Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heroics, Randomness, and a rambling post

    Read this comment to a post on RetroRoleplaying and just had to write a post of my own on it:

TheShadowKnows said...
    I guess you're right and my point of view is too different. To me a truly "heroic feat" is something like getting lucky, rolling max damage, and killing an ogre with a single blow. Or taking out the master vampire with a lucky use of Dispel Evil. It's not really something you can plan in advance by putting "Cleave" (or whatever) on your character sheet. If it's that dry and predictable, it seems neither really heroic nor like a feat to me.
    True story: in one of my AD&D campaigns the a party of 6 3rd and 4th level characters encountered four bugbears. It should have been a decent fight but not a potential TPK. Instead, they all rolled HORRIBLY and I rolled well, and in a couple rounds five of them were down and bleeding to death. The only uninjured character, a 4th level dwarf fighter, had to take on four bugbears singlehandedly. He proceeded to do just that, killing all of them in six rounds while suffering NO hits himself (and with no fudging from me - his AC was really low and my luck went sour). Although one of his companions had already bled to death, he was able to save four of the five. This was truly an HEROIC FEAT which the players were still talking about YEARS later. I struggle to imagine a mechanical system for resolving feats that would produce anything so memorable. Does anybody really talk fondly about "the time they used Defensive Strike"? If it's written down on the sheet, that's pretty much EVERY time, right? So how much impact does it have, really?

    This is the whole dice vs choices thing, that says something to me - it's about the mix of randomness and the meaning of choice and consequence. The Alexandrian had another post on a cool game session where the players pushed combat against foes who were not meant to be fought and got a really lucky string of rolls off - and again, while this is noteworthy, it's just luck.  It isn't the brilliant or skilled choices of the player, it's the luck of the Gods of the Dice.  So it is really that special, or, maybe a better question is: is it really that meaningful?
    This makes me think of my favorite MMO character, my Warden in The Lord of the Rings Online.  The Warden is a unique class in MMOs because instead of having each ability mapped to a button, they have a few core abilities that when combined properly produce a special effect.  That is (for those of you who have never played one), a warden has the spear, shield and yell (it's a picture of a fist, but you actually yell, don't know why there's the disconnect); you combine 2 to 5 to form a Gambit.  Spear-Spear makes a gambit that does one strike for extra damage.  Spear-Spear-Spear makes a gambit that does multiple attacks.  The Spear-Spear-Spear-Spear gambit is multiple attacks and a short-term bonus to parry.  Mixing them creates different effects.  Spear-Shield attacks and heals you a little, Spear-Yell attacks and generates extra threat.  And so on and so on.  There are dozens of gambits total.  The thing is, I the player am the one who has to remember them.  I the player have to hit them in the right order.  And I the player have to think ahead, since each gambit builder takes a second to execute, and the gambit itself takes another second, so my special ability is going to take place about 3 to 6 seconds down the road - which can be a long time in combat.  I love the class because it challenges me as a player more than the straight button-mashing of most MMO classes.
    The advantage though is that my Warden has been able to do things none of my others characters would dare attempt.  My first character was a tank, a Guardian, and in the low levels there is a quest to kill a bandit leader.  Problem is that he has friends, so the second you attack him you get mobbed.  My Guardian was slaughtered.  After a few tries, carefully luring him away from his buddies, I managed to defeat him.  My Warden however walked in, killed him, his friends, the other guys who wandered into the fight, and the guys who respawned too close.  By very carefully choosing and layering my gambits I was able to take out 9 or so guys who were all my level.  I've taken on elite monsters, who are levels above their rating, who were higher level than me to begin with (think of it as a 1st level fighter defeating a 6th level opponent one-on-one).  And all of that was by me watching the fight, shoring up what I needed (buffing my defense, then starting a heal over time, then hitting, little more heal, little more hitting, defense wore off so re-buff it, etc...) as the fight progressed.  It took some luck, but it also took a decent amount of skill.

    It's not just about skill though, it's also about choices.  Extra Credits did a great video talking about choices.  They point out that there are calculations and there are choices and the two get confused.  If there is one best way to do something, obvious or not as that way may be, then it is not a choice, it is a calculation.  Like making the best build for an MMO character.  A choice is something that has consequences.  What I like about my warden is that time is the consequence.  Once I commit myself to executing a gambit it takes time that I'm committed to, which I can't use to do something else.  Each gambit only does one thing (though higher level ones splash a little of a second), so an attack gambit does damage but not a lot of healing or threat generation.  So which do I need more right now, against this monster and with this group?  Which am I going to need?  Since it's hard to change or give up a gambit I'm building that trade-off makes a real choice.  Depending on the circumstances, that coice may not be very important though.  Fighting lower-level monsters I am not worried about the damage they can do, so I don't work my healing as much.  Fighting solo I don't care at all about generating threat since I'm not trying to shield anyone else.  In a group I don't care as much about damage since I'm just keeping everybody's attention while my Burglar friend is stabbing them in the back or my Hunter friend is filling them full of arrows.  So not all choices are always equal, depending on the situation.

    But choice is critical because of something mentioned in the comment I started my ramblings with: being heroic.  What is being heroic?  Is it being lucky or being good?  Let me illustrate with some fiction.  How heroic is this...
    Alvus the Wizard looked at the snarling Orc coming to kill him.  His friends lay on the floor, dying all around him.  A normally challenging fight had gone horribly awry.  The Orcs had shrugged off his spells, and the blows of his companions, and now they were down and he was about to die.
    He closed his eyes and swung his staff, catching the Orc off-guard and knocking it out.  Angered, the other Orcs moved in to attack.  One stumbled over a body on the ground, pushing the other one who was dodging out of the way into Alvus' swing instead.  The remaining Orc bellowed and charged, Alvus backed up and didn't realize he was so close to the wall of the cave.  The Orc, moving too quickly to stop itself, was impaled on Alvus' staff that was unintentionally braced against the cave wall.
    Saying a quick prayer to the Goddess of Luck, he ran to help his companions.

...compared to this...
    Alvus the Wizard looked at the snarling Orc coming to kill him.  His friends lay on the floor, dying all around him.  A normally challenging fight had gone horribly awry.  The Orcs had shrugged off his spells, and the blows of his companions, and now they were down and he was about to die.
    As a follower of the Left-handed Path he was always taught to use magic with logic and reason.  To see the wonders of magic as just a tool, a way to influence the world.  Many tales were told of the old days, of the warmages who mixed magic and passion - of the cities turned to smoking ruins, the dead and dying, the groaning of reality as they clashed for dominance.  Passion was power, but it was also a drug, and casting in anger damaged the soul.
    Looking again at his dying friends, he decided that if his soul was the price for their lives it was a good enough bargain.  The angry red flames coalesced in his hands, and he threw them in a sheet of fire that obliterated the Orcs.  He felt something twist inside him, but pushed the thought aside as he ran to help his companions.


    On the one hand you have the dice, just the luck of the draw.  On the other hand you have choices - because every choice has consequences.  Which of the two sounds more heroic to you?  Which should be more memorable?  Which should have some sort of lasting implication/impact?
    I talked in an older post about role-playing vs character-playing.  This is an extension of that post I guess, though I didn't originally intend it to be.  I've read lots of posts and comments talking about role-playing vs roll-playing, and randomness can produce those moments, as the comment above mentioned, that people will talk about for years afterwards.  And yet, it isn't the skill of the players, or anything they did, it was just luck.  Like winning a jackpot from a slot machine is something you'll talk about for years but is not indicative of any skill or worthiness on your part - it was just luck.  And we all like to get lucky, don't get me wrong.  But this is roll-playing, just relying on the dice.  It is not anything to be proud of, is not a reflection of the great ideas or choices you made.

    Let me throw an anecdote at you, to maybe help me illustrate what I'm thinking:
    A while ago (by which I mean a year or so) I was GMing our Pathfinder campaign.  We ended up deciding to make a one-shot adventure using some new characters who were built just for the heck of it.  Two of my characters were run by my friends Aaron and Matt.  Aaron was playing Po-po, the drunken master monk who was a panda-like race (forget the name).  Matt was playing a cat-race Sorcerer with the Plant Bloodline (he was a jungle cat, can't think of the character's name).  I forget who else was playing (think it was just Sara, not sure - getting old is hell when your memory stunk to begin with).  For these spur-of-the-moment games with random characters I have a very simple formula: I pick 5 groups of monsters and think of a reason why the players would run into all of them.  I decided to make this a tangent of our main campaign and had the players sneak into the city of evil necromancers and then sneak out (think they were rescuing somebody).  I picked some stock monsters, and decided to make the final fight a sort of boss fight.  So I hand-crafted two unfettered eidolons who would give the party a real tough fight.  It took me at least 45 minutes to make them, while the players were finishing their characters.
    The first three fights went as I expected.  The party made it in, defeated all opponents, and then started heading out.  They were sneaking out of the sewers and came out in a city park, where they were going to switch to a different sewer line to get to the outskirts of town and the carriage waiting to take them home.  With glee I described the elementals coming down the tunnels after them as they came out to the fresh air of the park.  Then, Matt looked at his character sheet, looked at me, and said, "I can make us look like trees."
    My first thought was, what?
    Turns out one of his bloodline powers could make the whole party look like trees, which would blend into the park quite nicely.  So I looked at my elementals.  They had perception scores of -1.  Just for the hell of it, I decided that if one of the elementals rolled a natural 20 it would figure out the illusion.  The highest I rolled was a 12, I think.  So the elementals, in a "which way did he go" moment, all wandered off.
    Okay, well played, but I still have one more trick up my sleeve.  Back in the sewers and again the party can hear the sounds of persuit.  My babies, the unfettered eidolons I spent all that time designing, were getting closer.  When Aaron looks at his character sheet and says, "I can make a wall."
    Sure enough, he has a special ability to create things, and he can make them out of stone and be so thick.  I break out the core rulebook, look at the hardness of stone and hit points of so many inches, and then I take the average damage of the attacks the eidolons had to figure how many turns they would be slowed down.  So as the party runs I tell them after so many seconds they hear the wall break and screams of frustration.
    When Aaron tells me, "I can do that three times a day."
    So I describe their escape, and gave them the xp for the encounters as a reward for the creative use of abilities.

    The thing about that story, is that it was a combination of luck and skill.  My players were lucky to pick the characters who had those abilities, and then skilled enough to think outside the box and apply them at the right moments.  That was maybe not heroic, but close enough.  It was something they could be proud of, and even though it knocked out the work I did, I don't mind.  I love it when my players come up with something creative, even as I was shaking my head in disbelief.  That, to me, was the proper use of randomness/luck.  Luck is fine, luck is good, when you capitalize on it, when you have some sort of input to make it work.  The original comment, with the lucky and unlucky rolls, did not have any real contribution from the player.  Any character can roll lucky and have the GM roll poorly and it doesn't matter who's involved (a natural 20 hits regardless of class/race/whatever).  But for my players above, only the Plant Sorcerer had that ability and only the panda-race guy had that ability, and it was luck as a consequence of their choices.  Not perfect, because it was still luck and not a choice, but way, way better in my opinion than just luck alone.
    I think the term I want is "emergent gameplay."  Unexpected consequences.  Where luck and randomness create those moments, those "happy accidents" to quote Bob Ross, I like it.  But when it's all random, just the luck of the draw or Gods of the Dice, that really doesn't appeal to me.

    I think this is a part of why I like crunch.  Extremely rules-lite systems, like original D&D, just seem to general, too dependent on the player to think of something clever.  Having some detail helps to springboard a creative way to use an ability, rather than having to think it up from scratch.  Now, I will quickly admit that having too many rules makes it impossible to figure out what the heck you can do, like the bazillions of feats in 3.5/Pathfinder.  But a system like Ars Magica's spellcasting- here are some bits, add them together however you want/need- that seems like a happy medium.
    I guess this whole rambling discourse is really only meaningful because I'm designing a game myself.  Working on Travellers Beyond has forced me to ask myself how much detail, in what places, how much randomness and what choices, to work into the rules.  It does explain to me a little more why I like some of the games I do, and dislike the ones I do - but I don't think I have any terribly deep insight to offer here.  What can I say, sometimes you just read something and you have to comment on it.

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