Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Boo! Gaming As Trick or Treat...

I remember growing up and leaving behind the stuff of childhood with a little reluctance, especially the imaginary play part.  Toys were out, and so was Halloween, especially since I didn't want to be that old guy at the door with his sack out sheepishly.  Tabletop gaming allowed me (and later, Robyn) to translate childhood play into an adult context, noting that everyone's favorite RPG bears a striking resemblance to trick or treating...

During Halloween, we go house to house dressed as ghosts and goblins.  In gaming, we go room to room (or hex to hex outdoors) fighting ghosts and goblins.

And during Halloween we collect tasty treats.  In gaming, we amass treasure

Finally, during Halloween we become someone (or something) else, something fantastical and decidedly fun.  In gaming we do the same, only its a costume of the mind when we aren't doing LARP or going cosplay at conventions.  It's Halloween for grownups, and for kids too, obviously.  Short of actual candy, gaming preserves this sense of play.

It's essential that adults be grownups.  Neither Robyn or I have much patience for the perpetual manchild.  We need to meet adult responsibilities and care for our families first and foremost.  But when the work's done, we still need play, and neither Robyn or I have much patience for the sourpuss who defines adulthood as giving it up.  Tabletop gaming translates childhood play into an adult context; and looking at Halloween it's easy to see how...

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Play enough computer-type games and you'll find that death is brief - at best.  You either revert to a saved game or re-spawn where you fell.  Not very lethal, but that's okay because the challenge lies in mashing buttons like mad and defeating a foe after several (doubtless frustrating) attempts.  Tabletop games are a different breed.  Here death is more permanent, barring divine intervention, because it has to be.  A sense of risk is essential...

But what is risk, exactly?  Let's start by suggesting that job one of a game is to make people care.  Job two is threatening all they care about, and herein lies the risk.

What can we possibly care about more than life itself. barring family, obviously?  And in a tabletop game, our imaginary "life" counts for a lot.  Heroes stake life and limb in a vast underworld and have a vested interest in staying alive.  You know, risk.  But what does death mean in a game where you just roll up another character and rejoin the adventure almost immediately?  Especially when they inherit money and/or powerful magic items.     

I once played no less than six dwarven brothers who picked up where their dead relatives left off, inheriting most of their stuff in the process.  It was a brazen exploitation of the rulebook and something close to "immortality" in a game everyone calls lethal.  No, what players really care about is the preservation of their cherished in-game personality figure...

And there's lots of ways to threaten these.  Lots.  Que maniacal laughter.  Luvar the Shining gets turned into a slimy toad.  Thingol the Foe Smasher loses his Dwarven Hammer.  The diabolical possibilities are endless, and players will vigorously avoid them all.  Herein lies yet another way to threaten the characters.  Don't kill 'em.  Let 'em live and force the players to struggle with an uncomfortable blow to the identity they've struggled to preserve.

With this in mind, is it possible to reduce in-game death while simultaneously raising the stakes and building greater dramatic tension?  Ironically, letting characters live longer could actually make death more effective when it finally happens because the players have had time to grow attached.  Talk about cold.  Could it be that old-school dungeons might actually go easier on the players by killing off their heroes before attachments form?   

That being said, here's an outline for an alternate deathless D&D where characters live longer but possibly suffer more.  The latter is debatable; but the players will feel like all they hold dear is threatened, which feels a lot like death.  Take it as the suggestion it is... 

(1) When a character falls in battle, they go unconscious instead.  Should at least one companion survive or manage to drag their friend to safety, that character revives and even recovers up to 10 lost hit points.  It takes a total party kill to produce true death.

(2) Death magic, poison, and/or traps are still fatal, as is death from one-on-one fights with no backup.  There's safety in numbers, and splitting the party or going alone is a bad idea.

(3) Cheating death incurs an experience debt equal to the opponent's level x 1,000, with earned experience applied to the deficit first. The player must pay off the debt before further advancement is possible, and since levels are everything, this one hits home! 

(4) If advancement is capped, the character loses 1d3 levels instead.  Alternately, they could sacrifice one or more magic items with a total experience value equal to the experience deficit incurred under rule #1, above.  Higher-level characters have more options and more opportunities to recover, so the cost is firm (but fair) given that life itself is at stake.

Once again, these are just suggestions, and admittedly not fully formed ones!

Death is a clear and present danger, which in turn motivates careful planning to avoid the possibility.  At the same time, too much death lessens the impact, which in turn saps its motivational power.  It could be that improving survival while dishing out harsher, albeit non-lethal, consequences for defeat might actually feel riskier.  Ultimately, this depends on the system and the desired ends of the group; but when story matters, so does survival.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Miracles (Spells, by God)...

Gaming is rife with abstraction.  Game balance demands it.  No matter how detailed a simulation is, everything gets reduced to metaphorical ones and zeros sooner or later, and that’s okay.  There something charming about games and their machinations, especially when we take them on their own terms.  All fantasy works better this way.  Elves and wizards are ridiculous otherwise, and where's the fun in that?  But not all abstractions are created equal, which leads us to this week's rant: so-called clerical spells...

Spells.  Wizards get 'em.  But then, that's the point, isn't it?  Through study and maybe a demonic pact or two, magicians work their way to power with quasi-scientific elegance, meaning specific formulas performed under almost laboratory conditions.  A gesture here, a magic word there and lightning bolts shoot from their fingertips.  Wow, there's something ambitious (and quite possibly selfish), about seeking out such personal power. 

Clerics, on the other hand, are humble servants of their god(s).  Well, they may not be precisely humble; but they tow the line where it matters most and serve at the pleasure of the Powers That Be, who decide how, when, and definitely if they intervene.  Played by this paradigm, clerics are hobbled as a playable class because discrete spells are resources to be managed; and without them, their usefulness to a party wanes... 

I mean, who wants to hire, much less play, Brother Otto if he's just a glorified fighter who has to pass on that +1 sword and has a razor-thin chance of performing some useful miracle should disaster strike?  No, it's better to say he has x-number of "spells" he can perform per game day and leave it to the player to use them wisely.  The gods deliver a formulaic and precise effect more or less by the numbers.  Just what the doctor ordered and just when they (and their friends) need it most.  How else can they reliably contribute to a party?  

But is something lost when we succumb to this necessity?  The gods become cosmic bureaucrats rubber-stamping cookie-cutter interventions pretty much on demand.  Useful in practice, but also a missed opportunity.  So how do we engineer spontaneous miracles delivered at the pleasure of the gods while preserving some measure of predictability and resource management?  No easy answers here, but we offer the following:


Clerical spells are treated more like an appeal for a specific kind of aid.  Control Weather is basically a cry for help when the weather is bad or a certain type is called for in a given situation.  The DM (GM, referee) can then tailor the effect to the situation so it feels more like the spontaneous whims of a deity.  In other words, the chosen spell is just a guide.  


This has been tried in various ways, and it works.  Different deities have different spheres of interest and specific powers they're willing (and able) to grant their servants.


Clerical spells aren't spells at all; they're sacraments, scriptures, or psalms.  Saying "Lord, thou hast dominion over all things" can be invoked to do anything from turning sticks to snakes to the aforementioned weather control.  This is a narrative justification; but the best parts of a campaign are narrative, and it's a worthwhile effort to incorporate them.*


This is a lot of work, but usually worth it.  Ideally, clerics have a decent chance of working minor miracles and a slight chance of doing something dramatic, perhaps with a requirement that the priest tithe or make sacrifice afterwards.  I played a game once where the Powers dispatched servitors (a sort of guardian angel) to intervene within the limits of their ability and sphere of interest.  The possibilities are endless and, shall we say, divine...

Clerics and magicians are two sides of the same coin.  Magicians seek power through their own effort, imposing their will upon the universe.  Clerics submit to the gods and trust in them to deliver (or withhold) aid as they so desire.  The Judaeo-Christianity tradition is strongly opposed to magic in its many forms at least in part because it seems like an appropriation of power that rightly belongs to God.  Wizards have no such qualms and, depending on the setting involved, may be at odds with the Church and overzealous witch hunters!

Put another way, clerics have but one spell: Almighty __________, this, your servant, needs your aid!  Anything else is blasphemous and/or a distressing lack of faith!

If the rules were ever in need of tailoring, clerical "spells" are just one example why; but by incorporating some combination of the above, the servants of God (or the gods, however many there may be) become humble petitioners, and the miracles they invoke all the mightier (and wondrous) because of it.  This benefits the cleric, but also the true spell casters, who can better occupy their magical niche.  But story matters too, and a campaign benefits most of all because the gods, and their mortal servants, become divine.  Can I get an amen?

*Robyn and I suspect that this assumption underlies many campaigns, especially those with a quasi-medieval/Christian religion.  There's just so much to draw from here... 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

D&D's False Choice...

There's been a lot of talk lately about D&D's founders and the evolution of that which is arguably the two men's greatest creation: Dungeons & Dragons.  The thinking seems to be that Arneson emphasized a fluid, story-centric approach while Gygax leaned heavily on miniatures wargaming and ambitious marketing.  Strictly speaking, this is true; but like so many things, the truth is complicated and the waters muddied by facts...

So first, Arneson imagined a simple game without wargaming's complexity; a game where story mattered more.  Sounds good, right?  And he did favor something like this.  But anything he eventually made and marketed would inevitably spawn additional rules and become more complex, if only to codify new content.  One need only look at his Adventures in Fantasy RPG to see a system as clunky and complex as any. 

But what about Gygax?  He's the guy who envisioned a 1:1 scale wargame where players ran a single character instead of an army but did all the same things.  But once people started making original characters, they'd begin identifying with them and making in-game decisions that would start looking a lot like role-play.  This was pretty much inevitable, and it's hard to imagine not role-playing Mocha the Magnificent under these conditions.

In short, Arneson's story-centric game was always going to become a more complex simulation while Gygax's Chainmail-inspired wargame was always fated to become the role-playing thing we know and love.  The two men, and their approaches, were always on a collision course.  Luckily for us, they joined forces, however briefly, to forge a unique version of what each would have inevitably become on its owngiven enough time.

Now to be clear, this inevitability might not have happened in the hands of either man, although there's abundant evidence that it would have.  The aforementioned Adventures in Fantasy comes to mind, as does Gygax's not-so-subtle nods to story, be it the powerful Charm spell or his requirement that characters act out the hiring of henchmen.  Simulation and role-play were always gonna happen, and it's a false choice to think otherwise...