Game designer Sean Patrick Fannon admits that he "apparently touched on a somewhat controversial subject" in this week's installment of his "A Better Game" column for the DriveThruRPG.Com Newsletter.
Here's a quote that I think cuts to the heart of the matter:
The point is for a group of players to work together, via their characters, to achieve goals, overcome obstacles, and enjoy a shared story....
...So why is it so many GMs feel compelled to "make things fair" by penalizing players where experience is concerned?
Seriously, think about it. Your instinct may be that "it's not fair, since Jim's been playing from the beginning and has never missed a session, to let Kyle have the same XP" if Kyle's missed three sessions due to work.
Why isn't it fair? Is Kyle in competition with Jim? Is there really something to be gained by Jim's character having that much more advancement over Kyle's? Does it promote harmony or cooperation in the game? Is there a need to "punish" Kyle for missing the game?
And what about Julia, whose character died last session? Is she to be "punished" for that by having her character come in at half the experience of everyone else? Why? Does this make Jim feel better? I'd argue he might well feel uncomfortable, knowing Julia's already suffered for the loss of a character, and now has to struggle with one less capable than everyone else.
Then there's Matt. He's new to the group and has just joined the game with a new character. If you make him start at some level below everyone else, what does this tell him? That he's less valuable for being new? That the other players are more valued? That newbies are meant to suffer?
I like to think I'm fairly familiar with SPF and his work, as I'm the only person I know to own not just one, but both editions of his 1995 "Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible", which I consider to be a great introduction to the hobby and a fun read, too.
Still, what I'm going to be doing here is arguing (respectfully, I hope) that he's wrong, wrong, wrong, at least when it comes to classic D&D and other old-school games.
First, we'll start with Jim and Kyle. Is Jim in competition with Kyle? Yes! The philosophy of old-school gaming, so far as most can agree on it, encompasses the concepts of rewarding dedicated campaigning and player skill. The vast majority of the time, players who play both often and well will be rewarded by characters with more personal power and game world influence than those who play only intermittently and/or in a less skillful way that leads to their character's meeting untimely ends more often. This also encompasses Julia and her dead character, I think.
The players may not feel like they're in a serious competition with each other, beyond very successful players enjoying a few extra begging rights, but the notion that every individual player and his or her individual character are, to some degree "in the game for themselves" is a vital one, I think.
It's good to remember how many of D&D's formative adventures involving more accomplished characters were, in fact, solo affairs or involved small numbers of powerful PCs (with NPC henchmen being a wild card in either case). Erac's Cousin's sojourn to Barsoom is one example. Sir Robilar and Mordenkainen's journey to the City of the Gods is another. While it was certainly assumed that sizable groups of less powerful PCs banding together for mutual protection would be inevitable at the start, I don't feel it's correct to say that classic D&D didn't also involve an individualist ethic later on. "Gruppe uber alles" this game is simply not.
Is this fair to Jim? You tell me. If Jim misses three karate practices due to work and I don't, is it fair that I'm ranked a belt higher? I think it is. I think Jim would feel the same way, if he's remotely fair-minded himself.
Is this fair to Julia? Granted, there are a very few rare occasions where player skill doesn't matter in PC outcome. Maybe Julia's PC (being the heavily-armored fighter) was the natural choice to lead the group's marching order in the dungeon and she lost a surprise roll to the giant spider in the shadows and the spider made its subsequent attack roll and she lost the resulting poison save and died. This is a good example of being "killed by the dice" despite making no tactical errors. In these sorts of situations, maybe the DM does grant Julia a break with her next character as SPF suggests. That's fine with me.
More often than not, though, there's an element of player choice. Julia's party might encounter the giant spider and she decides that her fighter will step forward and engage it with his sword then the spider hits then the save fails then Julia is down one fighter.
So is the quoted scenario fair to Julia? Usually, yes, although there may be some rare exceptions.
Finally, we come to Matt. What does a new player learn from starting with a lower-level character? SPF outlines a few possibilities. Here are a few more: That a powerful character is something to be proud of because it must be earned by diligent and skillful campaigning. That playing a powerful character is just much more interesting when you've been with that character through his or her's whole journey. That getting there can be much more than half the fun.
So are you being fair to Matt? I think so, yes.
This is all not to imply that a game where the group is paramount, player skill is downplayed, and cooperative storytelling is the goal (as opposed to each individual player, sometimes working in concert with peers and sometimes not, guiding his or her PC to wealth and power through the vehicle of high adventure) can't or shouldn't exist. It is to say that that's not how the hobby started and more and more of us are discovering all the time that that's not the way it needs to be enjoyed today.
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