Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Come on... Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

In my many years of thinking about gaming (as opposed to actually gaming, but that's another rant) I have had a lot of ideas. Some good, some bad, some mind-bendingly awful. But several years ago, I had what may be the greatest idea in the history of man.

D&D - at the casino!

Okay, bear with me.

This is how it would work - the casino has its own sandbox setting, complete with wilderness and a megadungeon. Anyone who wants to play has to buy in - at, say, $100 an hour? It's hard to estimate how much to set this at without knowing how much gold the average PC is going to haul in.

So you pay your buy-in, and you send your character out to explore. Every gold piece you successfully bring back to town would be paid out as $1 in real life. And you can come back with the same character - starting out at 1st level your hauls might be meagre, and you might even lose money as you try to build up your guy. But as you get more powerful, you can take on stronger foes and haul in more loot - all at the increased risk of death, of course. And once that character is dead? It's gone unless you have a friend there who is willing to spend some of his winnings to raise you.

Of course the casino could fix such a game really easily - wandering encounter with Spectres on the first dungeon level! That's why this would have to be policed pretty strictly. Everything would have to be by the book, and all rolls would by necessity be in the open. Players would be able to call the DM on any ruling, and get a glimpse at the rules or notes to clarify what just happened. But as far as dungeon levels go, the official wandering monster charts would have to be adhered to, and set encounters would have to be reasonable to the dungeon level they are encountered on.

As for ruleset, it's tempting to go for 3rd Edition here, or even 4th - there's a lot to be said for the way they try to balance out monsters by Challenge Rating or experience point total. But this has to be a game that your average Joe Gambler might try out. So in the interests of simplicity and accessibility, it has to be Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert.

The only downside I see, besides bankrupting alegion of gamers, is that I would spend nearly all my time at the casino. But maybe, just maybe, I could then make a living out of playing D&D all day...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking Away the Numbers

It was high school lunch time, and as usual I showed up to the library's back room ready to game. We were starting new characters (AD&D 2nd Edition as we played at the time), so I figured most of the session would belong to character creation.

The DM was already there, so I sat down and got to rolling my stats.

"Don't worry about that," he said. "I've already done that for you."

Uh, pardon me? I thought. I'm all for DM authority, but surely if one part of the character creation process is sacrosanct, rolling your 3d6 for ability scores is it. Nevertheless, I sat there like a spineless jellyfish and accepted this violation, and the other guy playing did likewise.

"Just tell me what order you want them in, highest to lowest," he continued. I was all set on playing a ranger, so I went with Strength, Constitution, Wisdom, and whatever else those guys needed to qualify. The DM started assigning these numbers in secret, then he started talking. "Okay, you're really strong and healthy, and rather wise. Your intelligence is about average, as is your agility and hand-eye coordination. You don't have many friends, though - people don't like you for some reason."*

Okay. So I didn't know my stats. I knew I was a human ranger, and I was allowed to buy my own equipment, but as far as the concrete numbers and game mechanics went I had only vague descriptions to go on. Sort of like real life, I had a rough idea of how good I was at stuff.

So the other player and I ventured into the dungeon, and there was an actual genuine sense of fear and the unknown. We were pretty reckless hack-mongers in those days, as high-school students tend to be. So when the goblins showed up, we normally would have waded in and kicked ass. But a funny thing happened - without the security of knowing the math, we got cautious. My ranger refused to enter melee, and spent the entire battle keeping out of range and peppering the goblins with arrows. We treated combat like it was potentially deadly, not like a grand old bit of fun.

I can't remember the rest of the game (I'm betting that lunchtime ended and we never went back to it) but the experience has stayed with me. There was something really scary about not knowing the numbers. When you get hit by a spear and the DM tells you that you are "lightly wounded" what does that even mean? How many hit points do I have left? You don't know. You could have 1 hit point to begin with and feel as fit as a fiddle, and you'll never know that you'll be unconscious and dying the first time you get hit.

There's a lot to be said for this as a gaming experiment, but it's not going to work in all groups and all systems. I wouldn't want to try it with more than four players, and I certainly wouldn't want to apply it to rules heavy games like D&D 3e or 4e. 2e was about the right level of simplicity for the DM to manage it.

So if your players are getting a bit cocky, know everything in the Monster Manual, and don't treat their adventuring as a dangerous activity - try taking their character sheets away. There is security in knowing the math, and fear in uncertainty - take away the numbers and see what happens.

* My memory is vague, and I'm making this up. So if that description doesn't match the ability score requirements for a Ranger, it's only because I don't have a Player's Handbook in front of me.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On DM Notes, Character Death and Ad-Libbing

I've been listening to the Fear the Boot podcasts a lot lately, starting from the very beginning (because I always get into stuff late). They're entertaining and a lot of fun, but I find that I disagree with just about everything they have to say about role-playing games.

In one podcast they get into the topic of how many notes a DM ought to bring to the table. One guy (Chad) ad-libs everything with pretty much no notes at all, and another guy (Dan) has notes that are more like a brief outline. They also talk a lot about character death, and how it derails the 'story'. They even go so far as to fudge results so that characters don't die.

Now here's something I'll admit to straight up - my current campaign is story-driven. Since I started that game some four years ago I've re-examined many of my thoughts about RPGs and D&D especially. I think (at least on a theoretical level, because I haven't tested it in practice yet) that D&D is at its best when used as a sandbox game. That is to say, the DM creates a setting (be it dungeon, wilderness or city) with a wide scope for adventure, and the players drive that adventure in whatever way they see fit. The story is what happens during play, not what the DM comes up with in his head beforehand.

Needless to say, I'm not in favour of the DM fudging results so that characters can't die. For me, meaningful consequence are the primary reasons I prefer tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs and MMORPGs. When something happens to a PC or NPC in a game of D&D, it stays happened. If you die, you're dead, and there's no instant respawn or save game to fall back on. Sure you can be raised, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, and there are often consequences to that as well. Without the fear of death I find many RPGs quite fruitless, D&D chief among them.

And now to the question of DM notes, which is what I really wanted to write about. I am definitely not an ad-libber, though I can do it when the need arises. I show up to my games with a good ream of notes, and I'm even anal enough to type them out in a format that looks like an issue of Dungeon (R.I.P.). I'm not a fan of DM ad-libbing from either side of the screen, and here's why.

As a player, I've had a lot a lot of fun in ad-libbed games. Some DMs have a knack for it, and those who can do it invariably run a very good game. But here's the thing - whenever I find out that the DM ad-libbed a whole adventure I feel a bit cheated. Any triumphs I had were hollow, and any treasure I found without meaning, because everything that happened did so because the DM wanted it to. I feel like I didn't beat a tough dungeon, or survive a tough battle, because the DM could have had that fight go any way he wanted on a whim. Sure, I probably had fun, but it's tarnished. I feel like I didn't really earn that fun.

And now we come to my point.

When players show up to a game, they bring their character sheet (hopefully). Everything that is written on that sheet is a fact - it's either a concrete representation of what that character can do, or what he or she owns. The player can point to that, show it to the DM, and it's there. Needless to say there are players who totally cheat on this, but I can tolerate that within reason. It's usually more hassle than it's worth to call them on it, and it's a tangent. My point is that the player gets one guy to control, and everything about him is governed by what's written on an A4 sheet.

The DM, on the other hand, has a lot more power and control. Every single thing that isn't a player character is under their purview, so naturally they can exert much more influence on the game. I think that every gamer has played under an arsehole DM at some point or another, and that a lot of the trends in modern gaming are there to curb the influence of these guys.

So if the player is beholden to their character sheet, what is it that governs the DM? Not a lot, to be honest, but here are the three things I think the DM should adhere to - the game rules, the dice, and his notes.

The game rules are the baseline, they are the common understanding that player and DM have before they enter a game. The DM should follow them as much as is humanly possible, and when he changes them, it should be upfront and in consultation with the players. Of course, a fun game is paramount. If the DM spends half an hour looking up the Grapple rules, that's crap - make a ruling and move on. But make that ruling within the boundaries of the ruleset. Don't call for percentile rolls in a game of d20, or start having the PCs roll under their score for Ability Checks.

The dice come in here as well, because whatever they roll should be law. Otherwise, what's the point of playing a game? Some may accuse me of being a roll-player (and christ I hate that term) but I point to the very name of our hobby - role-playing game. If the dice don't matter, we might as well just sit around and tell each other what happens.

And now to DM notes. I'm a firm believer of the following - if it's in your notes, that's how it runs. A DM should run a game exactly as he set out beforehand, no fudging, no shaving encounters because things are going against the PCs, and conversely no beefing up of monsters because the PCs are winning too easily.

That's not to say that ad-libbing should be cut out entirely - there are always going to be details that you didn't prepare for. You probably won't have the barkeep's eye colour handy, but if a player asks for it, make it up. And if the players go off on a random wilderness expedition when you really want to get them into the Caves of Chaos? Then you have to make it up on the fly. But I only encourage that when there's no option available.

I'm also not saying that adventure modules should all be run as-is. Chop those babies to pieces all you like, it's your campaign after all. Just make all your changes before the game starts. Once the dice hit the table, the notes rule all.

But what to do when the PCs get stomped by monsters that are obviously too tough for them, and you can't change things in their favour? My general advice here is suck it up, and talk to your players about it after the game. But there are a couple of game-style considerations here. In a sandbox style campaign the above should be acceptable - the PCs drive the action and decide where to go, and as long as they are given a good indication of the most dangerous areas then all's fair in the dungeon. In a story-driven game, where certain encounters must be defeated for the game to progress? Yeah, that needs a rethink, and should probably have been toned down before the game started. But you know what? Sometimes the players just aren't in favour with The Dice Gods, and they should learn to deal with it.

One last thing I must mention is that I'm guilty of everything I've disparaged above. I've fudged dice, and I've changed my adventures on the fly. I won't be doing that any more. My players will have their character sheets, and I will have my campaign notes, and we will all be held to them. I'll report back after my next game to let you all know how it went.