Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Carpe DM…Translation: “The DM is Whiny” (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs, Part 2)

OK. So as I was saying before with RPGs, I started DMing Traveller, or rather “Classic Traveller” (there’ve been a couple version since the original 1981 edits of the little black books), recently.

Back when I got the source stuff for the campaign, up to and including the CD-ROM, from Far Future Enterprises, I started making a mental list of the stuff I’d have to change. In the RPG parlance, I knew there’d be a lot of homebrew rules. I already knew two things right off the bat. Several more major things popped up in the course of my campaign prep and the first couple sessions.

I mentioned the unique character generation, where you start with a mature set of skills; the corollary there is that you’ve spent anywhere from 4 to 30 years in military or quasi-military occupations. With all the hazards that pertain thereto. The character generation system had a survival roll every 4 year term (later, one for every year-long assignment). Fail it and die.

In addition, it had the old hardcore character generation rules; roll 2 dice in order for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing. If you wanted to be Navy and rolled crappy INT and Social Standing? Better roll high on enlistment, buck-o, or you were out of luck. Actually there was a weird synergy there. You could “hunt medals” in your military career, taking penalties to your survival roll for bonuses to decoration rolls (decorations increasing your chance of promotion). Those of you with ruthless streaks no doubt see where this is going.

If you rolled a crappy character you’d get him into a risky profession, say Army or Marines, where you could take outrageous chances for medals. The dice modifier equivalent of stripping naked, gluing feathers to your butt and charging a machine gun nest with a toilet plunger while making “woo woo” noises. Then when probability caught up with you and you croaked, roll another character until you got a guy whose characteristics you liked.

Those two rules were going to have to go, replaced by roll seven times, discard the low roll and assign to your stats as desired method and a medical discharge roll rather than death roll. I added a chance of characteristic loss to go with a discharge, and the ability of the player to try and overcome medical discharge, to give someone who didn’t feel like they were “fully baked” yet have a chance to stay in.

Ok, so far so good. What else? Over the history of the game, Game Designers Workshop…the now defunct home of Traveller as well as other games including some very nice board wargames (read: hideously complicated games…I had weird tastes)…anyway, GDW released rules and character generation supplements over the course of the early 80s until they effectively abandoned “Traveller” for the “Twilight 2000” and “2300AD” RPGs.

The original 6 professions were Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants and “Other”. Over the course of the game, expansion books greatly enhanced character generation for Navy, Army, Marines, Scouts and Merchants…you got WAY more skills over the course of a career. “Other” was expanded by another sourcebook, but not in terms of depth…instead it got broader. Instead of what seemed to be a generic roguish character, Other became Barbarians and Doctors and Hunters and Bureaucrats and Scientists, Pirates and of course, Rogues. But they all had the same low skill allotment.

When the supplements came out back in the 80s, Army and Marines were first (“Mercenary”), followed 6 or 7 months (and what felt like an eternity to me) later with Navy (“High Guard’) and an even longer eternity later by the Scouts (the imaginatively named “Scouts”). What happened was everyone stampeded to the cool Army/Marines careers, and there was a sudden dearth of ship based skills in most groups. And so it occurred, on down the line until “Merchant Prince” came out and allowed mercantile players to have some real fun buying and selling. So I had to homebrew some skill roll eligibility rules to ensure that all characters at the end of a term of service had had a similar count of skill roll opportunities (if not skills). I had to test that out with a few character roll ups. Seemed to work, at least well enough that the “Other” characters weren’t obviously disadvantaged. Enough so that one player picked Rogue, and his skill count had more to do with luck than anything structural.

What else was a problem? Well, although the Third Imperium background was considered the gold standard of SF RPGs it had some structural defects. The Imperium was huge and impersonal, which removed one common source of pride for PCs: that they were big swinging dicks in the universe making big differences in their worlds. Also, since the characters were “born” with a mature skill set, there wasn’t that “level up/always something new to do” pull for the characters.

So I had to fix that. I’ll cover the former point in my next, and last, post (concerning putting together a fun yet not obviously railroaded narrative in an annoyingly wide open universe); but one thing was obvious…there would have to be experience rules. Traveling takes time, a week and a half to two weeks per “jump” (a discreet distance traveled in a starship) so training of various types would and could take various amounts of time (3 months, 6 months, 9 months or a year per level, depending). I also needed a way to reach a point of diminishing returns to keep people from being the world’s foremost authority on Ship’s Tactics or whatever. Which I finally managed to put the finishing touch on recently.

There was one area that required little alteration. I mentioned that GDW was a BOARD wargame company? Their intensive combat rules were based on a board wargame. D&D’s original combat rules were clearly based on miniatures rules…move x number of inches per round, etc. Even back in the 80s, there just weren’t that many folks who played miniatures. I’m sure it surprises no one that I was one of them…I played tabletop Napoleonic wargames but even I didn’t play D&D the way it was supposed to be played…everyone just sort of declared where they were and the DM kept the positions in his head (it was always a he...I played with women, but none of them have ever wanted to DM).

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 3rd edition, while I was away, dropped the fiction that we were all out there adjudicating disputes with rulers…and came up with combat rules that basically derived from board wargames. They did keep the mini-figs instead of using cardboard counters, although now you buy them pre-painted and they’re sold like collectable cards…you get them randomized in a box, unless you pay market rate on the secondary minis market. You can take the company away from the business model, but you can never take the business model entirely out of the company. But I digress (even more than usual, I mean).

Anyway, the GDW Traveller combat rules, “Snapshot”, played eerily similar to what the group had been doing with D&D 3.5 all along…rules that came twenty years after GDW released “Snapshot”. Those rules would cover from close range to (in some cases) long range combat, for both guns and hand weapons. Since “very long” was 250m and up, I figured I could simply cover that range increment abstractly. And in fact, so it has turned out (a recent encounter started at a klick…and all of that was conducted in the “once a minute a target appears during a rush, and you can shoot at it” way (a unit deployed in combat formation, using bounding overwatch will cover 1000m in somewhere between a half and hour to two-plus hours). The one thing the group took to like a duck to water was how to do combat. (What they constantly have to remind themselves about is radio contact…you can talk remotely, unlike D&D, and they’re constantly poking each other to remind each other to “tell the rest”…something I’m allowing because contrary to popular opinion, I’m not a total dick and it really is a novel concept when you’re used to D&D.)

The final, major piece of homebrew was “Difficulty Class” or DC, the target roll of dice for success or failure at any given task. For the first few sessions I was winging the DCs for tasks. It felt unfair to me, god only knows how the group perceived it. Pretty much the same if the eagerness with which they seized on the table I made up is any indication.

As a rule generation example this one is fairly typical. It’s based on two insights and one statistical reality. First the statistical reality: the center of a two six sided dice, normal probability curve is 7 and it’s a fairly steep curve, so average “difficulty” will play off 7 as a target and change by increments of two.

The two insights were that 5 categories are more than enough to describe almost any situation (thank you survey design in grad school!), therefore difficulties are all described as either “very easy”, “easy”, “average”, “difficult”, and “very difficult”. Second insight: that skill level 3 is “professional grade”…the rules themselves state that if a person has Medic-3 they qualify for the title “Doctor”. Arbitrarily, I set “master” skill at 6, and not so arbitrarily “beginner” is 1.

Put the two together…a task that would be of average difficulty for a beginner has a target of 8 or more (the statistical 7 plus 1 for skill level), whereas a task that could be described as average for a master is 13 (statistical 7 plus 6 for skill level). All difficulties can now be decided in my mind by answering the question, “How difficult would this be for ‘x’ skill level?” An appendectomy is easy for a doctor, but average to difficult for a beginner. Heart surgery is average for a master, difficult for a professional, and very difficult (at least!) for a beginner. If you can put it in words, the chance that everyone agrees with your assessment (and hence thinks you’re playing fair with them) goes WAY up. So was born the three column, five row table at the center of skill use.

The point I’m making? If you as a GM have a problem, your group has or will have that problem in spades. If you look back up over the decisions I’ve described (especially if you’ve ever played Traveller) you can see that everything I’ve done is to increase enjoyment by providing a sense of accomplishment, or a sense of fairness.

There’s only one game out there whose purpose is to make the player feel like they’re a tiny ant and that the GM is out to get them (mainly because he is): Paranoia. From which players derive enjoyment. It’s not an everyday game though…

Making the game enjoyable, rewarding and fair from your players’ point of view isn’t the most important thing you do as a DM, it’s the ONLY thing you do, or rather should do. Everything else is record keeping.

Next: Putting together a campaign where you manage to move characters smartly from one situation to another despite the fact that they can literally get into a spaceship and zip off in another direction entirely. On a whim.

No comments: