Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Few More Words About Settlements

With my post on Settler, some commented that there had been attempts at a settler campaign without much success; another that it had been rewarding. A settlement campaign is difficult - to begin with, it demands the characters have a purpose, and hopefully a mutual one. This can usually be managed so long as there are local monsters to be killed and booty to be found. It makes little difference whether one is raiding a dungeon in the wilderness or raiding a dungeon on one's own land. However, the wilderness never runs out of dungeons; there are only so many you can reasonably insert in the countryside five miles from home.

So the settlement campaign begins to break down when the region is 'cleared.' It has been my experience that even when you've spent two years of real time campaigning a party around their land, digging into the deepest dungeons and slaughtering hosts of humanoids by some local fort, there is NEVER enough combat to satisfy them. Even when 'going up a level' only means a very slight increase in their ability to hit and only 2-5 more hit points, they still want to go up a level.

I'm not certain what this is all about. Human nature, it must be argued.

So as a DM you're bound to find your party wandering far afield from their local land once the peasants are now safe from nightly incursion. The problem is, as is always the problem, that D&D is wholly based upon the acquisition of experience, and the acquisition of experience demands the sacrifice of monsters and an abundance of treasure for the cause. The restored or installed civilized manor offers neither. Taxes just aren't as interesting to haul home, and law enforcement pales somewhat.

Interesting, is it not, that so many other games can find other things to expand upon than the player character's prowess. Wealth is, after all, generally considered a reward in itself, while the accumulation of an army and the acquisition of territory provide suitable goal posts. Heck, all you do in the Sims is acquire money and build a house ... any upgrades to the actual participants are purely cosmetic.

So why is D&D so tunnel-minded? Why is it the party don't do the logical thing, the thing that every other logistics-minded game does? One would expect the party, having established itself in the hierarchy of the local kingdom, to build up it's army, pick a smaller enemy and proceed to conquest.

The party doesn't do it because there are no rules at all for this sort of play. Mass combat rules, to begin with, are shit from end to end, so that even the simplest of them still require a long, tedious strategic placement and a long, tedious plodding victory. There's no mechanic for "attack into next hex" to simply discover if one can seize it or not, and no mechanic to determine how much food or resources are there, how many of your army can they provide for and how practical it is to gather energy to attempt seizure of the NEXT hex.

Many parties joke about World Domination, but since no player's lifetime is long enough to attempt World Domination by the rules of the game, in truth everyone gives it up as a lost cause.

It is like Dan and Laurie the end of The Watchmen (the graphic novel makes this more stark than the film). Having killed so many people, Dr. Manhattan is off to create life on another planet, Ozymandias has the task of slowly guiding all of mankind in the right direction ... while Dan and Laurie are going to, well, go back to the same old business of catching local criminals, presumably. Nit-picky stuff. Like two soccer parents admitting they're not up for the big plays. The contextual dregs at the bottom of the adventure barrel.

Players in D&D opt for this because it's SMALL enough to be reconciled with their character's obvious abilities ... and, it must be said, with the lives they lead as actual people. The average player just isn't cut out for finding World Domination a desirable prospect. Managing the Foodway down the block is a big reach for them, since it means a lot of drab paperwork, employee relations and taking it on the chin when someone in the store fucks up. They're not built for responsibility. They'd rather play scrub with their friends than join a league. They'd rather cycle at the gym than on the open highway. Watching football is more fun than playing it.

The gentle reader gets the idea.

So for the most part, where it comes to the game, keeping track of how much supplies one has and where they're coming from, and how much the people of this village or that town like or dislike me, that's all very well when a game like Civilization IV handles those remote details for me ... but I'd rather not do it myself, thank you very much. That's the sentiment you the DM are marching uphill against. Your players just don't care.

Not to beat the drum on Civ IV (though I always do, it's just too good a metaphor for the things that D&D overlooks), but there is an accessible aspect to playing that game that also exists in D&D. In Civ IV it's obvious ... in D&D, it's grossly under-contemplated. That being that the game offers as much as you're willing to micromanage.

You can get down into the grittiness of the game and keep track of every city's health and happiness, carefully managing the various resources and trade routes, slowing down the game so that you can minutely apply the power of your workers and builds to the highest level of efficiency, in which case you can play the game at the God Level ... or you can decide to say, "fuck all that noise" and set the game at Warlord, where such details just don't matter as much in actually winning the game. It is up to you how hard you want this game to be.

Between all the bullshit editions wars and what the game is or isn't, or what a DM should do or not do, and all that endless bitching about all those unsolvable issues, D&D really comes down to how much are you prepared to work. After five years writing cheek & jowl with the gaming community, I've come to realize that there will never be solidarity, for no other reason than that there are SO MANY people playing the game who are ineffably lazy, and righteously so. Righteously to the extreme. And why not, from their perspective? The game sets on the Settler level, where all the monsters are killable and all the treasure is kewl ... so if I want to play it on the Settler level, then screw the world. My friends and I like it there.

I think where my issues arise would be in that there is hardly a setting above the Settler level. Warrior level, surely, and perhaps I've done enough work to justify calling my game the Warlord setting. But this is work I've done on my own, not something the community cares about, and certainly not anything the various corporate powers that be can bother themselves to address. They're still debating on how the rules should be written, and what rules to write.

It's been 40 years of that now. Can you bring to mind any other game, organization, agenda or conception that, after forty years, without any outside influence, still cannot come to a single point or question that isn't still subject to ad hoc changes on the whim of whomever might happen to be in charge this month?

No. Neither can I.

Before anyone can play a Settler Campaign (which is clearly far above the "Settler Level"), there's a lot of hard work in front of the DM game enough to try. And I don't think there are that many of us out there. I am game. And I'm going to continue to map out my journey to get to that place as best I can, no matter how many details or adjustments to the game I have to invent from whole cloth in order to make such a thing possible. In the beginning, with the whole internet available, I expected to find some help. I'm wiser now. I hope, however, that I can be of help to anyone reading this.

So no, I don't expect that any of you have adjudicated or run in a proper settler campaign. There are going to be a lot of things I'll write about in the upcoming Civilization posts that are going to suggest things that have NEVER been done in a campaign, mine included. But one has to start somewhere. One has to find someway to achieve a God Setting in the game.


Jonathon said...

I'm pretty excited to see this topic coming to the fore in your blog just as your players in the online campaign get prepared to take possession of a settlement. (I'm guessing that the two are related.)

I know you're going to expand on the topic in coming posts, but I wanted to ask one question related to the desire for leveling-up characters that you mentioned, and how it can be a drag on attempts to let the characters expand into larger responsibilities. Do you think this is something that has to be addressed at the character level in order to keep players engaged (for example, by tying an experience reward to successful law enforcement or administration of a settlement or what have you,) are you thinking of sliding in a substitution of some kind (giving settlements a level-based advancement system, maybe?) or do you think it can be overcome altogether?

Alexis Smolensk said...

It is a terrific weakness of D&D - thinking that EVERYTHING must be pounded into the experience/level gain process.

What is it but a number, a goal post. Players have to be encouraged, by tweaking the dopamine delivery system that is in their brains, that there are other gains that will get them high. See, I don't advocate reason or argument in this case; both will fail. But provide the player with challenge (difficulty) and clear, reasonable results that their 5 senses can observe, and you've got that dopamine working for you.

Maximillian said...

Alexis, I can't say why people play this game instead of playing at life for anyone else, but, for me, it is in large part because the rules are capable of being understood, where I can't ever fully know the rules of my job, or of navigating a party. (I'll admit that others may be able to, but not me...) I LIKE knowing the rules. I LIKE there being rules to know. So anyway, you hit the nail on the head, that it is a lack of rules that prevent a satisfying game at a different level of granularity.

Gort's Friend said...

Having played three versions of Civ at this point, I find myself drawn to your metaphors. IV in particular allows/requires an absurd amount of micromanaging. At one point in obsessing over it, in "experimenting," I stopped playing anything but Pangea, precisely because I was sick of moving my small labor force to and from "finished" islands to clean up waste. It wasn't the island assaults which wore on me, it was the perfection of empire.

Which is the thing about establishing settlements. It's on the GM to sit and do the "math" of costs and benefits, the revenue stream. Unless he has a particularly OCD sort of player nobody seems to enjoy playing Kyle Pendleton, Barbarian-Accountant. So after clearing the twenty mile circle of wilderness, most players are only interested in the equivalent of operating a turnkey business. They get a henchman to act as steward, a manager, just like the majority of nobles did. Historically, most noblemen didn't spend their time managing their estates either, they spent their time scheming at court or at war. Which is close enough to questing and courtier scenarios, that I'd say the average player is no different than the average noble. Once established, the average player is only involved in the big picture, such as when the barbarian/zombie horde rolls into town or when he needs to repopulate his manse after the barbarian horde rolled out of town.

It's no different than a merchant scenario in D&D, something I once experimented with after establishing some simple price differences in a kingdom, with noticeable differences in how much they could could get for fencing their loot. After a trip or two, the bookkeeping of the operation was calculated and the players focused on guarding their wagon train, the "fun" part. This is equally true of a "mining" scenario, where they're bored until shaft number three penetrates too deep and...

Which is what people want to do, especially in a fantasy scenario. Which is why war games will always be more popular than ones where you manage a burger franchise. They can go manage a burger franchise in real life.

Which is why most people don't enjoy Civilization, over plain war games or plain economics games. They're looking for an escape.

Or as my history professor once put it when discussing the Japanese failures in the Pacific Theater, "Logistics aren't sexy."

JB said...


I'm not sure what to do with you. You don't need my accolades (or would profess to not give a shit, being your own self-actualized individual), but I want to support your half-mad quest...I just don't want to seem like I'm blowing sunshine up your ass while doing it.

Personally, I think it's an admirable line of pursuit...hell, I don't mind pursuing World Domination in game (or other notable tasks above "settler" level), but it's seldom I've encountered DMs with that scope of vision. I think part of the problem is that so many of the editions...especially the later ones...tend to scale up the nobility to ridiculous heights...like a king must be a 20th level "something" even though he's sat on his ass all his life and never had a decent adventure. It makes "kingship" something that can only be aspired to as an impossibly far-off proposition, when most campaigns burn out long before reaching double digit levels and content (within the game) is only reached by obtaining said levels.

[of course, it happens with more than just the political scene...it's just a foregone conclusion at most gaming tables that "playing big" requires having an uber-high level]

Personally, I think it can be done, but you have to rip down and destroy some of the fundamental rule assumptions. I know you're already an old hand at some of that (your unique way of basing hit points on mass, for example), but if you'd really shift the paradigm you probably need to look at some of the non-physics based changes that are possible to the rule set.

Or maybe not...maybe it will just be a life's work for you, man. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try (as long as you're having fun in the process).

JD said...

(Sorry, this might get rather long...)

About "having to start somewhere": I have been working with the Rules Cyclopedia for, say, 4 years now, regularly writing about it for maybe one year. As far as system mastery goes, I'm (maybe) starting to see the big picture by now. D&D (and especially the RC) can be pretty intimidating for a DM. I sure was. But at some point I realized two things.

The first thing was (and maybe that's too obvious, I don't know) that D&D never intended to be a finished game. It only tried to build the framework for a DM and gave examples (like Monsters) to show how to scale it. "Official" publications muddied the water, but that comes with the territory, I guess.

The second thing I came to realize was that a DM needs to understand the scope of the game and how the rules handle it, before he alters it to his satisfaction. With D&D that's a lot of work. But once it is done, I'm sure the players will tag along.

My conclusions so far: the xp system is a huge advantage in the game. It's very flexible, formulates reachable goals and is easy to understand. Furthermore it is really hard-wired into the game, so any additional rules using the system are easier to implement. Same goes for character classes, HD and ability scores. With those alone, a DM can do a lot.

I'm still experimenting with it, but so far two solutions are shaping up to give the players access to the implications of high levels and (connected to that) the domain game. The first one is to use the gold = xp ratio as an investment. As soon as the players start spending gold for xp, they have to decide what they are investing in (might be a settlement, a political campaign, a fleet of ships, a giant golem whatever). With deciding and investing the players job is more or less done. Until they reach the point where their investment comes to fruition (which is usually at name level), it is assumed that they did spend the time and gold needed to make it happen (contacts, bribes, materials, etc.). With name level it becomes a mini game within the game, either to further invest in the starting investment or to start a new one (political career changes to war campaign, etc.). The players are still free to do whatever they like, it's just one more level-relevant special ability.

Now for the domain game. Simply put, a character going for a settlement, will have his ability scores as the basic underpinning (high CON means a healthy population, high DEX means it's good to defend). External factors influence those stats (a crime lord might drain WIS and the people get paranoid, etc.) and compete with them. Harvesting resources and defending the settlement leads to xp and a settlement, with time and under the right circumstances, might become a village or even a town. By using what is already there, the rest adapts easy. HD means the population (with 1 hp = 1d6 citizens), resources and threats translate to Monsters. It has some big implications for DM and players. Influencing their surroundings becomes measurable for both. If the players, for instance, are helping with the fortification of a settlement, it increases DEX, the town spending money to pay the heroes, gets xp for it, etc.). If a DM has the ability scores of a mayor and the "level" of the settlement, he has fast access to all kinds of information about it...

So, yes, I agree. It can and should have a place in the game and working on achieving that is worthwhile for a DM. We may come to different solutions, though (and I don't see a problem there).

I actually wrote two posts regarding those ideas in July (Settlement as Class, Spending Gold for a Career) and would be interested in your opinion (if you're interested enough in the main premise, that is).

Won't spam you with links, if you don't mind.

jbeltman said...

Hi Alexis,

I understand that D&D was originally created so wargamers could progress individual characters from weak to strong. As D&D has become its own thing the people playing it have never played any wargames. So you get this process where people try to add a wargame or country management into D&D. Then you get settler influx tables, domain events tables, etc. I wonder if it would just be best to find a wargame that does all the stuff that you want already and use that as a base, then modify D&D to suit that, rather than trying to create it from scratch. Most DMs are used to modifying D&D so that should be easy but creating a domain game from scratch would be a lot harder.



Alexis Smolensk said...

Right. Wouldn't want to do anything hard.

Butch said...

Your comment about Dan and Laurie at the end of Watchman, and the idea that some players/DMs would prefer "small scale" adventuring to "large scale" settlement building, reminded me of the Wondermark cartoon where Bruce Wayne and Alfred discuss how best to use his formidable intellect and limitless wealth to battle crime -- invest in poor neighborhoods? pressure politicians to address social inequality? develop pre-education programs?

No, he's going to put on a bat costume and go after muggers individually.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail...