Monday, September 23, 2013

Bean Counting

Yesterday, I missed most of the football games on television, including the entirety of the Seahawks game. I did hear the first touchdown on my car radio before losing reception in Lynnwood, but between 1:30 and 5:30 I was effectively out of action, because my son and I were at Chuck E. Cheese, celebrating the birthday of a two year old amigo.

Now, I don’t know if Chuck E. Cheese exists as a franchise outside of Washington. Hell, it barely exists here…the one in Lynnwood is one of only a handful remaining in the state. I should note the place was high on my list of All-Time Favorite Places as a child, so there’s a certain nostalgia assigned to it, but I haven’t been to one in years…not since a buddy decided to have his 20th or 22nd year birthday bash at one (I’m not the only person subject to nostalgia) and everyone, including my buddy, was sorely disappointed by the experience.

For one thing, the concept seems to have changed immensely over the last couple-three decades. When we were kids, I recall the place being bigger, and having a much larger assortment of video games (what we used to call arcade games)…yes, it had the animatronic rat and cheap pizza and play areas for small children, but pre-teens had much more of the types of games one might find (these days) at the larger arcades, like GameWorks. “Cutting edge” arcade games used to be the order of the day…I remember when Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace were these incredibly awesome, super-cool/high-tech vids and the only place you could find them to play them were at Chuck E. Cheese. But anything resembling cutting edge electronic entertainment seems to have been dropped by the franchise sometime circa 1989 and the place is now geared more to small children (like my son). Perhaps there’s just no way to keep up with the technology and quality of console games available to your average teenager at a reasonable price.
This game took a lot of tokens, back in the day...

So instead, most of the games are of the “carnival” variety (throwing balls into hoops or rings or bopping stuff or shooting water from a gun), and ALL of the games offers tickets at the end of a round of play…tickets that can be redeemed for fairly cheap carnival prizes. How cheap? Well, most games seemed to offer three to six tickets based on the quality of one’s play (several “maxed out” at five) and it took 100 tickets to get a keychain, and 400 to get a non-articulated, 3” Spider-Man action figure (which my son wanted). There were some really cheap-ass board games on the wall that required 1500+ tickets to redeem. I think part of the scam is parents have the ability to make up the difference in the price with cold, hard cash if a child hasn’t earned enough tickets through play (keeping in mind that each play costs money…or “tokens”…as well).

Still, D hit the jackpot a couple times on one or two games and ended the day with almost 200 tickets (186, actually) which we were able to redeem for a small (6” long) nerf rocket launcher, a curly straw, and two tiny rubber frogs. My boy, being two and a half, had nearly as much fun with these “prizes” last night as he’d had running around and playing games at Chuck’s. Okay, maybe “nearly as much” is a stretch, but certainly he had much more than I would have enjoyed had they been my reward for five hours of play.

But, of course, I’m not two years old.

One can draw an analogy (well, I can draw an analogy) between this type of play and the play of our favorite table-top role-playing game. I mean, can’t you? You spend several hours, hopefully enjoying play (as my son and I did), and then you get a paltry award of “tickets” (experience points) that get exchanged for…well, for very little on average. In fact, most game sessions probably sees players receiving NO reward for the actions in a particular session, and only after several sessions does one receive a reward (“leveling up”) and even then the reward isn’t all that great. Depending on the edition, you might receive a handful of hit points, you might (might!) receive a slight uptick in attack chance or saving throws, you might learn a new spell…and that’s about it. 3rd Edition/D20 at least packed more into the reward by giving you skill points to spend (about as useful as rubber frogs, in my opinion), some bonus feats (staggered by level depending on class), and some attribute increases. Even so, there are still some “level ups” where “not much happens” (ain’t much difference going from 4th level fighter to 5th level fighter, for example).

I wrote a bit before about the “leveling-opens-content” thang, and how I’m tired of it…been tired of it for a while, but am now more tired of it than ever before. You know, my big “claim to fame” was my writing of the B/X Companion for high level B/X play…but how many B/X campaigns (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) actually get to a level where such a book would be useful. In the three or four years I was playing B/X prior to my “play-testing phase” (in which all the games I’ve been running seem to be testing one thing or another), none of the player characters ever reached Name level, let along the 15th plus range postulated in the B/X Companion. Sure, you could have your players create high-level characters from the get-go, but this is still only a “patch” to the issue of closed content…besides which it trades off (i.e. loses) the actual play aspect of the game (the fighting and finding of all those low- and mid-range monsters and treasures), which is hardly desirable.

Yes, “paying your dues” is an essential part of the D&D game, but not everyone wants to play the young farm boy that grows up to be a glamorous Jedi Knight. Some people simply want to have a series of adventures as Han Solo. And some people want to be Old Man Ben Kenobi from the start without going through all that prequel jazz.

[sorry for the Star Wars references…it’s been on my brain lately]

I’ve been revisiting The Hobbit quite a bit lately, both the novel and the Rankin-Bass film. The reason being that I have a young child to whom I read at night, and who really digs the music (because originally The Hobbit was a children’s fairytale, unlike the ridiculous action film currently being sold to the public as Tolkien). I’ve discussed before my whole problem with assigning a “class” (in D&D terms) to the dwarves or hobbit in the story, but after analyzing the thing (with regard to my recent game concept musings) I see less and less where there is any “advancement” that is taking place in the characters. Despite defeating lots of monsters (trolls, goblins, spiders, etc.) and finding lots of treasure and magic items (from the troll hoard, to Gollum’s ring, to the dragon’s lair) these characters aren’t developing in the traditional D&D sense of the term. They are maturing as individuals, they are seen as more heroic based on their actions, but their inborn effectiveness remains the same at the end of the adventure as at the beginning. Where their effectiveness does improve, it is based on the finding of magical equipment (Orcrist, Sting, Sauron’s One Ring) and the use of that equipment.

[as a side-note, has anyone ever noticed that while the dwarven adventurers are defeated at every turn, the penalty for that feat is ALWAYS capture? At the hands of the trolls, the goblins, the spiders, the wood elves, the dragon…the only consequence they ever face is being bagged, chained, webbed, imprisoned, or entombed in the mountain. The only time any of the character’s dies is at the end of the book/film…and then, that is death in VICTORY (over the goblins in the Battle of Five Armies), not death in defeat. Just thought that was interesting, and certainly something I’m considering in the design process as well]

Now, the game I’m currently working/writing still has “bean counting” because…well, because it appeals to my snarky sense of humor as well as my competitive attitude. However, right now the “beans” turn into a meta-game mechanic, increasing character effectiveness in game (similar to “karma” in the old Marvel Superheroes RPG…thanks, Mr. Grubb!)…there’s no rules for using them to “advance” (i.e. “permanently make more effective”) the baseline character a player is playing. If you start as Bilbo Baggins, you remain Bilbo (though perhaps one who has lost his pipe and pocket handkerchief). If you start as Gandalf you remain Gandalf (though you might acquire a magic sword along the way).

Is that “fair?” Boromir is one tough hombre, but Aragorn is better (and has other skills to boot). Moonglum might be a better swordsman, but will never have the sorcery abilities of Elric (and both will always be better swordsmen than Count Smirogan Baldhead). Does this make them less heroic in the stories in which they appear?

Again, you have to ask what is the point of fantasy role-playing…is it to become more powerful? Why? To open up content? Why not simply open content from the beginning? Because the characters will all die if they’re forced to face the dragon? Would a character in a story die for facing a dragon? Neither Bilbo nor Bard got cooked by Smaug…but Beowulf wasn’t quite as lucky.

Characters die in fairytales…both modern ones (like Tolkien) and ancient sagas (like Beowulf and Arthur).  Sometimes characters die long before the end of the story (i.e. they don’t wait for a “dramatically appropriate climax” in the action)…like Hector or Ajax. That’s fine…the idea of a serial adventure game (like D&D) is that the campaign or saga goes on…the PCs are protagonists and the main characters, but if they go down the story continues and others must “take up the torch.” In other words, I’m not talking about “taking death off the table,” or even meaningless death. Death has meaning in a story…or should have meaning…regardless of the point at which it occurs in the tale.

So why does a character need to have these regular level increases? Why is it important to give the PC an extra 3-5 hit points every five or ten or 20 game sessions? That’s a cheap-ass prize.

There is something to be said for experience…the paragraph Kevin Siembieda includes in every Palladium rulebook holds true to a certain degree. But show me an experienced adventurer, and I’ll show you a guy with a bad back, a trick knee, and a lot of gaps in his teeth. Scars and a hook for a hand…not to mention night sweats and fantasy PTSD from facing giant slavering monsters should be the order of the day for an “experienced” adventurer. Frodo’s Morgul wound never fully heals and bothers him for years after his adventure…why would a veteran of a dozen dungeons remain in happy health, only getting better with time? Because of clerical magic? Doesn’t every raise dead spell sap a point of Constitution?

The issue raised by Will (mentioned in my prior post) was one of what motivates players better than regular continued improvement? What indeed? That’s the real question: what GOALS can you provide players that they can shoot for…what WIN conditions can you provide that will encourage players to come back and keep playing? Because serial play…accompanied by development, identification, and fantasy escapism…is desirable. We don’t want just a one-off game.

This isn’t Dungeon! where a player wins once after collecting 10,000 gold and returning to Start.

More on this later folks.


  1. I can tell you that Chuck E. Cheese is still going strong in Colorado and Texas. But, as a kid?

    Man, Chuck E. Cheese didn't even exist when I was a kid! ROFL

    My favorite pizza places are long gone.

    1. Cheesy Chuck's still going strong in southern California, and like Mystic Scholar, I was an adult before it appeared, so my only nostalgia is associated with my kids.

  2. You use the Hobbit as your example, but the Lord of the Rings is an interesting counter-point. It has always seemed to me that the hobbits are /better/ (at least, in the ways that DnD style leveling makes you better) by the time Scouring of the Shire comes along. That that is, in fact, the point of that chapter, to show how much they've grown, not just internally, but that they're not scared of Farmer Maggot's dogs anymore.

    1. @Chris B:

      There is certainly a change that takes place in the psyche of the Hobbits...I don't know if "leveling up" is the best model of it. For me, they have more grit or sand (or what I would call "beans") then they did at the beginning. But are they better sharpshooters? Did they practice their archery on the road.

      The other thing is that I want to get away from the Epic Quest type of genre (at least, that's my feeling at the moment) and so the LotR is not really a good model of what I want to do.

      But I DO see your point. I really, really do.

  3. It sounds a bit like the traveller route where your character basically doesn't change from character generation but as you get more stuff (ships, alien weapons, patrons) your horizons and options broaden.

  4. As lige rightly notes, this is something that was part of the Traveller experience, but keep that experience in mind: one of the biggest issues that each subsequent edition of that game had to deal with was the people playing demanded character improvement rules. I will say that I think that you are onto something here. Perhaps a combination of initial abilities and a self-confidence measure like your "beans" would be an excellent way to cover it. There should still be some means of gaining new abilities, skills, whatever (the farmer's son who knows how to use a stout cudgel might get the chance to undergo instruction in the finer points of the Noble Art of Defence, for instance), but this should take quite an amount of time. In the original Traveller rules, it would take four full years of training to gain a single level of a skill.

  5. Exciting stuff! I have been thinking along similar lines recently, so am very interested to follow your thoughts on this!

  6. There are very clear examples in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings of characters growing in skill, courage and renown (as well as wealth and fortune). There are examples of characters diminishing as well. I'm not certain you should hold the literary work of Tolkien against a set of rules closely evolved from table top wargaming and expect them to fall in line. Tolkien is closer to real life experience than D&D when it comes to the development of each character. Hence, you can use the works of Tolkien to improve your D&D sessions. They certainly inspired the creators of D&D. Though from what I've read, you seem to know that. However, I do offer you this; consider trauma to be a catalyst for change. Or, try and think of the positive output from trauma, as opposed to focusing on the stress. Post Traumatic Growth if you will.

  7. There's Chuck E. Cheese here in Vegas as well. Not having kids of my own means I've only ever been there a couple of times.

    I've always been skeptical of the 'necessity' of character advancement in RPGs. I happily dropped out of D&D for Runequest and Traveller, both of which still had it but significantly toned down.
    I'd generally be in favor of a 'use it or lose it' approach to most skills... and no real change to abilities or HP unless a lot of time is spent at the gym.
    Instead I'd happily measure my PC's success in terms of resources... money and equipment and contacts and hirelings and setting knowledge.

  8. considering you plan to target kids and newcomers with your new game, i can only warn again.

    kids love leveling up (or getting new powers in general)!

    that's all i'm saying. ;)

  9. Just so you know - there is a Chuck E. Cheese in Canton, OH where I am from.

  10. Oh, yes, my friend...the scourge that is Chuck E. Cheese lurks also in Southern New one is safe from its germ-encrusted clutches, in which dwell games that usually malfunction or are downright busted. And at the end of a few hours of horrible pseudo-food and frustrating attempts to earn a few meager tickets, your kids take an hour to pick out the cheapest plastic crap doled out by a clerk behind a glass counter that couldn't care less whether or not your kid wants the little pink brontosaurus or the green triceratops...

  11. P.S. I would love those "beans" to be "magic beans" of a sort, in that, as you gain them you can trade them in for new abilities for your character. You can stash them away for future use, to buy a single more potent ability, or you can use them after every adventure to gain multiple smaller abilities. And perhaps someone can gain more "beans" by taking on those hallmarks of an experienced adventurer a la Kevin Siembieda, i.e. the missing teeth, bad back, etc.

  12. @ Lige, Faol, etc.;

    Yes, there are some Traveller like aspects that had not been a conscious choice but that I noticed in retrospect. Still, chargen (and aspects of game play) are pretty different.

    @ Shlomo:

    They also like taking on Demogorgon with vorpal weapons, and don't want to play ten months (or ten years!) for the chance.
    ; )

    @ Anthony:

    "Magic beans" was part of my concept, yes (fairy tale, remember?). And there are ways to get additional beans through trauma/maiming (maybe not broken teeth)...that was already built in.
    : )

    1. this isn't what i have experienced. give them a couple of orcs and they are just as happy to cut them up with normal swords. ;)

      for kids the slow leveling up-"carrot" actually seems to work quite well, cause they don't care that much about other forms of character development (yet). leveling up and loot, the core of d&d, seems the game already was designed for kids. :P

      if you can come up with better carro... ähh.. goals i applaud that.

    2. @ Shlomo:

      See, I'd say that this is linked to the expectations that have been fostered in the kids. My experience has been different. It may also be dependent on age.

      But I'm working on it, man.
      : )

    3. OK, but my central point was that players demand character improvement schemes in the game. Still, the method in Marvel Superheroes, where Karma could be spent to affect rolls in the game but also be spent to improve abilities, shows that you may be on a good track here.

  13. JB,

    I would expect you to propose a gaming structure where no one gets smarter, no one improves, no one changes or modifies or learns, where what you are is good enough, where even the very idea of becoming better is anathema.

    "Be satisfied with what you have, oh groundling, for surely there is more happiness in a whistle than in all the hard-wrought sculpture in the king's palace."

    Thank you, no. A pox on all philosophies that decry improvement.

  14. @ Alexis:

    I believe you would agree that improvement of quality of play in PLAYERS (over time with actual play experience) is more desirable than "improvement" of character effectiveness.

    I'm not against improvement...but maybe linking it to the reward mechanic ain't the way to go. Or rather, it's ONE way to go (and D&D does it admirably) but I'm interested in exploring a slightly different option.

  15. Oh my. JB, you have the patience of a saint, my friend, to put up with a certain Canadian curmudgeon like you do. Uh, let's get real here, shall we, O long-haired sage from north of the border, eh? JB, I daresay, was not decrying any sort of improvement at all. I believe I detected hints of a different type of improvement system he has in the works. Heaven forfend! The audacity!

    And you're crafting a game while supporting a wife and kid. Good on ya for pursuing the dream. You're not, oh I dunno, some eccentric who affects a bad attitude and passes judgment from some chilly ivory tower, claiming ultimate erudition.

    OK, I'll shut up now. Sorry to cause a fuss. I should know better by now. I just don't like it when someone detached from reality, voluntarily or not, comes down on someone who's making time for the hobby in between, well, the rest of life. Grinds my gears!

  16. Chuck-E-Cheese was founded by Nolan Bushnell, the guy who'd previously founded Atari.

  17. You're right, JB. Monopoly would be better without all that money that puts divisions between the players. Chess? The real problem is how the taking of pieces limits play!

    Because, after all, games shouldn't be measured affairs, with clear definitions of play, they should depend on how much bullshit you can pump out of your mouth.


  18. Just to give my 2 cents. My daughter, 11, loves the leveling up mechanic in D&D. But she is a kill things and take their loot type of gal. She is always asking to play so she can "get better and get new things". Also I use the xp as a reward at home... Give me 100 free throws and you get 200 another 20 min and you get 100 xp. Just to give a dad perspective.

  19. I know sometimes new and different can be scary, and we know that the OSR has been known at times to be resistant to change. But wouldn't it be good to set that fear aside, even just for a little while? I don't beluve blindly that "change is good." But we won't know if change is bad unless we try. That s just a preview of my self help series for grognards ;-)

  20. I don't think so. The idea of playing a game without a goal terrifies the hell out of me.

    1. That’s the real question: what GOALS can you provide players that they can shoot for…

  21. In Spirit of the Century (a Fate game) you play as a pulp hero and your character is not realy supposed to progress in effectiveness. They are already very efficient from start on. But a possibility that is offered is to change your character's aspects and stunts so that you present a different side of your character. I've always thought that it was an excellent way to model the way that in some adventures Conan was presented as a thief, in others as a warrior, that sometimes he even knew some sorcery, etc... He's always as effcient but at different things.
    Your beans, for exemple, could be used to shuffle your attributes around, to change what you're capable of doing. For this story you could play a powerfull sorcerer but next time he will just swing his sword because that the aspect of him that you want to explore.