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2012-01-24 Changing Gameplay Over Time


I’m posting it here because I’ve mentioned it on Google+ for the third time, today. It all started with Zak posting about Evolution. He lists some well known role-playing games and shows that each one of them offers some sort of long-term promise of change for players. His point: every session produces “changes in that session”, but the really successful games promise “a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.”

I definitely think that the promise of ever changing game play is what makes D&D interesting. The reason this works, I think, is because the spells you gain don’t simply scale. The game changes if you can be invisible and fly. The game changes when you can dimension door and teleport. The game changes when you can travel to the planes. Outside of the specific rules, the tradition also encourages changes to the game when you reach name level and build a stronghold, and it changes once more when you start to forge alliances with and wage wars against neighbors.

I think it’s also one of the reasons that Traveller can be boring. At least it didn’t hold a long-term appeal to me when I ran it. Perhaps I should have imagined the long term changes to the game play (more and bigger ships, get involved in the war) instead of focusing on changes to the setting (in my campaign, small colonies were being resettled or exterminated by the players – at the time I felt this was already a big step up). I feel like I should give Traveller another try soon.

I think Zak’s spot-on when he wonders whether campaigns using relatively simple rules have a hard time maintaining a long term appeal. For example, I claim that the long list of non-general spells with their non-linear progression of power create the long term changes over time. But what will you do in a simpler indie game? What will I do with my Solar System RPG game? Over time, I can add more gifts (feats, stunts, powers), but there’s really no promise that I will keep delivering. Plus, if I do, I’ll have to invent it all myself.

This is the key part: I have to come up with it myself – and I need to foreshadow it, make sure my players know it, want it, work towards it. In D&D, it’s simple. There’s a big Monster Manual full of critters in the book shelf. There is a big Players Guide full of spells right next to it. And there’s a list of magic items hidden away somewhere. You want to fight all this crazy stuff? Sit down at my table! That’s the promise the game makes without me saying anything at all. All the players sitting down at my table knowing the game cannot be faulted for assuming that this is going to be a big part of the game.

The Solar System campaign I’m running and the Barbarians of Lemuria campaigns I’m playing in are awesome. We’ve had a dozen sessions in each of the campaigns. They have enough potential to last us at least half a dozen more. But I think that’s because of the setting, the scope of the current plot, etc. What we don’t have, as Zak puts it, is a system that promising that “a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.” The onus is on us, the table, to make this promise, to foreshadow it, to work towards it, etc.

In other words, it’s on us to foreshadow mechanical changes (new gifts, feats, schools of magic, spells) and new modes of play (land owning, castle building, plane hopping, politics) within the campaign. The system and the tradition around it doesn’t do that like D&D does.

I like to play all these games. This is not a value judgement per se. But the above observation can help you make value judgements elsewhere.

Here’s an example that I’ve come across twice in recent days: people propose a change to the D&D magic system; they want to make all the spells are available from the start. This is how spells work in HARP: more powerful variants just cost more power points – my second level mage, for example, has haste and fly as his two spells. Using the above observation, I must assume that these proposals remove the distinct modes of play I like so much. Any player character might have the necessary spells right from the start. As far as I’m concerned – and this is where the value judgement comes in – these proposals are taking away something I liked. What are they going to give me instead? If the answer is “more flexibility” for my character, then I feel that this change isn’t worth it. It might work for others, but I fear it won’t work for me. If I had wanted more flexibility I would have picked more flexible rules. Something with skills and point buy instead of classes and random ability scores, for example.

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How much of this “promised longterm change” do you think is necessary? 3.5e and 4e really shine in that regard but what about all these OSR games? Searchers of the Unknown Is pretty cool but certainly doesnt promise anything and also stuff like LL with its rather small spell selection and only with a short blurb about what happens at name level seems to fall into the same place as many indy games. Does a game need a huge amount of source books to be able to deliver on the promise of change?

– Florian 2012-02-03 07:15 UTC

I don’t think we need a lot of source books to achieve it – in fact I think Labyrinth Lord is close to the minimum. It has changes over time in a couple of dimensions. It has changing dynamics for some classes: start slow as an elf, start weak as a mage, have a level cap as a halfling, etc. It has enough of the game-changing spells: invisibility (2), fly (3), dimension door (4), teleport (5) to name the ones I am most familiar with.

I agree that it doesn’t offer rules for strongholds and mass combat like the Rules Cyclopedia did or like Adventure Conqueror King promises.

Searchers of the Unknown doesn’t have rules to differentiate races and classes as far as I can tell. No level caps, no different XP requirements, no spells, no specific abilities (those abilities contribute to the long term changes in that they are very important at first but loose importance as the characters gain levels).

As for how necessary this “promise of long term change” is: I don’t think it’s necessary at all. But it helps. If the system provides for change, then the game master will be forced to follow suite. Basically the system promises “this game will change over time.” At first we will have murder mysteries, but once we learn how to speak with the dead, we’ll have different adventures. At first we’ll do a lot of dungeons, but once we gain a castle, we’ll have different adventures. At first we’ll do a lot of exploration, but once we gain access to teleportation, we’ll have different adventures.

Now, I think that the game master can make the same promise. First we’ll run errands for the Jarl. Then we’ll travel south for a long time. We’ll be pirates of the seven seas. And then we’ll infiltrate a secret society. It sounds great, I’m in. The difference is that I can’t read the rule book and think “this is going to be great.” I need to trust the game master to pull it off. And if I’m a struggling game master, the system doesn’t encourage me to change my game. This may increase the risk of the campaign stagnating.

AlexSchroeder 2012-02-03 09:46 UTC

Ian Burns wondered Character advancement in RPGs, how important is it to you? I said:

I think character advancement is illusionary if your monsters just keep growing in power. I was thinking of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I think that’s what D&D does right: As you advance in levels, gameplay changes. AC doesn’t grow as fast as attack bonus. New spells. Save or Die gains in significance if you have more hit-points. That is why I like D&D character advancement: changing gameplay over time.

Another advancement style I like is the FATE style where “advancement” is actually just slow changes in your character: swap skills, swap aspects, that’s it. It’s much less effective than the D&D style, because the gameplay stays essentially the same.

Another advancement style I like is the Traveller style where characters stay the same but one way of playing the game involves earning a lot of money and buying better equipment. In a way, D&D has this as well in that magic items start to replace leveling up as your method of advancement.

(The statement is basically my takeaway from the main post where I said I should give Traveller another try and emphasize changes to the equipment over changes to the setting.)

AlexSchroeder 2012-11-16 13:51 UTC

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