Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Post Wherin I Commit Heresy

  Some time ago I read the interesting post here.

  The same writer, Lowell Francis also wrote this.

 A fair amount of both lists strike me as common issues (we all want combat to go relatively quickly with little need for a lot of book checks, etc.) and some of it is a well-stated preference (called shots, for example - in a really abstracted combat system they might not be possible in order to make combat smooth, etc.). A few of the items made me pause (why should reloading be a free action? It isn't in Real Life and can be a simple mechanic to offset the advantages of big guns). And others (describing wounds, number of opponents, etc.) are just, well, about the GM and the game and the setting and the adventure and such so....

  But a couple of them caught my eye. On the 'Player' list numbers 12
  'everyone should have someone to fight' 
  'If I'm a magic user, I should be able to dish out damage relatively equivalent to a fighter. Some of those effects will probably be not measured in damage, but in my ability to debuff or disable. I accept that the flexibility of magic means a slight trade off, but I should not be significantly behind other characters. If magic costs mana, I shouldn't tap out in a fight unless I've really pushed myself'
  'I should feel all players have equal opportunities'
  And from the 'GM list, number 2
  'Every player should have something to do in the combat'

  I looked through the lists a few times (and I encourage you to do the same, some very interesting stuff there. I love how he comments on his own older stuff). I get that he is throwing out a list of everything from pure wishes ('players who don't whine') to universally desired ('I want the players to enjoy combat') and there are a lot of moving parts here. I am not criticizing Mr. Francis' lists - they're too personal and interesting for that.

  But it reminded me of one of my basic ideas that drives everything from the systems I use to adventure design to awarding experience. It is an idea some consider so bad, so wrong-headed, and so unfun it is heresy. The idea?

  There is nothing wrong with game situations where some characters have nothing to do.
  As a matter of fact, in my opinion it is an excellent tool to drive stories, aid in character development, and kick role playing to a higher level.

  Don't mistake me, I do NOT mean 'handcuff players in such a way that there are times when they cannot have any impact'. Nope. Let's hit some examples.

  Stardust motioned the rest to stay back. Doomsman turned to watch the passage behind them, Darkwalk watched beyond Stardust, Ember and Mourglow began to warily inspect the walls and ceiling, and Starwing kept her bow ready as she watched Stardust begin the arduous task of searching for danger. Everyone knew a thorough sweep for traps and wards could take 10-30 minutes; it was a process they had been through scores of times before.

  Being a not-thief or other specialist can be relatively invisible ['I check for traps' *dice roll*] as far as the fighters and mages standing around. Likewise with such things as healing or divination - the lack of things for others to do can sorta' blend into the background. But you also see it other times: the thief scaling the wall and taking out the guard atop the tower, then lowering a rope for the rest of the party; the party standing alert as a divination spell casts the wizard's perceptions beyond a barrier or down a vertical shaft; the cleric using magic to negotiate passage with a tree.
  Combat is a few minutes of in-game time that can take a lot of real-world time and gets the attention of most or all of the players; scouting, checking for traps, healing, divinations, etc. are things that take 2-100 times as many minutes of in-game time but can be represented by a line of dialog and a die roll from a single player. Disarming the poison gas trap may be factually much more important than killing a wandering kobold but the trap check takes one player 30 seconds while killing the kobold takes the entire party 5 minutes of real time. It is easy to confuse 'it takes a lot of real world time' for 'it is important in-game', and vice-versa.

  Or look at this another way. What if I were to say,
  'If I am a fighter I should have just as much utility outside of combat as any thief, cleric, or mage; I should have the same capabilities of divination, stealth, movement, healing, as any other class.'
 I, personally, don't think this makes any sense. Of course, the idea that 'hey, my character who is not focused on combat should be just as good at combat as the character who specializes in combat' doesn't make sense to me, either.

  I think what the author (and many others) don't seem to see/agree with is what I call the Main Roles: fighters = physical offense; mages = magical offense; clerics = physical and magical defense; thieves = scouting and intelligence. Other guys mix it up - paladins = physical offense and magical defense; rangers = physical offense and scouting; etc. And monks = counter magical offense and defense.

  Just as you can have an effective fighter with heavy armor and a zweihander AND an effective fighter with a leather jerkin and a rapier your mage can be loaded with Fireballs and be terrifying or your mage can be loaded with Passwall and Invisibility, 10' radius and be terrifying.

  RPGs are, in a way, a really detailed game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. When I read things like this author's wish list what I hear is,
'I want my scissors to beat paper and rock.'
  The purpose of fighters is to be unmatched in combat; to have combat be when and where they shine. That is why they don't really do a lot of other things. To argue that non-fighters should match fighters in combat is to remove why fighters are.

  But where does this come from?

  I suspect it comes from playing in campaigns where the most critical events are combat. I fear it comes from campaigns where the only interesting events are combat. If the only engaging thing in play is fighting, of course you want all characters to be engaged. If the critical events in the campaign are all fights you don't want to feel like all your character does is hold the fighter's cloak while he Saves The World.
  So the secret to giving player a sense of participation isn't to make them all fighters, it is to let them all do their jobs and make it matter. Think about your games and combat - during a fight is the only thing a thief can do a backstab or two? Is the only thing a mage can do a Fireball? Have you ever built up tension around a thief making his way through a trap-laden maze as much as you do the fight with the BBEG's Number Two? Have you played up the importance and drama of a Contact Other Plane? Is the foe always defeated on the battlefield, never via stealth, information, or trickery?
  And during combat - has the thief had an opportunity to turn the tide without fighting by, oh, freeing a prisoner with a Pick Locks? Has the mage been the star with a non-combat spell like Dancing Lights or Message? Has the druid had a chance to use their high charisma to force a morale check that ends a fight and converts it to a parley?
  If not, why not?
  You know why mages aren't as good in combat as fighters?
  Because fighters are better at combat than mages.
  The real problem is not,
  "not everyone has something to do in combat"
  it is rather,
  "why is direct fighting the only thing that seems to matter?"