Wednesday, 9 March 2011

You've had brains all along



Ok, have you read my previous post? Then let's carry on.


What is it all about?
What is a game about? Some games aren't really about anything, like GURPS for example. You're probably going to need at least one setting supplement and a bunch of your own techniques to make GURPS about something. That's a feature. Some games are really very focused and explicit in their content. That's their feature.

In the previous post I was talking about D&D/Pathfinder. What's that about? When I say online that D&D is totally about exploring exotic locations, killing monsters and gaining treasure, and not about romancing princesses I often get a kneejerk reaction from some people saying "I totally romanced a princess in my last D&D game!".

My guess is that when I say the game is about something and they're not doing exactly that, people feel I'm also saying that they're playing it wrong, which I'm not. But if you're going to argue what D&D is about, there's a whole lot of evidence piled up in favor of my definition (which isn't mine at all). Can you romance a princess in D&D? Sure. But is it a game about romancing princesses? Gosh darng no. Can it be a game about romancing princesses? It can, it could be, if you made it so. But it's not.

There's the provided seed content: artwork, flavour texts, tone. There's the whole textual body of rules and supplements, as well as the mechanics themselves. Everything weighs in one direction.

Axe away
I'm not going to dig too deep. Let's make a simple test. Look at all the books published for D&D. What do they consist of? For the vast majority it's adventures (consisting of encounters and locations), setting material (exploration) and character class options (power). Pretty straightforward. Any princess-romancing splatbooks? I didn't think so.

Second of all, let's take a look at D&D's reward mechanics. In older versions of D&D you were rewarded for collecting treasure, which meant exploration, which included fighting or avoiding monsters along the way. Newer editions reward you for killing and overcoming monsters and similar obstacles. This implies seeking new challenges, which is again exploration, and going somewhere (which the obstacles seek to impede), which implies at least some amount of goal-oriented play, with victory conditions.

Gathered treasure can be spent on a number of things but a quick look at D&D's published equipment lists shows that the focus is on getting better, stronger, more functional equipment. Gathering experience on the other hand leads to leveling up. What does a level-up usually entail? 1. More hitpoints (better survival chance in battle), 2. better saves (better resistance to all sorts of hazardous environmental effects and antagonistic magic), 3. better attack bonuses (better combat skill). All of the above makes you better at doing the things that net you the reward in the first place. I mean, is there any question what this game is about?

In a faraway land
So, okay, "exploring exotic locations, fighting monsters and gathering treasure" (locations, monsters, treasure or LMT from here on). That's not everything you ever do in D&D, but it's clearly the meat of the game.

Remember how I talked about different ends in the previous post? To what end do we do this in D&D? There are various possibilities. We could be doing this to get gripping fiction from it, exploring the consequences of our actions, creating powerful drama along the way. We could be doing that, but does it even sound fun? There's nothing in the game that would suggest this. Not impossible, but not really a popular choice (and if you want my opinion, pretty much pointless to try and achieve).

But there are other options. Instead we could be doing this to lose ourselves in the fantasy, particularly to enjoy and bask in the prowess of our characters, to fashion them to our liking, see them (and ourselves) be cool in ways that real life does not permit. To embark on a journey of discovery of epic destinies and grand narratives. This sounds a lot more like D&D, and I'm certain lots of people play D&D this way, so I'm going to consider it a valid option.

The one (obvious) stumbling block of playing D&D in this mode is character death. Death in D&D can be pretty sudden and common, from save or die effects to devastating critical hits to falling damage, characters are not safe by default. [How would Lord of the Rings go, if Frodo died on Weathertop? Note that in LotR, pretty much all the primary characters survive the whole ordeal, and even those that die or almost die, always come back: Frodo (several times), Gandalf (Moria), Aragorn (cliff in the movie), Eowyn (witch king)...]
Since they're not safe by default, the GM must make the characters safe by fudging dice, handwaving death, mercifully twisting the narrative to save them from certain doom - NPCs, particularly important villains are often saved in the same manner. This is done so that characters can (and probably will) follow through in the grand design. So that can be fun and cool, but at times the GM will have to twist the game's arm a little (unfortunately, many GMs twist the players' arms too).

So, the first is pretty unsatisfactory, the second is cool (and very popular), but still grinds a little. There's also a third end, that seems the most apt, the most synchronized with the rules by default. That's the next section.

Before that, let me just say that I'm not saying these three goals are definitely the only possible ends a group could have in playing D&D or any other RPG. They're just the most popular, recognized and researched. There could be others, and there definitely are variations of the ones already mentioned.

Fight!
So, ok, the third end of play. You want to guess what's a very popular, iconic videogame where you also travel across strange landscapes, explore underground tunnels, collect golden coins and bash bizarre creatures (and throw fireballs and level up)? Super Mario. And when you fall into a pit for a billionth time, you know that little voice that beckons you back: "Try again. Try harder."

That voice is also there when you play football with your friends or whatever. It doesn't have to be a ruthless, cruel fight, we can always compete in a friendly manner, but it has to be competition. If you're playing a co-op videogame and someone is dragging behind, he's killing the fun. If you're playing football and one team is obviously far better, the game becomes pointless and stale. If you're playing D&D and one player powergames the rules so hard he kills all the opposition, it's boring. So: competition. Challenge. Those are the key words here. Doing the best with what you have.

In Super Mario, although you often feel that the game is positively, absolutely fucking with you, it's really not trying to defeat you. The goombas just walk back and forth, aimlessly, they aren't trying to kill you. The game presents a challenge (albeit a very hard one) and asks "can you do this? can you beat it?". Same for D&D (and any similar RPGs), if the DM would be actively against the players, then the game just fails. Rocks fall. That would be stupid. The DM present challenges. He doesn't invest in their outcome, he doesn't plan for how they will go, he just sets them up and asks the players (implicitly) "can you do it?".

I mentioned earlier how the combat system in (particularly newer editions of) D&D takes up most of the system. It's the only full-blown conflict resolution mechanic in the game, with tons of options and rules. So it only stands to reason that these challenges that the DM prepares are combat encounters, for the most part. And you know what? Creating good, exciting, dynamic, interesting combat challenges in D&D requires prep.

And that's why I said in the first post that prep is a feature of D&D. Because it's something that you (need to) do to really address what the game is about and what's fun about it. If you've got this detailed combat system, what else are you going to prep for? Lifelike NPCs with profound motivations and complex personalities? I don't think so. You won't even have time for that anyway, forget it. Here's what's fun about the game, embrace it.

Medic!
Now, to be perfectly honest, character death isn't too friendly to this mode of play either, but it's much more acceptable anyway. The primary problem here is one of sunk costs. If you've played a character for a while, put her through all kinds of trouble, invested time, gold and experience into her, losing that character is simply a pain in the ass, especially with (mechanically) complex characters.

In the old days of D&D, when you could roll up a new character in a couple of minutes and you were surrounded by hirelings and henchmen, death was quick and painless. Characters like Bob the 13th were not uncommon. But as the game evolved, various failsafe mechanisms were implemented. First there was magical healing, then resurrection, negative hit points, the save or die effects were subdued and then finally removed. In D&D 4E the design ensures it's almost impossible for an encounter to kill a party, but rather deplete its resources. This does not remove the competitive element, but it can be seen to work in service of both the second and third goals of play described above.

Tricks
Now that I have this framework established I can return to discussing the actual play. Next time I'll talk about some specific GM techniques and tricks from the Pathfinder game that inspired all this talk, techniques which served the fulfillment of the goals of play. I'll address the issue of "good by accident" vs "good by design", as well as potential pitfalls ("the bad") and the things that were "bad by necessity".

Comments as always super-welcome.

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