Monday, April 17, 2017

On Story Games, or: I'm Still Alive, Okay

More of the hexcrawl is coming. I am going to throw in a few Totally Sweet Drawings with the hex descriptions so that is taking some time.

I got a chance to look through the rules for DUNGEON WORLD today, so this is sort of a response to that. Despite the tone of this post I'd still play DUNGEON WORLD if asked, you know you only live once you got to try things blar blar blar.

The Tragedy of Herogar and Comfort Eating

One of the things that I hate to read in forum posts is that old chestnut, "I want to play a hero!" Because my response is, okay then, do it. I find the notion bizarre that a particular GM or a particular game could hold you back from roleplaying a heroic character. You don't need Fate Tokens or Hero Points or storytime interludes where you and the GM hold hands and share your dreams together. You want to be a hero, be heroic. "But without Plot Coupons (tm) that'll probably get me killed!" you say. Well, yes. Heroes don't tend to die comfortably in bed. C'est la guerre. "But so many deaths are just lame and pathetic! And anyway my idea of fun isn't playing a rat catcher who dies of sepsis in a gutter."

Okay, I'll go this far---I don't think you should be forced to play someone INCOMPETENT (which is what's implied by 'rat catcher,' nevermind actual rat catchers would have a ton of immediately useful skills for most dungeoncrawls but whatever) and you shouldn't be forced to play someone FEEBLE or PATHETIC. The assumption going into most D&D games is that even level 1 PCs are a cut above the common fabric---level 1 fighters are veterans, level 1 rogues are the toughest, wiliest guy on their corner, etc.--and that suits me fine. I think that should be the standard, with the most 'hardcore' method of 3d6-in-order-don't-name-the-guy-til-level-2 being the option, but it's kind of like do you say tomayto or tomahto, whatever.

Let's say you roll up a lvl 1 Paladin named Herogar. He's a studly stoical dude with a cool beard and a big ole greatsword. You proudly present a single-spaced page of handwritten backstory detailing his journey from dreamy farmboy to knight-errant, sprinkling the tale with lost love, a bitter rivalry and paths not taken. A taut, unpretentious piece, a springboard for greater things. You have high hopes for Herogar.

Your first dungeon. The Rogue is methodically prodding an iron door with a 10-ft pole while the party takes five. The jackass Bard plays inspire competence on his keytar. The DM rolls for a wandering encounter. Dire rats! six--no, eight, no--ten of them! There is a round of boos at the table. The DM weathers a sharp plastic pyramid to the face. Undaunted, he calls for initiatives. Herogar gets a 1. The rats charge, yellow diseased slaver foaming from their jaws. The rogue says something about being a ranged build and legs it, as does the bard. Once again, the skill monkies have made a mess and the tanks get the bill. No point in running in scale mail anyway--Herogar and Fallguy the fighter barely have time to brace before a carpet of shrieking, spitting mangy fur swamps them. The combat is over fast--Herogar is face down in his own blood, his flesh sheared off in chunks by the scythe-like teeth of the maddened rats. A gruesome end. His scattered bones will never be borne back to the farm.

Wasn't quite what you had in mind for poor Herogar. You have a few options at this point. You can conclude this DM and this campaign aren't for you, get up and leave. I can't say that's invalid. There'll be a place for you at RPGnet. After all it hurts to see potential wadded up and thrown away due to a mix of bad luck and letting someone play a Bard. It would have been one thing if Herogar went out on YOUR terms--say, if he squared up to the oncoming horde and cried "go, I'll hold them off!" that'd be how a Paladin ought to go out. But you didn't even get that. A few rolls and an anonymous death.

Or, you roll up Dave the Paladin. Dave is very similar to Herogar--they even have similarly heroic facial hair. You could almost say he's an echo of his fallen, unknown predecessor. There's a key difference though--Dave has opted for a one-handed weapon and heavy shield, prioritizing AC over offensive power. He also carries a bandolier of jars of lamp oil, each a potential flaming grenade. Not only will these deal fiery punishment to a target, if struck on the ground the molotovs can provide short but vital area denial---long enough to keep an adventurer from getting swarmed perhaps, and provide that vital window of time to run.

From a STORY perspective, there's no connection between Herogar and Dave. But taken from the perspective that you are playing a game--one with a learning curve and tricks to master--Herogar's death has meaning. He died so that Dave might be spared his mistakes. And perhaps Dave WILL get that heroic moment of sacrifice, a moment to be fondly recalled as an awesome moment of roleplaying in years to come. And it will come about not because some interlocking system of safety nets predestined it but because YOU EARNED IT. You earned that moment, and Dave will have earned his spot in Memorable Character Valhalla (or who knows, maybe he'll get to retire to a grand stronghold at the end of a storied career). Long after you forget whatever it was you called your PC's rival in their backstory, you'll remember the verdict of the dice, the careful planning, the anticipation.

Or maybe not. Maybe there's more of the dramatist than the gambler in your genes. D&D is a lot of things to a lot of people. All I know is ice cream earned tastes better than ice cream NOW, ice cream eaten for comfort food (to be honest, I don't actually like ice cream). Me, I love to gamble, and I lose a lot. Many a character of mine has bled out on the floor ignominiously, slain by the failure of my crappy chessex d20 (I keep forgetting to throw away the blue one). Even my characters who survived to become storied heroes have had downright humiliating failures, a stain forever on my character's psychic image of heroic prowess. The thing about games though, is to me they're only fun when they remain unpredictable. A game wherein you negotiate for the outcome you want ("I deal the dragon its death wound but lose my ancestral sword in its scaly hide as the beast tumbles into the crevasse") sounds less like a game to me and more like an acting exercise. I don't want to be given my success after a round of bargaining, I want to WREST it from an earnestly fought opposition through the right mix of planning and luck. That's the sweet spot for me, and I don't mind sacrificing a few made-up people (always more where they came from) to get there.