Monday, June 09, 2008

What is This Game Supposed to be About?

Let’s try an interesting thought experiment.

Have you ever played the Star Trek computer game, Starfleet Command? It’s a real-time strategy version of the old Starfleet Battles table-top wargame, where you take command of starships from the Star Trek universe and duke it out with one another. It’s a fun game. Part of the game is earning prestige. You can spend prestige on improving your ship, or upgrading to a larger ship, or getting more experienced crew assigned to the ships in your squadron.

Now, obviously, Star Fleet officers don’t actually accrue any such currency, nor do they “buy” ships and crew. The prestige system is an abstraction of the sort of politicking that goes on in a naval force. The more victories you win, the more clout you can bring to bear on getting things done. You can bend the ears of admirals and cut through red tape.

But the game’s not about high-powered cocktail parties or mentoring promising young cadets as they make their way through the ranks. It’s about maneuvering into the Klingon’s six and putting a few photon torpedoes up his tailpipe. And so all of that political and personal and personnel stuff is abstracted. Victories and promotions earn you prestige points. You “buy” the things you want by spending those points. It’s quick, easy, and a fun way to enjoy the rewards of success on the battlefield.

Now, imagine you’re making a NASCAR racing game for the computer. The fun part of NASCAR is, of course, the racing. You’ll have controls to steer, accelerate, and brake. This is central to the game, of course, but these are fairly simple activities. They might take up only a single page in the instruction manual, even though most of the game will be driving your car around the track, squeezing into the inside past the other cars and trying to block them from doing the same to you.

But you might want other aspects of the NASCAR experience in your game as well. Pit crews are a vital part of the game. But you don’t want to bother the player with trying to change the tires or filling up the tank. That all happens at once, and doesn’t really lend itself to a mini-game (though I guess you could do something like how fast you mash a pair of buttons dictates how fast your guys get your car back in the race). There’s too much going on. So you abstract it. Maybe you do the button-mash mini-game, or maybe prestige can buy more experienced crews, like in Starfleet Command. And you could do something similar for the patron decals on your car, so that as you win bigger and bigger races, you get more prestigious advertising on your car.

But again, the core of the game is driving. And while more pages in the instruction manual might be given to things like “buying” pit crew or attracting sponsors, you spend most of your playing time maneuvering past the opposition as you floor it through the straight-aways.

You see where I’m going with this? Ok, then, let’s cut to the chase.

Suppose you’re making a fairly complex game, like an RPG. The game is about taking on a larger-than-life role. You don’t worry about rules for interaction or role-playing. That sort of thing just happens, right? And then there’s the central focus of the game. You might not spill a lot of ink about it, but it’s there, and you give it the information it needs, then get out of the way so it can be enjoyed.

However, there are these other, tangential aspects of the game that need to be addressed. So you slap together some abstractions for adjudicating them, throw in some random elements, and move on.

In D&D, one of these tangential aspects is combat.

No, seriously think about it. Yes, there are tons of rules for combat. But the system is extremely abstract. A single die roll covers either 10 seconds of combat (an eternity, as anyone who has ever practiced a martial art will tell you) or as much as an entire minute of thrusts, parries, attacks, blocks, and dodges. While the games include long lists of weapons, the rules do little to differentiate between them. Whether you’re wielding a hand axe, a fauchard, a horseman’s mace, or a short sword, in 2e you’re doing 1d6 damage. And the effects of combat, fatigue, pain, and bleeding, are further abstracted as hit points, the loss of which has no effect on your character’s abilities until the point of death (or unconsciousness, if you used popular houserules).

So where was the focus of the game? Exploration. Yes, you could earn XP from slaying monsters. But you were more likely to earn more XP from gathering treasure. So it made sense that gathering treasure without risking combat was the best way to play the game. The earliest players strove for the maximum return for minimum risk.

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what Mr. Gygax had to say on the matter. First, notice why the adventurers are heading into the dreaded dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk:

This same magic-user now commanded a party of four bent on despoiling the wicked dwellers of the underworld beneath the castle of some goodly treasure.

Not to slay, but to pillage. Not to root out the evil of the place, or rescue a princess, or to slay the boss monster. Their chief aim was to find treasure. Notice how they avoid combat whenever possible, and only fight when absolutely forced to. And notice that, when they do secure some treasure, they do so without combat.

That’s how Mr. Gygax and his crew played the game. You think they might have known something about the intended playstyle of D&D in its original form?

12 comments:

JimLotFP said...

*NICE*

Philotomy said...

Great post! I'd like to leave some sage comment, but you pretty much said it all.

thanuir said...

This is close to the truth, but not the entire truth.

In a well-designed game, the nonessential parts should support the actual core of gameplay.

That is, in a game about exploration of a dangerous environment the potential combats should be dangerous or threaten the characters with permanent consequences (losing items or stats or whatever qualify, character death is far from the only option) to inspire new and clever ways of bypassing the combats in some alternate way.

This all IMO.

Tank said...

This is exactly what my players and I were just talking about. You hit the nail on the head!

Lizard said...

Hmmm. What's interesting is that in the last two D&D games I've played, we don't get loot from adventures; we work for a patron, turn the loot over to them, and then get rewards. So our focus in play is to solve the mission -- whether its protecting an ambassador, destroying a gateway to another realm, or rescuing a prisoner. Killing is usually the best way to do this, but if there's a way not to...Likewise, the games I run are very goal oriented. You get the look as a side effect of trying to achieve some purpose. You want to stop the Evil High Priest from sacrificing babies, and when he's dead, you Take His Stuff. If you just took his stuff without stopping him, you have Failed.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

Thanuir: In a well-designed game, the nonessential parts should support the actual core of gameplay.

That is, in a game about exploration of a dangerous environment the potential combats should be dangerous or threaten the characters with permanent consequences (losing items or stats or whatever qualify, character death is far from the only option) to inspire new and clever ways of bypassing the combats in some alternate way.


I would say that combat serves the exploration theme of D&D fairly well by creating uncertainty in the logistics of the expedition. The threat of combat forces the party to devote resources to defense. Some of the party need to be fighters, who are good for little else, while the wizard cannot ignore combat spells. The PCs encumber themselves with armour and weapons, limiting the number of useful tools they can carry into the dungeon, and the amount of treasure they can carry out.

Of course, death isn't the only harm that the PCs can face in their explorations. Level drain, stat drain, the consumption of extremely precious resources such as charges on magical items, and the loss of henchmen all threaten any expedition into the wilderness. Most of these threats come in the form of monsters because monsters are more interesting. Suddenly triggering a level-draining trap in the middle of a hallway is annoying, and doesn't really do much for the adventure. However, a wight in the middle of the hallway creates a situation where the players can make choices, which is what games are all about. Do they fight the wight, and risk level drain and death? Try to find a way around the wight? Lure the wight into a trap? That's a lot more interesting than the sudden attack of a trap.

(Some traps, of course, also create choices. The classic pit trap, for instance. Yes, they're easy to get past, but once you do, you have this sizable hazard between your party and the exit. What happens if you have to run from something big and scary further down the hallway? How will you get past the pit before the big and scary catches you?)

Does that address your concern, Thanuir?

- Brian

trollsmyth said...

Lizard

What version of D&D were you playing? It makes a difference, because the further you get from OD&D, the more the focus shifts to combat. 2e really pushed that shift hard by awarding experience on the basis of performing class-specific actions. In 4e, I believe the only ways to earn experience points are to kill monsters, overcome skill challenges, and complete quests, and the bulk of your earned XP is going to come from monsters.

Of course, that's assuming you play by the rules as written. When I ran a 1e/2e hybrid in college, I didn't give XP for loot, but made up the difference in awarding individual XP for coming up with solutions to the hazards I threw at the party, and large lumps of group XP for completing quests. The quest XP was far in excess of the monster XP, and so my players were far more interested in solving problems and achieving goals rather than fighting monsters or exploring.

- Brian

Cuddly Werewolf said...

"Not to slay, but to pillage. Not to root out the evil of the place, or rescue a princess, or to slay the boss monster. Their chief aim was to find treasure. Notice how they avoid combat whenever possible, and only fight when absolutely forced to. And notice that, when they do secure some treasure, they do so without combat.

That’s how Mr. Gygax and his crew played the game. You think they might have known something about the intended playstyle of D&D in its original form?"
And I will counter with a ciberpunk saying, which goes like this:
"The street finds its own use for things."
Whatever the version of D&D,it is a thing that different people will get different uses out of. I might run a game with D&D that has nothing to do with pillaging. It will still be D&D. It only means I have found my own use for it.
And BTW-thanks for the link to the article!

JamesNostack said...

I'd like to point out that this aspect still exists in 4e. In the 4e module Keep on the Shadowfell there's this horrific encounter with a bunch of kobolds. Based on a bunch of internet reports, this encounter results in a TPK at least 50% of the time. I played it with some friends last weekend and we all died horribly.

But in this thread a seven year old boy, who has never played D&D before, figures out how to win: think laterally, and leverage all your other advantages.

So, basically, a whole bunch of us died trying to win this fight the old-fashioned, brute force way; this kid makes it look like, well, child's play.

trollsmyth said...

Cuddly Werewolf

My pleasure!

Please do note, however, that I'm not trying to say that a focus on exploration and treasure is how you should play the game. I'm just saying that a game is built with a focus on exploration and treasure. If you want your campaign to focus on other aspects, it might behoove you to houserule accordingly.

For instance, back in college, I did not want to keep up with a different way to tabulate XP for every class as the 2e rulebooks suggested. So instead, I gave XP for completing quests, solving puzzles, and slaying monsters. Low and behold, my players became very interested in completing quests, solving puzzles, and slaying monsters. If, instead, I had chosen to reward XP for treasure, as was done in the older versions of D&D, it might have changed the whole tenor of the campaign.

- Brian

trollsmyth said...

JamesNostack

Thanks for the great link! That's a wonderful story. I'm not certain that it changes much of my point, however. D engaged with the plentiful tactical tools that 4e handed him. He didn't attempt to shoehorn the game into being something it wasn't. (Well, ok, he did insist on the village being modeled when it wasn't necessary, but hey, we all bring baggage of some sort to our games. ;) )

Too many people think D&D is all about killing things and taking their stuff. The problem is, most of the rules were not written to reflect that. In the older versions of D&D, insisting that you were supposed to kill all the monsters lead to the mid-levels "sweet spot" where everything is balanced for the most interesting combat encounters. In Keep on the Shadowfells it leads to people charging head-first into mobs of agile, nasty kobolds. When you instead engage the game in the spirit it was written, things that seemed to be problems suddenly become cool features.

4e looks like an awesome little tactical RPG, in the spirit of Games Workshop's Mordheim game. Based on what I've seen so far, I would not be at all surprised to see single players running two, three, or even entire parties of five characters at a time with 4e. It looks like it can be a lot of fun that way.

- Brian

thanuir said...

Brian, yes, though I did not mean to imply that (old) D&D is badly designed, never having played or read it.