Thursday, January 3, 2013

FtA: Redefining Risk and Reward

I compare RPGs to comics quite a bit in my head.  I imagine that the Venn Diagram of the two fanbases has quite a bit of crossover, and their underlying principles are much the same. I'm not going write a dissertation comparing the two, don't worry.  There is one key point that both share, that I want to touch on - the fact that both presuppose a world where problems can be solved with violence.

I'm not sure if I've brought it up on this blog before, but as anyone who has ever gamed with me can attest, I'm not a fan of combat.  Margaret Atwood said that war is what happens when language fails, and that seems to be a recurring theme among the characters that I play.  The first time I met an earlier iteration of my current gaming group, rather than participate in combat, I threatened to sink the ship we were fighting on unless the enemies stood down.  I later realized that 4E was not the game for me when I attempted to build a pacifist cleric, and found that it was literally impossible to do so, using the game as written.  I briefly considered asking my GM if I could inflict the damage upon myself in order to heal others, but that seemed a bridge too far, and while it was interesting concept, I felt it was better just to take the not-so-subtle hint that WOTC had left for me.  Pathfinder was better, I created a character who was nigh impossible to be detected.  He shadowed the party for several sessions, pilfering and making mischief before being discovered.  In the current Stars Without Number game, I play a character who has no combat ability whatsoever, more akin to a Microsoft Tech Support desk jockey than a traditional hero.  No, given the opportunity, I would rather avoid combat altogether at best.  With no other choice, I prefer to do as Sun Tzu advises, and make as many calculations before the battle as possible, stacking the deck in my favor.   I want to pick the battlefield, lay traps, arrange the PCs in the most advantageous position, stack as many bonuses as possible, so that when the combat occurs, as little is left to chance as possible; because while many people find exhilaration in hitting the right number on an oddly shaped piece of plastic, roleplaying is all about problem solving.  The less randomization involved, the more certain victory becomes.

When I GM, this presents me with a challenge.  I need to cater to the expectations of my party - there's no use setting up a chess board if folks show up wanting to play checkers.  When I do set up combat, I have to fight against my nature to stack the deck unreasonably in favor of the monsters.  Every time I pull out the Ogre Magi and have them using their flight, invisibility and cones of cold concurrently, player's jaws drop, and at least one PC usually dies.  As a GM, my goal isn't to kill the PCs - it's to present them with problems, and challenge them to come up with solutions.  But every time I get into a combat situation, I have to fight my natural inclinations, and make sure that I leave them some daylight.  Otherwise, I start thinking thoughts like, "Why WOULDN'T the Storm Giants have a pack of Elder Red Dragons on chains, guarding their treasure horde?"

No, I would much rather present the PCs with difficult situations that challenge them.  In a perfect world, those situations would have nothing to do with combat, but so many game systems are set up with combat as a presupposition that it makes it difficult to strike out in another direction.  I'll come back to this in a minute, though.

First, what does this have to do with comics?  For a long time, comics were effectively exercises in Monster of the Week style storytelling.  Villain A has an EVIL PLOT™, Hero X discovers it, they fight, and Villain A is defeated, his plan thwarted.  It's the basic storytelling arc - Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.  Sound familiar?  It should - it's the basis for the majority of adventures ever created. Over time, comics evolved somewhat - the combat became contextualized, with less panels devoted to the actual fisticuffs.  The violence became implied, and took a back seat to character development, and soap-opera style theatrics.  Alan Moore sounded the death knell for these style comics with Watchmen, which puts the ultimate futility of violence on full display.

It's gotten to the point where, in a recent Major Story Event, Avengers vs. X-Men, the actual fighting was relegated to a second book, AvX.  The main book was all talky character drama type stuff, with the fighting there perfunctory, more representative as a visual metaphor for the conflict than anything else.

To a certain extent, we've seen some of that go on in gaming, but to a large extent, it's out on the fringes, in the indie games corner of the market.    By and large, if you're starting an RPG, it means that somebody is about to get shot, stabbed or beaten.  Much as in comics, the language of conflict is violence.

The main difference between comics and RPGs, though, is in the nature of Risk and Reward.  According to Alan Moore, Stan Lee once said that readers didn't want change, they wanted the illusion of change, and that policy has become de rigeur.  Hence Spider-Man being in his mid twenties for thirty years.  Hence the revolving door of death in comics.  It keeps the franchises viable, but at the same time, it puts a time limit on the buy in of the readers.  Once you've seen your favorite character get resurrected from the dead, defeat the unstoppable villain, etc.  You start to realize that there is no Risk, so you settle into a cycle of diminishing Rewards for your investment in the story.  

In RPGs, there's no need to create the illusion of change, change can happen whenever.  While players can become attached to their characters they aren't franchises - rare is the player who pushes back from the table after their character dies and says, "Never again!  I'm done with RPGs!"  On another level, though, our community is just like the comics community, retelling the same stories over and over again, just with different window dressing.  Our heroes wear chain mail, not spandex, but the language of conflict and resolution is the same - if you hit it hard enough, you win!

Even "new" games perpetuate the system.  We're all on the grind, killing monsters to gain experience, which gives us the ability to kill more monsters in new and exciting ways.  The risk is all tied to the character's mortality, and the reward is tied his ability to kill.

When I was sitting down to design an RPG, I wanted something different.  I wanted a game that was designed around the idea of problem solving, but using a different language than what players have become accustomed to.  The problem being, of course, how do you get somebody to play such a game?  I saw a g+ thread awhile back talking about a group of PCs were using their dancing skills to thwart an invasion or some-such, and while it made my heart glad, I can't imagine that you could design an entire game around the mechanic, and even if you did, would there be any functional difference between my dancing roll vs. your dancing roll  and my combat roll vs. your combat roll?

So I've accepted the fact that combat probably needs to be a part of From the Ashes.  With that acknowledgement came the question - if you can't change the game, what about the rules of the game?  Rather than try and convince people not to fight, how about making the rule set drop a hint, a la 4E style, that combat is pointless?  If the point of combat is to perpetuate your character's ability to fight, why not set a hard stop on the development of your character?

So yeah - in From the Ashes, you're on the clock.  Kind of like Spawn back when Spawn was relevant, every character sets off knowing exactly how much power they have in them.

Remember this?

Except that rather than being a countdown, there will still be the normal leveling system.  They'll gain power as the progress, but once they hit the cap, it's over.  They will never be as powerful as they are at that moment, one second before they die.  Changing the language of conflict - if you know that you're going to die, what risk does combat have?  Death becomes, rather than an obstacle to be overcome, a fact of life that must be accepted.

But if the risk is fundamentally altered, so too must the reward be altered.

As I envision From the Ashes, it's a cooperative world building RPG.  The world itself starts off tabula rasa, and the actions of the PCs shape its development.  Without the constraints of a fight/level up/rinse/repeat paradigm, what can they do with a new world?  Will there be combat?  Sure, of course, but does killing any who oppose you make the new world better, or perpetuate the problems that led to the end of the world before?

If From the Ashes works out like I hope it does, there will be an emphasis on self sacrifice and creation, rather than violence perpetrated upon others and destruction.


  1. I'm not sure AvX is the best example, since the combat was relegated to a secondary book because Bendis can't write action scenes rather than any artistic decision, but your point holds.

  2. Intriguing concept... I'll be very interested in seeing how your mechanics support "self sacrifice and creation, rather than violence..."!

  3. @Kelvin - yeah, Bendis isn't very good at the non-talky stuff, is he?

    @Dave - that will be the trick, won't it? Truth be told, I'll be very interested to see it too!


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