Friday, July 18, 2014


Keeping with this theory that role-players - and especially DMs - find combat boring, I have long noticed a propensity to add more and more damage to the combat formula.  Such and such many more damage done per level, more strength bonuses (again per level or just generally), greater damage for weapons due to compounding proficiency skills and so on.

Presumably this is done to hurry the battle up and to ensure that the players' characters are more likely to survive.  If Joe the 9th level fighter gets a +1 bonus to damage for every level, then with a spear Joe is now doing an average of 12.5 damage every time he hits.  Great, Joe.  Go get 'em.

This just doesn't work either in a game or in reference to actual human abilities. Having lived a while, I can say that age and experience convey neither greater strength nor greater speed and dexterity.  Age does for a time - say, between the ages of zero and about 28 (depending on the activity) - but after that the decline is quite noticeable.  Even Conan was described by R.E. Howard as diminishing as he got into his fifties. Experience just doesn't make you stronger.  It doesn't give your arm the power to do more damage.  It does make you less willing to jump into a fight, knowing you'll probably die there, but that's not really the same thing, is it?

Besides - and this is the part that really confounds me - doesn't the game already have a system that enables you to upgrade?  Hm?

Fact is, for many people, it just doesn't upgrade the character fast enough.  It is the sort of thing that psychologists have been studying since the 1960s, with a quaint, benign little experiment that turned out to have profound revelations:

The 'Marshmallow Test' is a study in deferred gratification.  As an experiment, it has been repeated tens of thousands of times.  The principles of the test are simple - a very young child, 4 years of age or so, is given a marshmallow on a plate.  The child is told, "If you do not eat the marshmallow for ten minutes, you will be given a second marshmallow."  But if the child eats the first marshmallow, that's it.  That's all they get.  Then the child is left alone.

The reader can see in the video how this affects children.  Marshmallows are like crack to children, and for many of them it is unbelievably hard to wait.  They want that gratification right now, and many of them cannot wait the necessary time to get it.

The results of this test shattered the psychology community, in that it had implications for long-term human behaviour.  Some of the same children who were given the test in the 1960s were placed into a study that has now lasted more than 40 years.  You can read about the study on this TIME webpage.  Participants in the study have been divided into 'low delayers' and 'high delayers' - the latter being those who could wait for the second marshmallow.  From the linked page:

"You might say that high delayers have better mental brakes, while low delayers are driven by a stronger engine. “The low delayers don’t tend to activate the prefrontal cortex as much as the high delayers do. The high delayers are very effective at being able to regulate their behavior and not activating this deep system,” Casey says. “There’s not as much of a push-and-pull for the high delayers.”

Now, gaining levels is definitely a delayed gratification.  It takes time, patience and a strong willingness to accept that, once you have gained a level, that is all you get!  Those who are pushing for rule changes that give more power to players sooner are simply low delayers who cannot bring themselves to wait.  They want that power to sweep their way through enemies TODAY, not tomorrow.  The level gain system imposed in the original game or in AD&D doesn't move fast enough for them - and as a result, for 40 years they have smashed and grabbed their way through game design until we have this mess of a promotion system that exists in most new games.

In fact, I think if the reader gives it some thought, they'll see there are dozens of circumstances where things have clearly been changed or adjusted in order to satisfy the low delayers' requirements.  There are fundamental principles that have been compromised not just so they can do more damage or hit more often, because it takes too long between rounds to get enough gratification, but also in the overall length of combat, the amount of healing these players can get, how much treasure they expect to find, the magic they expect to be able to BUY rather than FIND and so on.  For at least half the players out there, nothing in the original game moves quickly enough.

Speaking for myself, I began writing my book on November 1st, 2013, pretty much by surprise (I didn't know that on that day I was going to get the jump start that would get me going).  8 and a half months is a pretty short time to write a book, especially one of this magnitude.  If it hadn't been for the decision to go to Toronto and the timeline that forced me onto, I would probably still be in Chapter 10 or 11 right now.  I was pushed to meet a very uncomfortable deadline, one that wound up with me shoving out every other activity from my life for a time.

Through all that work, I had to delay my gratification - in the hopes that I would make it a good book, that it would cover the subjects necessary, that the language would be as good as I could make it and so on.  I did not do the marshmallow test, but delaying gratification has been my life's work.

Yet this blog is full of examples of my rushing to dive in before I'm halfway through a thought.  I'm always putting things up that are half-made or half-planned.  I'm convinced that the feedback on things I haven't thought through is tremendously useful.  I have repeatedly made changes due to the 'brainstorming process' that is this blog (I talk about brainstorming at length in the book).

Putting things into actual use demands delay, however.  It demands forethought.  The book needed at least as long as I gave it.  I was prepared at any time to ditch Toronto if I felt the time-line would spoil the book's quality.  It didn't.  I worked harder, was all, keeping that future gratification firmly in mind.

Being a certain level means learning to live with the limitations of that level happily, not rushing about to enhance the level so that it operates like four levels above it.  Quite a lot of 'designers' are never going to understand that - because, frankly, they don't understand anything about the function of the game they're blissfully fucking up.  And the worst of it, the very WORST of it, is that DM that claims upon making a change, "My players like it."

Yeah, dummy.  Your players like marshmallows.  Duh.


Jomo Rising said...

Writing is work for me. You gave yourself a deadline, pumped out a book in 8.5 months. That is more than enough writing for me. Yet you amplified that by regularly posting on a blog with "too many words." I don't know how you do it. Is there something in the wiring?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I also rewrote and edited a 24,000 word book in the process (5,000 shy of Animal Farm), had several flame wars and handled the online campaign for almost four months and occasionally wrote notes on other projects in the meantime. Along with teaching myself how to do an index by messing around with random theses stolen off the net.

Yes, it's the wiring. You do enough of something, your brain redesigns the necessary pathways in order to make writing feel less like 'work' all the time.