Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Man's Cheating

I have old AD&D character sheets where my character's inventory list rolls over onto an extra sheet of paper. I delighted in packing everything I could think of to be prepared for every contingency that might ever possibly come up. I devoured articles in dragon magazine about tricks like casting continual light or darkness on marbles or sling-stones, then covering them with clay until you needed them. I kept careful inventory of caltrops. I was seriously overprepared.

That became less fun over time. Part of it was that the bookkeeping was kind of a pain, but most of it was that the situations I imagined, where we'd be in serious trouble but I could pull out just the right thing to save our bacon and thus illustrate my cleverness never really materialized, at least in part because such situations would, by their nature, be horribly contrived. Some of the credit also had to go to adventure designs which, to my young mind, cheated by attempting to circumvent just such 'cleverness'.

I once got in a long argument about whether or not I could get XP for diverting a creek so it flooded a dungeon and drowned a bunch of monsters. At the time, I thought I totally deserved it because it was a clever solution to the problem, and the game was all about rewarding that, right?

I don't view RPGs as so much of an outlet for problem solving anymore, or rather, I do, but in a different way. Being prepared is not much fun for me anymore, though I'll still delight in solving problems with limited resources. As with many things in life, it's those limitations that make it satisfying.

I don't remember which game I rounded the corner on this with, but one day I found myself playing a game where your inventory primarily consisted of the things you would likely be carrying. That is to say, as an adventurer you probably had rope, rations, torches and all the other things that you'd be an idiot not to have brought. If you wanted something special over and beyond that you could acquire it, or if there was a question regarding whether you'd packed a thing, the GM would rule (if it was stupid) or you could roll the dice (if it was reasonable, but uncertain), but mostly we just trusted everyone to be cool about it. This was huge. This idea that there might be things in my backpack without my explicitly noting them turned a lot of my assumptions on their ear, and I liked it.

This was probably the narrow point of the wedge of player empowerment for me. It was a very small thing, but having the right to say "There's a torch in my backpack" created the possibility that I, as a player, might be able to say other things and have them be true. This got accelerated by playing Amber, which among other things has the dirty trick of allowing huge player empowerment by making it all work through in-game powers, and lead to my fairly open stance that I hold today.

All of which makes it very hard for me to remember that for someone else, my ephemeral backpack may be cheating. I can intellectually wrap my head around it, but I have to stop and think to do so. For me, turning that corner was so liberating, and opened so many doors that I can't understand why everyone else hasn't done the same. Such is the arrogance of enthusiasm - there are plenty of people for whom the things I have found fun in are worth little.

But for all that, here is what I consider the great irony. It is because of all those lessons and the discarding of those ideas that I think the me of today could make the game that the me of then never got to enjoy. It's all a trick of perspective, you see - I may not have been doing it consciously, but younger-me was making declarations about the game too, jut in a way he (and anyone he played with) was not wired to hear. That inventory list was not just an approach to problem solving, it was a laundry list of the kind of problems he wanted to encounter. If someone were to look at it that way and use it to build adventures, younger me would be on cloud nine.

Of course, even that would be cheating in some corners of the hobby. Building the adventures according to player input rather than as free-standing edifices is unrealistic! But at that point, I admit that my generous spirit frays. People are welcome to their fun, but if there is an expectation that I need to apologize for mine, or that mine is somehow threatening theirs, then I am willing to quietly wait for them to be quiet and grow up.

It may take a while, but I'm a patient guy.


  1. The biggest GM mistake I ever made in my career was allowing a player to import an old character. Not for the character itself, which wasn't so bad, but for the collected inventory sheet. Oy.

  2. This was my approach to the gear problem in Cortex. Even though we had a big gear chapter in Supernatural, I had bean-counting and keeping inventory, so I said "spend Plot Points to get it" and gave some examples of ranges, as an alternative.

    In Cortex Plus games, like a fantasy version of Leverage, I'd do something like this. Want something important? Spend a Plot Point, get it as an Asset. In Smallville, same thing, only it's called a Useful Detail. If it doesn't meaningfully add to a roll or scene, it doesn't cost you anything at all.

  3. And by "had bean-counting" I meant "hate bean-counting." :)

  4. When people in the D&D group I games with in college tried things like flooding the dungeon, it was a sign they were bored.

    The best example was a long-term quest that a very high-level group was on that involved, as one step, getting a macguffin out of a dungeon. The group had gotten tired of dungeons, so the druid destroyed the dungeon with an Earthquake spell and sent an earth elemental in to get the one piece of treasure they needed. It was a player revolt, and not long afterwards they finished off that campaign and let someone else GM.

  5. <grin> I remember a number of tournament games, where we allowed players anything that they wanted and then took them away from them to see how they would cope.* I suppose that comes under the heading of tournament DM fun.**

    I think it was Swordbearer that changed a lot for me. Particularly since the equipment system limited you to 10 items appropriate to your social status. This could of course include retainers, who could use their ten item limit to have further possessions. So, albeit very clumsily, it built up an appropriate retinue of servants. The simple idea of a "toolkit" (allowing one to use craft skills to repair things) and a "shop" (allowing the use of a craft skill to make things) simplified a lot. Although I generally assumed furniture came with basic equipment (eg if you had a sword you got scabbard and whetstone and the like as well).

    The interface with social status also lead to an increased involvement with the community, and considering wealth less in terms of treasure but in the ability to support a lifestyle. Wealth (being essentially the means to produce food for your people) became valuable; treasure, less so. It also determined the ease of getting something.

    And an increase in retinues and servants for established characters, even when "adventuring." [All true wealth is biological. <grin>]

    * Such as teleporting the party without their equipment due to an untimely interruption, or sinking their ship in a magical storm.**

    ** "Hi! Your ship is sinking. Here is a piece of paper. Write down what you are grabbing and wearing and wear you are putting it, before you get in the lifeboat. The attached chart, which details the chance of swimming with various loads and armours, is provided for your convenience..."


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