custom tailored challenges: a case of nested social contracts

Oddysey at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less goes over a number of interesting points about combat. She made me think much about the aesthetic of RPG combat aspects and why we still have the “problem” of uninteresting fights (more about this later).

One of her conclusions, that in some games players like fights because that’s where “the fun” is, strikes true on a group recovering from years of d20 campaigns. ECLs and CRs are there to hint at what a “bespoke challenge” for players is, in a way justifying the inclusion of the fight in the adventure as some kind of social pact: players know that the DM will have put in the adventure plot/locales fights that the group can actually not just overcome “somehow”, with tricks and smarts, but also with the use of violence.

Players will hopefully be in “flux zone”, struggling and ultimately succeeding (winning) their fights, while the GM will have satisfied players: a clear win-win situation. This is possible because RPGs support well the use of violence, with clear rules, but the same could apply to any reliable system to handle challenge. Reliable game mechanics support entwines with reliable custom-made content to ensure that all challenges are approachable by the party.

I’d go further on and say that this kind of gaming leads to different options like retreating, parlay and outsmarting the opponent stopping being meaningful because they’re more complex, more unpredictable, more like hard work than simply doing it the “right” way. More like “The game master prepared us a nice (and safe) way to handle the situation, why bother looking for something risky?”.

This is pure railroading: not in the plot-space but in the ludeme-space (as in “the base elements constituting a game”). But the usual culprit, the Demiurge-GM, this time is not entirely at fault (as if we are entitled to speak of fault) as the players want to win he (mostly) wants to create interesting worlds full of interesting people to kill and plots for players to follow.

How did I ever manage to end up in this situation? How did we?

For years, my problem has been perceived lack of player goodwill. I didn’t feel I could afford to disappoint them and to make them feel insecure that we would have a good time playing together. So I created a safe environment for them to play in.

Safety is, for me, a defining element in games. I roughly define games as some kind of “magic circle” where a social contract is in effect: players can behave in given ways and, if they do, their actions bear no consequence whatsoever on the outside of our little “magic circle”.

Inside the game there is no need for a safe environment as the game itself is already a safe environment.

Do we really need that? Do we really need assurance that our PCs will not horribly die? Do we really need a special world within a special world to ensure that the players won’t wreck the campaign world?

What are we going to lose? Security and reliability.

And what are we renouncing to? We’re limiting ourselves to the known and the acceptable. We’re renouncing emergency. Emergent campaign plots in game worlds filled with unknowns, there just to be explored. Not just unknown settings, but also unknown ways of playing.

The Holy Grail of RPGs or, if you want, how they came to be. Braunstein, Blackmoor and Greyhawk are results of broken social contracts.

On Starting Characters and Equipment

The first session of B/X with my players started quite badly. First of all, I’ve never played B/X before then (ok, I played BECM for years, and they’re not that different), but that wasn’t the problem.

The real issue was addressing the “ZOMG first level PCs suck monkey balls” complaint. Yeah, their experience outside d20 was marginal at best.

Anyway, I opted for the “clement” BECM procedure:

  1. roll 3d6 6 times
  2. reroll if you have a sub-par character
  3. assign them to stats in order
  4. switch primary stat
  5. move points (1:2 rate) to primary stat
  6. max hit points at first level
  7. buy equipment as per manual.

The only step they liked about it was number 5, especially when I told them about bonus XPs. Characters in B/X are quite flimsy and they probably felt like I was forcing them to use nerfed subhumans as some kind of sadistic punishment. They changed their mind after realizing that everyone is a puny weakling in B/X. Heck, with a bit of luck a party of 6 first level characters can kill a white dragon in 1 round: the same white dragon (with its whopping 6 HD) has on average less hp than a d20 ogre, but it will usually kill the same party in 1 round, even if they succeed their saves.

When the second batch of characters was generated (we were playing at the always awesome Casa dei Giochi and their character sheets were left home), I let them get equipment from Lord Kilgore’s starting equipment list (except I allowed to get a second armour upgrade option from mail to plate).

Result? Much faster generation, less expensive but more used/useful equipment and much happier players.

For my b’day game, a few months later, I had four more players at the table, and two of them never played with me. We were bloody late so I went even more minimal and gave each of them

  • a set of clothes
  • 6 torches, box with tinder and flint
  • 1 backpack and 2 bags
  • 15 meters of rope
  • a blanket, not really waterproof
  • a dagger
  • a week worth of food and a waterskin

plus either:

  • leather armour
  • chain mail

and one from:

  • helmet & shield
  • a spell-book
  • thieves tools
  • holy symbol

Plus a weapon of choice, with 20 munitions if needed.

One of them picked a ballista and didn’t tell me until the first round of combat; I can’t really remember whether I overruled or not. The character is a thief. The Gamer’s “I backstab him with a ballista” scene flashed in my mind.

They seemed content with it, to say the least. I also allowed them to rummage through what was left of the burnt remains of village they were supposedly going to defend from a band of hobgoblins (more on Hobgoblin Pride later).

Anyway, I decided to use Troll and Flame’s starting equipment plus draws from Jeff Rients’s “Deck of Stuff” as it’s tastier (but longer and more thinking is required), when I remembered that Kata Kumbas has some very pretty starting equipment rules which, adapted to the circumstances, are:

  • some rags
  • a bag
  • hard bread and dried meat enough for a week and a waterskin
  • 50 sp
  • a knife
  • roll 5 times (3 if you’re an mage) on the relevant class table

Plus one from:

  • armour upgrade (rags -> leather -> chain -> plate)
  • spell-book
  • thieves tools
  • wooden holy symbol
  • weapon of choice (+20 munitions if needed)

Yes, the game has class tables for random starting equipment. Illustrated with individual figures. I scanned a few for your own enjoyment (the game is out of print and has not been on the shelves for years). They’re not supposed to be balanced, kind, politically correct. Yes mages can start with a basilisk in a cage (covered with a big cloth), a sword that deals double damage (as they’re allowed smallish swords in KK), or an axe that never misses. Hyperboreans (fighting-men) can start with slaves or war pigs (pigs in KK are pets and fight like boars). And Roma people (yup, in the game are called Rom) are either jugglers, thieves or witches.

Regarding Kata Kumbas money:

  • the economy is barter-driven
  • cei are square copper pieces (singular is ceo) and are worth more or less like like 2 sp in B/X and it’s the coinage that everybody uses in daily transactions (if barter wasn’t so widespread).
  • a silver coin is worth 10 cei
  • OA stands for Oro Alchemico: alchemical gold bits, worth 10 silver coins each. Manufactured from alchimists, alchemical gold is the ultimate substance so it can’t be broken or filed, hence there’s no need to mint it. Alchemists characters (available to players) learn to do it near the end of their careers, but don’t really abuse it much as, well, money is worth more if kept scarce. 🙂

The text is in Italian as KK is Italian (more about it in a later post, as the game is a shiny gem), but nothing that Google Translate won’t fix.

Anyway, I settled on the following rule for equipment:

Pick any one starting equipment rule and beg the DM for something nice.

Hullo there

I’ve been following for a while the Old School Revolution (mediated through tens of blogs) and I feel I have something to share too.
After having gone through various styles of play and systems, from redbox to AD&D to D&D 3E, I landed in 4E land and noticed that, not so strangely, it didn’t really support my style of play.
So after Gygax and Arneson died I concluded my “9 years in the making” d20 Greyhawk campaign (culminated with the reassembly of the Rod of the Seven Parts, the death of Miska and almost a TPK), I went back and pulled out D&D Moldway edition and Empire of the Petal Throne and started appreciating how lightweight rules can provide more than enough structure for my needs, then forced my group to create new PCs.
After some complaints about flimsy characters, some PC deaths and some home rules, we all started to enjoy it much better. 🙂