Friday, November 1, 2013

Resources (No Not Really)

Hope everyone had a happy Halloween last night. I did, for the most part (the knob on my front door fell apart(!) but we were able to get it back together after an hour or so of minimal tinkering). I’m feeling a little hung over from all the candy “sampling”…or maybe it was that single “Bud Lite” I consumed that one house was giving away as “treats” to parents. Wow…how anyone can drink that dishwater on a regular basis is beyond me. Even the non-alcoholic beer I’m currently stocking my fridge with (something called Buckler) tastes more like beer than that swill.

[some might ask why I’d even bother drinking it…well, wasting beer is something hard for me to abide. Normally, I would have passed on a Bud completely (thus not taking it home, thus not having to worry about “wasting” a beer at all)…but the sheer novelty of getting a beer while trick-or-treating with my kid tickled my fancy. Having said that, though, I’d point out that if they’d been handing out Coors I would have passed. As I’ve stated on multiple occasions, I’d rather take a silver bullet than drink one]

Man, I am sniffling and sneezing today like I over-taxed my immune system with sugar and chocolate…which is probably true. It’s funny (well, to me, anyway): back when I used to play AD&D as a kid, and we were so hard-core about following the Rules As Written (weapon length and speed factor, helmet rules, wandering monsters even in town, etc.) the one thing we didn’t use EVER, as far as I can recall, were the rules for disease and illness given in the DMG. Maybe the whole concept of illness was counter-productive to the escapism of the game: as a kid who had more than his fair share of head colds, did I want to worry about my adventurer needing to blow his nose? No, not really.

Not that the rules for disease and illness in the DMG are terribly realistic (I use the adjective loosely, with regard to fantasy adventure games). One might imagine that “historical” type folks were of hardier constitution and were sick less often than us pasty-types living in the over-stimulated, stressful society of the 21st century. And yet the lack of modern medicine meant illnesses, when acquired, tended to be a lot more deadly.

And it’s not like adventurers are carrying around a tube of Neosporin to slather on the lacerations they get from goblin blades. Hell, I use that stuff on any burn or scrape I get!

But in designing a game…any game, in fact, though here I’m speaking about RPGs…it’s important to consider what you want your game to be about when deciding what to include in the rules. Do you WANT your player characters to have the possibility of death by tetanus or infection of some sort? Is the Black Plague a part of your pseudo-medieval setting (I’d imagine that’s the basis for rats inflicting disease in D&D…but what about other rodents?). And if that’s a possibility (due to say, an attachment to “realistic” hazards of the ancient world)…how big a possibility do you want it to be? Should adventurers be sterilizing their wounds with fire after every battle? Should infection-killing ointments be made available at the town apothecary?

These are rhetorical questions by the way…my urge to play something as complex as even AD&D has faded as I’ve gotten older. Not so much because it’s uninteresting to consider such things in the game, mind you, but because in practice it tends to “bog down” play.

Allow me to diverge on a short tangent. As I wrote a couple days ago, I’ve been a little busy for the blog-o-sphere I usually surf, so I missed any debate of “light” rules versus “heavy” till I was catching up my reading of The Tao yesterday. As usual, Alexis raises some good points…the best one being the one about simplifying a system leading to a dependence on DM fiat which has the potential to be grossly unfair.

Looking back at the disease/infection thing, for example: what if I (as a DM) think it’s both appropriate and interesting to include a chance of PCs dying from an infected sword wound...yet am faced with a game system (like B/X) that doesn’t provide rules for such a hazard? Well, I’d suppose the usual response would be “make something up.” I might require any wounded PC to make a saving throw versus poison after any fight in which they took damage, or a certain amount of damage, or lost a certain percentage of hit points. I might give any PC a straight 1 in 6 chance (or 1 in 8 or 1in 10 or whatever) of developing an infection anytime they take a wound from a monster in a certain dingy dungeon location. I might simply say, “these goblins are using rusty, filthy blades that ABSOLUTELY WILL give a character a nasty infection on a successful attack roll,” or on two successful attack rolls or whatever.

The point is the hazard that I, as DM, would like to see can be addressed in any number of arbitrary ways, but A) there’s no guarantee that my ruling would be fair and balanced, and B) there’s no guarantee that the inclusion of such rules would be fun. In fact, the odds of even accidentally hitting on a “fair” way to implement such a thing (we’ll talk about the “fun” part in a moment) are pretty infinitesimal because I am not designing a new game from the ground up, but instead “patching” an existing game, without respect to the ideas, concepts, and objectives of the designer. I’m doing what I think “feels right” when one might (logically) presume the designers didn’t include such rules because they were inappropriate, unnecessary, and/or unwanted to the game itself as intended.

Maybe the PCs are supposed to be heroes of mythic proportion with a destiny that doesn’t include dying from an infected sword wound. Maybe the only type of misadventure peril they’re supposed to face is a glorious death in battle, or incinerated by dragon fire, or the venom of a hydra…hey, the latter was a good enough death for Heracles, right?

Regardless of the intention with regard to concept, it is very difficult to try patching rules once the rules have already been set (like concrete). I look at the XP system in 2nd Edition AD&D, so different from earlier editions…a system based on the idea that it’s “more correct” or “appropriate” for PCs to gain XP for different activities than gaining treasure and slaying monsters…and the train wreck that the game devolves into. Leaving aside the absurdity of it, such a system creates a conflict of objective within the player party, doing the opposite of encouraging “cooperative play,” all in the name of patching the treasure hunter mentality that is the foundational design concept of the D&D game.

But even without THAT issue (i.e. the issue of trying to design for a game that’s already been designed), there’s the question of who actually benefits from these new rules? Who gets to experience the “extra fun” from their inclusion? Yes, I understand that a long-term game can get stale after a while (and back in the day, new “options” culled from Dragon magazine provided much enjoyed injections of “freshness” to our campaigns), but I’m not talking about the addition of a new monster or a random table for determining what’s in the pockets of the citizen being picked by the party thief. I’m talking about straight-up rule changes that transform play into something (the DM deems to be) more “realistic” or “appropriate.”

I suppose some players might think it’s cool to have a chance to die from an infected sword wound, or to bleed to death from a severed artery, or to suffer “critical hits” that break bones or shatter weapons. But I’d guess most players would be hoping none of these things happened to their particular characters. Given a choice between having more “realistic,” complex rules and being left with little to worry about except their dwindling supply of spells, HPs, and torches, I’d imagine most players would opt for the latter...especially when the only option for the former is to have them implemented in an arbitrary patch fashion by the DM.

However, these things ARE interesting (if only "fun" for the cackling DM and bystanders), and people who read adventure stories or watch fantasy movies can see these types of challenges arise to their favorite characters. And because the characters in our favorite fiction encounter these difficulties and overcome them, they are more heroic (and more beloved) for their effort. In Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest comic series, we find the main character, Cutter, hallucinating and dying from an infected squirrel bite that he suffers while doing nothing more innocuous than walking in the woods. The infection lasts the length of the issue, and allows the writer to further the plot of the series in a number of ways…but this is (comic) literature, not role-playing. Do you want this kind of thing to be a part of your game?

Surprisingly dangerous.
If you do, or if you want other interesting complexities to be included in the rules, then you really have only two options: run a game that includes those complexities (so that they are an objective part of the game, incorporated with regard to the game’s design concepts), or have your simple game “boosted” by arbitrary DM fiat and house rules. For some people it’s interesting and important to know how much rock can be quarried by the charmed hill giant, and the speed with which the castle wall can be raised (to keep out the approaching barbarian horde) is important to the game at hand. You have rules for this in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; objective rules written by a man who (presumably) tested his own system to make sure it worked with the rest of the game’s parts.

On the other hand, if you’re playing a simpler game like Moldvay’s Basic you can have your DM “wing it” – either using a 50-50 die roll or perhaps using some elaborate self-made system – or you can ignore such complex scenarios in your game play. Stick to your dungeon delving, in other words, if you don’t want your DM just making shit up.

It may be difficult to tell from reading this just which side of the debate JB is on. That’s because I’m not picking a side. Oh, I have a preference for running a simpler game system, mainly because I want something easy to run and easy to teach (to new players, for example). But I tend not to tinker too much with a system as written, because I think it invites a lot of the problems that proponents of more complex systems detest. My “fix” for a game that’s getting stale or that doesn’t address things I want address is to play a different game (duh, I like to play different games), or write my own, from the ground up.

Hmm, this “little tangent” has turned into yet another long-winded digression. I guess I’ll talk about resources in another post.


  1. Given a choice between having more “realistic,” complex rules and being left with little to worry about except their dwindling supply of spells, HPs, and torches, I’d imagine most players would opt for the latter...especially when the only option for the former is to have them implemented in an arbitrary patch fashion by the DM

    No, there is another option. You can talk about the options like adults and come to a shared understanding. "The fort will take 2 + 1d4 weeks to build, and there will be a chance of enemy attack every week... sound reasonable?"

  2. @ Brendan:

    Sure...but the parameters are drilling being set by the DM. And obtaining consensus in such matters is easy when the person asking for buy-off is the authority figure at the table.

    Look, in a game like D&D (any edition) there is a certain amount of trust that's placed in the DM regardless, due to the way the game allocates narrative authority. Players have to be willing to allow the DM a great degree of leeway just by the nature of the game. I'm not saying "don't do it;" I'm just saying there ARE pitfalls and challenges. As with any system you just have to decide what is important to you, and what you're willing to give in order to play.

  3. Yo JB, how you livin' man? Hope all is well on your end. Happy holidays!

  4. Alexis's points are not reasonable at all. He enumerated a slipperly slope, and then somehow didn't even realize that he was on it. You can never anticipate every situation for which it would be nice to have a rule, so stating a priori that having rules for every situation is the only "good" way to play is absurd, quixotic, and by necessity, a frustrating and unfulfilling way to approach the hobby--because you can't ever do it.

    Now, granted, I get it that some peoples' taste preferences call for more detail rather than less. And clearly Alexis is one of those people. This is his second big error; assuming that his tastes are somehow intrinsic and "true" for gaming overall, rather than simply being his preferences. Now, granted, maybe the clause, "... for me and my own taste preferences" is implicit in every declaration of what is "better" or whatever on the internet with regards to gaming, but I don't think so. For most people, I'd hazard a confident guess, that level of detail is not desireable. In fact, Alexis himself starts off anticipating that very common complaint with d20 games, expressed over and over again ad nauseum in a variety of venues. He already knows that most people are going to disagree with him, but he's going to refuse (or at least fail) to understand that he simply doesn't share the same taste preferences as a vast chunk of fellow hobbyists--it's not a question of them needing it explained so that they can see how they're all wrong, it's just different, and equally valid.

    The third big mistake he makes, I admit I'm seeing by reading between the lines a bit. Implicit and heavily implied by his post is an adversarial relationship with the GM, where he fundamentally doesn't trust the GM to provide a good game for him without the benefit of a great monstrosity of rules to hedge and limit the ability of the GM to "ruin" his game with GM rulings. There's a truism I've often seen quoted, that goes something like this: all rules problems are actually people problems. My guess--about which, again, I'm pretty confident, although I freely admit that I'm pulling this out by reading between the lines--is that Alexis himself is either a poorly socialized, adversarial gamer, or has played repeatedly with such, and therefore can't envision an environment in which lack of rules and trust in GM rulings could possibly provide a fun experience.

    Having done both, I can see his point, but his cure is just as bad as the disease. I'd just prefer not to play with people who are adversarial or poorly socialized, argumentative or pushy about what they want in the game, period. There's no fun way to game with people that have those traits, at least for me.