Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Total Buzz Kill? - Part Two

The next TPK was more painful, and involved a fair bit of subsequent player discussion and navel gazing. This game, let’s call it Game 2, is an ultra-traditional D&D game using 4th Edition, including pretty much every supplement, a horde of miniatures, and players who exclusively play D&D – and some who have done so for several decades.

In Game 2, we were at the beginning of what, by all accounts, was to be an extensive campaign, involving much preparation and thought on the part of the GM. We had generated our own characters and had them injected, almost at random, into the adventure. Regrettably, neither players nor characters had much communication about our end goals, and this was to prove our undoing.

After 6 sessions of exploration of a wilderness environment and associated town (including a mini-dungeon) we asked for, and were given, a task by the local lord. This was to investigate the increased instance of attacks on the road leading to the town, and report back what was going on. Subsequent investigation revealed that; while there had been attacks on the road previously, these had recently escalated in terms of violence, coinciding with a powerful magical flux we had previously experienced.

We wandered out to investigate, and were attacked. We defeated our would-be ambushers and took one captive. After a session of interrogation we established that the local eco-system had been upset when spell-casting Bugbears had moved into a local keep, moving out the incumbent hobgoblins, who had in turn displaced the local goblins, which had in turn caused trouble with a tribe of Kobolds. The Bugbears were primarily responsible for attacking travelers on the road, and all the other factional races wanted them dealt with. We negotiated with the bugbears, and scouted the keep, noting the extremely difficult nature of any frontal assault.

Now, here’s where we came unstuck. As it turned out, the characters had very different reasons for taking this job. One character wanted to get paid by the lord and was ready to go back to town. Another wanted to find a way home, and several were of the view that we had not adequately obtained an accurate picture of the environment. My own character was a do-gooder Paladin who was aiming to resolve the issue with a minimum of bloodshed, and was keen to arrange some level of negotiation before employing force or giving the local lord an excuse to do the same.

The players weren’t exactly on the same page either. My filthy hobo paladin of the god of the homeless wasn’t winning me any friends with the party, who thought I was failing to act as a suitable negotiator and utilise my high charisma score. Our priest wasn’t big on voluntarily healing people, and the others had some issues as well. It’s fair to say that players who had an eye on ‘party roles’ as set out in the book were increasingly displeased with our failure to fulfill our anticipated roles to maximize our potential.

What transpired was that, we believed that the Hobgoblins would support us while it looked like we were going to tackle their enemies the Bugbears. Mistake. Two characters who had scouting abilities (rogue and ranger) went to do some further scouting while the rest went to speak with the kobolds in the hope they might reveal a secret entrance to the fortress.

The bugbears played along, then once they had the scouts alone, killed them one at a time with overwhelming force. When the rest of the group returned they supplied a poison wineskin, but when that failed, attacked us in force, killing us after a dozen or so rounds of massed combat. It should be noted that this fight wasn’t a walk-over and we did manage to drop the bugbear chieftain before being defeated.

So, did we set ourselves up for this outcome? The Dungeon Masters Guide provides the following advice:

Let the characters face the consequences of their stupid actions, but make sure you give enough cues for the players to recognize stupid actions, and give the players every opportunity to take back rash decisions.” – DMG 4th Ed, p30

I’m not a big fan of the language, but that aside, had we engaged in rash or stupid actions? I cannot second guess the GM but it felt to me like he/she was sensing the frustration of certain elements of the group at our un-tactical approach and rather than be direct out of game, and discuss the kind of game he/she wanted to facilitate, he/she instead set a steep grading curve and let the chips fall where they may. As he/she said afterwards, had we actually managed to survive the bugbear ambush, we might have been spurred to find this kind of change in-character.

As it was, only one of us elected to keep the same character for the next session (beginning as captives), and the game took a brief hiatus. The GM may justify the encounter on the basis that we acted ‘stupidly’ in a dangerous tactical environment, and our defeat was the result of our own decisions (had we not split up we might have survived the ambush), which ties in nicely with another gem of advice from the DMG:

The best way to avoid hard feelings connected to character death is to be fair and to make sure the players know you’re being fair.” – DMG 4th Ed, p30

To my mind, we had already twisted our characters disparate motivations to pander to the GM’s set-up, and the actions of the bugbears did not seem especially rational. However, beyond that, it raises the question of what the GM should be trying to achieve. Is it a ‘fair’ outcome, or a fun one?

As a postscript; subsequent sessions of the campaign have seen a considerable degree of GM innovation (considering the context) and attempts to provide interesting and unifying motivations for PC's. More than half the party has succumbed to the ‘Indiana Jones effect’ aligning new character motivations and min/maxing to guarantee every possible advantage in what is clearly largely an exercise in absurd tactical simulation. So perhaps the TPK served a useful purpose, along the lines of: what doesn't break up a gaming group, only makes it stronger...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Indiana Jones Effect

After some spirited discussion with the Grand Experiment about the merits of 4th Edition D&D in the comments of my first post, I need to pause for thought before posting the second part of my TPK post, which is about a D&D campaign.

In the interim, I’d like to briefly mention a phenomena which I’ve observed, largely in Call of Cthulhu games. Most players new to Cthulhu start the game with a quirky or interesting PC. An artist or author, professor or doctor – characters drawn, for the most part, from real life. These characters do well in the initial phase of the game, and are often successful investigators. However, while 85% of a Cthulhu game will be about investigation and character play, there usually comes a time when there is a confrontation, combat or even a monster to face.

When these worthy starting characters succumb to oblivion (hopefully not on their first outing), the next character will, most likely, bear a strong resemblance to Lucas’ Indiana Jones. A tough, whip toting, brawler who can handle most weapons, and would love nothing better than to roughhouse with cultists in the heart of their temple – and also probably knows his/her way around a library.

An entirely natural reaction to the death of a first character due to a failure of physical prowess.

But, of course, Call of Cthulhu is not kind to such innovation. A tougher character, willing to take risks and even be provocative, often meets the full might of the Mythos head on, and much like a meeting with a freight train, the results aren’t pretty.

The third character is then often a compromise. The player will take all the elements of the first kind of character, but make a small concession to violence in the form of an increased dodge or weapon skill – hopefully justified by character backstory.

I mention this phenomena not to pass judgement, just to observe that no matter our intentions when running games, and framing encounters, people will often view things on their own terms, and for some that means that character death, however noble, is a failure.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Total Buzz Kill? - Part One

So, over the last month I’ve been on the receiving end of two Total Party Kills (TPK’s) in two very traditional roleplaying games. They both left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m trying to determine if that’s anything more than my own hypocrisy at work. I present my thoughts in two parts, each using a different system and game example.

The first, let’s call it Game 1, was a traditional Call of Cthulhu adventure. A one-shot multi session game, and the TPK was basically akin to the final exam. Had we, the players, been rigorous in our investigations, we would have discovered the vital clue, which would have enabled us to dispatch the villain by attacking her super-weakness. As it was, we were playing rather eccentric dilettante characters, looking into the mystery of a missing friend, and as such, we weren’t especially diligent. We did enough investigation to discover our friend’s fate, and identify a likely culprit and spent several enjoyable sessions exploring and investigating. We had an encounter which revealed that supernatural powers were at play and our physical resources would be stretched to combat these forces. So we armed ourselves as heavily as possible and stormed the breach.

Unfortunately it turned out that the villain was utterly indestructible by normal physical means, so despite being decapitated and suffering various other indignities at our hands, the villain dispatched us one by one, either personally, or by use of minions. Even fleeing proved of no use, as the final characters were slain in the streets. Because we had failed to glean the key clue, we were doomed.

Now, you might say – well that’s just Call of Cthulhu right? You knew your character was going to die or go insane long before the first dice were rolled. It’s the nature of the beast.

To which I’d say; no. That’s not Call of Cthulhu. At least not the way I run it, and I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that the creators intended either:

When investigators die, it is not enough that they die bravely if they die too soon. Keep the scale of violence low, the pace of play moderate, and provide time to recover. If the investigators insist on pressing forward into certain death, the keeper with integrity may not long resist, but the keeper who chides players into combats soon discourages players." – Call of Cthulhu Core Rules, 5.5ed (p142)

Now, there has been some debate from the fine minds over at Gametime about this. People have argued that if Cthulhu were serious about this kind of thing, they’d have built it into the system. Perhaps, but to me that’s like creating a rule to stop people acting like a dick – it’s implicit in the idea of roleplaying with others. The game must use social conventions, shared understanding and trust, not rules, to establish a benchmark for any aspect of the game.

However, I note that clearly the extended Keeper’s Lore section of later editions of Call of Cthulhu is sort of a band-aid to fix some of the common problems people have had, including the prevalence of death and insanity needlessly inflicted on characters by GM’s. And it’s true that this kind of thing is more common in a ‘one-off’ scenario.

I put this down to the disposable nature of the characters and the perceived benefit of ‘raising the stakes’ to try and shortcut player buy-in normally established over many sessions. To my mind the jury is still out on whether this is the most successful method to achieve these ends.

But, back to Game 1. The game had set a pass/fail criteria, which involved high stakes, and we failed. Should the GM have edited the scenario to make it less arbitrary? Perhaps, although obviously he/she shouldn’t have to. Should the GM have made sure that we had the clue? Perhaps, and I think this is the kind of experience which kicked off the GUMSHOE system, guaranteeing that vital clues are found – although to be fair, we made it all the way to the end scene – we just missed a vital piece of information (which could easily have been ruled an optional, rather than core scene in GUMSHOE). We solved the mystery, just didn’t ‘win’ the game.

Ultimately, I think that this kind of experience can put many people off games like Call of Cthulhu, and raises the issue of GM trust. I trust that the GM will provide me with a good experience, and I trust that he/she will follow the advice in the CoC core rules about making sure that any character death “acquires a sense of justness”. Without such trust, the game will certainly devolve into a rules and mechanics fest, as I try and seek any and all possible advantage using mechanics, because I don’t trust that the GM has my best interests at heart.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

D&D4E – To slick for it’s own good?

I’d like to provide a brief entrĂ©e while I’m preparing my post on the topic of the TPK. I play in an old-school D&D 4th Edition campaign. I’ve now played half a dozen sessions using the 4th edition rules (having previously played using 3.5E, 3E and 2nd ed.) and I’ve got to say that I think that with 4th edition, Wizards have outfoxed themselves. By making the game system heavily focussed around combat, and by making combat much easier to manage through the use of cards, I really haven’t engaged very much with the game system.

In 3.5 just creating a character would have had me flicking backwards and forwards through my D&D tomes, trying to find obscure passages, cross-checking feats and skill synergies. Now most people would argue this is a poor design for information, and they’d be right; but I will say that I felt a strong feeling of accomplishment by simply creating a character, and another for actually running that character through a combat (even though I would almost certainly have missed or miscalculated some bonus of other). With 4E the basic stats, a quick check of the equipment table and the cards seem like more than enough to get me through – so that’s what I’ve been doing.

Now my first two characters are dead, I have to admit that I don’t really care what my next character is – a decision I might have agonised over in 3.5 for some time, weighing options, and consulting yet more tomes. But in 4E I know that my new character will likely have very similar powers to the departed, and I just have to pick which button to press (card to play) each round - and I don’t suspect it will need much in the way of time or attention to create and run, which I suppose is a good thing, right?

I should clarify that it is early days of playing 4E and that I may yet become more attached to this sleek, plastic thing that’s eaten my old mongrel.