Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Insiders & Outsiders

In regards to a recent discussion of injuries, the subject of falling rules took the fore.  I thought I might discuss those a bit and the subject of rules in general.

Carl Nash of Back Screen Pass recently made a very good point that would have been spot on in my campaign 25 years ago - and continues to be spot on with many campaigns today.  As he says in argument, you can't stop:

". . . the character that just fell a ridiculous distance from jumping right up with no ill effects . . ."

So it has ever been since the great Gygaxian menace decided that the principles of falling did not include any acknowledgement of acceleration, momentum, mountaineering experience or the specifics of one fleshy bag of water connecting with a variable surface.  Well, after all, Gygax failed to complete school as an anthropologist, not a physicist.

(that joke is not going to go over well)

Carl doesn't know that 25 years ago my players browbeat me with the exact exhortations Carl used, compelling me to change my falling rules long ago.  They've been since upgraded and solidly codified on the wiki.

I was making the point that falling leads to more than just damage; a sufficient fall also leads to a wound, which in turn can soak up hit points very effectively if the character hasn't the time to bind the wound before bleeding out.  Given that damage caused by bleeding may be sufficient to keep the creature from taking any action at all (including binding their wounds), due to my stunning rules, even if the character has magic, they may still die even if they survive the fall.

For example, a cleric, Falstrong, with all the healing spells one could want has 75 hit points and is pushed off a 50 foot cliff onto sharp rocks, taking 55 damage.  The rest of the party, meanwhile, is still 50 feet above and in the same combat that resulted in Falstrong being pushed.  In fact, an orc bulldozed Falstrong off the cliff in order to keep the party from making their way into the orc's lair . . . and now the orc is laying next to Falstrong, dead.

Okay, no problem, Falstrong has 20 hit points left.   He's not dead.  He's stunned for a round, sure, but after that, he'll heal himself and get up, right?

Wrong.  While he's stunned he takes 5 additional damage per round from his wound (which may be internal or external, it really doesn't matter).  Falstrong is stunned again.  He can't cast a spell, he can't reach for his healing potion, he can't do anything except lay there and possibly go, "uuuuuhhhh . . ."

Another round passes and he loses another five hit points.  And another.  And another.  And meanwhile his henchman thief, Wrascaly, is trying to climb down to him - but climbing is slow.  In four rounds, just as Falstrong's hit points drop to zero, Wrascaly is still 30' up.  At this point, Wrascaly looks at that last 30 feet, makes a judgment call . . . and deliberately jumps.

At 30 feet, with a deliberate jump (distinct from a fall), Wrascaly can make a dexterity check for each 10' distance (some of these checks would be automatic for upper level monks, explaining at last the apparently random rules surrounding monk falling distances).  He's a thief so let's say he makes two of them.  The surface he lands on is sharp rocks, so he takes 4d10 damage (instead of the 6d10 he'd take if he were falling).  Wrascaly has 49 hit points and he manages to take only 15.  Hurray, he lives!

He is, unfortunately, stunned.  He's also been wounded (1 point per round), but he can live with that.  The main problem is that while he's laying there, stunned, Falstrong just slipped down to -5 hit points.

Can the reader see how these rules pile one upon the other?  For the neophyte, unused to the system, it seems conflated and perhaps even bloated.  In reality, this is no more bloated than being aware, in a kitchen, of how thin the meat should be cut, how carefully the lettuce should be monitored for freshness and quality, how much spice precisely should be dashed over the plate, the cleanliness of the plate itself, the time that has elapsed since the order, the amount of lettuce or spice that remains for the next order or if it needs to be stocked up, the seven other orders being kept in one's head at that precise moment, the time the nachos and the pizza have been left in the oven and the overall sense one has about the temperature of everything.  To an outsider, this looks complicated, even impossible to manage.  To an insider, this is all done while chatting about the merits of Bruce Springsteen's real influence on modern pop versus modern rock.

Rules cannot be judged according to how an outsider or noobie perceives them.  The blogger who buys a game last weekend, uses this weekend to read through the rules and then sets out today an impression of those rules is spewing nonsense.  In reality, he or she is an outsider and has no understanding at all about the game effectiveness of those rules, not yet.  The same must be said of the players, who will have perhaps 20 hours of hard experience with those rules in the space of 2-3 months - since most of the actual game time they share will be taken up with role-playing, chatter and a host of other interchanges that are relatively rule-neutral.

To an insider, however, like the kitchen, the rules can become so second nature that the actual adjudication of those rules fails to rise above casual observation.  For the insider, the only question that matters is whether or not the thief can make it to the cleric before the cleric dies.  That's it.  As the distance is judged, as the decisions are made about who is going to try to go down and save the cleric, how much damage is taken and the misery of a 12th level cleric dying because a 1 hit die orc sacrificed himself, the actual rules fade into the background.  Everyone knows what they are, they've been encountered many times before in different situations, so there's no reason to quibble or argue.  The dice are all rolled in the open in my game, so when the 55 damage is tallied, it is the players themselves who are free to see that all the dice indeed do add up.

The cleric can't argue about the damage; Falstrong knows the consequences.  Since he views the rules as established and legitimate, his grief is an understanding that he shouldn't have tried to swing around next to the cliff when he knew damn well how dangerous that would be in a fight.  But he figured, "Hey, an orc wouldn't sacrifice himself."

That is, until I point out that, if it's clear the orcs feel they're going to die anyway, why not a wisdom check to see if they can take a character with them?  That has a ring of truth in it, doesn't it?  "If you are going to die, take him with you."

Then the critical drama becomes, not did the fall kill the cleric, but will the thief save the cleric before it is too late?  Can the thief, once he revives from being stunned, get a healing salve or a potion into the cleric before the cleric dies from his wound?  Was the potion shattered in the fall?  Is there even time to get it down the cleric's throat?

The 'complexity' of the rules feels anything but to my players.  They're used to them.  They've been trained and they've adapted.  If the reader were to come work with me, without any experience at all, we could get you up to speed as a fair cook in five or six months.  40 hours a week.  All of it training.

How long would it take you to get comfortable with the system I've described above?  About six sessions.  Piece of cake.


  1. Excellent analogy. Perhaps I (and other perpetual collectors/critics of games) aren't giving a fair shake to new games when we decry them for an over-burdening of page count and rules padding and we'd "get it" if we only made the effort to play for six or seven sessions.

    [though there are some games I *have* played for a half dozen sessions detesting the entire time]

    I certainly had no issue with the complexity of AD&D back in the day, though it did take a bit to get "up to speed with all its fiddly-ness. At the time, there was a priority on learning the thing because of the amount we CARED about the game. Now, perhaps, I run with the wrong crowd...people who only want to play "for fun" and can't be bothered to care overmuch, seeing as how there are more important things in their lives to care about.

    Guess I'm not picky enough with who I allow into my game.

  2. Keep in mind that I like you, JB, when I ask this.

    If you don't really "care," then what is the real value of your opinion on anything having to do with games?

    In one sentence you've correctly identified the enemy of every post I've ever written about 'fun' or design.

    Some of us do care, you see. I presume you'd like your game run by someone who does. Imagine have your next restaurant meal prepared by someone who doesn't.

  3. I really like reading your detailed descriptions of play. Tactical decisions like how far to climb before jumping the rest of the way are something I would love to have more of in the games I play. I doubt I will ever play in a game quite like yours, but reading your round by round descriptions of combat and play let me experience some of it vicariously.

  4. @ Alexis:

    Indeed, I DO care. I'm not sure if that gives me any kind of right to post any of my opinions on gaming. Hell, it may not even be my motive (maybe I just like blogging to read my own type-written words and it's the only subject I have enough knowledge of to feel comfortable doing so). It sure seems to take up a lot of my free time.

    I suppose the part of my sentence I should have emphasized was "the AMOUNT we cared" because there are certainly differing levels of interest, engagement, importance, and caring that gets attached to the game and gaming in general.

    Just in case it was unclear, I agree with your post, and feel that I need to approach my own gaming with a greater degree of care. Certainly I can give it as much as it takes to make a sandwich.

  5. I'm sorry to rake you over the coals, JB.

    You write a great deal, you work on your own game design, you're obviously in the thick of things - it is why I don't understand why you continue to balk on this particular issue, as though you're proud on some level of your affected nonchalance. Whatever you say about my Pollyannish attitude, however, I'm not willing to give up on you.

    Get off the pot, man. Stop affecting this 'too cool to be passionate' crap and just admit that you're addicted. Admitting your addiction is the first step towards embracing it totally.

  6. Oh, I'm addicted all right. Though, perhaps, I've been half-assing ("managing") my a functional alcoholic...rather than cutting loose from my attachments and just descending into the madness.

    Let me ponder on it.

    [and feel free to rake me over the coals, BTW. It's your blog...I don't HAVE to read it]

    : )

  7. Yes you do, JB. Part of the healing process includes admitting that you're helpless in the face of a higher power.

    Right back at you, buddy.


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