Saturday, 4 October 2014

On why we need game balance more than John Wick thinks we do...

Good Evening, my name is John and I run conventions, lots of them.  Over the last twenty years I’ve designed a few games, but the thing I’m best known for is running games and conventions where people come to play games they like and more importantly, they come to try games out for the first time...

I read John Wick’s article on game play and balance with interest and I have to say that for the most part I don’t agree with it.

http://johnwickpresents.com/games/game-designs/chess-is-not-an-rpg-the-illusion-of-game-balance/

It works from the point of view of people who’ve been playing games for twenty years and know that if you’ve got a whole bunch of people who’ve been doing this for twenty years also, both the rules and the dice become an interesting irrelevancy because you’ve got the experience to skip over the bits that need random numbers.

And I have to say that I do agree in places, I personally don’t think that the world needs whole books full of weapons, but I’m not in the majority of people when it comes to that...

And when I thought about that, I did feel that addressing the points raised would better illustrate the direction I’m coming at it from.

 I see a lot of beginners, people literally just starting out in the hobby, people who’ve come from games just like world of warcraft and want to see what else is out there.  When these people arrive, they’ve got no idea about roleplaying, they know about the social aspect, but so far it’s been get the team and lets go raiding, we’ll have a good time along the way and in a lot of cases, we’ll have more fun because we’re playing with our friends than we will have for the kill and win factor. Never let it be said that online gaming is an unsociable activity, you’ve just got to be as passionate about it as most of us tabletop types are about pen and paper games...

What has this to do with the weapon tables?

If you’ve got nothing in common with the game that you’re trying out, you’re far more likely to leave it alone and not play it than if you see something that you know about.  When people who’ve only ever seen games on the computer come to a convention or a club for the first time, they’re taking a big step and they need to be given the support to take that step.  If you throw them in there and tell them that they don’t need to consider the weapons or the armour or anything else, then it will genuinely puzzle them because that’s not a worldview they’ve been exposed to, and you might be able to talk them around to the idea of Riddicks tea cup or Sean Connery’s thumb, but the chances are that they will look at you gone out for a while and then go find something else to do.

Roleplaying is more than just a hobby, it’s an interest, and like any other interest, you can’t just climb in the ring and think you box, you’ve got to spend some time learning how the games work, you’ve got to build the muscles your imagination has got but has never had cause to use before now, and you’ve got to start that at the bottom.

With Framework...

With Rules...

With Balance...

Roleplaying games that aren’t working on the Amber principle absolutely need balance, and it’s difficult to see that when you’ve been running games for so long that you know you can ignore every rule in the book (and frequently do in some places) to make the game run better. 

But if every game were like this...?

We’d be the last generation of Roleplayers...

Because we’re back to “Bang, you’re dead,” and other such utterances, and you may not like that weapons table, but it’s the thing letting you know that actually that’s not how the world works, and until you’ve got that knowledge down, you shouldn’t be moving off the games that have the weapon charts...

So what if the RPGA lets you make as many charisma rolls as you want, not all of us are Jolly Green Giants like me or Movie Stars like our man Wick (Love the posters by the way), and not all of us are happy with the idea of talking through things when our characters are far more adept at it than we are. 

The response here was “Then you should get better at it, and do that by roleplaying...”

I accept the idea that to get better at roleplaying, you need to roleplay, but that’s missing the point of the dice in the first place, they’re not there to dictate the world to you, they’re not there to stunt your growth as a human, like any interest, they’re there to help you.  When you start to ride a bike, you have stabilisers, when you get better, you take the stabilisers off and do it yourself...

When you start roleplaying, you have dice...

The ideal that is presented is one that you can throw away the rules that you don’t need if they don’t help you tell the story, and I keep harping on about it, but most rules do help you tell the story, they let you know if you’ve made it or not, they give you something that allows you to be challenged.

They make sure that the most fearsome PC in the world isn’t a bald berserker with a bag full of Tea cups...

Although what a concept that would be...

To the idea that you can play some RPG’s without roleplaying and not others, let me get the definition...

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices
that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

By that definition any D&D game when you pick it up as murderhobo’s is still a roleplaying game because you’re doing what your character is motivated to do, gain treasure and prestige, which has been many heroes (Conan, Indiana, Quartermain) motivations since the beginning of fantasy.  But then consider the quandary of Call of Cthulhu, wherein everyone goes mad or dies, takes a while sometimes, but it will happen...

Which character in the world ever wanted that...?

Their motivation has to be to understand the Mythos, because they know they can’t stop it, they’re gnats on a windshield, they know this from point one.  If you played CoC properly, the players would never go out there and investigate things, they’d get others to do it because they know that going out there would kill them or render them batshit crazy and either way, they can’t combat the mythos after its had its way with them...

And what makes Cthulhu interesting...?

The sanity rules...

Try playing CoC without those and see where that gets you, and as for roleplaying in CoC.  Most CoC games, both convention and homeplay, progress normally till you encounter the big bad, then you all go nuts and the screaming and shooting starts and at that point, how different is it from any other murderhobo game...?

Sure, you can play it properly with twenty year veterans and have it run as a cerebral mindf*** where everyone’s absolutely in the moment for the whole thing, but you need to have had that time, those twenty years, to do it...

So, GM’s... I ask you to get your favourite game off the shelf, get yourself a new sharpie because after John’s article, you used the last one to turn Rolemaster into a set of black paper, and ask yourself this question.

“Do those new players need this to help them understand this brave new world...?”

If they don’t, then absolutely get rid of it, start with gold pieces make experience points from first edition for this man. But if you see a point when you, all those years ago, used that rule and it made sense, then keep it, because there’s every possibility that those new players will have the same need for it.

Game Balance?  We do need it, you’re playing a roleplaying game...

Start playing it...

And when you don’t need those D20's anymore, throw them away and come see the rest of us old guys at the other end of the table...


We’ll still be there...

3 comments:

  1. While I can understand your argument, I think you fail to take what John is saying in full context. Game balance are mechanics and mechanics can get in the way of telling the story, which you noted in the definition of a role playing game is the objective. John's point is valid whether you are running a veteran group through Q1 with the intention of spanking a misbehaving Lolth or a bunch of wet behind the ears dipping their toes via B2 Keep on the Borderlands.
    The first task of the game master is to prepare a series of events, including adventuring, role playing AND combat that tells a story that the players are a part of and want to be involved in the telling. It would be silly to let mechanics kill the arch-villain in the first encounter when you have an entire storyline prepared where this bad guy is going to taunt and harass the players when they are at their most vulnerable. Sure charts of weapons, armor, spells, and even sundry goods are important so long as they support the telling of the story. If they impede that then consider setting them aside for the greater good of the story.

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    1. The first task of the GM is indeed to prepare the events for the game, and it would be a poor GM who put the arch villain in a situation where the players can even get to him before the relevant time. The mechanics are there to allow the players to defeat the big bad when they get to him, the storytelling is what prevents them from getting to him in the first place. Storytelling is for me the most important part of the game, but if you don't have the rules in place in the first place, you'll get to the encounters and have nothing to do at that point. I believe that the way John put it is accurate if you're playing with a group of veteran players who know enough to work around most things, but even then there has to be the point where they need the mechanics to resolve things. In a group of beginners, the points that John raised have no place at all and never will do.

      Discuss?

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  2. "Bang, you're dead", that is spot on.

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