On Playtesting and (Unintended) Consequences

Playtesting is an odd beast: when there are no problems and the game goes well, you’re not trying hard enough.

In the past weeks I’ve not being posting much as – unbelievably – I’ve being playing games; not only some new boardgames like 7 Wonders and Colyseum, but also the last revision of the Civilization boardgame (all of which I warmly recommend you to try).

In addition some work has been done (not only by me) on putting together a faux-retroclone fantasy adventure game. I’ve been trying a variety of combat systems to find where the fun is while keeping the combat as abstract as possible and, in order to do so, a lot of gaming blood was shed. In the process some fighting systems clicked immediately, while some others were more hit and miss; an example of the latter, my favourite system treats melees as a set of fighing contests, with winners wounding losers.

A significant aspect that became apparent in the fourth playtest session was that, being the game d6-centric, matching melee +1d6 vs melee + 1d6 makes even a small difference in melee very significant: a difference of 2 means a two-fold reduction in damage inflicted and, at the same time, receiving 1.5 times as much damage. And, obviously, fighting hand-to-hand against someone with a melee way higher that yours is ground for character termination.

While this might seem a bad combat system per se (and sure it seemed to me when I noticed), we must not forget that no rule exists in a vacuum, that rules drive the game in specific directions. That we put rules in place, ultimately, to make players win in the easiest way they can come up with.

For example an expert swordman might have no problem entering a low-level dungeon with no armour, knowing well that mobility and skill will protect him enough, allowing for a fast extraction (of treasure), while a more modest fighter will don heavy armour, a large shield and surely bring plenty of mates, preparing for long and worrying fights.

For some we want some games we want melee skill to impact heavily in fights: fighting against a way better opponent should be deadly: in this case using d6s instead of d20s makes for a less luck-based, more strategic game, where fights are treated seriously by at least one side and, at the same time, makes clever use use of terrain, cover and missile weapons critical. It makes for a game where being slowed by the burden of heavy armour can be fatal as not knowing when to flee from a one-sided fight.

More playtest sessions will follow, both Sunday at the Glasgow University Occupation Charity Gaming Fundraiser and Monday at the usual Glasgow Indie Gamers meetup. If you happen to hang around western Scotland, come join us! :)

TPK! A.K.A. survival can be shameful, and the Way to Play

During the last game the whole party got defeated. Mostly killed, the rest captured, one of them sent back naked (in the snow) to ask for ransom.

The long story is that the party managed to get from the local Assembly of Barons the right to refurbish and garrison Rodemus Keep (yeah, Rodemus Keep from Moldway) for a year (renewable in perpetuity), in exchange for the right to taxing the trade route to the Eastern Kingdom (route that should be protected by the keep, which at the moment is obviously unsafe).

But it’s winter and the keep is up in the mountains, over a mountain pass. They’ve been there already but failed to completely make it safe. Random tables tell me that a band of hobgoblins moved in and stroke a deal with the remaining Rodemuses.

What happens is that they go in commando style and kick a good quantity of ‘bear asses. Next session 3 players don’t show up and the remaining two decide to push in with their retainers. That means the following forces got in:

  • Player 1: elven thief LVL 3 accompained by:
    • cleric LVL 1
    • halfling fighter, LVL 1
  • Player 2: fighting man LVL 1 accompained by:
    • two thieves, LVL 1
    • an elven mage, LVL 1
    • a cleric, LVL 1

Went in a keep where they know bugbears live, without trying to get any scouting or tactical advantage: just go in, kill them, get treasure, get out.

Somehow they managed to survive to the first encounter slaying 3 + 3 ‘bears (reinforcements arrived), and fell back. Then they moved in again and got wiped out by 7 other ‘bears: this time the defenders were prepared and the PCs, despite almost  . Just the two PCs and a cleric survived (at -1 hp or so, I let PCs die at minus something, usually -5, unless the final blow has been massive, such as a boulder tossed by a giant or a dragon bite, for which going to 0 is enough).

The usual feedback via email followed, where it emerged (to sum it up) that they would rather have their characters die than escape because they think that fighting smart or retreating is dishonorable. This is from a thief and a warrior that has no problems sending his henchmen dying. Adding on top that since characters die so easily, they would rather play as they please and die. This is contradicted by the fact that somehow one of them (and other players as well) managed to keep PCs alive till level 5. Adding that it’s my fault because I don’t scale encounters.

Ok, I admit this made me a bit bitter, but enough with the ranting now. When we started I expressly told them what kind of campaign I was about to run and what kind of play I expected from them. I started doubting that running this kind of game for these two players was not worth the time and effort (both mine and theirs) if they weren’t having fun and I told them so (adding that I’m not interested in running non-sandbox games). But, they say, games are still fun, so they’d rather play, and nobody asked me to scale encounter or to pull punches.

At times I wonder if the right choices have been done. Possibly the kind of game is wrong for the players, or I can’t handle it as a DM, or simply they’re looking for something else but we keep on playing together because we’ve been friends for more than 10 years (on top of that we’re all related to another member of the group) and playing is what we do together.

The Way to Play, for me, is not about Doing Things the Right Way. The Way to Play, for me, is to fail better, less often, less painfully. To have more fun, more intensity, get more out of playing. Accepting failure as a gamer, as a DM, as a friend. Accepting that the means used at times won’t work. Accepting as well that people change and, if RPGs don’t cut it for everyone anymore, it’s time to stop with them and start pursuing other pastimes, or to find different people to play with.

retreat? not really

My players still have to perfect the notion of backing off when things turn sour. By “perfect” I mean “realize it exists as an option and not only is doable but oftentime necessary”: they just go forward like badasses, plowing into whathever is between them and what they’re looking for.

Actually they just hate losing PCs and oftentimes behave in case of loss (“ah, I’m dead so I’ll just roll another crappy PC so i can ruin your game because your game sucks nag nag nag”) in a way that is quite lame. I’m the first to take the blame as, for a number of reasons, in the big d20 campaign I’ve run for them a raise dead was just a big bag of gold away. But the GM that ran games for them after I stopped was much worse in this respect (every encounter was against a Mary Sue, thus nonsensically deadly, unless the GM decided the plot was ripe for a given Mary to be killed by our heroes).

Anyway, last thursday 2 retainers and 1 companion (it’s a PC’s “favourite” and most trusted retainer) died, and another left because he felt it was getting too risky. This happened because they were in a narrow valley and didn’t want to pay the toll asked by a stone giant. At level four. And when the battle turned really bad, they didn’t try to retreat, parlay, beg, buy their freedom, anything.

And this afternoon, while the whole party backed off after a skirmish with a 10 headed hydra hiding in a thicket, the dwarven fighter decided to charge ahead. Here we go, another fine hero ready for the halls of the Bearded Forefathers.

I’m not really above ringing the TPK bell should they deserve it, but heck if it’s annoying. I guess it’s going to happen soon. The bad part of it as that the above quote is not distant from the truth (can’t remember it exactly but that was the point driven by the nagging player). The problem is that I want to give everybody fun and a nice experience and TPK, unless it’s totally dramatic and cool, is the worst closure ever (still, at times better than no closure at all).

Most probably they didn’t get the fact that encounters are NOT tailored to their level: if dice say “4 stone giants in their lair” and the party goes straight towards it after noticing that actually the lair was a crude fortification across a narrow valley, they deserved what they got.