Saturday, May 30, 2009

Player choices: impediment to fun

I decided to forego the Lakers-Nuggets game last night due to an opportunity I had to participate in a new D&D campaign that Chris Kutalik had advertised over on Dragonsfoot. Good thing, too; no need to destroy my 50" plasma with a thrown boot due to Kobe going off. Apparently, Chauncey didn't show up yet again which makes me happy that I keep my sports gambling focused on college football. Anyway, I made the right choice regardless.

Chris had told us to roll 4D6-drop-1 down the line for stats, which he later clarified was due to everyone in his other game using Charisma as a dump stat. I understand the sentiment completely as I'm dealing with similar issues in my own game...the gamist part of me hates this sort of thing, but the kid in me doesn't understand the problem. I'll get back to that in a bit. 17 Strength, 16 Dex, 18 Con, I was on a roll. 10 Intelligence, well he's not that bright but not stupid, either; then the 7 Wisdom comes up. Dammit. Rolled 15 for Charisma. The obvious choice, to me, was a thief, mostly because it would allow me to play up the impulsive idiot part and get into the thick of things. Typically I tend to be a very Machiavellian player and manipulate everyone else in the gaming group to a degree that can be quite frightening. Not this time. Treasure hunter idiot thief it would be. When I showed up for the game, I still did not have a name. Actually, I find picking a good name to be the hardest part of rolling up a character, and I don't think I'm alone in that. I vocally expressed my difficulty, and Chris suggested I use a book he had for ideas. Fate dictated that the book was of course Jack Vance, and upon seeing the cover I laughed and wrote down Cugel on the character sheet. The stats dictated the class which dictated the personality; the name was extremely fitting. In the Modern Age of rpgs, where players should be able to play whatever makes them happy, I was actually surprised at how interesting the completely random character generation worked in my favor.

Yes, I take a very gamist approach to D&D, as I stated earlier. I never really thought this was a bad thing, but in reality it is. That's not how I learned to play D&D, nor the way I ever had any fun playing. When I was a kid, we used 3D6 down the line and played whatever we rolled. That is, if the DM was watching. If he had his head turned, well, all 18s of course. Still, there was the idea that the characters were expendable (because you could roll one up in mere moments) and thus having crappy rolls wasn't a bad thing. If he died, make another. At the same time however, we never tried to get our characters killed. Far from it. The characters with low stats tended to live a lot longer simply because we had to play more intelligently. Further, if the character had a 4 INT, we played him like a complete dumbass. The gamist part of me would play 4 INT characters in the same manner I'd play an 18 INT character and not give one crap that Forest Gump was rivaling Sherlock Holmes for deductive reasoning. Not so when I was younger. As I was stuck with a low wisdom and marginal intellect by random chance, I wasn't going to let it bother me, nor blame anyone for not getting to play the character I wanted to play, which was typically the most powerful character I could possibly make. In the context of rolling up my character for last night's gaming session, gamism is the worst approach to rpgs. It was quite the epiphany.

Impulsive, not too bright but extremely physically capable and charming with the perfect name. My character's first task was to gain transport for the party. The party had little money, so Cugel convinced a townie to loan him a cart and horse for the day. After giving the townie the money up front, he quickly left town, the party in tow, citing the massive numbers of others who would be going after the same goal (treasure map). Screwing people over, subterfuge and fast talking came so naturally to the character it was extremely easy to play him. This impulsive behavior continued, convincing the other party members to explore an abandoned tower, brashly entering rooms, setting off traps, touching contact poison (yeah, I personally knew it was poison; Cugel did not), and generally acting like a dumbass when it came to the end-of-the-night battle between the party and a bunch of zombie guards. Cugel pressed forward and the other party members were forced to follow, the allure of "treasure" being the only real motivating factor. Every so often Cugel would be a bit reluctant to explore, but this was quickly alleviated with a quick word from the mage or cleric about the "treasure" being close.

Cugel should have died; in fact, his stupidity almost caused a TPK. Not once did I think that his death would be anything other than deserved, not to mention fun. If in fact Cugel survived, purely by chance, I'd be happy with that. I wasn't about to play him any differently because it would be inappropriate. I had more fun dictating actions that the character would legitimately take as opposed to trying to not get my character killed. In reality, it was far closer to "roleplaying" than anything I've done recently, with the exception of Travis' Fallout game where I was playing what was essentially Mad Max. I thought about it at length and I honestly think that too many player choices make rpgs closer to wargames than anything else. Don't get me wrong: I love wargames. But they're not rpgs, regardless of where rpgs came from. Rock 'n' Roll isn't Blues, even though it's a logical extension. I understand that no one wants to play a complete loser, but what exactly IS a loser in D&D? In Basic D&D, or Labyrinth Lord (which is by far my favorite "clone"), I don't think such a thing exists. If you have 9s straight down the line, you CAN create an extremely viable character. In 3rd Edition, this isn't really possible, and I doubt anyone (including me) would ever play such a character in a 3.5 campaign. Ever. Not even as a "roleplaying challenge". Where's the challenge in sucking? 3.5 specifically dictates that low attributes are bad. BD&D simply says that you're a bit worse off, but you can still be a decent adventurer. While I don't think the system matters nearly as much as others do, I can see how a simpler system lends itself to better play by virtue of limiting player choice in the realm of character creation.

Sure, I can spend an hour designing a kickass GURPS fantasy character who can cast spells and is an expert lockpicker but has a difficult time with the ladies. I'll even have a specific point value for every single thing that tells me exactly how the character would act in situations. Or I can call him Cugel and look at his 7 Wisdom. For the gamist in me, GURPS is awesome. For the kid in me who likes playing rpgs because it's fun, D&D or LL is better. Fun is not a bad word, nor is it a nebulous quality, regardless of what all the other bloggers out there think. I can definitely say I have fun going to the movies, and I also have fun hooking up with hot girls. The sex part can be rated "more fun" than the movies, but not always, depending on the girl. It's not apples and oranges, some things are just more fun than others. Playing GURPS is fun in the gamist sense, the same sense that I have fun playing wargames. Playing Cugel in a simple D&D game is fun in the way I had fun playing with Star Wars action figures or waiting for the new episode of GI Joe. It's a much more natural, simple and primal fun that appeals to the kid in me.

Basically, the more complex the rpg the less fun it is, but only to a certain degree. There must be SOME complexity, or it's truly not a game at all. Every kid's game has rules of play that are adhered to. It's only when these rules can't be understood immediately and applied unambiguously that the complexity creeps in and limits fun. Rolling a d20 over a certain number is about as complex as combat in an rpg can really be without overstepping this magic limit. My feeling is that unless a 10 year old kid can grasp the rule, it is too complex and probably should be thrown out. Roll this die to hit, this one for damage, after a certain about the monster dies...that's easy, concise and understandable. The less choices the player has upfront, the more choices they have LATER. That really doesn't make much sense at first reading, and I'm still trying to understand what it even means, but it certainly appeals to me. Meticulously designing a character involves so many upfront assumptions, adaption is much more difficult. I don't think I'll have any problems with Cugel adapting to anything that comes his way because I had no real investment initially. Lack of initial investment means that Cugel's accomplishments are actually more meaningful as they are the very real product of roleplaying instead of gamist goals. That is pretty kickass and it reminds me why I played this damn game so much every since I was introduced to it back in junior high.

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