Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Story Matters, But Loot Pays the Bills

My sweet spot for adventures are site-based locations with minimal overarching plot.  Those types of adventures let me supply any number of plot hooks or other forms of information for the players, tailored to my campaign, and then run the location like a sandbox.  That's my agenda; to enable a player-driven game.  More often than not, excellent stories emerge from the intersection of player decisions and the reactions by the inhabitants of the setting; the end result is greater than the sum of the parts, and endlessly entertaining to me.

It does raise the question, what motivates players to choose a certain adventure or follow a course of action in the first place?  A rational approach would go like this:  players "win" through level advancement; the fuel for leveling is centered on gold as XP; therefore, players responding to that incentive will choose adventures with the best risk-to-reward ratio.  The Autarch guys have a detailed post on the economic argument for player choice in D&D.  There've been a lot of posts about sandbox motivations, but one of my favorite is Zak's rogues in the sandbox.  Amoral looters will plan their own capers and are best suited for the player driven game.  Some of the more humorous terms I've seen on the interwebs include labeling adventurers as "murder hobos", or playing "mug the goblin".

Rather than weighing economic factors, don't players usually just follow the most interesting story and hope the gold piece fairy rewards them at the end of the day?  The DM preps something, the DM offers some intriguing plot hook, the players say, "That sounds cool", and off they go.  Outside of the large, multi level mega dungeon, or the wilderness hex crawl, most short adventures are chosen on the basis of story, and not rational economic calculations of risk versus reward.  Theoretically, the DM could prepare a lot of different small adventures, and try to create that same degree of transparency around risk versus reward, so an economic value can be attached to the plot hooks, but I'll believe someone is doing it when I see it.

Thus, there's a disconnect between the reason most adventures are chosen (story) and the reward model for playing (XP for loot).  I've bounced up against it a lot of times in the past few weeks as I discussed how a "Wide Area Sandbox" game would work as a weird fantasy setting; the plot hooks in that game would be story-centric - they consist of journal entries by a previous adventurer priest - so the players would make choices mostly based on story and not risk-reward.  Any loot gained is incidental.

I'm not the only person reacting to the dissonance.  Mister LOTFP himself alluded in a recent post that he'd consider dropping the level or XP system in a future LOTFP release (and my head promptly exploded); as LOTFP adventures evolve to invoke weird horror adventures in more of a quasi-real world setting than bog standard fantasy, the idea of having to dole out 300,000gp in loot to a mid-level party is jarring.  I get it, I really do.  Jack's new blog* had a follow-on post, suggesting that weird fantasy D&D keeps the level system but replaces gold-for-XP.

I don't have a clear takeaway yet; my gut tells me "D&D is Always Right", and folks are bouncing up against these problems because we're straying outside of the game's sweet spot with some of these niche campaign concepts.  Gold as XP solves many issues, and reinforces an interesting paradigm of exploration and problem solving.  It's also quantitative and doesn't require any subjective role playing rewards or  (barf) story awards.  So folks might say that running D&D in a quasi-real-world setting is a horse you can only ride so far without performing major surgery on the advancement system.  I disagree.

Real world history is full of plunder, loot, and riches - Teutonic Knights and Templars growing rich on trade and plunder, Roman generals building vast wealth conquering the provinces and returning home for their triumphs.  Even the early modern period has the pillaging of the New World and fighting over ships laden with Spanish gold.  What's wrong with the characters in that kind of game being the ones that win vast riches and move the dial of history with fortunes that bring even kings knocking at their door?  That's right, there's nothing wrong with it.  So the problem comes back to story and game focus.  If you're trying to run a game where the characters do "heroic" things, like stop evil cults or keep the Great Old Ones from returning, I hear there's not much money in that line of work.  One of the big differences between D&D and let's say, Call of Cthulhu, is the moral factor of "saving the world" is a clear imperative in Cthulhu gaming.  Returning home with wagons of plunder isn't really the point of the game.

Let's not get so engrossed in story or literary genre emulation that we lose the foundational elements of the game; otherwise we're just promulgating Call of Cthulhu with Magic Users and Clerics.  I'm right at that edge myself; my "elevator pitch" for the Library of de la Torre describes it as a mix of Solomon Kane, The Three Musketeers, and Lovecraft Country.  But the looting stays.

*Tales of theGrotesque and Dungeonesque…  looks good so far, go check it out.  You may remember his Flavors of Fear PDF from a few months ago with various Weird Fantasy setting ideas.