Star Wars offers a picture of what could be a typical, if stunningly functional (in the psychology sense of the term, as in “not DYSfunctional”) adventure party. You have the various members with their respective sets of expertise, all operating in tandem with each other…heck, you even have a good example of how a “paladin-type” character (Obi-Wan, Luke) can get along with mercenary/thief types (Han, Lando)…mainly by the former not being too self-righteous and the latter having (deep down) hearts of gold.
But Star Wars IS a story, not an RPG. If the original movie was an RPG adventure, it would pretty much be one, long railroad all the way to the climactic Death Star battle. Luke says, “I’m not ready to leave the farm.” Bam! GM kills off all his relatives. Han says, “Let’s try to run the hell away from this giant space station.” Bam! Sorry, you’re being pulled in by a tractor beam. Etc., etc. All to set up the characters chance to be “heroes” in the GM’s story.
For a movie (or novel or TV show or comic book or whatever), that is totally appropriate to the story-telling medium. In an RPG it’s pretty damn annoying.
Personally, I was never a great GM at developing “plots” or “storylines.” I was great at running adventure modules, good at riffing off players actions, and a fair hand at character development. But elaborate plots and railroads? Not really. I did much better with “here’s the situation, now let’s watch how it un-folds IN PLAY.”
A lot of the early Vampire the Masquerade adventures (most of which I ran at least once) walked a thin line between “scenario” and “railroad,” often stomping all over the line. Any adventure that has a number of specific “set pieces” runs the risk of simply being a GM’s opportunity to act as director/author with the players doing nothing more than ad-libbing lines in a plot that’s a foregone conclusion. Some gamer groups may get off on this (though why not just form a real theater troupe?) but I consider role-playing to be a COLLABORATIVE effort.
Part of this may be ascribed to my own laziness (I don’t want to have to do all the work), and part of it to “the way I was raised” (my adventure-crafting sensibilities being formed by B/X D&D and the various Old School adventure modules of early TSR). Whatever, that’s just how I roll: fast and loose “plot-wise.”
Which, incidentally, might explain why it’s been such a challenge for me to run some of these new commercial RPGs of the last 15 years or so. Some practically beg for the GM to have an elaborate plot structure for characters to traverse. Without it, players are forced to rely on their own damn selves for generating motivation/impetus to explore the game setting…and players used to site based scenarios or railroady plots have difficulty doing just that.
But that’s all tangential…the reason I bring all this up is a long-winded intro to why I do NOT like the idea of awarding XP based on mission/goal. When I posed the question before about how to award XP for a non-treasure-based / not-just-combat-based adventure game, many MANY of the commentators suggested this type of reward. And, yeah, I was considering it myself for a bit.
But upon further re-consideration I don’t like it. I’m sorry. And NOT just because it’s “arbitrary” or left to GM fiat…because of course, you can write a game reward system to be a set amount if you like…for example “all missions provide 100xp times the average level of the party members” or “every mission provides 500xp per game session it takes to complete the mission” or “all missions provide a 1000xp bonus for accomplishment, with a 500xp bonus if the characters faced mortal combat and an additional 500xp bonus if any of their party members are killed.”
See how easy that is?
Here’s the REAL problem for me: once you set a mission objective or “adventure goal” you start limiting how players interact with the game environment. You start to create a “right way” to play. And that is the antithesis of collaborative role-playing.
For video games, XP bonuses for goals and “quest completion” are great. But video game RPGs are fairly linear by both design and necessity…the good ones are engaging because they have an excellent story/plot and a decent user interface, but they are ALL limited by the programming given to them by their creators. A video game player gets little say in how the plot develops or resolves (one of the reasons Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was so cool is that one received SOME choice in how the ending turned out) simply because the space available in a machine is finite.
The human imagination is not nearly so limited…sure there are the boundaries of language, knowledge, and experience, but sheer creativity provides endless possibility, especially if one refuses to accept those limitations. FOR EXAMPLE:
Player: I’m going to use my “speak with animals” spell to talk to the cave bear instead of fighting it.
GM #1 (a zoologist specialized in bear habits): even though you can communicate with the bear you trespassed into its territory during mating season AND he’s hungry AND bears don’t think like humans anyway…he’s still going to attempt to maul you but you can understand his roars of “food, enemy, food, enemy..”
GM #2 (just going with the random whimsy and magic): make a Reaction roll. Ok, you and the bear sit down and have a long conversation about what’s been going on in the forest lately…you offer him some rations, and he gets you some honey from a nearby tree…
Now, yes, the latter GM in the example is not being extremely realistic, but Dr. Doolittle isn’t anything I’d call “real” anyway.
[Ahhh…"realism" (whatever the hell that means). The bane of RPGs…it’s that “Holy Grail” that’s led to more heated discussions and RPG skill systems than pretty much anything else]
Shit. If folks really wanted “real” would Gamma World have such a sturdy little following? But again, I’m digressing.
Back to the point: when you start setting rewards you start closing down the open-endedness of the RPG possibility. FOR EXAMPLE: Nothing in the classic adventure module G1-3 precludes enterprising characters from making a deal with the giants themselves (provided they have something to offer) allying with them and starting a war campaign against the surface world rulers that originally hired them. Nothing stops the player characters from charming Obmi and making him into a henchman and boon companion. Nothing prevents a sleaze-minded PC from polymorphing into a giant and having a torrid affair with King Snurre’s queenly wife, perhaps enticing her into helping commit regicide.
Yeah, that’s some outside-of-the-box thinking that doesn’t prevent the characters from gaining XP and advancing in level and power (as well they should!) since they still end up with plenty of XP-garnering loot.
But when you start making goals…even BROAD goals (not necessarily “kill Snurre” though in a video game that would probably net you some sort of bonus) like “stop the giants’ raids”…it starts to shut down what the PCs can do and still get rewarded. Unless one wants to simply do XP-awards based on “providing enjoyment to the gaming group,” another arbitrary category frequently found in RPG reward systems that I cannot stand…who’s to say what is going to prove enjoyable and to whom?
So, bottom line…I’m against doing XP for mission goals. In an adventure RPG (and here I mean table-top, not video console) I want the players to be able to exercise a full latitude of action, not constrained by the reward system. Because even though there ARE contrarians like myself that will play against the grain (to our own detriment, dammit!), reward systems DO influence behavior and in-game action. Everyone likes rewards!