Monday, June 6, 2011

Favorable system assumptions

Yesterday I posted about the first of the ten elements I think should be present in a system and today I’ll jump to the other side and touch on the last one: Favorable system assumptions.

The idea here is that as you develop a system you have to put stakes in the ground and those stakes are starting points that anyone who wants to use the system has to begin at. Certainly the stakes can be moved, but it is easier to move a stake forward than it is to move it backwards.

Quick example. Fourth edition introduced teleportation as a basic power of an entire race. That put a pretty definitive stake in the ground: first level core races have access to teleportation. That stake informs the rest of the game, the game world, and the play experience. A lot of low level adventures include stuff like being put in prison or escaping from slavers, teleport obviates low level challenges like picking a lock to open a door and steals the rogue’s thunder, and so on. You either have to introduce work-arounds to depower teleport, skip those iconic scenarios, or move the stakes. In this case, you’d be moving them backwards (i.e. removing teleport).

It is much easier to move stakes forward (i.e. giving someone teleport) because people like to get stuff. It lets the GM be the good guy and makes people happy. Even if someone absolutely understands why the stake had to be moved backwards, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a little bummed or feel like they should get something in return. By focusing on favorable system assumptions, the game is the bad guy and people get to tailor it *up* to their preference.

There are a ton of little system assumptions but two big ones are experience and treasure. There are as many conventions to awarding experience as there are preferences about wealth levels. The most favorable system assumption with regards to both is to decouple play-preference from the game mechanics. A group that likes to avoid combat shouldn’t have to make up excuses as to why that encounter counts as constructively defeating the monster. A group that likes to level slowly shouldn’t have feel like they are withholding experience just to slow down progression. Some groups like to level every session, some every year. Those are play style differences and they should all be supported.

Treasure is even more important to decouple. Some groups like to be poor, it feels gritty, and leads to scenes where the mid-level bard performs ballads fit for a king in return for supper. They shouldn’t be underpowered with regards to magic items because they enjoy those scenes. Other groups enjoy kicking open chests of coin and makin’ it rain (very painfully) on barmaids. They shouldn’t be pushed into a power spiral where their wealth is transformed into magic items that leads to bigger treasures and more items. This is a stake that, when moved, has very visible consequences and generates a lot of resistance.

To about half the community this probably seems like a nothing change because they’ve been doing it already. To the other half, this probably feels like sacrilege. The change is warranted, though, for two main reasons. First, by decoupling it early on, you set it up to support whatever style you prefer later. If you want to run a gritty campaign where the characters are broke, no problem. If the next camp is Monte Haul, no problem. For the people who have been hand waiving these rules away all along, they actually get new tools. For example, right now potions are balanced by their cost. If you throw out the system expectations of gold, you now have to introduce some other method of *balancing* potions. If we realized from the outset that gold and xp wouldn't be used for balance, then we'd feel the need to introduce tools to balance potions, and those tools will be equally useful irrespective of play style. That is a win that was only created once we recognized the gap.

Second, rules heavily influence the play experience. If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail and if the only way to earn XP is by killing monsters, everything starts to look like sacks of XP. So we take the logical step and give XP for completing quests. Alright, but what happens when you fail? Did you learn nothing? Who’s to say that experience comes from defeating stuff at all? Why not just experiencing things? At the end of the day, we’re trying to put structures around things that are too intertwined with personal preference. Some people like Method A which is in complete opposition with Method B. The good news is that either of them is completely compatible with the remainder of the system, so there is little reason to put that stake in the ground.

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