Thursday, November 5, 2009

Putting Swashbuckling into the Game

When I was but a wee lad (okay, I don't think I was ever what one would call wee, but indulge me here) I played AD&D and grew frustrated at its lack of elements of what I would call swashbuckling options. I read Burroughs and Howard and I watched movies and I wanted heroes like I read and saw: in light armor and leaping off balconies and swinging from chandeliers. But we all saw a simple reward for wearing heavy armor in AD&D: you had a better armor class.

It was simple: a guy with a rapier and a dagger just sucked compared to the dude in plate mail and a shield.

And that was just the start. Old-school published dungeons often seemed to be flat expanses of rooms where controlling choke points like doorways and learning to avoid danger from traps and deadly monsters led to a flight or fight (and by fight, I mean slog toe-to-toe) methodology. My dreams of fast, exciting combat moving across the room seldom occurred. Mostly it involved throwing oil, shooting a round of missiles and spells, and closing in for down-and-dirty killing.

So by the mid-1980s I was already looking for new options. It started with trying to find ways to define new character classes to fill in the blanks and then moved on to looking at systems like RuneQuest to fill the gap (it didn't), then to others that kind of did, like Hero System. But after a long time, I found that even systems that tried to fill in that gap left me more and more dissatisfied, and for a simple reason: I didn't want to deal with the rules. In the time since I started gaming, RPGs have become pretty hefty, and harder to explain to new players. Even simple rules have eschewed the simplicity of random character generation, and pushed the idea of new players coming to the table with no preconception of what they wanted to play.

RPGs today seem to be by gamers, for gamers. Which is a shame.

That's what led me back to thinking about Tunnels and Trolls and early D&D. At first, I wanted to rewrite a simpler D&D from the d20 SRD, then I saw the retro-clones, and then I saw Swords and Wizardry, tinkered, and ended up with a set of rules I thought was okay.

But there's still an issue of the swashbuckling. It's still better to wear armor, isn't it? Well, yes and no. There are ways to control that, some of which are simple (making powerful magical rare or unknown -- the difference between plate and no armor and plate +5 and no armor, for instance, is important), some of which are moderate (parrying rules, allowing dex bonuses to AC), and some of which are harder (social and setting reasons why wearing armor is a Bad Idea), but I think I can change the feel in actual game play.

In theory, I think that the actual experience of gaming at the table is a dynamic relationship between the players, the DM, the rules, and the game world. In adjudicating the rules within the setting based on the input of the players, a separate reality should emerge, though in real life I know the balance of these elements is essential and affects game play. My theory is that by diminishing the presence of rules and emphasizing the other three elements consciously (rather than organically as I have done in the past), I can help shape the tenor of the game and the assumptions of play. (See, all that grad schoolin' has some value.) In essence, I hope to have the game as written and the game as played engaged under the guidance of the DM in a sort of Hegelian dialectic. The Game presents a thesis, the players an antithesis, and the DM helps produce a sort of synthesis that builds the "real" game world. And I think that happens in encounter design, how the world and NPCs react to the heroes, reward structures, and the like. If I emphasize Undercity dungeon crawls in armor, that will differ from how things play out more than focusing on political intrigue and urban adventures. If I want chandelier-swinging and bannister-sliding and the like, making that easier and having NPCs use that to their advantage will make PCs more likely to pursue that sort of thing. As a not-wee old lad, I now realize how much power I have as DM to make things happen in a particular way without making special game rules to support such things.

At least that's the theory.

We'll see what happens when the dice hit the table. Or, if I end up getting an invite and doing this using Google Wave, when the dice-bot spits out its results on the screen.