This week in our links roundup, we look at posts focusing on the balance of story elements and mechanics, and why D&D Next may or may not be a holy grail. We also congratulate The Id DM on his Stuffer Shack ‘Site of the Year’ award, as we learn from his self-admitted failures and explore how to learn from our own mistakes.
One of These Things is Kind Of Like the Other
This week, two utterly unrelated posts thematically wove themselves together in my brain. While you’ve heard me go on here about when failure is good for your character, why there should not be secrets around the table, and how balance can get in the way, there are just times where you want your character to be good at what he is good at, or to foster mystery at the table, or to establish clear strengths and weaknesses for your character.
I’m generally of the opinion that issues of character skill, background, and balance are best left to assertion rather than rule. In this way, I really like how Call of Cthulhu 6E handles things: your character’s stats are randomly generated by a series of rolls, and at the end, you explain what happened in your character’s past to result in these rolls. Traveller and Burning Wheel handle this in an even more integrative way: as you build your stats, you tell your story. This is a crunchier adaptation of FATE’s Aspect system: you still get stats, but your story is woven around them.
Alphastream reflects on the way various editions of D&D have dealt with (or not acknowledged) backstory, and the fact that most editions that address it have done so in either a game-breaking or verisimilitude-shattering way: either you reward someone too much for acting in character, or your offer rewards too great that character ceases to matter. While I think the solution lies in “kill your rewards; story itself is the prize,” I’m intrigued by some of his reflections on D&D Next and it’s apparent route of limited classes, classless backgrounds tied to skills, and classless themes tied to feats. Like Alphastream, I worry (especially in the latter case) that this will result in optimal/popular and suboptimal/’only used by me’ backgrounds and themes–but I’m curious to see if it works.
And to move to the seemingly-unrelated-but-connected-in-my-brain item, Michael at HouseRules4DND paints a picture of a new kind of skill challenge where “failure” doesn’t make sense. His illustration for this challenge is an investigation, and the dialectic is “little information” on one side and “A Ha!” on the other. (No, not the Norwegian pop band–but that gives me an idea for another game altogether). Michael shows how you can create a scene where players are hunting high and low for clues, and he uses a combination of both degree of success of a skill check and which skills a player decides to use to determine which clues to disburse.
How is this connected? It’s in the reliance on mechanics. Like character background, investigation is one of those things that suffers when it becomes too crunchy. And yet, if you don’t have rules around it, it leads to the same kind of imbalance. While I maintain that the latter is only a problem if you make it one, I still see the temptation for clear rules for things like investigation (and background). Michael does an admirable job of creating a system that allows for non-game-breakingly rewarding investigation–even if I shudder a bit at a GM not telling her players what skills they are using for a particular check.
Still, at the end of the day, my solution is to put player-driven-story and crunchitude on inverse continuums (continua?) If your desire for a solid and limited set of rules for solving mysteries is high, fine. Play a game with random character generation where backstory doesn’t matter as much, and embrace the nature of the game. And if you like your characters doing things in character, toss skills out the window and give them an investigation scene where failure (even failure they know about) still leads to interesting adventure.
- Defining Character (from Alphastream’s D&D Community Blog)
- Training Grounds: How to Create, Run an Informal Skill Challenge (from HouseRules4DND)
- On Making a Messiah: The Machinations of Zaim al Tahir (from Intwischa)
- How to Fail (from Intwischa)
- The Cathedral and the Scaffold: Using (and not using) Balance in your Game (from Intwischa)
Monsters Don’t Kill Stories; DMs Kill Stories
The Id DM (by the way, congrats on Stuffer Shack ‘Site of the Year’!) posts a refreshingly vulnerable article on running a bad gaming session. He speaks of plots that go on way too long, and how the party loses steam from level one to–in his case–level 14!
I certainly appreciate his thoughts on creating shorter story lines that can be resolved in a few sessions. However, I’d push on the notion that every abnormal thing needs resolving quickly. After all, in a world of monsters and magic, we expect some pretty long-lasting abnormalities!
He specifically describes a situation where dopplegangers have replaced high-ranking officials, and laments that players discovered this at level 1 and it isn’t resolved at level 14. This can be OK! The key, in my mind, is to set expectations and character limitations early. To illustrate, as I mentioned, magic is a reality in these sorts of games. Players know it at first level. And guess what–even though “magic” is not the norm in our world, no one interprets their goal to “undo” magic in the world!
If you need a long-lasting “dopplegangers have replaced our leaders” arc, integrate it as deeply into your campaign as you have magic. Let your players find out, and refrain from setting the expectation that they can do anything about it. Make the political structure powerful and inaccessible to low-level characters, and create a world where accusations against the establishment are met with charges of harmless lunacy or punishable treason.
Heck, kick off the campaign with a well-known and powerful “retired adventurer” who publicly levels these accusations. The established leadership swiftly orchestrates a situation where this adventurer is made to look like he is actually the doppleganger (perhaps with the aid of a well-placed baleful polymorph), and he is arrested and executed for crimes against the crown.
Make the start of the campaign focused on upholding the old values of the city. Create short arcs with their own focus: levels 1-3 can be smuggling the family of the deceased retired adventurer out of the kingdom for their own safety. Levels 4-6 might be a wholly unrelated adventure that only serves the purpose of getting them back to the city. Levels 7-9 might actually feature the adventurers being hired by the dopplegangers, who “know they know” and need their services in a tense deal. These short arcs can continue for long periods of time, and the players might actually be surprised when, at a high level, they’re afforded the opportunity to overthrow the government.
The Agony of Defeat (from The Id DM)