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TSR Era D&D vs WOTC Era D&D: Differences in Acceptable Play Style

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I've noticed a difference in common play style between D&D in the TSR era and D&D in the WOTC era. While it is tempting to call this another "old school"/"new school" issue, I'm not sure that it is. The difference is in the types of player behavior that groups seem to find acceptable.

More often than not in the TSR era, groups found the following player behaviors at least somewhat objectionable. Many groups I played with or knew about made players with one or more of the following behaviors unwelcome. In the WOTc era, I see these same behaviors have become fairly acceptable, even expected.

Min-Maxing/Munchkinism: In the TSR era, players who tried to optimize their characters mechanically (too much) through weird rules combinations and strange combinations of magic items and spells were often considered poor players and were unwelcome in many groups. Such players were often referred with derogatory term "munchkin". In the WOTC era, groups seem far more tolerant of min-maxing even where it breaks the game or causes huge differences in character power between players who min-max and other players at the table who aren't interested in doing so. Min-maxing seems to have become so accepted that the game rules are considered broken (in instead of the player's behavior considered broken) by many players if min-maxing players can break the game with outrageous combinations like "pun-pun".

Rules Lawyering In the TSR era, most GMs and player groups had little tolerance for players who had seemingly memorized the most trivial details of the rules from every rule book ever printed and were ready to waste lots of play time arguing with the GM over rules minutia. Oddly, they never seemed to argue with the GM if his rules interpretation may have been technically wrong but helped their character. Many TSR era GMs simply told rules lawyers to shut up so they and the rest of the players could enjoy the game. In the WOTC era, rules lawyers seem much more acceptable, at least to judge by the number of long rules discussions I've seen in many groups using WOTC editions of D&D. Part of this probably has something to do with the new school "cult of the RAW" where many players seem to see the rule books as some type of "holy writ" instead of as guidelines for the GM. However, I suspect much of it is just that the huge mass of rules in WOTC editions means that rules discussions in the middle of games have become more likely -- which gives rules lawyers more scope to do their thing without being as noticeable.

Rollplaying: While I don't really like this term, it's the only short way to label this behavior that I know of. In the TSR era, players usually described what their character was doing and allowed the GM to decide what roll - if any - was needed (especially in non-combat situations). Players who consistently tried to avoid describing what they were doing by simply saying something like "I'll make a X roll (usually a Non-Weapon Proficiency in AD&D or a Skill roll in BECMI) to do Y" were considered poor players. In the WOTC era, I see a larger number of groups where "I make a diplomacy roll to try to get the NPC to do X" is all that the GM or the group requires. The player never has to say what the character is actually offering the NPC, how he is approaching the NPC, or the like. The entire interaction is "I try to make a skill roll."

I don't really know why these behaviors have apparently become more acceptable in the 21st century than they were in the 20th century, but they have. I believe these differences in what is likely to be considered acceptable play are one of the non-mechanical things that can make the play experience today seem so different to long time D&D players. Note that while I personally prefer the TSR era style, there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either style. They are just very different and led to very different expectations about play.

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Khayman said...
March 17, 2012 at 11:12 PM  

I whole-heartedly agree on the munchkinism and rules lawyering. For the former I have no patience (I like to annoy my munchkin friends by creating 'suboptimal' characters or I play against type). For the latter, I think it is partly driven by the demands of recent RPGs --- there tend to be a lot of rules, and in 3.5 I came to depend on one of my friends as a walking rulebook. In another sense, though, I agree that it is the players changing the game --- the market drives the product.

As for the 'rollplaying'... you know, I don't even mind games with detailed rules and gobs of dice. Some can be great but in those cases the system is the star, not the story. I prefer simpler games so my friends and I can create stories that are not railroaded by mechanics or hobbled by fretting over game balance. Real life is neither mechanical nor balanced. If you want those, try a board game.

Gene Sollows said...
March 17, 2012 at 11:29 PM  

Spot-on. The system influences how people play as well as what type of people prosper the most under that system.

Byteknight said...
March 17, 2012 at 11:39 PM  

I find teenagers today more socially inept than when I was one 30 years ago. The years of solitary pursuits like internet browsing, texting and computer gaming having its affect on face to face play and face to face game design, I guess.

Cody Connelly said...
March 18, 2012 at 12:45 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lightfinger said...
March 18, 2012 at 2:53 AM  

I left the RPGA, and after looking at the core rules of D&D 4th ed, I refused to buy anything further with the '4th Ed' label on it because of these reasons.

The experiences of the RPGA led to 3.5, and later 4.0 because of these trends. Experience for modules being run by the organization rewarded nothing for roleplay or puzzle solving, being entirely based on fighting or making a specific skill roll. So, the players adapted to what we now see today.

The talents of being a good gamemaster have devolved as well, as the RPGA penalized people who went off the script, even if players could fail a skill roll and die in what's known as 'boxed text'.

Cannae said...
March 18, 2012 at 5:14 AM  

Third and fourth both attempted to create complete rule systems, partially because of frustration at "incomplete" rules systems, and also to offset abuse by DMs. It comes down to where the power lies, with a good GM the house rules and GM fiat of older systems leads to an outstanding game; but the reverse is also true. Having played for almost thirty five years, both my best and worst experiences came from 1st ed D&D.
I hope that along with better player behaviour the OS movement encourages better GM behaviour :-)

The Landlord said...
March 18, 2012 at 2:00 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Landlord said...
March 18, 2012 at 2:09 PM  

I'm not very knowledgable about new school stylings, so take that into account.

It does seem that video games have had an effect, and that may be ironic, because I think D&D had a huge effect on THEM. And I'm a fan of computer & video games, starting with Scott Adams text Adventures bitd to now (Fallout 3 currently). I think, though, if a player has started with video games such as Zelda/FF, etc. in semi-recent years, then expectations/modes of thought in pnp rpging are gonna different now from what they were then.

Now, an observation, and a question. Since I am fairly ignorant of the the new ways, I do not know if this is a difference or not, what do you think, if you'd care to comment?

PC killed by poison needle trap.

(1) oh, bs, my char. killed by a damn poison trap of no signifigance to the plot
(2) oh, s**t, roll up another char., that was a very consequential trap, and that chars. death due to it an big event in the story

Do (1) and (2) reflect a difference between TSR-era and WOTC-era? They may well not; they do reflect different styles, but they may not reflect different eras. I'm not sure.

Dwarin said...
March 18, 2012 at 4:49 PM  

Some ideas about the Rollplaying aspect: the majority of current games have skills which can explain the laziness in describing what the character is actually doing. If you have a Find Traps skill, it's usually easier to say: "I want to roll to find traps in this room" than "my character kneels on the ground and feels the flagstones to see if any moves." This phenomenon is more prevalent if the skill list spells everything out.

Ironically, I've noticed this behavior in combat in D&D (Moldvay edition) because players tend to just roll to kill. I encourage them to try and describe their actions. In non-combat situations, where there are no skills, they tend to describe what their characters are doing, even in social interactions.

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