Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Creative vs Destructive Play

I realized, upon further reflection, what my real objection to Monte's position on high-level play is (discussed previously here).  As a player and a GM, I like to create things in the game world.  This is part of what I like about Traveller; it encourages creative play on both sides of the screen.  During character generation, the creation of Allies, Enemies, and other NPC personalities happens as part of the system.  Between sessions, starship design is an entertaining pastime.  During play, the skill system is sufficiently flexible that you can go "Hey, I want to rig up the hull so that we can run current through it in case we're being attacked by giant space squid," and the GM goes "OK, Average Engineer (Power Systems) check, 10-60 hours, and some volume of spare parts depending on your effect," rather than "OK, that'll be 30000 gp, 2400 XP, and 60 days, during which time you can't do anything else interesting."  And for the GM, Traveller is absolutely made of tools to help create.  Create subsectors, create worlds, create reasonable (well, mostly) ecologies for those worlds, and create hooks.

D&D, on the other hand, does this relatively poorly.  Players create their characters, and all else is left to the DM.  Even then, most characters seem to be mostly rules constructs with little in the way of backstory or connection to the world.  Perhaps I'm being too strong here, and projecting my own past tendencies onto others.  But I really think I'm not...  Looking back at Tim's first summer game, the whole party were all such homeless drifters with undeveloped backstories that Tim decided that we'd all had our memories wiped as the only reasonable explanation.  On the other hand, that was originally intended to be a one-shot.  So...  yeah, not sure.  I guess the character creation process is just different; Traveller goes "OK, here's the character you've got and a few seeds of backstory; what were the details?", whereas D&D's character generation rules go "Build whatever you damn well please within this massively complex framework, and if you have a few minutes at the end maybe come up with a little backstory."  This lack of backstory on characters makes it harder for the DM to come up with hooks that the players will actually be invested in...  and so they default to mechanical motives (loot and XP) and superficial plots.

Further, play in D&D is largely destructive.  The structure of most (3.x+) D&D campaigns, both on the macro and the micro level, seems to be "Oh noes, some {monster, cult, tribe of orcs, demon prince} is menacing society.  Go forth, adventurers, and whack them." Even when PCs are fighting the good fight, they're still ultimately focused on killing things and taking their loot.  Sure, sometimes they're going to go on quests for the shiny artifacts...  but it's so they can throw them into Mount Doom and kill Sauron, thereby preserving the status quo.  Either that, or they're +6 weapons and therefore make the PCs better at killing all kinds of other things.  And then when you've slain the Dark Lord, you earn the accolades of the people, a new threat arises, and you do it again, until you get sick of dealing with how the system plays at high levels and you quit and start over at low levels, or you get TPK'd, or you break suspension of disbelief ("Wait, we're like 20th level.  Where do these bad guys keep coming from?  Why weren't they ruling the world back when we started, if they were so awesome?  And don't give me that up-and-coming crap.  These dragons have been here for a looong time.").

High-level D&D is the place where creative play is most reasonable.  Spell research, crafting magic items, training apprentices, building kingdoms, raising a family, founding a monastery, taking control of the guild...  all these are things which high-level characters in D&D should reasonably be expected to do.  All of these are things which the rules either explicitly don't support or discuss (kingdom building), or things which are widely discouraged (magic item creation and spell research) by both the rules (XP costs?  Ouch) and by DMs and publishers (ex: Trailblazer's stance on crafting magic items).  And this is where Monte's focus on planar travel and artifact hunts really gets me.  It's just a continuation of the same old "kill things and take their stuff" routine, but it solves (to some degree) the suspension of disbelief problem present in fighting high-level foes on the material plane.  Other than that, it's more of the same, and it's a terrible waste of such potential for creative play.

So, DMs of the world, next time your PCs get to high levels, start slowing down the pace of the game.  Part of the trouble with 3.x and later is that leveling is really, really fast in terms of in-game time.  At 4 encounters per day of EL equal to party level, a group of PCs could go from 1 to 20 in 67 days of continuous adventuring.  This is strictly ridiculous on a number of levels; assuming they take two days off for every day of adventuring, it's still only about half a year.  Make high-level NPCs and monsters scarce, and well-protected; they didn't get to be high-level by being foolish.   Don't necessarily keep the next threat obviously on the radar; give the PCs some slack sessions with personal subplots.  Go "Things settle down, and the realm is at peace.  A year passes, then another.  What do you do, in broad strokes?"  Present the PCs with social advancement as a reward for their successes; fiefs, guild franchises, titles, tenure at the Academy of Mages, sainthood, that sort of thing.  Use interesting and political hooks; maybe the Council of Wizards is holding an election for the new Magelord, and the party wizard's name has been brought up, or the king offers the fighter his daughter's hand in marriage, then dies under suspicious circumstances.  In either case, the characters now have to go do things or miss great opportunities, but the things they must do will be subtler, and not easily solved by killing people and taking their stuff (mostly, at least).

Then, if and when the Next Big Threat arises, the PCs have a network of assets in place that they can leverage against it, but also things that they need to protect, and probably a few enemies that they've made along the way.  And then you run some adventures where the players play their apprentices as PCs against the minions of the Enemy, and pull out the old PCs only for the final, climactic set-piece battle against the Enemy itself.  And sure, maybe that last battle is on another plane, or using an artifact weapon.  But it's more of an "Our students cannot survive in the abyssal citadel of the enemy, nor can they resist the temptation of the Black Sword.  We must do this alone," situation than "Another day, another plane."

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