Friday, March 27, 2015

Adventure Games, Goals, And Spectacular Science Stories

Adventure games are often presented, these days, in a manner that doesn't emphasize what you are supposed to do as a player. The first games were pretty straightforward and objective: collect whatever marker counted for points for your character (usually this was money, either as a means to get experience points or for the benefits that the money could produce directly in the game setting). Later, the objectivity dropped away and the goal became, basically, to guess what would please the Referee and have your character do that, because the Referee was effectively told to give out a number of these points on a purely subjective basis. Still later, there was no clear objective presented for games (by now universally called "roleplaying games" instead of "adventure games"), with the players expected to develop objectives for their characters in advance and pursue them without any real support from the game system.

Since I am basing Spectacular Science Stories on a set of rules (Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox) that is close to the earliest games, I want to try and stick to the objective method of giving out success points to the characters. Unfortunately, this presents a small problem, because there are three different sorts of raygun fantasy story that I am trying to emulate. I could probably make this simpler on me by getting rid of one or two of the three character classes, but I don't think that the game would be as enjoyable if I did.

First, there is the Adventurer. This can be dealt with just as in traditional adventure games, as the prototypes include such figures as Northwest Smith, who was just as much of a money-grubbing adventurer as any in D&D. Nothing needs to be done there. Next, there is the Scientist, for which I have found a great way to offer carrots that point them toward the sorts of behavior that you'd expect from that type of character (basically, they can get special benefits from exploring the mysteries of the universe).

What I'm left with, though, is the Psychic Warrior. This one is difficult, in no small part because they are portrayed in the source material (Star Wars and the Lensman stories, mainly) as above such venal matters as money. How do you give objective rewards to someone like that? Obviously, they could get experience points for "defeating foes", but that's entirely secondary in the rules to getting paid. I also want to make them, in some ways, like paladins, with few (and minor) technological items, relying on their psychic powers rather than worldly concerns in their pursuit of moral perfection. I've got some rules for "fallen" Psychic Warriors who fail in their moral pursuit, of course, but I'm still trying to work out how to make them advance properly. I don't want to just give them a set of experience point goals that are special to them and no one else. Maybe I should just add a set of "karma" experience point awards for performing specific objectively-determined actions. Not sure how I'd go about that, though, and there's the matter of what to do about villainous "fallen" Psychic Warriors.

My first thought was to let them donate their money and found items to the Psychic Warrior Temple and get extra experience points for that, but that doesn't seem quite right (though I probably will keep that, and also give Adventurers and Scientists a way to boost experience points by giving up money too). If you've got any ideas, I'd appreciate it.


  1. Interesting question. Guess you wouldn't want to go the way of the cleric here. Giving a player some sort of codex to play his character with was always a bad idea, since it only works if the player does it actively. On the other hand, what you could do is defining level-specific goals a Psychic Warrior has to fulfill before advancing to the next level (which would give it a quest-character and something a player would actively seek instead of always pondering if he does the right thing ...). If those were vague enough to fit any given story, you'd see players (in theory) interpreting stories in a way that fits their purpose, creating the right stories in the process. Examples might be: "Protect one innocent soul from a dark fate (easy, early level maybe)" or "Rid the world of one Dark Force (harder, mid-level, maybe)". I know, it's a bit vague here, but I believe instead of saying a player has always to protect the innocent, it's far more effective to say he has to do it one time actively (seeking it, even) to advance to the next level ... Anyway, that'd be my idea.

    1. I am intrigued by the idea. If I understand you right, the way that it would work at the table is the player would nominate some action performed by his character as fitting the criteria required for advancement, and the Referee would then approve or deny that nomination. The part that bothers me is the subjective character (the Referee makes the decision based on feeling, rather than it being a direct and obvious result of some thing that pre-exists in the game being converted into advancement*). If I can find a way to make it into a more objective measure, it looks good. Maybe give an alternate experience scheme for defeating foes? I dunno…

      *I wonder if I could find a more complicated way to say that? ;) Anyway, the idea is that, for instance, money is a thing that converts into experience points. Creatures defeated converts into experience points. These are direct and obvious conversions that don't require the Referee to make a subjective judgement, for the most part. One money equals one experience point. One goblin equals ten experience points (or whatever). Collect enough experience points and the character's level goes up. There's no need to judge whether ridding the world of Count Dooku can take the character to level 8, or if it requires ridding the world of Palpatine (for instance).

    2. Yeah, I see what you're getting at. That's why a player gets a chance to construe the necessities after the fact. If the group, for instance, took a contract to get rid of some local crime baron, he could assume that there are some innocents in trouble. If he now goes and talks to some town folks about their troubles, he will find find what he is looking for as it is very likely, given the situation. So the only option a DM has, is to make it an interesting side quest (daughter fell in with the wrong crowd, father is missing, that sort of thing). Let's take the example a bit further and assume that one of the crime baron's henchman is an evil Psychic Warrior. A player could now make it his personal quest to bring that guy down before anything else. It'd be all within the already established storylines, but that kind of focus helps giving an adventure the feel and tone you might be looking for, because the players will make it happen (I think).

      As for the currency mechanism. The problem I see is that it would need a subsystem that, like combat, works as something decided by rolling dice, with an indisputable outcome (you kill the monster, you get xp/it's treasure). Maybe something like spiritual or social combat? The dice decide then if the character did the right thing or not (just like hitting the target or not). Might be problematic. But still, the basic idea is to make it the result of something reactive. A bad roll can mean the character did something wrong, like rolling a one in combat. And if they can accept loosing a limb, they could also accept a character misjudging the situation.

      As an aside: an interesting twist could be that a successful roll might alter the story to what is accepted (a bit like InSpectres does, don't know if you're familiar with the game). But this would also get you further and further away from the source and more into indie game territory, I guess.

      Anyway, just throwing ideas here :)

    3. I really appreciate the ideas being thrown, too! I'm exploring as many possibilities as I can, hoping to settle on something that works. One possibility that I have noticed is to restrict Psychic Warriors from xp for money, except if they donate it to their Temple (or, if they have their own Temple, to the Temple that sponsors theirs), then give them xp for "achieving goals", as you note, though I am still working out how best to approach that latter award. I'd add that other characters could get "achieving goals" xp, too, if I added it. The money restriction would just be a class feature of the Psychic Warriors.

      Another possibility suggested on G+ is to get rid of xp for cash entirely, for all classes, and replace it with defeating foes and achieving goals.

      Or something. This is definitely an area I want to think about.

    4. I keep thinking about Obi Wan: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine." It's like...that's what he needed to happen to advance to the next level, you know?

      What about a table of different tasks? To advance to a new level, you must hit a particular milestone. I'm thinking of the Lover's Solo in Pendragon. You roll randomly each time you want to complete a task, 2d6 on a table that goes from 2 to 20. For each task you've completed, you add +1 to your roll (ergo, how you get above 12 on that table). The higher the result, the more difficult the task (and eventually the easier tasks lower down on the chart aren't even possible results).

      So take this model and run with it. This could easily be spun out, since you only have three classes. Each class has its own task table. (In this case, the extra +1's could simply be +1/level past 1st.) At character creation and at each new level, the player rolls on the table to find out what task he needs to accomplish to level up. For your Northwest Smith types, this could easily still encompass wealth acquisition. "Hmm...a 7. Let's see...'Personally acquire 10,000 Credits.'" Scientists, obviously, would have things ranging from "collect a spore, mold, or fungus sample" to "discover a new mountain range and name it". I'd imagine Obi-Wan had a "20" for his latest level, and it read something like, "Allow yourself to be killed in order to save your friends."

      You could then have each level grant the usual power-ups and so forth. Again, for Obi-Wan, the relevant level granted "Force Ghost transcendence" or the like.

    5. There may be something in that which I can definitely use. The idea of special quests for each level, at least for the Psychic Warriors, is a good one. Something like it was part of the "Barbarian Cleric" (I think it was called) class in an issue of Dragon magazine, where the character had to defeat an increasingly powerful demon to rise each level, as a sort of shamanistic thing.