Posts Tagged ‘assumptions’

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

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There’s a post up at the Transitive Property of Gaming blog about how the author had a really great idea for a homebrew zombie apocalypse game, and how it didn’t go at all how he planned.  I want to reiterate how awesome this homebrew idea sounds: he has a whole apartment complex and neighborhood that he was personally familiar with, he made up maps of the floor plans, rules for improvised barricades, a flowchart for zombie behaviors, a timeline for how bad the infestation is from one block to the next, systems to encourage foraging outside the fortress — some really cool ideas.

The problem is that from session one the players decided that staying put was a bad idea, and so made it their goal to escape the city.  They knew, as we all do, that most “successful” zombie movies are the ones where the characters escape the populated areas, and movies where characters whole up end with the social unit collapsing and people turning on each other.  But that situation, the one where the characters have to deal with the break down of social bonds, is obviously the game the author wanted to play.  Instead, he had to toss out a bunch of his prep and resorted to believable roadblocks like a military quarantine and making the easiest path be the one that lead back to the fortress — but the players just interpreted this as the requisite obstacles that needed to be overcome.  They thought *that* was the game, rather than the GM’s attempt to get them back to the game.

I wasn’t at this particular game, so I can’t say how well things were communicated or not, but I can say that I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again, in games I’ve played in and games I’ve run.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that GMs aren’t allowed to tell their players what kind of game they (the GM) want to play, which is kind of silly when you consider the amount of effort those same GMs end up putting in to guide/railroad the players back to where they “should” be, back to The Plot.  Back to the Game.

It should be a pretty simple fix: just tell your players before you start before Character creation or anything) what kind of game you want to play.  The GM is as much a player as anyone else at the table, and you deserve to have your fun as much as the next guy.  For most of us, this is a hobby and we shouldn’t treat it like a job.  You aren’t their to entertain an audience, you’re there to play a game with your friends.

“I want to play a game where your characters barricade their apartment building against the zombie hordes and have to deal with each other in the resulting stressful environment.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are professional adventurers who delve into ruins and make a living selling ancient treasures they find.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are small-town folk who are thrust into adventuring when your town is destroyed.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are non-combatants who travel cross-country to reclaim their fallen kingdom from an ancient dragon.”

I’d say that adding “and if you fail you will likely die” to any of those is probably healthy, too, but your mileage may vary.

My only observation is that as GMs we feel like we need to cajole our players into the game, that what they want is more important than what we want, because without players there is no game.  Or because we want to play a game with *those* friends, specifically.  Or some other situation where compromising our fun seems to be the best or only way.  Maybe this post says more about my experiences than any wider phenomenon in the hobby, I don’t know. And while I don’t think the GM should give away all his secrets and twists, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped playing “guess the plot.”

There are a bunch of reasons to play RPGs, and these reasons will color both how we approach the game and what we find satisfying.  I think it’s important to put down my own preferences, since that will color the problems I encounter and the solutions I choose to fix those problems.

I grew up on RPGs being all about story; I had a plot I wanted to run my players through, even if that plot was just “the players are heroes and the fight the bad guys and right wrongs.” I got burned out of that pretty quickly because it was a constant struggle for me to get the player’s do to “the right thing” and move the plot along. I recently discovered the OCR and read the Quick Primer to Old School Gaming, and though I agree with a number of the main points (Game Balance, Ming Vase, Moose Head) I eventually decided that I’m not “old school.”  This is mostly because I don’t agree with the idea that the focus should be on Player Skill rather than Character Ability; that’s a perfectly valid way to play, but it’s not what interests me.  It strikes me that the emphasis there is on Role-Playing Game, and I’m more interested is a Role-Playing Game.  For me, the character (and, by extension, the world he inhabits) is more important.

Saying that I want the emphasis to be on role-playing, though, brings a lot of baggage with it.  I don’t mean that I want to avoid rolling dice, that Combat is my enemy, that acting ability is key, or any thing else that’s attached to “role-players.” What’s important to me is that they player assumes an identity, is presented a situation, makes a decision based on who his character is, and experiences the consequences of his actions (leading to a new situation and further decisions).  This is the heart of role-playing, and all the other bits (rules, dice, acting, etc) facilitate that activity.

With that basic core established, there are lots of ways to do it.  You can have quality role-playing with pretty much any system, or no system at all.  You can use dice, cards, numerical stats, descriptive words — most of us have engaged in this sort of activity since we were kids laying Cops and Robbers (or whatever variation was popular with your group; my childhood was spent playing TMNT on the monkey bars).

Personally, I’m a crunchy sort of guy; I want a system that is consistent and “realistic enough” that I feel like it can model situations close to what I would expect in the real world.  My reasons for this are because I believe the rules should facilitate role-playing (making a decision based on your character), and so I want rules that help express the situation (and actions and consequences) in an understandable way. When the rules model the world, and that model resembles the reality we actually live in, it becomes easier to place ourselves in our character’s shoes.  When the rules are ‘realistic enough’ we can reason about our character’s actions the way we reason about our own actions, and when they’re consistent we can base our decisions on past experiences.

I do think there’s a place for DM Fiat and Rulings (rather than Rules), but I think they should be used sparingly, and only to fill in the gaps where the rules don’t accurately model reality.  If your target is a mortal, a dagger to the throat should kill him, regardless of what damage rolls and hit points say.  That’s a gap in the rules and should be handled appropriately.  The same can and should be said in other places where the rules present non-intuitive results.  But if Rules are the result of consistent Rulings (which I believe they are), there is value in developing new rules to address these gaps when we can (to the extent that it makes sense).

Those “rules to address gaps” is what this blog is directed toward.  Since I know 3.X and Pathfinder that’s where most of my effort is focused currently, but I’m interested in discussing other systems as well (especially as I broaden my horizons).

The Preamble

In the comments on my post about Falling Damage, Brenden mentioned his mechanisms for making falling “always scary” but allowing good luck to save you from even extreme falls.  I liked the system but noted that I don’t think falling is always scary, because eventually the PCs are at near-god levels, and Superman isn’t afraid of falling off a building or two.  From there, Dr. Gentleman posted this:

I think the idea that higher-level characters in D&D are akin to demigods is one that makes the system make more sense (and actually makes me want to look at 3e again), but I don’t think that’s the intent of D&D. Heroes go on adventures, gain experience, skills, abilities, and treasure, but they’re still essentially human (elf, dwarf, or whatever). The idea that an exceptional person can gain experience and thereby become the equivalent of a demigod or superhero is not a basic assumption when it comes to D&D, which leads to a lot of complaints about realism. I think that’s a pretty fundamental difference in assumptions, and needs to be explicitly cleared up straight away in these types of discussions.

Except that I think that this is the intent and, if a little buried, that it is fairly clear when you look for what the system ask for. (more…)

Thanks to a post by Shortymonster I stumbled over to the Large Polyhedron Collider (A+ on the blog name), where he’s got a post about the Realities of Falling.  He sets out a few milestones: serious injuries occur from falling 25-30ft onto a hard surface, and death is very likely from a fall of 50-60 feet (onto a hard surface).  He goes on to talk about falling into soft surfaces (like deep water, or snow), and the differences landing orientation makes, and the kind of damage you can expect to do if you land on crates or a car or another person.

Because of this, I think we need to change the way falling damage is handled in D&D: as it is, it’s just too lethal to be realistic. (more…)

I’ve been mulling over this post for a little bit now, but John Arcadian at Gnome Stew just made a post about running a no-character-advancement game which has spurred me to actually put pen to paper and say what I think.

The Gnome Stew post talks about the idea of playing a campaign where characters do not advance in level, or alternatively only advance during downtime between story arcs.  It lists a number of benefits to this approach, not the least of which, in my opinion, is eliminating the sense of “my character will be awesome at Level 5.”  Your character is awesome now.  John makes a few other good points and it’s worth a quick read; this post is more about the assumptions and expectations of rewards in D&D.

One of the trends that bothers me about D&D rewards is that it seems like the expected reward, from both players and DMs, is experience points.  When characters complete some goal — rescue the princess, kill the goblins, solve the puzzle — they might get some treasure, they may get some in-game renown, they could open up previously-inaccessible areas.  But across the board it’s expected that they’ll get Experience points.  The concern and the danger is that the difference in power from one level to the next is a bit more than most people expect, and the assumption of Experience-as-default-reward will tend to move you quickly up that scale.  If “regular people” are 1st or 2nd Level and “historical legends” are 4th and 5th Level, an assumption that has characters advancing to Herculean-tier power in a handful of adventures is problematic.

Because of this, I think that reigning in experience rewards in favor of gold, magic items, renown, and influence over the game world can lead to a richer (heh) gaming experience.  I almost always run my games with Pathfinder’s “slow progression” XP scale, which is about 150% of the standard scale, but even before reading the Gnome Stew post I’d considered removing XP rewards entirely and tying Level Advancement directly to story-arc milestones and accomplishments.  If going up in level means developing skills beyond a character’s professional peers, or at the mid- and high-end of the scale becoming more than human or even godlike, it makes sense to tether that to a pivotal moment when the character accomplishes some feat or destroys the Big Bad.  Hitting 4th Level because you killed your 47th Goblin just feels wrong.

Of course, I’m not sure I care for a game with no character advancement, but that’s something that should be seasoned to taste.  As John says, if you start in the sweet spot, when your character is awesome and the situations you face and interesting and challenging, who needs character advancement?

One of the biggest take-aways from Justin’s Calibrating Your Expectations is the meaning of levels.  He says that he began writing the post in part to address all the people who said that “D&D Can’t Do Conan” because making a Level 20 Barbarian gives you a guy who can do things the actual Conan never could.  Or “D&D Can’t Do Einstein” because a Level 20 Expert would have way too many hit points for a frail old math geek.  The argument he makes is that people are looking at Level the wrong way, and they’re expecting Level 20 (or Level 5, or Level 12) to mean something that it doesn’t.

Justin makes the argument that pretty much everyone you’ve ever known would be a Level 1 character.  Really exceptional people might be Level 2 or Level 3.  Level 4 characters are some of the most talented and accomplished people in the world, and Level 5 characters are the people who get written about in history books.  From there he calls 6th level superhuman, a 10th Level character is challenging gods to contests of skill, and a 20th Level character is essentially a god themselves.  He bases his argument off of skill bonuses available at level 1 and DCs attached to certain activities.  But there are other clues, too.

A 5th Level character is taking on manticores, trolls, and young dragons; the exploits of Beowulf.  Heroes of Greek myth fought a minotaur (CR4), a hydra (CR4), and Medusa (CR7).  At Level 10 characters are fighting Greater Elementals and huge extra-planar spiders. Above level 15 characters a fighting high-level Angels and Demons, and when they reach level 20 they are literally beating up gods and taking their stuff.   Think that those who have made creatures higher than Level 20 are well-meaning but misguided, and I personally believe that Zeus himself can be built as a Level 20 creature. (It gets futzy when you’re talking about CR versus Level, though.)

The long and short of it is as Justin puts it at the end of his post: the 3.X system expects that you’ll move from one power level to an extremely different power level as you level up, but people expect there to be a much more uniform performance from Level 1 to Level 20.  They bend over backwards trying to make the system fit that expectation, so that a 20th Level character can be treated as King Arthur instead of as Thor.  (As an aside, this is precisely why the trend of D&D 5E worries me; they’re trying to flatten the playing scale so that a 20th Level character is still threatened by orcs.  You lose a lot of variety in what the system can model when you do that, and it isn’t necessary.)

And of course, these kind of expectations are really harmful to the game.  If you expect that Aragorn is Level 15 instead of Level 5, then that colors what sorts of adventures you can have at low levels.  You spend the first 5 (or more) Levels of D&D killing rats and goblins and bandits, instead of leading armies, storming castles, and fighting Nazghul.