Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Primary Activity in Adventures

Though I tend to speak more these days about OD&D and its retro-clones. I should state upfront that I am a big fan of OSRIC. I own a hardcover version of its rules and remain in awe of its magnificence. What it lacks in High Gygaxian charm, it more than makes up for in clarity and keen insight. A good case in point is the following passage I read just the other day:
OSRIC is a game of adventure, and the primary activity in adventures is exploration. Even though the rules for combat take up more space in this rulebook, play tends to focus more on exploration than combat. Whether the party is investigating an old ruined shrine, delving into an abandoned dwarfish mine, traversing an unknown wilderness, sailing uncharted waters, or venturing beyond the physical world into the planes of existence, exploration is central to adventure and thus to the game.
That right there is probably one of the most spot-on descriptions of what Dungeons & Dragons is about that I have ever read. I think the degree to which that description resonates with you is probably a good gauge of your sympathy for the Old Ways.

41 comments:

  1. I like it when you post these short, insightful little blurbs. Not having OSRIC, I would have never seen that. Great food for thought.

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  2. I would add loot/treasure/collecting as a #2 under exploration.

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  3. Yep, definitely. Exploration and looting. I'm kinda surprised Wally hasn't yet launched into a critical neoMarxian analysis of D&D's crypto-colonialist power politics yet. Actually, maybe I should do that. It'd make a heck of a Ph.D. dissertation, and there might even be some valid points to make. "I claim this land for Gygaxia!" *planting flag*

    Kudos to you for supporting "the cause" by buying the hardcover version. Too rich for my blood.

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  4. You had me at "old ruined shrine"!!!!!!

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  5. I like to think of it as "well-armed exploration" :)

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  6. How strange...It is my love of and focus on exploration as a theme in my games that partly drove me away from D&D, which in my mind was always about killing monsters, stealing their stuff and becoming more powerful.

    I tend to migrate to science fiction games and superheroes where the reward was knowledge or the feeling that you protected those unable to defend themselves.

    Also, D&D had the drawback of books and adventures that your players could read as easily as you the GM, so the surprises of exploration often felt shorted lived. A DM would say that you encounter a creature, give a brief mysterious description and in seconds the player would say, "Oh a X creature. I know how to defeat those".

    In Traveller by comparision you received a system for creating creatures but there were little or no 'pre-made' aliens.

    As I got older I found a greater understanding of gaming and appreciated D&D for what it was. Of course over time I developed numerous custom and original monsters, magic items and the like. I simple note that my early desire to explore the unknown sent me less into Elven ruins and far more often to the stars.

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  7. Bingo.

    I think that's one reason I found the "kill the critters, take their stuff, get EP" model frustrating. I felt like I was fighting the system's inertia.

    Or that could just be the way our groups evolved. Either way, this has me wanting to read OSRIC, since I have the PDF.

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  8. The issues that put a bad taste in B.A.'s mouth are pretty easily circumvented. There's nothing preventing a D&D campaign from resembling the Traveller setup he describes.

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  9. Hear hear!

    @Howarth: you unfairly criticize "neoMarxians" everywhere by comparing them with Wally ;)

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  10. I really must look up the ontology of the "crypto-colonialists." lol

    D&D restates the primary themes and tropes of Western imperialism and colonialism. No surprizes there.

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  11. This comment goes straight for the Jugular of gaming!


    Exploration and discovery is always at the heart of a good game, and story for that matter. I've always felt it to be an important element to my game, as the PCs go forth to see the world, and get to know it. Of course, with some discovery goes a bit of loss of sanity as well (I mix in alot of Lovecraft). Mindless killing and looting is only good for the first year of gaming if you're a teenager (almost as foul as a bearded she-dwarf).

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  12. @G. Benedicto - Oh indeed! Its not that D&D couldn't, its that when I was 8-14, it didn't or didn't appear to.

    As Anthony noted, that may just have been the way my group(s) and I saw it and we evolved our style of gaming from there.

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  13. XP for exploring was one of my first houserules

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  14. Great post, James.

    My overwhelming favorite thing about D&D is the exploration of magical and/or mysterious and/or unearthly realms. Combat, treasure, gaining levels, and all the rest are far, far down the list under "exploration".

    This is a big reason I prefer site-based adventure: Here's a D&D world for you to explore as you see fit. Full stop. I don't need or want any other motivations beyond "because it's there".

    The title of B1: IN SEARCH OF THE UNKNOWN sums it all up for me.

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  15. Zzarchov said...: XP for exploring was one of my first houserules

    A nice corollary to the above is to give players XP for mapping, and you'll start to have players leveraging this skill again, since the DM's incenting them for it!

    Allan.

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  16. Quotes like those are, I believe, a great example of how and why play changed over the years. "Even though the rules are primarily about A, the game is primarily about B." If the game is primarily about exploration, then the game rules should reflect this (and to some extent they do), and more importantly the reward system of the game reward exploration. So I say kudos to those who house-ruled exploration XP. For me, for the old school renaissance to grow beyond the nostalgia stage, a harder look at the game rules and text, and how they encouraged and HINDERED old-school play is needed.

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  17. @ Christ T - "Hear hear!

    @Howarth: you unfairly criticize "neoMarxians" everywhere by comparing them with Wally ;)"

    Yeah, you're right. I'm not trying to knock neoMarxians (or even neoMarxists :). I'm probably more than half one myself.

    I'm intrigued by the idea of giving XP for exploring, but I'm not sure how this is done in practice. How do you go about rewarding mapping, how much XP, etc. Do tell.

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  18. I wrote that quote! Seriously, I did. (Actually, IIRC I wrote a wordier version that Stuart Marshall pared down a bit to get to that.) Anyway, glad to see it getting some positive attention :)

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  19. Ha! Howarth, I will be naming a kingdom in my next game world, Gygaxia!

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  20. Yeah, that was something that always (or at least, always after a certain age) left me with a weird feeling: how you only got xp for killing things and taking their stuff. Very colonialist. I know you could house-rule other xp grants, but the fact that that was the default remains a little bit weird.

    As for alternate x.p., I adapted Tunnels and Trolls to D&D pretty handily: getting xp for saving throws and getting a 100 pt/level door prize just for walking into a dungeon. T&T also had a spell point system that mapped neatly to xp, which wouldn't be too hard to adapt to D&D; say, 50 xp per level of spell cast on an adventure.

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  21. In my Mutant Future campaign I have resorted to more or less free form experience awards based on a very subjective judgement of how much the party accomplished, whether that was exploration, diplomacy, or good old fashioned ass-kickin.

    I made this decision after several sessions of action packed, awesome roleplaying that involved killing no creatures nor gaining any treasure; I realized that it would be criminal to not reward that kind of play with experience. I really don't want to give an incentive to just killing everything the party comes across, and the old way of awarding experience more or less does just that.

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  22. @amp108 - Yeah, that was something that always (or at least, always after a certain age) left me with a weird feeling: how you only got xp for killing things and taking their stuff.

    The thing is, you get MUCH more experience for the "taking their stuff" part. The GP = XP mechanic is IMO the core of the D&D experience. It provides an incentive to avoid the "killing things" part as much as possible, since that only nets you about 1/5 of the XP that the treasure does, and saps your party's strength and resources.

    The goal is not to kill things and take their stuff, it's to harvest treasure. I always found (at least back in the old days) that evil (and to some extent selfish neutral-) parties always progressed much more quickly than good parties, because they (eventually) began enslaving monsters, taking tribute from humanoid tribes, bandits, etc. (i.e., gathering wealth) at a much quicker rate.

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  23. "Knocking" neo-Marxians? Best done with a Mace of Disruption.

    Good post, James. I'm all about the exploration as well.

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  24. Shawn: If the game is primarily about exploration, then the game rules should reflect this (and to some extent they do), and more importantly the reward system of the game reward exploration. So I say kudos to those who house-ruled exploration XP. For me, for the old school renaissance to grow beyond the nostalgia stage, a harder look at the game rules and text, and how they encouraged and HINDERED old-school play is needed.

    I hear you. However, I think there is common thread in the OSR in which people commonly want to do certain things with a game, but don't want the game rules to provide too much structure for it.

    Or in other words, folk in the OSR seem much more comfortable with adding rules than subtracting them.

    I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It is probably easier to begin at a simple starting point and add complexity than it is to start with something more complex and agree on what to trim off.

    This, IMHO, is a critical part of the OSR. As you begin to write rules that are more complete, for better or worse, you begin to unravel a the nature of the OSR itself.

    Furthermore, I do think some fuel for the OSR comes from the comradeship of "You did/do that? We did/do too!" -Not a bad thing, either.

    Still, I do wish folk were a bit more open to the notion of rule-trimming though, -as compared to adding rules. However, I fault a lot of modern game design for being too complete. IMO there has been a strong design drive to make games that can do it all, but they aren't much fun to homebrew.

    In short, IMHO, you can't lead the OSR by better design. To try to do so is missing the point. I know that sounds like a negative thing, but it's not.

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  25. Jimmy: I pretty much agree with everything you are saying. I think the OSR is great, and right now is in the process of identifying which components of those early games were really great, and which are just nostalgia. I would definitely fall into the camp that feels that most of the old rulesets could use a heavy dose of rule trimming -- try and explain to a non-gamer that your rulebook is 200 pages long, but you're ignoring all that and doing something else. Do all those rules really add to the enjoyment of the game? But most importantly, does the reward system of the game reflect the views of the players at the table? Experience points have nothing all to do with being "realistic" -- they are a score -- and as such work best when they reflect the goals of the group. So I'm very interested in efforts to house-rule XP to align it with the interests of the players.

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  26. Shawn: try and explain to a non-gamer that your rulebook is 200 pages long, but you're ignoring all that and doing something else.

    Well, we play scrabble with a 1000-page dictionary on hand. ;)
    Mostly kidding, but when it comes to spell descriptions, magic items, monsters, etc., -those things are simply for reference, and I don't mind many pages devoted to that. Point-in-fact, Wayfarers, the game I wrote, comes as a 436 page book. However, about 300 pages are spell descriptions, magic items, monsters, an example setting and appendixes. That leaves 130 pages. However, if you take out the reference charts, advice, example PCs and example of play. It's probably about 70 pages devoted to rules. But you are right, that isn't any consolation to a noobie looking at the book. :) Still... to be perfectly honest, I don't entirely dislike the intimidation hurdle. I'm not catering to the Chutes & Ladders crowd after all. And... if my goal was to make lots of money, I wouldn't be making RPGs. ;)

    Anyway... IMO, too often folk don't make the distinction between the size of a rulebook and the complexity of the game. Personally, a lot of 'rules light' games leave me wanting for being 'flavor light' as well.

    Experience points have nothing all to do with being "realistic" -- they are a score -- and as such work best when they reflect the goals of the group. So I'm very interested in efforts to house-rule XP to align it with the interests of the players.

    I completely agree with you there. Our group dropped kill/loot-based XP long ago. Personally, I think each group knows what is important in their game, and a good GM should be able to translate that into rewards.

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  27. I'm into gaming for the exploration, at least if you accept a broad use of the term. I like meeting new characters, finding new vistas, putting together things about the world, trying crazy solutions.

    Some of my most fondly remembered early roleplaying experiences were had while physically exploring the neighborhoods that I lived in... probably one of the reasons my games have always featured more wilderness and urban sprawl than underground complexes.

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  28. It's funny that you should mention xp based rewards, ever since I started a campaign for my group (they are now 8 sessions into it, we play weekly, so two months ago) I added exploration based XP bonusses.

    The campaign is based around a great cave lake and the party unleashing evil unwittingly on the world, then having to clean up the mess they have made. The underground portions make a lot of sense to tie XP to discovering I think and it does work to incentivise the party to keep moving forwards.

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  29. A couple points here: 1) I never claimed exploration was the goal of the game, only that it was the "primary activity" that tended to form the bulk of actual play (punctuated by interludes of combat, running from combat, and verbal negotiation). 2) how do "exploration-based XP" actually work? Do you get X number of XP for every new room or hex entered or something? That seems, like "roleplaying XP" and later-editions' combat XP, to be rewarding the process rather than the goal, the means rather than the end, and that seems backwards to me -- the characters aren't generally exploring simply for the sake of doing so (scouting out a patch of land to build a stronghold on being an obvious exception), they're exploring because that's how you find treasure. The treasure is the goal, the treasure is what generates the XP. "Exploring well" means finding more treasure; "exploring poorly" means finding less treasure. There's no contradiction or disconnect here.

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  30. I'm pretty sure what I wrote sounded far more critical of the original quote than I meant to be, and for that I apologize. I actually agree very much with the sentiment, and was wishing that certain game texts had done more to push players/DM's out into the world.

    Also, I think you answered your own question about at least one way of doing "exploration-based XP" -- put treasure out there to be found! It might seem obvious but not every DM encourages exploration outside of the prepped areas...

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  31. This is a pet peeve of mine. It's not only that D&D is designed around killing monsters and stealing their treasure to gain XP's and advance in power. The character classes increase in killing power as they gain XP's. That's about it. I've been DM'ing since 1979, and ended up giving blanket XP awards at the end of a session. For performance during the session as a whole. Used the XP calculations for gold and killing as guidelines, then added in subjective awards for accomplishing goals, role-playing, bravery, self-sacrifice and so on. But having done all that, your characters' advancement is unsatisfying unless you're geared towards combat. Also, let's say you like rolling dice for your characters each session, and you decide you don't enjoy the combat aspect of the game so much. What do you roll against, in D&D? How do those skills increase in power as you advance in levels? Class-based characters are appealing (possibly due to the nostalgic element), and the Traveller model is valid (and I find it enjoyable myself). But how do you do a satisfying game of D&D that isn't based on combat? Unfortunately, I find something like Basic Roleplaying/Runequest to be a better system, since it's skill-based. What do you all do?

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  32. "Unfortunately, I find something like Basic Roleplaying/Runequest to be a better system, since it's skill-based."

    Class vs. skill systems is an argument as old as the RPG hobby, and one that I ultimately decided was a matter of taste - whichever you like best and feel most comfortable with is the right system to use. There's no final "right" answer; each system models certain things better than the other. For me, while I can enjoy playing and running class-and-level games like D&D or LL, my "home" is BRP. It just feels right.

    Really, it's a "Taster's Choice moment."

    BTW, Brave Halfling* has published a skill system for B/X and BECMI-type games that seems pretty good. You can find the PDF at RPGnow.com. I recommend it.

    *(For some reason, I always want to call the company "Bad Halfling." Not sure what that says about me....)

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  33. For me, for the old school renaissance to grow beyond the nostalgia stage, a harder look at the game rules and text, and how they encouraged and HINDERED old-school play is needed.

    I guess it depends on what you mean here. I think all of the retro-clones published have eliminated the infelicities in presentation in early games while retaining most, if not all, of the rules ambiguities that contributed to the way the games were played back then. This is as it should be.

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  34. The goal is not to kill things and take their stuff, it's to harvest treasure.

    Yes. Once the revised XP tables of Supplement I were released, this fact became even more obvious.

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  35. However, I think there is common thread in the OSR in which people commonly want to do certain things with a game, but don't want the game rules to provide too much structure for it.

    Or in other words, folk in the OSR seem much more comfortable with adding rules than subtracting them.


    Just so.

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  36. So I'm very interested in efforts to house-rule XP to align it with the interests of the players.

    While I think it's possible to make some tweaks to the XP system of OD&D, too much tweaking will result in a fundamentally different game than the one as written, for good or for ill. Indeed, the history of the early hobby is one of individuals "house ruling" OD&D straight into a new game system.

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  37. I think that is what is lost in the incarnations of D&D post 2e is that sense of exploration...

    Where the dominant mode was compulsive looting and killing became the norm. I always remember my early forays into D&D - Dungeons were exotic as were the "Haunted Houses" that I explored as a kid; similarly the thought of going into the sewers attracted me. If D&D (even the old school) has lost something it is a sense of wonder and general spookiness that was incanted in those early days.

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  38. Yes. This is a wonderful quote.

    When I really look at classic D&D, the combat system isn’t really all that big. (I haven’t looked at OSRIC 2, but being based on AD&D, I’d expect that would be somewhat different for it.) There are a lot of little rules, tables, and mechanics that I have had a tendency to gloss over, but when I take a step back and look all of it, it tells me that it is a game of exploration as much—if not more—than a game of combat.

    When I was first finding my way back to classic D&D, I adopted the motto: Let D&D be D&D. Part of that was, e.g., just using the monsters that are there rather than making up mine own just to be different.

    At some point, however, it struck me that perhaps part of the true spirit of the game—which got lost a bit when it went from Dave’s Blackmoor and Gary’s Greyhawk—lies in the referee making these things up himself and springing them on players who don’t know what to expect. TSR’s throwing out help and inspiration for referees at some point became a kind of canon. I’m now thinking that perhaps no referee should ever use anything from the books verbatim. Everything should be tweaked.

    To Baron Greystone’s question, all I can say is that I have experienced satisfying sessions of D&D that lacked combat and campaigns in which combat was rare. I can’t really see any reason they shouldn’t be satisfying.

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  39. Robert, I too have experienced plenty of D&D sessions that were non-combat-centric. But they can become less than satisfying if you like to intersperse some die-rolling into your game. There just isn't much opportunity for meaningful die rolls if you're not in combat. Also, your gaming efforts are to be rewarded with experience points. But the experience points just advance your level. And level advancement gets you better at combat. It doesn't increase your non-combat (or non-thieving/non-spellcasting) abilities. This is why ultimately, non-combat gaming can be less than satisfying, because you don't get to roll, and you aren't rewarded in ways that make you better at playing the kind of non-combat game that you're interested in. Thus my feeling that D&D as written isn't as satisfying for predominately non-combat play.

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  40. The rewards of non-combat play aren’t getting better at it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarding. Indeed, any type of “getting better” reward tends to be fairly illusory anyway, since your opposition tends to get better too. Play is its own reward. Success is its own reward too.

    Besides, a DM can (and arguably should) take level into account with making non-combat rulings. And those thieving and spell-casting abilities are explicitly useful in non-combat situation.

    My first copy of the game explicitly told me to change and expand the game to fit myself & my group. So, it is—as written—satisfying for any style of play. ^_^

    OK, I’m joking there...but only a little. Yes, there are times when I’m not going to pick D&D because I’m expecting a lot of non-combat play. Those times when we’ve picked D&D and afterwards chosen to veer in a non-combat direction, however, I never felt like the system was working against us.

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