Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Assumptions, Balance, and Death

There’s also been some talk of death around the intrawebs lately. This is partly my fault; last Wednesday night, the Table of Death & Dismemberment claimed its first mortal victim. Context, of course, is everything. This was the second part of a running battle between our heroes and a trio of red slaadi.

Our heroes, by the way, were a collection of 2nd and 1st level characters.
Yeah, I can hear the gasps now, and it’s worse than you think because there was also a vampire sshian not far away who nearly got involved in the fight as well.
So what was I thinking, putting the party in a position where they ended up fighting three slaadi and nearly a vampire as well? What sort of sick, sadistic killer-DM monster am I?

Hey, don’t point the finger at me; none of this was my idea. The players are the ones who chose to go vampire-hunting. In an ancient sewer-system where they knew they could possibly run into slaadi. This was entirely their choice.

(What were they thinking? They knew if they could slay the vamp themselves, they’d reap rich rewards for their success. If they got help in killing it, or passed the responsibility entirely to others, there were certain consequences which they were not eager to face. It wasn’t a bad choice, it was just a gamble that went poorly for them.)

It’s this choice that really gets to the heart of Old School and Neo-classical play. There are few dungeons less linear than the good old Caves of Chaos, the complex of tunnels that provide the heart of the adventuring experience in B2: Keep on the Borderlands. Players can study the caves, scout them out, hunt for clues or ask for rumors at the Keep, and then decide which challenges they want to face. Nothing forces them to pick one cave over another. It is entirely possible for them to get in over their heads if they’re not careful, and even if they are. But for the most part, the challenges they face are entirely of their own choosing.

Somewhere along the line, however, the assumptions changed. It became less the DM asking the players what they wanted to do this time, and more the players trying to “find” or “guess” what adventure the DM had planned. It’s amusing the note the bizarre, passive-aggressive mode this often took. As if unconsciously recognizing the bizarreness of the assumption, the DM wasn’t really supposed to tell the players what the planned adventure was, and the players weren’t supposed to ask. Instead, the DM was supposed to signal the “entrance” to the planned adventure and players were expected to recognize these signals and to dutifully follow where they led.
Ostensibly, this was supposed to make things easier of the DM. Since the DM knew in advance what was going to happen, the DM could focus on the content players would actually encounter. In truth, however, this dumped on the DM a whole mess of responsibilities that 3e and 4e were designed, in part, to make easier. Chief among these was the creation of “properly balanced” encounters.

Since the DM got to decide exactly what encounters and challenges the party would face, it became solely the DM’s responsibility to ensure that every fight was properly calibrated to the abilities of the party. 3e and 4e both have mechanisms for calculating this sort of thing. Such things are rife with unintended consequences, however.

For instance, in order to know what sort of challenges are in the proper range of a group of PCs, they must always be at roughly the same level of power. This means the rules, and not the DM, largely decide what treasure and magic items the PCs get, in addition to which monsters they face. This also makes the death of one or a few of the PCs mechanically intolerable. Either you kill none of the PCs or you kill all of them. Or you start new PCs at roughly the same level of ability as the rest of the group, making death a reasonable choice for a player who’s decided they want to play a different character or decides they wanted their character to go in a different direction somewhere along the line.

And this leads to players phoning it in. After all, if the rules are designed in such a way that they should be able to outfight every foe they meet, why should they do anything else? And since the DM has set them on the rails of the chosen adventure, the players have no choice in strategic decisions, and little reason to bother with tactical ones. In fact, the game actively discourages such cleverness, since it forces players to endure tedious battles that were decided, thanks to their clever thinking, before any dice are rolled.

Obviously, most games don’t devolve to this level of tedium. The inexactness of the encounter creation guidelines mean the players must at least be aware and prepared for the outriders that throw a wrench in their assumptions, while better DMs learn how to gauge encounters against the abilities of their players more than the strengths of the characters. Still, the hobbling assumptions remain, robbing players of making choices, and as has been discussed before, choices are what games are all about.

Art by John Mulcaster Carrick and Felix Louis Leullier.


Stuart said...

Great overview of why letting players get in over their heads is a good thing. :)

Daddy Grognard said...

This speaks to me. This weekend, I did my first 'real' D&D session for my son. Real as in they get xp for their activities and when they get killed, they don't come back to life (unlike my Training Dungeon q.v.)

As a result of a choice they made on the first day, they were in the right place at the right time to be offered the job of support to the town watch who were going off to hunt A Big Something in the forest. Said Something was in fact an ettin that had come up on the Wilderness wandering monster roll. When they finally met the ettin, it killed two of the watch and two of the characters in the party.

At any point,my son could have chosen to run or he had the option not to accompany the watch. Something else would have happened. In the end, one of his characters fired the shot that finished off the ettin and he now has the benefit of all that flows from that achievement.

All from a random wandering monster roll and some interesting choices.

Bruce said...

All of what you say is very true and insightful. If the player's choices do not have consequences what's the point.

However (you knew that was coming,) it is important to remember that you decided there were slaadi in the sewers, the vampire was in those sewers, and that the sewers existed in the first place. If, in whatever way, the players had other good options, then what happened to them is their fault. But if not . . .

Chris said...

This was the second part of a running battle between our heroes and a trio of red slaadi. Our heroes, by the way, were a collection of 2nd and 1st level characters.

Yer doing the lord's work Trollsmyth: bringing forth the shining metal of player skill through the refining fires of adversity and the hammer of potential TPKs.

How else than through death and dismemberment are players going to learn that running away while screaming like sissy little girls (and sneaking back later with reinforcements) is sometimes the right answer?

"We Slaad do not understand this 'level appropriate' of which you speak." :)

Oddysey said...

However (you knew that was coming,) it is important to remember that you decided there were slaadi in the sewers, the vampire was in those sewers, and that the sewers existed in the first place. If, in whatever way, the players had other good options, then what happened to them is their fault. But if not . . .

In this case, I can confirm that we did. While a lot of that decision was driven by the fact that the vampire had escaped from the dungeon and was looking for us in town, even before we woke it up we knew that there were slaadi and other such things in the dungeon, and we kept messing around with it anyway.

Though what Trollsmyth isn't mentioning is that as a general rule in his game, "dead" is usually not nearly as bad as all the other things that could happen. This was one of those times for a number of reasons.

E.G.Palmer said...

This is like a "Just So" story of gaming. Heh...

I was also just considering the difference in the assumptions about the game that different editions and generations of players bring to the table.

I'm not certain it's purely generational though, I think it may be indicative of the preferences of the larger portion of the population of whatever age.

d7 said...

@E.G. Palmer: I don't think it's generational either, but when I consider the recent chatter about the (recent and original) "red box" it clicks into focus: How do we learn what makes for a good game?

The current generation was suckled on balance, mountains of character options, and bad-ass combat manoeuvers. The books that teach people how to play imply that his is where the awesomeness of roleplaying games lies.

The "old school" gamers (for lack of a better category name) were brought up on a very different game; the awesomeness lay in having a character survive to Name level, slowly gathering a few treasured items of magic, and discovering weird and interesting places and creatures (to name a few features of "old school" play off the top of my head).

Taste can be taught (as I've learned with beer, wine, and music), and at any given point in the history of roleplaying games it's worth looking at what expectations are being taught to new players and who is doing the teaching.

(Captcha: "venal". Oddly appropriate.)

Juampa said...

Great post! These assumptions are very real in my group, and I've been trying to "escape" them for a while now.

I'm playing/DMing D&D since 1996, using 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition. I usually despise the feeling of railroading my players. Who's to blame? I'm partially guilty, of course. But I believe videogames are also guilty: too many games feature "quest" adventuring, accustoming players to look for quests and dutifully execute them.

I've recently found a marvelous campaign model described some time ago by Ben Robbins: the West Marches. I believe it would help me develop the kind of game I'm after.

I also agree that the Caves of Chaos are an amazing nonlinear dungeon complex. So I plan to revisit the caves using 4th edition rules, in a West Marches-style campaign.

I'm highly reccommending this post to my players! :)