Wednesday 18 August 2010

Never played D&D before? Never played a computer adventure game?

Then you will make a great role-player. Freed from the restrictions of understanding the mechanics and the constraints of game genre, you will take seriously the idea that this is a game is a product of the imagination.

Some time ago I ran a game of BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia D&D for my wife, my mother, and my teenage sister. We had created characters the day before, and I knew the game was going to be interesting from the amount of imagination they put into developing their heroic personas. By the end of character creation we had a ruthless veteran Thyatian warrior, a warrior priestess from the Northern Reaches, and a runaway teenage unlicensed magic user from Glantri.

I decided that we would play a version of module B9, Castle Caldwell. This is a short dungeon crawl with little to commend it apart from its simplicity. Which is exactly what I wanted from an adventure I would be using introduce three beginners to the game. In putting some meat on the bones, I had it that they would be hired by Cassius Capex, former slum landlord of Thyatis City in the process of turning his family into members of the respectable gentry. If he is successful, he will be able to serve as an early patron for the adventuring party. The first step in this process is the purchase of an abandoned fortified manor house and accompanying lands in northern Karameikos. Unfortunately, the abandoned manor is occupied and he needs some desperate/brave strongarms to clear his property. To add an NPC who could offer beginners tactical/game mechanic advice, I decided that Cassius will send his son, Atticus Capex to accompany the party and keep an eye on their efforts.

In hindsight, should I have done all this in a ‘cut-scene’? I have little aversion to using cut-scenes – extended periods of description that throw characters into an adventure or move the plot forwards between episodes of ‘open’ play. I use these to shamelessly ‘railroad’ characters into events, to place them at the doors of the dungeon, or knee-deep in intrigue (or in gore, depending on taste), before handing the characters over to the players. I see little wrong with this, as the idea that a GM is able to avoid ‘railroading’ is a nonsense - to give characters total freedom, after all, would involve beginning every game session with, ‘You wake up. What will Edwin the Bard do now?’ Or, like Tristram Shandy, we could try to begin with the conception of the characters. A good cut-scene can do away with that staple of adventure beginnings, ‘You spend the evening in the Skewered Boar. A strange man approaches you as you finish your Darokini wine’, and provide a beginning that is more cinematic, theatrical, or literary, depending on your tastes. For all that, the party met Cassius Capex in a tavern.

What followed was an excellent few hours of role-playing. The warriors and the runaway negotiated with Cassius, discussed his offer with each other, inspected the horses that he provided, weighed up Atticus as a party member, and generally failed to get on with the adventure. When they did arrive at Castle Capex they hid in the treeline and watched the entrance for the best part of a day, before watching a goblin hunting party return. They laid a plan to lure some goblins out, setting a smoky campfire to attract attention and concealing themselves some distance away. Four goblins were sent to investigate.

Dice rolling began in earnest. The party killed two, broke the morale of the remaining two and captured them. Under interrogation, the goblins told the party that their band controlled the castle, and ‘taxed’ the humans who used it. I wanted to offer the party hints that they might be able to clearing the castle largely by negotiation – the merchants, bandits, evil cleric, and goblins could all be persuaded to leave the castle when faced with swagger, threats, sharp blades and a little gold. The party would still have to fight the ravenous wolves, and whatever evil lurked in the cellars, but they would be able to role-play much of their way to success.

After the party put their prisoners to death – one of them was trying to escape, but I might have to look at an alignment shift for these Lawful heroes – I got my first sign that these players were so unfamiliar with adventure games of any description that they would need guidance. I needed to have Atticus get to his knees and search the bodies of the goblins in order to reward the characters with any treasure. And then, armed with information about the inhabitants of the castle the party rode back to town, Atticus grumbling all the way, to renegotiate with Cassius. They demanded that he hire a few more strongarms to accompany the party if they are to clear out a castle that is not only home to goblins, but also a couple of groups of ‘umans and that ‘strange chanting lady’.

A clever move in real life, perhaps. But not a gamers move. A gamer – even one only familiar with computer adventure games – would assume a difficulty scaling in keeping with the power of the characters. People with no familiarity with the way these games work see four novice adventurers, and a castle full of people and things who will try to stick pointy bits of metal into those people. Where a gamer might risk the life of his character to achieve progress in the game, and more importantly would understand the scale of these risks in terms of game mechanics, in this game the players – my wife, my mother and my teenage sister – used their imagination to assess the dangers of having fun storming the castle. They role-played their characters, and found that they were far more concerned with keeping their characters unharmed while earning enough money to escort the runaway novice magic user downriver to Specularum then they were achieving abstract character progress in the form of ‘levelling up’. Their lack of familiarity is what made the session such a fun role-playing experience, and such a frustrating adventure game.