Collapsed Tiers of Play
Okay, whatever, I keep mentioning this in private conversations and meant to write about it at some point. I just kept forgetting. But now I'm in front of a computer drinking an afternoon coffee and we're all talking about related stuff again. Here you go!
The Old: Tiers of Play
There are three tiers of play in classic D&D (pictured above is Fantastic Medieval Campaigns):
- Underworld (lvl. 1-3): Corresponding roughly with the 'flunky' character level in Chainmail, this phase involves expeditions into the underworld to fight monsters and retrieve treasure.
- Wilderness (lvl. 4-7): Corresponds with the 'heroic' level in Chainmail, this phase is about exploring and conquering the wilderness.
- Dominion (lvl. 8+): Corresponds with the 'superheroic' level in Chainmail, this phase is about building a domain and employing armies.
The main point I want to get across is that these three tiers are, well, tiers. You're expected to participate in these activities at specific stages of character progression. You can tell because wilderness encounters are way more fucking dangerous than underworld encounters—we're talking hundreds of mooks in OD&D, or dozens in the Basic revision—and once you have a domain, you are straight up playing a war game. I've heard it expressed a couple times, though I think Lich van Winkle told me last, that classic D&D functions as the origin story of 'fantastic' figures in Chainmail. That sounds about right to me!
The New: Modes of Play
I think more contemporary "old-school" (or adjacent) campaigns distinguish themselves by employing these activities across a campaign, i.e. regardless of character level, instead of at certain stages. You're less likely to grind in the dungeon to become powerful enough for the wilderness. Instead, you're more likely to take a hex crawl from a town en route to a dungeon, and then doing a downtime/domain activity before or after the main session. Rather than stages of a campaign, they're activities at any point of a campaign or individual session.
The most immediate example I can think of is Ava Islam's rulebook Errant, pictured above, which has four types of turns: travel (wilderness), exploration (underworld), initiative (combat), and downtime (dominion). As we can tell even by the names, these activities no longer occur at different stages of character progression, but can occur at any point during a campaign or session. A helpful analogy is that these activities exist on the same 'plane' as combat—it's not like combat in classic D&D is relegated to certain character power level, but it's an activity that begins at any point during underworld or wilderness exploration. The same is now true for hex crawls, dungeon crawls, and downtime (long-term) activities.
That being said, I don't think this really originates in Errant as much as it would from the G+ subculture of the OSR which focused on more DIY and freeform campaign structures, especially with shorter session and campaign lengths. It's natural that, when pressed with more restrictions on time, a play culture which broadens the scope of play would arise (when, otherwise, the post-underworld tiers of play would be inaccessible). That's all kind of hypothetical, though. I'm kind of frustrated that, off the top of my head, I can't think of a clear timeline. We don't really see it in the early 2010s retroclones which emphasize dungeon crawls (besides importing the basic assumptions of classic D&D), and we don't see it in the mid 2010s rulebooks which focus on player-side rules instead of play procedures. Maybe it picked up steam with the Hot Springs Island adventure, or with the West Marches campaign structure? Who knows.
The greatest implication this has on play is that each activity now has a lower "barrier of entry", at least when it comes to character power. Encounters triggered during hex crawls are now not necessarily more dangerous than encounters during dungeon crawls, since it's just as likely that a low-level character is traversing hexes as a high-level one. Downtime activities are also broadened in scope, not just having to with ruling domains and commanding armies, but with other long-term activities which—over time—may result in the character accumulating more power (that's really the basis of classic and old-school play). This results in a greater variety of play activity and player freedom, both good things!
I am kind of unsatisfied with the rulebooks that have been molded by this new trend, though. The tendency is to create kind of complicated subsystems for each activity, whereas I think we would benefit from thinking less about strict/specific mechanics and more about broader principles that can be applied between activities. How much time does something take? What will it cost? What does it risk? Thinking more generally about the impact of character decisions and activities, as opposed to modeling and simulating specific activities (or fitting a variety of activities into the same mold). That's just my opinion, though!
Thank you to both Emiel and Ava for giving me permission to use the WIP illustration above! :) It so perfectly... illustrates the new old-school way of things.