures truly distinct and sealed off from each other, but that misapprehension is what I'm addressing. I happened to have some nice examples by early gamers who were really into storytelling and epic story arcs, and I thought that sharing them might help others not to think that these cultures of play are solid, neatly defined phenomena. I'm glad you responded.