Monday, November 15, 2010

Investigating Resource Management

Robert Fisher isn't quite certain about the Gumshoe game. I have to admit, I'm largely in agreement with him, but I haven’t played the game either, so what follows should not be seen as a criticism of Gumshoe. And there certainly is a place and a time for such mechanics. It really all depends on what your game is about.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: when you're rolling dice you're not playing the game. Managing resources is a little better (it actually involves decision-making, which is the very heart and soul of gaming), but managing resources should never be mistaken for anything other than what it is. When I say old-school D&D is a game about exploration, I recognize that resource management is a part of that. But resource management is merely a limit on the amount of exploration the PCs can do. The primary activity is still trekking into places that are unknown. The important choices are exploration choices; left or right, stay at this level or descend to a deeper level, visit the Caves of Chaos or the Ruined Moathouse. The resources which must be managed, things like provisions, equipment, memorized spells, and hit points, are in truth obstacles to be overcome in order to do more exploring. More than experience points, getting to see one more room is the real reward for good play.

As a bit of an aside, much of what we saw in third and fourth edition D&D are attempts to transform a game about exploration into a game about tactical combat. Fourth edition has largely completed the transformation. The game focuses primarily on positioning, powers, and cooperative, synergistic effects. This is why linear adventures are not anathema in the fourth edition game. The multiple paths of branching options is vital to old-school D&D because it allows players to decide how far they want to push their supplies, how they will explore the unknown, and gives the players the opportunity to pick and choose which fights they want to risk. Avoiding fights in fourth edition D&D would be like avoiding the ball in baseball; it would pretty much mean fleeing the heart of the game altogether.

A game about investigation should have the players searching for clues, questioning witnesses, and puzzling over what they learn. This can be problematic, however, because the models for such games don't give us good examples. The point of the detective novel or TV show is to showcase the brilliant analytical mind of the detective. These detectives, whether they are Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, tend to be quirky individuals who do not think like normal folks. They always (or, at least, eventually) see the clues in exactly the right light to understand their proper meaning. Players almost never do this. As faustusnotes points out in the comments, you really need lots of clues pointing in the right direction so that the players don't end up creating their own red herrings.

Actually, discussing this with Odyssey, she pointed out that the best way to handle this sort of thing is to come up with the bare bones of the situation and improvise the clues the players find based on their assumptions and what they're talking about. This way, you can better tailor the clues to show them what they will understand as pointers to the truth, and they'll be a little less likely to run off odd directions.

Again, this isn't to say that dice rolling and resource management have no place in RPGs. It is to say, however, that the current trend of making resource management and dice rolling dominate the core activities of the theme of the RPG is bass ackwards. What your game is really and truly about is what the players are doing at the table. Dice, resources, and the rules should support that activity, but they should not supersede it. Success should come from player action and not for mere rolls of the dice.

On a very related note, I am somewhat intrigued by this capers game. The dice rolls appear to be less about success or failure, and more about interesting complications. That seems to me to be a more interesting way to go, especially if your assumption is that the PCs are hyper-talented and extremely competent individuals who nearly always succeed. The notion that the PCs should always be skirting the ragged edge of disaster in every exercise of their skills is another of those ideas that I think has become a bit too pernicious in game design these days.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Bahareth


Arthur said...

I'm reminded of the old axiom about writing, that if your story is about a theme you should try as much as possible to avoid naming that theme directly, because then you'll rob it of its power. So, for example, if the point of your story is about a character called John being guilty, you absolutely don't say "John felt guilty", because the whole thrust of your writing should be based around reinforcing that idea to the point where spelling it out really shouldn't be necessary.

Likewise, if an RPG is about a particular activity, you don't actually want all the dice rolls to be about that activity, because then you rob the players of the intellectual pleasure of tackling that activity for themselves, without the system abstracting it for them.

James Maliszewski said...

Likewise, if an RPG is about a particular activity, you don't actually want all the dice rolls to be about that activity, because then you rob the players of the intellectual pleasure of tackling that activity for themselves, without the system abstracting it for them.

A very keen insight!

Robert said...

On that point about Leverage: I believe the Risus Companion has a bit about using a die roll to determine how you describe a success rather than to determine success. Miss the roll, and you succeed. Perhaps barely. Make the roll, and you succeed with style! That’s an idea I can really get behind, but I don’t think I’ve actually gotten around to putting it into practice yet.

Natalie said...

Gah! No! Don't be intrigued by Leverage! ::willpower slipping::

trollsmyth said...

Arthur: Absolutely. You've nailed it better than I did. Thanks! :D

Robert: Cool, I may need to check that out.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I like GUMSHOE a bit. It works quite well for the investigation part because you automatically find important clues, and can spend from various skills to get more detailed/extended info or bennies.

The place where I don't like the resource management is combat or other actiony conflicts. It makes you focus too much on the resource management because if you are out, you know you're gonna get killed if you fight someone.

JB said...

@ Trollsmyth:

Would just like to echo the comments of both James M and Oddysey.