The Old-School Grind

I only recently came across the use of the term “grind” in an RPG context. I know, I know– I am an out of touch grognard who is prone to telling modern gamers to get the hell off my lawn. And I certainly have no excuse, since both my wife and several of my best friends are complete Warcraft fanatics. So I should have known about this phenomenon, but didn’t. To my understanding, a “grind” is a situation where you’re just engaged in melee after melee, stacking up x.p. Hardly the epitome of role-playing, of any style.

It got me thinking, though, about the applicability of the grind in an old-school dungeon crawl. I mean, my own Castle of the Mad Archmage could, if played that way, be considered a grind. There are tons of monsters, often in rooms not too far removed from one another. Certainly I don’t use the “20% of rooms in a dungeon should have monsters” rule of thumb that the earliest versions of the game proposed. At best, I invert it.

But I must say, a grind is how you play it. It’s a matter of attitude. Both the attitude of the players to the ultimate goal of entering a dungeon, and of the game master to the ultimate goal of having players enter the dungeon in the first place.

I think that the “old school” approach to dungeon exploration is not to clear the level and then move down to the next. At least, as it applies to the megadungeon; certainly smaller dungeons might well be designed with the ultimate objective to be “wipe out all the goblins who are raiding the halfling village”. But in the old school approach, you’re not out to kill the monsters. You’re out the get their treasure. In the old school approach, a plethora of monsters might actually be considered a boon. There’s a tribe of orcs a few corridors away from a derro outpost? The “grind” mentality would say, take out the orcs, then move on to the derro. The old-school mentality would say, get the orcs to fight the derro through clever play, and take their chest of gold while they’re busy hacking each other to bits.

So I think that any grind you can come up with, short of something that was just one room after another, completely linear, stuffed with monsters, the old school could turn into a tactical challenge. That’s why there are all those seemingly useless corridors; flanking! And there’s no stat check for strategy.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “The Old-School Grind

  1. I hadn't heard the term "grind" before either. I suppose this is more of a style of play than a matter of design. Players with that approach could make a grind of any scenario.

    Also, Down,Down, to goblin town!

  2. I concur. Any system can degenerate into a grind, likewise any system can rise to clever role-playing pitting monstrous factions against one another. One might be able to speak of "rules inertia" (e.g. a ruleset makes it more likely or more rewarding for some sort of behavior – in which case I would state that D&D in all its iterations subtly pushes the grind) but that seems like splitting hairs.

  3. Great point. And that is definitely what separates, in my mind, tabletop roleplaying from Crpgs like Warcraft.

    As a DM I make it a goal to reward players at least partial exp for creatively defeating their foes, particularly if this means tricking them into fighting each other or having a thief lock them in their own 'secure' room with a hammer and spikes.

    I know that S&W has a built in mechanism to reward this play (XP for GP), but my wife REALLY hates being forced to keep track of weight, and without limits it is too powerful of a reward, so I tend away from this reward system.

    The term grind is used pejoratively 99% of the time, but I think that the quality of DM and players can turn what would easily be considered a grind in a video medium into a fun, challenging experience. As you said in your post.

    Thanks for keeping us updated, grognard!

  4. @.o.

    Great comment, and I totally agree with your sentiments here as related to tabletop games. I think that their inapplicability to video gaming is one of that medium's greatest weaknesses.

  5. I used that phrase in my recent review of a module mainly because it was the most descriptive word that I could come up with. I don't have the module in front of me to confirm this, but I don't recall too many treasures that you didn't have to grind through monsters. On the second level, if your cleric was throwing good dice, they could turn a great deal of them, but if certain things hadn't happened, they would have to fight… and fight… and fight. To me, that felt like a grind. There was no derro to pit vs. orcs. There was no real ability, aside from turning, to get through the undead to get to the treasure.

    And I admitted (as I will again) that my review was very much based on my preference for a module. Megadungeons like Stonehell and your CotMA don't feel like a grind because there's something "alive" about them that I can work with. For whatever reason, the module I reviewed didn't give me that feeling.

  6. I'd like to offer a slightly different definition for "grind".

    It's repeating the same actions, likely in the same circumstances (same target, same location) because those actions are the most efficient way to achieve an objective.

    Quite obviously, this is boring.

    Attacking the orcs and then attacking the Derro might not be a grind. If it's a series of identical combats against identical foes in the same cave system, then yeah maybe it's a grind.

    But you could also grind pickpocketing, or the micromanagement of running a barony. In tabletop games we can gloss over a lot of the grind that you can't in a computer game. As a referee, I know I don't like to see the player roll a dozen times in a row for something when I could have him roll once for a days' efforts. But getting a computer game to let you do that is challenging.

    In a tabletop game, grinding is immediately apparent. But it's often hidden in a computer game by tiny incremental rewards and constant eye candy. In fact, the grind in a computer game may contribute to why people play it.

    Let's take your example of a huge orc tribe next to a huge Derro tribe. If the PCs had to slog through many similar negotiations to get them to attack each other, and the referee rolled to determine all the NPC fights, it would be a grind.

    Contrariwise, if the referee had a variety of tactics and surprises in store, and the PCs tried a variety of plans for each battle, fighting the entirety of both tribes might not be a grind.

  7. Not that it really matters to your point but 1d30's definition of grind is the one meant when discussing MMORPGs (which, btw, are vastly different than other computer RPGs). The "grind" mentioned in post is what I'd call Hack & Slash.

    RPG's are what the players (including DM) make of them.

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