Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's not all about fighting...

You'll hear folks say old school gaming isn't all about fighting it's about exploration. And that's true... except of course the vast amount of the game rules support fighting and avoiding fights you can't win.

Sure there are rules for exploration and the descriptive exploration method works fine but...when was the last time someone in your game tried to get a monster drunk? Challenged an orc to an arm-wrestling match? Just plain-out bribed a monster? Tried to seduce someone? Snuck into some place to just steal something without really planning to get in a sword fight?

Does the body of the rules and what is written down pull us too much in a given direction?
Do player expectations and "party based play" force us into directions that limit our games?

 What are the odds of an orc taking a bribe? What about a wood elf, a gnome, a troglodyte?  Ever notice that's not in the rules? Oh sure you can hand wave it and base it on sensible decisions and likely outcomes...but uh...we don't do that for combat do we? Folks will tell you that's because combat is full of variables we are unfamiliar.  Frankly folks, I've never bribed an orc or an elf  but supposedly I'm qualified to make a judgement on how successful a bribery attempt is likely to be while I'm not competent enough to figure out how a combat would unfold (I have been in dozens of real fights and hundreds of fake fights however). Where is the separation really? Why can the basic setup of old-school play accept I can figure out if someone will take a given bribe without resorting to mechanics; sure I could use the reaction tables but that's more my learning how to adapt rules on hand than using the rules as written.  No one complains If I simply say "oh 50 gp the guard takes it and looks the other way" no one will challenge that, I haven't done anything wrong but if I or any DM says "your henchman flops to the ground with his throat slit" without rolling any dice almost everyone will react poorly even if i know the 10th level thief was almost certainly going to waste the 1st level fighter with 5hp. 

Can the halfling thief distract the dragon with a game of riddles while the rest of the party sneaks away?
Will the ogre settle for a few swigs from a jug as opposed to getting in a fight (would the players even bother)? 
So what's the threshold for DM decision over dice for you?


  1. Combat is relatively something that can be defined, as opposed to the other myriad situations that have many more gray characteristics. It is easy to define, so it is.

    Does this lead to an emphasis on combat? It does and it has. No argument.

    Am I right that in D2 (perhaps it was Night Below?) there were rules for when a Kuo-Toa city would "bug out" and abandon there city. While this usually due to combat, again it was an easily defined quantity.

    Whether the orc is thirsty, whether there are rivalries between the kobolds and goblins, whether what the bugbears really want is bacon, are all up for grabs and not so definable.

    Would you rather have a simple stat, call it "gullibility" to resolve some of these situations? Like the institution of thieving skills that removed "interesting play" this would lead to a play style of rolling for a result rather than describing it.

    I recall Courtney essays on skills I believe where he wrote about what kinds of things we should roll for and what kinds of things are fun as play to describe.

    My criteria for what is in rule space and what is in free form space are how easy the characteristics are to define and how much "play" is removed when they are simplified.

    Perhaps another interesting difference is that in D&D, combat is incremental - there are many procedural steps between success and failure. The other situations you describe are more distinct immediate success/failure. Although 4e used skill challenges (which I have seen done in interesting ways though the default is awful) to have incremental success/failure steps on other challenges.

    Sorry - I may have a better answer, but it's Saturday night and I'm drunk. Hope the rambling was worth something.

    1. Combat is more definable? Only because we want it to be and think about it this way: If a set of actions and interactions is definable why is it resolved using dice and not simply a comparison of factors?

      Seems to me the less definable an action the more sensible it would be to resolve it by decision as opposed to dice.
      In classical OSR games tactics are surely in the domain of player skill yet combat resolution is tied to the combatants combat scores/skills. Every RPG a sane man would enjoy falls short of being accurate or realistic in regards to combat and yet we accept a random roll tied to hard numbers for combat, for drama.

      That may be where the threshold is: Drama. Is the conclusion of drama better played out in locution or randomization. Clearly I'm a fan of randomization but i find it curious where the threshold is between dice rolling, dice rolling with scores and subsystems and educated fiat.

      As for gullibility scores...why not? OSR combat works for serving up the drama because it abstracts something intensely complicated and gets it done fairly simply. Does it hurt or improve the game if folks know Giblocks have a low gullibility score: wouldn't folks know/learn that and make decisions based on that and trust the dice to be as much fun as they are in combat?

      Oh Jon, if that was drunk typing you did a great job. I'm really thinking aloud and want folks to share as it is a curious matter of definition, abstraction, drama, and trust.

  2. I think that observation about gullibility and "bribeability" not being in the rules is kind of telling. It might not be all about the fighting, but there sure seems to be missing something else.

    While I don't think everything has to be codified, and there should be "rules support" for everything, it surely is easier to get the idea to bribe someone if you read about in the rule book.

    I remember reading that the System of the game, i.e. the table conventions, used to be far broader at Gary's and Dave's tables. But, if that's not every written down, it's damn hard to understand.

    This is actually something I like about the New School of design, as championed by Jared Sorensen, that when you have figured out the core activity of your game you should make the core of the rules be about that.

    I wonder if rules artifacts like the Saving Rolls in Tunnels & Trolls, and the saves against stats as portrayed in Dan Boggs attempts at recreating the early Blackmoor system (like in Dragons At Dawn), is where the Old Ways shows mechanics like this. I call those artifacts, since then they have been overshadowed quite a lot by the combat rules. Maybe the miniature wargaming branch of the rpg hobby ancestry took over a bit.

    1. D&D did have a mechanic that could change the face of encounters "The Reaction Roll" it gives an opportunity for negotiates/bribery/trickery that can be resolved by rules and decision not simple unrestrained fiat It's a maligned rule by many however possibly because it has been miss-used or underused so often.

    2. I can think of only three really good reasons to use randomizers.

      1) For a Fair Shake: when the immediate price of failure is high enough to put a PC out of the game. The stakes are almost always that high in combat because your PC could die. I think this is also why more or less everyone likes PCs to have some form of saving throw.

      2) For Actually Random Stuff: when in the service of strategy or drama, measured degrees of uncertainty are more useful to the game than fiat: like when you gradually spook the party with random encounter rolls, or when PCs are gambling, or when a player deliberately takes a big risk for a high payoff.

      3) For Hard Questions: When the question is one that could have a wide spectrum of outcomes, isn't easily modeled in the DM's head, and will almost certainly engender an hour of nerdrage debates about whether your guy could sneak up on the evil goatman, or whether Superman could beat the Hulk in a tug-of-war. Combat obviously hits this button big-time.

      Bribing an ogre doesn't really fall into any of those categories because 1) PCs don't instantly die if the ogre refuses; 2) no one can really quantify an in-fiction chance of success, but the DM already knows the ogre's motives, wants, and needs; and 3) Success or failure of the bribe is more or less binary, and no one but the DM really knows what's going on in the monster's head. Barring already-toxic cases, no PC will ever seriously call shenanigans on this because they don't have enough information about what's going on. As a DM, you could use a die to help you make the bribery call, but it's really only useful if you are having trouble predicting the outcome on your own.

      Sidenote: That list of never-seen scenarios was hilarious to me, because within the last four sessions my players have done all of them except arm-wrestle an orc. I haven't given them a good reason to try that yet, but challenge accepted!

    3. Yeah, that reaction roll is a neat mechanic. I also think it can be used quite well for those purposes. I still think that probably need to be more clearly stated in a game written today that those tools are there.

      For some years now we have had some really interesting things come to light when role players curious about the old ways have found interesting and odd uses for the mechanics of older editions of D&D. Sometimes I dare say we might even had managed to find the reasons for some of those rules being in there that had been forgotten by almost all. That's all very stimulating.

      The big question then. What should be in the rules, if they were better written than Gygax managed?

      Good question.

      Should everything that is based on chance be resolved with a die roll? Nah, I don't think so. Sometimes I think it could probably be done in another way. Even in combat. Do you use crits? I have heard so many times of GMs that let the players describe their own failures, and they are almost always harsher, and funnier!, when the players hose their characters.

      The conversation is interesting, but I think it's futile to think we'll ever manage to draw a line. Not that it will ever stop us wondering about it, will it? ;)

      Big McStrongmuscle, you had all those happen to your game, except the arm wresting? Glorious fun! I'd love to have been there.