Friday, October 7, 2011

This Battle Station is now the Ultimate Power in the Universe...

...I suggest you don't use it.

Dungeons and Dragons, and RPGs of similar cast, are relatively unique in the annals of games, in that they pit one player (the GM) against all the other players (the PCs) and the GM has the ability to quite literally throw everything and anything he can at them to thwart their progress towards their goals.

Sweet Reason, if you could play chess like that, or Ogre, or Panzerblitz, it would never work. Nobody would ever want to play the side that didn't have the "I can do anything I want, 'cause I'm the GM" power.

So what is it about RPGs that lets the GM get away with it? Quite simply, RPGs have a different goal than purely competitive games such as chess or Ogre or Squad Leader. There is a shared understanding between the GM and the PCs that the challenges the GM presents won't be completely overwhelming. There will always be something that the PCs can do to survive (if not always win) the encounter. It may be obnoxiously difficult to figure out, but it's always there.

SCENARIO A: "You enter the 30'x40' room. As you reach the center of the room, the ceiling slams down at a speed of 500 mph, squashing you all into jelly. Please roll saving throws for all your magic items to see if they survived a 'crushing blow', for the next group of adventurers to find."

SCENARIO B: "You enter the 30'x40' room. As you reach the center of the room, the door behinds you slams shut and the ceiling begins to slowly descend. You estimate that you have 2 minutes before you're all squashed into jelly. What are you going to do?"

You can tell instinctively that scenario B is going to be a lot more fun. Even if the GM hasn't given the PCs any real clues about how to get out of this particular trap, the mere fact that they have the chance somehow makes it more fair. Maybe they'll figure out that the triangular dagger they picked up in the previous room will, when fitted into the slot in the descending ceiling, stop its progress. Maybe they'll figure out some use or combination of spells or magic items that the GM hasn't thought of at all, allowing them to escape. Maybe they'll get squashed into jelly. But at least they have a chance.

Adventures don't have to be "fair" or "balanced". Indeed, one of the fault lines between folks who like the newer generation of RPGs, as opposed to those who prefer older games, is that the latter don't see anything wrong with an encounter that's way over the ability of the PCs to overcome. Sometimes the winning play is to run away. The former sort would see that as somehow "losing" the encounter, and therefore see the encounter as inherently imbalanced and unfair.

One of the best qualities of a GM is that he is fair. Not in the sense that the PCs have a good chance (or even any chance) of "winning" every encounter, but in the sense that the PCs have a chance of surviving those encounters. Even though the key to surviving may be obscure, or the "survival" strategy is to run away from that ancient red dragon, it can still be done. A certain death trap, in this context, is unfair. An escapable death trap is fair.

Ultimately, I think it's a lot more fun when the GM isn't overly worried about making sure his encounters all have a chance for me to win. It's all the more satisfying when I barely survive and live to tell the tale, or, better yet, come up with an outside-the-box idea that works. Knowing I have an 80% chance of "winning" every encounter is just... too balanced.

6 comments:

Eric Wilde said...

One of the best qualities of a GM is that he is fair.

I very much agree with this statement, though not with much else in the post.

Not in the sense that the PCs have a good chance (or even any chance) of "winning" every encounter, but in the sense that the PCs have a chance of surviving those encounters. Even though the key to surviving may be obscure, or the "survival" strategy is to run away from that ancient red dragon, it can still be done.

Oh, man! Do we play differently or what? I've played and greatly enjoyed games like yours, which is one common slant in the OSR; but, our table behaves extremely differently. Then again, our "dungeon" is almost always above ground and mixed within a large social milieux. I still consider our table "Old School" in most ways (not to start a flame war here.)

So many of your assumptions about how to play RPGs are far off the mark; but, the sentiment about common goals and fairness do still apply.

Northy said...

I'm not sure how you can state that the assumptions about 'how to play' are off the mark, when you offer no evidence to the contrary, particularly as you admit the common goals are the same.

Sounds to me like the assumptions of how to play are based on "be fair, always give them a chance to live". Outside of that I see no directives for gaming.

Personally, my game is wildly different in style to Joe's as well, BUT my game also runs from the same principles as his and thus I feel the ideas he espouses for gaming are (mostly) correct.

Eric Wilde said...

I feel perfectly comfortable putting the character in a certain death situation when the game situation calls for it.

For example, one fine summer day a player character ambushed the prince of a local kingdom and killed him. Some of the prince's retainers escaped alive and made it back to their kingdom to report who had ambushed them. In the dead of night the following winter a band of Sons of Wotan from the neighboring kingdom raided the player character's manor estate, killing the player character and his wife and children. The player character put up a valiant stand trying to protect his family from overwhelming force; but, there really was no chance of escaping or surviving.

The game was better for it.

Its just a different style. I'm not at all knocking the style of gaming described in the post - and indeed have enjoyed similar such games myself.

Eric Wilde said...

particularly as you admit the common goals are the same.

I should add, we (Joe and I) don't seem to have common goals between us; but, rather that all the players (including the referee) at our table share a common goal. For our table, the goal is an interesting story within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting.

In rereading Joe's post I realized he said "a shared understanding" instead of a common goal. So I misrepresented the post slightly. Even then, the shared understanding at our table includes the fact that overwhelming odds are possible within the game and they do occasionally occur.

Danny Peck said...

I may be being dense here, but I can't imagine how the player character in your example couldn't escape from a manor house under attack if he had time to make the decision to "put up a valiant stand."

The GM responded to the character's choice to kill the noble and allow his retainers to escape with a consequence of the invading force descending onto his manor. To put it into 'dungeon terms', he blindly entered the trapped room with his family and the ceiling started to lower on him. His only chance of escape was to squeeze through a small mouse hole and he had one potion of reduction. Since his family shared his predicament, he decided that rather than escaping alone or allowing a single person to escape, they would die together.

I would regard this situation as superb GMing in the same way that I would regard the difference between example A and B as the difference between bad and good GMing. On the other hand, if the DM just said "Thousands of soldiers descend on your house in the middle of the night, you never wake up because you and everyone you care about are dead.", that'd be an example A situation, haha!

postgygaxian said...

There is a shared understanding between the GM and the PCs that the challenges the GM presents won't be completely overwhelming. There will always be something that the PCs can do to survive (if not always win) the encounter. It may be obnoxiously difficult to figure out, but it's always there.

I don't think that actually works in practice.

If the GM and the players manage to discover a balance, then the game survives.

However, very often, the players and the GM don't discover the necessary balance, and the game dies. Maybe it dies with angry recriminations, maybe it dies with shrugged shoulders.

Tabletop games frequently fail to deliver on their proposed goals.