Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Pox Upon Thee

Before I begin, I am deeply conscious that this post might be taken for an argument.  That is not my intention.  Instead, I wish to express the impression I am getting from watching video after video about how to play, run and design for role-playing games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons.  That impression suggests that what is commonly happening at game tables is radically different from my experience at my table.  I only wish to suggest reasons why that may be.

Therefore, because many of the details of 3e, 4e and 5e are unknown to me, I'm going to be general in my descriptions - and when certain details are not known to me, I'm going to say as much.

In light of the previous post, let's take a situation:
The players complete their characters and begin the adventure; they need to climb into the forest above the town, to locate the cabin of a druid, who has information they need in order to locate the Palace of Pickscale Peak.  On the way, the party encounters four giant ticks ... and within two rounds, one of the ticks rolls a 1 in 100 critical attack, killing the party's strongest fighter.

The Reaction I'm Hearing

At this point, the player goes off, ranting about how unfair this is, how wandering monsters or verminous monsters shouldn't have the power to roll critical hits, etcetera, apparently at length and in general disturbing the "good times" being had by the players on the one day this week they are allowed to play.

Here are reasons that I have heard given for why death sucks.  To begin with, the player has spent much time making their character.  I am not sure how long this takes in 5e.  I have heard that in 4e it can take an entire session.  I suspect it was not a short time in 3e either, what with the varying feats and builds that were part of that system.  I have never made a character in any of these systems, so I am only going on the considerable amount of time that people online have given to describing the considerable amount of time it takes to make characters.

3e, and presumedly 4e, had a lot of choices to make, to create the carefully crafted character of the player's intent.  I am guessing this was a cross between pimping out one's ride and buying a car from the worst car dealership in Michigan.  After choosing skills, there is the problem of equipping the character, and according to most descriptions I've heard about present-day games, a lot of time spent writing a backstory.  Now, even a two-page backstory is a steep hill for someone who doesn't write all the time.  If the player really got into the process, the backstory might be longer, or really considered, perhaps even written multiple times between the running when the character was made and the running just before the character died.

Of course, now that the character is dead, the game stops.  This has been described as onerous in the extreme ... though I've heard it said and seen it written constantly that the player is free to leave the table, go to a corner, and roll up their character entirely on their own without any supervision whatsoever.  Which is just ... well, I have no words.

AND it's a big issue of the DM.  After all, the DM has planned everything for Gespacho the Gwistbaker to take the lead in every part of the adventure going forward, and now there is no Gespacho.  What now?  What if the player doesn't come back with another fighter?  What if the new fighter isn't strong enough, or is the wrong race?  What then?

These are all problems that seem to seize the very heart of the gaming community.  I cannot relate.

What Happens in My Game

Because the time needed to roll up the character was about half-an-hour, there's very little investment at this point.  The player hardly cares that the character was killed, unless the character was something really unusual, like having two 18s or three 17s.

Since I generate a background, rather than have the characters invent one, there's not much investment there, either.  Oh, the character might have been terrifically lucky, been of noble birth or with some unusual extra skills, but again, there hasn't been time to play them and at any rate, the background is rich with extra skills.  So there's always an expectation that something like it will turn up again, only better.

The player starts picking out dice to roll up the new character, while the other players make a few jokes about the death or chat amiably about whatever.  There's no sense that the game is "stopped," because ALL the players are anxious to see what the new character is going to be.  They, and I, watch earnestly as the dice are rolled, giving congratulations at each good roll and good-natured humour at each bad roll.  The player may not roll well enough to meet my minimum stats (either at least one 15 and one 16, or a single roll of 17 or 18), which aren't super-high.  No one minds the re-roll.  They want to see how much power is joining the party.

Quickly, the player sorts out which numbers go under which stats, picks a class, picks a race and starts thinking about spells, weapon proficiencies or sage abilities.  These are really easy to choose, especially for anyone who has played in my world a few months, so it is past in 5-10 minutes.  If the player really wants to think before choosing, I'll forego spells until the first combat, or a sage ability until the next running.  I don't care if the player chooses an ability for a specific situation, because the player is then stuck with that ability forever, whereas the situation may not come up again for months.  So it doesn't matter.

15 minutes have passed.  Now comes the biggest timewaster: the player has to pick a name.  Meanwhile, I automatically generate a background, which I post as a file on the net which can be downloaded on the player's phone.  I read off anything that looks interesting, not for the benefit of the player, but for everyone's benefit.  If there is a sailor or an armorer or a physician in the party now, everyone wants to know.

25 minutes gone and the player can now start looking over the equipment table.  The new character is THERE, in the game, buying equipment at the table as they are introduced to the party.  Basically, the character comes stumbling out of the forest, expresses surprise at the party's survival, pity at the dead body, and asks to join.  There is usually no role-playing; everyone has done this dozens of times and they don't care about introductions.  Bang, we're off and the adventure continues unabated.  After a bit, the character says they have finished buying equipment.  Total time before adventuring again: 25-30 minutes.

Concluding Thoughts

I think that the need to tailor characters has resulted in this unhappiness connected to player deaths.  The issue, it seems to me, is that with so much lead effort before actually playing, we are creating a deep attachment to something that hasn't proven itself in the field.

People aren't going to give up this habit.  The later editions have emphasized all these build time and effort, in effect expanding the mini-game of making the character to meet certain expectations of the player (who wants total control over who they will BE).  They're not going to give that up.

I'm glad I never went this route.  By maintaining the class system, the class abilities are standardized across the board - and though these may be boring to many players, actual experience of seeing and doing things seems to be more eloquent in character development than trying to do it all at one go before actually starting.

If a fighter in my world fights, and has little else in their skill list, that means the player has to come up with some other way of defining themselves beyond what they "do."  If the background tells them what their past has been and who their people are, then players can't define themselves by their past.  Instead, they have to define themselves by what they want, what things they wish to acquire, what plans they wish to put in motion ... and then to see if they have the stuff to succeed at that, regardless of what class they happen to be and regardless of where they came from.

I find it curious that as the game moved away from the class system, the need to identify with the job title, or the personality of the character, intensified.  Though there are fifty different ways to be a paladin, or more, the most important fact about a character is still what the character does for a living, rather than the aspirations of the character.  I think that's lacking.

In any case, death is always a hard thing.  If a character that has run in my world for years dies, that's a hard day for the player.  But it isn't a pox on the game.  Not at all.


  1. Based on my experience with 3e, I'd say you're spot on: WotC chose to go with total player control regarding character customization, making the process take longer which makes the player invested in the character despite not actually playing the game. (It also didn't help that they had rules for starting new characters at higher than 1st-level.) I find that your approach to class skills - specifically the sage abilities - brings in a little of that customization without committing a player to a character. Like the background charts, each detail helps make each character different from all the rest but there's no significant increase in the time required to produce the character.

    Which I guess is just restating your points...

  2. Confirmation of message is ALWAYS appreciated. How else can I know if I'm understood?

  3. Character creation in 4e can be quite long past first level (we are talking an hour plus, and much longer if the player has limited or no mastery of the system), and there is no way a 1st level character can join a bunch of 8th level players in 4e and even pretend to be useful.

    I handle it by asking players to have backup characters in case of death, but obviously this is an inelegant solution. I also have a stable of simple backup characters that can be used for a session so the player can make a new character during the week.

    Having said all that, one character has died in the past two years.

  4. Okay, so this seems like bull to me - a function much more of culture than of rule-set, mostly because the series of choices (Abilities, Race, Class, Skills/Sage Abilities), is in fact, identical to 3.X's Character creation. Identical. The only difference of note is that 3.5 determines your weapon proficiency from your class, but lets you take feats.

    At worst, the creation in 3.x is slower because there are more classes, more skills, more spells, to pick from, and at best, it is identical. I can easily make a 3.x character in 15-30 minutes, being as it is a system I know well. If I feel like it, I can spend hours agonising over feat choices, but I could do the same with Sage abilities and weapon proficiency, were I so inclined.

    (Another point that doesn't seem to occur to you here (or you're opponents for that matter), being that there are forms of risky contention other than mortal combat and ways to lose other than bleeding out on the ground - I know you have tried such things before, but failed because you could not enforce social consequences in a mechanically defined way, if memory serves. I don't know what to do about this, but I feel there is a better way than having a game only about combat, or a game with no rules)

  5. Leaving off the details of how long it takes to make a character, about which I have no expertise [admitted], I'll address only your last point Archon.

    Speaking for myself and my game, yes it is true that the conflict-cards I proposed did fail. My own r/l players found them easy and comfortable, interesting and perfectly workable ~ but when I introduced them online, the players immediately fell to using them as a form of charm person, making ludicrous demands and then expecting that a die roll would overcome any resistance. That was followed by an attempt, wasting several weeks, to establish a guideline between questions that were realistic for social situations, and what we would identify as utter rudeness. I couldn't absolutely fix that line of demarcation in a way that didn't require a list of "approved" questions, so I dropped the entire system until I had a better idea. Never know. I might have one. However, you are right. I could not enforce social consequences in a mechanically defined way.

    That, however, in no way makes my game "only about combat." I don't understand that conclusion. It is plainly evident from my online campaigns that I promote plenty of role-play, creative choice and action, planning, intuitive overcoming of obstacles and maneuvering, BETWEEN the combat. The lack of a social mechanic merely means that I, personally, have to continue to use my more complicated brain to enforce the social consequences of the players in a gut-instinct, pattern-recognition manner, which I have been using for 38 years (and which everyone else is also using).

    I would prefer a mechanic. But I don't feel bad about not having one, since no one has one (that works). I, at least, am not kidding myself. I know that pattern-recognition is highly volatile and untrustworthy. I'm not deluding myself into thinking that the gut-instinct solution is the "best one," as every cretinous DM advice-giving expert on youtube clearly believes.

    Either way, the lack of a i-mech doesn't make the game all about combat. Shame on you for that conclusion.

  6. James,

    I have several times introduced 1st level characters with 6-11th level parties. It always works out. The old players take care of and defend the new, the new players are typically awestruck enough to just be glad to be there, and even the newest noob can still problem solve if the problem is presented in real, easily comprehended ways.

    Because I give XP for treasure, it usually only requires a 1st level character one combat to achieve 2nd level ~ and that is with the treasure being distributed on a share-system, where higher level characters get more shares. Within a few months, the formerly 1st level character is already 5th, getting their first henchman and beginning to feel legitimately useful in a full-on combat.

    Given that, in my game, it usually takes six months [at least] for a group of 1st levels to reach 5th, the low-level addition to the high-level party is getting off light. All the high-level players remember when they had to slog their way through their first five levels, and don't feel at all sorry that a new player has to as well, and at a faster rate. And as I point this out, with gestures and much sympathy, as well as taking a hard line on it, new players see this as a "hazing" that they must endure before feeling fully accepted.

    We do know the purpose of hazing, right? It is there to force people who are not of the right attitude out, so that only those who prove themselves worthy are entitled to remain. I believe in hazing. I don't believe it should be vindictive or contemptuous, as I feel respect for all humans, even noobs, is unconditional. But I don't think it should be easy, either. Endure, patiently, and win respect. Whine and carp, and expect nothing.

  7. Oh you have a LOT of mitigating features in your game that make starting at 1 way easier. Don't discount some of the subtleties...

    Henchmen are lower level, for a 'henchmen' adventure the new player can accompany and gain xp.

    Enemies are not always your level. Not every peasant or problem is just a collection of perfectly matched danger. Sometimes you have smaller problems among the big ones.

    The aforementioned treasure to XP along with the damage taken to XP.

    The DM of course has a huge effect as well. Just the way problems are presented and approached.

    And sage knowledge being beneficial at low levels... By focusing on something everyone else doesn't have you can probably contribute with a good number of sage knowledge.

    Also, the players picking what they want to do helps a TON. Sure there are some big missions, but lets smuggle some mustard or shake down some debtors to give the new guy a start on their feet if we want.

    A lot of these opportunities and angles aren't presented in any if not most of the games I've played.

  8. Archon,

    I think that you are correct in that the difficulty is cultural more than rule-based. And, I think that a major part of Alexis' argument is that the opinions expressed by the popular gaming culture hinders the game more than it helps.

    As to comparing the rule systems, they are very similar. However, there is an order of magnitude or two (!) difference in the number of options presented. There is also a strong cultural drive in gaming to put together an "optimal" character. Simply deciding that your fighter with a high dex is going to be a skirmisher in leather with bow, sniping from the treeline isn't enough. In 3.5e there were 3600+ feats across all of the official books.

    Yes, if you keep it simple making a character is quick, regardless of the system. that's not necessarily the case in 3.5e and 5e; it can be quite complex if you so choose.

  9. Source-books intimidate some of my players. We have wrapped our minds around the PH and the DMG, for first edition, but I have recently played 5th. There is a lot of page turning and index checking needed to explore all of the possibilities. Should we have one expert player who has to show another where the information on backgrounds is? Additionally, I do not feel the need to decide what brand of Halfling I am going to play, or what brand of Paladin.

  10. Hello,

    In D&D 3.X, there is far too much investment gone into making a character, once one has enough system-mastery to see - and want - the possibilities (and not enough to know them all and speed up the process). A death then mean investing again, which put the player out of the loop for the required time.
    However, I also found that experienced 3.X players usually have other "character builds they want to try". And this give a definite "videogame" feeling. They want to try. They play the character-building game with different builds, they try one, and the others are nagging at them.

    So on one side, the needed investment can means that there is an undue attachment at the beginning, and that its loss (and need to invest again) can influence DMs and players to an unhealthy view on character death, as well as .
    And on the other side, the "gameification" of the character-building can means that there is a lack of attachment to characters, and a desire to try other ones; maybe it is that the playing doesn't bring the dopamine the building did, maybe it's the "videogame" approach that's taking its toll.

    Both of those are detrimental to the game in itself, and direct effects of the D&D 3.X rules.

    Note that both sides also happen in games where character-building needs a notable time investment. I've seen it with Deadlands, GURPS, Shadowrun 4e, ...

    All this to say that your post made me think (again) about the definition of game, the need to have limitations so as to better enable playing "inside" them, and how to better use your corpus of work. I'll soon give a try to some retro version of D&D, plugging in your rules, to test it some.

    Many thanks !

  11. So fundamentally, I don't feel that being able to put choice into your character design is a bad thing. Time Management is a issue; but not a crippling one, in my experience.

    The Drive to have a good character seems quite simple - your character stats are your tool for interacting with the world, and I see no reason why choosing that tool well cannot be part of your interaction with the world. You can chose to exclude character customisation from the game (which you haven't, unless people stopped being able to pick their race or sage fields while I wasn't paying attention), and if you don't, then you have to accept that people are going to try and make good or interesting choices here, just like they will everywhere else.

    I really can't get behind what you are saying Vlad - either we have put too much effort into character creation, and don't want our characters to die? or have insufficient investment, because character creation is a sufficiently enjoyable minigame that people will play it voluntarily, and we have other characters ready to go? I really don't feel you can have both.
    And "It's like a video game" is not a complaint. There are thousands of video games, which do thousands of things. The only thing they all have to set them out from RPGs is that they are simpler and follow the rules better. If you want to say it's like a video game, could you please clarify what you mean by that?

    There is a reasonable upper limit on the complexity of character creation, and I think having a way for newbies to get into it without having read all the rule-books is important, but I don't think disparaging all desire for character customisation as a part of the game is the right path here.

    (and Alexis, Thank you for the correction. I feel that the dichotomy between gut-instinct solutions and )

  12. Archon, where you "see no reason why choosing that tool well cannot be a part of your interaction," I hear inexperience.

    This may be seen as a weak argument to some, but as a DM of many years I have never seen any sort of collection of powers and abilities that could keep a character alive, in spite of the player's actual ability to play. Players who chase the demon of security through power invariably come up short ~ and how the more bitter for them is the lesson, as they never quite learn it. Always, for them, it is back to the drawing board, with the unwavering certainty that this time, this combination will surely see them through.

    And it never does.

    Yes, the post suggests that we "shouldn't" build a complex character ahead of the game; but more to the point, what is the point? Why bother? Why not just ... well ... play?

  13. That's fair; a good character cannot substitute for a good player or a good game.

    (also, a bad craftsman blames his tools, but that's not the same thing as saying good tools aren't useful in hands of a good craftsman)

    Basically - it's fun. I make characters because it is an interesting intellectual activity in and of itself. The characters I spend hours on, and the ones I play with don't overlap well (mostly because the former are very specific - good for certain times and places or game systems), but basically, there is another game there, and it's a interesting one worth exploring.

    The other reason I can think of it to vary the options a player or party has available to them, over the course of several characters. But I'm willing to admit that I mostly want to make characters because I really enjoy doing it (and I don't feel it's a bane on game-play, like some people seem to feel)

  14. Notwithstanding your personal viewpoint, Archon.

    Clearly, for many, it is not "fun." It's a chore. I can't say that I would compel any party to continue an activity that a significant number found a chore; and it is clear from the net that they do. It is clear from the dissatisfaction with the 3e and 4e systems, that the urge was to go someplace else. I don't support where they did go, granted. But they went, nonetheless.

    Your argument to vary the options sounds like the picture I posted last month: that the solution is definitely more cow bell. I take your admittance in good faith; but surely, if some people apart from yourself do feel that it is a bane on game-play, then it is.

    Let's drop this. I appreciate the back and forth and I'm glad we could have it out in good faith. But I think we're at an impasse. We can find something else to talk about.

  15. fair enough; onward to new fields.


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