Kill it! It’s how we learn!

This week we’re covering the benefits and drawbacks of a challenge based advancement system.

Challenge based experience systems are a staple of most any game with “RPG Elements” and many table top RPGs. This is mainly because they are remarkably easy to use. If every monster, trap, angry mob, and belligerent mechanical chicken are worth a set amount of experience for defeating, then the Game Master doesn’t actually need to do a whole lot of work determining the rewards the player gets from them. Dungeons and Dragons is a terrific example of this, where every monster and trap has a “Challenge Rating” that determines it’s worth in experience points and a convenient table detailing the amount of treasure it ought to be carrying at time of death. This sort of system is very good at forestalling arguments among the players and the game master over rewards, as it’s very clear what rewards a player should gain after every challenge is surmounted. All in all, it is a very clean way to handle advancement. Shoot X number of monster Y until they fall down, receive Z experience and A fancy new hat.

There are, however, a number of drawbacks to that system. The main problem with a challenge based experience system is that it has a tendency to encourage bloodthirstiness among it’s players. When players have spent their entire gaming career becoming more powerful by slaughtering droves of enemies and laughing at their widows (role-playing is always good), they often develop a Pavlovian response to challenges. Many an interesting and pace changing social encounter has been ground beneath the boot of a kick in the door party because they had no idea the concept of dialogue with foes existed. Worse than that are the games and game masters who penalize their players for attempting a creative solution to a problem. As the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 books state, the player should get the same experience for sneaking past a sleeping minotaur that they should for fighting it, as either way the challenge of the minotaur is defeated. One can make a decent argument for the players only really learning through combat, but only a fool treads this path. As soon as you do this, the players can simply hire local adventurers to duke it out with them until they level up. It becomes even harder to compensate for this sort of thing on the video game front. In games such as Fallout, one often has the option of negotiating with an enemy or attacking them. This is a trick, however! The most experience, and therefore the most power, can always be had by negotiating with an enemy and THEN killing all of them! The flip side is that every creature not brutally murdered becomes a chunk of experience they will never see again. The same can apply back to tabletop games in the more extreme cases, where not brutally murdering the kobolds and their children becomes the difference between being able to throw fireballs and being able to turn air itself into fire.And no one wants to have to look into the teary eyes of a baby kobold and make that choice.

So that’s killing stuff for advancement, next week we’ll do telling a good story for advancement. And then I’ll talk about a good mix.


Learning all the time

This week we’re talking about methods of advancing your players.

I’m planning on being relatively quick this week and returning to this idea in depth later. Anyways, I’m going to start by explaining the two main forms of experience point distribution, story based and challenge based.

Challenge based experience is dolled out, fittingly enough, after every challenge. Every pie eating contest you win, every minotaur you kill, and every princess you save all give you some amount of experience. This is the traditional method used in Dungeons and Dragons, most MMORPGs, and notably (for the purposes of this article) the first Mass Effect. This is an effective method as it allows players to feel like there is a direct correlation between their actions and their rewards.In Mass Effect, every time you shot someone in the face, you were one step closer to being more effective at shooting people in the face. The problems this sort of system can run into is that story can take a back seat to experience acquisition. If not handled properly, it is very easy to find your players slaughtering their way through everything in their path because it is the optimum route to power. A game where the solution to not being able to beat a challenge of wits is to go shoot giant scorpions for an hour is not a game whose narrative is completely entwined with game-play (I’m looking at you, Fallout). By a similar token, if the criteria for defeating a challenge is loose enough, the players will simply find an easy challenge, such as sneaking past someone, and farm it until they have all the experience they can possibly want (now I’m looking at the Elder Scrolls games).

The opposite of this is setting progress based rewards. Whether time or story based, these are experience points (which I’m using as a catchall term for advancement, if that hadn’t been noticed) given to the player when they reach a certain point in the story. Perhaps after the quest to rescue the princess has been successfully completed, or the player is now pie eating champion of the local bar, but they have finished a leg of their quest and have thus gained experience. This system allows you to tailor more effectively the levels of advancement your party can reach, as well as timing them more accurately. The downside of a progress based rewards system is that your players can end up feeling unfulfilled. Maybe they were supposed to escape from the castle overrun by ghouls and instead they killed all of them, and yet they got the same measly rewards. Players like to believe they are getting better because they have been working at it, not because it was time for them to get better. Good examples of this type of experience system can be found in most White Wolf games, Mass Effect 2 (compare the two to see the differences), and most games where you get an unlock able at the end of every level.

That’s it for this week, I’ll be tying it together next week.

Are you sure you want to be here?

This week we’re talking about making sure you’re playing the right game.

Sometimes, you get a character that just doesn’t want to play the game. I’m not talking about a player who doesn’t want to play the game and has either been dragged there by a best friend or significant other or just dropped off by someone you owe a favor. I’m talking about an honest to goodness player who just so happened to accidentally make the wrong character. Maybe you’re running a pirate campaign and the player made an extremely law abiding pacifist. Maybe there’s a chaotic evil barbarian who is now stuck dealing with courtly intrigue for the rest of conceivable future. Maybe you just ended up diametrically opposed to the rest of the party on some crucial issue, such as whether or not prisoners should be sacrificed to the dark gods. Whatever happened, the Game Master and the player are both saddled with dealing with a character who should probably not be in this game.

There are a couple of good ways to deal with this. The best one, for everyone involved, is to find a good, story specific reason for the character being there and to make sure everyone involved gets interesting role playing experiences. Perhaps the pacifist has been kidnapped by the pirates for his useful skills and is undergoing Stockholm syndrome? Maybe he will even have to chose between defending himself from an attacker using lethal force or having his character killed, both of which are interesting and flavorful steps in the story. Perhaps the barbarian was hired as a bodyguard, and is playing the imbecile in order to gather information. Throw him a few combat encounters against people attacking his charge and maybe a whirlwind romance with a promiscuous noble, and he will probably end up happy with the campaign. If you can fins a solution that makes sense, and everyone is happy with, and especially if it furthers the story, use it.

If you can’t find a good solution, and there is no way the barbarian can stand sitting around with a complete lack of social skills and glaring at nobles every session, make a new character. If the player made someone who didn’t fit, just have them make a new one who does. They obviously wanted to play your game, just give them the opportunity to do so properly. Obviously, this is not an option undertaken lightly. If the situation is going to change for the character very soon, and they will suddenly make a lot more sense within the story, tell them to tough it out. If you do decide to take this option, and it has to be a mutual decision between the Game Master and the player, try to either keep the character in the story or allow the player to bring them back later. Perhaps the barbarian is still around as a bodyguard, or the pacifist is a merchant in one of the towns the pirates will visit. Whatever happens, the character’s continued existence in the story will give the player a sense of closure, and disappearing or murdering the character in question will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Resist the urge to either make or let them keep playing their character. No matter how interesting that character is on their own, the damage to the cohesion of the story is not going to be worth it in the long run. Plus, the player will end up either repeatedly derailing the story or being completely irrelevant for large portions of it, and not only are the two of you not going to enjoy that, it will ruin things for the other players if it gets out of hand. As a rule, it is a good idea to let players know the kind of campaign they will be taking part in ahead of time, and work with them in character creation, to make sure that their characters are going to fit in to the campaign you have planned.

All this being said, I should reiterate that quirky characters are generally an acceptable and fun addition to a group, as long as they were either planned to be or are still a working character. Every group has the “Don’t look at my sheet” guy who is secretly playing an assassin, and that’s not really a problem as long as the rest of the group either doesn’t find out or doesn’t mind. Everyone has had the psychotic neutral character who laughs at your human “morals” and hurls people out the airlock whenever it’s convenient for him, but while he doesn’t exactly fit in with a group of merchants, he’s still capable of being a part of their game. It’s only when a player shows up with a character who’s entire life plan is to build a ten-foot-pole emporium and the rest of the party really wants to get on with saving the princess that problems arise.

So remember, Game Masters make it clear what kind of game you’ve created, and players make sure your character has a valid reason to be there.

Gather round the campfire

Today we discuss the concept of single player stories with multiple people.

Many times over the course of your life as a game maker, there will come times when you want to relay information to your players that deals only with a small number of the characters in your game. Perhaps one of your players is attempting to pass the tests of knighthood, maybe an intense bit royal planning is going on and only one player is of high enough social class, or maybe it’s just a bit of backstory about how one of the players got drummed out of the space marines. Whatever the case, the point is you have a story that needs to be told, and not all of the player characters can be active participants in it. This can leave you with several players with nothing to do, which leads to dice towers, missing snacks, and the occasional combusted pet.

The initial reactions to this problem tend to be either of the “send the rest of the party anyways” camp, which leads to things like the half naked barbarian squatting in the corner of a fancy ball, or the “idle players” camp, which leads to food runs and empty chairs next week. There is, however, a remarkably simple solution to this problem, and one that tends to be equitable to the entirety of the party. Give them all characters. Telling the story of the grizzled veteran’s last days in the space marines? Everyone else is get’s to be a member of his squad. The aspiring knight is fighting in a tournament to prove his worth? The other PCs watch from the stands while their players take on the roles of rivaled and allied knights. Fancy dress dinner where the noble player is attempting to bend the ear of the king in support of his plan? Everyone else is a minor noble of one faction or another, and the original has to convince them to assist him. Make sure, when doing this, that the players you hand the new characters to understand their responsibilities and will be expected to behave in character, but this should be a fun experience for them as it allows them to take a small break from who they are used to being and try something new. The stealthy character get’s to play a boisterous and massive knight in the tournament, the diplomat can play a space marine, and the warrior can finally try his hand at talking to someone. Be prepared for them to take their character’s in a very different direction from what you had envisioned, but you can work with whatever they end up doing. Even if the fighter managed to use his throwaway noble character to incite rebellion among the masses, you just got a new main villain for your plot line.

This technique is even applicable in video games, allowing you to replace single character focused back story cut-scenes with a gaming experience a cooperative group can share. Whether traditional or electronic, this will allow you not only to keep the entire group entertained and prevent a lot of negative feedback, but will also increase the likelihood that your players will develop attachments to characters other than their own. A player is much more likely to feel sympathy for the priest whose family was killed by goblins if they played as one of his erstwhile cousins and were mercilessly cut down than if they heard the story over the campfire one night.

Remember, keep everyone involved in a way that makes sense. And it’s fun to take the occasional break and run a different character.