Monday, March 19, 2012

The Straitjacket of "The Adventure"

One of the design features of later editions of D&D that really bugs me is the idea that there should be some formula for determining how difficult an adventure is, based on the total levels of the player characters. That is, if the player characters have a total of X levels, that means that "the adventure" should have Y total hit dice of monsters (or CRs of traps, etc.), and a concomitant amount of treasure. I bring this up because of something Mike Mearls said in today's Legend and Lore column, talking about the upcoming 5E:
The DM needs rules that can allow for adventures with as many fights as needed, from a single big brawl to a number of shorter fights. I'd like to see an adventure design system that gives me a suggested total XP value for monsters and traps to use so that I can push the characters to the limit of their abilities. I can then spend that XP for one battle, lots of little battles, or just sprinkle monsters in an environment as I choose.

I object to this idea on several levels.

First, it treats the dungeon master like an imbecile, implying that he can't design a fair adventure without some sort of mathematical formula to guide him. While it is very true that most older modules carried with them an indicator of the intended level of player character for whom the module was written ("An AD&D adventure module for levels 6-8", etc.), those were not derived from any sort of tallying of the total hit dice of the monsters therein, but rather were a subjective measure to assist the consumer. If the player characters in your game were all 3rd level, you didn't want to spend your hard-earned module money on Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl...

Second, although I've not heard of this happening, I could see it being used by certain rules-lawyery types to complain that a given scenario was not only "unfair", but was actually "against the rules". It's just a hypothetical, but I can really see someone saying "Hey, you shouldn't have put two xorns in that cave; that put it past our maximum allowed challenge level! I want that last battle re-run with only one xorn."

Third, though, is both the most objectionable and the most insidious. By treating "the adventure" as a unique, distinct ideal for how the game is played, such a system actually makes it difficult (if not impossible without ignoring that part of the rules) to play in a style of campaign that's anything other than modular and combat-oriented. How does one calculate the challenge level in a sandbox-style campaign? Or a megadungeon-based campaign? Part of the challenge of such games is the players realizing when their characters are over matched, and retreating in order to come back later when they are more experienced, have had a chance to gain intelligence about the enemy, etc.

If everything is based around "the adventure", then the game becomes by implication an episodic affair with distinct objectives that the players are expected to meet before moving on to the next. While I have absolutely nothing against such adventures, and myself designed and DMed hundreds of such, I don't want it to be something that is forced by the rules. When "the adventure" is made up of whatever plot threads the players decide to pull this week, or whatever encounters they find (pre-planned or random) in the wilderness hex they decide to explore, mechanics for determining the challenge level of "the adventure" become meaningless at best.

Too, the very notion that everything revolves around XP for slaying monsters flies in the face of not only one of the OSR's chief conceits (XP for treasure, which encourages imaginative play and tactics that allow the PCs to grab the loot by distracting or otherwise avoiding the monsters), but also those of those more inclined towards storytelling games (where XP is gained by successfully interacting with the NPCs, in order to obtain whatever goals one has). I see the value of all three ways of doing things, depending on the circumstances, and wouldn't like to see one become the de facto standard way of play by rulebook fiat.

Lest it be thought that this is going to be one of my posts that gets tagged "grognardish grumpiness", I should point out that the larger points of Mearls' post are ones I can agree with. The very notion that one can roll up characters and complete a full module in an hour is one I, and I think many of my fellow OSR travelers, can embrace. I am also on record as saying I like the notion of varying levels of complexity being able to be played at the same table, even if I may be a tad skeptical as to how it can be implemented.

But if they really want this new game to be something embraceable by fans of many different versions, I hope they don't cripple that goal out of the gate by baking a particular style of play into the rules.

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