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.