Combat for fun and profit

I've talked about how I realized that some old school games were not about killing everything you came across, and how I had never really been a combat heavy GM. So, then why have I run, and plan to run again, Dungeon Fantasy?

First off, I'd like to say there is nothing the prevents me from running a "combat is best avoided" sort of game with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or the Dungeon Fantasy RPG. But DF (either) does not assume that sort of play. If anything it takes more from video game play, Rouge and Diablo were clearly influences, than the sort of games I use to run. And it clearly states that it is about "killing monsters and taking their stuff", not "avoiding monsters to get to their stuff" or "negotiating with monsters..." and so on.

That said, there are skills and traits that are designed to let characters play that sort of way. The Bard can very much be a "dungeon negotiator". The thief is probably going to be better at sneaking than fighting. Wizards, Martial Artists, and others have several abilities that with some clever use can allow a group to bypass combats.

And DF at it's core is still a game of resource management. And any game that does that, is going to have to have an implied element of choice in combat. What I mean is that if a group is low on Healing Potions, Arrows, FP/ER, etc., then there has to be a choice between risking another fight, or trying to avoid it.

Still, this is one area that I really wish was covered in more detail in G:DF and DFRPG. But it isn't and the game does have a combat focus. A "balanced" combat focus... I really shouldn't like it, but after picking up GURPS DF books 1 and 2 and reading them, I was intrigued.

I don't know exactly what it was, the marriage of my favorite RPG system and the nostalgia for my first, just seeing how well it "emulated" hack and slash, or just because it looked fun. Whatever it was, it drew me in. Even after deciding that I probably wouldn't run a DF game, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept coming back. In conversations, online discussions, and other places.

Okay, these guys aren't balanced
Eventually I decided to try out, and ran a "sand box" sort of game using 0one's Caverns of Chaos map, with some of the information from the Caves of Chaos that was distributed with the D&D Next playtest. I found or created a few monster conversions, filled in some treasure, and got ready to play.

But things were hard. I posted several times about my struggles with DF. 250 point characters were on the high end of what I was use to outside of a "supers" game, and figuring out how to balance PCs, enemies, and make it all exciting didn't come naturally to me. After the Caves, the group moved on to the "Castle Von Dark" which was a combination of another published map, and some of my own dungeons. That campaign added more NPC interactions and was a bit more my style.

After a time, I put away DF and moved on to other things. But when I was looking back at my campaigns, I realized that DF was one of the longest running I had ever had. It was "hard" for me as a GM, but over time I was getting better. I was figuring out how to merge my style and the style and assumptions of DF. At times this led to some bad sessions, but I think the good far out weighed the bad.

So, I keep going back to DF. I keep tweaking my approach to it. There are still things I struggle with. Starting combat time before it needs to be, or keeping it going when the action has slowed and it really should be dropped are things I know I need to work on (and will probably write about soon). Dealing with the struggles of Virtual Tables Tops, which can aid some things, but make others more difficult. Adding loot that is rewarding and useful. Creating interesting characters and plots, but letting the players drive the story. Running quicker combats. And yes, even creating "balanced" encounters... and the occasional unbalanced ones. But even with all that, I've had some of the longest campaigns, interesting PCs, and good times running DF.


Thoughts on "Old School" vs "Modern" RPG Design (Part 2)

...continuing on from last post.

Going back to my first D&D session, after creating my Elf (because elves could have swords and spells), the party spotted some smoke in the distance. I had an elven cloak, so I scouted ahead and saw some bandits burning down a cottage, and a woman tied to chair. The rest of the session was me and the other players discussing what to do. My character had Ventriloquism and my cloak, so I wanted to sneak up, throw my voice and try to convince the bandits I was a ghost in order to scare them off.
This ended up taking so long that I had to leave and didn't get to finish out the adventure. Later I learned that the GM had planned that encounter to just be a simple fight. We were "suppose" to go kill the bandits. At the time I laughed about how silly all my advanced planning was, but now I realize something about that game.
Again, I did grow up on video games. And most of the times in a video game, you are "suppose" to kill the enemies. But then, there aren't really any other options. But to me table top RPGs weren't "a way to play video games without electricity". They were something MORE. A video game only let you do what it was coded to allow. But an RPG let you do (or at least try) anything. In this way RPGs were always more "real" to me. And I tried to have my PCs act in a way that I thought I would act if I were in this sort of fantastic world. So, I tried to avoid a fight instead of risking injury or death. To do otherwise would have been too... video game-y.
This is how I feel about so many modern games and the modern editions of D&D (to be fair, I'd say this had been the trend since AD&D 2nd edition with XP being mainly from killing monsters). Games that balance every encounter so the PCs don't need to think, but can just kill mindlessly. Games where everything scales to PCs capabilities. RPGs that are little more than video games.
I use to think that the OSR, was just a bunch of old grognards that were nostalgic for the first set of rules they used. And while that might be part of it, I think there is also some that just reject how the modern game is suppose to be played. (I haven't the foggiest why you need old rules to have an old play style, though.)
Anyway, I want to bring this all back to GURPS, because that is the game I love to run. For a LONG time my GMing philosophy for GURPS was, "I don't balance encounters". That is, I would make a Dragon as powerful as... a Dragon! I'd make the King's Elite Guard, well "elite". But then I also didn't really run games that were expecting the players to kill everyone and everything they came across. I use to warn new players how deadly GURPS is, how any fight could be deadly, and that "a fair fight is one you can loose". I wanted players to play smart and only fight if they couldn't find another way. When a fight broke out, I really didn't know who was going to walk away alive.

I'm not really sure where I was going with all this. Just pondering and putting down my thoughts on the subject. If anything it makes me think that I've been GMing "old school" even though I didn't really think of it that way. And while I don't want to beat up on other people's fun, I needed to voice my dislike of games and ways of playing that feel artificial and "gamey" or especially when they are trying to emulate video games, which I still love, but see as a more limited version of the table top experience.

Thoughts on "Old School" vs "Modern" RPG Design (Part 1)

I apologize ahead of time, as this might ramble a bit ... or even turn into a rant....

I was watching a video recently that was listing several of the "iconic" D&D monsters like the Beholder and Gelatinous Cube. What was interesting about this video was the narrator mentioning running away from or avoiding these monsters. This got me thinking about some if the philosophy of "old school" gaming, modern game design, what folks want out of RPGs and many other things.

First, I'd like to say that I in no way claim to be an "old school" gamer. I didn't start table top gaming till the 90's. I think my first exposure to D&D would have been the Saturday morning cartoon, and the AD&D first edition DM guide that one of my older siblings had (but only played once that I recall). I use to thumb through that book looking at all the pictures and imagining games of adventure, but never really got a chance to play till years later.
Instead, I grew up on video games. From the Atari 2600, to the NES, to the SNES. And the first "role playing game" I played were JRPG video games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior. There was also a heap of action adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Faxanadu. My first game of D&D was the "Rules Cyclopedia" basic game, so maybe that's still old school?
Anyway, bringing this back to modern day, I find it interesting that the last few editions of D&D, and many other games have had a strong focus on "balance". Every combat encounter is suppose to be "challenging but winnable". Now I for a long time I assumed that GMs that created "deathtrap dungeons" or were out to "win by killing the PCs" were just bad GMs or "doing it wrong."* Maybe this is part of the reason that modern games focus on balance?
But what if some of those "killer GMs" weren't really trying to kill the PCs at all? Looking at "old school" adventure modules, it seems like there wasn't really this idea that the PCs should be "clearing the dungeon". Some seem to imply that combat is something to be avoided. And sure the monsters are little more than a collection of combat stats, but those stats paint a dire picture. Maybe GMs were just trying to get players to think about what their characters can do other than be mindless killing machines.
The problem is that modern designs seems to focus on letting the PCs be exactly that. If every fight is suppose to be winnable, then there is no need to think if you should avoid the fight, how to trick the monster, or what other options exist. Only a bad GM would put a monster that the party can't defeat in the adventure, right?
Maybe this design change came about, not because of bad GMing, but bad playing? There was always "that one player" that did rush in and attack everything. They didn't want to think about tactics, deal with negotiation, and they never backed down or ran away. And maybe there were lots of players that way, and GMs that didn't want TPKs over and over. Those GMs might have "tweaked the numbers", and made that beholder weaker, that dragon slower, and overall let the players win. Because "winning" is what it's all about, right?
Or maybe this change was influenced by video game design? More on that later.
* I don't want to get into this too much, but I now believe that there is no bad-wrong-fun as long as everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations of the game.