Thursday, September 3, 2015

ACKS and the Open Table

I have been thinking lately that there is a contradiction, a tension, in the way that we play ACKS (and probably in other OSR games as well).  The two competing modes of play are the open-table game and the domain game.  The demands on the structure of the game that each imposes are inimical to the other.

The open table more-or-less requires episodic play.  It's possible to run a coherent non-episodic game with an unreliable cast, but it's a lot of work.  Beyond the Black Gate suggests a number of approaches to episodic play - relic retrieval, monster hunting, and the megadungeon.  Justin Alexander cites the megadungeon as his path back to open-table gaming.  The Western Marches, long the canonical 3.x open-table game, actually has a lot in common with the megadungeon.  It has the same difficulty gradients, hidden treasure rooms, high lethality, unclearability, and internal logic one would expect of a megadungeon.

These styles of play (except for the relic retrieval) are well-designed for denying players their impersonal resources.  In both the megadungeon and the Marches, mercenaries are inviable due to morale concerns (it's considered suicidal to go there and you can't hire), and establishing anything resembling a domain is impossible due to the unclearability / restocking property.

This is not accidental.  Episodic play starts to get really weird when you add domains and mercs, mainly due to time, continuity, and boundary conditions.  If you're not at a session and they elapse a month of travel time, do you need to pay your mercs their monthly wage?  Does your domain generate income?  If the next party is totally separate, maybe not, but what if someone who was at the last session (and acquired XP and treasure, and whose 'timeline' was advanced that month) is at the next session with you?  If another party accidentally leads a goblin army back to your domain during a session where you're not present, what happens?  In strict episodic play, it's very easy to handwave a character's absence for a month, but in the domain game, time and continuity are both sort of important.

My conclusion from this, then, is that we have another subtle shift in play in B/X and its derivatives.  Not just within the rules, but within the structure of the party and the game.  At low levels, when you're dungeoneering, open table works fine.  You can swap out players and characters and it's all good.  Expeditions to the dungeon and back are only a day anyway.  When you start doing wilderness adventuring, continuity and time become more important, because you start accumulating mercenaries and expeditions get longer.  Switching to the relic retrieval and monster-hunting episodic modes mentioned above can keep a wilderness-level game open for a while, but disparities in level and personal power will begin to emerge between reliable and unreliable players, and continuity and time headaches will start to accumulate if mercenaries are in use.  It might be sensible to fork the game at this point, with reliable wilderness players who are accumulating mercenaries splitting off to form their own game with a separate, coherent continuity from the continuing open table game.  It seems like such a "forking" measure would be nearly necessary by domain level.

ACKS, for its part, does not make running an open table easy even at low levels.  The primary offenders here are the market rules and henchman wages, which require timekeeping from 1st level (though I suspect that many a henchman's monthly wages have gone unpaid and unnoticed in my games in the past).  The spellcaster repertoire-swap and spell-learning times also encourage timekeeping.

At the end of the day, I might just be disillusioned with both open table's continuity and timekeeping issues and the domain game's paperwork, though.  I keep trying to run open tables at around the wilderness level and they keep being pains in the ass.  I'm sorely tempted to try falling back to a small, reliable party of 2-4 players for a wilderness-level game.

6 comments:

Robert Loblah said...

I've been doing this with ACKS since early last year, with about 6 semi-regular players and a couple one-offs. We play whenever I can get 2 or more players out. Timekeeping very occasionally creates weirdness, but we've handled the problems you mention in one of two ways:
1.) Someone marches after you, and finds you in the wilderness when feasible (e.g. "Dr. Livingston, I presume?")
2.) Everyone has secondary (and tertiary) Characters, and these are played interchangeably with other people's primary Characters, as continuity dictates (Alright, so my main Character, Belgarath, is stuck at the fort under siege with Caasi and Kane, so I'll play Tover tonight and go grave-robbing with Vandelay, seeing as his player is here).
All-in-all, it has worked out pretty smoothly. Ultimately, I've decided that time advances unless there is zero conflict in fitting something in during something else (i.e. you're over here, and we're over there, so we can both adventure at the same time). If time advances, you're on the hook for any and all costs. I'm not sure I expect all of this to be all that different at name level. The main problem I foresee is the movement of armies over protracted military campaigns, assuming those come about.

David Sullivan said...

Have you tried a combo F2F and PbP game? You do the dungeon crawling face to face, and work on the domain building via email or forum post between sessions.

John said...

My players are historically so hungry for advancement that they are sometimes hesitant to hire henchmen, and deaths are often met with "fewer shares, more for the rest of us!". I would be very surprised if a proposal of secondary characters met with their support, because that's dividing hard-won XP even more ways. The catch-up maneuver could work for a while I suppose.

John said...

We've tried obsidian portal's forums and facebook messages, and neither really caught on for anything mechanical. Adjudicating individual-player stuff like mercantile ventures and hijinks over skype chats happened occasionally, but that only worked for a couple of high-motivation players (who also had spreadsheets and were working out optimal play for those subsystems).

John said...

Well, blogspot doesn't seem to have an "undelete comment after late-night misclicking" option, so here's what Bob posted:

"Yeah, I can understand that mentality. There was some of that amongst our group, but I also made it clear up front that the alternative to secondary Characters was not playing when something would break continuity; I was sick of PCs appearing and disappearing in white puffs of logic. Given that alternative, players were happy to swing other Characters. Having said that, it has also come up far less than I expected it to.

As for Henchmen, they were also reluctant to hire them due to the XP split, and occasionally cracked wise about killing them at the end of a session. However, they also soon discovered just how much more survivable they were with a complement of Henchmen. It definitely allowed them to take on harder tasks, the reward for which likely more than made up for the divided XP. Party capability doesn't scale linearly with additional members. They are also just starting to discover the advantages of being able to send competent Henchmen to go do something else while you're busy adventuring. Anyway, once they got the hang of Henchmen, and had them around for awhile, they also seemed to get attached. Losing one isn't like losing a PC, but they don't treat Henchmen like Redshirts, either.

We also tried running bookkeeping type stuff on an Obsidian Portal forum, and we've had mixed success with that. Sometimes things get done, sometimes they don't."

John said...

Yeah, most of my players eventually figured out that henchmen were a net win, but there were definitely some heated debates. The no-hench faction was angry that the hench faction was 'stealing' their XP. Perhaps I will have to give backup-characters a shot next campaign; I agree that it sounds fun, and would make multi-tier play much more viable, but I'm not quite sure what I need to do to get buy-in.