Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Old School: The Feeling is Fear!

Toth of the Emergence Campaign Weblog posted a really interesting analysis of combat in RPGs, with an eye towards addressing the question of how complicated your combat system needs to be. The quote that caught my eye:

The most boring fights are the ones where you know the outcome already, or where you’re almost sure to win – but you have to grind through it anyway. For them, you want a quick-and-simple combat system. The truly satisfying part of fights like this lies in the characters having worked hard to find a way to turn a potentially-deadly fight into a near-certain victory. Doing it for them – the “Balanced Encounter” philosophy – will quickly get boring. Phony risks are only exciting for so long.

Obviously this ignores the fact that, for some people, the simple acts of optimizing a character and making decisions in a tactical, rules-bounded environment are fun, much like spending a couple hours chatting with a cleric and a rakshasa about boys is fun for me. But I think it's an interesting point that a game that does have a big focus on both tactical combat and character continuity is going to have to deal with the fact that at least some of the game's danger is artificial danger. More importantly, he lays out a pretty thorough case for a combat system that does get the heck out of the way, for those of us who either aren't interested in tactical experiences or get them from other kinds of games.

And Zachary the First had some over-lapping thoughts yesterday, on The Lost Art of Running Away. He covers a lot of ground in a short post, pointing out that part of the reason running away is "lost" is that a game with too much running will get really obnoxious in short order, and that for a certain kind of game running away defeats the point, but I have to agree when he writes:

But if you’re playing in a sandbox/exploration/dungeon crawl, the goal isn’t to bravely die on the 4th level of a dungeon fighting bugbears who will eat your corpse as soon as you drop. It’s to survive, become more powerful, and get out with what loot you can while avoiding any more potentially lethal situations than are strictly necessary.

After all, I've said similar things myself, in talking about why the sense that death is always just around the corner can make a game awesome.

What this all sets me to thinking is that focusing on the outcomes of fights rather than the experience of playing through them and being afraid enough of those outcomes to occasionally run away are largely a result of the way a rule-set handles combat. Make combat into a big fun deal and the players won't run away from fights, because fights are what they're there for. And running away -- making the decision that a particular foe is too tough for you to handle right now, and backing off to prepare, bring allies, or find another way to your goal -- is fundamental to any game that I'd call "old school" or "neo-classical." That label isn't entirely a mechanical one, but it has some pretty significant mechanical requirements.


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  2. So which would you like better?

    A game with quick character creation that is about grabbing your axe to go out and kick some butt, or

    A game about fair legendary creatures having discussions about boys?

    Because Trollbabe is that game:

  3. A rakshasha, a cleric, and Oddysey walk into a bar...
    : )

  4. i consider death and dismemberment part of the game (try to avoid the TPK)

    if no one in the party is a cleric/ priest this serves as a good way to relieve PCs of their gold . . .