Feb 26, 2012

Gatsby, Batman, and Splintering Chairs

I will begin here by saying that I run what is mostly an old-school campaign. Players continue from one game to the next, fighting monsters and getting drunk with the hobbits, and sometimes they actually die. Forever. But what is much more important, and mostly a result, is: players think.
When my players encounter a giant hairy spider, they light torches to burn it. When my players encounter an ancient dwarven automaton, they flick the switch to see what it will do before attacking. And when they see an elf dragged to the gallows... well, they instigate a riot and all Hell breaks loose, but the point is, mine is not a game where players are expected only to fight, kill, and move on to the next room, which brings up the problem I have with the WoTC editions of DnD and the like, what I refer to as late-edition games.
The problem I always encountered when I started off in fourth edition (a brief fling a few years ago) was that in an environment even one table removed from the four-stone-walls-and-a-floor formula I wanted to pick up that table for a shield, get under it, jump on top of it, and hurl it across the room at my opponents. And this is exactly the thought process I expect from my players. Every time I flesh out a random sitting room, I fully expect chairs to be thrown, tables to be lit on fire, and baddies to be skewered with coat racks. Variety truly is the spice of life, and best embraced by beating cultists with splintering chairs.
Unfortunately, the problem I too often found was that using my environment always yielded inferior results to simply using my encounter power. Using my ten-foot-pole to vault over a gnoll was never so surefire as switching places via my dizzying slice (or whatever); rolling under a table never gave me the defense boost of a cleric's blessing; in short I was never so desperately in need of the advantage to try the daring moves that make all those crappy Zorro and Three Musketeers movie adaptations nonetheless entertaining to watch.
And so I did them anyway and was despised by my teammates for not simply selecting the most practical attack card.
And so I grew tired of the fourth edition.
Now those of you who spend your spare time organizing your socks by hex code, arranging your trigonometric identities on flash cards by order of frequency of use, or those who know no better may take delight in choosing the daily power that is X% likely to do Y-Z points of damage and rolling a die that you know will have the sufficient bonus to do what you know is enough damage to take down the goblin which you know can't survive the 2x damage from your backstab/combat advantage/blah/blah/blah. But for my players the thrill is in not knowing.
In my and early edition games the only thing certain is that your first-level wizard can die from a couple of well-rolled punches in the face. You don't know how much health you'll have when you roll it at the next level, and so a first-level early-edition character is desperate. A first-level early-edition character is a schemer. Zac S paints a despairing portrait of the dungeon as a hopeless place, a portrait I allow lovingly to terrify me, and love to let terrify my players. When you are hundreds of feet below ground in the pitch black of a dwarven ruin, you are alone, and you know not from whence the next horror comes, or whether it will finally be the thing to slay you and munch on your bones. When you have ready three encounter powers that can each slaughter a bull in one swing and a daily that could wound mighty Zeus himself, and all within the first five levels, you know no fear. When light is a free spell, you don't shake at the thought that your last torch may be extinguished in the dark depths of Hades, you don't sit and argue over whether your wizard should use his last spell slot for one more magic missile or to conjure food for the party.
It is that desperation that leads to the interesting conflicts. Daztur writes an extensive article analyzing the new edition forms of combat as opposed to old scheming wars, an extreme of the kind of combat I encourage. This "combat-as-war" can actually engage the players more when the scenario is not established as otherwise impossible as in many of Daztur's examples. In a situation that is merely challenging, as I propose, and options left open, the player has the choice, and most often learns to plan in advance to avoid acquaintance with death.
And when the three-hit-point wizard grows into a level twenty demigod the player has been transformed into a man appreciative of his power, who uses it wisely. Contrast and change always yield the most interesting characters. Had Jay Gatsby been all the while rich and not worked his way up, he may have been with and abandoned Daisy, knowing not the time without and taking for granted. Had the young Bruce Wayne not been so happy in his younger years, not been so shocked by pain, death, and crime; he may never have worn his underwear on the outside and jumped off a rooftop, and we would sorely lack our favorite hero. Frank Miller in Year One even goes so far as to show Batman's first attempts and the failures (or near failures) he endured, so that we appreciate his perfection all the more later. The characters that fall and rise again are the ones we love (even Jesus died once, for all you religious folk).
When you have never failed, with your stack of special powers and second winds and action points, you don't know how great, and how lucky, it is to win. My players have all been rendered unconscious, useless, in battle time and again, and now they know just how important it is to plan and work together and they value the turns of fate that we roll every day. Knowing that death looms always on the other side of the polyhedron, they cling to life by tables and splintering chairs and makeshift torches and they see every battle won for the stroke of luck it is and sigh with relief. Another battle well fought, and one more day of life well earned.
Can you say the same when you knew all along you could take down the boss with your 6d12dmg daily power?


  1. I gotta say, I like this idea of a blog a lot. Good first post, also. A lot of good points. I'm still pissed that I missed the whole dungeon you ran through. Very pissed. I want to see what your enlightened view of dungeons produced.

    I have a Wacky Idea: what if you gave us (your PCs) the information to edit this too. This could be a good, overall, filter trap to collect whatever crap we want to say about dnd. Two heads are better than one? *eyebrow waggle*

    1. 1) Sorry guys, my blog, make your own if you've got stuff to say. I'll be sure to follow.
      2) Can we use character names? Just for the sake of it, internet security and all that, plus I like the idea.

  2. First post has great content. But might I make a suggestion to help make it easier on the eyes? Break up your text into paragraphs, and it won't look so intimidating to read.

    Looking forward to more of your posts :) Good luck and keep blogging.