Frustration with non-combat abilities in a gamist combat RPG
All the talk about gamism on Chris Chinn's Deep in the Game has me thinking a lot about gamist games.
First I want to thank Chris for his essays which helped me understand that actually I do enjoy a good gamist game. I used to think I was primarily a simulationist, but now I realize that I problably just use some of the techniques that most often support simulationism to form the backdrop for a gamist campaign.
One of the things that's always bothered me is that combat dominates my games. Oh, I'm quite up front that I enjoy combat, and there will be lots of it, but sometimes I think I want some non-combat stuff going on. The trouble is that everytime I use game rules to provide some non-combat abilities, the result is horribly unsatisfying.
One early example is the roll your skill until you fail. This was most often seen in tracking and climbing. A sequence of skill checks would be necessary to successefully follow tracks to their end, or to climb a cliff or wall. Invariably, the skill wouldn't be quite enough and there would be a failure.
In my recent Tekumel campaign, another example showed up. One player noticed I provided an opportunity to be an aristocrat, so one player (who was almost certainly NOT interested in gamism) jumped on the chance. Of course he wanted to use his ability so after the PCs stumbled into a mystery, he wanted to convince his clan to send folks off to solve the mystery. Crash!
In looking back at these incidents with a gamist lense, I realize what the problem is. The problem is there's no real challenge to be overcome.
The climbing and tracking systems provide no mechanics for strategy. The calling for multiple rolls is just an attempt to make it feel more like combat (where multiple rolls are required for success), however, since there is no choices to make (or no real choices), the whole thing comes off as a waste of time.
The aristocrat is an example of another problem. The player is trying to bypass the challenge (or at least that's how it comes off to the GM). Of course since the GM is trying to run a gamist game, such a bypass will never work. Again, the result is an unsatisfying set of rolls with no reall strategy (though lots of player input).
The real problem is that abilities are provided for the players to choose that don't support the gamist ideal. Worse, the choice of these abilities often comes at a cost in combat effectiveness. In the Tekumel game, I provided the aristocrat choice for two reasons. One was a feeling of needing to be complete (the world has more than just fighters and magic users), the other was that I felt like I wanted to have more than just combat go on (since the Tekumel setting is very rich in social detail).
What I have learned is that one shouldn't present opportunities you don't really want the players to take. The Tekumel game would have been much better had I only allowed the players to play fighters and magic users. The social detail could have been run purely as color and used to direct the fighters and magic users.
I do think it would be interesting to have a gamist social interraction system, but for me, it would have to work with a tactical miniatures style combat system, which seems unlikely.
Now there are some non-combat abilities that are still useful, but the trick is to make them work better with gamist challenge. One possibility is a single roll with a yes or no result (either you track back to the monster's lair or not, if you do, you get more treasure, spending resource on the track skill pays off in additional equipment which improves combat effectiveness). Another possibility is to have the single roll result in advantage or disadvantage in an upcomming fight (you track someone back to their lair, a good tracking roll results in some tactical advantage - tracking pays off with increased combat effectiveness). Climbing again fits the yes/no or tactical advantage/disadvantage secenarios. What's important then is to make sure climbing and tracking can't be used to trivialize challenge. It may be ok to bypass a challenge, but if you get the artifact or solve the mystery without a combat challenge, then something didn't work right.
So then the trick is to provide the non-combat abilities in such a way that they don't reduce combat effectiveness too much. One thought I have is to have a list of non-combat abilities. Every character gets one, or maybe two, or maybe several. Thus there is no combat tradeoff. Another solution is to have combat tradeoff, but make it pretty minor (and make sure the system doesn't allow a player to create an ineffective character).
Oh, and now I realize that worrying about the dominance of non-combat is pointless. Truth is I enjoy combat and there are plenty of players out there who also enjoy plenty of combat. That doesn't mean that every moment in a game session must be combat, or preparation for combat. It does mean that we shouldn't be spending lots of time rolling skill checks that really don't mean anything. The non-combat parts of the game can be used to set the scene and set the mood for the combat. They can give a why for the combat.
This is a contribution to Martin Ralya's 31 Days of Blogging for GMs project.