And, then, TPK

There are a number of possible themes that would make sense for today.  Taxes – did that last year.  Passover – I finally read Testament (the RPG supplement) more closely a while back and there’s a lot of inspiration for gaming, but there should be a better time.

But, how about the NBA playoffs?  For those following the first round, it’s been a lot less unbalanced than what was expected at the beginning of the season.  What is the draw of sports?  Sports are predicated on the idea that on any given day anyone can win and anyone can lose.  The Lady Huskies lost in the NCAA Women’s Tournament to someone who was neither Baylor nor Stanford.  Memphis won their first playoff game in franchise history against the #1 seed (admittedly, with a star out).  Buster Douglas.  Miracle on Ice.  Etc.

A game has to have that same level of unpredictability, otherwise why bother playing it?  Even games that can be reduced to math, like chess, a handicap can make the game sufficiently close to create an unknown result.

But, what of a role-playing game?

I see RPGs as being a way to model fiction, usually fantasy fiction but whatever genre appeals.  There’s always been a dissonance between the two, however, in that (typical) RPGs really haven’t been designed to model fiction; they’ve been designed as … games!  D&D stole a lot from Tolkien, but it didn’t steal a predetermined narrative.  One could try to make the case that fiction doesn’t have to be predetermined and can be modeled with RPG mechanics.  Sure, things work out in dramatic ways, but there’s no requirement that RPGs be less dramatic.

Is there?

The typical RPG has a random resolution mechanic to show success, failure, and frequently levels of success or failure.  Most use dice, as dice are easily grokable and attainable producers of random results.  There’s also infinite variation on how to use dice.  Deck of cards is a more visceral randomizer to me but has a different aesthetic than dice, where some folks just love dice, and has less straightforward math to make a coherent and/or balanced system.

So, you get to the end of the quest and everyone is down except you, the wizard, and you got one spell left with which to fell the tyrannical dragon and save your party’s reputations as adventurers.  Roll the dice, need whatever result on the die roll (casting roll in some systems, damage roll in others) and you blow it.  Total party kill.  Start back off at zero XP.  Back to being a goblinkiller rather than something cool.  A great story ruined by bad luck.  Perhaps.

One of my favorite categories of abilities in RPGs is the category of controlling luck or just controlling results.  I don’t mind failure, in and of itself.  Failing at things is often funny and makes a character more interesting – there’s a reason fiction isn’t written where the protagonists always succeed.  I do find certain types of failure aggravating, however.  I don’t like failing at things my character is supposed to be better at than anyone else; that sounds kind of ridiculous, but I don’t design characters to be good at the usual things or even things that are actually all that useful.  If I design a character who is the acknowledged expert on dessert toppings, I don’t want my one roll in a campaign that actually involves making dessert toppings to fail.  Obviously, from a game balance perspective, can’t expect to succeed at important things all of the time just because that’s one’s forte.

Of more relevance to the idea of whether a RPG should model fiction or not is how aggravating it can be to fail a roll when at a climactic moment in a session.  Or, sometimes in not so climactic moments.  While plenty of things have bothered me about playing Conan – archery sucking, barbarian being the only fighter worth playing, low Strength character without spells or a bunch of Sneak Attack is useless in combat, etc. – the most discouraging element of play (rather than theory) has been how many times my character has failed Terror checks.  Oooh, it’s scary.  I run away.  Have fun guys during this scene that I’m not a part of because I can’t make a coin flip.  Beyond the fact that it’s absurdly unheroic, it’s brutal to the party to have a member run away at the onset of combat.  So, I did things to improve my save vs. Terror.  Still failed them.  It’s just the nature of the game that characters built a certain way have an unusually high chance of running away.  Not fight kind of badly, like … well, I’m not sure what since failing a Fear check in L5R is brutal even if you don’t run away and rolling on the Fear Table in Solomon Kane has seen PCs get three heart attacks … but flat out take yourself out of a combat for at least a couple of rounds.

So, I’m into rerolls.  I’m into result substitution.  I’m into luck points/fate points/whatever that can manipulate results.  I’m a huge fan of Honor Rolls in L5R, which is why the 4e rules bother me so.  I don’t think of it as a bonus to high Honor characters.  I think of it as a right that every PC has to greatly increase the odds of making a roll in a session.  But, that’s me.

What of drama?

In fiction, drama is created by challenge and by the writer making things seem important.  In a RPG, the players don’t have the same level of control over what’s important.  Arguably, the GM shouldn’t have control over what’s important, either.

And, that’s the crux of it.  Should drama be planned or be unexpected.  I’ve long been of the mindset of planned drama.  I create scenes in my mind and provide my players with the tools to enact the results I expect.  And, then, they screw it up.  As a player, the story unfolds in my mind, I can see where the script is taking us; our short term ineptness and stupidity will only make the awesomeness we will unleash against antagonists all the more bodacious.

Should we be allowed to screw that up?

Random results produce drama.  A TPK is going to be fairly dramatic for me since it’s so rare in my experiences.  One-shotting a big bad, throwing the expected challenge level of a session completely off, can be far more interesting than an expected struggle against a worthy foe.  Of course, a GM needs to be adaptable.  But, how much should a GM be adaptable while adjusting things to produce the planned result or be adaptable by saying “wow, that was unexpected, roll up new characters guys” or “wow, that was unexpected, good job ole chaps, babes and booze for everyone”.

If we look at oD&D, we see a game predicated more on the idea that the story comes from the results of the die rolls.  Sure, there’s Raise Dead, et al.  There’s rolling up a new character.  There’s plenty of ways to punish parties that are unexpectedly successful.  “Oh, what great wealth you adventurers bring back, only 80% taxes on treasure.”  But, like other games, the results aren’t scripted.  Virginia Commonwealth slays Smaug.

Should fiction be limited to fiction?  Or, should fiction be reinterpreted to be less scripted than, well, it is.  Maybe the writer uses a randomizer to determine what will happen.  I’ve rolled out combats in fictions I’ve written for RPGs, though it was more for the elements during the combat and less about the result.

I’m increasingly of the mind that I should be less rigid in my perspective of story.  Many people I enjoy the idea that luck affects their characters’ stories.  I may continue to believe that a lot of wasted opportunities for really good dramatic situations occur when you leave things up to chance.  On the other hand, chance can easily develop a character or story in ways that scripting won’t.  My main Conan character has always been more animal-friendly than the others.  That only happened because I kept rolling 20’s on Handle Animal early on.  I’m not sure if there’s an optimal point of balance between telling a particular story and leaving it up to chance, nevermind where that point would be, but it’s certainly reasonable to stop carping about how RPGs fail to deliver like fiction does.  Sometimes they deliver something else that’s just as good.  And, sometimes they do deliver just like fiction.

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5 Responses to And, then, TPK

  1. Azel says:

    And here I am where I just don’t like flat distribution rolls because I don’t like that “WTF, the dice totally hosed us all!” aspect. Randomization is only interesting to me when there is a plausible, or at least negotiable, range of success. A few critical hits with damages of 1 (or enemy glancing blows rolling full damage) leading to TPK however just is not entertaining to me.

    The answer to why is very simple: if I wanted true randomness, there’s always reality. Reality has consistently been stranger than fiction, for about as long as I have been alive, and undoubtedly before then as well. And I don’t play games to emulate reality exactly, or even faithfully. I play games to emulate reality as far as it entertains me. Now, for some people that’s a very open definition — and some people have kinky sex fetishes, too. If we all acted upon the potential range of the spectrum, we’d all be more open to strangeness as well in our play, and we’d all find flat distribution rolls delightfully faithful to such expectations.

    However, I have come to find that I prefer having a semblance of expectable results with which to plan around. Thus I find bell curves (saddle points) a more desirable randomzing distribution. Further I find all those tools granting shared narrative control quite valuable as well (even AD&D 2e had character points for rerolls. I forget about AD&D 1e, however). Sometimes random just doesn’t cut it.

    Or as I explain why I never play Risk anymore: just because it is within the realm of game possibility to roll a failure of Colombia’s invading horde of 26 troops against the lone defender of Peru in excess of 24 times (yes, this happened to me), does not in any way make it more entertaining — let alone probable. Sometimes reality can be as improbable, but referring to the beginning, I don’t play games for the extremes in possibility. I play for extremes in imagination within the realms of the probable, and more importantly, the entertaining.

    • iclee says:

      I don’t see reality being true randomness. Nor do I see the linkage of reality vs. fantasy and randomness vs. scripting. I play RPGs and games in general to escape the monotony of reality. Unpredictability isn’t monotonous. If anything, the opposite.

      Taking the Risk example. Is this a bad gaming experience? Probably. But, Risk is a competitive game and usually a bad gaming experience no matter what happens. Think about the Risk result in a RPG. Tiny Peruville, hopelessly outmanned and outsworded, holds off the zombie hordes of the Empire of Colombia. Wouldn’t you want to be one of the Peruville-ites after that?

      As for bell curves, well, 3d6 resolution is one of the least enjoyable dice mechanics there is. Sure, d20 is another because the variance is so absurd. White Wolf has a curve, but small dice pools generate such variance that I disdain WW resolution, as well. I’m all for openended systems as I’m always looking for spectacular results.

      Anyway, sure, high levels of unpredictability have their problems, especially for GMs who have to find ways to continue on when the party does unusually well or poorly, but I think I’ve undervalued the nature of unexpected results in RPGs, where the story is unfolding as you play and not written for you.

  2. Azel says:

    Nah, it’s probably because I’m a probability nexus or something, but reality is to me reliably random. Throw in people surviving 2 miles from the sky, dying from tripping on the sidewalk curb, dying from watching TN in their rural corn field home from dropped frozen airplane poo, or the recent spate of teenagers surviving their falls from the Golden Gate, and no, I’m steadily in the side that the extremes of reality are far too common to ignore. And bringing that into my games, while occasionally fun, gets old fast when there’s little rhyme or reason. Basically, it taxes my narrative skills too far at some point.

    I will say 3dAnything or higher (4dX, 5dX, etc) is quite tedious because the saddle point becomes narrower. However, I’m loving 2d10. Spectacular results still occur, but they are less common, and thus easier to integrate narratively. Gaussian distribution (multiple rolls in sequence, a la multi-d20 rolls in AD&D) do get ugly narratively however, in my experience. I like more predictable random, with an occasional outlier and some narrative control. And yes, I’m not too sold on dice pools myself. But I find Degree of Success integration one of the most important things in my RPG systems, as it still gives me those spectacular results while reining in random distribution.

    Maybe you have undervalued the nature of unexpected results in RPGs (I doubt it, but you’ve always been open-minded to see gaming’s potential). But story unfolding by results is easily understood as sandbox mode RPGs. They’re great fun, and yes letting the dice lead you is nice. However, at some point there is something to be said against too much randomness (or lack of narrative control). Sort of like reading a story and on the fifth chapter, midway within a plot hook, right where it gets good, an out of control bus comes and mows down the protagonist for absolutely no good narrative reason — the end. It’s needlessly unsatisfying, and just outright bad storytelling.

  3. Andrew Haas says:

    Hmm, unexpected results and SK. I think our vampire hunting one shot was a microcosm of goofy narratives resulting from extreme dice rolls. I tend to enjoy moderately unpredictable results, they tend to steer things away from being and exercise in spread sheets. Yet they allow for expertise to show up in a game, by and large a good swordsman will defeat poor swordsmen over the course of a fight, then get shot…

    Azel, your examples of randomness in real life aren’t really that random. We’ve known for a long time that the terminal velocity of a person in air is not always fatal.

  4. Azel says:

    Terminal velocity may not always be fatal, and tripping on a curb is usually survivable, but those examples are definitely the extremes of a spectrum. People do not willingly test for such spectrum extremes with their lives — and therefore again why would PCs be any different. Perhaps random may be a misleading term (I myself do not believe in random at all, just a very complicated order, populated with things from malicious dice gods to that capricious Lady…), but the jist should be clear. Large swings that throw the narrative about like a dinghy in a storm just makes for a bad gaming experience, in my personal experience. I don’t *usually* play games for that. If I did, there’s always Paranoia or Rolemaster or whatever, and those fun grab bag of traits (IIRC Congenital Heart Disease was one of my favorites).

    Recently looking through Legend of Burning Sands for L5R 3e. Got it mainly for the fluff. Decent. The mechanics seem a touch different from L5R 1e, and it doesn’t feel as… smooth. I’m inclined to drop the TN of everything by 5 and then let players work raises more often. And if I remember correctly weren’t you able to keep all your rolled dice? Been a while, I’d have to sift through my stored game boxes. The class ranks and advantages/disadvantages seem more tedious than they were before. It all seems like inflation and power creep to me. Would love to run LBS game, but I’d probably just plop the fluff into L5R 1e world (or maybe 7th Sea 1e). To think 4e became even less “hand wave” friendly, in L5R and AD&D, just leads me to believe I’m no longer the target demographic.

    Oh well, off to run Birthright with my friend. AD&D 2e is a headache with all the optional stuff. But rather light and giddy if you toss that out and run as a sandbox poli-strat game.

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