Wednesday, February 24, 2016

At Least It Runs

In discussing weapon damage on a recent post, I asked readers to offer advice that addressed a question without 'fuzzy' explanations and without ideas that would change any existing rule in the game.  The result?  A fluid, imaginative conversation where several persons made quite reasonable and proactive suggestions.

I haven't decided precisely what to do in the matter discussed; probably, I will create a weight threshold for changes in character mass so that below that threshold, weapons cause 'ordinary' damage and that above that threshold, weapon damage increases.  I haven't decided what the threshold will be; I may make up my mind to let characters not enlarged by the spell that started the conversation, but who are yet above the threshold, to enjoy a moderate advantage in weapon damage done.  Since this is likely to affect only humans and half-orcs (since an unusually high random number would be needed to beat the weight threshold, likely beyond what any of the smaller demi-humans would manage, including the dwarf), it would serve as a bit more of a balance for those races over elves, half-elves and so on.  Recently, in one of my games, it became evident that in a player party of 11 player characters and henchmen, only one character was racially human.  This tells me that the benefits for being non-human are perceived as immoderately high in my game; a lightweight adjustment to weapon damage for big humans might have a good balancing effect (even if it means the benefit isn't guaranteed).

For now, I'd like to write a bit upon the default position of many gamers who see changing rules surrounding parts of the game completely as the best possible option.

I don't feel this can be discussed enough.  New Rules do not change the way in which a phenomenon or machine works or functions.  It is the pity of so many individuals - many with real power or resources - that the contrary persists as a dogma.  When we change the old rules to solve a problem, we only create more problems.  Adjust weapon damage so that larger races will do more damage and slowly every player will drift towards those races - while feeling unfairly induced to do so, they will bitch and complain in our campaigns that they no longer enjoy the benefits that smaller races once offered.  Result: simply a different, yet equally unhappy situation.

Change anything about the present system because players are unhappy and they will soon find something about the change that makes them unhappy.  This is called behaviour.  Players, being human beings, will always appreciate every benefit and they will always chafe against any detraction.  What is truly interesting about this truism is how varied and profoundly complex are the 'detractions' that humans are able to chafe against.

For example - the obvious example - if we set ourselves to remove everything that a player might chafe about regarding their character; if we make every character powerful, if we make every character perfectly adjustable, if we make every character the fantasy of the player . . . the player will chafe against the lack of things to chafe against.  It is the hedonistic principle: too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

The solution is to stop fixing for that reason.  Stop fixing from clinging to any supposition that the changes being made to rules or die rolls or what hits and what doesn't or for how much and how often and so on will 'improve' anything about your game.  They won't.  For a very brief period - one session, perhaps - they will give the illusion of improvement, but soon after the illusion will evaporate.  Call it the illusion of 'newness.'  Anything 'new' looks good for the space of a day.  We may love a new car because there are features we can enjoy and appreciate that perhaps didn't exist in our old vehicle; but it takes very little time to notice something annoying.  Soon we are resenting the size or placement of the cup holder or the lack of pick-up the engine has in cold weather or some other relatively minor annoyance - because complicated things in our lives always have a minor annoyance about them because they are complicated.  We're only happy if the new annoyances are slightly less than the old annoyances; we're only happy if the new car is a vast improvement over the old car.  The joy of replacing a $40K vehicle with another $40K vehicle lasts only as long as the smell does.

Yet every blog in the blogosphere goes on and on about this week's change to the rule system that has occurred to the blog writer last week.  Not a change in the writer's attitude towards their world or what they intend to let their players do or how they've decided to better sell the existing system; but a complete overhaul.  Spells are now obtained thusly; only this many spells are available; these spells are no longer available; all spells are available only if the caster has jumped through these completely new and different hoops I have just invented.  And so on.

I very rarely - it does happen - see someone writing about a rules system they implemented last year that is still in place.  Yet when it is discussed - very rarely - it is always with an eye to the dissatisfaction that still exists in the campaign.  "The players are getting used to it but, well, I don't know . . ."

This is because nothing . . . ever . . . works.  Ever.  Role-playing campaigns are either profoundly precise machines like Bugattis that fly at incredible speeds but spend 90% of their lives in the shop or they're makeshift maintenance nightmares that we kick and curse at and yet manage somehow to keep running year after year despite all expectations to the contrary.  They work not because the rules are sound or right or logical or address all contingencies, but because there is a human being at the helm that keeps the damn steering column from drifting the car again and again to the right, threatening to put us in the ditch.  We run these games with both hands on the wheel, all the time, because easing off and trusting the vehicle is a bad, bad mistake.

It would be nice if the solution were a better car; unfortunately, we didn't have a Porsche nor a Ferrari conceptual understanding behind the first role-playing game.  Rather, our template for role-playing games was something closer to a Lada or a Yugo.  A piece of shit that at least ran at the start for a little while before all the designers realized that the only possible solution was another Lada, another Yugo.  After forty years, here we are.

Okay.  So the system doesn't run quietly or look hot; it doesn't attract chicks and it doesn't win at the road show.  But we have to admit; none of us are going to make something amazingly better in our basements, not with the sort of design ideas we're putting out there.  We have to admit that the way this game runs is about as good as it's going to, until there is some amazing technological miracle that comes around.  And that's all right.  It still gets us to point B.


  1. Aw...and here I was planning a series of posts to overhaul the combat system. Good thing my internet's been down the last couple days!
    ; )

  2. You point out that there are the games that are awesome but get tinkered on to the exclusion of actual usage -- design in a vacuum -- and those that are not as sexy but which see actual play.

    It is just as crucial to learn not to over-design as it is to learn to design, lest you prod and poke and overhaul one little corner of the big ecosystem so much that you never advance the state of the thing as a whole. Actually running games provides valuable feedback as to what is needed to, well, actually run the game, and which things can rest unsatisfying but serviceable for now (I won't quote your own examples at you.) This feedback mechanism is vital if you are someone who has this enormous design vision and just wants to spend all the time trying to achieve it. The actual play keeps the design grounded in the "bigger picture" of, say, advancing the roleplaying game as an art form.


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