Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Supporting, Not Replacing

Over at the RPG site, Ryan Dancey has started a discussion on how adding social mechanics from Dogs in the Vineyard may be a way to improve gameplay in traditional Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, I know... And the thread starts off as a hideous mess, just as you'd expect. However, John Morrow has some very interesting things to say. I suspect he and I share very similar attitudes about gaming. Things get a lot better around this post.

This gets to the heart of what I have been talking about with neoclassical gaming. Ryan Dancey, having found some neat social mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard, has suggested that such rules might make D&D more fun for people who would prefer tabletop RPGs to computer games. Mr. Morrow complains, and I think quite rightly, that this "gamest" approach hurts more than it helps. We see this a lot in games. Substituting dice rolls and resource management for the activity itself, in this case, social interaction, which is very easy to do at the table, undercuts what we really want to have happen.

I'm assuming here that Mr. Dancey is interested in games where the characters interact with each other, are parts of their social environments, and are motivated by the peoples and situations that exist inside the game. Festooning these things with mechanics undercuts that. The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them.

John Morrow makes this very point when he says:

[T]he players are no longer making decisions based on what's happening in the setting but wing up looking for ways to wedge things like background mentions or relationship connections into the situation just to get modifiers. This is also one of the reasons why John Kim's Dogs in the Vineyard strategy page explicitly mentions that very broad traits are frowned upon. The same problem crops up in Spirit of the Century and any game where invoking some aspect of a character or their background makes it more likely for a character to succeed. Games that give bonuses for clever descriptions can also get goofy when the players start playing to the GM rather than the situation their characters are in. Yes, it gets the characters to bring those things into play, but there is a point where it doesn't help the quality of game and even a point where it turns the game into a farce…

So is there some way for us to have our cake and eat it too? Can we encourage the sort of activities we want without burying them in mechanics?

I think we can. I think that old-school D&D shows us how. D&D is a game about exploration that has almost no rules about exploring. It discusses the problems of exploring, and gives us tools for tackling logistical issues associated with exploring, and creates rewards of various sorts for exploring, but does these things in a very tangential way. Your character never earns experience points from exploring itself. Instead, you gain experience through moving treasure from dangerous, unexplored territories back to home base. Monsters, traps, and the usual issues of exploration (such as provisions, light, and getting lost) all must be overcome to achieve the goal of rescuing treasure from the wilderness.

Mr. Dancey seems to want a game that is more about relationships and the social landscape. I've discussed this before. The neoclassical approach (and, interestingly, the approach of the guy who actually wrote Dogs in the Vineyard) seeks to encourage the desired gameplay obliquely. The final result would most likely be a game that looks very traditional to most gamers. However, it would have certain tweaks that encourage players to forge alliances and call on their friends for help. If we were just going to house-rule D&D, these might look like additional ways to take advantage of hirelings and henchmen, or at least, the rules dealing with them, rules that grant bonuses in combat for having friends fight with you (either by their diversity, or by their quantity), and for using social resources to solve traditional dungeon challenges. Let's take a look at two examples of what these might look like.

I frequently encourage my players to search for information about a dungeon before they attempt to enter it. Usually, this begins with visiting the local tavern and buying drinks for the old-timers with stories of days-gone-by, and ends with the PCs visiting the local sage in order to verify and flush out what they've learned. It would be easy enough to include local groups like adventurers guilds or wizards guilds, knightly orders, secret organizations like the Harpers of the Forgotten Realms, and the like. Any of these groups might have more information about the places the players wish to explore, as well as specialized tools for tackling the dangers they might have to face. In order to acquire some of the information or supplies, players may need to be on good terms with these groups or even members. However, not all of these groups will be friendly with each other, and membership in one group might earn the enmity of the others.

This sort of thing doesn't even actually require rules per se. It's simply a new way for the players to interact with their local environment. It's simple enough for the DM to implement, requiring only a list of such groups, what sort of information they may have, and how they feel about each other. I use things like this in my game successfully all the time.

Here's another example: a while back, Zak was pondering how to add something like feats to old-school D&D. The solution he came up with was rather intriguing; instead of presenting his players with a dizzying list of feats and their various pathways, he simply associated feats with different social groups, and, when the players reached an appropriate level, they were given the opportunity to learn the feet associated with whichever locale the PCs happened to be in at that time.

It would be simple enough to expand this and other aspects of the game. Maybe certain equipment can only be purchased from certain areas. Lembas bread, for instance, makes it easy to provision a large expedition, but only certain elven bakers can make it. Perhaps certain spells are only known to a particular sorority of sorceresses who carefully guard such secrets. Now where the PCs go to find adventure doesn’t just change the window-dressing (jungle vs. forest vs. plains), but actually affects what sort of rewards they can expect to earn or how their characters develop. Traveling to the Ashen Wastes in order to learn how to fight with a spiked buckler or the dreaded Disintegration spell are exactly the sorts of things we’d expect from a character like Elric or Cugel.

None of these rules violate Mr. Morrow's desire to avoid replacing actual social interaction with resource management or dice rolling. They also encourage exactly the sort of entanglement with the social landscape that I think Mr. Dancey is looking for. Where they do fall down, however, is in dictating what that social landscape looks like to a certain extent. Old-school D&D is incredibly flexible and can be used to model any sort of civilization from Bronze Age city-states to Renaissance-style empires linked by magically powered dirigibles. As the rules currently stand, including the sorts of additions I’m discussing is something the DM will have to tackle when creating the setting. For me, this sort of stuff is part of the fun of world building, but it's a rare to find it in most rulebooks, especially those that purport to be fairly generic.

It would be simple enough to create some Reintsian random tables to distribute this sort of thing among groups created via other random tables, but again, the more we do this, the more we dictate to the DM what the setting is like. Whether that is a bug or a feature depends entirely on the preferences of the group. Unfortunately for Mr. Dancey, attempts to do similar things with prestige classes in 3e fell flat: people just assumed that every prestige class ought to be available in every world, in spite of direct statements to the contrary. Then again, the players who embraced this sort of universality tended to be exactly the sorts that Mr. Dancey says we 40 lost to computer games. Perhaps those of us who are left can be expected to be slightly more careful readers?


Gary F said...

great article. I agree. I always want rules for things that what I really want is to players to roleplay it.

Telecanter said...

Fabulous stuff. Thanks.

I need to think on this, but it seems it pushes us to either have pre-packaged worlds with a lot of these customized lists/rules fleshed out, or smart DMs that understand the underlying principles and can do those customizations for their own vision of a world.

Anonymous said...

Ryan Dancey seems to think D&D is expressly designed (or ought to be) to create a story. I find that mind-boggling, and it makes me have a default negative attitude towards his ideas. If you can gain something useful from what he says, more power to you.

trollsmyth said...

Gary Fursah: Falling out of love with 3e was what taught me that.

Telecanter: Yep. I think I'd like to see some sort of entry-level, hold-your-hand kind of thing that shows you how to do that sort of thing while encouraging you to make it your own, but every time I see that, people tend to read suggestions as iron-clad commandments. >.<

Anonymous: I can, but mainly because when Dancey says "story" I read it as "persistent world." That's probably not what he really means, but it helps me glean the stuff that's useful to me.

Welcome to Dungeon! said...

From the arguments he has been making, I don't think he views story as "persistent world," but rather "centered around dramatic modes."

What I think is problematic is that he seems to automatically conflate both senses of story, while privileging the latter.

Erin Palette said...

My reply was too long for the comments section. You may find it here, on my blog.

Anonymous said...

good post on your blog, erin, i agree with most of what you say. (the only thing i have a problem with is the abuse-issue. that's about players, not rules. min/maxers can exploit any system.)

trollsmyth, your 2 examples don't convince me at all, though.

i feel you're not talking about the issue at all. players usually seek allies and contacts, most have henchman or hirelings help them in combat. but how these contacts are gained/retained and how you interact with npcs (apart from rolling morale- or reaction-checks), how this is handled mechanically ingame, this is what we should be talking about. (or rather, if and how such rules could be used to benefit the game.)

zak's idea isn't about social interaction either. its about having to make a long journey to learn to swing your sword in a certain way. nothing wrong with that in itself, but again, to me, it doesn't adress the issue.

The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them.

sure, bad players would probably act that way. but i don't see how anyone is forced to behave like that.

is adding mechanics for social actions to old-school d&d necessary (or even a good thing)? probably not. there are plenty of systems that include such rules and people whose interests in roleplaying include social interaction should probably play one of those better suited to their tastes.

JDJarvis said...

There are plenty of social interaction rules in oldschool D&D. We have morale, loyalty and the reaction roll. That's lot's of mechanics for a game as brief as OD&D.

Erin Palette said...

@JD: But if we take Trollsmyth at his word when he says "Substituting dice rolls and resource management for the activity itself, in this case, social interaction, which is very easy to do at the table, undercuts what we really want to have happen," then it's a fair and valid conclusion to say that even reaction rolls and the like are "too mechanical" for him.

Again, I refer to you my previous post, where I explicitly asked him if he meant that rules are unnecessary and unwanted because that is what talking in-character is for, and he said yes.

So unless he cares to make a correction, he is claiming that ANY rules, no matter how simple, are undesirable for social interaction, and to that I say "Bollocks!"

Robert Conley said...

In my Majestic Wilderlands much of the adventure arise from the conflict created by the clash of culture and religion.

No where in my MW Supplement do I provide explicit rules for this. Indeed I don't even talk about alignment D&D traditional mechanic for representing factions.

The way I handled this for in how the classes are setup. If you truly roleplaying it will lead naturally to the players dealing with certain conflicts and thus the adventures that arises from them.

Necropraxis said...

Hey, I was just thinking about social resolution mechanics again recently, and why I don't like them myself. I just wrote a blog post trying to explain my thoughts.

Check it out here: