I really like some of the gamemastering articles associated with 4th edition D&D. They often tend to say exactly what I’ve been thinking myself. This was basically the case when I was reading the article on Game Transparency in Dragon 375. It is close enough to what I would say myself that there isn’t much for me to add, just to say it is a good article. In particle, I quite agree with the idea that if the players have no idea that a monster has fire resistance, and have no way to find it out, then that fire resistance has no tactical interest or meaning. In order for the players to devise interesting tactics based on the opponents, they need information about the opponents.
What the article also made me think about, though, is that many of the suggestions in the new D&D material are a matter of style. It reflects the attitude that the GM is basically an ally of the players, working with them to make the game as much fun as possible. I’ve always had this approach to role-playing games, but in terms of D&D, this is basically the “new school” attitude. This attitude is opposed by the “old school” approach, which still has many adherents. I was thinking about how to define the distinction.
The tradition of the old school play style is that the the adventure is full of truly deadly hazards, and the players must be extremely cautious and devious while they try their best to defeat the adventure as efficiently as possible. Sometimes it seems like the old school approach involves the GM being the opponent of the players, but that is not how I would put it. I think the ideal of the old school approach is that the GM sets up an adventure to be very challenging to the players, then runs the adventure with total impartiality. If the players come up with a clever idea, they can kill the big boss in his sleep; if they fail to notice an important trap, they may all die. Everything is totally fair, and the players control their own destiny. If the GM decides the players are getting too powerful, he adjusts the adventures accordingly, but only in a fair way. It is sort of like how a sporting organization works. If a given tactic proves too effective, that tactic is banned for everyone, but only at the beginning of a season, not in the middle of a game, because that would be unfair. In old school D&D, if a player had a powerful magic item, it would be fair to send thieves to steal it, but only if the players had a fair chance to set up guards, place magical wards, and so on.
To continue with the sports analogy, I would say the old school approach treats the game much like a competitive team sport. The goal is to do everything you can to win the game within the rules, and the nature of the competition and the challenge it presents is what is fun. If you aren’t trying to win, you aren’t really playing the game. Whereas the new school approach is more like playing a party game, where you are ostensibly trying to win, but in reality you are just using the structure of a game to have a good time. If you have a choice between trying to do whatever it takes to win, and being more whimsical and entertaining, it would appropriate to choose the latter.
I’ve always preferred the idea that the GM and the players are working together to create a memorable story and have a good time, and the GM should mix a “say yes” approach together with the impartiality needed to create an exciting adventure. The old idea of RPG tournaments, with the party who achieved the most success in the adventure being the winners, always seemed strange to me. In my mind, this seemed to encourage exactly the wrong thing, a party of hyper-competitive rules lawyers trying to beat the dungeon, not the sort of fun role-playing I prefer. In my preferred style, not only is the GM friendly to the players, but the players work with the GM, trying to go with the spirit of high adventure rather than tapping everything in the dungeon with 10-foot poles.
Nevertheless, the old school concept is theoretically sound. Pure competition has been exalted in games since time immemorial. Why not take this approach with role-playing games? It reminds me of playing a Star Fleet Battles tournament. Commanding your starship correctly requires mastery of hundreds of obscure rules and capabilities; forget even one, and your ship is destroyed. Not the sort of thing I really enjoy. But if you love pitting your skill against the opponent in pure, ruthless competition, you wouldn’t want it any other way.