Monday, 21 January 2013

Predicatability and Meaningful Choice

One of the principles that many people ascribe to Old School play is that player choices (and hence player 'skill') matters. A second principle is that balance - in the 'modern' RPG sense of providing only encounters that are designed to be 'won' by the PCs - is not desirable; in a sandbox game, some things that the PCs will encounter - by design or by chance - will be beyond their abilities. They might have to learn this lesson the hard way, but because the game is a sandbox, not a railroad[*1], the players have plenty of choices of other places to go and things to do.

The retroclones all have standard monster bestiaries and mechanized treasure tables, emulating the original systems. Even if the DM creates his own (variations on these) monsters, the lesson of these catalogues is that players can (and I don't mean by leafing through the monster listing and studying the treasure table) learn what the world created by the GM consists of - what rules it runs by - and therefore gain an ability to judge risk and reward. Sure, Orcs in your game might be called the Quezo'll, and their kings might be able to shoot laser beams from their crowns, but the players have the potential to learn the capabilities of the Quezo'll, get an idea of the size of their raiding parties, the treasure they carry, etc.

This is not about the game itself being predictable - in the sense of beaing boring or repetitive,  but that enough of the world is predictable so that players can make informed, meaningful decisions on the part of their PCs.

Several of the second generation OSR games - Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, for example - suggest that monsters should be unique. There should be nothing so passé as a standard bestiary; monster manuals[*2] reduce monsters down to dangerous animals, and humanoid monsters to evil humans with different coloured skin. I have tremendous sympathy with this point of view, but I worry as to the degree to which an inability to learn about the dangers of the world through actual play inhibits meaningful player choice. Meaningful player choice demands predictability. If the players have no idea what the possible consequences of an action are, what the risks are, or what the rewards might be, then they cannot take a meaningful action. Of course, as these are games of exploration and adventure, many aspects of the world must remain unknown, mysterious, and if magic plays a part, even contradictory. I guess my question is - to what degree is a degree of predictability in 'monsters' required for meaningful player choices in a game that, more often than not, involves fighting (or at least, encountering) monsters?

[1*] I have seen it argued that a sandbox is just a railroad with so many tracks that the players enjoy the illusion of freedom. Well, uh, sort of. For me, the point of a sandbox is not total player freedom, it is meaningful player CHOICE. It is the choices, and the consequences (including PC death and other negative, even catastrophic, consequences) of those choices, that make RPGs a game.

[*2] To be sure, the Ecology of... articles in Dragon, and the tone of the AD&D2e Monstrous Compendia did begin to make even the strangest monsters mundane.


  1. I guess the reliance on pure game math dictates their choices, whereas in real life, people would make visual assessments. Games rarely use any sensible physics or realism, typically regarding damage and human frailty (or lack thereof). Maybe "real" choices, the kind we would make in real life, are hindered by the distorted perception of danger. For, instance, a dagger in D&D only does 1d4 damage, but in real life, it could kill the most experienced veteran in the world with one hit. Maybe games are doomed to be predictable because players will all be thinking of such reliable numbers.

  2. I would think that a game that has all unique monsters is a game with mostly humans and only a few monsters to seek out.

    If that's the case, then the players CAN learn about most of the world i.e. the human world, but the monsters come into play when they venture out to more outre realms...