Tuesday, May 8, 2012

D&D with Robot Chicken

This series of videos was introduced to me by my brother recently. I know next to nothing of Robot Chicken, but I might check it out, it looks pleasantly weird. Anywho, these videos--25 or so--record the 4e session DMed by Chris Perkins, Creative Manager of WoTC, and some of the staff of Robot Chicken.

Now I don't know what a creative manager is exactly, but essentially he is the manager of all the creative people in the design process. Essentially he is the lead designer. Which is strange because Mike Mearls is often referred to as the lead developer. Which if I understand it is something like a lead programmer. A lead programmer is responsible for the overall architecture of a software system, and for overseeing that all his underlings carry out the design. I think the designer is more into graphic design--so maybe Mearls had more to say about the mechanics and Perkins about the "look".

You may think I digress, but this little foray into corporate game structure helps me understand a bit more about how Perkin's may think in design terms as he plays. I couldn't help but wonder what Perkins was thinking in terms of design and presentation and play as he GMed. But maybe that's just me.

So you can check out the series here.

The reason I mention them is that it was quite enlightening to see how 4e played as a neutral third party observer. I was at first struck about how similar Perkins and I DM. I took some time to rad some of his articles and the idea was reinforced even more. I quote from his 4/19 Dungeon Master Experience article,

"In my role at Wizards, I pay lip service to the principles of encounter design and even enforce them from time to time in published adventures, but in my own games I do not measure an encounter in terms of level or balance. I build encounters that I think will be fun and result in some memorable or exciting moments that the players will remember. The only burden I carry as the Dungeon Master is to be FAIR, but let's talk about what that word means in the context of running a D&D campaign. In my opinion, a "fair" encounter is one that allows for multiple outcomes. A fair encounter presents players with real choices and decisions, the consequences of which could lead to a completely unexpected and unplanned outcome. An unfair encounter is one where the conclusion is foregone. An unfair encounter turns your players into puppets unable to do anything you haven't allowed for.


I can get away with throwing everything including the kitchen sink at my players, as long as I honor the terms of our unspoken social contract. My players need to know that I'm on their side, that I'm rooting for their characters, and that I'll do whatever it takes to keep the campaign from becoming tiresome without depriving them of their ability to affect what happens. One cure for a predictable campaign is to put the PCs in a situation they're ill equipped to handle, encourage them to consider unorthodox tactics, and be open-minded enough to let the players imagine solutions you hadn't considered. As a philosophy, it's not without risks, but if my intentions are transparent, my players are more likely to pin any unfortunate outcome on their own decisions and bad luck. I'll let them flail about, find their way around obvious hurdles, create their own hurdles, and even leap from the proverbial frying pan into the fire if that's what they really want to do. And if they're genuinely screwed, I'll try not to laugh at their misfortune, and I might just throw water instead of gasoline on the fire so that the campaign doesn't go up in flames."

Well said Mr. Perkins, I couldn't agree more. Now, I'm sure some of my readers will wonder how I can be so inspired by an article on DM fairness when I am such a champion of DM-Player Adversarial play. Well, I think people misunderstand my idea of adversarial play. The players aren't really enemies--even though I may say so with tongue in cheek from time to time. My goal is to challenge players, stretch them, so that they can be offered a truly heroic experience. And while I don't pour gasoline on flames the PCs might have started. I certainly do not put the fires out for them. But other than that I rally like Perkin's approach to DMing and it seemed to me his style is very similar to mine in many respects.

The next thing I noticed upon watching these videos, was how combat slowed play down to a crawl at times. Admittedly I would lay some of this at the feet of 4e. Combat in 4e can take a while. Which made me wonder what is to be gained by such an approach. Long combat in and of itself is not a problem, unless you don't like it. I had the following thoughts though:
  • Combat length is often related to options for the players. The more there is for them to do--beyond a combat attack--the more time it will take. 4e offers powers to all players, so this naturally extends combat. If players are okay with this I suppose it's okay. But in larger groups people can get bored if they have to wait too long for their turn to come back around.
  • Combat length is often related to breaking the combat round into action options. Moves, minor actions, standard actions and the like--especially when a player can take more than one leads to more decisions, more tactical play, and of course more time.
  • Realism can also extend combat length. To a slight degree 4e is more realistic than past system, but 3.5 was even more so. Systems like Hackmaster might also extend combat as it is designed with even greater realism in mind.
  • Increase in PC and/or monster power level, especially in terms of hit points makes PCs more likely to engage in combat, and stick with combat thus lengthening the time it takes to defeat foes and finish combat.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging such play. Overall the guys in Perkin's game seem to enjoy themselves, with a few exceptions--but every game as those. I couldn't help but wonder what Perkin's was thinking, but maybe that's because I over-identified with him. Did I expect him to think and see what I was seeing and thinking? In the end his players seemed to be having a good time, so maybe he was okay with that.

Later, as I was pondering on what I'd seen I couldn't help but think about how combat used to be:
  • Okay you are heading down the shadowy corridor and that sour smell of urine is increasing. Your torches allow you to see about 20 feet ahead to the bend in the hall.
  • (GM rolls and determines surprise--there is none)
  • When around the corridor comes  a trio of green skinned goblins, their beady orange eyes reflecting the light from your torch. You and the gobbers are both stunned for a moment and they then raise their weapons and charge!
  • Roll d6 for init everybody!
  • dice roll
  • Okay looks like your first Greywand.
  • I cast Magic Missile at the goblin!
  • Okay roll damage
  • 3 points!
  • The goblin drops screaming in pain as the golden missile bursts into his chest
  • I shoot at the one ugly one in front with my crossbow!!
  • Roll to hit
  • 13
  • You just miss, as he ducks to the side. The goblins charge and swing their spiked clubs screaming Bree Yark!!! Their nasty breath and spittle spraying you with stink. You're hit Sargoth! 2 damage.
  • Ouch--that b**tard!
  • The third one swings and misses the wizard.
  • Okay finally! My dwarf swings his axe at the one attacking the wizard! Die goblin spawn! Oh no! A 1!
  • (DM rolls die) Uh oh, your axe slips from your grip and flies over the goblins head clattering further down the darkened corridor.
  • Agh! I don't have another weapon!! Can I use my fists?!
  • Yeah, on your next init.
  • Greywand, what do you do?
  • I pull my dagger and lunge at the one Thorkin just missed. A 20!!
  • Ouch! Good job!! Roll, double damage.
  • 4! times 2 is 8 points!! Take that sucker!
  • Yeah, you catch him under the chin, burying your dagger to the hilt. His scream dies in a bloody gurgle--and he collapses on the floor.
  • Alright!! only one left! I drop my crossbow and pull my sword.
  • Okay, that'll allow you an attack after Thorkin (there were no hard and fast rules for such actions so the DM makes a call that anyone doing anything like this attacks last).
  • The last goblin swings at Thorkin and misses.
  • I try and grab him around the neck and throttle his ugly little face!
  • Okay we'll call that a punch--roll
  • 13, +1 for my strength that's a 14
  • That'll do, you hit him square in the nose. Roll a d3.
  • Huh, what's a d3?
  • roll a 6 and divide by two.
  • Okay. (rolls) A one--stink. does that mean a half point of damage?
  • Nope minimum of one. You do 1 point. He grimaces, but is still struggling.
  • Let's capture him! (Greywand)
  • No! I stab him in the gut with my short sword! (rolls)
  • No, wait! He may know something!
  • 15?
  • That hits--roll damage.
  • 4 points!
  • He's a goner. Slumping to the floor, he looks upward and mutters something in goblin before his eyes fade to lifelessness.
  • Yeah!! (cheers and high fives)
  • Hey Thorkin, do you speak goblin ....
Easier? Faster? I tend to think so. In fact play acting this out it took just under 5 minutes. But alot is left unsaid. We don't worry too much about moves and positions, and actions. It is kept abstract and simply exactly because it speeds things up. Admittedly, in some situations such lack of detail can cost a player; and DMs need to be aware of this and not let the system screw the players. That's part of being fair. Some people like having everything spelled out, knowing where everyone is at all times. Others prefer a faster, more freewheeling form of combat.

Which sort of leads me to my third thought--what about having an exposed map in front of the players. When I played 4e, one of the things that really bothered me was pulling out the map.Whenever I did the players knew combat was coming--or at least a significant encounter. But in Perkin's adventure the map is out the whole time. That avoids the problem I mention above, but I don;t like the players knowing what is coming. The element of exploration is somewhat minimized in my opinion.

I asked my brother about this, and to my surprise he likes having the map exposed. He says it actually engages the players more. He started doing several months ago, and has done it ever since. Occasionally he says that it can give certain things away, but the positive tradeoffs are worth it in his opinion. I'm afraid I'm still not sold. I like it when PCs have to see the environment in their mind's eye, and map it own their own paper. It puts more demands on them, but it does me also. I have to explain the room clearly and in enough detail so that there're no questions or misunderstandings that might cause problems for them later on. This again requires I not screw players because they misunderstood something. The burden is on me to communicate well, and them to pay attention.

In this case is a map easier and faster? Yes I think so. But I feel that the tradeoff in PCs not knowing what is coming, or having an easy exit spelled out for them every time worth the extra work required working without one. But I will admit it sure looked cool. Maps are a big part of the game. And PCs being engaged with a map is a strong point. In one case it's there for them to look at, in another they are creating it on their own.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Being Honest With Yourself

Yeah, it's been one of those weeks. But the important part is that it's been a real learning experience for me. Humbling, but educational. And to top it all off I have a hell-a-cold. But I've had some significant thoughts ( significant for me anyway--it remains to be seen if it helps anyone else :) and I thought I ought to share them.

What with my concern over offering offense, I contemplated the future direction of my blog quite a bit. I thought about why I felt the need to continually defend or justify my gaming choices and opinions. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself. I also considered that perhaps I was a lot more concerned with what others thought than I might have wanted to admit.

Some time ago I wrote this. It was a bit of a watershed moment for me really, and I was certain that I was headed in bold new directions right after that post. Unfortunately it has taken me a lot longer than I imagined to embrace the concept, and truly understand a little of what it meant. I had realized things about myself and about my gaming that was in some way fundamental, but I really wasn't able to fully admit this.

I realized that I've been doing a lot of gaming based on what others want from me. Not, however based on what I want. I suppose that's because, deep down I'm pretty conflicted about all that.

Back when I was twelve I started with a small gaming group of 3 other guys, and one reluctant Scoutmaster. About a year later, as I entered middle school (7th and 8th grade) my gaming shifted to another group of friends again 3--and I stuck with those guys for years. That second group was to become much more than gaming friends, and though it would grow and shrink from time to time, a core 3 of us stayed pretty constant.

I've often wondered now that we have all gone our separate adult ways, if we were together still what we would be playing now? And would it really matter. Back then there really was only one predominant choice. But now, things are much different. For the first time in gaming history the company with the DnD name is no longer leading the pack. What if those guys embraced Pathfinder? 4e? GURPS? Or something else entirely--would I be playing with them? I'm almost sure I would--the system wouldn't matter all that much.

But now I'm in a much different situation. I'm the not-so-reluctant adult recruiting kids into the school club, and introducing them to this marvelous hobby I love so much. It's a great place to be really. But it's markedly different from being a fellow gaming buddy. Drance mentioned a few days ago, that I really should look for a group of similar aged people with which to game. I agree--I would love that. I've tried three times now, but it has failed each time. I'll admit I kind of quit trying, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't love to see it happen. Finding the right and willing people in our small community has proven difficult to say the least.

But what if they came along? Two or three like minded adult gamers, willing to carve out a couple of days a month for some serious long term gaming; but what if they wanted to play something other than what I want? I think I would be foolish to turn them down. Becuase I also wrote this. Which I think made a fairly good point that it doesn't really matter what we play, it's a lot more important who we game with.

So why the heck does that leave me still longing for the feel of my old gaming days? Just yesterday I wrote to my brother explaining some of how I felt. I think I recapture some of that feeling by saying,

"My foray into Classic D&D has made me wonder if 5e will manage to put something like that together for their core game. I am hopeful that it will. But admit to a sense of loss and nostalgia for what once was. I was looking at some of the old third party books from the late 70's early 80's and it really struck a chord in me. A chord of longing so intense, that even talking about it now it makes my chest ache. It overwhelms me with sadness to think that its gone. I have tried to resurrect it, but it's like trying to redream a sweet dream that you once had. No matter how hard you try when you release yourself to sleep it still escapes you."

Can it be reclaimed? Well, inasmuch as we can never go back in time--no of course not. I will never be 12 again, never play for the first time again never discover Dungeons & Dragons for the first time again. Part of the nostalgia we feel for the "good old days" is encompassed by the fact that it was in the past. But saying that the past is worthless in the present is plain silliness. Part of wisdom is learning from the lessons and virtues taught to us in the past. No, we can't ignore the advantages of the present or the promise of the future. I'm still a trekkie ; ).

But we can embrace a style of gaming that mirrored that in which we gamed long ago. A style that had many virtues to recommend it. A time when rules faded into the background and fantasy came to the fore. A time when we weren't so fixated on system this or core mechanic that, or game design period. We simply played a game that fulfilled all our childhood fantasies and more. So much more. We didn't play D&D because of it's elegant game mechanics--we played it, 'cuz it rawked!

Now, I don't begrudge those who looked at the game at wondered why an elf couldn't be a Druid, or why females were limited in their ability stats, or that the level system seemed a bit contrived, or that the combat system was wonky. Those are the guys who branched out into other games, and many of them set the groundwork for the next generation of games. I guess I wasn't that smart--I just played the hell out of it. To me it was not only the best game on Earth it was the only game on Earth.

So here I am now, still feeling a very strong connection to past methods of gaming, and yet finding myself conflicted over what was lost and what is now. I don't have a bunch of friends all telling me to play game X, Y or Z. It's just me, frustrated with the conflicting desires of a bunch of young gamers who don't always desire what I do. So I try and play what they have wanted and only grow more frustrated. I've been through this with 3.5, with 4e and now with Pathfinder. Am I going to repeat the cycle with 5e? Why do I even let it bother me?

Just play the game you want and let it be. That's what I decided when the year ended. I was blasted if I was going to play something I didn't want to again. Let them play what they will--I was going to play MY game. Problem was I wasn't really sure what my game was. To be honest I was processing all of this just as 5e dawned on the horizon. Would 5e manage to create a system that would allow me to embrace my style of gaming while still pleasing everyone else as well? I realized that WoTC was doing the same thing I had been trying to do myself. Reconcile opposite poles of existence.

As much as their is much wisdom to be gained in seeing the common ground which opposites share, and in the assimilation of the diametric poles of our own existences; I seriously doubt if all things were meant to be so assimilated. Some things are simply meant to be a part. The past the the future shall never meet, nor shall I ever be able to game like I did when I was 12 and just encountering D&D. I am not the same person I was back then, and my experience of the game is now burdened with 31 years of intervening time. But this does not mean that the truths learned way back then have to be discarded. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax uncovered some powerful magic back in the day. And that magic is worth preserving. We've been playing in it as a fanbase for over 40 years now.


I have heard others make an analogy of music to gaming. Whatever you grew up listening to you, is your "classic" music. For me it is Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath, Eagles, Willie Nelson, CCR and the like. I think the analogy can even be extended slightly. Long ago Gary said RPGs are not at all like Art. But I would propose that in a way a similar phenomena has evolved in relation to RPGs and art. Namely that of Art Criticism and that there's no accounting for taste. Ultimately, with music, art, theater, movies, and games there are all sorts of theories describing why a certain work is good or bad. B-movies are notorious for being "bad" yet there are those who absolutely love B-Movies as their ultimate expression for quality entertainment. There's no accounting for taste. his doesn't mean that some people like trash, just that they may like what you don't. Black Velvet Elvis paintings hang in the houses of more people than does Picasso or Van Gogh. Does this mean it's better? I guess that really is in the eye of the beholder. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And you can get all noble and and try and look down your nose at someone's screenplay, thinking it's no On Golden Pond, but it might draw more money than OGP ever did.
 
Another analogy if you will. I have a good friend whi, while he is very spiritual is not very religious. He and I were talking one day about near death experiences and he quoted one lady who had "crossed over" and come back. She had been allowed to ask several questions, and one of her queries was if there was why there were so many churches? The response she received, is that there are so many churches because there are so many different types of people. Hmmm ...
 
I'm not here to make religious pronouncements, but as far as it goes I would say the same thing about today's world of an overabundance of RPGs. The one true RPG? The one for you. Be honest with yourself and you'll find it.
 
I'd be lying if I promised I won't be geeking out over why my chosen style of gaming is better than all the rest at times. I can't help myself. It's sort of like the one we love. As far as I'm concerned my wife is the best, most wonderful person in the entire world. But I'm sure there are lots of other people in love out there who might feel different. Love is funny like that. And we all love RPGs--just some more than others. Expect some different stuff from me in the future, but don't be put off if I geek all over your shoes, because I'm having a love or hate fest here on my little blog.