Saturday, December 29, 2018

Games That Influenced My Current Understanding Of RPGs

I'm still working on the follow-up to the "What is Magic?" post, describing what spirits are, exactly. I also need to write up the events of the Deindustrial Future game, where the players' characters fought off a major assault by the forces of the antagonist—or antagonists, as the case may be—and realized that they may have been making some bad assumptions about what is going on. However, because I want to post something before the end of the year, this will be a simple social media game about my history in gaming. All it really is is a list of "games that influenced me", but I want to include some commentary to make it worth your time to read. Without further ado, and after the first two in no particular order:

  1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition - This was, of course, the first RPG I played, before I had even heard the term "RPG". I learned a lot about gaming from this, in part because I had no idea what I was doing. It was where I learned that having followers is a good thing. It was where I learned that maybe you shouldn't trust your fellow players, but also that you could generally rely on them if they weren't dicks. I learned what it means to be able to attempt anything, even if you might or might not succeed. Some of those I would count as life lessons, too. I learned that resource management is a fun game in itself, even if it took me years to be able to articulate that lesson.
  2. Traveller - Since it was the first game I'd ever run instead of just being a player, this is where I learned the value of Referee tools. Random encounters, rumor tables, world generation procedures, and so on mean that the Referee can concentrate on the arc of the story and leave the details up to the dice. This has served me as well in learning what the value of divination is outside of gaming, too.
  3. Call of Cthulhu - This is where I learned that even a single rule, if properly designed, can thoroughly change the experience of the game by altering the approaches that the players will tend toward.
  4. Champions - I didn't know it at the time I was playing it, but this game taught me that point-based character creation is terrible. Even if the intent is otherwise, it encourages players to find as many loopholes in the system as they can. This is also called "system mastery", and it continues to infect some games to this day. Some games revel in that, such as Pathfinder, while others, such as GURPS, try to minimize it.
  5. RuneQuest, 3rd edition - Proved that it is possible to use points to generate characters and not have it be awful. On the other hand, it does this by limiting the point use to only one segment of character creation, the skills of the character. Technically, I probably learned this with 2nd edition and with Call of Cthulhu, but I really like 3rd edition RQ and wanted to include it in this list.
  6. Marvel Super Heroes - I learned that the description of a power—what Champions calls "special effects"—is very nearly as important as the mechanics of the power. I also learned that the direction of complexity that I was heading deeper into was not necessarily the best direction.
  7. Pendragon - There are other ways to play a game is what Pendragon taught me about gaming. Adventures can be had without making "adventuring" the centerpiece of the game. Instead, adventures can serve a larger purpose of supporting the play of families and the exercise of power politics.
  8. Hârnmaster - This game taught me that not every situation affecting a character is best simulated as a pool of resource points, but that conditions applied to the character are often the better tool to use. Also, that characters don't have to be high-competence to be fun to play. Other people learned that latter lesson with Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, but this game was my lesson in that.
  9. Flashing Blades - Here I learned that the proper focus of a game is on the players' characters, even if the events being portrayed are larger than those characters. I also finally came to understand the lesson that I should have learned in Traveller or even earlier, that character development is not necessarily something that affects stats and skills.
  10. GURPS - Taught me that the math in the game is important, but that it should absolutely not be something that the players have to deal with much. It should be baked into the system as much as possible.
  11. Lace & Steel - Here, I learned one part of the lesson that even small things can make an adventure more fun, by helping to immerse the players into the setting. In particular, the concentration on the small indignities of travel, and how this encourages characters to choose to pay for better accommodations when available, taught me about the little things that matter to characters.
  12. Swordbearer - Like the previous entry, I learned that even seemingly minor elements, presented correctly, can add immeasurably to play, with travel being another area treated especially well, in this case by detailing how things like setting and striking camp, the condition of the travelers, weather, and so on affect matters. I also learned that sometimes finances are better handled abstractly, since the characters shouldn't be worrying about every last copper piece and so neither should the players, at least in some settings.
That gives an even dozen games, though I could have included more. I learned things from Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Vampire: The Masquerade, TORG, Rolemaster, and many others as well, but I have to stop somewhere. That's not even counting the negative lessons—other than Champions, which I think was one of the most important lessons—such as the WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Linear Fighters, Quadratic Magic-Users

I have been working on the follow-up to the article on magic, but it has gotten out of hand a couple of times as I keep finding myself going off into tangents. It's a big topic, but I am trying to boil it down.

But today I am going to talk about AD&D and other D&Ds.

A big complaint some people have about the way that game is balanced is that Magic-Users increase in power at an increasing rate throughout their careers, while Fighters tend to increase steadily. This is formulated as the Fighter improving on a linear basis, while the Magic-User improves on a quadratic basis. It certainly does seem like a conundrum, since Gary Gygax was writing AD&D on the basis of many, many hours spent running the game at a real table, for hundreds of players. How could he have missed something so obvious?

As with many things, the answer is right there in the rule books.

Gary knew that Fighters and Magic-Users had different focuses for their careers. Each was, after all, a statement by a player about how they wanted to interact with the game and setting. Everyone knows this. The other classes, Cleric, Thief, and so on, are all later attempts by various players to come up with a particular and new way to approach the game and setting, usually based on a particular fictional role model. Clerics were to be Fearless Vampire Slayers in the vein of Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula films, Thieves were largely the Grey Mouser from Fritz Leiber's stories (and, yes, a little bit of Vance's Cugel the Clever too), Monks were an attempt to model Shaw Brothers wuxia films, Rangers were Strider/Aragorn. Later, the Barbarian was to be Conan.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a model for the character's whole career, not just a set of powers that were nifty. How did Gary see these characters spending their late careers?

The Cleric, of course, would be a fantasy Bishop, in charge of a holy temple with all of the attendants that implied, as well as believing peasants who would provide an income through their labor. This reminds me that AD&D is also explicit that the majority of the world does not have a class or level, and so most religious leaders are probably not able to cast spells, though perhaps more people who are able to are drawn to holy orders and so there would be more than among the general populace. But I digress.

Thieves become leaders of organized crime institutions, obviously.

Magic-Users, it seems would retire to a tower, presumably to pursue their studies, but they would also have a body of laborers who would fund them in exchange, it is to be supposed, for protection from threats.

Which means that Fighters should probably also have a body of laborers to protect in exchange for tax monies. Like, I would say, a noble. And what is the source of a noble's power? The number of swords they can command. And that is exactly what a high-level fighter gets access to: a loyal troop. But they only get this power if they pursue it by clearing a barony of sorts. This is where many players lose the plot. There is a perception that only hardscrabble adventuring is fun, that the logistics of running a small domain make the game bog down into boredom.

But D&D was a wargame first, and the people who played it were wargamers at heart. For many, the whole point of play was to get to where they could command fantasy troops. Exercising power means dealing with other power-brokers in the setting, which means more opportunities for adventure, not fewer, since a baron can surely equip an expedition into a ruined castle, but murderhoboes can't usually broker deals that affect the lives of thousands or more.

But this still doesn't explain the Linear/Quadratic disparity, I can hear you say. Magic-Users, the argument continues, are still more powerful at any given level.

It is true that an individual Magic-User up against an individual Fighter will have a great advantage, with some abilities that the Fighter will have difficulty countering. That said, AD&D introduced a system whereby a Fighter could prevent the Magic-User from casting by interrupting the ritual. In addition, there were requirements for material components, as well as motions and words, that made the Magic-User's job a little more difficult. Adding these together, along with the overwhelming power of masses—one thing that people learn quickly when designing wargames rules that attempt to duplicate the D&D combat system on a mass scale is that even the most powerful of heroes will have a hard time against tens or hundreds of opponents. Swords & Spells, Battlesystem, and others found that they had to emphasize the abilities of heroic individuals, or alternatively games like Delta's Book of War learned that most D&D "heroes" weren't even worth representing on the battlefield as separate figures. Even powers like a Magic-User's spells, which seem overwhelming at the individual scale, turn out to have only small effect at the battle scale—enough, to be sure, to be worth simulating, but they only steer a battle in relatively subtle ways.

Meanwhile, the loyal troop attending a Fighter steer the battle very directly.

Myself, I think that a character should get experience for the money that they take in by taxing their domain. This encourages them to expand their domain and keep it safe from threats, since the more people they protect directly affects their experience gains. That would also encourage players to play the endgame for its adventuresome qualities instead of avoiding it in favor of more dungeon-delving, murderhobo adventures. More likely, these days, I'll simply give players experience for money spent rather than collected, but I won't make any distinctions about where they got it.

And money spent on a castle is money spent.