Thursday, June 17, 2010

"A Better Game?"

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.


  1. I guess I don't see the controversy. Personally, when I have a character with so much experience that they start outclassing the other PCs and making it more difficult for the GM to run a game that's fun for everyone, I wipe the slate clean and start then over.

    But that's just me.

  2. Welcome to the pedagogical philosophy currently stifling the American educational system.

    Every child is special and unique! No one is different and those with ability must be held back so as not to embarrass the others.

    Everyone gets a Gold Star!

    The failure is not the student's fault, but the teacher in charge! In other words, it's the DM's responsibility to make sure the players make no mistakes (or are at least never harmed by making them).

    No child must be left behind, no matter how often there is failure to learn (whether it be spelling, grammar, basic math, or how to out-maneuver a giant spider via tactical choices)!

    A student is absent? Ignore it! A gamer comes to every third session? Ignore it!

    A student lacks the ability to pass to the next level of experience (aka "grade"), just push them forward without earning it!

    Honor roll is meaningless. Commitment is meaningless. Fairness is established by accepting the pretense that no one is allowed to be better or more advanced than anyone else. The ego must be preserved!

    Now, I don't completely agree with such a criticism. A group of 5th level characters could probably protect a 1st level character until he or she sort of catches up...but what about a group of 12th level characters? The character with the new PC will probably be re-rolling a new character 3 times a session.

  3. True, but there are exceptions to every rule. I mean, a party of 12th level characters in classic D&D is rare, in my experience. One that can't resurrect a dead member is even rarer. I mean, altogether it's the rarest of the rare.

  4. Well, if your premise begins on the foundation of "old school gaming," where the sense of competition and acknowledgement of "superiority" is, in fact, a valued commodity, then my argument does fall flat.

    The argument made with the school analogy is WAY off, however; we're not talking about real-world efforts to improve education. We're not talking about what makes for an effective environment to encourage actual achievement.

    We are, in fact, talking about a game. A social activity that people take great effort to set time aside for. Something they do for fun, to get AWAY from real world concerns.

    In this case, I don't see value added to the experience by positioning some of the participants over others in the manner of levels and power.

    I -do- understand the desire to reward certain behaviors and styles of play, as well as rewarding those who keep the commitment to the game.

    It is, for example, one thing to miss a game due to work. It is another entirely if the player blows off the group merely for a movie or other social activity.

    (I might argue, in fact, that the latter case requires a more important discussion about whether or not said player is going to keep the same commitment as the other players.)

    I advocate (and will be blogging about) Bonus Chips: poker chips or other tokens that represent a floating +2 bonus to any die roll. These would make great rewards for players who are really supporting the game through individual effort and achievement.

    More on this back on Facebook; I need to create a Discussion section for the DriveThruRPG page there.

  5. It seems bizarre to allow characters to start at a level higher than one, even if other party members are advanced. Furthermore, characters that are not available for an adventure because their player is not at the game table can't get experience because they were not physically present to beat that ogre and collect the goodies. For my part, I would not want xp or treasure that I didn't earn and I would not want to start a character at a level higher than one, ever! The enjoyment comes from beating the odds with a character and any benefits given to me that I didn't earn are anathema.

  6. Thank you, Will. I agree with you. Receiving experience, if you attend and participate in a gaming session is so fundamentally "fair" that I can't understand someone arguing against it.

    Experience is a reward for participation and good play (including bringing fun and interest to the table). It's bizarre that this basic, and reasonable, principle has been turned on its head, and now we're "penalizing" players for not showing up...

    As for having to start at first level if your character dies ... does no-one have a passel of henchmen any more, from which they can choose one to be their new PC?

    And on the topic of those lower level characters getting killed, one option is for the higher level PC's to absorb the damage inflicted on the lower level characters, by getting in the way of the blows.

    I need to go to the source on this. On the face of it, this 'your penalizing me for not showing up' complaint seems rather absurd.

  7. I wouldn't call it "penalizing" players who can't make a game, that is absurd.

    But if you've ever joined a game where most players are mid to high level (say 6th+) as a first level character, it can be a little rough to have to wait in the back ranks, may firing a bow, while the rest of the party actually does the fighting. The XP comes slowly and it is hard to argue in-game for a decent share of whatever treasure the real combatants got. That only happened once for me, back in college.

    More recently we've had players who simply can't attend every session and played 3/4e where being "below" the encounter level or CR or whatever it is called means you will probably die if you participate at all. Anyway 4e pretty explicitly and strongly suggests keeping everyone on the same level.

    We usually allow a player to carry over 1/2 their XP when making a replacement character. I guess if XP is a reward for the PLAYER, you may as well allow all their characters to enjoy some of that reward. We usually get rewarded in non-mechanical ways, though, earning allies, favors, etc. from NPCs. But we've also had games where a good idea or role playing earns an XP bonus. The bonuses have added up to maore than a level's worth of difference, except where the PCs classes have very different scales (thieves vs. m-us or what have you).

    Back in 1980 or so when we started playing D&D, we never used henchmen or hirelings, and have only started in our most recent campaign. I've actually never played in a group that used them before either, although I've played in several different groups in several different states. I hope to see them play that fall-back PC role more.

    I think most of the campaigns I've played in have little or no access to resurrection or raise dead too, which makes replacements all the more important.

    Anyway all I'm saying is that new & replacement characters might reasonably start above 0 XP and I have no problem granting XP to keep a player within the party's average if they have to miss a few sessions for RL reasons.

  8. Interesting and revealing to see the distinctions between the old and the new ways of approaching role-playing games.

    No-one has to earn their props any more?

    Henchmen are invaluable for ensuring continuity when PCs die.

    I like the idea of carrying over some of your XP to your next character, that does seem like a good workaround to the problem of PC mortality.

    I have a hard time with the idea of rewarding experience to a player's PC when the player misses the session. That seems wrong to me, but to each his own.

  9. I don't mind starting newer PCs off at lower levels, as long as their players still get to contribute and have fun. A mutual friend of ours once wound up in a game where everyone else had 16 attacks a round to her one, so she sat there and rolled one die about every half hour, then got docked at the end for not doing enough. Yeah.

    Or, as Mitchell and Webb put it:

  10. A lot of that depends on the game, too. A simple game with quick combat and that might be tolerable. A complicated game with detailed combat, not so much.