Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Hadron Collider of D&D

I've been poking for a couple of weeks at the content of JB's Economy post, that I've already written about once.  It's such a rich field for gauging the mindset of the ordinary online D&D metagamer.  Take this comment from Roger Burgess, posted yesterday, to a statement I made about mechanical parts of the game mattering (specifically, an economic model):

The name of the game is Dungeons and Dragons, not Markets and Accountants. The effort to verisimilitude ratio of figuring out 'realistic' economic values is nearly nil. Simulating the economy beyond 'You guys have pumped a bunch of gold into an economy based on silver - here's what's happened to the village you started in' is really not that important.  There are far better ways to show that the characters are having an effect on the world than trying to 'simulate' an inevitably inaccurate economy.  Adventuring is the game, and hours and hours of prep that the players aren't going to see much of isn't part of it for people who put any sort of value on their time.

I don't want to disparage Burgess; he's approaching the subject from a reasonable point of view.  "An Economy" is a daunting prospect and it is very hard to reconcile the amount of work with the perceived value of that work, particularly prior to any actual evidence that there's going to be any value.  This is the reason for this title: economics is the Hadron Collider of D&D.

What's interesting is that Burgess automatically supposes that, of course, a proposed economy must be founded on the sound principles of supply and demand.  He has leapt ahead in the conversation to the players who bring back a big pile of gold from an adventure, producing massive inflation in the silver-based system and destroying the economy of that town.

I've heard this particular scenario many times.  I wonder how this store of gold has derived from a silver-based economy?  Where did the party-found gold come from?  If a dungeon, I presume it came from monsters accumulating it from outside; or are the monsters digging out gold and then stamping coins for an underground economy that never, ever steps out the dungeon's front door?  Or are we imagining some ancient culture where gold was common enough to make a sufficient horde for the party to find, but somehow the present-day culture failed utterly to keep that gold currency alive?  Because I must say, during the absolute worst periods of human history, those periods of total decline and dark age, periods where millions perished unknown by the sword because no one took the time to write anything down that we were able to find, gold survived.  Gold always survives.  We have accounts of cultures that regularly sacrificed babies to the gods, but we don't have any accounts - except from Disney - of cultures that sacrificed gold.

If there is no other reason for trying to create an economy for a game world, there's this:  the DM will learn something about economics.

The other half of Burgess' comment is also a quite common point: that with so many better things to concentrate on, so many more worthy things, why concentrate on this?

That brings us right back to the false dilemma again, in which we hear it argued that it is either this or that.  We can create an economy for our world . . . or we can do everything else.

Naturally, "this" or "that" can be applied to anything we care to name.  Why are we spending so much time with hack and slash when there are far better ways to show the characters are having an effect?  Why are we spending so much time with trouble-solving scenarios?  Why are we spending so much time with character creation?  Why are we spending so much time with alignment?  Why are we spending so much time with details like encumbrance, back stories, hit location, religion, character classes, point-system buys and munchkinism?  Why are we spending so much time with something that we don't personally care about?

I agree with Burgess.  Adventuring IS the game.  The problem is we have a surfeit of players who have a complete misread on the subject of "adventure."  For them, it is the traditional, old school campaign, the one where people gird up with swords and armor and recreate the stories of Parsifal, Roland, Hood and Arthur with terrifically focused abandon, rigidly denying that "adventure" could mean anything that happens as a result of chance, fortune, luck, surrounding events deriving from accident, circumstance or things about to happen, that are sought after or reached for, regardless of the context.

To many, "economics" seems like a piss-poor adventure.  Yet it is an adventure that drives only everything in the real world.  It can't in traditional, old school gaming because no one gave any thoughts whatsoever for making rules for that.

Ever play Monopoly with a transport cost rule that says you have to pay $30 before throwing the dice, even on doubles?  Ever play a RISK rule where a single army left on a territory by itself has a 50% chance of rebelling and joining a random enemy, immediately increasing to four times its size as it acquires a 'citizen army'?  Ever play the Game of Life where every time you pass a payday, there's a 1 in 10 chance that someone in the car will die, requiring $5,000 for funeral services?  No?  Pity.

D&D is the sort of game where this extra rule-making really makes sense.  We used to make up those rules for those simple games because we wanted more and more.  We didn't stop playing by all the old rules; we didn't drop rules, we added them.  Point in fact, that's all those university students were doing when they added all that shit to Chain Mail.

This isn't a dilemma.  We're working like dogs on all those "far better ways" that have gone before and then, on top of that, we're adding an economy.  And whatever the hell else we can think of, because the one thing we don't want to tell our players is, "No, you can't do that because I'm not ready for it."

That is a total crap cop-out.  Sorry, for those who feel put upon by the content that's already involved but the game thing is to get in and try.  I'll applaud the DM who says, "I'm not ready for that so it's going to be clunky and probably awful . . . but yeah, sure, let's try it and see how it goes."  A qualified yes is always better than a reproving, unqualified no.

Let's not just do the "better ways" - let's do all the ways.  If the reader wants another example, I'll pose a few:

Why are we wasting all this time learning how to hit grounders and line-drives when it is so much easier to win games with home runs?

Why are we wasting all this time learning how to fight with a knife when we have guns that fire bullets?

Why are we wasting all this time learning how computers work when I just want to play video games?

Why am I taking math in school?  When am I ever going to use this shit?

And so on.

Remarkable, isn't it, how a call to concentrate on just the important things sounds so much like being just too tired to learn.


LTW said...

Its not so much that a grand economy has to be made or one established on theoretical principles. Its when my players challenge me on the inconsistencies between my hand-waved rulings.

So I hand-wave another ruling. The players don't like the decision, because they like the first hand-wave ruling I did 6 months ago. The one that gets them a better outcome. Looking into my players eyes, I can see that they know that they are right, I are wrong, and my rulings are bullshit.

I've tried placating my players by giving them what they wanted. Kicking the can until I was in the same position above, correcting a previous hand-wave. I have kicked the can so hard that scarcity left my players' world and they didn't see any reason to take risks.

After googling the problem, google told me that all I had to do was hand-wave creature. One who, out of no where, steals all of the players wealth. I didn't have the guts. My players are smart. That would have jaded them irreparably.

I realize, eventually, that I had become a player at my own table. My players would think of actions and movements for their pre-made characters. I would fill dungeons and towns with pre-made characters and move them about. This is the easy stuff, the work of players. I knew just as much as they did about my own world when we sat down with them to play. The only difference is that I would hand-wave this or that into existence. I could see, that they could see, that I hadn't put much work into this

My realization led me to view that each inconsistent hand-wave was sort of a backhand to my players creativity. I had been beating them behind an electrified fence that became my world. Their creativity learned not to cross certain bounds. The weird part was that they raved about my DMing skills. They always accepted the hand-waving and they were very encouraging. I supposed they were just happy to be playing. I came to see them as sad puppies in a puppy mill.

I torched that world, burning it all down, against the wishes of my players. We have since started a new world. I'm not a historian or an economist. There is little chance that I can hand-wave consistently. I have never been able to. So I build systems now. It takes time. They aren't masterpieces and they have to be remade occasional, but I can at least offer consistency to my players now.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well argued, LTW. Very well argued.