Thursday, January 16, 2020

An Old Dungeon Story

I love story games. I love games that let me create new kinds of stories when I play. The tragicomic betrayal of Fiasco. The monstrous humans and human monsters of Monsterhearts.

It’s also true that I’m a big fan of the Old School Renaissance. Dungeons, and dragons and 10-foot poles. In fact, I’d rather play an old school game than a more modern version of D&D.

What’s the deal?

Maybe it’s the fact that I came to it via the OSR, where the old game is explained in new words, and some people have added their own interpretations of the original text, but my position is that Old School D&D is a story game. Back in the late 90’s, when I first developed my interest in gaming, it was typical to sneer at D&D as “the game of killing monsters and taking their stuff” as we played GURPS or whatever other system we were into at the time. But then story games came along and the fact that a game has such a clear mission statement is considered a virtue.

But it takes more than a mission statement to make a story game. You need mechanics that are geared towards that mission statement. There must be some sort of carrot to lure players into playing in certain ways. Maybe even a stick or two to cut off stories that are not in the game’s wheelhouse. Simply put, story games deliberately create “winning moves” within their mechanics and by leaning into those winning moves, you’re supporting the game’s style.

In Fate Core, the winning move is to engage with aspects and fate points. To keep the blog from getting too far from its main topic, the winning move in Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is to help people and make friends. Not only will doing these things make your character more powerful and effective, they also help create the story that those games want to tell.

Now back to the OSR. Looking for those winning moves that offer the big rewards, what do we see? The big reward is clearly experience points. That’s how you level up. And they also line up neatly with that mission statement. In Old School D&D, you get XP for killing monsters and taking their stuff. In fact, first edition D&D is unique in that it’s the only version that offers XP for taking their stuff. And that makes all the difference.

For example, let’s say that a party of 4 orcs is guarding a chest with 100 gold pieces in it. In 1e, the orcs are worth around 15 XP each if they are killed, but none if they survive. Recovering the chest of gold is worth 100 XP. If you kill 2 orcs and the other 2 run away (because 1e also had morale rules), you’ve still got most of the XP for the encounter.

Old school D&D is not a game of heroic adventure. It’s a game of treasure hunting. Realizing that, so many of the odd relics of that edition make a degree of sense. One of the simplest advantages is that it removes a certain sort of metagaming. Since the player at the table and the character in the game are after the same thing, anything the player does to get the best reward for their character is also the character working to get the best reward for themselves. 

Encumbrance rules and fiddly equipment lists are all about planning and preparation. How much can you carry into the dungeon and how much can you carry out? Did you remember to bring the thing you need to deal with the challenges you expect? How many extra challenges can you cope with? And how much treasure can you get out of the dungeon once you’ve found it? Because coins and weapons and scrolls all have weight.

Time is another resource in the dungeon and random encounters emphasize the ticking clock. The group could spend several turns making sure that they’ve explored everything in a dungeon room. Every trap disabled and every secret door uncovered. But every turn spent is one turn closer to the dreaded random encounter check.

What’s wrong with a random encounter? Isn’t that just a bundle of XP walking right towards you? Maybe. Remember those orcs guarding that chest? Now imagine that you found those orcs wandering the dungeon away from their chest. If you kill them, you get their XP. But you don’t get XP for their chest, since that’s back in their lair. So, a fight is going to potentially cost you spells, hit points and items without a worthwhile reward.

The funny thing is that the earliest roleplaying emerged from trying to beat this clock. Instead of taking a turn of game-time to check for a trap, secret door or hidden treasure, players would listen for clues in the Dungeon Master’s description of the room. Is there a candle sconce in the wall? Try to turn it and see if a section of wall opens. Does the floor sound hollow when I tap it with my 10-foot pole? Probably a pit trap there. Traps could be detected in segments instead of turns. There was less chance of failure for this type of searching as well, since no dice were rolled for these types of actions.

And if a random encounter did occur, players could do things other than fight the monster. Like talk to it. Especially if there was a large power disparity between the monster and the party. A powerful monster might get an apology for intruding upon their domain, while a weak monster might be intimidated into revealing where their lair and treasure (and XP) are.

Admittedly, the treasure for XP rule was dropped in all subsequent editions of D&D because it was not often used. Monster XP was increased to make up the difference, but it doesn’t seem like they thought of the results on the game’s incentive structure. While the objective of treasure hunting led to a lot of variety and creativity, simply rewarding monster kills encouraged players to be combat hammers banging on as many XP nails as could be found.

Modern D&D seems pulled between two forces. On the one hand is this reward structure that has become so ingrained into gaming culture that it cannot be escaped. On the other hand, there is the desire to be a generic fantasy RPG, being as big a tent as possible and encouraging people to play it in any way they want. The downside is that it has too much identity to be a truly generic game, but it has sold too much of its original identity to continue the story game legacy of 1e.
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