What do New-Schoolers Want?

One of the Visionary backers for the ACKS Kickstarter described this illo, which I love. She's also done some great edits on v.16 of the rules MS. Yay for patronage publishing!

I’ve been thinking that the integrated economic system in Adventurer Conqueror King may interest fans of other editions of the “world’s most popular fantasy RPG”: debatable but not unreasonable. I’m also thinking that Mule readers include folks who aren’t exclusively old-schoolers, and also a large-enough group of people who don’t read EN World’s General RPG Discussion forum or the D&D Meetup boards. Running with those assumptions, here’s how I broke down ACKS over there in search of some insights about whether and how new-schoolers might kit-bash bits of our system into the one they prefer.

The game’s tagline is “fulfilling the promise of the original fantasy RPG with support for every level of campaign play.” What that means is:

1) it’s built on the chassis of the retro-clones, especially Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG, but instead of emulating a particular older edition it’s designed to enable a certain kind of long-term gameplay

2) it presents comprehensive guidelines for all the different “tiers” of the classic game, from dungeon crawling to wilderness exploration to building a stronghold and ruling a kingdom, with lots of other stuff in between like running a thieves’ guild, mercantile trading by land and sea, spell research, etc.

#1 means ACKS plays like the old-school games I’ve increasingly come to love. But to do #2, we had to create an integrated economic framework that ties all this stuff together. That’s because:

a) getting and spending gold is tightly tied to character progression in the classic game, and thus serves kind of the same role as encounter levels, treasure parcels, wealth by level, etc: an integrated framework lets you predict pretty well that a character who can cast fly can also afford to buy a pegasus mount, and design adventures around that expectation without having to dissociate it from the concrete things in the game world

b) different characters and campaigns will have different goals, but spending gold in pursuit of those goals is a universal constant; rules for all the things you can do with money are always going to be useful and allow the progression from low levels to the end game to proceed organically in response to player actions

c) making these things self-consistent, so that the price of hiring mercenaries and forging swords for them is consistent with how much skilled characters could earn as a sell-sword or a blacksmith and also how much it costs to buy food and a place to sleep, is hard work that no previous edition has gotten exactly right and maybe one of the few good answers to Gary and Dave’s question in OD&D: “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?”

OK, with that background in place, I’m getting to my question for y’all. One of the things I did when I was one of the guys whose names were going to be on the cover of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was to design mundane items. And because I wanted them to be things that you wouldn’t just buy at first level, I worked out this same kind of comprehensive economic structure for 4E, based on the range of existing prices from a wagon to a galleon to a spelljammer. I was surprised to see that the difference from previous editions (the d20SRD and the B/E/C/M/I Rules Compendium were my main sources) was within the margin of error!

So you could use the economic structure from ACKS in pretty much any version of the game you play. The changes in prices for items, hirelings, and the like are minor and not the main benefit; the big benefit would be that if the party wants to do things like manage a caravan going between points of light (the theme of one of the most fun 4Ecampaigns I’ve been in), you have a sound basis for calculating things like how much demand there will be for goods in different-sized cities, the profit the caravan might expect to realize from carrying different cargoes, etc.

What I want to know is: would you want to include skill DCs, designing skill challenges, and other such new-school stuff if you were going to use this framework in your game? And if so, how would you fit it in?

In that caravan game that me and my ACKS co-author Greg Tito played in, even though it used the 4E rules that we were elbows-deep in at the time while writing the Forgotten Heroes books, neither he nor I paid much attention to how the profit-and-loss part of the operation worked. I was playing a fighter, so I was happy if we made money, but I left the details up to others. This is maybe part of why I like old-school play. Even though caravan wandering monsters were something my character cared about, I preferred to let the DM roll these behind the screen instead of being the outcome of my character’s Survival or Nature skill checks, and so likewise my inclination is to have the price the caravan goods be something the DM determines based on supply and demand, not something that emerges from my character’s skills.

What about you?

14 Responses to “What do New-Schoolers Want?”

  1. July 22, 2011 at 5:19 am

    Although I myself would be interested in playing in a game where the economics mattered and made sense, I can’t say I’ve ever played with a group – old or new school – where they did or where anyone really wanted them to. Most of the people I’ve gamed with over the course of the last 20 odd years treated economics pretty much the same way they treated encumbrance – that is, they mostly ignored it. Now, whether that was because they really weren’t at all interested, or because there weren’t good rules for adjudicating it, I can’t really say.

    As far as what new-schoolers want…from what I can glean from the half dozen or so of them that I interact with on a regular basis, what they want is something they usually call “customization” – which when one gets down to the bottom of it mostly translates as “as many mechanical ways to optimize as possible.” You may know this desire better by its former appellation: munchkinism.

    For instance, in his “Legends & Lore” column, Mike Mearls recently suggested that maybe there ought to be a basic version of each class, sans all the feats/skills/powers/whatever, that anyone could pick up and play and still be competitive – an alternative for people who want to play but don’t enjoy 4th ed’s emphasis on endless optimizing. All those rules would still be there for those who wanted to “customize” their characters, but those who didn’t want to could use this hypothetical “basic” version and still have fun and be competitive.

    One commenter responded: “So Mike, what you are saying is…would I enjoy a game where it doesn’t make a difference if I carefully craft a character or throw it together in a few seconds as they would be equal in efficiency? Would I like to just choose my “playing piece” and get on with rolling the dice? Dwarf Fighter or Halfling Rogue? Top hat or Boot? Frankly I’d rather play D&D.”

    Another said: “Why do you have to make two of every class, one for involved players and one for…babies? Essentials style gaming is only moving backwards; I was so relieved when 4e came out and was streamlined from beginning to end, but now it seems we have to complicate things all over again. If you don’t want a complex game, just use the core books. Simple as that.”

    Note the contradiction inherent in the latter’s desire for a “streamlined” game and his obvious scorn for those who can’t handle a “complex” one.

  2. July 22, 2011 at 5:35 am

    Please forgive that mostly off-topic rant – it’s late and I’m tired. I’d delete it but I don’t see the option. My apologies.

  3. 3 Adam
    July 22, 2011 at 5:35 am

    FWIW, Tavis, this definitely describes and targets me. I’m backing the ACKS Kickstarter, and participating in the discussion in the forums for backers, but I’m much more likely to actually use the economy and domain rules to inform gameplay in a 3.x or 4E campaign than I am to run the rules as written. It’s not that there’s no possibility that I would play the old-school system. But it’s more likely that I would pillage it for what I find useful and run a game using a system that I prefer.

    Were I to use the ACKS economic system in a 3.x game, I would absolutely use skill checks with DCs in and around it. Sure, prices are partly determined by supply and demand, but they’re also determined by haggling and knowledge asymmetries, especially in illiquid markets. In 3.x or 4E D&D, that haggling and knowledge stuff should absolutely depend on skill checks. Profession (merchant), Knowledge (Trade), Diplomacy, and Sense Motive all seem relevant. Using those skill checks would be just like when you have a wandering monster encounter along the road; if you’re playing ACKS, you’ll use its rules for surprise, initiative, and combat, whereas in a 3.x game, you’ll use Spot checks, 3.x Initiative, and so forth. In 4E, that definitely implies skill challenges–I don’t much like the out of the box skill challenge rules, but I could absolutely see something like “here we go into the selling merchandise and finding new opportunities skill challenge–3 successes in no more than 2 rounds of attempts gets you a buyer at a depressed price and same-old, same-old purchase opportunities during your standard 1 week unloading, selling, and reloading; 4 successes gets you a buyer at average price; 5 successes gets you a buyer at above market price, and opportunities to purchase something more interesting (i.e. more lucrative) for the return trip; more successes gets you information about the market and other opportunities; each failure causes a complication, with 3 failures causing major complications. If you exceed the 2 rounds of checks, you have to spend an extra week in town for each additional round.” To be honest, that might be roughly how I would handle it in a 3.x game at this point, too. :)

    The way that I would fit it in is by A) making it simply part of how you do things (identifying potential retainers becomes a Gather Information check , not a roll on the Hireling Availability by Market Class Table; the reaction roll becomes a Diplomacy check, either in whole or in part (it might be a reaction roll, followed by a Diplomacy check to modify), or maybe the whole thing becomes a skill challenge that covers both finding them and hiring them.), B) making the effects of the additional mechanics consistent with the overall economic/demographic engine (finding a 4th level retainer in a Class V market has to be extremely rare; that means that the skill challenge has to have very high DCs and chance of failure; merchants have to make roughly the right profit from their runs, so the skill challenge side of things, for a set of characters with skills comparable to NPC merchants making that run, has to produce only a marginal variation in profits, etc.), and C) taking care to think about how the different rules will interact with the economy and related concerns.

    To my mind, the bigger question is how much stuff to pre-empt. If I’m using 3.x, I presumably use even xp advancement (1st to 2nd level is always 1000 xp, 2nd to third 2000 xp more, etc.) But do I cut the monster xp down to a third or a quarter and give treasure xp? The answer may well be yes, but that’s complicated. Do I axe the Leadership feat and give everyone followers (contingent on establishing a stronghold) at 9th level? Keep the Leadership feat but give everyone followers at 9th level? Treat the leadership feat as necessary to mechanically gain followers (although presumably followers can be manually recruited without it, just like in ACKS)? Those are the challenging questions from my perspective, but they’re hardly insurmountable.

  4. July 22, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Bevis, I appreciate the rant so I guess I’m glad we don’t allow you to delete posts! I think that part of optimization is the desire for player-vs-player competition, which in its uglier forms boils down to the desire to prove yourself superior. Making an effective class that requires no optimization undercuts the premise that a more potent PC proves your superiority. In some ways economics enable optimization and its shadow broken exploits- e.g. Ultima Online, and note that broken options also challenge superiority because they let your PC kick ass with no optimization skill involved. But I think that it is less toxic than combat optimization for a couple of reasons – there are lots of different economic opportunities to min-max, and even though people in the real world or MMOs assert superiority all the time based on how much they make, I can’t see that emerging at the table as readily.

    I also think that, like character optimization, some kinds of domain management etc. might be best done away from the table, as a kind of enjoyable hobby some players engage in. When I’ve played with people who have made floor plans for their mansions in AD&D or 3E, it deepens the game without making anyone frustrated with those who didn’t, which is not the case for those who failed to optimize their combat performance in 3E or 4E.

    Adam, your perspective is really helpful – both as a way to think about what variables old-school ACKS rules should encompass based on the factors a later edition would automatically take into account, and as a potential impetus to publish a 3E-based version – one of Alex’s campaigns is 3.5, so he’s done a bunch of thinking along those lines, and I bet 3E is still the RPG I played most of in my life & did almost as much design work for as 4E.

  5. July 22, 2011 at 6:04 am

    “I also think that … some kinds of domain management etc. might be best done away from the table, as a kind of enjoyable hobby some players engage in.”

    Absolutely agree there; the few times I’ve had the opportunity to run or play in domain level games, this is how it worked – and it worked pretty well.

  6. July 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    There is basically no way I would use rules sets more retro than 3.x, in part because it’s a cold day in hell that I can find players for such a game and in part because I don’t have a halo of nostalgia around the very early editions that I never played. On the other hand, a product offering a clear and clean economy in a game is something I would not hesitate to buy.

    Were I creating such a product myself, I would give skills and skill challenges a way to factor in, much as Adam describes. (I would also do some heavy-duty lifting in the world of redesigning skill challenges, but that’s another matter.) There are a couple of problems in the way, though: scaling DCs by level doesn’t really make a damn bit of sense in a sandbox environment, and re-playing the same skill challenge for the fourth time stops being fun.

    I’d solve the first by letting regional level rather than character level govern skill challenge DCs. It’s still slightly nonsensical, but allows players much more in the way of informed decision. I might go so far as to cause the high-level regions to “migrate” – that is, have the regions change levels partially influenced by plot and partially influenced by outright randomness. Transparent hex tiles that I lay out over my map would be the sort of interesting physical version.

    I’d solve the second by writing out the skeleton of a skill challenge that would be used often, with a long list of special variations that could be plugged in to keep the players guessing. Skill challenges are a pain for GMs to write, especially on the fly, so I’d definitely want to generate that content.

  7. July 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    More or less what Adam said, except I’m 4th ed all the way (as opposed to 3.x, which I’ve never much cared for). I’ll almost certainly buy ACK, and I’m certain I’ll enjoy reading it, but if I use any of it, it’ll probably be in 4th ed games. I run S&W quite a bit, but for me the economics (beyond xp awards and character motivation) aren’t that important in those games.

    As a note though, when I was reading what you were discussing about balancing economics, I was salivating at the thought of how I was going to integrate this into the current 4e campaign and wondering if you were going to say you’d release that system as a sourcebook for 4e. Then you asked!

  8. 8 Adam
    July 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    @Harbinger: I absolutely agree that setting the DCs is an important (and challenging) part of designing the skill interaction. My gut feeling is that the right way to do that is to categorize tasks based on how hard they are relative to each other, and then to set DCs based on the types of NPCs that would be doing them. This is pretty trivial for, for example, domain management. In place of the Domain Morale Table, there would be a Diplomacy check (or something similar); we know that an untitled lord, ruling a small domain, is typically 4th-7th level (the expectations on this are a little less clear than I’d like–let’s assume 5th level is right). Therefore, the DC for a break-even, average result in a tiny domain should be 10+avg. Diplomacy modifier of a 5th level aristocrat–call it 8 ranks + 1 Cha modifier. So for a tiny domain, the DC is 19; good things happen at 21, 23, etc., bad at 18-17, 16-15, etc. As the domain size increases, so does the DC–a good sized county might be typically ruled by a 9th level character, and 9th level characters will on average have better stats than 5th level, plus magic items and maybe even Skill Focus; so for a county, the DC might be 26 (assuming 4 more ranks, plus an additional +1 from higher Cha, plus miscellaneous bonuses of +2). We might assume that there’s a consort and advisors aiding these checks, at an additional +2 each, so the DCs might actually be a little higher–that’s all filling in details, though. But that’s the sort of analysis I would do to set DCs.

    Okay, so realm size is easy to look at; what about merchanty tasks? Well, low-level, average talent merchants are typically going to be handling routine trade in safe areas at low profit margins. So, the task to sell small amounts of grain in a major city, for example, should be calibrated to the activities of a 1st level commoner (maybe expert); the DCs for normal results will probably be around 14 or 15. What does the higher talent or more experienced merchant do to increase revenue (or the more risk-seeking merchant, willing to take chances in the hope of making a fortune)? Well, there’s basically three options: deal in higher margin goods, deal in markets where for some reason supply and demand aren’t working well to bring prices to the overall average modified by transportation costs (typically because there is some barrier to trade, like you have to navigate the dangerous Straits of Alung or risk the banditry and monsters of Cathorn Pass), or deal in higher volumes. All of those increase profits, and all of them will involve harder tasks. It’s easy to get the market price on a couple bushels of wheat in the capital of the empire; it’s hard to get the market price on enough wheat to feed the whole city for three months in the same market, and it’s likewise hard to get the market price for several crates of rare gems. So basically, as the profits involved go up, the DCs go up; a low-profit sale has a DC of 14 or 15, but a higher profit sale (either because of a bigger caravan/ship, or because of more valuable merchandise) is harder. Of course, you could sit around over the course of months selling your large shipment in small chunks at a lower DC… but there are high opportunity costs for that, so under most circumstances, ambitious people (like PCs) will take the risks.

    By calibrating off the tasks, and making the tasks reflect the profit and the expected characters that would be doing the tasks, you avoid needing to break the sandbox with level-based checks while still getting appropriate DCs. If the PCs are doing what you expect them to be doing at their level–3rd level PCs with trade sidelines are dealing in small local scales, 7th level on medium sized, and 11th level on big, international scales, possibly with exotic trade goods–then the DCs will be level appropriate. If the PCs are either super ambitious, trying to play above their weight level, or getting into trade late in their career with a small initial investment while they learn the ropes (or as a front for other activities), the DCs will be either quite hard or quite easy. Of course, not all PCs are the same–a twinked out bard merchant (or Cha oriented rogue) will routinely get great results on checks for activities appropriate to level, but that’s as it should be.

  9. 9 Matt Stanley
    July 23, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    I don’t know if I’m a new schooler or not, but the aspects of more recent games that I really appreciate are:
    – unified rules for a wide variety of task resolutions (eg, D20)
    – ability for players to have some level of anticipation of their characters’ abilities through those rules (as opposed to DM fiat)
    – synchronic rather than diachronic character balance (eg, fighters and wizards are equally capable always, wizards don’t have to be feeble for a very long time before being useful)
    – character survivability right from the start (my first Holmes fighter had 2 hp – that wasn’t any fun and I have no interest in doing that again)
    – richness of character action options (I was so excited in 3E when feats finally gave fighters some interesting options in combat – before that, at 25th level the wizard had dozens of options but my fighter still could only swing his sword, which wasn’t much fun)

    So as far as ACKS goes, I would love to see a task resolution system that was uniform across all those levels of play – so clearing out goblin warrens was mechanically similar to figuring out the profitability of your caravan, which was similar to negotiating a peace treaty for your kingdom. The economic system of ACKS looks great, but it would be hard for me to put up with OD&D style mechanics to get to it.

  10. July 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    I often cite your caravan “preview” campaign as one of my favorite 4E experiences, in large part because it did let us get involved in this kind of stuff! However, I was generally drinking beer instead of paying attention to how you handled the profit and loss in each market. How much of that was driven by skill checks vs. known (pre-determined or randomly generatedP demand factors for each city?

  11. July 23, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    This is the article that Bevisiscariot is referring to:

    I can see why people want customization, but I don’t understand why they are opposed to the so-called “basic” class as described by Mearls. He is saying that the basic class would be a regular fighter with a certain set of choices already pre-selected. That’s no different than having an experienced player help you with your build, only now you don’t need an experienced player at the table.

    Anyway. I’m psyched for ACKS. It’s something I’ve been wanting ever since I heard about Birthright.

  12. July 23, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    cr0m, your 4E experience is different than mine if you’ve never been in a 4E game where experienced players fought over who would get to tell the newbies what to do. I think some of the reaction to the Player’s Strategy Guide also came from people who thought having an official source give advice was poaching on their turf; see also rivalries between posters at the CharOp boards.

  13. 13 Matt Stanley
    July 23, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Tavis, I handled profit/loss on two levels. First, the PCs would have a skill challenge (diplomacy/bluff/insight usually) to set prices for buying or selling – the level of success would change the base price +/- 10% or so. Second, I used the treasure parcels (do they still call it wealth by level?) guidelines to make sure the PCs were getting about the right amount of money. If things were going too well/poorly I would adjust business opportunities accordingly. I didn’t worry about demand factors because I knew where the caravan was going next, so I could just plan ahead. Interestingly, I did try to drop hints about what was in demand in upcoming cities, but almost no one picked up on them.

  14. July 24, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    @Tavis, the more I read on the internet, the more grateful I am that my gaming groups are non-dysfunctional. Internet rivalries are one thing, but fighting over who gets to boss the newbies around at the table? Sheesh!

    I wish WotC would look at MtG for designing for different types of gamers: you can play draft if you want a quick game or aren’t into deck building (ie optimization), but if you are one of those people who like it, you can spend loads of time (and money) working on your direct damage deck, your control deck, etc. The two play styles are accommodated by the same game design.

    Back around 2000 during the 3e days, I loved CharOp, custom campaign feats, etc. Now I like speedy char gen and low-prep DMing. I’d love it if 4e could do it for me!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011

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