Supporting Cast

Posted: 2 July 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: , , ,

The Professor doesn’t really run a game blog, per se, but the most recent post touches on an issue that I think is A Problem for RPGs, and especially endemic in 4th Edition D&D and probably in 5th Edition, too.

That post is about “support roles” and how there’s a push to “fix” them.  It mentions games like City of Heroes, Team Fortress 2, and then Dungeons and Dragons.  The idea if that there are “primary” classes and “support” classes, where primary classes are defined by their ability to “solo” the game, and support classes are more indirect and make their team mates “feel more awesome.”  These games, though, have tended towards balancing support classes so that they can make a better direct showing in combat, to the detriment of their ‘support’ abilities.

As I said in my (excruciatingly-long-in-hindsight) comment over there, this is appropriate for games like TF2 and CoH.  Those games have a somewhat static ecology to work with and a default engagement method — namely, “kill all of the things.”  Because of this, classes are measured by how well they can contribute to combat.  TF2 is a team game by default so there’s room for a bit more specialization (compare Heavy vs Sniper vs Engineer). MMOs like CoH and World of Warcraft assume team play (on some level) but don’t enforce it; players will occasionally not want or be able to find a group, and so either all classes can make some measure of progress alone or they risk a stale experience (and losing customers).

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’d have to admit that D&D began life with a similar default of “kill all of the things,” but at the time there was more emphasis on “and take their stuff,” than on the killing.  I’m told that OD&D gave out experience points for every piece of gold you found, which would encourage <i>avoiding</i> fights if it means (1) you could get (most of) the treasure any ways, and (2) it let you save resources so you could kill more things later (and take their stuff).  Regardless, D&D definitely grew from there to the point where, in D&D 3.X, combat may have been common and expected, but it wasn’t the only approach to the game.  Knowledge, skills, and personality could get you places that a sword and a strong arm couldn’t (depending on your DM and what kind of game you were playing). Characters don’t need to shine in combat so long as they can shine somewhere else, and I think that’s a great strength that tabletop RPGs have over (most) video games.  If the rogue or wizard was terrible in combat that was fine, because the fighter would be useless when a trap had to be disarmed or some ancient runes needed to be deciphered.  If the men-at-arms characters could handle the combat the others were free to hang back, and they’d get their spotlight with other challenges.

One of the most common complaints about 4E (in my experience) is hat it essentially threw away decades of legacy for the “new hotness” of MMOs.  Personally I think there’s some truth in that, but (1) I think it’s the natural result of forces that began acting long ago and (2) for what it was I don’t think they did a bad job.  The thing is that years before 4th Edition became a thing, D&D players and designers got caught up focusing on Combat and aiming for Balanced Encounters.  Fourth Edition really just codified that in the system; for better or worse, it’s something we did to ourselves.

To that point, though, I’d say it’s “for worse.”  Fourth and Fifth Edition both seem to assume that combat is the default method of engagement and everyone should contribute to it equally (or at least consistently).  It’s forcing a homogenization that I think is bad for the game and for the hobby. Tactical miniatures are fun games (I play Warhammer 40K myself, when I get a chance), but they’re different from RPGs and they satisfy different desires.  ‘Fixing’ the classes and the systems so that everyone acts like a Wizard and fights like a Fighter limits the hobby, and frankly other games do those things better already.

  1. LS says:

    To clarify, gold is where *all* experience came from. No XP was gained from killing monsters.

    • Jack says:

      I’ve been seriously considering switching to that model for my games; I think there’s way too much emphasis on combat in modern D&D and not enough on exploration.

      • Brendan says:

        My plan is to try all XP from treasure and see how that goes in my upcoming OD&D game. There are plenty of benefits to fighting things also, including subduing them and selling them to taxidermists or for fighting in the arena, so I think there should still be plenty of incentive to fight (not to mention the straightforward reason of being able to get to the treasure chest behind them or whatever). I just really want to break the direct association with “here are some critters, we should kill them for XP” that seems so prevalent.

        OD&D by the book awards 100 XP per hit die of monster defeated, actually (which is high, compared to basic D&D and AD&D, somewhat surprisingly).

  2. LS says:

    I tend to agree, but personally I don’t think it really works for me as an XP system. I like characters to be rewarded for overcoming a struggle or accomplishing goals. Often this takes the form of killing a monster, but it can also come from creative thinking.

    I also dislike tracking large numbers when I don’t need to. Using simple XP, it’s very easy for me to decide “now, is this a 1 XP, 2XP, or 3XP goal which the player have accomplished?” That wasn’t the case when I used more traditional XP. When I could give the players anywhere from 1xp to 10,000 xp, I just felt lost.

    • Jack says:

      Yeah, I’ve read your simple XP and considered that as well. What I’d like to do, though, is find a system that isn’t as reliant on the DM to essentially decide when players level up. XP-per-kill sort of does that, as long as what the players fight has more to do with them than the DM. I’m not exactly sure how to adapt simple XP to be less DM-reliant.

      • LS says:

        Having played with simple XP for the better part of a year now, I don’t feel like I really choose when my players level up. I never know it has happened until they tell me. And I’ve tried to be consistent in how I hand out XP.

        I still need to be the one to decide how much XP a certain accomplishment is worth, but I’m also the one who decides how much gold is in a room. So, as I would view it, simple XP is no more DM-reliant than anything else.

        I totally understand the appeal of 1GP = 1XP though. It gives the game focus, which is extremely useful.

        Speaking of, did you see Trollsmyth’s recent post on the subject? His players need to spend their GP before they get XP for it:

        • Jack says:

          Yeah, I did see that; it’s an interesting idea, and I’d kind of be interested in comparing it to other systems. It seems a bit odd to me that a Hireling might be a constant source of XP, but since they need to have the gold to spend it they’re still driven to find treasure.

        • Brendan says:

          As far as I know, the “XP for treasure spent” rule was first discussed in Dragon #10 (1977), in the article Orgies, Inc.:

          “Instead of receiving experience for gaining treasure, players would receive experience only as the treasure is spent.”

          I generally like this; the only downside I see is that it does not encourage large purchases, because players want their XP now now now. However, spending money on building a stronghold, or buying something like a warship (or even saving up for magic research), adds a lot to the game, so I want to encourage that somehow. I have some basic ideas about that, but nothing complete yet.

          • Jack says:

            To that point, I kind of want to encourage amassing a hoard of treasure, and since I like awarding non-cash treasures (like art and books), it seems weird to have them sell decorations in order to buy decorations. If you aware XP for getting treasure rather than spending treasure, they’re free to keep souveniers, etc.

            As for monster XP, there are plenty of options, from a bounty on gnoll ears, goblins with coin purses, or taking bandits’ gear.

            • Brendan says:

              Another option would be to allow players to “cash in” items that they plan on keeping for XP right away, but if they later sell them there would obviously be no additional XP reward. But stuff that was literally just money would need to be spent.

              I had a player in my previous game who found a crown studded with emeralds (he stole it from a mummy) and thought it was cool enough to forego the 1000+ XP in order to keep it and wear it (it had no magical powers or anything, it was just an ancient crown). That tradeoff actually ended up making the crown more valuable to him, which is sort of interesting.

              I don’t know though, I still consider this an open research question.

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