Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Underlying Game and AD&D 2nd Edition

It's often said that the "gold standard" of XP for treasure (pun intended) is at the core of older editions of D&D. It's certainly the mechanism by which XP is awarded in most of the retro-clones. And a narrative has developed in which it is said that D&D almost requires this mechanism: it provides a driver for player action - they have to go out looking for treasure in order to advance - and also a fun challenge in its own right (the logistics of handling treasure is in itself interesting).

All the older editions of D&D, but OD&D in particular, did a very poor job of explaining this, but it seems indisputably correct. You might go so far as to say that XP for treasure is the underlying but unstated assumption on which D&D is founded.

AD&D 2nd edition did not have this mechanism. Reading through the DMG, indeed, it is rather striking that the only time XP is supposed to be awarded for treasure is as an individual class award for Rogues. XP, in general, is recommended to be given for the following reasons:

  1. Fun. XP is for rewarding player involvement and making the game enjoyable for others (including, implicitly, the DM). It is correspondingly to be withheld if the players are disruptive or inactive. 
  2. Survival. Simply by the PC surviving from session to session, he or she should gain XP.
  3. Improvement. As players learn how to play the game better (the text states "players should also improve by trying to play more intelligently each session") their characters should be awarded XP. I'm reminded once again of Zeb Cook's exhortation to always try to improve as a player and DM.
It will be noted that two of these categories, 1 and 3, are totally external to the game world itself, and 2 is only partially connected to it. They are primarily meta-gaming awards. And they give the lie to the idea that the DM's job is to make the game fun for the players. Indeed, the "tyranny of fun", if anything, cuts in the other direction: it's up to the players to be the heart of things in that regard. It's their job to do interesting things and get involved, and it's their job to get better and better at playing D&D. I wholeheartedly approve.

There are also, of course, group awards (for defeating enemies and for "story goals" like rescuing the princess or whatever) and the aforementioned class awards. These latter are as follows:
  • In general, XP is awarded when a player has a clever idea, role plays well, or encourages others to participate
  • Warriors gain XP for individually defeating monsters
  • Wizards gain XP for using spells intelligently, researching spells, making magic items, and so on
  • Priests gain XP for using granted powers and "furthering [their] ethos"
  • Rogues gain XP for using their special abilities (i.e. thief skills and bard abilities) and getting treasure
What is the underlying game for AD&D 2nd edition, then? Surprisingly, given the reputation the edition has for a) focusing on plot/story rather than strategy/tactics; and b) softening the approach of older editions, you might say that, if anything, the XP mechanism for 2e is primarily concerned with player skill.

In that sense, it is not so far removed from the approach of the past, given that gaining treasure was, to a large degree, a clear measure of success and, hence, player skill. But the 2nd edition mechanism is more holistic; it aims to reward not just in-games success but also the more intangible elements of gaming success - doing stuff, getting involved, making the experience worthwhile for all concerned. That seems to be nested in a set of assumptions about players, and would also perhaps be seen as incentivising paternalism in the DM. But nonetheless, it is of interest to me as somebody who grew up playing 2nd edition but piledrivered XP for gold and monster kills. Lying between the two stools of New and Old Schools, 2nd edition remains almost totally ignored and very much under-theorized, which I don't doubt does it something of a disservice. 

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Noisms' Theorem of Character Generation Length and Player Cautiousness

I am running a Pendragon game (set on Mars...it's a long story), and got to thinking about the lengthy process of character generation in that system. It takes ages to make a character, certainly in comparison to D&D. There are a lot of choices, a lot of numbers to think about, and a lot of rolls to make. It can easily take an hour.

I don't mind this process. There are horses for courses. Short, speedy character generation works for D&D and similar, because characters are commensurately throwaway and individualistic. D&D characters tend to be men with no names, who appear from the aether as a set of dice rolls. They develop personalities through play, but they are not really part of any social milieu. When they die, it's no biggie. You roll up a new one. The system supports, and implicitly expects, this.

Lengthy, involved character generation works for Pendragon, because the expectations of the game are different. Characters are part of extended social networks. They have families, homes, roles to play in the community. They are not aimless Cugel-esque rogues. They have to do things like looking for wives and punishing criminals.

It's not something that I've particularly considered before, although it's obvious when you think about it, but the longer and more detailed the character generation process for a game is, the more you would expect players to try to avoid character death in the early game. Partly this is because a long, detailed progress involves you in the character more. But mostly I think it's just a function of length. If it takes you an hour to sit down and make up a character, you are going to be much more careful about what happens to the character than if it only takes you 5 minutes - again, with the qualification that it is in the early stages of a game. (Of course, the death of a level 15 D&D character who you've been playing for over a year is going to be a horrible prospect for other reasons.)

It's hard to separate tone from length, of course, and there are so many other variables. Does starting off play with a main character and backup make you less cautious - almost like a moral hazard? What about the role of hit points (perhaps the most important variable)? And what about how enjoyable character generation is? Where the process is more enjoyable, do people mind their character dying less, and thus act more incautiously on a subconscious level?

Tuesday 5 March 2013

GM as Auteur and The It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To Rule

Generally speaking, I favour a loose approach to GMing. I like creating detailed settings, but I usually allow the players quite a lot of leeway in the process (I might have them each say one thing about the setting, or I might let them create a handful of NPCs who they know, for example) and permit them to do what they want with their character within reason.

I think this is more-or-less standard amongst GMs, at least among those who blog regularly or post on Google+. We tend to avoid being too draconian. I wouldn't describe it as a fear of saying no, but there is a sense in which being a stickler about your setting - in which being precious about it - is seen as petty and old-fashioned. It's unusual (I think) for a GM to tell a player directly, "No, you mustn't do what you want to do in developing this character - I don't want that type of character in my game".

It is even rarer to imagine a GM saying to a player, "No, your character mustn't do what you intend him to do" once play has begun. That goes strongly against what has now become established orthodoxy wherever you look, be it on story-games.org (where players are supposed to have narrative control), within the OSR (players have complete freedom within the sandbox) or at rpg.net (where you must never judge anybody for anything or tell anybody how to behave - unless of course they have the wrong opinions, but why would you game with such a person in the first place?). It is the most arbitrary and obvious form of railroading.

Which is all well and good - generally speaking I don't want to run games in which I am constantly telling players, "No, you mustn't do that". (And here I have to stress the distinction between "No, you can't do that", as in "No, you can't understand dragon if it is not on your character sheet", as opposed to "No, you mustn't do that", as in "No, you mustn't torture that orc".) In the vast majority of cases, that way leads adolescent authoritarian bossy madness.

I do wonder whether this avoidance of "mustn't" prevents the GM from acting like an auteur, however. This, you may think, is no bad thing - indeed, there is little more horrendous than a GM who thinks he is a novelist, as we all know. But let's try a thought experiment: imagine that your GM was actually Tolkien, or Mieville, or George R R Martin, or Mervyn Peake, or RE Howard, or H P Lovecraft, or [insert your favourite fantasy author here]. Wouldn't you want to allow them to auteur things to a certain degree? Wouldn't you be interested in having [your favourite fantasy author] have complete control over the tone of the game, within reason? From time to time, wouldn't you want him to tell you "No, your character mustn't do that, because it is not in keeping with the type of game I am running"?

I don't for a second mean to suggest that if Tolkien was my GM I would want him to boss me around to such an extent that I had no control over my character. I am not making an argument for turning RPGs into interactive fiction - God knows Dragonlance was bad enough. But I would certainly want his guidance to a certain extent - I would want him, from time to time, to tell me, "No, what you are proposing just is not appropriate for my game".

Nor am I suggesting that sensible, decent people with an average level of social skills can't just sort out misunderstandings around tone between themselves in the vast, overwhelming majority of cases. But "vast, overwhelming majority" is not the same as all.

Is there anything to be gained from allowing a GM a greater level of auteurship than orthodoxy suggests? Should a GM be permitted opportunities to say, "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to"? "This is my game and I just don't think what you are suggesting is something I am comfortable with"? "Trust me that things will be better for us all if you just don't do that"?