Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Pillars of Role-Playing Gaming

If you were to break down most RPGs or gaming sessions, the three most common activities you’d encounter would be combat, exploration, and (social) interaction. Cover these three with some kind of game mechanics (emphasis up to you, depending on your players or personal preferences) and you’re likely to end up with a playable RPG. The complexity of the mechanics can be up to you as well, and may depend on your preferred gaming style. To use some of the more-established gamer lingo for style preferences, you might choose simulationist — where your focus is on recreation of specific genres or modeling the minutiae of the setting; narrativist — where the story and character background are the foundation; or gamist — where the game mechanics themselves are the highlight.

In general, you can see how the pillar activities align with play styles: Combat with gamism; exploration with simulationism; and interaction with narrativism. Common sense says that creating a game that plays well all three ways is extremely difficult, highly unlikely, or a fool’s errand, at best. Is there a demand for such a game, and if so, wouldn’t it already have been created?

The gaming groups that I play in include a fairly wide cross-section of gaming styles and rules preferences. The games I run tend to include all three activity pillars, with a preference for combat. The games I aspire to run have some kind of mechanic that links the three pillars. A way for players to find their niche in the game, their moment in the spotlight, in an activity that interests them. 4e D&D did a nice job of setting up each type of character with an opportunity to contribute meaningfully in combat, but neglected the other two pillars of RPGs. 4e has a generally gamist sensibility that works well for players who learned the ropes of RPGs on computers or consoles, as opposed to basement tabletops littered with Mountain Dew cans and Cheetos. 4e is generally fun to play, and relatively easy to game master. I’d like to play something better.

Resource Management
One key aspect of RPGs is the idea of resource management. How much damage can your character take? How much do you want to invest in weapon-specific advantages? How much should you spend on a variety of gear in anticipation of particular obstacles? All of these questions involve consideration of risk versus reward. Whether you’re talking about combat, exploration, or interaction, what are the risks your character might face? And how do you want to allocate your resources in regard to those risks? Do the game mechanics you’re using allow for these considerations?

Most RPGs use hit points, or something similar, to denote how much physical damage your character can take before dying. The risk, if you allow your character’s hit points to get too low, is that your character will die. It’s a pretty simple system, and widely recognized and understood. 4e D&D used powers — of an at-will, encounter, and daily frequency — to model combat resources. The conceit of powers and their limited frequencies is that they are unique actions that come about as a weird amalgam of opportunity and chance. Your character is able to summon the extraordinary combination of will and coordination necessary to pull off the action a limited number of times, and must then rest and recuperate before being able to perform it again. For most players I have played with, this has had an artificial feel to it. Why is it that my barbarian can only Flatulently Surge once per encounter? The resources are managed as much by the game mechanics as the player. And the management is limited to the context of combat.

In my home rules I replaced the combat powers with a pool of points. Players could “buy” combat actions using the points, and build attacks that were tactically appropriate to the situation, and were repeatable as long as the player had the points in hand. This option has worked well for both my seasoned players, and casual players alike.

So, my next step is to expand the usage of these points, or some similar pool, to the activities of exploration and interaction. In theory, this gives players who are more interested in these activities an opportunity to be in the spotlight. All while actively managing their resources. However, to make it work in a meaningful way as part of the game, there need to be elements of risk and reward as there are in combat.

I’ll talk more about these ideas in future posts, but I’d like to hear your thoughts, or any experiences you may have had with systems that promote exploration and interaction. If you’re a player that prefers these aspects of RPGs, what skills or powers do you think a character needs to define them?

Friday, February 17, 2012

It’s All About the GM

I had a great discussion on Wednesday night after D&D Encounters at my FLGS with Brooks and Krupal. We talked about D&DNext, and what we thought 4e D&D got right, and what it did wrong. Krupal runs some Pathfinder, Brooks plays in a hybrid home-brew based on Champions. Both of them have years of experience with a variety of game rules.

My takeaway from the discussion was that 4e was too player-centric, and didn’t have enough tools for the game master. I suspect that, in trying to make a game that they could sell to all the players at the table (instead of the traditional “GM has copies of all the books, and players just borrow them”), WotC lost touch with what differentiates tabletop RPGs from CRPGs. Specifically, the GM. A human GM can present more responses to player input than a computer or console. And that variety is what makes the game world feel real to the player.

Between the three Players Handbooks, the online Character Builder, and the character optimization threads on various online forums, there are so many options for players that there is no effective balance, and no cohesive game feel. The very limitations of OD&D (some of which I loathe) are the very things that make it appealing to many players and GMs. It’s simply easier to create a cohesive, immersive world using those rules than it is with 4e.

Why a Sandbox Has a Box
A “sandbox” game is viewed as one in which the players are free to explore in any direction. It’s a term generally reserved for a campaign style. But, beneath “sandbox” there are usually other tiers that define the campaign style. Maybe it’s a Middle Earth sandbox, or a Miskatonic Valley sandbox, or a Barsoomian sandbox. These “boxes” set the scene for the players. Rules can have the same function. When the campaign is limited to specific classes, equipment, powers, or other game-mechanical aspects, it helps the players become immersed in that setting. Dark Sun is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, as written, the 4e rules provide very little guidance for GMs on how to create settings using such game-mechanical limitations. Some attempt was made to address the issue with the Essentials line of products, which was marketed to new players, but while it provides limitations, it makes no connection as to why these limitations exist. (Beyond simplifying the mechanics of the game.) So, Essentials doesn’t help players become more immersed in a setting.

D&DNext is being described as a “modular” system. One in which GMs and players can combine game-mechanical elements to create the gaming experience that they prefer. My hope is that WotC will include templates and/or detailed guidelines for GMs on assembling these modules. To go back to my favorite LEGO analogy, kits that you buy usually come with a “theme”. The model that is intended to be constructed is pictured on the box, and step-by-step plans are included. But the “player” is free to construct whatever they would like with the pieces included. In some LEGO kits, plans for alternative models are included as well. That’s what I’d like to see happen with D&DNext.

How to Play a GM
One of the signature flaws of 4e, and other character-centric systems, is the use of skills. Too often in such games a player will say something like, “I roll a 12 plus my 17 bonus. 29 Nature. What do I find out?” The activity of exploring the game world has been reduced to the equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure page reference. Turn to page 29 to find out what happens.

One of the game mechanics being discussed for D&DNext is the way in which GMs can use a character’s ability scores to help determine possible success without needing a die roll. The GM knows that an iron-bound wooden door has a difficulty class of 15 to break down. The character has a strength ability score of 17. The player announces that, “My character tries to break down the door.” And the GM, after confirming that the ability exceeds the DC, simply describes the resolution of the door being broken down. There are two key elements to this mechanic. The one being touted is that it speeds gameplay by not requiring a die roll. More interesting to me though is the idea that the player is encouraged to describe an action, rather than to cite a number. It’s up to the GM to describe the resolution given the framing provided by the player.

It is simply easier for a GM to describe a resolution given a player’s action than it is if the GM has only a number to work with. In the nature example above, a player might be trying to determine attributes of a creature, properties of a plant, or detect a camouflaged pixie. A better RPG not only gives players tools to create their characters, it gives GMs tools to adjudicate actions.

In Wednesday’s discussion Brooks pointed out that the 4e skill list was too general. What is “Nature” skill? The 4e Dungeon Masters Guides (especially the DMG 2) give some good guidelines on how to work with these skills to answer knowledge questions, perception questions, and other types of queries that might fall under the general skill categories. The information is in the rules, yet too often players will resort to the “I got a 29 Nature. What do I find out?” method of play. Not enough attention is paid to how the GM should “play” skill check resolutions.

Confronted with a locked door that the players want to open, there are a limited number of options. So, how do you teach GMs to describe other obstacles in ways that frame options for players? Are there ways to describe an outdoor scene that encourage players to describe actions they might take? The key is getting players to describe actions first, and then let the GM decide what skills would be appropriate to check. Teaching GMs the art of framing scenes in this way should be part of any GM handbook, and part of any published module-adventures.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the GM, examples of tools or game mechanics that are useful to GMs, or what makes one RPG better than another. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hero System — Initial Impressions

Real life is what happens when you commit to blogging. Events arise, and your priorities are shifted. January and February have "shifted" rather radically, but my hope is that this week is the last of the major disruptions. On with the blog!

My friend and GM Dave has relaunched his Avergene campaign using the Hero System rules from Hero Games. We had been using D&D 4th Edition rules, and decided as a group to try something new. A new system means that players enter the game on a more even footing. As in the early days of playing RPGs, it's more likely that the GM is most familiar with the rules. One of the unique aspects of D&D 4e was how much of the game rules was delegated to the players. Character powers created exceptions to the base rules, much as the cards in Magic: The Gathering did. Managing character "builds" is best handled with the character builder software, especially at higher levels. In contrast to that, the Hero System rules are largely in the hands of the GM in the form of a toolbox for the type of game the GM wants to run. The rules contain everything plus the kitchen sink. It's up to the GM to define the tools useable in his or her game. As a side note, I suspect that this was one of the intents of the designers of 4e, but that it wasn't articulated clearly, thus leading to players building characters with every possible combination of options available. A recipe for confusion and disaster, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, it seems that Hero System is really no better in this regard. While the GM is free to define guidelines, the variety of options and the potential implications of their selection are open to abuse and/or misuse. I've used the LEGO analogy before. In Hero System the GM limits character options via a point total (analogous to saying, "you have 200 LEGO pegs to work with, and you may choose from 2x4, 2x6, and 2x10-peg bricks.") In general, what "bricks" you work with, and their characteristics are left entirely up to the player. Dave's approach to this is logical: Tell him what capabilities you want your character to have, and he points you to the appropriate game mechanic. The flavor of the game is something he has established, so we're choosing campaign-appropriate options. However, without hands-on experience with the game mechanics in play, it is very difficult to prioritize the components of the character. Literally everything is purchased, from abilities like Strength and Dexterity, to skills like Lockpicking, and personality complications like being unreasonably annoyed by tall people. There are some basic guidelines for creating ability-centric versus skill-centric characters, but players are mostly on their own. Dave worked closely with each of us to create characters that reflected what we wanted to do in-game, and provided lots of tools and guidance in the form of Google Doc character sheets and an Obsidian Portal wiki for the campaign with rules summaries and interpretations (house rules). Thus, a very GM-centric approach to the game, in contrast to the 4e player-centric approach.

When we were kids, playing army or superheroes in the backyard, much of our time was spent arguing about what our "characters" could and couldn't do. "My guy shoots you with his laser!" "I make a mirror force-field and reflect it back at you!" That's still the core of RPG character creation, except that with an established game structure, characters aren't usually able to fabricate powers and defenses on the fly. You will have strengths as well as weaknesses. In 4e D&D, the compromises are pretty apparent, and in some cases built in to the class. In Hero System, it is much less obvious. Action resolution is based on rolling three six-sided dice (3d6). There is a complex calculus of offensive and defensive values that affect combat rolls. In 4e I know what the basic modifiers are, but in Hero System — as with character building — there is a bewildering array of options. As a new player, I depend on having a GM versed in the mechanics. The pattern of the Hero System mechanics is more difficult to recognize, and so it will take longer to learn to play the game. My coping strategy at this point is to play as a very casual player, that is to query the GM about how to do things during the run of play, and start with a very basic "menu" of actions. The stuff I understand my character can do. I'm self-limiting my choices so that I don't have to involve the GM in each and every action choice, thus slowing the game for the rest of the table. All of this is part of learning a new system, and I've tried to take it in stride. But, in the back of my mind, there's a voice shrieking, "Does this have to be so complex?"

Choosing a rule set for a campaign or play group is a major challenge. Groups of players have different tastes in play style, sometimes within the group itself. I appreciate the effort that Dave has made to ease us into Hero System. He's made it a lot easier for the players, but it's clear that it has taken him a lot of effort as GM to do so. It's a labor of love in this case. Dave has a very colorful campaign world in Avergene, and he likes the fact that Hero System is generic enough to realize it. He doesn't have to alter Avergene to fit rules flavor, as he did when we were using D&D 4e rules.

I plan to continue reporting on my Hero System experiences. It's clear that for a group of players interested in the game mechanics of character construction, combat resolution, and for GMs who are looking for rules "crunch" to form a foundation for their campaign "fluff", that Hero System has considerable virtue.

Considering the Experience
With all the activity in the RPG community and industry, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. I do think that for many of us, playing RPGs is an offshoot of the backyard adventures that we used to pursue. Everyone comes to the table with a little bit different priority. Some to tell stories, others to showcase their capabilities, others for the dynamics of the communication itself (argument and debate.) We play RPGs to be recognized in some way. The mechanics of a good RPG should support that. WotC game designers have talked about wanting to create a game that "shared the spotlight" of recognition around the table. I think that's a noble goal both for game rules and for gaming groups. How do your favorite game rules allow players to share the spotlight, and what about the groups you play with?  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Learned Skills or Natural Abilities?

Reading some of the summaries of initial playtesting and discussion of the next iteration of D&D, I’ve come across some outlines of how skill test resolution may be handled. It appears that some tests will be compared directly to abilities.

A couple of days ago I talked a little bit about how we want the core mechanic of the game to be the interaction between the DM and the player. And one of the great tools for that is the ability score. So what we want is to empower DMs and players so that if you want to attempt to do something "I want to open the door" then the DM doesn't have to even have you roll, he can just look, see you have a 17 strength and says "Yeah, you burst through that door". We want to get past some of the mundane rolls and not tie up a lot of table time with that and move on to the more interesting stuff and the table narrative. 
– Monte Cook, WotC from seminar transcripts at ENWorld

I’m intrigued by this idea. My most recent thinking about test resolution had me considering dropping ability scores altogether, as was done in the CRPG, Skyrim. But this concept, outlined by Mr. Cook, seems to be a cool way to make a system with set difficulty classes work.

SpydersWebbing uses these set DCs in his 4e mod:

Easy: 8
Medium: 12
Moderate: 19
Hard: 23
Master: 30
Heroic: 34
Epic: 41

Anything over Moderate on such a scale would require a skill check with a roll. But many tasks could automatically be accomplished by the strongest, smartest, most-agile, or most-perceptive member of the party.

In a system without automatic leveling of skills — where skill increases were selected by the player as experience rewards for leveling, for example — set DCs make sense, and work well with the ability score-based resolution suggested by Mr. Cook. If a locked, wooden door has a break down DC of 12, a player with a strength of 12 or greater would pretty much always be able to break it down (barring unforeseen circumstances as determined by the DM.)

The balance of an RPG seems to rest on the transition point between narrative-based resolution and game-mechanical resolution. Too much narrative and the game may feel wishy-washy to some players. They may have a sense that it is arbitrary. Too much emphasis on the mechanical — rolls for nearly everything — and the game becomes a console-based CRPG. Just spam the X button until the monster is dead.

So, what happens when a character with an ability score of 18 is confronted with a task with a DC of 19? We transition abruptly from automatic success to a roll-based probability of success. But, what does that mean in narrative terms? I believe this is where the element of risk should come into play. Consequences should be discernable. Perhaps not easily so, but nonetheless, it should be the case. For example, a lock with a DC of 18 is a mechanism that an heroically-agile rogue could pick. But a lock of DC 19 would most likely include a consequence for failure. Perhaps it is a trap, or maybe the noise and/or time required to open the mechanism will attract a wandering monster? Either way, the player should understand that when they are asked to roll the dice, consequences await.

Having an interim element, like the ability-score mechanic that Mr. Cook outlined, seems to be an elegant solution. Success can be determined based on game-mechanical elements, but in a narrative manner. The burly warrior bursts open the door. The agile rogue deftly disarms the trap. The canny wizard deciphers the script and decodes the hidden location of a vast treasure. Each specialist is given an opportunity in the narrative spotlight. An opportunity that can be determined by player choices, and GM recognition of those choices. But, in the spirit of the game, greater challenges may offer greater risks and rewards.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you play with a system that handles difficulty classes in a different way? Do you prefer to roll dice to resolve the question of success or failure, or does a narrative hand-wave satisfy you in most cases?