Archive for July 20th, 2011


Campaign Economics as Player Empowerment

Who is served by the classic D&D rules for economic activities like building strongholds, hiring armorers, and (if your definition of classic includes the B/E/C/M/I gazetters) running mercantile enterprises? An email from Eppy, the designer of Dread and Swords without Master, that followed up on a mention in my last post has me thinking about this in a new way. He wrote:

I had a moment, last year, while working on Swords, where I found myself compelled to hack D&D. It was like I was exorcising a demon. With both Sw/oM and the hack, I was striking at the very roots of my gaming in an attempt to capture the essence of what lured me into this hobby. And what I was finding was two completely different games. Swords answered all the promises in one way; and something in that Basic-Expert-Companion set combo felt like the other way to answer them. ACKS looks like it’s hitting right on that second way. I’m excited about that.

I think that one of these different games empowers GMs, and the other empowers players.

As a GM I don’t feel compelled to work out economies in a rigorous way. I want to be able to make stuff up like “gold pieces are huge things that weigh 1/10th of a pound because the gods designed them for their own hands” and “coins are inherently Lawful because of this divine origin, and because they symbolize the sun” and “dragons hoard gold because, as Chaotic creatures, they seek to weaken civilized economies by depriving them of their life-blood.” I just want to throw these ideas out there half-baked; I don’t feel like I need rules for how a dragon in the region would cause a depression, because if it seems to make sense that this would happen I’ll just use my narrative authority to make it so.

This is the style of play that “why let us do any more of your imagining for you” systems like OD&D facilitate for GMs, and modern indie improv and shared narrative authority games like Swords without Master facilitate for all players.

But when they sit down to scratch their itch to “play D&D” with whatever system best acts as a backscratcher for them at the moment, I think most players neither have nor want the kind of narrative authority that would let them say “My robot cleric attracts more followers because it’s sitting on a giant pile of gold that demonstrates how well it has pleased the Lawful deities.” Even though that totally follows from the premises, I can see why as a player I’d want rules to show how I could make that follower-attracting goal happen in incremental steps, and guarantee that I can make it so without the GM taking the improv in some other direction.

The great promise of old-school sandbox games is that your character’s goals and beliefs can organically become part of the game by just taking concrete actions in the world that will make them manifest. Yes, there is a strong belief in rules-lightness in the OSR. And yes, as a GM it no longer appeals to me to calculate the construction costs of every castle I plop down on the landscape. But I think there is a real utility for players in having detailed rules for building their own castles, running their own thieves’ guild, and every other kind of concrete, large-scale way they might act on their beliefs and pursue their goals.

For GMs, I think the virtue in having a ruleset like Adventurer Conqueror King that thoroughly encodes those detailed economic rules is that when you randomly generate a band of knights, the size of the castle it is implied they come from makes sense given the size of the domain it supports and all that other world-building stuff I want baked in rather than having to pay attention to myself. This kind of “making sense” is important because it enables appropriate player action. The party won’t be frustrated that they can never afford an army big enough to reduce to rubble these castles that pop up as a result of dice-based-improv, because the tables that generate the castles follow the same internal consistency as the rules the players use to build them.

Now, the idea that more rules = player empowerment is frequently advanced in the context of D&D’s change over time, but I generally feel that this isn’t the case. For example, having a skills or feats or combat maneuvers tends to disempower players who didn’t have the system mastery to choose those rules options in pre-play. I feel differently about rules for economics because:

  • they lead in lots of different directions and leave open what the game is about in a way that combat, which is where most detailed rules development tends to happen, does not. Players who really want to build strongholds may feel gypped if they don’t get to use those rules, but I think that providing lots of rules for combat produces a much stronger feeling that a session without using crunchy fighting rules is a waste of time, and tends to disempower players who want to make non-combat characters.
  • they model concrete and high-granularity stuff, which affords lots of leeway for doing it in ways outside the rules. Like if you have the Trip feat and I say someone else can trip just by sticking a polearm between the giant’s leg, it feels unfair not to use the rules in that situation. But if you follow the guidelines for building a castle, and I say someone else gets one for free as a reward for helping the Faerie Queen, it’s a different kind of unfair because you can deal with it within the game – “how can I suck up to this gauzy-winged royal tart,” not “how can I get a DM who doesn’t cheat.”

Cross-posted to nerdNYC this morning hoping for confirmation of these ideas, which mumblethrax provided in the form of a claim that his rogue once disarmed a liquidity trap 


4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags

Back in ’09, when the OSR and blogging were yet kinda young, I played in a Swords and Wizardry game that Michael aka chgowiz ran at Gen Con to showcase old-school play for a bunch of folks who were mostly recent-edition gamers: Phil (The Chatty DM, no longer a stranger to S&W), Dave and Danny of Critical Hits, and Greg who was neither yet working at the Escapist nor one of my co-authors on Adventurer Conqueror King (although we had worked together on Goodman’s Forgotten Heroes books, and one of the seeds of ACKS was a conversation we had later in the con about how the 4E idea of tiers of play relates to old-school campaigns). Although even the current holder of the D&D name is no longer all that shiny and new these days, I thought that Mule readers might be interested in the reflection on the experience I wrote in an email to these guys afterward:

I’m pleased to be able to say that my 100 percent old-school player death rate is intact, and that it was very satisfying to die with all my pockets, sacks, and backpacks stuffed with treasure!

Given the unique (to put it mildly) characterizations and hilarious & inventive improv skills on display all around the table, I don’t doubt for a second that I would have had a great time with whatever game we played, or none at all. I do think, though, that the stark & elegant simplicity of the OD&D system makes it especially easy to both give in to every wacky impulse and opportunity for a cheap urine gag and also still get in adventuring, exploration, and pulp drama. The 4E group I play with has lots of laughs & also likes to kick ass, but the process of having to add up your initiative bonus, choose powers, etc., etc. makes it harder for me to switch between the two modes.

I think that the lethality and hilarity of OD&D go hand in hand, which is why Leiber is for me the truest inspiration – the situation comedy of Fafhrd as Issek of the Jug is the bright obverse of the doomed pulp grimness of Thieves’ House. For me, the original rules do this best both by letting you switch from one face to the other more quickly, and also by reinforcing the feeling that luck and wits may stave off Death for a little while, but quickly rolling up a new contender is part of the essence of the game.

I am interested to see that this idea perfectly prepared me to be blown away by Swords without Master‘s emulation of pulp adventure via a dice mechanic devoted entirely to whether you narrate things in a glum or jovial way; when Eppy broke Conan’s melancholy and mirth down this way and quoted Leiber from memory at the start of that session to back up his thesis, I’d entirely forgotten having once reached a similar conclusion via that source myself.

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011
« Jun   Aug »

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,053 other followers