Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rules That Work

Yesterday, Scarbrow asked me to elaborate further on what rules work to make a game easier to learn, thus encouraging new players to get excited about the game.

I remember back in the summer of '82 (which, according to Scarbrow's last blog post, is coincidentally the year of his birth), I was playing in three campaigns - one I was the DM, and the other two in which I was a player.  We three DMs decided we would play a 24-hour session, from 4:00 in the afternoon until the next day ... and to make it interesting, we would play in four hour shifts, with each DM playing two shifts.

Seems to me in those days we played more intensely, with less interruptions, that I do today .... but it is probably senility that makes me think so.  I remember I ran the second shift, wrapping the encounter up at midnight, and a fellow name Asif took over.  I had known Asif for about three years - an intense power player who had a tendency to roll abnormally well.  I remember around that time that much of the conversation about his playing, when he was out of the room, was speculation on how he was cheating.

Unfortunately, Asif was interested in something called 'hit location' ... an example is shown in the link.  All it meant was that when anyone hit, a few extra dice were rolled to determine the location and, possibly, additional critical effects.

One wouldn't think that to be much of an issue - but shit, is it ever.  I mean, it is an issue like death is an issue.  Particularly during a combat you're having at 1:30 in the fucking morning.

See, the problem was that Asif had not memorized the tables.  We had not memorized the tables.  With six people playing, the combat dragged on, and on, and on.  I would have to reach for certain art & architecture lectures I was forced to attend for my degree to remember a more deeply boring moment of my life.  There is nothing more boring on this earth than waiting for a DM to look up something in a table, not understand it exactly, be forced to read something from a rule book on the spot, be challenged on the result, forcing more looking up and ultimately a twenty minute argument between a player who doesn't want to die and a DM who isn't really sure what he's doing.

It destroyed the session.  When Asif finally gave up at 4:00 a.m., and Mike took over, we were wrecked.  Mike tried gamely, but we just didn't give a shit anymore.  By the time I was supposed to take over at 8:00, we were eating breakfast at a Tim Horton's and swearing we'd never play hit location again.

And I haven't.

This is an extreme example - but it fundamentally describes the flaw in games that were advanced as the 80s progressed.  The same flaw I hear described as too many rule books in the 3rd edition universe.  There comes a point where all rules, no matter how clever or gritty, suck because they just aren't worth the effort to make them work.  No doubt somewhere there's a DM prepared to memorize a thousand rules, cold, and has the capacity to do so ... but the six players at the table won't do it, and that will put them at the DM's mercy.  What is very often missed in the "The DM can memorize anything" argument is that the game is not being "played" by the DM.  The DM is not a player.

Worse, there is inevitably one player who has gone further in remembering said vast rule set ... which puts all other players at that player's mercy.  Which really, holy fuck really, really sucks.

Try to think of any game you played as a kid with one of those fuckwit assholes who made up rules about baseball, soccer, football or what have you on the spur of the moment, in order to jack your ability to win.  Now imagine a recommended game design that supports the existence of that fuckwit.  Welcome to the wonderful world of modern roleplaying.

In order for a game to work well, it has to be A) easily learned; B) easily memorized; and C) fast-paced.  Back in my boardgame years, with Monopoly and Life and such, we learned by our teenage years to throw the dice to move while the previous player was wrapping up their turn.  If you have four people who have learned the rules, they don't need to contemplate for hours about whether or not to buy St. Charles' Place.  They know.  When they land on St. Charles' place, and they're reaching for the money to buy it, you don't have to wait until change is made and the property is in their hand before the next person throws dice.

This only works, however, if the process of deciding what happens after you throw dice takes ten seconds or less.  If it takes anything more than that, the game is dragging.  Ten seconds is plenty of time for a DM to record the drop in hit points, describe if the monster is dead or still dangerous, or roll a saving throw if necessary.  Then the NEXT player can go.  Anytime you go over that ten second limit, you're killing the momentum of your game.

Something can be done to encourage mages to learn their spells (and the rules, so if you ask the range they can produce it), and obviously there's a lot to be done in keeping the goddamn players sitting at the table (players are freaking cats, I swear to gawd).  The rules are ever the inherent problem, however ... and every additional number that must be adjusted in order to make a combat fly is multiplied by every character, then doubled or more by the DM having to keep track of the opponents without help.  So if there's going to be an additional number to be adjusted (damage reduced by armor, say), it better be simple-fucking-simon.  Otherwise you're looking for rules to see how much plate mail reduces the damage done by maces as opposed to halberds and daggers, not to mention how much damage the plate mail can sustain before it buys the farm.

The problem is, the more quickly the NEW rule can be managed in the game, the less important the new rule is to the overall experience.  Butch's example in the previous post, about armor ... it actually isn't much of an issue, time-wise.  In reality, however, it adds nothing to the game, except to change the balance of effect armor has (depending on how you play it), which is then an issue for everyone coming into your campaign that's never played that rule.  Wait, should I get scale mail now?  What do you mean chain sucks - how the hell am I supposed to know this?

Where it comes to game-grinding momentum-killing rules, the worst is any that allows the player to have a choice ... and the wider the choice, the worse the rule.  People, if you will forgive me, are bafflingly stupid where it comes to choice.  If you've ever worked in retail, where you had to serve people who just wanted to buy a fucking shirt, you know precisely what I mean.  People are awful.

Take the Monopoly example above.  If you're old enough to have played, how much time have you spent waiting for someone who, like a deer in headlights, can't make up their mind about buying Water Works?  Holy shit, guy, buy the damn thing or don't!  And here we're just talking about a choice of two options ... will or won't!  I can't believe people play skill point systems without killing each other at the table.

In the entire player character development process, there are three critical points where I want to strangle a player.

1)  Deciding what class they want to play.  I play early AD&D in this regard, so we are talking eleven choices.  And the dice usually eliminate three of those choices - paladin, illusionist and monk.  With new players, running their first character in my world, I usually insist they play either a fighter or a thief ... if they're especially bright, I might allow them to play a mage or cleric.  And still you're sitting there five, ten minutes while they can't decide if they want to kill things with a sword or a force of nature.  Still, this is usually something that gets sorted out by the time a player has tried most of the pantheon.

2)  Deciding what spells to use.  This is usually not very bad ... but it does kill a lot of time when you explain, again, what this spell does or what that spell does.  What I hate about this option is the spellcaster goes through this dilemma every fucking level.  You would think, I means seriously, they could read the goddamn list at some point while they're on the john holding up the damn game, before the next time they level!  But no ... the law is you have to wait for your next level before you read the damn spells, much less pick one.

3)  Weapons.  Frakking friggin' jesus-in-a-sidecar weapons.  What in the hell is wrong with people?  In all the years I've played, in all the experienced and novice characters I've walked through character creation, it is a very rare player indeed who just picks four damn weapons for their fighter or one damn weapon for their mage.  If they're not picking too few weapons - something you don't learn until they're 4th level - they're picking too damn many, or weapons their class can't use.  I had an incident a few months ago where a player who hadn't played in about six months started in regularly.  He was using a long bow, and for reasons unknown I thought he was playing a fighter.  Hey, it had been a long time.  Turns out, he was a thief ... who can't use a long bow.  I know at some point in the distant past I gave this guy a list of what weapons his thief could use, when the character was rolled up.  Apparently, the communication did not take.

If it wasn't for the fact that I like weapons, I'd limit the entire complement to four ... but that won't fly.  So I'll spend another ten or twenty days of my life waiting for players to pick weapons.

Here's my best advice:  if someone proposes a rule system that offers a choice to players, run.  Run as fast as you can.  A player reaching across the table has trouble picking between pretzels and cheezies.  They are not suitably equipped to making decisions about whether to concentrate on survival skills or streetwisery.  They need to be beaten with cattle prods into nice neat stalls where they can throw dice, get excited about hits and misses and occasionally be set free to buy equipment.

Which is, incidentally, the one choice I don't mind players making ... but only because this is the time in the game I use to go to the bathroom, look up my own shit, bake pies, call relatives in other cities, repair furniture, sleep, write novels, etcetera, etcetera.


This is my 888th post.  8's are pretty.


DaveL said...

Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Finally, someone GET'S IT besides me. I can die happy, now.

Johnny said...

Well said. However, handing out pre-gens is no fun either. Character creation is the price we pay.

ESR said...

Man, I've felt like that before, and it meant it was time to take, say... 10 years off DM'ing.