Friday, December 26, 2014

Free Parking

Continuing from Wednesday's post:

While this may read like a lead-in to a discussion of dungeons that do not incorporate the proximity issues of traps and monsters, the reality is that no one wants that.  For all their irrational faults, dungeons hold a legitimate place in the game-play of RPGs comparable to Free Parking or Pass Go and collect $200.  After struggling through campaigns heavy with ramifications, the making of enemies, intrigue, suspense, significance and what not, the player is also entitled to land on a square occasionally that momentarily eliminates all that intensity.  It doesn't matter that dungeons are illogical, baseless, flimsy in design or even laughable on occasion.  We have to have them.  Their presence offers the player characters growth - manifested in the game as a leap in game points necessary to improve themselves (upgrading) through new powers and greater wealth.

Upgrading is necessary - without it the game grows stale, primarily because each repeated use of a given power reduces the novelty - and therefore the emotion surrounding the use of that power.  A boost is occasionally needed, regardless of the 'meaning' behind that boost.  The DM who patently ignores the need for that boost in favour of immersive gaming - where game-play is based on interaction, character development, investigation into conspiracies and so on - all the time will find a table of disgruntled, dissatisfied gamers.

This does not suggest that immersive gaming isn't all important.  It is.  More important, unquestionably, than the dungeon.  The two are not, however, in competition with each other.  This is what makes the dungeon such a sweet problem solver where it comes to the game's enjoyment overall: the dungeon can, at any time, be easily implanted into the immersive game at any point, enabling the players to continue developing themselves and their characters, while at the same time getting a shot in the arm that let's them upgrade and enjoy their new, enhanced superiority overall.

We need to understand that the dungeon does that.  Moreover, we need to recognize that the placement of that dungeon's front door in the campaign becomes the make-or-break point for the perfect balance between immersion and character enhancement.

Why the front door?  Because that is the threshold.  That is the moment when the players are looking forward to the deep, meaningful rewards they expect to obtain while at the same time looking back at the campaign they are momentarily forsaking.  For a session or two, they know, the baddies outside in the world will be shut out while the players venture inside . . . and yet the baddies will still be there when the time comes for the players to leave.

Even if the purpose of the dungeon is to solve some problem that exists on the outside; even if the outside pursues the players into the dungeon as a means to bleed the inside and outside realities into each other, the door both in and out remains the clear dividing line.

The reality outside allows for freedom of movement, opportunities to escape the present situation and begin anew some place else, the assuredness that the enemy or death is not inches away . . . but it also means an almost total lack of control over anything.  The outside world, even if it is only a hundred miles across, is far too large to be effectively managed; there are too many creatures, too many organization, too vast a network of power-plays in effect to ever allow the players to feel fully comfortable.

The reality inside offers the reverse.  This hallway can be perfectly controlled by hammering nails into each end and then posting guards; even an excessive number of enemies can't begin to match the population of a single city in the outside.  The enemy and death may be right here, within reach, but it is an easily guessed at death, an easily understood enemy, something that can be handled with direct tool use plus brutality.  Here, there is no freedom of movement - and yet, oddly, that seems to bring each choice into a comfortable clarity.

The party understands that there is a difference here.  They grasp the reality change again and again as they cross that threshold, both ways.  Going in, the party tightens, grows deliberate, sets themselves to make work of the environment through careful ordering of themselves and their methods.  Coming out, the party relaxes, eases off from the pressure of imminent consequences and begins to chatter jovially about what they will do individually once they reach the nearby town. Going in, the party's faces become grim; coming out, they smile.

I am describing a balance.  I don't say the balance must be 50/50 . . . or even that the balance should be the same for every DM and every party.  That would be nonsensical.  I do say that some sort of balance should be evident in every campaign and that the DM should be conscious of the balance.  Steps need to be taken to implicitly define the relationship between both sides of the Dungeon's Door and what elements of each side are or can be bled into the other.

More to the point, we should stop pretending that there is no difference.  The dungeon offers rewards that immersion play cannot offer - not without the invention of ridiculous, ad hoc and thus meaningless rewards for immersion play.  How does it work that organizing a fiat or willfully finagling a result through planning and deliberation somehow translate to the combat readiness of the character, the purpose underlying every point benefit and enhancement?  Conversely, how can tramping through halls and rooms, foiling traps and killing monsters produce a meaningful character experience?

I'll go one further - if the campaign means to offer experience and health rewards for "role-play," in order to make the immersive game that much more important, why not go the extra step and eliminate all point systems?  If you do not want your game measured by the players desire for combat, remove the rewards of combat entirely!  Reduce combat to what it is for real people in the real world - a terrifying, awful experience that brings no reward and can only result in injury or death.  Eliminate the benefits of combat and the game must become an immersive character-based campaign or nothing.

Conversely, if you will have a game that embraces the dungeon in its full glory, then do the same. Get rid of intelligence and wisdom, burn down any rule that contributes to characterization and play for the one abiding duality that remains - live or die.

I don't believe rpgs are improved by either attitude.  I believe that both must be embraced, in the balance that I've been arguing.  I believe that the players out there who rail for one ideal or the other are foolishly single-minded and limited in their perception of what this game offers:  BOTH.

This much, however, should be obvious.  Though I have been beating the drum for several paragraphs, I don't believe that the last four or five hundred words will have enlightened the reader by any appreciable degree.  Yet my goal requires that I establish a baseline from which we can advance to greater things.

Let us return to first principles.  The last essay and this one exist to establish these characteristics that go up to making a dungeon: a) that the dungeon provides a narrow, cramped setting where it comes to decision-making; b) that a dungeon offers temporary freedom from emotional/situational consequences; c) that a dungeon offers meaningful opportunities to upgrade the character; and d) that an imminent threat exists.

Just to hammer those points home, the dungeon is straightforward, I can kill whatever I want without giving a damn and I'm going to get rich doing it, even if that means I could die any second.

Viewed that way, what is a dungeon?  Does it need to be brick and stone?  Does it need to be underground?  Does it need anything except an opportunity to kill or be killed?  It does not!  A momentarily lapse in the tight, rigorous control of the campaign - or a deliberate place where the controls are overlooked for perfectly acceptable reasons (such as the Free Parking space) will satisfy the requirement!

I'm going to take a break for a bit - but I'm not done yet.  I've got to extrapolate on this last paragraph, don't I?


1 comment:

Cygnus said...

No comments yet on this middle post of the trilogy? Got to remedy that -- this is the one that drove home this important point the strongest, I'd say.

This healthy mix of adventure types seems related to the way the early seasons of the X-Files worked as well as they did... they peppered in the arching "mythology" episodes in between the one-off monster-of-the-week episodes, and it all stayed fresh and exciting. Toward the end it was all mythology, and all tiresome.