Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Four Measures

With the post earlier today out of the way, let's get on to more serious material. To begin, if you have downloaded the hex generator in the last couple of days, toss it. I have upgraded it considerably as of last night.

Today, rather than tackling it point by point, I'd like to speak generally about experience, leveling up and why D&D is satisfying because of both, before getting on to alternatives that might also achieve that level of satisfaction.

As human beings, we are often more fascinated by slow moving things than the alternative, because they are slow moving. A covey of partridge jump up from the bush and are gone in a few seconds ... it's exciting, but it's also over almost at once. A flight of geese high up can be picked up in the distance and watched for three or four minutes, often enabling the viewer to pick out details of the birds' flight pattern, the smooth and easy glide as the birds shift to catch the airstream of the one in front. In a particularly stress-free environment, even watching clouds as they shift across the sky can keep the mind active, particularly if the clouds are dark and steadfastly making their way towards the viewer.

I think human beings are naturally clock-watchers. I don't believe we need instant gratification; I believe we are often greatly pleased by something that is far in the future, which incrimentally nears, which promises benefits that are unique and interesting.

I think this is an important element of D&D that is often overlooked in good gaming. It takes a long time to amass enough experience to be high level. The numbers go up very slowly ... a hundred here, a few hundred there, a burst of a thousand and then it's fifty or sixty-five. In 33 years of DMing, no matter what the level of a player, I've never had a player feel any amount of experience was too little to bother recording. Even if they need fifty or a hundred thousand, if you give a player five experience, they will diligently write it down.

There's something fascinating about those numbers steadily climbing, session after session. There's something fascinating about counting the numbers down, watching the amount needed slowly shrink ... and it doesn't matter that the eventual gain - the new level - isn't very much. A tenth level fighter will need 250,000 x.p. to increase the present hit points from 92 to 97, and to improve the chance to hit by a measly 5%. But they don't care. They love going up a level.

I don't want to get into why that is, though it's probably a worthy post. I'd rather point out that it would be foolish to think that because THIS particular slow-moving increase in experience and nominal power is special, it excludes automatically that there could be another measurement that could likewise affect the game.

Just look at what experience is. It's a number on the character sheet. It's a number that goes up. When it passes a certain point, the character's options for play are slightly transformed. The transformation is entirely in the player's hands, and the transformation is both fluid and flexible.

This is one of the reasons the skill-system was such a miserable addition. It wasn't flexible. You were either skilled or you weren't. The skill was either useful or it was fluff. And the skill did not apply to every situation, unlike the growth of experience and level. The skill seemed tacked on; and everyone knew that by not taking these skills as opposed to those, one was in fact intentionally crippling the character. True, some people fetishized that, supposedly for roleplaying purposes, but I think this was only a sort of resistance to the skills being so inflexible and so obviously unbalanced where it came to contribution to the game.

Obviously, the game is about measurement. And the thrill of the game is about surpassing that measurement - preferably in a fashion that gives the player as much agency as possible with the character. The player wants choice; the player wants to be able to change their choice once its made. There must be room for improvement that isn't a straight line, that allows choices based on contingency vs. practicality, or aesthetic vs. use. And everywhere, the improvement has to be a real improvement, one the player can visualize and build upon, just as the player is able to see where the improvement happens as a result of experience.

I said the other day that not everything in the game should be pounded into the experience process; and I said that if a settlement campaign were going to work at all, it would need to provide things to the player that the experience/combat system cannot provide. For example, the impossibility of seizing parts of the world and gaining its resources without having to use the D&D combat system.

I don't think I can provide those things yet ... but I believe I have a glimmer of those things.

WEALTH is the most obvious. Wealth has always been part of D&D, and players enjoy being able to build castles and houses and temples almost as much as they do leveling up. The only problem with these things is that once they're built, they're almost certainly static. The temple does nothing but sit there. The castle is useless if no one is actually attacking the party. And because these are nothing but things the players can't put in their pocket, eventually they're just concrete blocks around the character's feet. Their creation does not move the game along. The reason for that is because very few of the creators of the game have any conceptionalization of how such structures DO move civilization forward. That's been a very sad state of affairs.

Another facet is productivity, or LABOR. Labor has traditionally been used to build the static castles and temples, or been used to fill armor and carry swords for when we want to see enemies slaughter hundreds of unimportant mercenaries just to keep them busy. There's never any investment in these mercenaries because their existence or lack of existence measure out to the exact same empty status quo. An actual lord, watching his men slaughtered, would know that even if he won at that point his lands were going to go unplowed, the industries in his control were going to stand idle and that just the maintenance he was losing was going to bankrupt him and his family. Parties never need worry about that. Men, whatever their purpose, are found down at the local town by turning on a great spigot that reads "labor" or "men-at-arms" ... a spigot that never runs dry.

A third horrid bugbear is HEALTH. This is something no one ever wants to look at. Any incorporation of health in a campaign - as a measurement of that campaign - immediately incorporates the lack of health ... and that means players potentially getting sick and dying. No one wants that. No one wants to run a character who has to worry about being sick all the time, and there's no room for encouraging players to believe that arriving at some place healthy and wonderful would be a boon their characters would appreciate. See, it is because D&D suffers from the It's Always Spring trope. The players are ALWAYS healthy. How can you give them any feeling of health from that viewpoint except to increase their hit points, the healing of their hit points, their imperviousness to the removal of their hit points and so on. To make health mean something, first the actual PAR setting for the campaign has to be considerably lowered. That's unacceptable.

Yet some of the most popular posts on this blog have been those I wrote about nutrition and wilderness damage. On some level, players appreciate the idea of things not always being perfectly healthy ... they're just not all that clear on where that goes, except to where their character dies spontaneously from a hang-nail.

Finally, HAPPINESS. That's especially tricky. I got good response to the post I wrote earlier this year on ennui ... but again, very few people can appreciate how one incorporates happiness into the campaign without also penalizing characters arbitrarily for a lack of happiness. Okay, disease we understand. There's a chance for it, you contract it, you die or don't die, it's disliked but it's random. "You're saying my character is unwilling to fight ... because he's not happy? I don't get it."

Both health and happiness have to be applied to some other achievement than the intrinsic qualification of the character - they have to be applied to the environment instead, just as labor and wealth are. In some manner, the application of these four things has to change the world in a way the character cannot. In short, the Village rises up or does not rise up because it is unhealthy or unhappy. This is something a player can understand. So long as they can fight the enemy themselves (without restraint), they get that the TOWN WON'T because they town is unhappy. That's a workable formula, leaving the player to immediately ask, "How can I make the town happy?"

That puts us clearly in the character agency direction, because there is never just one answer. There has to be many, and there have to be answers the DM never conceived of, but which can be applied once invented.

Once that's made clear to players and DM's alike, than we can move on to global domination.


James C. said...

The difference between these four measures, which I think address nicely the scope of what you're after, and experience as D&D defines and applies it is that while the latter is a linear progression that is noted but never really spent per se, the four former each seem to be separate but related continuum. They can ebb and flow, may even influence one another and perhaps under some yet-to-be realized system will be accrued and spent or at least influenced by player action.

I'm anxious to see where you go next with this. While combat and XP have no bearing on these four, how will/ could race, class, religion, ability scores or player action have bearing? Pushing and pulling sliders like in a Civ game? Does combat/ experience actually indirectly effect these via character level? This would seem appropriate in your setting where the higher-leveled characters occupy the sorts of positions which have power in influencing health, wealth, happiness and labor.

But if I'm way off and there is a linear progression to health, happiness, wealth and labor, please let me in on it. :)

JDJarvis said...

In my experience things have to change to keep the players interested. But not too much. The player doesn't like to feel they are having thins arbitrarily inflicted upon them. Players need to feel control at some level and they can of course experience this control by paying attention to the campaign environemnt and what's coming over the virtual horizon.

James C: The linear progression to health, happiness, wealth, and labor is more D&D. (Just not too much).