I found this post a long time ago, but recently it has been on my mind. It comes from the Quickly, Quietly, Carefully blog, and I'm going to reprint it here:
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The two most important concepts in the D&D game
Q: What are the two most important concepts in the D&D game?
A: The most important concept in the game is player choice. In order to give players the most fun in the game, they must be able to make choices that will make a definite difference in the fates of their characters.
The second most important concept is that actions have consequences. Player decisions will lead to further campaign developments.
--Jon Pickens et al., "Dispel Confusion" column, Polyhedron #13
I've been thinking a lot about a game's purpose. When we started our latest 13th Age campaign we added a few new people. There are 3 friends of mine whom I have gamed with before, so I pretty much know what they are like at the table. But we also added 3 new people, two of which have a little gaming experience and one is totally new to RPGs (well, table-top ones at least).
The thing is, the new players have thrown off the usual dynamic. Before, with the experienced players, we had a rotating-GM Pathfinder campaign. Each of us added some weird new twist to the shared game world, and a few times we tested out some house rules. But we had a sort of rhythm that we settled into. Our new players don't have that same groove, and one of them is very much a story person - she likes to write shared stories on Tumblr and is the only person really focused on narrative at the table. The rest of us are okay with the typical combat grind with some story sprinkles. So I started thinking about my GMing style, and the style of stories I usually ran, and weather or not that might be a good fit for the new players - or good gaming habits to teach them.
Let's start with that last campaign real quick. We didn't really mean to start a new campaign. Three of my friends were going to run an adventure, and the GM said the other two needed to make characters who could fight without weapons, since there was going to be a town where no weapons were allowed. I didn't plan on joining the adventure myself, but somehow I ended up in it too. It was not one of our better adventures. It was very disjointed, and took so long to get to the city we had been warned about that we didn't even play out that part of the story. Nobody was really thrilled about how it went (I made my first Ninja from Ultimate Combat for that adventure, and was not thrilled with the class either - or the fact that Pathfinder sucked at the sort of character I wanted to make, but that's another rant).
Well, typically after a bad adventure like that we'd just shelve the characters and move on, but somehow we didn't. Instead one of the players decided to GM his own adventure, using our same characters, and he destroyed the town - giant worms ate it.
Now we had the beginnings of a campaign, quite by accident, and another friend joined the party. I ended up GMing the next adventure, and since we seemed to have a world going I started making up some loose history and modified an existing map to give our world some sketchy setting. Over about a year we ended up getting from 1st to 12th level, and the party grew to each of us having 3 to 4 characters that we rotated on top of the rotating GM.
That was the most gaming I had done since High School, many years earlier. I developed a quick framework for when I had to throw together an adventure on the spot - I would put together 5 groups of monsters that seemed interesting and then invent some story for why the PCs would face all of them. It was not high art, and not very deep, but it did work.
With the new 13th Age group I wanted something different. I wanted to have a better mix of non-combat stuff and some real story and detail to the setting. Our first adventure was a published one, the Shadows of Eldolan. It was a great adventure (and well written in my opinion). I added the Expertise and Approaches and Aspects from Fate to make the skill system a bit more robust (which is on the blog in previous posts). And from all the characters' One Unique Things I came up with an over-arching plot. The second adventure was a mostly combat wilderness run, just to get out of the city and start introducing some of the plot elements I wanted to set up. The third, and most recent, adventure was the interesting one though.
One thing I did not want to do was railroad the players, or just make up plot twists at random like we had done before. So I came up with 4 branches of the Big Bad Guy's plot, then I got the party together in one town and had 6 Very Important People come and visit. I dropped some visions that these people were important, and I gave one clue to the Big Bad Guy's Plot to four of them (each being a different one) and made the last two look like they could be bad guys, but really they were potential allies. I took the advise from Justin Alexander's blog about Don't Prep Plots and I just made an outline of each one and the secret they had, and let my players figure out how to investigate them. My players did good (and kind of surprised me actually) and they found three of the plots and both allies, only missing one clue.
Now, I have three possible adventures, each a different style from lots of talking, mystery or combat. Each arm could be a few adventures, if the players like that style, or we could bounce between them. But the great thing is that I'll be able to lay out each branch, what kind of an adventure it will be, and let my players choose what they want to pursue. Or, if they hate all of them I can improvise something else. The downside is that now I have to prep three different adventures since I don't know which one they'll want to play. But giving them more choice in what kind of game they want to play is worth the extra work on my shoulders.
So far this has been pretty basic GMing - the railroad vs sandbox style conflict is an old one. What made this stick out in my mind is something a little different. See, when we complain about player choice we are almost always talking about in the story. In a sandbox the players are free to go wherever they want, in the railroad the GM decides where the players go. But that's not the only place where player choice exists, and some things I have seen and read lately got me thinking about that blog post I started with - and which I haven't forgotten.
See, it seems to me that quote hit it on the nose, the biggest thing that makes a table-top RPG different from every other game and medium is the impact of player choice. In fiction you passively observe the story, you have no choices whatsoever. In most computer games, or even board games, you can make some choices - but you're limited to choosing from the options that the game gives you. Only in a table-top RPG, where your choices are weighed and the game world adjusted by a fellow human being, that your choices can really be unlimited (well, effectively) and have deep consequences. If all you want to do is fight monsters you can get that from any MMO or computer game. Heck, even if you want story and characterization you can find that in a "visual novel" styled game like Persona (which a friend was playing, so it popped into my mind, I think it was 4). So while there are lots of things you can get in a table-top RPG many of those elements exist elsewhere (and, frankly, might be easier to find elsewhere). "Meaningful choice" is hard to find.
But does the idea of "meaningful choice" only exist in the story?
This has been bugging me as I've been modifying 13th Age. I hate a lot of the design decisions because I don't think they promote player choice. In 13th Age the Fighter class has a "flexible attack" mechanic. A flexible attack is an ability that triggers on a certain attack roll. For example, "Brace For It" turns the first melee critical hit into a normal attack, but it only triggers on a miss. "Second Shot" allows you to make a second ranged attack that turn, but only if the d20 roll to attack was a 16 - 20. Other attacks might trigger on an 'even hit' or an 'odd miss' or some-such.
I hate this. I hate it because it puts the cool thing the character does, literally a class-defining ability, in the hands of the dice instead of the player. The player chooses to play that class, and chooses which abilities he knows, but when those abilities are actually used the player has no control over.
Another thing I hate is the timing system the game inherited from D&D 4th edition. Each ability has one of several usage options:
- At-Will: can be used once per turn
- Breath Weapon: can be used once, then roll each turn to use again that turn
- Recharge: can be used once in a battle, and then roll to see if can be used again that day
- 1/Battle: can be used once every battle
- 1/Day: can only be used once that day
Without understanding there is no meaningful choice. Perception precedes power. You have no real power over something you can't see or don't understand. And while my fixed 5 encounter scheme worked, it was not good gaming at all.
Player choice, and all that comes with it, exists in both the rules and the mechanics. Some games have more choices than others, but I don't think any game - at least that I know of - does a really good job building meaningful player choices in the mechanics. Which actually bothers me. Before I didn't give it a second thought, but now I really want to find a game with some good mechanical rules to encourage player choice. Because honestly that's the only time the players are actually playing the game. Rolling a die is not a choice, everything is in the hands of fate (or physics, pick your deity). Watching the GM move the monsters is not playing the game. Only when the player has to decide on what to do, and when those decisions matter, is the game really being played. After all, it's a role-playing game - and what's a role? A series of choices and consequences. Choosing the Fighter and the consequences having those abilities. Choosing to be a dark and broody personality, or a bright and cheerful one, and how that interacts with the other players and NPCs. Choice is the game. From "those mountains look quest-worthy" to "I cast magic missile at the darkness." So not just for our campaigns, but what kinds of choices do our games themselves have?