Sunday, December 26, 2010

Riddles In The Dark (or, Earn It)

Once upon a time, years ago, I had this girlfriend.

She almost exactly matched the picture that pops into your head when a porn actor/painter with a tattoo on his head says "my ex-girlfriend".

So: she was a bit of a mess. High Int, Low Wis, Chaotic chaotic.

And she had trouble sleeping.

So she would listen to books on tape to help her sleep. And she didn't have that many--so, after a few months, I knew all these books back to front and sunny side up.

Her collection included a very very long work by an author some of you may be familiar with named JRR Tolkien, called The Lord of the Rings. If you have not read this story--as I had not before I met this particular girlfriend--I will now summarize it: "On and on they walked, silently through the glade, moving as men who, silently, walk on and on through a glade."

God there's a lot of walking in those goddamn books. Anyway: point is I know the books well.

This was also the era of the Peter Jackson Rings films coming out, which I liked much better, since Jackson seemed--with gratifyingly few exceptions--to choose the most metal and least hippie possible interpretation of any given scene. And Pippin was funny.

And also let me say I was not 100% immune to the vastness and misty epicness of Tolkien's story, and once in a while he even had good lines. I liked the Ent's poem:

...Bear bee-hunter, boar the fighter;
Hound is hungry, hare is fearful,
Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,
Hart horn-crownéd; hawk is swiftest,
Swan the whitest, serpent coldest...

Point being that during this era my brain was totally--if unwillingly--steeped in the fucking Ring story.

I liked "The Hobbit" best. It was the most linguistically playful and the least ponderous. For me, it had that light-hearted-without-being-light-weight thing that Fritz Leiber went for and achieved more often.

To come to the point here--or closer anyway--my favorite part was the riddle game.

"Riddles In The Dark" the book-on-tape-guy would say to me (in the dark)(Tolkien does sound better in the dark), announcing the chapter. And by this point maybe The Ex was already passed out. And I would listen and be strangely fascinated.

I say "strangely" because somehow, for a long time, the fascination went beyond anything I could immediately figure out. Much more than when I'd seen the Gollum scene in Bakshi as a kid or in a school play or whenever.

Long story short, I did eventually figure out what the fascination was, and it was this:

In this little fairy-tale scene in this little fairy tale, Bilbo falls ass-backwards into getting The Ring from Gollum. And you might know the ring later turns out to be kind of a big deal.

And somewhere in my brain I was unconsciously aware that this quiet little game in the dark resulted in all the chaos and lunacy and walking and slaying and people "going off into the west" and sturm und drang to follow. And Bilbo didn't know it. That was somehow terribly affecting. Innocently starting all that just by playing a game in a cave.

It's also possible to argue--or at least to think--that Tolkien didn't know it either. He wrote The Hobbit first. I'm no Silmarillion expert (I've seen the book jacket, basically) but I don't know if Tolkien knew where the daisy chain started by the riddle game would end.

Anyway now my real and definitely RPG-related point:

That "Riddles In The Dark" effect is why I like the Old School approach to plot and character and epicness and awesomeness.

Which is: you start with none of those things. You start by sucking. You start by sneaking. You start with one hit point. You start with no plot. You start anonymous and meaningless and arbitrary. You have three torches and a short sword and whatever armor you can afford and no feats or skills in a dot on a hexmap hitting another dot on a hexmap.

Nearly every thematic innovation in RPGs has sought to remedy this situation. You start with a plot or a purpose or superpowers or a personality or a faction or an internal struggle or a moral dilemma or something to tell you who you are and where this story's going.

Bilbo didn't, really. A wizard knocked on his door and said "Listen schmuck, you're going to go on an adventure" it made no sense, he did it anyway, and slowly, by degrees, he discovered--and we discovered--what his adventure was. And what it meant. And then, when it's all over and the Witch Kings and mad wizards are dead and the minor characters are married you look back at the early bits and go "All this--who knew? If only he'd known what was in his pocketses..."

In Old School D&D, plot, personality, differentiation, superawesomeness, cinematicness, meaning, destiny, epic adventure, and players having Narrative Control are all possibilities, but you have to earn them. And you have to start in the 3-hit-point-2 spells-no-items mail room. You have to earn power, but you also have to earn meaning and plot. These things are rewards you get for surviving and solving problems.

You have to kill a million gnolls if you want more than one attack per round or if you want your own castle or if you want to be able to shoot fireballs or if you want your character to be powerful enough to be in charge of the Thieves' guild or you want to be a Master of Disguise.

And some people like that. They like not knowing whether they'll fall in love or what magic items they'll get or what prestige class they'll be when they grow up or whether it was all for naught or whether they'll get bitten by a werewolf or whether it'll all end in a 29th-level battle on a mountaintop or in a ditch under the blade of some 2nd-level crap out of the Fiend Folio they can't even spell. (Addendum For Barking Alien: or knowing how they got there or who they are in the first place or why they're being killed. These things extend like a novel--from ignorance to knowledge in any direction, not just forward in time.) They like going out their front door and not knowing where they might be swept off to--to use a cliche.

And they like the fact that if it turned out to be anywhere in particular with any kind of distinction or rhyme or reason then that's sort of amazing, because they earned it, in the face of brutally unfair experience tables, the indifference of dice, and the malevolence of easily-bored DMs.*





________
*Two afterthoughts:
-This may be why people famously can't shut up about their characters no matter how boring it is to whoever's listening. In Old School play, a character with any coherent story to tell at all is an achievement.

-The difference between the old and the new approach makes me think of the difference between painting and photography. In photography--like in newer games--you see a picture and it could be of anything--a cheeseburger, a hooker--and the trick is to make it a special and poignant iteration of that thing. In a drawing, the real miracle isn't the address to the subject, the drama is watching how all the dribs and splotches and drabs and swirls--which by themselves are just colored goo on paper--end up even managing to look like anything.

38 comments:

mordicai said...

My players are more Old School & I'm more New School-- or at least, I'm into the hippy "we are telling a story" part of the games more, into the "lets have a discussion about your character's future." You sell the "an orc is guarding a pie. You have a sharp stick," origins of the game pretty well, though.

Shieldhaven said...

That's a really interesting connection of thoughts. For my part, I am as satisfied with emergent narratives as planned narratives, and I'm happy to not use one or the other exclusively in gaming.

I'd also argue that the specialness you start with in 3e and 4e can be minimized by the presentation of the setting, though that presentation would run counter to the game's default assumptions. (My best proof for this is the reverse case: it's possible to run old-school rules with characters that are special by virtue of how the setting treats them. Also, the 3.x and 4e games I play in and DM run quite a spectrum of styles.)

Zak S said...

My go-to reference is that Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster"-- if you watch carefully you'll see: back when they just all did their own things and showed up and played, Metallica was good. Now that they're all sitting around talking about where they want every song to go, they suck colossal planet-sized schwarzeneggar.

I make things up for a living. Like I think a lot of people who are supposed to be creative for a living, I don't mind "collaborating on creative things" in theory, but I don't want it to just turn into a design committee. We get enough of that at work: you shoot me down, I shoot you down, we both shoot him down, and the idea that gets made is whatever's left over.

Different people want different things, is all.

Zak S said...

@shieldhaven

YOU CAN RUN ANY GAME IN ANY WAY. Everybody should know that by now. Point is: when people COMPLAIN about a systems lack of some feature, they are complaining that it doesn't -help- them play the way they want to.

Barking Alien said...

While I and my players are obviously more New School than Old, its interesting the way you depict the differences.

I find it curious that you note Old School players "like not knowing whether they'll fall in love or what magic items they'll get or what prestige class they'll be when they grow up or whether it was all for naught or whether they'll get bitten by a werewolf or whether it'll all end in a 29th-level battle on a mountaintop or in a ditch under the blade of some 2nd-level crap out of the Fiend Folio they can't even spell. They like going out their front door and not knowing where they might be swept off to."

I see this as no different than New School players in my experience. I think the bigger difference is not where the PCs are going but rather where they've been and how they're going to get where they want to go.

New School (D&D 4E aside) isn't a guarantee of an epic tale, riches and a heroic retirement. Its an approach to running a game that makes your character matter in the game story, if not in the world at large.

The New School PC may also be stabbed in the gut by a Mite or be disowned by his family for saving a Dark Elf or whathaveyou but it'll have happened for a reason. The PC will start the game knowing a little of the world around her. She will have a goal and a reason for wanting to enter dangerous places. Her saving of the Dark Elf comes from an early secret relationship she had with one when she was younger. The relationship effects her, her actions and how the story progresses.

Of course, as usual, these are just my opinions. I like the elements you mention the players needing to earn in D&D - plot, personality, differentiation, cinematicness, meaning, destiny, and players having Narrative Control - to exist right from the start in my games so I as the GM feel like I'm playing with the players and not at them. I like the idea that the New School approach is often more collaborative.

As always, an amazing post. Its definitely giving me some things to think about.

Geoffrey said...

"It's also possible to argue--or at least to think--that Tolkien didn't know it either. He wrote The Hobbit first. I'm no Silmarillion expert (I've seen the book jacket, basically) but I don't know if Tolkien knew where the daisy chain started by the riddle game would end."

Tolkien certainly had no idea of the later importance of this chapter when The Hobbit was published in 1937. This book was intended to be a stand-alone "one-shot". Then he was asked to do a sequel. He started writing what came to be The Lord of the Rings, and it became far more than a sequel. The Ring (which was a mere ring of invisibility in the 1937 version of The Hobbit) became the focal point. This necessitated a revised version of The Hobbit (published in 1951), in which the chapter under discussion received the heaviest revisions.

Telecanter said...

For a certain part of my life when things weren't going so well, ever night I went to sleep to the Hobbit narrated by Nicol Williamson. I cannot count the number of times I woke up at 3:00 am to the wrath of Smaug.

I think you're right about story emerging. And from my experience the story that "just happens" is funnier, scarier, and more interesting than anything a DM could have designed. This is seductive to me and I can't understand how anyone having experienced it would set out to craft plots for their players.

Zak S said...

@Barking alien

As usual, I understand that you are a vegetarian and I still insist on eating meat.

"Its an approach to running a game that makes your character matter in the game story, if not in the world at large."

Yeah, I don't want that.

If my character matters, I want it to be earned, and--at any rate--even if they don't matter, if an dwarf is hitting a Slaad with a sword I'm happy. If the dwarf or the Slaad happen to be interesting that's just the icing on the cake.

as for...

"I like the idea that the New School approach is often more collaborative."

See Metallica analogy above.

TrentB said...

Man, thanks for posting this.

Very thought provoking, for me at least. Perhaps when I discover where those thoughts end up I'll have something useful to share hah.

For now, cheers.

Barking Alien said...

Ah, the penultimate example of our fundamental difference Flash...

"If my character matters, I want it to be earned, and--at any rate--even if they don't matter, if an dwarf is hitting a Slaad with a sword I'm happy. If the dwarf or the Slaad happen to be interesting that's just the icing on the cake."

I am, essentially, exactly the opposite. I want the Dwarf and Slaad to be interesting. If they are hitting each other that's my icing. If they aren't interesting characters I don't care that they are hitting each other. Lots of things hit each other.

Well met.

Signed,
Prof. Zoom

lol

Tequila Sunrise said...

My current campaign is totally lacking in long-term plot planning, and it's the most promising campaign I've ever run. The players' first adventure has been killing demons and looting their corpses in a megadungeon, and character plots are just starting to pop up. So I've definitely become a fan of starting with a goofy and existential Bilbo-like adventure.

On the other hand, I run this campaign with 4e D&D, and we started at 11th level. I don't see the appeal of going through a half dozen characters per player before their stats are high enough to ensure a reasonable chance of survival. I love my weird and whimsical Fading Earth campaign, but weird rules like percentile Str, d6s to turn undead and rolled stats definitely aren't necessary to run it. [Or even helpful, IMO.]

Zak S said...

@tequila

my experience of Type IV amounts to one game but, out of curiousity, are you saying:

1-You feel you have no chance of surviving in 4e until 11th level?

and

2-You don't understand the appeal of rolling stats randoml

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

So, Zak, what edition do you use? I thought it was 4e, but that makes less sense with this post...

Zak S said...

@C'nor

What would give you the impression I played Type IV?

PatrickW said...

Emergent story is my favorite genre of game, no matter what system we are using. It usually takes me a session or two to find my characters voice, even in game systems where starting background is part of character creation. This is why I like starting at 1st level (in level-based systems) and building the character as things happen. I have friends who plan out the entire career of their character (mechanically) from start to finish, but I have no interest in this. For me, that's gaming the system not playing the game.

Tangentially, when playing HERO System, our house suggestion for character creation is to take at least one skill that has no practical purpose. Inevitably, sessions down the road, well after everyone forgets that the skill was taken, that skill will become critical to solving an emergent situation that happened due to unplanned action in-game. This has happened often enough to be a solid principle in game design.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

@Zak:

No clue, though I thought sure I saw something about that at some point... I guess reading multiple gameblogs at 3 in the morning can be confusing.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Oh, and that was posted at just about the same time as you posted your response to the person above me, so I hadn't seen it.

Tequila Sunrise said...

@Zak: Sorry for the lack of clarity.

1. No. 4e is overall the most survivable edition to date, IMO. I started the players at 11th level because I'm tired of the low levels [of any edition].

2. I understand the appeal of rolling for stats, but the practice really irritates my sense of a fun and fair game. I'm a big believer in DM authority, but I also think that a lot of gamers roll for hit points and whatnot simply because that's what the book says to do, and then justify it to themselves afterward. The power of tradition, and all that.

Odrook said...

Totally loving your riff on what Old School can mean.

Also: I am very nearly convinced you dated my ex-wife. But she had the Silmarillion on cd (which was pretty rad) and the BBC radio show of Lord of the Rings (which was hilariously and delightfully hokey). Plus like three versions of Winnie the Pooh.

To this day I can quote significant portions of Winnie the Pooh from memory. But I still don't understand anything that happened in the Silmarillion.

Zak S said...

@tequila

2.but if stats are arbitrarily unfair to everybody, then that's fair, right?

i mean, i understand it makes the character unequal, but that means the one with the crappy stats has that much more chance to prove how badass they are, right?

Al said...

Nice post Zak, well said.

Erwin said...

Awesome post, man. I was cheesing from ear to ear by the end of the first afterthought.

Side-note: I been getting a strange malware warning/bump during my recent visits here. Not sure what's causing it.

Tequila Sunrise said...

@Zak

Yes, random stats are fair in the sense that everyone has the chance to roll great stats. Of course as soon as the stats are rolled, things become unfair. Unless players cheat and just keep rolling until they get what they want; in which case ya might as well just give everybody max everything.

I'm sure some gamers do see crappy stats as a way to prove their awesomeness, much like min/maxers see character options as a chance to do the same. I can have fun doing both, but I have more fun playing fair and not obsessing about feats and whatnot.

Menace 3 Society said...

The problem with random stats comes in when stats strongly define the available options or what the character can do. Playing an intelligent but weak fighter can be rewarding in some senses, but in AD&D 1e a musclebound oaf can do three to four times as much damage on average with a basic weapon.

In my house rules I cut the bonuses to AC, to hit rolls, etc, at +2 for 18: enough to make a difference, not enough to make everything else irrelevant.

Delta said...

Awesome post.

One thing I'll say is you can use OD&D (or whatever) to have a non-anonymous starting point: just dial it up to 11 and say "start at this level".

The converse is not so true because of how 4E (say) starts PCs with 3HD or the equivalent, i.e., there's no mechanical support in the rules anymore for a PC with 1 hp.

I'm really stupefied why 4E didn't say "here are standard levels, most of us start at 3rd level these days, but you do your own thing if you want".

Delta said...

Menace 3 Society: "In my house rules I cut the bonuses to AC, to hit rolls, etc, at +2 for 18: enough to make a difference, not enough to make everything else irrelevant."

Same here. Crunched some statistics to come to that conclusion.

Delta said...

Re: Stats, I feel that random stats emphasize team cooperation; point-buy stats emphasize individual performance. IMO.

Feystar said...

I think it's mostly about how the DM sells his game to his players as to what does and doesn't work. The DM has to want to run the system, but the players also need to want to be in that setting. Being a nobody from a back water village stepping out in to the world for the first time is great, but if done properly being someone of note at the start of the game can work well too.

Where the story starts and how it gets wherever it's going isn't important as long as the players want to hear it and the DM wants to tell it.

Zak S said...

@feystar

I feel like if the DM is "telling" and the players are "hearing" something's gone drastically wrong.

Risus Monkey said...

I really dig the drawing vs photography analogy. I guess that makes me a photographer (or photography connoisseur) who really appreciates good drawings. Can I have it both ways?

Tequila Sunrise said...

@Delta

While I'm not interested myself in starting at 1 HD, it really would be great to have official rules for 'apprentice level' 4e characters because a lot of DMs seem to like the idea. I had a 4e DM who started us below 1st level, but he didn't understand the game math so he ended up having to seriously fudge the dice to keep us alive. I almost said "Dude, just let us die and then let us start new characters at 1st level!"

I think it's time for a new house rule blog!

Jim Pacek said...

Great post. Thanks for putting these thoughts in writing and then putting them out there.

JoetheLawyer said...

Barking Alien said:
"Its an approach to running a game that makes your character matter in the game story, if not in the world at large.

The New School PC may also be stabbed in the gut by a Mite or be disowned by his family for saving a Dark Elf or whathaveyou but it'll have happened for a reason."

I think this goes to a way of looking at life in general. My POV---Sometimes random bad shit just happens and then you die. Almost everyone wants to think they're special, and that they have a fate, destiny, or that their life has some higher meaning....but really most people's live don't amount to much more than a pisshole in the show of a random planet in the universe. You're born, you live, you die, and in between a whole lot of random shit happens to you as you try to control it and/or make sense of it. Virtually nobody can control or understand it or be the driving force in their own lives to the extent that they really affect the world around them without the use of illusions, religious, cultural, or otherwise. That's just reality (imho). Your view on reality may differ.

I like old school D&D because it more closely mirrors reality as I see it. I don't like it where everyone gets a trophy just for playing.

Zak S said...

@joe

well, you are a lawyer.

Remind me to hire you if I ever get trapped in a Coen brothers movie.

Delta said...

On the Hobbit riddling (having thought about it for a few days): It's a great scene.

When I was a kid I got the audio soundtrack of the 1977 animated Hobbit movie (originally shown on NBC TV, I just learned), and listened to it a bunch of times to the point of remembering a lot of it. The top scenes are probably (1) riddles with Gollum, and (2) interrogation by Smaug.

The voice acting in the riddling scene goes like this -- Bilbo is unfailingly polite and urbane, like he's negotiating which half of the last biscuit goes to which person after dinner. Gollum is practically shrieking, like he's a deranged, slavering lunatic the whole time. Thematically, Gollum knows the world hinges on this item, and Bilbo doesn't. Nevertheless, Bilbo emerges victorious.

That's sort of a deep metaphor. It's empowering and unsettling at the same time, in the same way that I find Judo or higher math. (Zen-like.)

Side note: If you've ever been to the indie club Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn, they frequently video-project this version of the Hobbit over the stage while rock bands play. Freaks me out a bit every time (partly because I can hear the complete soundtrack in my head alongside the band playing).

Feystar said...

Oh dear, no that's not what I was trying to say.

What I meant was that running a game where the player characters start with more than the shirt on their back and a hand me down sword can work, but both the DM and the players need to want to start from that point. Like epic level campaigns or players as dragons, super heroes or whatever.

-C said...

I'm fairly certain that the revision mentioned, exclusively resolved around rewriting this scene.

The original involved Gollum putting the ring up in the bet, and when Tolkien realized that he wouldn't do that because of how important it was, it turned into Bilbo finding the ring.

Doc Grognard said...

Well, I seem to be reading your blog backwards, and I kind of wish I had read more before my last post on tomorrows ost, but hey. This is excellent. Photo vs paint is excellent. And its just artsy fartsy enough to require response from .....well, artsy fartsy types. Excellent. Thanks !