This is the second in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.
For the purposes of this website (reread that) this is how I’ll define a “Traditional Game.”
First, a Traditional Game has a GM. The GM is imbued with the power to control everything but the PCs. He is also the one who will come up with the overall campaign (aka plot) for the game and the one who is the final arbiter of all disagreements. Players play one and only one character and maintain an Actor Stance as much as possible. Actor Stance is basically playing “in character” where the player cannot affect anything in the Setting except what his own character could normally affect. All of the character’s actions are done in accordance with character knowledge and ability. Player knowledge and player motivation are put aside and considered “out of the game.” Traditional Games employ a Task Resolution system where difficulties and opposition are set by GM fiat with minimal guidance from the game’s text.
They may or may not have such things as levels, classes, races, equipment lists, spell lists, combat subsystems, skills, stats, etc. These are not what make a game a Traditional Game. So don’t confuse them with what I wrote in the paragraph above. They are all elements of game design. Their presence or absence has nothing to do with a game’s traditional-ness or its cutting edge-ness.
These traditional games hale back all the way to basic DnD and progress right through World of Darkness today. The thing that traditional games tend to do is empower the GM and suppress the players. They encourage, sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly, the idea that the GM is the one who creates the story, the characters just add their voice and color. They propagate the ideal that the GM is the guy who gets to finally decide when a campaign is “done” and who gets what rewards and how much (XP allotments is a fine example of a GM-only duty). Additionally, they engrain the idea that if some ability or action the player wants his character to do isn’t covered in the character sheet, the players must just narrate what happens or not even bother to attempt it. For instance, debating, romance, and negotiation are things that are commonly left up to “roleplaying” and rarely supported by mechanics. Lastly, these games give GMs next to nothing when it comes to tools for creating a Setting, addressing player motives, or altering the Situation to fit the individuality of all the characters. It’s supposed to be done “on the fly” or in some grandiose “world builders guide book” sort of way. Neither of which are consistently effective or useful. Sooner or later both methods will break down.
Obviously, not all games are Traditional Games. There are many good games that break this mold. Sorcerer, The Shadows of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, Polaris, Breaking the Ice, Dust Devils, Prime Time Adventures, Inspectres, Multiverser, My Life with Master, and Universalis are all excellent examples of such games. They are more on the cutting edge of things.
For the purpose of this post, I’m not going to make any value judgment on Traditional Games. Whether they are good or not, whether they are harmful or not to gamers is something for another discussion. The main thing I want to do with this post is establish what they are and invite feedback that will help me construct a more accurate definition.
[EDIT]: Big thanks to Bankuei, John Kim, and Fang for helping me refine my list of traits a 'Traditional Game' tends to have. That list follows here:
-GM imbued with ultimate authority
-GM charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game
-Players play one and only one character
-Players encouraged to stay in 'Actor Stance'
-Task Resolution System
-Difficulties set by GM fiat
-GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties
-Character Advancement tied to increasing statistical values
-Dice used as the sole randomizer for play
-Assumption of long term play
-Player/Character goals not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation