Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Videogame Settings

“The Compulsories:” There’s always a fire dungeon, an ice dungeon, a sewer maze, a misty forest, a derelict Ghost Ship, a mine, a glowing crystal maze, an ancient temple full of traps, a magic floating castle, and a technological dungeon.

If you will follow the link, you will find a long, long list of cliche'd videogame settings - any one of which, if worked upon with imagination and a glimmer of originality, will probably win you the 'design your own dungeon' contest of your dreams.  As I look over the list, it occurs to me that there are a lot of them that I have used for D&D in the last two years, notably Chokepoint Geography, the Shifting Sand Land (when my players were in a Persian desert) and a First Town.  I've used quite a few on the overall list in thirty years, so I don't claim any innocence.  A setting like those named is easy to create on the spur of the moment, easy to grasp for the players and typically fairly direct in terms of running through a number of scenarios, one after another.  I will probably use them again.

But my opinion of them?  I mean, how do I feel, as a DM, after running as long as I have?


Remember that as I write this that I've been running a single combat with my offline campaign which has now gone continuously for 8 runnings.  So I am clearly insane.  My players, too, are clearly insane.  I was told over the weekend by another DM that he wished he had players with the sort of resolve and commitment that I have.  I suppose I should be grateful ... except that it seems to me that I've always had players like that and I am therefore guilty of taking them for granted.  Naturally, as they read this they will agree that I am very ungrateful and that to show my gratitude for all their years of loyal playing and appearance at sessions I need to grant them all one level and their choice of three magic items ... each ...

Ahhh ... fuck 'em.

But keeping this steadfast, plodding behaviour in mind, I have no strong desire to subject my players to a lengthy dungeon, of any variety.  Online, it would make the most sense that I would put my new players inside some underground hole and have them fight their way out ... and then let them find some tiny village, and only after that let them find their way to some significant city.  In that way they would've had the opportunity to guess my playing style and get comfortable with it.  But did I do it that way?  No.  I screwed them by dropping them very unfairly into this greatly random environment with unlimited choices and opportunities, and then expected them to adapt.

Even when I dropped one group onto a moving ship, without any chance to move about, I still didn't give them a clear set of objectives.  I gave them nothing.  And in the space of a year, with three different parties, I still have not employed a single lair of any sort ... not one that was underground, or on a mountain top, or anywhere else.

I am such a selfish bastard.

The reasons for this selfishness is simple.  I am bored stupid with the video game format of get this, grab that and go there.  I don't even play that sort of video game any longer - mostly because I consider myself spoiled by games like Sim City 4, Zoo Tycoon, Civilization IV and yes, the Sims (not the recent version, however, where everything was grossly dumbed down for the popular people).  I call these things 'maintenance games,' since they mostly force players to fix and replace and fiddle and what have you to keep the game going optimally.  Civ IV is of course the most linear of them, but I am a fiddler at heart - I want to play games without clear guidelines as to winners and losers.  I don't have the necessary testosterone to give a shit who shoots who in Call of Duty or any other first person shooter game, based on the seratonin-induced thrill of pretending to kill.  My seratonins are long since dried up - except for actual, real life sexual activity - and I need diversions for my brain.  To many guys, I know, that makes me a bit of a pansy.  Twas ever thus.  Who knew that someday jocks would start defining manliness where it applied to video games?

As a result, the more two-dimensional the format, the harder it is for me to get interested.  This massive combat I'm playing is anything BUT two-dimensional.  It is complex, non-guaranteed strategy played at its limit, with no promise of victory.  That fascinates the hell out of me, and it fascinates my players.

I am reminded of the first time the game of D&D was explained to me, back in September of 1979, using these approximate words: 

"Imagine that you're standing in front of a door and beside the door there are three buttons.  And you have to pick the right button, or a big block falls down from the ceiling and kills you.  But if you pick the right button you can go through the door and live.  What do you do?"

Well, back then, when I was fifteen, that sounded pretty cool.  Now it sounds stupid.  It sounds, in fact, moronically insipid to the extreme ... and it begs me to ask, "Do I have to press a button?  Couldn't I just walk away?"

But for most DMs, of course, you DO have to press a button.  That is the whole point.  You are not permitted any non-button-pressing privileges.  This format is designed that a button must be pressed and you are to do the pressing.  You are told, "If you look very closely, and very carefully at the clues that I have spent half the night before concocting in my brain, you will know exactly what button to press.  Go on.  Make up your mind."

I have.  I've decided to play the game differently. 

I've decided that, now and then, I will create such moments if the party insists on getting themselves into such a trapped situation - but I won't trap them there, and chances are they haven't really trapped themselves, either.  Chances are, there's a different way out - most likely, the way they came in.

In other words, if the party really wants to explore an underground lair, I won't stop them.  But they've got to want it.  They've got to want it enough to seek out such a place, and enter it all on their own ... in which case, they are welcome to stay for as long as they want.

Personally, I can think of other things to do.


Oddbit said...

As a bit of a side track, have you looked into Dwarf Fortress? It's got a great deal of leeway, and depending on how deep in code you want to wade you can really bend the rules. The downside is the dependence on mods to make it playable without bleeding eyes and the steep learning curve.

KenHR said...

I was just going to mention Dwarf Fortress. The latest version doesn't run for shit on my home machine, but it pretty much replaced all my PC gaming about two years ago. It was because of Dwarf Fortress that Fallout 3 still sits on my shelf unplayed.

Alexis said...

I wonder how many times I have to write on this blog that I never play modules before people will believe that I never play modules.

KenHR said...

Not a module. DF is a maintenance game. Ugly as hell, with a steep learning curve that's not helped by an unfriendly UI, but it's the micromanager's dream.


Doug Wall said...

A very good GM and friend of mine defines the two major types of decision-making in RPGs as "puzzles" and "dilemmas." The button-pushing example you give is very much a classic "puzzle" scenario, while it seems that you generally prefer "dilemmas", letting players express their characters by choosing from several, equally valid options

JB said...

Actually, being dropped on a ship and told to "create your own opportunity/adventure" sounds just about like my idea of player heaven, not an asshole move. But I'm weird.

Steve Lalanne said...

I agree that this is the best way to play the game.

Tripper said...

To expand on Doug Wall's thoughts up there, I first heard the idea of such a dichotomy from a Malcolm Gladwell book (they're all the same). His argument here:

By the way, incredible site Alexis. I'm going through two or three posts a day, incredibly thought-provoking. And thanks for the wiki, from all of us.