Friday, May 22, 2015

AD&D, Super Heroes, and the Death Penalty

After watching an episode from The Flash a few weeks ago, it occurred to me.  The traditional super hero comics give one of the best arguments in favor of the death penalty.  I am not saying that the death penalty is right or wrong.  In fantasy worlds, you are dealing with entities that have super powers rather than typical human abilities.  With that said, the storylines of super heroes is such that it provides a compelling reason to for a person to be in favor of it, at least in cases of super powers.  To put it another way, perhaps AD&D handles villains better.  Let me explain why.

In many of the traditional super hero storylines, you have iconic villains.  Those villains will be sent to prison, or locked up in an atom collider.  At a certain point in time, those villains escape.  They are then recaptured and locked up again.  Then, at another point in time, they will escape again.  At least some of these villains have killed people.  On their release, they will kill people again.  The evidence is clear that the regular police have difficultly capturing them.  When these criminals are locked up, they will always find a way out.  Would it be better for the world if they were killed?  In fact, shouldn’t the super hero be held morally responsible for not killing the villain?  By sparing the life of a villain, who will only escape, he is enabling more death and carnage in the future.  I do not see what is so super or heroic about that! 

Let us now consider AD&D.  I do not know about your adventures, but generally, the group does not take prisoners.  You fight and kill the monsters.  You try to prevent their escape.  Why?  Because they will warn other monsters or come to attack you later.  Certainly it might be a situation where they surrender, but that is likely rare.  Such situations can pose both alignment issues and practical issues.  You ae 3 days inside of a dungeon and a group of orcs surrenders.  Can you really risk taking them out of the dungeon and turning them over to authorities?  Would the authorities even bother locking them up?  At the same time, can a good alignment character kill defenseless creatures that surrendered, even if they are evil?  The solution I suppose is to always have at least one evil character in your party to deal with the situation. 

Now, imagine how messed up your AD&D world would be if your Lawful Good Paladin acted like a super hero!  You have battled your way through the fortress.  The evil cleric is in the process of summoning an evil demon or god to the world.  The entire world could be destroyed or at least enslaved.   He is responsible for the deaths of hundreds already.  Your party kills all of the guards and defeats the cleric.  However, instead of killing the cleric, he is taken prisoner.  The prisoner is then taken to a prison.  He will later escape from the prison and the party will have to go after him again.  It seems to me this will only lead to a world where the evil cleric will eventually win. 

Isn’t the AD&D of method of simply killing the cleric and then destroying the body to prevent resurrection a much better way to deal with really powerful villains?  I know I would certainly feel better living in a world with lawful good paladin slaughtering evil villains than one where every few months another super villain finds his way out to cause harm to the public.   In the fantasy worlds, perhaps we should be looking at AD&D instead of super heroes for moral guidance.  Or at the very least, a common sense solution to the problem of how to handle super power villains.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

What Textbooks Teach us about RPG books

The latest edition of D&D seems to be doing well in terms of sales.  Yet, I am sure there are many people still playing AD&D that never felt the need to purchase and play a new edition.  If you have rules that work and you already have the books, then why bother with a new edition?  That same question can be asked of college textbooks.  Is a new edition of a college algebra textbook really needed?  Chances are, in many disciplines, there is no need for a new edition of a textbook is the purpose is to educate students.  However, the purpose of the textbook is to make the publisher money.  The same holds true with RPG books as well. 

This may be obvious to those who think about it, but in case it isn’t, let me walk you through why the market forces textbook publishers to put out a new edition and why those same forces make publishers put out new editions of RPGs.  Textbooks are high quality, in terms of production value.  Those hardbacks can last decades.  The publisher only makes money by selling new books.  Further, most of the money publisher makes come from selling to bookstores.  Hence, they do not make the full MSRP.  The production cost is high.  Finally, the longer the book is out, the fewer books you will sell. 

The reason why new textbooks sell poorly after the first year or two is that the high quality guarantees that most of the books will end up in the used book market.  Students will purchase the used books, so the publishers does not make any money.  The solution for textbooks is a huge increase in price followed by new editions every 2-3 years. 

Used books are only part of the issue for RPGs.  Unlike college, market forces help to keep the price of RPGs down.  However, given the high production value, players do not need to replace their books.  Moreover, in many game groups, PDFs and sharing a copy of one or two rulebooks is enough.  Thus, RPG publishers have to put out new books to get new sales. 

Publishers can put out adventures, setting supplements, and rule (splat) books.  Unlike in the Gygax era, adventures sell poorly.  Only the GM’s will purchase it and only a few of them will bother buying it.  Unless you are WotC or Pathfinder, your market share is so small you might not even sell enough adventures to break even.  Setting supplements might appeal to more than just the GM, but it is still going to be a small percentage of the fan base.  Hence, you have to have a large market share for it to be profitable. 

Thus, the main seller besides the core rulebook is going to be splat books.  These books add new rules, options, equipment, spells, etc. to the game.  This way, all of the players of your system will purchase these books.  This does not work for every game system.  Further, there might be a splat limit.  Finally, not all players will purchase these splat books. 

Eventually, if a publisher is going to make money from an existing game line, they need to put out a new edition.  A new edition is a massive benefit to the publisher.  First, a large portion of your current player base will purchase the new edition.  Second, game stores will stock the new edition leading to growing your fan base.  Third, you get to recycle old material and new product.  Victoriana is a great example of this.  The 2nd edition used adventures for the first edition.  They had to convert the rules, so that justified the 2nd edition.  The 3rd edition repackages many of the older adventures and released them as new.  Sometimes with some new content. 
My point is that frequent new editions and now a financial necessity for RPG publishers.  Sometimes there are significant rule changes and sometimes there are not.  Yet, it is simply the best way to make profit as an RPG publisher.  Without a fast growing RPG industry or a dramatic drop in competition, the best way forward is to make as much money from your existing customers as possible.  The best way to do that is new edition.  It is the same with textbooks.  While textbook publishers can force you to buy a new edition, RPG publishers cannot.  Hence, there is an incentive to make the new edition advantageous to get, and sometimes the best way to do that is to alter the rules to make backwards compatibility difficult. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Getting Back Into the Groove

I had big plans for filling this blog with a wide variety of posts this year.  Obviously, that has yet to happen so far.  Real life reared its' ugly head and I got sidetracked.  First, we moved and the unlimited high-speed internet that we've had for the last 3 years and were assured would be available in our new location WAS NOT available after all.  We have Internet and it's plenty fast but it's restricted.  Second, I'm on the executive board of the local UAW 5010 and things have gotten pretty time-consuming in the last 6 months; it's required a lot of extra work but things are looking up in our plant now.  Third, my wife had a cancer scare that I'm glad to say she made it out in the clear.  I picked up a bunch of the slack around here with the kids, chores, and other duties while she was going through tests and getting everything in control.  She'll be going to a hematologist and will be on some supplements for a while but she doesn't have cancer.  

I will ease back into posting sometime soon but it will probably just be once or twice a week from this point on.  If Jamie Hardy would like to contribute more posts in the future then I would definitely be up for that.  I asked him for some guest posts and then all of this real life stuff accumulated and I took an unscheduled break on the blog.  I appreciate him keeping some new content going here and hope he wants to contribute in the future.  Thanks, Jamie!

A few posts to watch for in the future include:

1.  More resources and ideas for SteamCraft.

2.  Familiar rules for Swords & Wizardry.

3.  Incorporating Arneson's old D&D house rules into a retroclone.

4.  More on my campaign world.

5.  Updating some old ideas.

More later...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

[Guest Post]Can Logic and Fairness get in the way of Good Game Design?

So how should games be designed to allow logically possible actions of PCs?  In many games, things default to something else like an attribute.  The problem here is that many GMs are bad GM’s that ignore that aspect or are not aware of the rule because it is two sentences long in one section of the book.  Thus, when people play games, many times PCs cannot perform actions because they lack the skill even though common sense says they should be able to.  Consider a game set in contemporary times.  Almost everyone above the age of 18 in a modern society can drive.  Yet, there are dramatic differences in a person’s talent for driving.  Some can barely make it a few blocks without hitting parked cars.  Other people can pull off driving that you see in action films.  This means that if you have a driving skill you will want the ability to measure the differences in ability.  Now, what happens if someone does not have the skill?  Does that mean they cannot drive a car?  Certainly, anyone who has been a passenger in a car will know how to turn it on, turn the steering wheel, and know to press the pedals to move and stop.  Now, could such a person drive to the store without hitting something or getting into a ticket?  Maybe.  However, they certainly could get the pickup truck to move in a field to get away from the zombies. 

In designing SteamCraft I made the decision to make it obvious to players and the GM that PCs at least have a chance to perform logically possible actions.  I had considered just putting in a rule to default to 10% of an attribute’s value.  That raised concerns for me.  It is basically saying that each PC already has some skill in everything.  If that is the case, then isn’t it unfair to make players spend extra points?  Let me explain.  Suppose you have 60 in Agility.  That means the PC has 6 by default in Ranged Weapons even if the PC does not select that skill.  Now suppose the player selects Ranged Weapons at 40.  That would cost 40 points.  However, if he already has a default at 6, isn’t it unfair to make the player spend those 6 points?   Shouldn’t the player spend 34 points instead? 

I also had a concern that in many games I have played, both the players and GM assumes that if you had nothing in a skill, you could not do those actions.  But that is just illogical.  I mean if you live in a time where everyone rides horses, then the PCs will be able to ride a horse.  I needed a way to make it obvious to both the player and the GM they could try almost anything.  I also wanted to make sure that the players are being treated fairly and not having to spend extra points.  Because of that, I had the players record 10% of an attributes value for each associated skill.  Once that was done, then they player could spend more points.  This made it clear to everyone that players had a chance and it resolved the fairness issue I was having. 

However, there were two unintended consequences.  First, some people viewed it as unnecessarily complicated.  The second issue had to do with many people felt having a 5% chance to do something was worthless.  However, the 5% chance is misleading.  The ratings just conveyed general knowledge and basic ability.  It is to enable the person in a runaway train to have the knowledge to pull the brake lever.  It isn’t to allow them to build a train.  The ability also is meant to be used in stressful situations.  Mundane situations gain bonuses.

In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better for me to be less fair.  I could just put in a default box that players put in 10% of the attribute’s value.  So, under Agility it would say default 6 if the attribute was 60.  However, players would not have 6 in every skill meaning they would need to spend that 6 points.  It is less fair, less logical, but it would speed up character creation and address a perception issue some people have about character creation when they read through it. 

On thinking through this issue it does seem clear that sometimes having better game design means making illogical or unfair decisions in the rules for the sake of better game play.  There seems to be a balancing act that must be done and sometimes you are never exactly sure what way to go, especially if it is a minor issue like a few extra points being able to be spent on skill during character creation.  Is being fair and spending a couple more minutes or character creation better?  Or, would it be better to be less fair, speed things up, and be better received by the players when they read through the rules?