Last session, my players told me, marked session 10 in the MERP campaign. This is an important number now that I have implemented house rules for xp. Each player receives 1,000 xp per session played, so, for all players who have participated in every session, any new characters that must be generated due to character death begin at level two.
I will organize this post around some thoughts inspired by Ken over at the Rolemaster Blog, who has posted another fascinating entry in his series deconstructing and criticizing the RM system and game design in general. His topic this time was “Cost.” What he means, I think, by Cost in gaming is how much time and energy is subsumed in resolving and tracking game mechanics. Ken spent his time analyzing RM character generation and combat charts. The cost of character generation, at my table, doesn’t figure much. The characters already are generated, most of them built by me, and they are MERP characters, easier to generate than true RM characters. And I have an obvious algorithm (maximize, if possible, one or more favored Weapon Skills of the culture; maximize Body Development; in all other cases put at least one rank into a skill to avoid the -25 penalty). The cost of the charts and roll resolutions were more present in my mind, however, particularly when I heard one player mention, “And now Gabe is over there playing his own private game while we wait to see what happened.” What he was referring to, of course, was how I was consulting a weapon chart, taking into consideration the attacker’s Offensive Bonus, situational modifiers, and the defender’s Defensive Bonus, finding my entry, something like “12AP,” in which case flipping to another chart and asking for another roll from the player, perhaps trying to keep in mind how much Bleeding or rounds of Stun might be going on, etc. My players don’t really mind this high Cost to my game environment: half of the group are old skoolers and dedicated gamers, period, and the other half are newbs who, at this point in their enculturation, kind of appreciate most of the “debt” being lifted from them, waiting patiently or chatting with other players while the GM figures things out. If action might appear slow from an individual player’s perspective, the GM’s head is a welter of activity, inhabited by an evolving tactical environment in which heroes and antagonists square off, one against the other, both parties often unaware of other possibilities emerging from corners or just “off screen.”
So it seems to me that, depending on the player role at the table, the Cost varies in terms of burden of responsibility and perception. Cost can be increased, of course, depending on the level of experience of the player (not character, though that could mean something too — higher level characters often are higher maintenance). As I mentioned, Ken, for now, focused on Cost in terms of character generation and combat resolution. But it occurred to me, last session, that Cost is interesting to apply to all three prongs of GNS theory. Cost might be Gamist in terms of range of choices to the player, how long it takes to explain and retain the weights and implications of these choices. Cost might be Narrativist, usually in regards to the GM, in how many story strands and environmental details (which may or may not translate into mechanical costs) the GM has to maintain, track and prepare for. Cost might be Simulationist, that which Ken focused on, in terms of how much time and energy it takes to mechanically resolve the Gamist and Narrativist choices made by players and GM. Last session, I had occasion to reflect on all three of these aspects.
To begin with the Gamist considerations, at this time, in my own game, there isn’t much. As I said, the characters are made, so, for the most part, players are consigned to a narrative choice, as I have explained sufficiently, or to the rolling of a d100. Their bonuses are predetermined; environmental and situational modifiers often result from narrative choices, and some real Gamist choices originate from resource management. This last session, largely because a character finally was able to identify some of them, a player started making use of his potions to (mostly) good effect.
Something new was revealed to me, however. My players began to shake their heads and wonder at all the misses they were making on some unarmored Weak Orcs. At the same time, these Orcs were doing consistent damage on some of their own armored characters. It occurred to me that the players didn’t have the combat charts. An essential element of the game is how armor and weapons interact with one another. For example, because a character is more agile without armor, it’s more difficult to land a blow on an unarmored character rather than an armored one. And some weapons are better suited than others to this attempt. The players should be made cognizant of these choices. Therefore, next session I’m going to have a few extra copies of the most relevant weapon attack tables. Players can even look up their own results, if they want. I think this will benefit the game.
Narrativist considerations are deceptively a non-issue in determinations of Cost. Players simply make their choices (though sometimes they need to be hurried along if they start micro-strategizing in the midst of combat, or if they fall into analysis paralysis). I find the most potential for cost, in the Narrativist regard, in the GM’s camp, however. Last session my players, as usual, went a much different path than I had expected. So instead of paging through combat charts I found myself paging through old maps and locales. What was going on at the alchemist’s cave? What would the PCs find? I had had a few ideas — they might even have been written down somewhere — but that was sessions ago! Sometimes Narrativist choices result in Simulationist choices. I love to consult the weather tables (which I forgot to do last session). PCs get xp for miles traveled. Instead of calculating it, I ballparked it.
The lesson I have been learning most clearly as this campaign progresses, however, is that, simply put, the more choices the GM offers his players the more narrative work, or Cost, it is for the GM. It seems like the very best advice a GM can heed when starting a sandbox campaign is to make just three hexes of adventure locations. And maybe stop there. As old skoolers have learned from generations of megadungeons, the location is always changing and repopulating anyway, always worth a second or third or fourth visit. Also, sandbox design encourages emergent storytelling. Two sessions ago, my PCs released a Shadow into the world. Their intention is track it down and end it. So the Shadow had to be somewhere, and an adventure location was required. But it wasn’t used — at least not yet. My PCs’ choices resulted in them going back to some other locations, and the story careened down a much different route than otherwise expected. What I’m saying is that, after three initial adventure locations as choices, the GM best uses her time designing new ones as the narrative demands them, not because he simply has some more on hand and has a new, cool idea.
To reduce Cost on the GM’s narrative end, I have been trying to fit all necessary information into a single map on a single page. In the margins I try to consolidate all Monster and NPC stats and Treasure descriptions. I use colored pencils, as much as possible, to give me visual cues of what rooms contain and possible light sources.
After an adventure, it should become necessary to update these maps and descriptions. I will try to keep them current and organized in a binder. Perhaps I’ll take some time this week redoing a lot of this work, streamlining and cleaning it.
Simulationism has the highest Cost, of course, and here choices in efficiency often have a detrimental result on realism and my own enjoyment of the game. Again and again I consider new Gamist elements or simplifications. Again and again I reject them in favor of just progressing on with the rules we have and moving one step closer towards that elusive chimera, System Mastery. The problem with introducing an innovation for a questionable need is that a new rule, no matter how ingenious, is an just one more thing to keep cognizant of, a potential for yet one more error. Sharing combat charts should help. Personal study and fine-tuning of my screen and binder should have similar benefit.
Anyway, I again have reaped benefit from Ken’s new Rolemaster series. I expect to improve my game with these thoughts. I look forward to more analysis of RM game design.