Thursday, October 20, 2005

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.



Martin Ralya said...

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.

Burning Wheel gets around this very nicely with a rule called "let it ride" -- you make one check, and the result stands.

The example given is sneaking into a bandit camp: if you make the roll to sneak in, you don't have to make another one to rifle through their saddlebags. It works well, and I've been using it in my current D&D campaign.

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.

I don't have it in front of me, but I think Dynasties & Demigods has social "duelling" ruls for d20 -- and Burning Wheel certainly has them. In fact, they're probably my favorite part of BW, as they make debates between PCs an absolute blast. :)

Good analysis, and a good post, Frank.

PS: Yay, comment spam! ;)

Frank said...

I've been tossing around ideas for a social combat system. One trouble for me is that I like the miniatures style combat of games like D20. I was tossing around an idea of renaming hit points, and allowing social skills to be used in combat also.

I do need to check out Burning Wheel.


ScottM said...

I tried to babble about this earlier, here, but your summary of the problem's much better.

An alternative would be to provide a gamist engine at a different level for your aristrocrat; you mentioned social-- but "movements of men", large scale combat and the like might be a way for the Aristrocrat to compete in combat... just on a different scale.

Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

You really need to check out Iron Heroes. It has social feats, with solid mechanics to back it up. Also, any non-combat skills can be used to augment rolls for combat- so the non-combat characters aren't totally screwed either.

I'd also highly recommend Burning Wheel as well, I do believe the Duel of Wits rules might still be available as a download on the site, which is probably something worth checking out.

Another option- Riddle of Steel has a neat, but simple core mechanic for combat (that still has some good gamist kick), you could easily port it to social conflicts as well with a little work.

Frank said...

Scott - I should have referenced your post also... It definitely informed my post.

Chris - You are going to end up selling me both Iron Heroes and Burning Wheel I think. Perhaps I when I do so, I should tell Monte/Mike and Luke to send you a check... :-)

I'm a bit curious about Burning Wheel's combat. Does it support miniatures style play at all? That ended up being part of why I haven't done anything with Riddle of Steel.


Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

Neither BW nor Riddle of Steel explicitly support mini's, though, I don't see what stops you from using them anyway. Though, if you're looking for exact rules on the use of mini's, you're better off just checking out Iron Heroes.

Frank said...

You certainly could use minis in Riddle of Steel, however, I think they would mostly serve as decoration. You might be able to represent relationships well enough that there could be some understanding of how the battle changes exchange to exchange (i.e. run one exchange for each set of characters, trying to represent it on the map - once the exchanges are all over, there might be new pairings [or 2 on 1, or worse situations]). My gut feel is that it wouldn't add enough to the gamism to be worth the effort.

I'm guessing BW is the same (I can kind of guess what scripts are - are they anything like Fireborn's system?).

I did just buy the Iron Heroe's PDF. Iron Heroes will be a good choice at some point, however, one of my players (the one who already owns IH...) expressed a desire to do a non-D20 game next though.

Your points about Rune Quest over on your blog make me wonder if that would be a bad choice for my current group. They haven't shown much interest in delving into campaign backgrounds (which suggests they aren't interested in that flavor of sim - which is where RQ is strongest).

One thing I realized while posting on a thread on Monte Cook's EZBoard is that RQ's language system can be gamed (in that you need to balance how much resource you put into learning languages, and you need to balance the tradeoff between using the local language or your own - all enabled by language being a percentile skill rather than a binary yes/no skill or a stepped skill with defined abilities of comprehension - it allows you to boil down an attempt to communicate when language isn't perfect to "roll the dice or say yes").


Bankuei said...

Well, the pitfall to all D20 non-combat skill options is you have to ask yourself how often you're going to be presenting it to make it worth players investing points.

A fair problem with the design in general is what I call "frequency". For example, in every combat you deal with Hitpoints, Attack, etc. You don't always use Saves, and you certainly don't use skills as often. The less frequent the thing is, the harder it is to make it valuable in a gamist sense.

For stuff like languages to really be of gamist value, you'd have to do stuff like link it to being able to power up your character, like, "In order to train with the Master Executioner, you have to learn X language to know the vital points", etc. Generally, the payoff has to be high enough or the players don't care.

Frank said...

An alternative would be to provide a gamist engine at a different level for your aristrocrat; you mentioned social-- but "movements of men", large scale combat and the like might be a way for the Aristrocrat to compete in combat... just on a different scale.

I realized, I wanted to address this comment some more...

Ah, but combat at a different scale doesn't work. The result is the aristcrat is playing one game, and the fighters and mages a different game.

One of my thoughts for a unified game would be that the aristocrat could use his ability in the same fight as a fighter or a mage. He would move around haranguing the enemies, or praising the PCs powers or some such. In any case, he would have a direct effect on the same battles. Similarly, when the PCs are in town trying to negotiate some social situation, they could use their sword swinging and spell casting.

The trick would be in making each behave somewhat differently, and have different consequences.

In the end, I think it's better to be clear up front that conflicts will be resolved with combat, and make sure all characters have combat effectiveness. Since there will be some time spent setting up the scene for combat (which could be wilderness treks, in town social activity, finding one's way through a dungeon, etc), my thought is to have a set of simple abilities the players may use to affect this scene setup, but these abilities should not detract from combat effectiveness (though they may intrerract with the character's combat style - for example, the locks and traps guy should have a good dexterity and perhaps rely on lighter armor etc). The resolution system for such activities should be simple with a single roll.

This scene setting activity is what will tie the combats together and provide motivations etc. for the combat that make the game an RPG not a wargame.

Ideally, it should also be possible to use these abilities to gain advantage in a battle (or avoid disadvantage - there's actually nothing wrong with a trap that either damages the party, or is bypassed - the important thing is to realize that trap disarming is NOT spotlight time for the locks and traps guy).


Frank said...

My last comment plays into Chris's comment also. Clearly the effort that goes into those non-combat abilities has to be commensurate with their frequency, or really their effectiveness. Generally, effectiveness requires high frequency of application, but it also includes what are the consequences of not having the ability, or having a poor ability. In D20, saves don't come up as often as attack bonus, damage, or AC, but the consequences are usually worse, so PCs do regularly buy save improving items (though I'm not sure I've ever seen the PCs take the save improving feats, however, I've used those feats many times for NPCs).

Language was useful one of my Rune Quest campaigns not because it gave access to training, but because it allowed the PCs to communicate. It basically made the scene setting go smoother. It also didn't take that much resource (one PC may have spent some money training, I forget if any PCs spent experience on it [in my RQ game, instead of every skill that had a success getting an experience check, I handed out some number of experience checks each session - but I might have handed out extra checks for language use]). But that campaign may not have been strict gamism, or at least not hard core gamism.