At some point in any gamer’s career, he will succumb to the temptation to create a system of his (or her) own. It seems that all of us at Intwischa are suffering this affliction simultaneously. (Must be something in the whiskey.)
In this light, I’ve been most intrigued by an article titled The 3 Questions (plus one), which describes a simple set of three (no, four) questions for a game designer to consider. These questions are credited to Jared Sorensen, Luke Crane, and John Wick. “Nathan” of The Stockade Blog editorializes on these in the linked article, and it’s his thoughts that lead to today’s article.
Nathan states that “D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff (not a criticism!)” I fully agree with this statement, and also concur that it is not an inherent criticism. However, I add a caveat: many players (myself included, for many years) think D&D is about telling heroic stories. Chase supported this in a comment he made about the 3 questions article, “D&D is supposedly about heroic adventure, but its reward structure is completely based around killing stuff and taking the loot.”
I like the idea of a game designed around heroic stories, even while I agree that the rules in D&D don’t naturally create this sort of environment. With that in mind, I’d like to brainstorm some of what a heroic game might look like.
What Is Heroic? (What is Your Game About?)
Gamers will need to start with a common understanding of what is heroic. Here’s the short list for my proto-game:
- Courage: Whether martial or moral, a hero stands for her beliefs. Courage implies opposition–a hero is only heroic when opposed.
- Sacrifice: Opposition alone doesn’t define a hero–after all, the villain is inherently opposed, as well. What differentiates a hero in my game is his willingness to pay any price for his beliefs.
- Philanthropy: Philos anthropos–the love of humanity. Although a hero may be removed from society, her efforts are focused on creating or preserving a better society.
- Virtue: A hero must be virtuous, and a heroic team requires a common set of virtues. My proto-game will idealize life, liberty, and mercy.
- Heroic Flaw: The hero must have a flaw that leads in one way or another to her “death.” This need not be a virtuous flaw–in fact, mortality itself could be (and has been) a flaw in a heroic story. (After all, the Achilles Tendon of Achilles was literally Achilles’ tendon!)
- Superhuman appointment: Whether from ghosts, gods, or perfection of self, a hero needs to be appointed. In my proto-game, I’ll go for god-like spirits of ancestors doing the calling.
This list doesn’t focus on defining how to play heroes in a storytelling game–I’m interested in heroes who battle toe-to-toe with the forces of evil using superhuman talents. I’m specifically thinking swords-and-sorcery, but not limiting myself at this point.
So, to answer the core question of what the game is trying to do, I’d try this: “To tell stories of courageous heroes called by the gods to fight the forces of evil who threaten the liberty and life of all humanity.” That, in one way or another, hits on all the points I made above.
An Aside: Why can’t D&D do this?
D&D characters have many heroic attributes–it takes courage to face off with a monster and many D&D characters are supported by a deity. However, while sacrifice and virtue can certainly be part of a character, the rules neither require nor reward adherence to these attributes. The lack of reward of heroism is even more pronounced when one considers flaws: the only satisfaction a character gets for not being the best at everything is story-driven, not mechanics-driven.
Furthermore, as one gains levels in D&D, one’s innate abilities must be bolstered by magic items in order to face level-appropriate foes. This challenges the attribute of charity: a GM can hardly expect a player to give up the goods that are required to succeed at a game. And sacrifice? If a character gives his life for the story, all he gets is the story. While this is a great reward, one cannot argue that the rules reward sacrifice.
Sure, one can cite rules that counter these claims (such as the Feat/Flaw system, or feats such as “Vow of Poverty”), but these are corner cases. The rules at their core do not encourage the kind of attributes I consider to be heroic.
How can a game do this?
In examining how D&D doesn’t meet this notion of a heroic game, I’ve identified some of what this proto-game has to do. It has to reward sacrifice–even sacrifice of one’s own life. It has to provide opportunity for great gains and great losses. Since I’ve identified that my heroes will be fighting the forces of evil, I need a combat system, and it needs to focus on superhuman powers. (This, in turn, implies superhuman threats).
Several mechanical notions will be necessary in this game–”humanity” and it’s relative liberty, security, and sense of mercy all will need to be measured in some way. There will need to be ways to increase and decrease these virtues.
Most importantly, this game needs 2 things related to character death. First, there needs to be a substantive reward for a good death. Second, and counterbalancing the first point, there needs to be an incentive to live as long as possible.
Since my game is focused on heroic sacrifice, I want to focus on combat that requires sacrifice to win. I’ll need exploitable flaws, and I’m playing with the notion that the flaws will work best when the player doesn’t know what it is.
I still have to answer two more of those “3+1″ questions. How will my system reward “heroic” gameplay, and how do I make it fun? Beyond that, I need to flesh out some basic notions of mechanics. Never fear, I have some ideas. Here’s a teaser: I’m thinking of a karma track, where karma is earned for heroic acts and burned for self-serving ones. I’m thinking that each story arc is a moment in time, and the heroes of the current story will be the karmic ancestors of the characters in the next adventure. I’m thinking that earning a greater karma (living longer, doing more heroic deeds) will allow you to choose a trait that won’t be your weakness–so it’s still a mystery what your weakness is, but you know what it isn’t.
But that’s for tomorrow!