Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Risk Assessment

I'll take min/maxing for fifty, Trebek!

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat, I love it when bad shit happens to characters. Your character, my character, it doesn't matter. When a cunning plan doesn't survive first contact, when a die roll goes bad, when you role-play yourself into a corner, whenever something unfortunate happens in game it warms the cockles of my stainless-steel heart. Why? Because that threat, that jeopardy, it makes me tingle all over. In my opinion, a game that doesn't punish as much as entertain, and doesn't have an element of risk, isn't much of a game at all.

Pretty bold statement, eh? See, now, your mileage may vary, but I like a game that's hard. I like a game that, well, punishes bad or stupid behavior on the part of players and encourages them to think around corners either through setting (Iron Kingdoms) or rules (L5R), or both (Rogue Trader). It's why I played EVE Online for so long, there were definite, expensive, often devastating  consequences for failure, and the risk entailed in throwing my multi-billion Isk ship into combat was exhilarating for just that reason. Now, I'm not talking about a system that's hard for hard's sake *coughRoleMastercough*, but a game that has built-in consequences. I like a game that makes a player stop and say, "You know what? Maybe we should talk/think our way out of this, 'cause shooting our way out isn't going to go as well as we'd like."

For example, combat in Shadowrun 3rd edition, at least the way we play it, is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. This is especially true in our Harn game, the middle-ages crime drama, where something as simple as a broken leg could have disastrous consequences for a character. See, with no magic and no really real medicine to speak of, a deep cut or a broken limb can kill a man in Harn. Granted, this is more a result of the setting than the rules, but my point stands. Brawling is perfectly acceptable, but if blades come out something has definitely gone wrong. Iron Kingdoms is the same way, right? Need a clerical healing? You better have a lot of money or a lot of luck because that cure light wounds spell will fill your body with ravenous maggots just as soon as it'll heal you, and that's awesome.

It's why I don't go for cinematic games. I like a game where damage goes through your armor, where you can't dodge bullets, where you run out of ammo, and where a wrong step or a misplaced comment can ruin your night. My friends and I call this hilarity ensuing. I play games like this, I run my games like this, and I write my games like this. When I was writing Robotech, I kept trying to increase the lethality of the game, which of course was every bit as constructive as, well, something not very constructive. I wanted more damage output from my weapons, less damage capacity in my mechs and armor, more reason to use different kinds of munitions, and more threat. I realize that this runs counter to what a lot of people consider the spirit of Robotech, and honestly I didn't care. I still don't. Of course increasing jeopardy and forcing critical thinking was never going to fly in a system that was designed, essentially, to let a player win at RPGs. Oh well, c'est la vie, right?

I'll finish with a story. When I was working on my first assignment for Rogue Trader, which was largely rules and game design, I had a long conversation with Sam about just this very thing. One rule I was writing hinged on the GM making a roll that directly affected the players and keeping the result secret from said players. Sam pitched me an alternate idea, which was easier on the players, then asked me, "So, from a game design point of view, which do you think is better?" I replied, "Mine. Things should always be hard for the players, and if they're going to do X (where X is the rule that I still can't talk about) they don't get to know if something goes wrong until the wheels come off." Sam laughed and said, "Awesome, do it." and that rule ended up in the book largely untouched. That's just the kind of bastard I am, I guess. When I'm a player, I ask for little mercy, and when I'm running or writing a game, I offer even less. So, you know, caveat ludius.


A.L. said...

We were talking about this briefly the other day, and by and large I do agree with alot of what you are saying here. Only, shaded through the lens of "Depending on your game"

With Robotech, and only going off of the shows, I would fully agree with more damage and less armor. Why? Because it never takes very many shots to kill someone in those shows. The reason why we don't see Rick and Max splattered all over the place is because they avoid attacks, and are just that much better than most of who they are fighting (PCs vs. Mooks essentially)

But what killed Fokker? 3 rounds hit his cock pit, punched through and got him. He didn't even realize it until it was too late. Hell, Ben gets killed by a failed piloting roll at the wrong moment.

I think you can do epic and what you want at the same time. Hard to hit, but easy to kill once hit. This can even be done with more grit (again, mooks versus PCs). What looks more exciting in a fight? A guy just standing there and taking hits? Or a guy having to dodge and weave to avoid getting shot out of the sky.

How hard that getting shot out of the sky is can be easy to control. The rest though (if I'm reading this right, and I may have just gone off into my own world) is really just GM approach to the game, and being willing to pull that trigger when the PCs put the gun barrel to their head.

Levi said...

I love deadly games too. I love story and game mechanic challenges. As long as they are relatively “fair” and make sense. Most importantly story and game mechanics should support each other.

Just this week my players faced a couple Tantens (huge crocodile humanoids with scorpion tails) in Palladium Fantasy. These are supposed to be tough enemies. And guess what, they are. Combat stats and abilities equal to 2 or 3 PCs each and an absolutely deadly scorpion stinger. It was a fun and dramatic battle for the players and myself. The Tanten managed to seriously hurt two players before being forced to flee. But when he fled he managed to turn invisible, and knock out one character and kidnap him. Next week will be even more fun.