Wednesday, August 10, 2011
More Thoughts on Player Choice - and control - in RPG's
Following along in a similar vein to this post, I wanted to talk a little more about player choice. The trend in today's games goes beyond character generation and into actual playing time.
The attitude presented in most older games, AD&D in particular, is generally to tell the players "no". Now I'm sure some people will post about some awesome DM they had back in 1980 that ran the game completely unlike that but if you look at the tone and advice in the DMG and most Dragon articles the clear stance taken by the publishers and designers and the players at the time is that the DM is in charge and the players should lay low and take what they are given. It didn't always work that way, but it seemed to be the prevailing attitude.
If you need a stronger reminder of this attitude review the discussions about the "wish" spell. One of the most-desired items by players and one of the most-hated items by DM's* the advice in nearly every article about them is to screw the players with a legalistic, literal, with-a-twist-of-demonic interpretation of whatever they ask for. There were discussions concluding that players should only ever submit wishes in writing after a review by the full party to ensure it wouldn't bite them in the rear once they handed it to the DM!
In this kind of discussion the focus tends to be on the mechanics but that attitude adjustment is just as important. So mny times in late 70's early 80's games of D&D/AD&D the equipment list was used as a weapon against the player(Begin only slightly exaggerated example):
Player 1 - "Alright I mark the wall here so we know which way we came in"
DM - "Did you buy chalk? You're not a magic-user. Let me see your character sheet."
Player 1 - Aside to wizard player: - "C'mon man let me borrow your chalk"
Wizard Player - "Uhhhh, I didn't see it on the list."
DM - "Sorry, I don't see it on your sheet. You don't have a way to make marks on things."
This kind of crap went on all the time and most of us were fine with it, despite it's utter corruption of the idea of heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery! Do they spend time in LOTR shopping for food and bedrolls? Does Conan stop to get chalk before breaking in to a tower? Do Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser make sure they have 2 weeks of iron rations and 100' of rope before they head out? Not in the stories I read!
Now for some adventures a recon mission followed by the acquisition of special materials is a cool thing to do, and I think one of the Conan stories involves him dropping drugged meat inside a wall before hopping over to ensure he doesn't get eaten by lions or wolves or something because he scouted things out beforehand - that's not a bad way to handle things in a game either. I just think making the equipment list as vital part of the character sheet as the ability scores is a trend I was happy to see fade. It kind of sucks if Sinbad has to turn around and sail back to port because he didn't bring enough rope to trip the giant six-armed statue! At this point in my life I'm much more willing to assume that experienced characters know what they need when they go adventuring and to ignore minor stuff like this. Clever and creative use of mundane equipment is cool and fun. Dogmatic and punitive exploitation of what they didn't put on their character sheet gets old quick and misses the point of the game which (based on the box blurb and the artwork) is to go exploring and fight monsters! For me I'd say FASA Star Trek, WEG Star Wars, and Champions were the games that opened me up to the idea that maybe tracking every single bit of equipment just isn't all that important. I know that by the late 80's I had loosened up on this considerably and felt like we were having more fun in return.
Fortunately as time went on this idea that maybe a game about heroic fantasy (and other genres too) should encourage the players to do heroic things and take action rather than getting caught up in the spreadsheet sub-section of the game and "keeping the players in line" grew pretty rapidly. As a result we started to see some mechanical support for player actions and control. The first game I remember reading and playing that clearly took a different tack was James Bond 007 from Avalon Hill (Yeah it was weird to see that then too - AH? RPG's? Really? I know it was Victory, technically but we all knew it was AH/SPI's survivors). Part of it was the attitude and tone in the game - the players were expected and encouraged to win and to be the focus of the action! Part of it was also the luck point mechanic which allowed players to alter die rolls and save their bacon if things went badly. This quickly became popular and I know it made a lot of difference in actual play - 005 just blew a driving roll in his Jaguar? Nonsense! I use a Luck point! Within a few years we had Warhammer Fantasy RP with Fate points (pretty much essential for long term survivial), the Star Wars RPG with Force points, and TSR jumped in pretty early with Karma in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. By the 90's it was pretty common though not universal.
This trend towards player empowerment is often cited as being tied to rules-light games but I don't see that as the case at all - James Bond, MSH, WFRP, and Star Wars are not exactly rules-light games. They may not be quite as arcane as AD&D and it's tangle of subsystems but they all had fairly thick books full of rules and added supplements at a pretty good clip. Yet they all had an element of both mechanical empowerment of players AND a change in attitude from earlier games. OK maybe WFRP didn't have that attitude change so much but it did have the fate point mechanic and so fits into the trend.
The one other mechanical concept that I think contributes to this player empowerment is the smaller, broader skil llist. This might seem counter-intuitive but in my experience skills can often end up being used like the equipment list was in the old days - "oh, you have mechanical lockpicking? Well this is an electronic lock so that doesn't work" or worse yet "it's a hybrid design so you need both" which means that soon enough every thief type character just takes both skills and we could just as easily substitute a single "lockpicking" skill (or Traveller's much cooler "Intrusion" skill) and make things that much easier. AD&D 2E had some ridiculous things like fire-building and rope use in the skill list - seriously, when is it going to be really really important that you get that fire lit RIGHT NOW and how often is it going to come up? Is it really worth having a specific skill in something like that? If you were looking at a character sheet for Conan or Thundarr or Ka-Zar are you terribly concerned about their relative fire-building or rope use skills, or could we fold that into something like "Survival" or maybe even just a wisdom roll? The overly-specific skill list for a game can lead to players being bludgeoned by the DM for not having the specific skill required for a siuation and it sucks.The concept of "defaulting" came about to mitigate this somewhat (GURPS is full of this: "Axe/Mace defaults to Broadsword at DEX -2" and that kind of thing) but that leads to even more complication as you now have a web connecting a bunch of skills with a second set of numbers that will hopefully never be called upon under stress. In some cases this depends on the focus of the game - Twilight 2000 has separate skills for pistols, rifles, heavy weapons, grenades, and artillery. Savage Wordls has "Shooting" skill. One is a military game, one is a multi-genre pulp-style game, and they will focus on some different things. In general though, shorter skil lists help with making a character (I want to sneak around - take Stealth, as opposed to take hide in shadows, and move silently), niche protection (shorter lists usually mean fewer skills per character and make it easier to keep track of who has what), and actual play (fewer items to keep track of, less chance of missing that one special skill you needed for this adventure, and less worrying about who can default to what)
Now this focus on players is also a separate concept than the "story game" thing that started creeping into RPGs and D&D in particular at about the same time, and that's important to keep in mind too. Forcing the players into a pre-set storyline is just as bad IMO as slappng them down for not having enough lamp oil on their sheet - it restricts their ability to solve problems in clever and creative ways and forces them into predetermined solutions that they have to discover, rather than letting them come up with and try their own ideas. In comparison the equipment list beat down is a almost a mechanical version of the problem (it still has a lot to do with attitude though), while the forced plotline (ala Dragonlance) is very much an attitude problem, and one that has not been as thouroughly conquered as the "players are there to be kept in line" issue has been over the years.
I'm not really talking about metaplot here, at least metaplot defined as "stuff going on in a published campaign world that can be brought to the fore or kept in the background as the GM desires" as with Shadowrun and Traveller and some of the D&D worlds. I'm talking about "adventures" that have a forced plotline and are just as linear as some of our early dungeons were, even if they never come close to a 10' stone corridor. The Dragonlance modules are a classic example but I've seen it in everything from WFRP to Star Wars to D&D to even supers adventures. If an entire adventure depends on the players handling something one way, and if they do not do that it falls apart, then you have a problem, whether it's a secret door that *must* be discovered or an NPC that *must* be questioned. Either one is bad design for an RPG that's intended to be played by actual people using actual game rules and actual dice rolls. To me the best situation is a good set of rules that incorporates a mechanic that allows a limited recovery from bad die rolls and/or extra actions when the player feels like taking them -BUT- they should be a limited resource so that a player has to think about when to use this extra power he has - it leads to interesting decisions with some consequences, which is right at the heart of the whole RPG thing. Combine that with a DM who isn't out to punish the players, and an interesting adventure scenario where the players are in charge most of the time, and I think you have a pretty good game.
This "player empowerment" attitude is also not incompatible with character death, in case you thought I was going soft. I killed a PC in my very first session of running Neccessary Evil for Savage Worlds - he used his bennies to ensure a couple of hits on bad guys, and had none left when he got hit hard in return. It was an educational experience all around. This illustrates the flip side of having a "fate point/" mechanic: I don't have to worry about pulling punches as the DM - not that I would have in the old days anyway. There was sometimes a concern about arbitrary death as in "save or die" type mechanics or any situation where a character was hit with something with no chance to defend or avoid or otherwise mitigate the damage - that's no longer a big concern if everyone gets force points at the start of the session or level or whatever. They get to decide how and when to spend them, and if they get in over their heads with no points left, well, that's just how it goes sometimes - consequences make those decisions interesting, remember?
Example of this theory: I think adding something like "Hero Points" to Basic/Expert D&D makes a huge difference and eliminates most of those old complaints. Maybe it's one per level up to 9th, refrshes every session, and allows a reroll on any die roll in-play, an automatic success on a saving throw, or an automatic stabilize at 0 hp's when taken below 0. I might even make it an automatic success on a to-hit roll if used that way too, instead of a re-roll, because a) missing sucks and missing on a limited resource re-roll sucks even more and b) if players know it's a sure thing they are more likely to use them on offense instead of hoarding them all for defense. 1st level might still be a little rough but by 3rd or 4th level characters can start to control at least one fight per session with auto-hits and auto-saves. It would take some testing but I think it would work, and the rest of the game can be run as-is, even with the old school attitude if you want to go that way - the DM can still be happy and the players don't feel as arbitrarily screwed when they have to make 4 poison saves after opening a trapped door.
Nowdays of course the "players should be allowed to do cool things / find a way to tell them yes" attitude has become quite common, as has the mechanical support of the same. Even D&D (4E) has this (Action Points!) so you know it's mainstream now. The first game where I really felt the power of this as a DM was Savage Worlds. It's probably my poster child for how this kind of design just _works_. It doesn't dig into a "how many C batteries are you carrying ?" level of detail yet everyone had an awesome time doing heroic things and I had a blast as the DM because I didn't feel like I had to step on them or figure out in advance how they might solve the various problems in the adventure or how to keep them from getting too big for their britches. The whole "say yes" attitude combined with the mechanical support of "bennies" (rerolls/damage mitigation) turns the players loose but (and this is the part no one really talks about) it also turns the DM loose as well! That means that I as the DM don't have to plot out every possible connection or solution to the problems in the adventure, and I don't have to figure out if something might be too hard for them - if they think something is too hard they can spend a point to help overcome the challenge. They start to get creative and soon enough they realize that they do have some control but not an infinite amount - it has to be used sparingly and when it really matters or you may not have it when you truly need it.
I've also seen this attitude creep into the MMO scene with City of Heroes in particular beginning last year. There used to be a clear separation between superheores and supervillains in the game with separate classes for each and separate starting and playing areas with only limited interaction in certain zones of the game. A new expansion came out that detailed a parallel Earth and allowed players to take hero archetypes or villain archetypes and play in the same area right from the begiining, and included missions that determined their eventual alignment as a hero or villain - a very high degree of player choice and control during the actual game, not just at character creation. This approach was carried over to the rest of the game allowing heroes to make choices during some missions to move towards the villain side, becoming "Vigilantes" and then eventually, if they continued down that path, moving fully to villain classification. Villains could do the same in reverse. Later this year the whole beginning of the game is being revamped and new heroes will be allowed to pick from any of the archetypes at the beginning and their actions during the early part of the game will determine whether they are classified as Hero or Villain - a complete change of direction from the original approach when the game launched in 2004. It's quite similar to the change in tabletop RPG's, just at an accellerated rate.
So what's the point of all this? Well, it is a pretty big turnaround from the early days of the hobby, pretty much a 180, one newer players may not even realize happened and older players sometimes forget. It's also the dominant design approach right now and I wonder if it will lead to a backlash or reversal of some kind. To a degree it already has with the OSR movement, but I'm not sure that's the fullest expression that it might reach - I think there might be more, as in some kind of retro move in the next version of D&D if it ended up bought away from Hasbro by some wealthy fan or other company. I hope that doesn't happen though because I like this way of doing things. I like the way these games work now. I'm perfectly fine going back and playing some of the old games and I expect them to work a certain way so it doesn't chafe me at all because that's just how they work! But as I play with newer designs (and with patching some newer concepts onto older games) I do feel like the newer ones are just better in many ways. We typically get more done in a session, spend less time looking up or arguing about rules, and spend more time enjoying the game and less time tryng to work around it. I get more "game" and "fun" out of the time I do get to spend and to me that's a big deal.
If I get a chance to add my Hero Point idea to the B/X game I will post about how it works out.
*Because it can "unbalance the campaign" - I agreed with this attitude at the time, but nowadays my view is that the role of the players is to unbalance the campaign! They're trying to "win" by getting the ring to Mordor or stopping the alien invasion or defeating the reawakened god of entropy! They may not succeed but that is why you are playing the game!
Besides, an experienced DM can find ways to handle anything: "I wish St. Cuthbert was here to help us slay this dragon! BAMF! The Greyhawkian god of order and non-backsliding pops in, bashes the dragon, then he turns to the party and demands that they convert and carry out a mission for him. Or 10 seconds after he appears, Iuz pops in because Saint C has broken some kind of non-interference pact and they start to fight - RUN! Even better, what if St. C loses? Maybe some of them feel bad about it and decide they need to rescue the imprisoned deity from Iuz's dungeons. The players wish has now caused all kinds of interesting consequences for the campaign, no one had to get nasty about the exact wording or fill out any legal documents before submitting it, and hopefully no one feels screwed by the DM either.