Savage Bookkeeping

Patrick over at RPG Diehard just had a post on Rations and record-keeping (basically asking whether it was a good idea or not to make the players track things like food), which set me to thinking.

One of the neat insights in Savage Worlds, which I’ve mentioned before, is that you can sometimes replace frequent small events with rarer more significant ones to accomplish the same goals.  That’s most evident in the way damage is handled, but appears in other places in the rules as well, such as the way ammo is handled for the PCs allies.  Savage Worlds is intended to allow the players to control bunches of NPCs as allies, but keeping track of ammo for them whether it’s bullets or arrows, would be a big bookkeeping hassle.  So they abstract it into the allies having four possible ammo levels: Very High, High (they start at this level unless you take special effort to equip them), Low, and Out.  Every combat where the allies are heavily involved in fighting, they drop a level; if during combat they are dealt a 2 as their init card, they drop a level after that round. There’s no game effect until they hit Out.  When they’re Out, they’re all out.  So it’s simple to keep track of, allows for the possibility that they run out during combat, and makes it so you have to pay at least some attention to keeping them supplied.

It seems to me that a similar mechanic could work very well for things like rations and torches, even for PCs.  Give them 4 levels of the significant groups of consumable (e.g. I’d do food and water together, but light sources as a seperate track).  Then have the level drop if some event occurs.

For instance, in an overland adventure, you’d almost always be rolling at least once a day for either weather or encounters.  It would be simple at the same time to roll to see if rations dropped.  You could either put it as an “event” on the encounter table, or (and I kind of favor this) you roll the best character’s Survival die, and on a 1, the party and all its allies drop a ration level.  Once the level drops, it can only go back up if the party touches base at some relatively settled area such as a village or farm (depending on the size of the group), or if the party spends a day foraging and gets a raise on the Survival skill.  If they ever reach Out, they start to suffer the effects of Hunger as per the core rules.

While it has the drawback that bad luck could result in running out of food quickly after leaving the settled areas, you could explain that as something specific happening (a bear getting into the supplies, the food turning moldy, etc)  I think that adds a nice bit of flavor that is otherwise pretty unlikely to crop up in a game that isn’t obsessively detailed, and the upside of requiring almost no bookkeeping besides a couple of tick-marks while making sure the players at least occassionally consider where their supplies are coming from is quite high.  And if you’re running a fantasy campaign, it finally makes spells like Create Food and Water or those pouches of neverending food something the adventurers will be quite pleased to have.

One Thing I Miss About Classic D&D Magic

Is that magic spells and items are so clearly unsystematic and ad hoc that a GM really felt licensed to add anything he could possibly think of.  The only unifying principle was that more powerful spells should be higher level and the more powerful items rarer; other than that anything goes.  So our early D&D games were full of fabulous spells (often realized as bizarre dungeon effects that messing with this or that statue or altar would invoke), items, creature abilities…we let our imaginations run riot.

My strong impression, though maybe this was just a fault of mine and the people I tended to game with is that later systems tended towards either providing a toolkit to build spells (e.g. Fantasy Hero, Ars Magica, BESM) or a more-or-less exhaustive list of spells that you were expected to keep to (RoleMaster, etc).  The idea, laughable in the context of classic D&D, was that some effort had gone into thinking about the system of magic and balancing the effects, their costs to learn or cast, and so forth.  If you messed with it, you did so at the peril of throwing things out of balance or introducing a contradictory mechanic.  If the toolkit didn’t provide an appropriate base effect, or the cost of the modifiers needed to make it useful were completely out-of-whack (because those same modifiers applied to, say, a spell that did damage would make it devastating)…well, you were free to add or adjust it, but there was a definite impression that you were messing with something finely tuned that might not work as well or at all once you got done with hot-rodding it.

Eventually, there came systems where everything was defined more-or-less by the same mechanic (e.g. something like the PDQ System or Dogs in the Vineyard) , whether it was casting a spell or catching a fish, so questions of balance pretty much went out the window.  So did a lot of the sense that there was something special about magic…it’s a little hard to explain, because I’m not sure I completely understand my objection myself, but if a system is too abstract and rules-light I start to lose the sense that there’s anything about magic that’s any more unusual or mysterious than fixing an engine, because the player goes through the exact same steps with the same mechanic whether he’s casting a spell to summon a whirlwind and transport himself a thousand leagues or change the spark-plugs on his Chevy Nova.  There might be setting information that makes one possible and the other inconceivable, or modifiers applied, but there’s something that’s kind of flat and abstract about it.

The feeling I got from classic D&D was that half the fun for the DM was to make up wilder and wackier spells and items, either for the players to use or to be used against them.  Dave Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire was a notable example of just how wacky it could get, but all the DMs I knew did the same kind of thing, albeit perhaps on a smaller scale. I actually had a long-running campaign in Arduin, that my brother still thinks is possibly the best–or at least most memorable and atmospheric–one I ran.

Nowadays I’m much more likely to feel justified just house-ruling the heck out of everything to get it to where I want it; but nowadays, I’m much less likely to even be GMing a published system.  One of the things I admire about Savage Worlds is that while it basically is a hybrid of the toolkit and grimoire approaches to magic systems, the advice to GMs (at least in the Fantasy World Builder’s Toolkit) is much more reminiscent of the anything goes feel of D&D.  So while spell that shoots a bolt that damages a target is the same whether it’s a blast of fire, a magic arrow, a summoned swarm of bees, there’s no attempt at making an accounting system for balancing the duration, range, area of effect, etc of spells against each other or some standard point cost. If you want to add a new spell, you’re advised to either just change the “trappings” of an existing spell and add new minor mechanical effects as appropriate (e.g. a bolt of fire might set things on fire in addition to the direct damage, a bolt of ice might slow them or cause a slippery patch on the floor), translate a spell from another game, or just create it from whole cloth.  You could certainly use the spell lists from SW and no more, but like old school D&D it cries out for and gives license to expansion in whatever direction your imagination takes you.

I think it can be summed up as: when the system makes no attempt to balance spells against anything except a difficulty rating or fit them into any kind of taxonomy or  metaphysics, it’s clear you can just toss in anything you like.  When the system obviously has attempted more than just a list of really cool things you can do with magic and has put some thought and care into it, then as a GM you feel like you ought to be doing the same.   And sometimes I miss just saying, Ooh, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a spell that did X?  Let me write that down….

Savage Worlds: Three Do’s

Some positive advice for Savage Worlds GMs:

  1. Do Encourage Tricks
  2. Do Be Generous with Bennies
  3. Do Be Descriptive With Combat Mechanics

Do Encourage Tricks

Tricks (and Tests of Will) are a great way to get role-playing into combat, so you want to be pretty lenient on what counts.  In particular, since the exact mechanical effect of the Trick is precisely defined (-2 on Parry rolls until the next action), I advocate letting the players get fairly wild in their description of what they’re doing.  Rolling barrels down the stairs at the oncoming villain, dumping a bucket of soapy water on his head, pulling the tapestry down over him, ducking between the giant’s legs…they’re all perfectly good tricks for a simple Agility or Smarts test, as long as you limit the effect to the -2 Parry.  I’d also be inclined to allow things like kicking someone to force them back a step that’s not strictly covered in the rules by handling it as a trick, perhaps with a modifier.

Do Be Generous With Bennies

I know I said I’m not that fond of them, but they’re there and they’re an important part of Savage Worlds, so you want players to be spending them fairly freely.  They’re also (as pointed out in the rules) one of the things you can hand out as rewards instead of xp, which is tightly limited.  Giving Bennies for good RP and good descriptions of combat livens things up and discourages the hoarding impulse.  Bennies also make the players more comfortable going for larger-than-life stunts that might carry significant penalties; in most Savage Worlds settings that’s probably something you want to encourage.

Do Be Descriptive With Combat Mechanics

Savage Worlds is a fairly abstract system, which is great for simplicity, but not so great for excitement.  Against a tough opponent it’s entirely possible for several rounds to pass with no mechanical change at all; particularly for players who are conditioned to the D&D mechanic of doing at least some amount of damage against big foes each action even if it might take dozens of actions to finish the fight this can feel like “nothing’s happening.”  To make matters worse, with a nasty bad-guy the GM will often spend a Bennie for a chance to negate the effect.  It’s not good if the fights are shorter, but it feels like less is happening.

So to spice things up, you want to be descriptive and make the fight memorable.  You still, IMO, want to match the description to the mechanics; it’s not like you can fool the players into thinking something significant happened by adding flavor text when the mechanics clearly tell them the situation is unchanged, but I think you can make the combat more interesting by adding story-telling elements.  There are five events that almost always deserve narrative attention:

  1. When an attack is made: this is all potential, so as long as you stop before the result, it’s all good. Try to match the description of the attack with the style of the foe.  “With an enormous overhand blow, the Minotaur swings his mighty axe at your head!” beats “The Minotaur attacks.” For a fencer you’d want something more like “His dancing blade slides past yours and leaps for your face!”  Follow up with describing the hit or the miss.  Try to keep the players the center of the action, and in a way that emphasizes their character’s traits: “You deftly step aside” for an agility-based character vs. “There’s a huge crash and it bounces uselessly off your shield” for a tank.
  2. To match a Trick or Test of Will.  This is actually required by the rules, so not just “The Minotaur tries to Intimidate” by “The Minotaur lets loose a blood-curdling bellow that shakes the cavern.”
  3. When he’s Shaken.  Not “He’s shaken”, but “He reels in pain, the blood dripping in his eyes temporarily blinding him.”
  4. Spending a Bennie, particularly on a soak. Ok, this one is a bit meta, but you need to save yourself from anti-climax here.  The players might be all excited from scoring a good hit, and you go and take it away from them with a successful soak roll…talk about your buzz-kill.  I think you can make it go down a bit easier by narrating it so “the event happened but…” instead of relegating it to “it never was.”  “Your mighty blow catches him solidly in the belly, but the blade hits the buckle of his oversized belt and skitters to the left, leaving a bloody but shallow furrow.”  The point is to emphasize how he lucked out in avoiding the damage, and how he won’t be so lucky next time (true…even the Wild Card NPCs will run out of bennies).   Even if he blows the soak roll, I might do something like this, except making it a deep furrow despite the luck of having it hit the buckle, just to emphasize that he’s now down a Bennie besides being hurt.
  5. Being Wounded or Incapacitated. You don’t get many of these in a fight, and against a tough foe they can be a little while coming, so you want to make the most of them.  When you take a Wound in SW you are really hurt: all your trait rolls are at a penalty for the rest of the fight.  That deserves some narration as to how bloody and shakey the foe has become, perhaps with some froth at the lips or a hand stuffed in a wound, stanching the flow of blood.

Can you go overboard with this kind of thing?  Well, sure… you’re not making things more exciting by stopping the flow of the game to declaim a paragraph with each sword-swing.  But I think unless you’re a natural ham, there’s such a strong tendency to underplay it and regress to “he swings. Hit. Roll damage.  That’s a raise.” that you have to deliberately aim for over-the-top before you can find a good balance.

Also, don’t neglect the Extras… they may be only a third or less as robust as the Wild Cards, but they are just as good opportunities for description if not better (since the events concerning them are more likely to be final).  One suggestion (cribbed from the board) is that you let the players describe exactly what happens when they dispatch an Extra, and with the right group I think that’s a very good idea.

In fact, in general, I think you want to encourage the players to add their descriptive touches to the game.  They’re pretty much required to for Tricks and Tests of Will, and they really ought to for Attacks as well.  Whether they want to describe themselves being Shaken, Soaking a Wound, or Being Wounded or would rather the GM does it depends on the player (some might object to becoming the narrator when they’re trying to stay firmly in the mind of their character), but if they’re comfortable with it, I’d say go for it.

Savage Worlds: Three Don’ts

Per Patrick’s request, here are three things that I think a Savage Worlds GM should avoid. (There’s also a good thread on the Savage Worlds Forum: What Every New Savage GM Should Know.)  The key to SW is the mantra Fast! Furious! Fun!  There’s lots and lots of places where you could add more detail and special cases to the rules and it would add something to the game–but the game is built around abstracting that stuff away to concentrate on moving play along.  The biggest meta-rule, and the one that they’ll volunteer right off in the forum, is don’t change the rules until you’ve played it enough to have a good sense of the consequences; the rules are tightly knit.  That doesn’t mean they’re right for your group, but it does mean that small changes might have big or numerous unforeseen effects.

But there’s more to F!F!F! than just don’t tinker until you know what the part does.  Here are three things to get you in the swing of F!F!F!

  1. Don’t Worry About NPCs Being Valid
  2. Don’t Make Monsters Extras Unless They Outnumber the Players
  3. Don’t Look Up Rules While Playing

Don’t Worry About NPCs Being Valid

NPCs and PCs are different.  The rules for character creation don’t apply to NPCs.  In particular, don’t worry about Rank restrictions, advancement limits, or any of that; just write down the stats, a few key skills and Edges and go.  In a similar vein, don’t worry too much about statting up the monsters.  At the level of abstraction of SW the difference between a Dire Wolf and a Giant Weasel is maybe a die type in STR and an Edge.  You don’t need a three-hundred page Monster Manual, you just need some creativity in special abilities (Edges) to give them flavor.  So maybe they’re both statted just like Wolves from the core book, but a Giant Weasel is always treated as Prone for figuring out cover from Missile and Thrown Weapons, and has the Improved Frenzy and First Strike Edges but not Go For The Throat, while a Dire Wolf has Size +1 and its Bite is STR+d8.

Don’t Make Monsters Extras Unless They Outnumber The Players

A single Wild Card can handle two or three Extras (unless the WC just has no combat capability at all).  A party of four or five adventurers will make mincemeat out of an equal or lesser number of Extras, unless those Extras have some really nasty special ability.   They’ll still defeat one or two roughly equal Wild Cards handily, but at least they’ll run the risk of being wounded.  It’s probably not a hard fight unless the Wild Card is significantly tougher than they are, there are roughly an equal number of Wild Cards enemies as party members, or they’re outnumbered 2-3 to one by Extras.  For a more detailed analysis of balancing a party against opponents, check out the thread I pointed to earlier.

Don’t Look Up Rules While Playing

It just slows things down too much.  Yes, that means the first couple of times you’ll make mistakes…and even longer for things that come up infrequently.  That’s OK, as long as you keep things moving and keep them fun.  Try to make a note of things that you’re unsure about, and look it up after the game.  It can help to run a couple of combats solo, or just you and a friend instead of the whole group, to get the hang of things…and when you’re doing that take as much time to look up the relevant rules as you want, or discuss their interpretation with your friend.  During the game, though, the emphasis should be on fast and furious action, not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.  You don’t have to fake knowing what you’re doing, btw; if you don’t know the rule off-hand just say so, and tell the players how you’ll handle it that session.

If later you found you botched something serious, so that e.g. you caused the death of a PC or something of similar dire import–retcon it.

Savage Worlds: Three Bad Things

Since I posted about three of my favorite specific rules in the Savage Worlds system, it’s only fair that I post about three things that I’m less enamored with.  I wouldn’t call them mistakes, but they’re things that I find don’t fit my gaming style very well.

  1. Order-Dependent Chargen
  2. Bennies
  3. Lack of Transparency in Probabilities

Order-Dependent Chargen

Because Attributes have an effect on the cost of Skills, and because Hindrances change the number of points you have available for either Skills or Attributes, it makes a difference what order you spend your points.  Moreover, the order laid out in the section on character generation makes it more likely you’ll have to go back and recalculate.  If you’re starting out with experienced characters, the problem is compounded because of the limits on how many advancements you’re allowed to spend on certain kinds of improvements per Rank, the minimum rank for certain Edges, and the fact that skill costs change when you’re paying with advancements instead of initial points.  Starting out with experienced characters isn’t necessarily that rare; in fact the rules recommend that if a PC dies you replace it with one with half the dead PC’s XP.

The correct order to generate a character with a minimum of back-and-forth is:

  • Decide on Race
  • Take Hindrances to see how many points you have to spend
  • Set your starting Attributes
  • Take your starting Edges. Make sure you take Background Edges now.
  • Buy up any skills that you need to meet the Edge requirements for starting Edges.
  • Spend your remaining initial skill points, spreading them across all the skills you want to take particularly for skills required by future Edges you want (the first d4 costs more after creation)
  • Spend the rest of your points from initial Hindrances (if any) on Skills
  • If it’s an experienced character, take all the Attribute level-ups you intend to (max 1 per rank)
  • If it’s an experienced character, take any Edges that you intend to that have Rank minimums
  • Spend the rest of your advances on Skills or Edges (technically you should actually be doing one advance at a time to make sure that you’re never spending an advance on something you don’t yet have the Rank or Attribute level for…bleah.  I’m insufficiently anal as a GM to require that.)

This doesn’t guarantee you won’t have to fiddle a bit, as you find out the character you envision is more expensive than you can afford, but I think should save you any realization that if only you’d put more into raising that stat, all those skills would have been cheaper, so that advance could have been spend on this Edge instead…Ultimately you probably want your initial Attributes as high as possible, and to take the one Attribute raise you’re allowed per Rank each Rank you advance.  For combat-capable melee characters I suspect that you want your Fighting as high as you can afford before you spend advances on Combat Edges.  Or at least, an extra die in Fighting is a +1 average to-hit and a +1 Parry while most Edges give you one or the other.

My ideal point-buy Char-Gen system would generate characters that are valid and optimal for that set of abilities no matter what order you spent the points in.  Differing Pre- and Post- creation rules and things that affect the price of other things screw that up.  Savage Worlds chargen isn’t as bad as some (GURPS in particular) in that regard, and there aren’t that many options, but it could be better.


Bennies are SW’s Plot Points…meta-game resources that you can spend to get a re-roll or automatically perform certain actions (getting rid of the Shaken condition, for instance).

“But Bennies are so integral to the whole system, how can you like SW and dislike Bennies?” I hear you cry. As a GM I’m fine with them, but as a player I don’t like having meta-game resources to track, because I seldom have any idea of how I’m supposed to think of them in-character and I tend to prefer games where I can think in-character as much as possible.  So what I tend to do is hoard them, and use them only at pre-defined points, e.g. if the character is about to die and spending a Plot Point would fix that, spend the Plot Point.  Or if the character would desperately want X to succeed, spend a Plot Point.  What I prefer to avoid is the meta-game thinking along the lines of well, I have 4 PP left, so I can probably spend 2 on this combat and still have enough for the battle if we manage to catch up to their boss…  And unfortunately, Bennies work a lot like that, since they don’t carry over from session to session and they can be used at almost anything the character attempts.

Still, they’re not as bad as they could be; since they can only be used for certain well-defined game-effects such as making a soak roll, removing the Shaken condition, or getting a reroll on some kinds of rolls they do lend themselves to a slightly more in-character way of thinking (along the lines of how desperate the character is to succeed) rather than having to keep considering whether I the player want to exert narrative control and, e.g. make the bad-guy’s horse throw a shoe so the party can catch up.  Moreover, there is a clearly optimal way of spending them on soak rolls (always spend as soon as you take 1 Wound, before you have penalties) which helps further reduce the meta-game.

I wouldn’t try to remove them, because I think that would seriously break the system, but if I had been the designer I’d have tried to build it without them.

Lack of Transparency in Probabilities

Quick, what’s the chance of succeeding on a d8 Trait Test for an Extra?  What if you’re a Wild Card?  What’s your chance of getting at least one Raise?

It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not nearly as bad as some dice-pool systems where your odds of botching went up as your character got “better”, but all else being equal I prefer systems where you can eyeball it and say a +1 is 10% more likely to succeed.  That’s not something you could ever hope to change about SW, and there’s this handy chart to help when you’re trying to figure out how much worse it would be to give a monster an 8 Toughness than a 7, but it definitely puts the dice mechanic on the short list of things I like Savage Worlds despite and not because of.  On the plus side, players definitely enjoy the “exploding” open-ended dice rolls, much as they enjoy rolling Crits in other systems.

Savage Worlds: Three Good Things

Since Savage Worlds is my current favorite system, I thought I’d post about things that I like about the specifics of the SW rules. After all, there are lots of generic systems, lots of relatively simple systems (not actually “rules light”, but still on the simple end of things), lots of systems with good support and an active fan-base…so why Savage Worlds in particular?  There are lots of little bits I like, so I arbitrarily decided to talk about just my three favorites:

  1. The Wounds System
  2. Tricks and Tests of Will
  3. The Shaken Mechanic

The Wounds System

SW’s handling of damage is based on the simple idea of replacing frequent small steps with rarer larger ones. When you take damage that exceeds your Toughness by 4, or you take damage that at least matches your Toughness and you’re already Shaken, you take a Wound.  PCs and significant NPCs can take 3 Wounds before they’re incapacitated, non-significant NPCs can take 1.

It’s far from the first system to go that route, but to my mind it’s one of the simplest and most elegant.  While there’s a downside in that players can feel that they’re not “making progress” against a difficult (hard to hit or hard to damage) opponent, there’s a huge upside in reducing book-keeping and making combat feel less like an exercise in accounting.  Plus, the nuances of the combat system give the players strong tactical options to directly deal with the part of hurting the opponent they’re having difficulty with, which I find much more interesting to play out than a straight attrition race.

Tricks and Tests of Will

Tricks are opposed Agility or Smarts rolls to impose a -2 Parry on an opponent, Tests of Will are a Intimidate or Taunt skill roll against Spirit or Smarts to gain a +2 on your next action against that opponent; all require that you describe in RP terms what you’re doing that justifies the test.  Because of the nuances of the system, the two aren’t completely equivalent; in particular Tricks are much better when you want to help somebody else against that opponent.

I really like how these give non-combat optimized characters a chance to make significant contributions in combat.  Yes, regardless of the system the GM can always allow players to come up with ad hoc ways of doing that, but I think the point of a system is to streamline and regularize things to reduce the need for multiple ad hoc rulings every combat.  With Tricks and Tests of Will SW has two simple, flexible, yet significant ways non-combatants can aid in combat through role-play, not just dispensing buffs or healing.

The Shaken Mechanic

Shaken is a morale-related status-effect that occurs when you’ve taken damage, but not enough to wound you, or your focus is lost because of something like fear, intimidation, taunting, or being tricked.  When you’re shaken you’re easier to wound, and you can’t take any action except to move and try to get your composure back.  Frankly, I think this is brilliant.  It does have the downside of having the flavor of a compulsory personality mechanic, and some players just can’t stand those, but the SW gives you a number of different ways to beef your character up against being Shaken or to recover more quickly if your character conception is that you’re unflappable, with nerves of steel and ice-water in your veins.   Also, it doesn’t completely remove the character from your control; it just limits your options. The upside is that not only is it both more realistic (fighting to the death is really rare in the real-world, even in warfare) and more true to most adventure genres (where heroes do dive for cover when bullets fly, or get temporarily dazed by a good punch or nearby explosion) while opening the possibility for things to be more creepy when they are relentless murder machines instead of having that be the norm (SW has various ways of representing that, depending on whether they are merely immune to fear but can be shaken by damage, whether being shaken doesn’t make them easier to wound, if they recover faster, etc.) but it makes for a much more tactically interesting battle.  A lot of SW tactics revolve around trying to shake opponents or take advantage of their shaken condition, or preventing opponents from taking advantage of your being shaken until you recover.  It’s also nice and simple, not requiring the GM to litter the battle mat or his notes with sticky notes and annotations about what status effects are on which characters and what round they’ll wear off.  For a small extra complication it gives a lot of bang for the buck.

There’s lots more to like about Savage Worlds, but those three are the things that stand out enough that I’d probably steal them to apply to my home-brew if I (or my players) get tired of Savage Worlds.

Challenge-Based Gaming: Kicking The Dungeon Door Old School

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “Challenge-Based Gaming.”  After all, nearly anybody who plays an RPG can legitimately claim to be after some sort of challenge, whether it’s to cooperate with the other narrators to construct a satisfying story, to most accurately portray or experience the inner thoughts of their character, or just to carve through enough identical bags of hit-points with different skins to qualify for a level-up.  That’s not what I mean, though.  A challenge has to be something that can be failed.  Many, perhaps most, styles of RPG don’t and shouldn’t allow failure to accomplish the goal of the game as a real possibility; e.g. if you’re playing to construct a satisfying story then it’s a real problem if the game system will allow months of play to wind up in an unsatisfying story, and if the system is constructed to challenge you to complete a story despite it something is very wrong.

But Challenge-Based Games do exactly that: they are constructed to challenge you to accomplish your goal despite the system working against you.  This isn’t particularly uncommon for board games; Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game is a nice example, pitting the players cooperatively against the rules of the game, which will give Sauron the victory if they don’t destroy the ring before he corrupts the Ring-Bearer.

So when I talk about Challenge-Based Gaming, I’m talking about games where the Challenge of winning against the game is the whole (or at least biggest) point.  I’m talking about a style of gaming that pits the players against the game environment, with the GM acting as referee.  (As a historical aside, my crowd actually called the DM or GM “The Referee” for at least the first few years we were playing.)   The characters are tools that the players use to try to beat the scenario (almost always a dungeon, at least initially); the environment is a tool that the scenario-designer uses to try to beat the players; the GM is the scrupulously neutral referee between them.  There can be a bit of confusion here, because many GMs are their own scenario designers, but there really are two hats here: Referee and Designer.  When running the game the Referee is not supposed to be altering the environment or rules on the fly to thwart the players. Even if the players would put up with it, it’s just too easy.  On the other hand, the Designer is absolutely supposed to be creating an environment that’s going to be hard, but possible, for the players to defeat.  Again, even if the players would put up with it, making it impossible is too easy.  In a game system like D&D that has “save or die” as one of the central mechanics, TPK is never more than a few badly designed rooms away.

In fact, even perfectly fair fights (where fair is defined as 50-50 whether the PCs or the NPCs win) will inevitably crush the players as they’re repeated; that’s just the law of large numbers.   So the Designer’s real problem is to make PC victory both possible and the result of good play rather than chance.  It’s trivial to make challenges that the PCs could survive that are equivalent to spinning a roulette wheel; you can even control precisely how likely they are to “win.”

On the other hand, Challenge-Based games require the possibility that the players will lose.  In old school D&D it’s often said that there are no winners and losers, and that’s true in a sense.  Players can never lose the entire game–they can always roll up another character and have another go at it–but they can fail at a particular attempt and lose a character.  It’s a crucial part of Challenge-Based games that this is possible.  You could add a house rule to RK’s Lord of the Rings so that if Sauron ever overtakes the Ring Bearer on the corruption track, the players win, but would anyone ever want to play that?

There has been a fairly steady move away from Challenge-Based play in RPGs, for a lot of good reasons and some not-so-good ones, almost from the get-go.  I’m not sure that it’s even possible to reach the full potential of the RP part of an RPG in a Challenge-Based game; the challenge is perforce directed at the player, rather than the character…rolling to see if your 17 INT wizard solves the riddle just isn’t the same kind of experience as trying to solve the riddle yourself.  And a challenge-based game can’t reasonably demand that players firewall their knowledge from their character’s knowledge; it would be insane to expect players to get any enjoyment out of having character after character fall victim to the same trap just because the character can’t have any way of knowing it’s there.

But I do know that just because it’s rare and not the current fashion doesn’t make it an illegitimate approach to gaming.  The “problem” that players of RK’s Lord of the Rings have that Sauron sometimes wins if they don’t play well can’t be solved by having a discussion around the table so they can drop the Watcher in the Water and replace it with something “fun.”

The Dire Rust Monster

In the comments on my Rust Monsters: Not For the Wuss of Heart post, several people claimed that they disliked Rust Monsters because they didn’t represent any real challenge: once you knew the trick of dealing with them, it was just a tedious process of beating them to death with non-metal weapons.  I think that betrays a lack of imagination on where and when they might meet Rust Monsters, but for them I have created:

Dire Rust Monster
Armor Class: 2
Hit Dice: 5*
Move: 120′ (40′)
Attacks: 2 Claws/1 Club Tail/1 pair antenna
Damage: 1-8/1-8/1-8/special
No. Appearing: 1-4 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter: 3
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 400

Looking more like an ankylosaur with antenna than an armadillo, the Dire Rust Monster share with its lesser cousin a voracious appetite for metal.

The special antenna attack is the same as a Rust Monster: non-magical metal armor or weapons crumble to dust; magical metal armor or weapons lose a plus (10% per plus chance of resisting the effect), once it loses all its pluses the next hit crumbles it.  A successful hit on the monster with any type of weapon means the body was hit, and there is no ill-effect on the weapon.

Now it’s just as challenging as an Owl Bear (since it’s statted like an Owl Bear, except for its AC, a lower Morale and a different special ability, and a whopping XP bonus) and those who were bored by the original Rust Monster should be all eager to go up against it, right?

Rust Monsters: Not for the Wuss of Heart

    • Some people are really pissed that Wizards of the Coast cut the Rust Monster from the new 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. This creature was one of the original, classic creepy creatures from the old school pre-AD&D days.

While we’re on the subject of Fear in RPGs, the Rust Monster represents a particularly pure instance of Challenge Fear.  The only threat that the Rust Monster represents is to your character’s efficacy.  An encounter with a Rust Monster challenges you to avoid or defeat it without risking your precious equipment, or to face subsequent encounters at less than full strength.

Players who think that isn’t fun are wusses.  Or, to put it slightly less pejoratively, are either seeking the illusion of challenge without the actual possibility of significant set-backs or shouldn’t be playing a challenge-based game.  Players who are interested in interacting with the world will roll with the punches: if that’s what the setting says happens, that’s what happens.  Players who are interested in creating an exciting story might actually seek those situations out: if John McClane has to run through broken glass in his bare feet, putting him at a disadvantage for the rest of the story-line, that’s great, it ups the tension.  Players who are genuinely interested in challenge might curse their luck, or their lack of foresight, but those are the breaks that make the game worth playing.  But players who complain that it’ll leave them at less than their recommended wealth-and-equipment amounts for characters of their level, throwing off the challenge ratings for level-appropriate encounters until the GM throws in enough loot to restore the balance….  well, I can’t help feeling that they’re playing not just the wrong system, but the wrong kind of system.

There are plenty of systems out there that are explicitly built around the notion that the PCs will triumph and kick ass, and play is about giving them the mechanics to describe how they kick ass in really cool and awesome ways (Feng Shui and Exalted come to mind, or in a different vein something like Amber).  Taking a system that in its essence is about all kinds of ways that PCs can fail (poisoned, turned to stone, level-drained, killed, polymorphed, etc.) and putting foam padding on all the dangerous bits is…lame.  Go too far in that direction and even sword wounds will just seal themselves right up after a few moments… oh, wait, that’s 4e Healing Surges.

Really, I can understand and enjoy styles of gaming where the only setbacks are player imposed or player veto-able.  But if players want that, they shouldn’t fool themselves about what they’re doing.  If losing your +2 Flaming Broadsword is going to ruin the campaign for you, getting rid of the Rust Monster isn’t nearly enough–the GM’ll have to get rid of thieves, Dispell Magic, really any kind of situation where you could be knocked unconscious and stripped of your possessions… You’d all be much better off with a system where having that flaming broadsword is part of your character schtick, with explicit script immunity.

Fear in RPGs

As I see it, there are three kinds of fear in RPGs.  I’ll call them Visceral Fear, Challenge Fear, and Character Fear.  Visceral Fear is fear that the players actually feel; Challenge Fear is fear that players experience for the character’s safety and well-being; and Character Fear is fear that the characters experience but the players do not.  The names are a little clunkier than I’d like, but I’m trying to get at something I think is an important distinction between fear felt by the player as a human being, and fear felt by the player as a player of a game, both of which could reasonably be labeled “player fear.”

Visceral Fear

Visceral Fear is fear that the players sitting around the table actually experience in their own body; it’s not actual fear for their own safety (or it had better not be) but it’s the kind of fear that you might experience while watching a horror movie or reading a book.  It’s fear that’s caused by empathy with the character, but the physical reactions–goosebumps, chills, startlement, disgust–are your own.  Visceral Fear is regarded by some gamers as the ne plus ultra of fear reactions possible in RPGs, even the whole point of running a horror scenario.  But visceral fear is very hard to achieve in a table-top role-playing game, which is much less immersive than a movie or a first-person computer game, and is something that a lot of people really object to experiencing even in horror scenarios.  By definition, it’s not a pleasant experience as it’s happening, though in retrospect you might be quite pleased that it occurred.

Generally, the way to achieve Visceral Fear is to up the level of immersion in the game.  Some GMs will resort to music, dimming the lights or replacing them with candles, sound-effects recordings, props and the like; sometimes this works, but sometimes it just comes across as cheesy.  A lot can be done by increasing the amount and vividness of the descriptions you give.  Many GMs neglect senses other than sight and sound in their descriptions, so making sure to include smells, heat and cold, touch and so forth will make everything easier to imagine.  Another piece of advice is that imagination is much stronger than description, so less is more.  No detailed description you’re likely to come up with of a tentacled horror is going to be half as scary as as what the players picture if you describe their fingers groping in the dark brushing against cold rubbery flesh that pulses and slithers away.  You want small concrete details, not paragraphs of purple prose that make them giggle or gives them time to let their minds wander. Also, describe things, don’t label them.  “You see three Zombies” isn’t viscerally frightening.

Another piece of advice is try to pay careful attention to the level of tension.  You want to ratchet it up higher and higher as the scenario progresses, but people generally can’t take a lot of unremitting tension.  They need breaks from the tension, and if you don’t provide them, they’ll provide their own by breaking character and cracking jokes.  You are aiming for an ebb and flow of tension, with each successive crest higher and scarier than the last, until you reach the climax which is hopefully the scariest part of the scenario.  The climax of an adventure game will often be a big, bloody battle, which tends to ruin the mood as far as Visceral Fear goes; that’s ok…it’s time for Fight instead of Flight, and this is the players’ pay-off for letting you scare them all this time. It’s pretty much impossible for them to stay creeped out when the dice are flying.  The ending may turn out to be entirely down-beat, with all the PCs mad or dead and gibbering horror unloosed upon the world, but in the moments leading up to that where the players are making the decisions that will or won’t lead to that outcome they are not going to be feeling the horror–the mental modes required are incompatible.

Challenge Fear

Challenge Fear is the fear that players have for the well-being of their characters, or their ability to achieve the victory conditions (which may be quite nebulous or personal when it comes to RPGs).  It’s fear in the same sense that a chess player might fear losing his Queen. It may be completely cold-blooded and rational, based on their objective assessment of the characters’ chances of emerging unscathed; it may be as silly as feeling that the dice have been against them all night, so they had better avoid combat.  But it’s completely separate from any Visceral Fear the player might have because of the imagery or the horror aspects of the scenario.  The person who is playing might experience a lot of Visceral Fear even when as a player he experiences none at all for his character’s ultimate success, such as in a story-oriented game with complete script immunity for his character.  (In fact, that may be the raison d’être of horror scenarios in story-oriented games.)  Or a player might experience a high degree of Challenge Fear in a completely prosaic dungeon crawl where no attempt whatever is made to convey any atmosphere and the character is not directly threatened with any physical harm, such as a Fighter with a cool magic sword and armor confronted with a lowly Rust Monster.

Challenge Fear is probably the most common and useful kind of fear in an RPG.  Visceral Fear is something that a lot of people just don’t want to experience in their games. Challenge Fear is something that the majority of RPG players want, or at least claim to want, at least to some degree.  Even the worst munchkins would hesitate to admit that they want the rules to be reduced to “whatever you attempt, you succeed” and the GMs job to just describing stuff for them to succeed at.

So why do I even call it Fear, and not merely Challenge?  It has to do with what I mentioned in my previous post on Scary Scary Monsters, with what I called “having skin in the game.”  Something can be very challenging, in the sense of being unlikely to occur or hard to pull off, but still have trivial consequences if you fail; if they’re trivial enough, then success can be robbed of any interest or triumph.  If you get a basket from more than half the court away when you were just standing there hucking balls at the backboard all afternoon, you might be amused, but hardly jubilant.  If you sink one from the free-throw line with $500,000 on the line, you’d be inhuman if all you had to say was, “well, isn’t that nice.”  And even if you have an 80+% free throw rate, if you had $500,000 at stake you might very well choke just because of that.  Having something at stake changes the game, and makes you fearful of losing.

Now, I’d say being fearful of losing is a good thing.  Too much fear can rob you of the fun, so even if you succeed you feel nothing more than relief and anticipatory dread of having to do something similar again later.  Nobody is going to want to play an RPG like that.  But too little fear can make playing tedious, and I think that’s a lot more common.  I think a lot of players are used to games where the stakes are too low; when the loss is purely imaginary, it seems to me that you ought to be willing to risk a lot more to make it more interesting.   “Ho hum, another gibbering tentacled horror from beyond the stars” is not something you want the players to be thinking, even in a game of Grand Adventure with steely-eyed, square-jawed heroes who never flinch in the face of danger.  The character might think that, but you never want the player to be ho-hum about anything.  Even in games where you have script immunity from death (and I admit that a lot of the games I GM are like that in practice, even if in theory the system allows for you to die), you can increase the tension and make the players more invested in the outcome by putting things that are important to the players about the characters and the setting at risk.  Note that it’s not enough, IMO, to have the risk be something that is theoretically important to the character; for a lot of players, losing that is just gaining a story opportunity and spotlight time.  There’s nothing wrong with players getting story opportunities and spotlight time, but if that’s the biggest downside, it’ll make them more indifferent to the outcome.  Ideally you want them to care, a tad short of desperately, how the events in the game unfold.  You want them to fear the bad and rejoice in the good.  You want the challenges that they face to have distinct permanent (or nearly so) outcomes, good or bad, so that they remember damn well forever after whether they met that challenge or not.  If an encounter with a wandering monster isn’t going to give them more than a few wounds they can magic away or a few xp and a sword to sell at the next town, then you’re wasting everybody’s time and an opportunity to have something memorable happen (unless you’re running a sandbox game and you and they regard this kind of thing as time well-spent in establishing the texture of the world–and even then you might ask yourself whether it’s actually worth playing out rather than jumping to the inevitable end of the encounter).

Character Fear

Finally, there is character fear: the fear that the character experiences that isn’t shared by the player personally or the player qua player.  This might be caused by failing a Guts check when confronted with some rotting horror, by the Fear spell of an enemy Necromancer, by a character phobia, or even perhaps by the player deciding that in the given situation it would be in-character for the character to be frightened.

I don’t have a lot to say about Character Fear.  Some systems use it more than others, some genres call for it more than others.  Many players regard it as a complete nuisance, and act as much as possible to minimize its scope and effect.  Even if completely player instigated, it will usually greatly reduce the player’s scope of action; when system instigated depending on how it’s handled it can remove a player from play just as completely as if the character were knocked unconscious.

I guess I would generally prefer that Character Fear be more or less congruent with player fear, so that if the character acts afraid it’s because the player is experiencing a moment of Visceral Fear or has correctly assessed that given the stakes and the likely outcomes there’s good reason to be afraid of something genuinely regrettable happening, but I wouldn’t want to make any rule about that–even a rule of thumb–because I recognize that there’s a lot of chewy roleplaying goodness to be had when the characters are afraid.

Also, there’s a fairly strong tendency in RPGs for characters to be irrationally, even suicidally brave.  PCs will often fight to the death, not only disregarding the likely outcomes in the setting and system, but the likely motivations of the characters and even the biology of human beings.  Sometimes that’s why people play these games.  That’s fine, but occasionally things that will at least remind them of what sane creatures would likely be feeling at that point can be valuable for the verisimilitude of the setting and genre and the survival of the characters.