Sunday, 20 August 2017

Resolution: Awesome or Tangible

A few years ago I was nattering on about how Dungeon World's decision to have no quantitative difficulty had implications to its natural play style. The discussion was interesting, and Jeremy Strandberg was nudging me toward an understanding that's taken a while to fully crystallize.

I'm going to caricature two different sources of 'drama' in two different play styles. I like them both, but as building blocks of play, they seem to produce very different play experiences. Whenever I've had a lot of one of them, I yearn for a bit of the other.

Awesome Action

The party is wandering through a large, many-chambered cavern. They enter a large chamber split by a chasm - it's wide, but not so wide that jumping across seems impossible.

"I leap across!"

In an instant action game, this is a perfectly good play decision. The GM has made an offer (in the improv sense), and there's a wonderful back and forth to be had when the players and GM are riffing on each other's contributions.

Here's a resolution procedure from Blades in the Dark:

Here's a similar one from Dungeon World:

The key thing I want to focus on is the way the consequences of the action (especially the bad ones) are decided after the player rolls.

By and large, it's not going to be too terrible for the character. It can't be so easy that the GM feels the player is getting away with something, but it shouldn't generally be lethal. The point of play is for awesome stuff to happen (and pretty soon), so the outcome should be a setup for something interesting. Let's put you in a tight spot to see what heroic move you make next! e.g. How are you going to do this without your sword?

In general, death is off the table because the character is the player's vehicle for contributing to (and participating in) the awesomeness. Why take that away?

Unconsciousness is okay - it's bad, but from a game play perspective it's a bit like a time out. Better to be hanging upside-down from the strap of your backpack, with coins falling out of your pockets!

Tangible Obstacles

By contrast, have a look at the climbing rules from Moldvay edition of Basic D&D:

Here, the consequences are set ahead of time (not up to the GM), and they're not inherently interesting. There's no "dangling from the cliff edge while the goblin advances on you", you just fall and take terrible harm. For low-level characters, it's almost certainly lethal. (Even a level 4 thief only has ~10 hit points, not enough to survive an average 30' fall.)

Climbing up is probably not worth it - after all, the death would be meaningless, and that's rarely satisfying.  So rather than scamper up like a heroic lemming, the players reluctantly turn back.

The natural chimney has now just become a tangible obstacle.

This is frustrating. The players want to explore, but they can't. There's probably decent adventure up there, but it's inaccessible. Who would design a game or adventure this way on purpose?

In a sense, I think this frustration is the root of tangibility. A big part of a world feeling real is that it sometimes clings to its own self-consistent logic, refusing to conveniently bend to the needs of a good story, apt poignancy or instant drama. It just sits there, heavy and stubborn, forcing you to adapt to it.

Later, however, the situation has changed.  Maybe the PCs are fleeing the horror they awoke in room 19.  Maybe the mapper has a solid hunch that chimney gets them to a spot where they might be able to circle around to the jewelled ledge they noticed in the next chamber.

Either way, the chimney is now back in play - the stakes are higher, and when the players accept the risk of death it's no longer meaningless but a poignant underscoring of the seriousness, a testament to their commitment to their insane plan.  The latent drama of the Chimney of Meaningless Death now emerges.

"Oh shit, we're really gonna do this."

How This Relates to Mechanics

As I said at the start, I started off thinking about this in terms of DW's lack of quantitative difficulty, but I've changed my thinking on this. All you need is tangibility, which can come from a few places:

1. The players know the consequences without asking. The GM said it's a 100' climb, so the thief character immediately knows she has a 13% chance of falling from 50' up.

I experienced this feeling a lot while playing Torchbearer, because the players had a detailed understanding of how they were doing. For instance:

2. Consequences are established during play. For example:

PC: How high up is the chimney?
GM: It's at least 100' high, and very steep. Falling is going to kill you.

..or alternatively:

PC: I climb the chimney.
GM: If you call, you're going to die. Are you sure? [as per DW's say the consequences and ask]

The lack of difficulty modifiers doesn't make this impossible, but mechanics that encourage deferring the consequences until after the dice have rolled discourage it.

3. Players make mechanical inferences

Somewhere nearby, maybe, are mechanical inferences that come from quantified difficulty modifiers. Like when a Burning Wheel GM tells you it's an Ob 4 climb. They haven't told you what happens if you fall (or even if falling is a consequence), but you know from your skill rating that you're likely to miss by one, and missing by two or more on a vertical climb has got to be about as bad a consequence as possible, which has got to be a lethal fall, doesn't it?

(For those paying attention, this is me acknowledging that quantitative difficulty modifiers don't necessarily produce crisp tangibility on their own.)

In Summary

I've got more to say about this, in particular about how this plays out differently at different scales (moment to moment, the session, the campaign), but to summarize the effects of these resolution styles:

Instant action:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates a vivid environment
2. The players respond by embracing danger
3. Poignancy emerges from the moment, an awesome adventure is a co-creation
4. The design challenge is for resolution to help the GM introduce exciting outcomes in response to what the players do

Tangible Obstacles:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it

Friday, 11 August 2017

What the hell, Gary?

I'm pecking away at my heartbreaker and wondering how long it is compared to, say, Moldvay D&D. Thus begins an hour of cutting and pasting PDF text into a text editor to get some rough and ready comparative sizes for RPG word counts.

Methodologically this is really quick and dirty; I'm just counting tokens - page numbers, separators, everything, but the relative sizes are the interesting thing.

Moldvay D&D is a little beefier than I was expecting. I think of it as a very concise game, but that tiny font is deceiving. I was thinking of it more like Monsterhearts in size, but it's halfway to being as big as Apocalypse World.

Still, it's got nothing on the heavyweights. I had no idea Stars Without Number was as massive as the brick games, Blades in the Dark, ACKS and Burning Empires. Dungeon Crawl Classics takes the cake for largest modern game I measured. It's 56,000 words longer than Burning Empires! Humongous.

But none of these even come close to the AD&D trilogy. The DMG alone is as big as DCC, and as a set it's bigger than DCC and ACKS stacked together. It's huge.


Several folks were kind enough to chip in sizes from their own collections. DCC has been eclipsed by a bunch of whoppers - Vampire, Werewolf, Eclipse Phase, Exalted, and Pathfinder.

The AD&D trilogy is still bigger, but my guess is whatever Pathfinder has for a bestiary (to make a fair comparison) would easily push it over the edge.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Thieves, Goats, and Rubes

An adventuring party meets someone on the road. Looking at one another slyly, they ad lib a scheme to pull a fast one. Of course it's going to work--after all, the NPC is just a zero-level rube, right?

2d6 NPC Shrewdness
6-8Old Goat

The Naif

The naif is trusting to a fault. They accept what they're told, and assume the good intentions of the speaker. They may be dimly aware of the idea of exploitation (perhaps through fables), but the idea that there might be a swindler talking to them now is so alien that doesn't occur to them.

Although they're easy to lie to, the naif is unused to making the bold moves that will make them truly vulnerable to swindles. There's usually somebody there to handle that for them.

In a dangerous world, the naif is rare. Only the most sheltered circumstances can produce them - talking larva, privileged children, the occasional junior monk.

The Opportunist

The opportunist has heard all about swindles, but has yet to be truly burned by one. They're easy to take in because they're dumb enough to think that they're the one in command of the situation.

Opportunists are numerous, but short-lived. It doesn't take long before they wise up and turn into goats, thieves or swindlers. Occasionally, someone experienced stumbles into an unfamiliar context and falsely presumes their experience and shrewdness carries over.

The Old Goat

The old goat has been burned before - probably more than once. They're keenly aware of how hard it was to build up what they've got, and how easy it is to lose it all. This is on their mind at all times.

The goat is hard to take in because they're alert to unusual situations. They assume great  opportunities are too good to be true, and they're keenly aware of who created the situation before them. If someone else brought it to them, they suspect a swindle. Slow down, check credentials, say no, create distance.

The Swindler

The swindler has a plan, and you're part of it. Your chance meeting probably wasn't random at all, but even if it was, the swindler was waiting for somebody like you.

The swindler seems vulnerable. In fact, they are. There's no way they could take you on directly (at least, not profitably). But the weakness they're showing isn't the real one, it's a ploy meant to snare opportunists. Unlike the opportunist, they know who the mark is: you.

The Thief

The thief is a swindler with a simple plan. They're waiting as long as necessary to take your stuff, and not a minute longer. Thieves driven by desperate need or impulse make a hasty approach and an even hastier retreat. Doing damage isn't their goal, but they'll do whatever they have to.

In some cases, thieves are protected enough that they don't even need to retreat - they have numbers, armor or social standing to protect them, sometimes all three. Your Excellency makes a most excellent thief.