Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nothing Risked, Nothing Gained

So my friend Charles- fellow DM and player in multiple of my campaigns and past adventures- started his own D&D blog, Late to the Adventuring Party, and he recently touched upon something that got my fingers so wiggly to write that I'll have to yet again postpone the much-noted post about my Labyrinth Lord campaign (but, by God, at least this post will have more substance than a simple call to foul gods).

Charles was talking about a recent Labyrinth Lord session of mine, one that ended with a poorly-employed Random Monster on my part but which resulted in Fun for all involved. A net gain, really, even with the horrible abuse I put the poor players through. What happened was this: the party- only three strong for want of hirelings- was camping out near a kobold warren to try to catch a man they have been told has been preying upon the kobolds. (The party had earlier discovered many kobold babies in the warren, and were about to try to slaughter the Kobold King- as they call him- when he shocked them by offering a peace treaty in exchange for their help.) After a fruitless first night, the party figured they'd camp out once more to see if the fiend would appear to make more shoes out of that supple baby kobold leather.

Well, I rolled some dice to see if anything interesting happened during any of the watches during the night, and lo and behold, something interesting was indeed to happen. On a lark I rolled on a wilderness Wandering Monster table and came up with that good ol' chap, the TROLL. I knew this was overkill. I knew the table said "tailor the actual result to your party." I knew the party didn't stand a chance. I knew all this- and I shrugged, laughed, and decided to, eh, see what would happen.

Well, the predictable happened. One of the heroes was dead before she knew what exactly was charging out of the woods at her and one of the others was chased down as he ran, slammed to the ground and beaten to a pulp. The third, the Elf, made it back to town, sprinting blind and furious in his bulky plate mail. (What a sight that must have been!)

It was a slaughter, of course. And it worries Charles that his own Labyrinth Lord character- Rabbi Rosencrantz (Charles decided his people needed more representation in fantasy worlds)- is as fragile as the thief who was torn literally asunder by a troll, or the young magic-using girl who was also torn literally asunder by a troll. It bothers him that in older editions death is not only a threat, but a very likely outcome to the life of adventuring.

I understand where he is coming from, especially knowing why he games and what he wants out of gaming. Suffice to say, it is very different from what I want out of gaming, and specifically what I want out of fantasy role-playing. My Editionity Crisis is partly founded on the unshakable feeling that 4th Edition characters are just Too Damn Healthy, too damn reliable in the old HP department. The very real touch of death inherent to older systems is one of the main draws for me, both as a DM and as a prospective player.

The very word ADVENTURE reeks of death and risk to me. Adventuring is not a safe career. It is not something someone with money, comfort, or choice really does. It's a stinking, sickly, dangerous job and only psychopaths, outcasts, the overzealous, and miscreants would really consider it. If adventuring was safe enough that simple resource management would see one through, I doubt many tombs would still have treasure left for any johnny-come-lately 1st Levels to ever find.

It can be called "realism" that death is so easy in older D&D, but it's not really that. "Realism" is so arbitrary to the system, the setting, and the very ethos of the game to be almost beyond consideration. No, to me it's about a risk/reward equation that is far better tuned- through a lack of tuning- than the current edition. Adventuring needs to be literally risky, literally deadly, to merit such rewards as magical swords that cleave the enemy in twain, piles of gold that would make a king blush, and arcane secrets so powerful the gods themselves wish them to remain buried in some foul swampy crypt rife with vermin, horrors, and the undead victims of disease and malady.

In my humble but of course 100% Accurate opinon, character death is what it's all about. Of course it sucks. Of course it's aggravating. That's kind of the point. Not only is it a great tool for learning from your mistakes, but it lends itself very naturally to really prizing the times It Finally Went Right. Yeah, you're three characters deep before you're lucky and cunning enough to hit level four. It was all part of the learning process as a player. And really, it's about the player- not the character- in this equation. The PLAYER knows he or she has earned the treasures and powers commensurate with his or her level, because the risk was not only real, it was demonstrated time and again as prior characters and fellow adventurers died to seemingly trivial traps, sword slashes, and simple daily dumb bad luck.

No, it's not for every taste. For Charles, it's all frustration and defeat. It ruins his sense of escapism. This is in contrast to me, where 4E's mechanics and superheroics do the same thing. Action Points, Healing Surges, calculated bonuses at each level that determine the amount of magic items that the party should have- all of this ruins the escapism for me. Neither one of us is right; if we were, there'd only be a need for one edition. As a player, I love roleplaying when I forget there is even a set of mechanics behind the scenes. I have a feeling that Charles is most comfortable when he can approach the game from the mechanical side first. And that's great for someone who loves 4E, because even character creation is an exercise in mechanical balance and synergy optimization- things that, to me, should be anathema to a fantasy campaign.

And so it goes. I want to steer my campaigns away from mechanical mastery- or even much mechanical understanding- on the part of the players. Because I've seen these Labyrinth Lord sessions where truly unique, utterly genuine moments of true brilliance come out without single recourse to a character sheet, and I've never been scared to just roll with them. Do those moments happen in 4E? Of course, but not in my personal experience nearly as often, and when they happen in MY campaign I get real anxious that whatever I do will step on toes X, Y, and Z as dictated in the Character Builder and etc. and when I have to worry about removing mechanics to get to the game I want to run, I feel sort of- dizzy.

So, yeah, I realy like the risk of earlier editions. It's not because I think it's more "correct" that the heroes be necessarily mortal, or that I feel it's more important to have psuedorealistically fatal combat for any grand reason. I just see no reason at all why fantasy characters- even the "heroes of the story" (although I'm trying to steer my campaigns away from story and more towards world-discovery) should expect to live given a "balanced encounter" and proper management of the options if they also expect great rewards to mean something personally, to the player- not the character. A character can have any reaction or belief a player wants it to have, but a player knows when he or she has earned something through his character, or at least should know such. In a game as well-balanced as 4E, I don't see the risk/reward equation working out very well- rewards are guaranteed by the system if the DM wishes the mechanics to keep working, and to get those evenly-metered rewards the party must never face Too Much Risk.

In my preferred world, sometimes you take an axe to the spleen, and baby, that sucks, but at least you know where you stand. And yeah, sometimes it's not in your control- like when a nutso DM still learning his chops throws a nasty troll at a first-level party and lets the surprise roll play out as it landed, giving the troll time to savage the party good and proper-like. Sometimes fate is cruel, but as a DM I know that the crueler the world, the better the treasure, and my folks are earning themselves one hell of a haul... if they make it that far!

Still, I hope Charles will give my Labyrinth Lord campaign a go despite his fears and ill feelings. After all, despite my own misgivings I'll gladly play in his 4E campaign again should the stars ever allow it to be run. As I've said before (and then probably only echoing wisdom of Previous Generations), fun is independent of system- especially if you allow that there are more than one kind of fun. (After all, 4E does make a heck of a tactical skirmish miniatures battlegame with roleplaying elements- although I feel more and more that that's the long and short of it.)

1 comment:

  1. "Editionity Crisis" - I like that. :D

    Welcome to the fray. It sounds like your game group is experiencing in its microcosm the same issues that the gaming world is facing at large.

    Personally, I'm like you: I've always enjoyed rules-light games wherein players used their wits - not their dice - to overcome in-game challenges. Unfortunately, as you say not everybody enjoys this approach. That doesn't have to mean, however, that there isn't some middle ground to be reached, IMHO.

    Take the aforementioned troll encounter. A couple of things might have changed the outcome of that encounter.

    First, from the players' side, a better system of defenses/alarms could have been prepared to alert them of intruders. A few iron spikes on some string could have completely circumvented the surprise round - or even turned the tables on the troll. How about a covered pit? Or some caltrops? Players who are going to camp in the wilderness should be crafty - or stay at the inn, where it's relatively safe. :D

    From the DM's side, something I've had to remind myself of over and over again: random encounter does not automatically mean random combat. Just because the table indicates a troll doesn't mean the players are automatically involved in a fight. Is the troll even aware of their presence? Maybe it's just walking by, and the players get a glimpse of it. If the troll is aware of them, maybe it won't attack. Maybe it wants to scare them off. Maybe it wants to trade for food. Maybe it's not sure how tough the characters are, and it wants to size them up before it attacks. After all, they're camping in the middle of nowhere, just the three of 'em. From the troll's point of view, they've got to be real bad-asses or batshit insane to do something like that. Either way, does the troll really want to mess with someone like that?

    (I once had a party of mid-level adventurers talk a dragon into moving to greener pastures. They looked tough, stood brazenly in its lair, looked it in the eye, and bluffed it into taking a powder. That took some serious chutzpah to even attempt, but the players earned the outcome with some awesome role playing.)

    A simple rule for players: Be devious; think outside the box.

    A simple rule for DM's: Encounters don't always mean combat; make it interesting, not necessarily lethal.

    A few house rules might also help bridge the gap. More hit points combined with critical wounds could keep the danger level high, but improve character survival rates. Death saves at 0 HP instead of automatic death can do the same thing. The option to sacrifice shields or weapons to absorb damage or parry attacks is yet another option. And don't forget the possibility of "dead" characters actually ending up prisoners of their attacker(s) - used on occasion, this can create some fun game play. (Ask my fiancee about how her elf woke up naked in an orc slave cage. :P It happened years ago, but she still goes on about it.)

    In the end, there are a lot of little things a DM can do to help his players' characters survive (and enjoy the game) without sacrificing the sense of danger or turning the game into a series of tactical decisions and managed resources, IMHO.

    Of course, this is all FWIW, YMMV, etc.