Friday, December 9, 2011

Variety and Encounter Types

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. Nowhere is this more true than in roleplaying games. If there is one thing that makes them truly unique, it is that no other entertainment will challenge the players on so many levels.

... Or, at least, that's how it used to be. I'm about to cover some well-trod ground, but I believe it bears repeating: RPGs are not games of tactical combat, or storytelling, or improv acting, or complex problem-solving. Instead, they are all these things and more.

Robin Laws, in his Guide to Good Gamemastering, talks extensively about different player "types", and how the referee should try to appeal to each of them. This is true, to an extent, but I've never met a player who doesn't enjoy each type of play to a certain degree and their enjoyment of each type will vary from one moment to the next. It is important, then, to provide players with opportunities to engage in different "styles" of encounters that the players can choose to pursue at their leisure. Even more elegant are encounters that layer these types, presenting a range of options to solve the problem therein. The most obvious version of this is humanoid encounters, which can become opportunities for combat, negotiation, or stealth.

What are the "styles" of encounters, then? Here's a list I've compiled for consideration when designing adventures. This is a rough guide, and I welcome any suggestions that you may have:

1. Combat: One of the most popular forms of play, the excitement and adventure of life-or-death conflict has been a draw since the beginning, owing to our wargaming roots. That said, I do believe that combat can be overemphasized, and the current iterations of D&D, where fights literally take hours to resolve, steal the blood and thunder of the struggle as tension cannot be maintained over such an extended period of time.

2 Negotiation: Although you could create a broad category of "roleplaying", there are different types of social encounters that require different skill sets, so I'll be handling them separately. The first is negotiation. Whether this be outwitting a tribe of ogres to pass through their territory, haggling with a street vendor for a good price on the statue you've recovered, or cajoling a witness into describing the crime they saw, the core of these incidents is that the players are attempting to convince someone to perform an action that they are reticent about, or vice versa. The onus lies on the players to overcome these reservations and find a solution that will please both parties.

3. Exploration: RPGs, in large part, are a travelogue. Visiting strange places, meeting new people, and the like is a huge draw. Exploration can include wandering the wilderness or the stars to see what's over that next hill (or in the next dimension!), experimenting with alien artifacts or the Deck of Many Things, or simply pressing buttons to see what they do - as Jim Raggi so eloquently put it, toybox elements.

4. Mystery: The correlating of clues is one of the core activities of roleplaying games. I'm not talking about evidence gathering, per se, as that is accomplished through negotiation and exploration, but rather what the players do with that information. Using the evidence that the players have before them, theories are developed and tested. If those theories are incomplete, the players will often rely on the previous two types of play to prove or disprove their arguments. This can be as simple as puzzling out a treasure map or as complex as an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but it will appear in every game you run.

5. Running & Sneaking: Perhaps better stated as 'avoid detection', horror games understand the simple joy of hide and seek, where players attempt to avoid or escape foes that they cannot handle. Once a major facet of D&D, modern versions of the game have de-emphasized this aspect of the game, an unintended consequence of EL/CR. Yet, fearfully creeping past or fleeing from monsters is a core component of the experience. To my mind, it is of utmost importance that this style be restored to prominence.

6. Resource Management: While some people find the bookkeeping aspects of the game tedious, preferring to avoid tracking food, encumbrance, experience and gold, I think these are an important part of the overall experience. Early in a campaign (or whenever the players are broke), food is of critical importance - the PCs may very well starve to death if they prove too cautious, and that drives them to go out adventuring. The fear of starvation becomes very real, and emphasizes the desperation of adventuring. Food also sets a time limit on delves, as the PCs will find their rations running out. This gives them an excuse to return to civilization, providing greater variety in locales. Likewise, encumbrance doesn't interest me for the realism, but rather because it forces PCs to make tough choices about what to carry. Finally, experience and gold are important because they create desire in the players - it is the waiting that makes it so sweet, and when the players are just short of buying that war wagon or hitting 4th level, their lust increases to a fever pitch. These aspects of game may slow the pace, but their benefits are too great, to my mind, to just throw away.

7. Problem-Solving: All of the previous entries could be folded into this category, but instead I'll be dealing with three types of 'pure' problem-solving exercises: terrain, traps, and puzzles.

7A. Terrain: How do we get across this chasm? How do we reach the City at the Bottom of the Sea? How do we get this giant hoard across the Desert of Shattered Glass with only one donkey? D&D can be viewed as an obstacle course, as the terrain itself is often one of the greatest challenges. This invites creative, open-ended problem solving on the part of the players, who often seek to circumvent these obstructions or use them to their advantage. Along with resource management, terrain makes the game a question of logistics.

7B. Traps: Much like terrain, traps are exercises in creative problem solving, but have fallen out of favor in current versions of D&D. Discouraged by design, unlike EL/CR this was not an unintended consequence but rather a choice - players would feel frustrated by their inability to think around the problem, and therefore the designers decided to please those players. Removing those problems to acquiesce to player complaints misses the very point of the game, hedging closer to masturbatory fan fiction.

7C. Puzzles & Riddles:Unlike terrain and traps, puzzles and riddles often are binary in nature - there is a right answer, and all others are wrong. As such, I can understand why these have fallen out of favor. Yet, as someone smarter than I pointed out, the weakness in design is not the introduction of these elements, but the dependence on them. If a puzzle or riddle blocks the only door through the dungeon which will lead to the 'win' conditions, it can be an exercise in frustration. If, on the other hand, a puzzle or riddle is employed for a vault holding an especially tasty bit of treasure that is secondary to the overall goals, or a door which would provide a shortcut through a tough section of dungeon, players who overcome this challenge are rewarded, while other groups are inconvenienced, rather than blockaded altogether.

8. Interpersonal Conflict: Robin Laws points out in his book Hamlet's Hit Points that stories are a mix of procedural (problem solving) and dramatic (interpersonal/emotional) elements, and while RPGs have handled the former quite well, few even discuss the latter at all. I have found this to be true, for the most part, but I have yet to find a system that models dramatic conflict well in RPGs. The problem, in the main, is that such systems either restrict or force action, and players buck these artificial constraints on their choices. Rather, a game should encourage dramatic choices. I have some ideas about this, which I'll discuss further down the line, but I'd love to hear any feedback from you.

What does all of this have to do with Rogues & Reavers? As you can see, there are a number of very different games nested within D&D, and yet modern designers assume that a single, unified ruleset is the best solution for every problem. I can understand the desire for simplicity, and that is certainly a goal of mine, but the madness in the quest for a single, unified ruleset has, to my mind, done little to increase the playability of these games we love so much.

Instead, I will endeavor to provide the right rule for the right circumstance, with a need to tie everything together. While I have a simple 'core' mechanic that can take care of many situations which will arise, it is not the sole mechanic, but rather the most commonly used system. Other sub-systems, or mini-games, will be introduced when appropriate.

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