Thursday, December 24, 2020

On the Shape and Origins of New School Play

So, my last blog entry on how economics, not ideology is going to shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons led to a lot of thoughtful conversations, and people had tons of questions for me that warranted at least another article, so I wanted to dig a little deeper.

I intend here to be descriptive. And I will start with the caveat that New and Old-School gaming are not a binary position, but more of a spectrum.

I am personally comfortable running games for players of either stripe... Within limits. I have strong boundaries about using my game to work out someone else's issues and I don't tolerate Prima Donnas or characters that do not work with the group. I tend far more strongly towards the Old School

However, I do believe that right now there is a strong cultural shift towards the New-School, Frankly, Dungeons & Dragons does a piss-poor job of meeting the  goals on New-School players. They tend to get more satisfaction out of games built with story in mind, like FATE Core or Apocalypse World... If they are aware that these options exist. 

What Are We Talking About? 

New-School Gaming is a style of engagement in RPGs that leads to very different play. At its heart, it is about how you conceive of your character.

Old School

For most gamers before the recent boom, the Player-Characters were seen as playing pieces first. While more complex than a pawn in chess, it serves that same purpose first. It is the thing you manipulate to play the game. In this case it has a number of moving, interconnected parts, expressed as numbers, that are used to engage with subsystems in the game. That includes the subsystems of dramatic play-acting to resolve social encounters, and the subsystem of in-character decision making.

The Player Character in this conception is fungible; it can die and be replaced at a moment's notice. The game itself is structured to make keeping a piece in play difficult, and rewards players who solve problems creatively and play with skill by making the piece better over time. 

(This is an irony of early D&D: you gain levels and the statistical improvements that come with them when you prove you don't need them. ) 

Attachment to a PC is usually a result of playing it through several adventures successfully. The character's "story" emerges as you play, and character personality and quirks evolve during play as a way of playing with flair. 

New School

New School gamers instead see thir characters as a form of self-expression. They are investing a part of themselves into their character, either playing an idealized form of self, or a vessel for some sort of fantasy.,. They become deeply invested in and proprietary over their characters. 

The goal of a player of a New-School game isn't to play a game about burgling  lost treasure from monsters; it is to play out a story that let's them live out a fantasy of being a better version of themselves. 

Players in New-School groups can often seem to have a love affair with their player characters. They invest significant resources into custom character miniatures ($70 after shipping or paint), commissioned character portraits ($60 for a headshot, $100+ for full body art), home-designed character sheets ($15), and build advice (a few bucks), and in some cases custom character option material from the DM's Guild to let them build the exact character they want ($2-5).  all told, building a new character for a new school Dungeons & Dragons player with all of the fashionable accessories can run a player anywhere from $40 tip a few hundred.

Between the emotional and financial investment, it's no wonder they hold their characters to be sacrosanct. And are making significant demands on how Dungeons & Dragons works to accommodate their play style. 

I can also verify that there is a huge Market in things like custom drawn and written Pornography about one's D&D character. and a number of cosplayers who gained significant traction for portraying their original characters on screen and at conventions.

The Use of New-School Play

New-School players use Dungeons and Dragons very differently from Old-School players. Old-School players play the game socially: Dungeons & Dragons created the a number of shibboleths that allow you to easily ingratiate yourself with other D&D players. And as a means of inspiring creativity. These are fairly straightforward uses, while the uses that new school players pushed the game to are significantly different and multi-leveled:

Wish Fulfillment

 I won't say that Old-School players don't use Dungeons & Dragons don't use the game for engaging in power fantasies. Obviously they do. However, they don't generally build their characters specifically to fill some specific personal wish. Nor do they expect a campaign to be structured to meet that wish. 

New-School gamers often build characters specifically to scratch an itch.  Whether it is to be bigger, stronger, more attractive, to have a different ethnicity, to be seductive, to be edgy or special... New-School characters are often made to be someone the players wish they were. 

We also see other wish fulfillment behaviors from other subcultures. The Waifu phenomenon is a prime example. A behavior that originally came from the Japanese Grass-Eater culture, then imported to North America by way of Anime Fandom and "Otaku" culture, before being taken up by the MGTOW culture, it is  now becoming a common theme in r/RPGHorrorStories

Having a Waifu, means declaring that one is romantically dedicated to a fictional character that represents the individual's ideal romantic and sexual partner. The person writes letters to the character, consumes media with her in it, and may even have a faux wedding ceremony. They sleep with an image of the character: a body pillow, toy, or even sex doll modeled in the character. Sex is satisfied by creating or consuming fan-made erotica featuring the character. The Waifu represents the wish of the person to have an uncomplicated relationship. This is a phenomenon we see reported fairly frequently in Dungeons & Dragons recently, with players selecting in-game NPCs as Waifus  for the duration of the campaign. 

Another example of using D&D as a tool of Wish Fulfillment went see with fair frequency is campaigns based on popular media to allow players to create alternative outcomes to the story. 

Group Therapy 

Role-playing has incredible potential to help a person work through communication issues or resolve anxieties. In fact, it is such a useful tool that during court and congressional hearings Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons several clinical psychologists attested that the psychological impact of role-playing was so great that a Dungeon Master could be understood as practicing unlicensed therapy on their players, with possibly unforseen results. 

We have, of course seen the results on players since then. Higher performance at schools, having a small number of very close friendships, a lower suicide rate, and lower incidence of drug use than the general population. Most of B.A.D.D.'s expert testimony turned out to be much ado about nothing. 

I would speculate that the relatively low and mostly positive impact is because role-playing in Dungeons & Dragons is not done in a therapeutic environment. Players historically have not expected, generally speaking, to delve deep into or fix problems. Without that expectation, or the trust in a DM necessary for a therapeutic relationship to be established. For therapy to work, you need to expect it to work and believe that the person conducting the therapy can help, and be in a space where you expect it to work. 

But that is not true of all New-School groups. Many players have begun to design characters to make them "feel" a certain way or confront a certain problem. And in the process they are getting validation of the expression made via their character.

This is the driving force behind the push to remove effects, spells, and GM practices in D&D that temporarily remove player agency like mind control spells, cursed items, etc. In the extreme we see it as the driving force behind the idea that GMs don't have a right to kill a PC even when the rules. If the player doesn't have total ownership of the character at all times this can destroy the illusion that playing the character is empowering, or prevent the character from serving their emotional role for the player


Creating a different persona as a form of escape is common across both the Old and New Schools. With the New-School however, it is a much more complex matter. The Player-Character represents a chance at trying on a new identity for self-edification. 

A player May read imagine themselves has someone that better suits their emotional landscape. For example, a furry can play their Fursona. A Trans player can play I a character with the sexual and gender identity that they feel suits them. A player can play a transracial or post-racial person.  It lests the be things they wish they were but believe the cannot openly be either due to biology or social constraints. (The cyberpunk TTRPG Eclipse Phase takes this to extremes, with its polymorphic Transhuman characters. ) 

In effect, a New-School character is an idealized and unconstrained version of the self as the player wishes they could be. 

There is an element of magical thinking that seems to come in the New-School that the longer one plays this alter-ego in the game, the more the player becomes like the character.

Vicarious Victories

Part of the therapeutic potential of New-School Play is the gaining of symbolic and cathartic victories. As they play this idealized and redefined self, players can gain symbolic victory over the people that they don't like in their lives, from killing monsters to get out aggression to in effect burning their bosses, parents, and disliked public figures in effigy. 

(Consider the entire Taryon Darrington arc of "Critical Role" that was made to allow the party to symbolically defy Donald Trump through the figure of Taryon's father.) 

This can be both a stress reliever and a tool for helping people deal with unsettled feelings towards someone they can't hash it out with in real life... But it ca also fuel avoidance behavior: if you slayed your boss in D&D last night, it might cut back on your will to confront his bullying behavior today. This all will depend on the Fibre of the player

Sexual Exploration

It's no surprise in a game where you get to play a best possible self that can try anything that sexual exploration has become a big part of New-School Gaming culture. Aside from player-created or commissioned porn and a cottage industry of people willing to buy, sell, trade, or make it, there are plenty of DMs willing to play out a character's sexual adventures in detail in solo or in a group. Ideally, this is something well-established with the group ahead of time.  

Certainly, it's no coincidence that many of the safety tools used by New-School Gaming groups were written based on consent and aftercare methods used in BDSM by an Internet-famous dominatrix. 

An Edge Case: Transgressive Sexual Exhibitionism

If there is a dark side of TTRPGs it comes with the absurdly common horror stoties of players joining a group to discover that the core group of players enjoy graphic and often violent sexual scenes and may even build the whole game around them. The new player is either blindsided by these popping up, or their characters is themselves are the victim of the scene (the slang term is "lewding" the character) . Some groups like a nasty scene, but it seems as though bringing in unwitting people to subject to it is  common expression of the absolute extreme and worst version of the New School. 

Dungeon World creator Adam Koebel's infamous "Robogate" scene from earlier this year is a perfect example of this. He clearly enjoyed describing as a PC in his group was sexually assaulted by a robot during an episode of his Far Verona livestream campaign, despite her clear  revulsion. The Player's later response videos are some of the best possible material for understanding the investment many New-School players have with their PCs. 

New-School is Not New

In fact, I think it is an inevitable byproduct of TTRPGs. This style of play has always been there for a small minority of players. In fact, you can see evidence in early issues of Dragon magazine when we see people asking for advice ad to what to do with players who get too "into" their character and bring intense emotional reactions to the table, making other players uncomfortable.

The battle over pushing "role-playing" over "roll-playing" is an early pus for the legitimization of the New-School. And of course the Story Game, Foundry, and Sword Dream movements have been around for the better part of two decades.

Given the psychological potency of even a little Role-play, the strong bonds of trust gaming groups can form, and the narrative structure of the game it is no surprise. As human beings, we are wired to suspend disbelief, to engage emotionally with Narrative, to treat stories as true, or if they are not literally true, to seek spiritual/artic Truth from them. Dungeons & Dragons is well-built to tap deep wells in the human psyche.

That some people use D&D for healing, self-exploration, wish fulfillment, catharsis, or sexual gratification is pretty unsurprising. I would guess that the context of the gaming group has, in the past, put up walls of decorum in front of how we behave in the game, and perhaps restricted how older players made use of it. 

As the more emotionally open (and often Narcissistic) culture of the 1990s and onward changed what's acceptable at social gatherings it is not surprising that the New-School gained more traction and D&D moved to facilitate it. The end of the scrutiny from the Satanic Panic crowd probably helped as well. 

We are at the far end of a long arc towards the dominance this playstyle. The change is not new. The emergence of the OSR did help and continues to throw the shift into contrast however.

Why is it Important Now?

The reason why this is so relevant now is that D&D has become fashionable over the last few years. Dungeons & Dragons 5e in particular has become insanely successful with a new cohort. Thanks to how these new players have been introduced into the game, they are strongly aligned with New-School Play. And they are willing to spend a lot of money on their play experience:

"The Legend of Vox Machina" was the most successful Kickstarter Campaign in the
history of the site, and only a part of the massive fundraising output of Critical Role

The incredible financial success of livestream shows like Critical Role are creating a hungry market for Dungeons & Dragons products that do a better job of facilitating the story-oriented, character-centered and emotionally cathartic experience they are looking for.

We are going to see a shift be it in experimental content, third party material, or a new edition that will shift Dungeons & Dragons to favoring the New-School of play structurally. Understanding what the New-School is and what it means for the game is important if you want to understand the current trends and direction of the hobby. 

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