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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Modest Proposal, Part I

So, this is going to be a bit of a rule-breaking post, for a Saturday post, but I get the feeling that Saturday will quickly become my "Miscellaneous" day for posting. It all started when I read a little post called The Lost Art of Running Away, which tackles a common issue in classically-styled RPGs: players are far more interested in winning combats than in retreating to fight another day, and so DMs have to constantly tone down the challenge level so that PCs don't feel cheated when they spring an "impossible" encounter upon them. The result? PCs never run from a fight, because they have no reason to.

An Outline of the Problem
The way things run, it all boils down to some simple economics. The cost of a combat is whatever damage you sustain, which in the end is typically negated out of combat. Even in 4th Edition D&D, with healing limitations, characters are assumed to be able to make it through a certain amount of combat encounters before each rest, and it's a fairly regular model. End result: the cost is minimal...almost. The exception is when the players die. At that point, the cost skyrockets. The benefit of a combat is XP and loot, along with any in-game rewards the party may encounter. End result?

You have an event which has only positive rewards for victory, and either no penalties or a prohibitive penalty for loss. In this day and age, that prohibitive penalty of loss is such a dramatic change from the "all healed up" of victory that DMs are hesitant to go there. Now, the "third option" of retreat is never really even considered, then, because DMs don't want to submit characters, very often, to the dreaded TPK, unless they're mean and awful and very lethal DMs. The types of DMs that laugh at Tomb of Horrors, that is. Those DMs. Which means that players never think of running away.

What to Do?
The first, immediate answer is to shift the cost of combat around a little. In the current model, there's a huge cost gap between victory and loss, in some cases an absolute gap, where victory = full heal and loss = death. There's a couple things that can be done here: reduce the cost of loss, and increase the cost of victory. Can it be done? I certainly think it's possible.

First things first, that whole "reduce the cost of loss", because it's quite easy to accomplish. The best solution in this case is, quite simply, to pit PCs against foes who don't fight to kill. As long as the PCs fight sentient beings, the DM can say "you got knocked to 0 HP, and fall unconscious"; a default in D&D now. Those beings then capture the PCs, and try and wring what reward they can out of them. Bandits, for instance, holding them for ransom. Now, the truth is, higher-level characters will find fewer and fewer beings wanting to hold them alive, I'm sure, but there's always that possibility.

Next, a DM should look into making victory a little more painful. Perhaps, in the vein of Dark Sun, you could put a bit of a clamp on healing for characters. Make characters count the cost of victory or defeat, and then let them decide whether to fight. Furthermore, make other characters who depend on the PCs. Sure, they can take on this crazy fight, but if they don't survive...well, there goes the neighborhood. Instill the idea that sometimes living is better than winning.

The Crazy Part...
Now comes the other half of the equation. So far, we've talked about making the cost of defeat spread a little to victory. But what about the reward? Is there reason to change the reward system? This is where things take a crazy turn on their heads...

We've all seen the traditional "loot and XP" reward model, like I've mentioned. What if it didn't always quite work like that, though? I found one place online, a game-in-development called Kenshi, that presented an interesting idea...and it suddenly clicked. The developer of the game has developed an interesting approach: you gain more XP from losing a fight than from winning it. You heard that right...more experience gained from losing a fight than from winning it.

I gave it some thought, and then decided that it made sense. From Batman Begins ("Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.") to The Matrix (Neo being beaten again and again by Morpheus in the simulator), the hero learns by making mistakes and learning from them, again and again. Only in D&D (as far as I know) and similar RPGs do we have heroes who get better by being, well...good. It's really a matter of two paradigms.

The D&D paradigm is an endless cycle: do good, get better and get better stuff so you can do even better and get way better and way better stuff, etc... The other way? It's more like this: mess up, get better to make up for it, mess up again, get better to make up for it, etc., until you finally break out into a Crowning Moment of Awesome. In my mind, that makes for a way cooler story.

A Temporary Conclusion
I'm definitely not done with this topic, but my main purpose here was to lay out the ideas, and present a little bit of crazy brainstorming. Am I merely trying to solve the problem? Not quite. I've got a bit more in mind than merely that. In a way, I'm slowly sculpting out a completely new philosophy to approach RPGs from. You might not agree, and that's definitely fine. Stick around, though. You may find some interesting things in here and the posts to come.


  1. I like this idea, but we come upon new problems. "Why use tactics and fight to win, if we get MORE XP for losing? LEEEEROOOOOOOOOYYYYY.... "
    It's a good idea as long as it's implemented sparingly and secretly. Otherwise I can see this boiling down to either of the following scenarios:
    DM: These creatures come at you with murderous intent in their eyes
    PC: Crap! ok, guys, gotta fight for real this time!

    DM: Thugs surround you.
    PC: (to other players) Attack em! doesn't matter if we lose! we'll get more XP anyway, and we'll escape eventually.

    PC: Do these guys look like they want to kill us, or just hurt us? (repeat every encounter)

    2.2) DM: three lizardmen come charging out of the woods.

    PC: ::yawn:: ::die roll:: Do I hit?

    Like I said, sparingly and secretly. It's a plot/character saver, not to be abused. Pluse, even with only one leader in the group, they made death REALLY hard. I've seen characters be at 2 failed death saving throws and get hit by a single Healing Spirit courtesy of the Shaman and get back up, non-bloodied. the way they made healing start from 0 was well-throught out. The fear of dying makes the fight intense.

    That being said, I agree with the running away in some cases. Players need to not meta-game and realize they MAY die, and retreat might be necessary. XP is usually given from completeing an encounter, and surviving may sometimes be the only way to be sucessful in it. Assign XP, but don't reward cowardice.

    Yes, I realize it's not realistic, but it's a game. Otherwise, what's the motivtion to fight? Just about every RPG does it this way, because it's a game and games need systems of risk and reward. I games i've played, if the target ran, we got the same XP as if the targwet died or was captured. Why? Because we defeated him/her/it. If we captured and interrogated the target, we might get MORE XP because of the information we pull out of him. (Interrogation is a FUN skill challenge!)

    Bottom line: If you want the characters to run, you may have to give them hints and the like. Also BE PREPARED for it as a DM. You basically run the story. Oh, and from the player side of the screen (I know, bad choice of words) impossible fights/encounters are bull s***. Especially if the players FEEL railroaded into an impossible situation(note: they may actually have other choices, but not know it. DM's job to fix)
    Ever see a group of lvl 1's take down a rage drake? I have. It was awesome. The DM wanted us to get a whole bunch of NPC help, but we felt that was against the point of playing; it would have trivialized our characters. We beat the Drake with creativity and he was impressed. Be Flexible as a DM. It's not always obvious that running away is the right choice. PC's want the game to move FORWARD.

  2. I agree that D&D at the moment isn't designed for this sort of direction...like, I'm actually envisioning expanding this idea into a system where you want to try and succeed, but you don't get optimal results by succeeding all the time.

    The balance I'd like to strive for would go as follows, with the following assumptions...

    1. Situations should range from easy to hard to suicidal. The more dangerous the situation, the greater the potential learning. After you survive, that is. Also, the more dangerous the situation, the greater the material reward, but only if you beat it and bring back the trophy.

    2. Failure should be tied far more directly to failing because you/your PC made a mistake, instead of simply being outmatched/overwhelmed. (This is the one thing I totally forgot about, which would nullify a major reason for the LEEEEROY approach and metagaming therein)

    3. You learn from your mistakes. So maybe it should be something more along the lines of..."good try, but you did this wrong". Actually, that seems very promising.

    Another main thrust I have here is that I'm not so much aiming to change it because it's unrealistic (I don't actually know the scientific underpinnings of experience through success/failure), but moreso because there's something that just feels off about the ever-ascending cycle of "doing good makes you more capable, doing badly leaves you right where you were".

    It's the main momentus of MMO grinding, and I have yet to see it employed well in any work of fiction. Lord of the Rings even provides a counterexample...Gandalf doesn't come back as more powerful and BA until...well...he dies. So that's my main motivation behind looking for a second way.

    Also the paradox that although PCs and DMs both want to move the game forward...sometimes "forward" doesn't mean success. Not exactly.


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