Total War

The title is just a more pretentious version of what this post is about – full engagement by a party in RPGs.

I’ve found myself frequently making the note in one form or another, “There’s a reason D&D [et al] have worked so well historically.  RPGs focused on combat provide opportunities for contributions from everyone.”

I feel like I should state that I don’t hate D&D or any of the other, numerous tactical wargame RPGs of its ilk.  It’s just that I see the value in RPGs being that they tell stories, where clearing a dungeon or whatever is something that works as a boardgame.  And, yes, one can always go beyond the tactical wargame structure of such games, just as one can take a system bent less to wargaming and make it very wargamey.

Anyway, I need to get back to the topic, which is the difficulty of fully engaging a party as often as possible.

There are some totally legitimate reasons that not every PC has something to do at a given time.  Splitting the party is not the end of the world … necessarily.  Brief, private moments help individualize PCs thematically, while showing off mechanical specialty helps individualize, um, mechanically.

Nor am I terribly bothered by there being stretches when some PCs turn into observers.  But, these stretches should still be entertaining and/or brief enough.

I suppose there’s a broader issue of when a party doesn’t feel like a party but like a group of PCs who adventure together, but that seems like something to address another time.

One can always say the GM should keep everyone engaged.  Or, one could say it’s both the GM’s and players’ responsibilities to be engaged.  Take, for instance, the common situation of planning how to deal with a challenge, like breaking into a building.  Players who provide no input to planning are hardly the GM’s fault.  While these are important elements to PC engagement, they aren’t really what I want to speak about.

What concerns me more, as a potential GM, is structural reasons why PCs will be disincentivized to engage in handling a challenge.  Some players are naturally less active – the casual gamer is not a rare bird, for instance.  Some know mechanics better or the world better or whatever.  But, there’s no reason to build into challenges extra reasons for only some of the party to tackle them, with the exception of an intended spotlight moment, of course.

I should provide examples as this may all seem vague and overly philosophical, when, in truth, I find it a substantial problem.  Because it’s what I play the most these days and because it highlights well issues I perceive, I’m afraid I’ll have to focus examples on L5R.

L5R is very much not oriented towards being a tactical wargame.  Social challenges over customs or politics or intrigue and investigative challenges are not only common but very often more common than combat and other physical challenges.

The example of a more extreme case of disincentivizing full party engagement is the social challenge.  While these can show up in other games, such as the use of Diplomacy or Bluff in d20, the Sincerity roll (sometimes, Courtier or Etiquette or even Intimidation or Temptation) in L5R is a frequent roll to overcome a major challenge.  It could be talking down a crazy person, convincing someone of much higher station to change opinion, or whatever.

How does it usually play out?  While more than one PC might provide input and can assist mechanically, the challenge usually comes down to a single roll by whoever the best talker in the party is (or whoever talks the most).  Typically, there are PCs with poor social skills in parties.  If this sort of challenge was less common and/or less essential to resolving challenges, it could be more palatable as a spotlight moment for the player who wanted to play a courtier or similar social character.  What I find, however, is that the impact of making the roll is greater than the impact of any other roll to overcome challenges to where half or more of the party has no relevance to a key plot point.

While nowhere near as exclusionary, I find that investigative challenges have similar problems.  Unlike the “one big roll to convince X of Y” that social rolls often are, an investigation often involves discussing ideas for generating leads, following leads, or dealing with challenges once the investigation points in the right direction.  I have a personality such that I care far more for plot progression than I do my character sheet, but I notice that those who value more playing in character may feel less inclined to aid investigations due to a lack of aptitude of the character.

An example of an investigative challenge may be to follow some tracks.  In L5R, that’s a Perception/Hunting roll.  If there are, like, two PCs with Perception of 3 and only one has the Hunting skill, it’s a rather party-limited challenge.  L5R is a bit different than some systems in that Void Points, Luck, and Honor Rolls can help important rolls while the exploding dice make absurd results possible, but how compelling is it for the PER 2, Hunting 0 character when there are three tracking rolls crucial to finding someone/something?

Is that a structural problem?  Place it in contrast with combat, where even combat inept PCs are engaged in the challenge.  Other physical challenges are often (if not always) similarly engaging to an entire party – everyone has to run, climb, swim, jump, whatever.

Then, you have rarer (IME) challenges, such as puzzles/riddles, which also tend to be better suited to a limited portion of the PCs (or players).

I’m not inclined to do away with challenges that may not be worth engaging in for some of the party.  I am, however, inclined to try to provide my players challenges that are more often akin to combat in engaging the entire party and to keep party-limited challenges briefer and less crucial.

The obvious question, then, becomes for one such as myself who finds gratuitous combat unappealing, “What are good party challenges to fully engage all of the PCs besides combat?”

Keep in mind that players usually make an effort to have a combat strategy but may not put effort into giving every character as much competence in other areas.  This can be something the GM helps with – “I’m going to have man vs. nature challenges, so learn how to swim and stuff.”  But, typically, combat mechanics are developed to a point where options exist, even if the only reasonable option is to evade enemies until the rest of the party mops up, where other sorts of challenges are more commonly “all or nothing” with a single (or series of identical) die rolls.

As GM, I can force situations where each individual PC must do something to contribute to overcoming a challenge.  For instance, a night of entertainment requires each PC to simultaneously entertain a different audience.  But, that can seem arbitrary/forced/awkward and fail suspension of disbelief.  I haven’t brainstormed ideas, so that’s an obvious step.  It’s just something that concerns me as I like all of the players to be into what is going on, whether I’m a GM or a player.


One Response to Total War

  1. […] post, Total War, relates but the other way around.  There, I spoke of engaging the whole party as much as […]

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