Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs
  • Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs


    Back when Dungeons & Dragons was new, the designers and most of the players were wargamers. Typical adventures involved threats to the player character's lives and possessions - their money and magic items. As the hobby has grown, more of the participants are not wargamers, and many campaigns must find other ways to create tension, or abandon tension entirely in favor of linear stories or other means. People refuse to have their painstakingly-crafted characters killed.


    ". . . a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game." Gary Gygax

    Add to this players who have learned from video games that games never really threaten you Ė in video games there is always the save game or the respawn, and if your avatar is killed you just come back to life and go pick up your stuff and continue on as though it never happened. These players may not like a game in which their virtual lives can truly be threatened. Unsurprisingly, there's a large segment of video gamers who blame the game if the player fails.

    The question arose recently on a LinkedIn group of what GM's can do to create tension other than threaten the physical well-being of characters.

    Threatening not only the possessions of characters but also their status or well-being in their community may work. While this may be more acceptable to some than having their avatars' lives threatened, it still runs into the very strong loss aversion that is common in the 21st century. (Loss aversion: people's strong tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.)

    The difference might be that if (say) there's a status track that reflects how much the community trusts the player character, even if the status goes down it's easy to see how it can go back up. It's more generic than, say, destroying the player's favorite magic wand - that wand is never going to come back. The game/campaign also must make whatever statuses are being tracked just as important as magic items and money.

    But this still involves the threat that something will be taken away from a player's character, and therefore from the player.

    The key to the popularity of Eurostyle tabletop games is that players are on a clear progression from less to more - as contrasted with games where players progress from more to less (as in Chess and all its variants, Checkers - and a great many wargames). Players never lose anything, never have anything destroyed or stolen, hence loss aversion is not involved.

    The contrast can become not who keeps or does not keep something, but who progresses faster and who slower, even as everyone is assured of progression. This is the way computer RPGs work, again because your character cannot fail in their tasks, and even death rarely slows them down.

    RPGs already have progression in the increasing capability of the character, whether that comes from leveling up, or more skills and feats, or more magic items and money, or something else such as prestige and ownership of land. But the early RPGs all threatened loss of something. How do we structure an RPG, or for that matter any adventure, so that players' loss aversion is not activated?

    I don't have a lot of ideas here because, to me, games should always involve some sort of conflict (I strongly dislike Eurogames, which are usually parallel competition puzzles, not games). Conflict implies the possibility of loss. Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?

    There's a spectrum of what most of us call "games" from a game as a tense challenge at one extreme to a game as an "experience," often a story, at the other extreme. Traditionally, stories required tension, required conflict as a major element, but nowadays stories without that tension have become more popular (also think of "walking simulator" video "games"). Thanks to the visual element that has become more and more important as time passes, video games are better able to provide an experience, although tabletop video games can come close when players have sufficient imagination. (Imagination is a disappearing commodity, but that's a topic for another time.)

    I have always been content with threatening what the players possess, whether that's the physical well-being of their characters or their possessions (especially magic items and money). But I came to RPGs from wargaming, just as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did.

    Perhaps readers can suggest how to structure RPGs without loss aversion, yet without turning the "game" into a story told by the GM that the players merely follow.

    ​contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 66 Comments
    1. DerekSTheRed -
      The idea of an RPG adventure without loss aversion immediately brought to mind a rival Adventuring Group trying to get the same treasure. I got the idea from an Eberron module that was inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy was competing with Belloc for the Ark. Similar adventures that feature a race to find macguffin artifacts would work as well. Rival adventure groups would be natural targets for conflict so the RPG adventure has to be constructed so that conflict is impossible or unwise.

      There are encounters that could be constructed without loss aversion in an RPG adventure that are the exception to the rule. An encounter featuring a chase (either to escape or capture) would qualify. Or possibly a race in front of spectators like the dinosaur race in Tomb of Annihilation.

      Finally, social interaction offers encounters where persuasion is used in a variety of ways. Consider a ball where the PCs are trying to help an NPC ally win the heart of a young noble who has many other rival suitors.

      These examples make clear that the presence of RIVALS to compete with who are not necessarily ADVERSARIES to defeat is the key.
    1. Cripes's Avatar
      Cripes -
      Goblin punch had a pretty good rundown of the topic, with various interesting angles on it to steal/creatively appropriate: https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/10/impact.html

      I especially his concept where maimed / severely wounded characters get a progressively higher inclination to retire from the life of adventure. That, or the mutations..

      https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/death-trauma-and-retirement-im-gettin.html
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      There's a lot of prejudice and preconception in this article, especially when it comes to videogames. I will just point out the increasing popularity of Iron Man modes in videogames over the past couple of decades, to the point where it's now become almost obligatory for any single-player game to include one. Many videogamers actively seek out an experience in which loss is a real possibility, and failure will result in having to start the entire experience from scratch.

      To address the question, one possible source of tension can be social standing. If the PCs are lauded as heroes for their past deeds, having them take the blame for villainous actions that they failed to prevent, or even unwittingly aided, can be a painful blow.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Many RPGs seem to involve an inherent tension (if not outright contradiction) in how they present themselves - they suggest the game has neither winners nor losers; yet PC death is a clear loss condition!

      Furthermore, there is an awkwardness in a team game which is player primarily socially rather than competitiiely, when one player loses while the rest of the team is still playing the game. Especially if the play time remaining is measure in weeks or perhaps years. Is the player whose PC has died meant to just not turn up to the game anymore?

      Assuming that player keeps turning up, and so runs a new PC, is that PC going to be an ineffective contributer (eg starting at 1t level with a 10th level party)? In which case, why bother? Is the player who loses first stuck on a death spiral, where s/he keeps losing because his/her PC can't keep up?

      If the answer to the above is "quasi-geometric XP tables means the new PC catches up quickly" then the natural question becomes - why not just skip the "catching up" phase, and have the new PC come in at the same level, or - say - one level behind (as per 3E's raise dead spell)? At which point, PC death ceases to be such an extreme loss condition, or maybe isn't even really a loss condition at all, but something more like an instance of resource expenditure.

      In other words, I don't think changes in the way D&D handles PC death are mostly attributable in changes in the personalities of game players. I think they reflect a natural dynamic in the evolution of RPGs in response to the tension inherent in denying the game has a loss condition while building in a loss condition that is barely workable.

      (There are other solutions, obviously: just to give one example, if you limit PC growth to 3rd level, a la Moldvay Basic, then treating PC death as a loss condition which necessitates a new PC actually becomes workable. But D&D has opted not to confine the power curve in that way.)
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      The main source of tension in the game I GM is what can loosely be called "story losses": if this thing you are trying to do doesn't work, then this other thing that you don't want to occur, will occur.

      Eg in my Burning Wheel game, the PC who was trying to redeem his Balrog-possesed brother failed - his brother was killed in front of his eyes, after the PCs got lost in the catacombs, and so another character bent on vengeance against the brother got to his resting place first.

      In my main 4e game, the PCs have tried to ameliorate the ambitions of both the gods and the primordials to ensure there is no outbreak of a Dusk War. If they fail, the world they are trying to preserve will be destroyed.

      Etc.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      It's very possible to build in tension without death. Superhero games have been doing it successfully for decades, and if properly mimicking comics, characters shouldn't die, at least not permanently. Losing to the villains is a huge blow, and of course there is tension in keeping identities secret, having the media paint you as a villain, romantic entanglements, accidentally creating a new timeline....

      As for other losses, such as items or social standing, is that something that's going out of style at the table? It's not something I've noticed.

      I don't think players not wanting to lose can be blamed on video games. Most video gamers I know, which I admit is not a huge number, play rpgs in a pretty traditional fashion. I agree with pemerton that there has been a shift in how rpgs are played over the years. The wargame roots are fading, because role playing, is frankly a poor fit with the original DnD game. Even at the time, there was a lot of discontent among the more story oriented players. The hobby has also broadened to include a wide variety of styles.

      The "gentle" rpgs coming out of Japan focus on socialization at the table. They have very little tension, as the players are usually trying to improve the lives of npcs, with the "bad guys" usually just misunderstood. This is a different style of game, but has nothing to do with the younger generation just wanting to gain without pain.

      As for there being a lack of imagination in "youngsters" these days, I admit it can feel that way. But assuming that the next generation is lacking has been happening forever, so I think the kids today will be fine. They are generally more open minded and accepting. And I do have hope that they will have the imagination to undo some of the problems we have created.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Ah man. After all the warm and fuzzies the last time around, @lewpuls goes full on "git off mah lawn" again.

      I don't have a lot of ideas here because, to me, games should always involve some sort of conflict (I strongly dislike Eurogames, which are usually parallel competition puzzles, not games). Conflict implies the possibility of loss. Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?
      Umm, what Eurogames are you talking about? Catan certainly has loss conditions, or rather, a win condition which means you have a clear winner in the game. Pandemic has very, very clear loss conditions and you will likely lose as often as you win.

      Are we seriously going to entertain that the most popular games in decades aren't really games but are "parallel competition puzzles"? Whatever that is.

      How far back do we actually have to go to find the play style that is being talked about in the article? Dragonlance released in the early 80's, but, was being played in the 70's and the very early days of AD&D. Here we have a clearly story driven game where loss isn't about dying.

      And, if we stick with AD&D, a Raise Dead was pretty easy to come by and easily affordable by a group of 4th level or higher. Loss by death wasn't exactly a huge barrier even back in the day.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Yeah, I was kind of wondering about those Eurogames too. Thought I was missing something.
    1. Lord Mhoram's Avatar
      Lord Mhoram -
      I think that to really look at this one has to look at goals. What is a player (or more specifically their character's) goals. In early D&D it seems the goal was "Survive and amass more money and magic items". So at that point, taking any of those creates loss. Take the superhero genre - those have very different goals, in general terms things like "Protect the city" or "save the people from the madman". With such goals then the tension is created by threatening those goals. Making it very difficult for the heroes to save the city would create the same kind of tension.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      The main source of tension in the game I GM is what can loosely be called "story losses": if this thing you are trying to do doesn't work, then this other thing that you don't want to occur, will occur.
      I totally agree. "Story losses" really captures the general idea. When we watch a movie we ordinarily expect that the heroes will triumph in the end, the question is how. RPGs let us feel the tension as we're going along and participate in the story. The tension is primarily from heightening drama. In this sense things like "I want signature aspects of my character protected" makes way more sense when an RPG is thought of as a story, not as a game. In a Eurogame there's usually no direct "versus" aspect of the game, but that doesn't mean there's no loss. The loss is there in the form of opportunity cost. There have always been other games without a versus: The venerable Clue is a good example. The players can't affect each other directly at all, but only one gets to solve the crime.

      I'm not sure that the term "loss aversion" as used by behavioral economics is really being understood in the original post, although I do think loss aversion does play a role in an RPG (e.g., how much people dislike XP losses compared to foregone opportunities). Loss aversion refers to the fact that people tend to be inconsistent in their preferences for losses depending on framing. I have no problem with the author coining a new term but I think calling on a term to mean something else vague just sheds confusion.

      In this sense RPGs as many people play them are more like an interactive, collaborative performance like jazz or dance than they are like sport. In a jazz combo (I've played in them) different players have roles: The drummer and bassist interact a certain way and usually play throughout the piece, the horn players tend to take turns more, etc. The general goal of a combo of equals (as opposed to a leader with a few sidemen) is that no one player should consistently outshine the others. Each gets their chance in the spotlight to play a solo and to sound good. The combo interacts to create a sum greater than the parts, which sets up the ability for each player to shine. Often there isn't even an audience for jazz playing if you're talking about a studio jam. The audience is really the players themselves. A "versus" player is usually someone you don't want around.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Maybe the groups I played with were the outliers but early D&D character creation was often as simple as generate 6 numbers using method outlined by the DM, pick a race, class, buy basic armor and such, and a pregenerated Adventurers Pack that had all of the basic gear and start playing.

      Now most DM's want some kind of back story, you have feats, skills, traits, advantages, disadvantages on top of stats, class/profession, and race. After all of that you have a bit more attachment to the character.

      Plus old style D&D frequently threatened permanent loss of equipment(rust monsters, jellies, oozes, etc), permanent level drains from many types of undead, and a Permanency spell cost a point of Constitution.

      Newer games usually have easy ways to recover lost stats, levels and equipment.

      I have often felt that the 'Adventure Path' format removes a lot of risk of failure from the game as the path assumes the PCs will succeed. Plus encounters are often softer compared to older games.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Quote Originally Posted by Koloth View Post
      I have often felt that the 'Adventure Path' format removes a lot of risk of failure from the game as the path assumes the PCs will succeed. Plus encounters are often softer compared to older games.
      Depends on the path. I still remember my players' PCs being absolutely ripped apart by both Red Hand of Doom and Savage Tide when I ran them with the encounters as written. So many new characters.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by Koloth View Post
      Plus old style D&D frequently threatened permanent loss of equipment(rust monsters, jellies, oozes, etc), permanent level drains from many types of undead, and a Permanency spell cost a point of Constitution.
      Ah, the good old days.

      I'm with Jay - there are different meanings of "loss aversion" at play here. That being said, if your GM is a wargamer in sheep's clothing, you'd best not spend a lot of time on your backstory. If your GM in an entitled millenial, your character can safely invest time in its own Facebook and Instagram accounts.

      To be fair, I'd probably prefer the millenial GM's story better: risk of death is fun, but shouldn't be the name of the game.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I totally agree. "Story losses" really captures the general idea.
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord Mhoram View Post
      I think that to really look at this one has to look at goals. What is a player (or more specifically their character's) goals. In early D&D it seems the goal was "Survive and amass more money and magic items". So at that point, taking any of those creates loss. Take the superhero genre - those have very different goals, in general terms things like "Protect the city" or "save the people from the madman". With such goals then the tension is created by threatening those goals.
      In classic D&D, with its goal of amassing treasure and gaining items, doing those things directly improves the player's position. Magic items give you new resources as a player (eg spells to use) or buff existing aspects of your position (eg bonus to hit). Gold lets you buy new equipment which directly improves your position in the game. (Much like "points" used to build an army in a wargame.)

      Earning gold also indirectly improves your position, by yielding XP which let you gain levels.

      I think one thing that motivates ideas like those in the OP is this: it's not obvious how "story losses" (or story wins) directly or indirectly affect the player's position. (It's clear that they affect the character's position - eg in the superhero example, all the NPCs now think the character is a villain.) And if those losses actually don't affect the player's position - eg the GM will manipulate other aspects of the fiction (whether overtly or behind-the-scenes) to make sure everything turns out OK - then it's not entirely clear how the player is actually playing a game.

      So while I don't really agree with the OP, I think it touches on a point that is fairly fundamental to the design and play of RPGs.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord Mhoram View Post
      I think that to really look at this one has to look at goals. What is a player (or more specifically their character's) goals. In early D&D it seems the goal was "Survive and amass more money and magic items". So at that point, taking any of those creates loss. Take the superhero genre - those have very different goals, in general terms things like "Protect the city" or "save the people from the madman". With such goals then the tension is created by threatening those goals. Making it very difficult for the heroes to save the city would create the same kind of tension.
      This is a really excellent point. Someone mentioned Savage Tides AP and it has an excellent scenario - defend Farshore. You amass victory points by doing certain tasks - finding and making allies, building defenses, doing this or that all within a specific time limit - that determine the end result of the scenario. You could plausibly do lots of killing and still wind up with a fairly Pyrrhic victory if you weren't careful.

      So, yes, it's entirely possible for the PC's to be constantly "winning" and still lose.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      In classic D&D, with its goal of amassing treasure and gaining items, doing those things directly improves the player's position. Magic items give you new resources as a player (eg spells to use) or buff existing aspects of your position (eg bonus to hit). Gold lets you buy new equipment which directly improves your position in the game. (Much like "points" used to build an army in a wargame.)

      Earning gold also indirectly improves your position, by yielding XP which let you gain levels.

      I think one thing that motivates ideas like those in the OP is this: it's not obvious how "story losses" (or story wins) directly or indirectly affect the player's position. (It's clear that they affect the character's position - eg in the superhero example, all the NPCs now think the character is a villain.) And if those losses actually don't affect the player's position - eg the GM will manipulate other aspects of the fiction (whether overtly or behind-the-scenes) to make sure everything turns out OK - then it's not entirely clear how the player is actually playing a game.

      So while I don't really agree with the OP, I think it touches on a point that is fairly fundamental to the design and play of RPGs.
      The problem with this model is that it's ultimately futile. It's a treadmill of kills stuff, take its loot so you can kill bigger stuff and take its loot, round and round. It's a very solid model, to be fair. Tons and tons of games are built on this. But, it does get rather stale after a while. There's a reason we don't see a lot of games following this model anymore. For one, computer games will give you a pretty good experience for this without all the hassle of trying to play a F2F RPG.

      And, really, this model, while you still see it from time to time, doesn't really appeal to gamers, apparently, who want a bit more depth to their play than just murderhoboes killing and looting.

      While I'm pretty unabashedly gamist in my approach to RPG's, even I'll balk at the idea that we should go back to the idea that the primary win/loss conditions in an RPG should be loot or death. And, really, as soon as you move away from D&D, this gets even more apparent. What's the point of death or kill and loot in my GURPS Mars game based on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy where the point of the game is to establish a Mars base?

      Or, even going back to the good old days, take Star Frontiers. You are Star Law Rangers. Your gear is assigned to you by Star Law. You are, essentialy, Old West sheriffs. If something takes away your laser gun, you just go requisition another laser gun. You aren't really supposed to be putting criminals in the ground (although that does happen a lot). You are supposed to bring them in for justice.

      My problem with this article is it seems to presume that RPG=D&D. Sorry, that ship has sailed a LONG time ago. How does Kill and Loot even remotely relate to my Dread game? Or Blades in the Dark?
    1. 5ekyu's Avatar
      5ekyu -
      I fall into the camp with several others. Story loss stakes come easy for players who get into the character, the world, the NPCs and where the stories and challenges are about more than survival and loot.



      Sent from my VS995 using EN World mobile app
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by 5ekyu View Post
      I fall into the camp with several others. Story loss stakes come easy for players who get into the character, the world, the NPCs and where the stories and challenges are about more than survival and loot.



      Sent from my VS995 using EN World mobile app
      I wonder if this isn't the heart of the issue. It's pretty easy to play an RPG as just a tactical exercise wargame where you have your party, you have your objective, and off you go. A lot of early play D&D was this sort of thing. Moldvay Basic, for example, pretty much defines this as how the game is supposed to be played. You have dungeon where the adventure is, you have a town where you go back, resupply and then head back to the adventure.

      But, really, haven't we moved a fair ways beyond this? Many campaigns no longer even have a "dungeon" as in some site away from civilization, where you are expected to repeatedly foray into and adventure. Now, play typically starts and maybe even focuses in civilization, where the interaction of the characters with whatever concepts that DM is laying out along with (hopefully) ideas that the players themselves are pushing, makes the campaign.

      My players, right now, are pushing to start a thieves guild in the city they have been in the most often. Now, I've kinda screwed the pooch on this, because I didn't actually follow up on what they were pushing for, but, if I was a better DM, the campaign would have spend the next several sessions with them dealing with stuff in the city instead of the quest I had prepped. I'm discovering that I'm really not a very good sandbox DM when the sandbox is too big. Lessons learned for next time.

      But, right there, there's a win/loss condition that the players have set for themselves. Do they create this thieves guild and how successful are they at it? The tension is all right there in the basic concept. Put up achievable goals, play through and see what happens. What I think I need to do is come up with a series of scenarios with victory conditions for each scenario, where doing one thing closes off other options, and at the end, that's how successful they are.

      However, at no point in what I have in mind is death or loss of equipment really an issue. Granted, if they die, that's a definite loss, but, still, that's not really what that scenario is about.

      Hrm... ideas are starting to percolate....
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      The problem with this model is that it's ultimately futile. It's a treadmill of kills stuff, take its loot so you can kill bigger stuff and take its loot, round and round. It's a very solid model, to be fair. Tons and tons of games are built on this. But, it does get rather stale after a while. There's a reason we don't see a lot of games following this model anymore. For one, computer games will give you a pretty good experience for this without all the hassle of trying to play a F2F RPG.



      While I'm pretty unabashedly gamist in my approach to RPG's, even I'll balk at the idea that we should go back to the idea that the primary win/loss conditions in an RPG should be loot or death. And, really, as soon as you move away from D&D, this gets even more apparent. What's the point of death or kill and loot in my GURPS Mars game based on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy where the point of the game is to establish a Mars base?



      My problem with this article is it seems to presume that RPG=D&D. Sorry, that ship has sailed a LONG time ago. How does Kill and Loot even remotely relate to my Dread game? Or Blades in the Dark?
      I agree that there a really stark limits on the classic D&D model, and that it doesn't easily generalise beyond D&D. (Or even to much of D&D post-1980.)

      I'm not sure that classic game is entirely replacable by a computer, though - when it comes to engaging with the fiction, a GM is still better able (I think) to adjudicate unexpected moves (like "creative spellcasting") than a computer is. So for those who enjoy classic D&D, face-to-face RPGing has something distinctive to offer.

      But for those who want something else - which I'm pretty confident is a majority of contemporary RPGers - what exactly does that look like?

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      It's pretty easy to play an RPG as just a tactical exercise wargame where you have your party, you have your objective, and off you go. A lot of early play D&D was this sort of thing. Moldvay Basic, for example, pretty much defines this as how the game is supposed to be played. You have dungeon where the adventure is, you have a town where you go back, resupply and then head back to the adventure.

      But, really, haven't we moved a fair ways beyond this? Many campaigns no longer even have a "dungeon" as in some site away from civilization, where you are expected to repeatedly foray into and adventure. Now, play typically starts and maybe even focuses in civilization, where the interaction of the characters with whatever concepts that DM is laying out along with (hopefully) ideas that the players themselves are pushing, makes the campaign.

      My players, right now, are pushing to start a thieves guild in the city they have been in the most often. Now, I've kinda screwed the pooch on this, because I didn't actually follow up on what they were pushing for, but, if I was a better DM, the campaign would have spend the next several sessions with them dealing with stuff in the city instead of the quest I had prepped.



      right there, there's a win/loss condition that the players have set for themselves. Do they create this thieves guild and how successful are they at it? The tension is all right there in the basic concept. Put up achievable goals, play through and see what happens. What I think I need to do is come up with a series of scenarios with victory conditions for each scenario, where doing one thing closes off other options, and at the end, that's how successful they are.
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Someone mentioned Savage Tides AP and it has an excellent scenario - defend Farshore. You amass victory points by doing certain tasks - finding and making allies, building defenses, doing this or that all within a specific time limit - that determine the end result of the scenario. You could plausibly do lots of killing and still wind up with a fairly Pyrrhic victory if you weren't careful.

      So, yes, it's entirely possible for the PC's to be constantly "winning" and still lose.
      If we replace the goal of the classic D&D model, which is engage fiction to (i) survive and (ii) find treasure so as to earn XP, with an alternative goal of engage fiction to [do X] to earn VP, then what else has to change? First and foremost, the players need ways to do X.

      Most of the debates around railroading, player-driven vs GM-driven games, etc, can be seen through the prism of issues like Who decides what X is? How do the players learn what X is? How do the PCs (and thereby the players) get the resources necessary to do X? Who judges whether the players have succeeded in doing X? If the answers are, the GM decides, the players learn by trying stuff and seeing what happens as the GM narrates outcomes, it's in the gift of the GM and the GM judges, perhaps using some skill checks and free RP as a guide, then we get the makings of the classic railroad. Thus a lot of indie-type RPG design can be seen as reacting against one or more of those answers.

      (And if the answer to How do the PCs get the necessary resources is "Kill all these orcs to get the McGuffin", then we've basically got the fighting of the classic game without the degree of player strategy and skill. It's a tactical skirmish game with a veneer of story laid over the top.)

      I think the OP is motivated, in part, by a feeling that there's no answer to these questions about doing X which are consistent with RPGs remaining a game. I think that feeling is wrong; but if all I knew of post-classic D&D was the Dragonlance modules, that my opinion might be different!
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Most of the debates around railroading, player-driven vs GM-driven games, etc, can be seen through the prism of issues like Who decides what X is? How do the players learn what X is? How do the PCs (and thereby the players) get the resources necessary to do X? Who judges whether the players have succeeded in doing X? If the answers are, the GM decides, the players learn by trying stuff and seeing what happens as the GM narrates outcomes, it's in the gift of the GM and the GM judges, perhaps using some skill checks and free RP as a guide, then we get the makings of the classic railroad. Thus a lot of indie-type RPG design can be seen as reacting against one or more of those answers.
      The Eurostyle answer to these questions, or more accurately, French-Filmmaker answers:

      Who decides what X is? Everyone involved.

      How do the PCs get the resources to do X? The only resources needed are equal to two bistro bills and four packs of cigarettes. So, not an issue.

      Who judges whether the players have succeeded? Success is not required - only change.

      And X, by the way, pretty much involves a slight change in your daily routine, someone's hurt feelings, several sexual rendezvous, and more cigarettes. But at least it's not a classic railroad.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Koloth View Post
      Maybe the groups I played with were the outliers but early D&D character creation was often as simple as generate 6 numbers using method outlined by the DM, pick a race, class, buy basic armor and such, and a pregenerated Adventurers Pack that had all of the basic gear and start playing.
      Certainly that's how "old skool" things worked. I recall playing that way a good bit too.


      Newer games usually have easy ways to recover lost stats, levels and equipment.
      They do, and are typically less focused on those as being losses. They're more "story" and less "simulation" or "game". Of course, none of those are outright wrong, it's really up to the group and GM to decide what fits.


      I have often felt that the 'Adventure Path' format removes a lot of risk of failure from the game as the path assumes the PCs will succeed. Plus encounters are often softer compared to older games.
      It varies, but in general a more story-oriented game has issues if there's major character death, at least without some kind of reasonable replacement rule that lets play go on. New encounters aren't necessarily that soft. 3.X was known for TPKs.
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