Superheroes in Dungeons

Dungeons & Dragons is the uncommonly spry grandparent of the hobby: old-fashioned, a little goofy, but fun to spend time with if you can put up with the odd bit of yesteryear nonsense. For all my love of impeccable, focused independent game designs, I still find myself rubbing elbows with the same six ability scores and crowing over rolls of 20 three games out of four. It’s not that it’s the only game in town, but everyone knows it so well that random samples come up full of it.

I haven’t yet run (“DMed,” c’mon, precision of language) the latest edition of the game, though. What might I do with it, had I the opportunity? Those who’ve played with me know I can’t help but author little deconstructions of the venerable property. Even as I praised Fourth Edition‘s bold focus on tactical board-game battles, I gleefully hacked it to reward players for inventing setting elements and plot twists. I’d be shy of trying to live up to the sprawling fun that hack produced, not least because of the spectacular way the game finally imploded, but I do daydream about the next great wrench to throw.

Jettison the genocidal bullshit. I have no patience anymore with stories of “evil races” needing to be put in their place by shiny colonial saviors. And D&Desque fantasy species in general–why do we still call them “races” in 2016, anyway?–range from trite through cringeworthy to entirely pointless. I find myself pulled in two directions: (a) run a game where the only sapient species are humans, ala the original Final Fantasy Tactics or the majority of Game of Thrones; or (b) run a gonzo-cosmopolitan setting like Planescape with the “give everyone personhood” principle from Dungeon World’s Planarch Codex. There are no monsters, only people who look different from you, trying to get by!

Superheroes in dungeons. Somebody I know tends to grump about how the current game isn’t lethal enough, what with people bouncing back from near death after just a night’s rest. I have no trouble with that, personally; it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Cowards & Convalescents. But it does make me wonder about the setting implications of the player characters’ resilience. What if we acknowledged that there’s something kinda weird and awe-inspiring about how bloody hard it is to kill even a second-level wizard these days? I picture a D&D gone all X-Men, with governments trying to exert control via “hero registration” and a populace by turns afraid and worshipful. Under the right regime, I could see old-school elements like titles by level, and having to pass tests to attain them, making sense…

Chuubo’s Marvelous Dungeon-Crawling Posse. Alternate experience rewards are all but necessary if you want to hack D&D‘s play priorities. When the only way to advance in the game is by killing things and taking their stuff, by God, there will be a lot of killing things and taking their stuff. One of the cleverest things in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is the Quest advancement system. You pick out cards for your character that represent a part of their life: a project they’re undertaking, a problem they’re working through, a mystery they face. Each card has a list of key events and roleplay behaviors that, when you make them happen in pursuit of the quest, earn you points toward advancement. I think that could port nicely to D&D! Written well, they could turn arbitrarily restrictive “alignment” and easily forgotten “character traits” into something players would enjoy engaging with.

Add all three musings together, and you get… something. Stay tuned?

See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!

Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!

Unbalanced, Part 3: System Matters

Next in the series of posts about my wacky extreme opinions: is it true that the particular tabletop RPG you’re playing, its rules and setting–the “system”–doesn’t matter with respect to the fun had at the table? There are some who would say indeed not, it’s all about the players, or specifically the person running or teaching the game. This may not be so gonzo as low-carb or no-copyright, but it does get some folks’ backs up, so it fits.

Adulath Caracai:

The Radical Notion

System always matters. Good players or bad, skilled GM or unskilled, the choice of what rules to use shapes the experience of play and has a major effect on the quality of that experience.

Details, and the Usual Objections

People argue over what constitutes a “game,” but this much is true of games if not definitional: they provide a context for understanding words and actions that differs from ordinary life. A hand wave might normally have practical purpose, to draw attention to yourself or something near you, or social purpose, to greet someone. But in the context of a game, that same wave might indicate a catch completed, a point scored, or a penalty incurred. In ordinary conversation, “essence” means a thing’s intangible basic nature, or perhaps a concentrated extract of something. In Exalted or In Nomine, it refers to a sort of energy or fuel for supernatural powers. Rolling a die or drawing cards is meaningless without a game to say that the random result means a critical hit, a bust, or a flush. The game’s rules and objectives (the system, in other words) encourage players to undertake all manner of actions and say different things that would not ordinarily happen, or would happen with different frequency and meaning, in life outside the game.

Games themselves have purposes, too. A sport is undertaken to entertain a crowd, to make money for a league or franchise, and to promote athleticism, tactics, and teamwork via competition. There are games intended to teach skills, promote good habits, or motivate fitness. Among tabletop RPGs, typical purposes include “fun”–the engagement and satisfaction of the players–and the creation of a story with a particular style, feel, or genre.

Put these two concepts together and it’s clear what’s meant to say that a game is well or poorly designed, and from there that system matters to play experience. A game shapes and redefines behavior via its system; a game has purposes; however the game’s system succeeds in achieving its purpose tells us how well designed it is. Exalted, for instance, tends to fail in that its stated purpose of telling stories of mighty heroes and fast-paced action does not match the rules, which tend to instantly kill characters for brief tactical mistakes, and can take tens or scores of minutes to resolve a single character’s combat maneuvers.

As an aside, it’s also been my experience that focused games tend to succeed at their narrow purposes more often than universal or kitchen-sink games succeed at their broad purposes. GURPS tries to represent all genres, and ends up doing disservice to many of them. Meanwhile, Dogs in the Vineyard is built to the narrow story structure of unraveling social ills and pronouncing judgment on their perpetrators, and does that surpassingly well. It’s not exactly a corollary of the above, nor is it universally true, but does go hand in hand with these discussions. It’s an important part of my beliefs on the topic.

At this juncture, the system-doesn’t-matter advocates might say, “That’s all well and good, but it misses what I’m saying. Of course you can have crappily designed games and well designed ones. But the point is that a great GM or players can make even a crappy game work and be fun, and no awesome game design will ever transform a crappy GM or players into awesome ones.”

I concede the above. It’s not necessary to my position that the game system’s design be the only factor in the quality of a session or campaign of it. Rather, it’s that the design always counts for something; it makes a difference for all players, both good and bad. It’s more work for a strong GM to bash out the kinks in a flawed system to get it to her high standards than it would be to run a well designed game purposed to those standards in the first place. And assuming our “crappy” players at least try to follow the rules of their chosen game, they’ll end up with a less crappy experience if they’re using a solid system than if they’re flailing about with a disorganized mess of a design.

The analogy I favor is that game systems are like athletic equipment: say, ice skates. Anyone can have a fun time doofing around on the ice with old, poorly sharpened, low-budget skates. But if you care at all about your speed, ability to turn, balance, and so forth, higher quality skates will help you. The casual skater will fall less and have a more pleasant experience overall; the pro athlete will be better able to reach the pinnacle of their potential. RPG designs are like that. Folks sometimes chafe at the fact that Dungeon World gives the GM lots of instructions on what to do and say in game: “I already do all that! I don’t need rules for it.” But the way it shakes out, new players learn how to run a good game much easier by having that advice, and experienced players still benefit from the reminders and the ways DW applies old best practices to the smooth operation of its own rules.

How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That

You may not be able to convince me that choice of game system doesn’t matter to enjoyment, but I’m not accusing anyone of “BadWrongFun.” At its absolute harshest (a distance I rarely take this to anymore, given my reluctance to get into heated Internet arguments), it’s a means-ends chide: if you care about good play experience/faithful genre emulation/etc., you’re crimping your own style if you choose a poor match of system to those goals. That’s all.

Furthermore, I acknowledge and can totally understand that good match of system to purpose isn’t always someone’s top priority. The classic “my group is familiar with this system, and it’d be a pain in the ass to learn a new one” is an example. Nostalgia is another motivation for choosing a system that might not, objectively speaking, provide as fun a time as something newer and tighter designed. I myself sometimes like to play games that are an unholy mess design-wise, to enjoy a quirky charm that other games don’t supply. Basically, one can set aside the typical purposes of smooth play, enjoyable tactical choices, and the like, prioritizing “the Werewolf: The Apocalypse experience” or “the energy our group has for learning new things” instead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what you’re getting into! Saying the system straight-up doesn’t matter might be blinding you to the possibility of a much better time.