Thursday, November 27, 2014

ADversaries & Dragons (an essay)

Every gamer seems to have their own favorite edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). From die-hard grognards of the little stapled booklet days, to the feat-wielding and prestige-classing D20 adventurers - and beyond. The means of measuring an edition's appeal and suitability for any given gamer are too numerous to list on a d% chart, but there is one I've found works well for me.

How adversarial do you like your game?

Put down the bec de corbin and come out from behind that kevlar DM screen. We're not going to be talking about the troublesome dynamic of killer DM vs. hapless players. That's not what I mean by "adversarial." This essay is about the measure of danger and challenge you may or may not prefer in your D&D - from the point-of-view of a long-time gamer and DM. Dry statistics and hard rules optional.

In the beginning, player characters (PCs) died. A lot. In droves. Character creation was measured in minutes, instead of hours. Death was often a setback, at worst. We learned not to get too attached to those one-page (or one-index card) neophytes until at least third level. Today, it takes me the better part of an afternoon to meticulously craft a character using the D20 rules. Got to make sure I choose just the right feats and put enough points in the right skills so I can eventually reach my lofty future character classing goals. I don't build a PC, I set the foundation for a future hero.

And that's fine. But, it does set the game up as more of a hero mill than a daring adventure. Your PC is expected to not only survive, but to thrive. Death may be a possibility, but it is not expected. In fact, neither is failure. Sure, it's no fun to have all your PCs die in creative and messy fashion time after time after time. We all want to be a hero - eventually. For myself, I prefer to earn the honor. My comfort zone lies somewhere between grognard and D20 - leaning a little more toward grognard.

Is it because I started playing D&D around 1980? Perhaps. Still, I've played and enjoyed every edition up to v3.5. Still, I find myself settling into AD&D as my default edition. Somewhere between little-booklet-grognard and feat-loving D20 gamer - leaning toward grognard.

It's all about death. Well, at least the very real threat of my character cashing in his GPs one way or another. PC vs. DM in a friendly battle of wits and wills. When my fledgling adventurer creeps into some dark and musty tomb, sword in-hand, I expect something to try to kill me. I expect to be challenged within an inch of my life. I presume I will eventually need to retreat to lick my wounds and regroup for another assault.

That's right - retreat. We used to do that now and again. Sure, it's all about moving forward nowadays. Nothing wrong with that. Keep the action going. Get to the big bad guy at the end and the shiniest loot. That's exciting. There's a lot to be said for having your obstacles set neatly before you in a pre-determined and acceptable level of challenge. Even comforting, perhaps.

I don't venture into the mean dungeons to feel comfortable. I expect crazy tricks and traps. I watch out for nightmarish monsters to ambush me from some hidden alcove - even if that monster is out of my league. The concept of a massive underground labyrinth stocked with opponents and treasure is ludicrous enough - don't ask me to grapple with measured challenges and static encounters too.

Run away! An acceptable battle cry for heroes that survive to become greater heroes. Avenging fallen comrades is another heroic trope. Somewhere, there's a scything blade trap or many-armed demon with my name on it. It's up to me to make my heroic demise count for something.

After all, the DM is out to get me.

Does that phrase get your blood pumping, or does it make your blood boil? What's the point of heroic fantasy adventure if you don't feel the thrill of genuine risk? I said, "The DM is out to get me." Of course he/she is. Why bother, otherwise? We're not exactly equals by any stretch. The DM holds all the cards. All the feats and abilities in all the books and supplements will not change this simple fact. All it does is reduce the game to an endless series of Challenge Ratings and die rolls.

Feats? We had those back in 1980. We called them "creative role-playing decisions." If my fighter wanted to Cleave one or four nearby opponents, I'd say to the DM something like, "You said the goblins have me surrounded and I'm toe-to-toe with four or five of those beady-eyed suckers? Fine, I'll take my axe in both hands - the hell with my shield - and go down swinging as hard and as fast as possible, catching as many of those little backstabbers as I can." Then, any DM worth his/her screen would come back with something along the lines of, "Okay, if you're gonna sacrifice AC for all-out hitting power, give me a roll to-hit. You're pretty strong. If you succeed, you might have enough to catch the next goblin in line," - and so on.

Sure, it can be nice to have all the options clearly delineated and neatly listed, but it may not be absolutely necessary. If death comes, it will be death by math or very unfortunate die roll. Honestly, I prefer to play within the game, rather than from my character sheet. I want the DM to have to work at knocking my hit point total down.

Because, as a DM, I find I have more fun when I have to work at my trade. Picking out Challenge Ratings to set against the character party just isn't the same for me. This is a game of the mind and I enjoy pitting my mind against theirs. Of course I will scale most of the encounters for the average participating character level. That is common sense, and there is a certain expectation. But, I want to see hesitation and uncertainty in the eyes of the player. Yes - even a little fear once in a while. If I choose to put a Duke of Hell around the corner of the third level dungeon corridor, I don't want players crying, "Foul!" I want them racking their brains for a way out of this most dire peril.

Because a truly adversarial DM-player relationship is based upon trust. A player must trust the DM to present challenges that are dangerous, yet fair - most of the time. A Duke of Hell in a third-level dungeon? Seriously?! Absolutely. Maybe it's an illusion, or a disguise. But, even if it is the real deal, the DM can be trusted to have a plan. Can you talk or barter your way out? Does this very great devil even care about fighting you? Maybe he's on his way to an important meeting and you just happen to be in his way. Bow and scrape and let him go merrily along. Does he have some major treasure on him? Sure he does - but it's not for you. Not yet. Try to take it and you deserve whatever you get. And what you'll get is undoubtedly death, unless he's in a lesson-teaching mood that day. The DM gets to decide that. Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe your DM is worthy of your trust.

Adversarial implies a give-and-take of challenge and occasional one-upmanship. Expect and give the unexpected. Share the wondrous burden of creating a memorable adventure. If the DM tries to kill you, make the task one that is truly epic. Think out of the character sheet. Challenge the DM as much as he/she challenges you. Be friendly rivals for the same goal - participating in an exciting heroic fantasy adventure. If you must die - die well. Then, come back for more.

A good DM will always be there, waiting. And plotting. A good player - the same.