Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dungeon Mastering: What about the Details?

Every role-playing game provides rules for specifying different details. At its most intricate level, there are a vast quantity of role-playing details that could be tracked, from every item a character has in his or her pockets to the precise number of pounds a character can heft. What you track says a lot about what you want your game to focus on. Some people are surprised at what can be abstracted. Some people are amazed when I tell them that as both a player and DM I do not bother tracking treasure. The truth is that there are a lot of details that can be tracked or disregarded and how you address those types of details says a lot about the type of game you want to play.

Distances and Combat

One thing that comes to mind is the idea of distance as it relates to battle. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, where every distance is given in squares. This is relevant because combat is expected to be conducted on a battle map where each square is 5 feet by 5 feet. How far a creature can move, a weapon can be thrown, or a spell can be cast is extremely important on the tactical combat grid.

Contrast it with games like 13th Age or Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (3rd Edition). In 13th Age, ranged weapons have very abstract notions of range, such as "Nearby Targets Only." Warhammer FRP takes a similar stance, dividing range into Close, Medium, Long, and Extreme. Neither of these games go to great lengths to specifically declare how far these distances are. As the 13th Age rulebook states, "Usually you move fast enough to get where you want to go in a battle." This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons & Dragons, a game that has always given explicit speeds for creatures and distances for ranged weapons. What games like 13th Age or Warhammer FRP do worry about, though, is whether two creatures are engaged with one another or not.

This is a heated combat in Warhammer FRP. I swear.
The different focus changes the way combat feels. In D&D 4E, combat involves a lot of counting of squares. Distance matters and positioning is important. To a certain extent, D&D 4E combat is like Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions or XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In games like Warhammer or 13th Age, the move to abstract distances changes the focus more on actions and less on how far somebody can move. Where people are in combat matters and has technical effects, but it is nowhere near as important as in a tactical game like 4E. Both systems have their place in the tabletop RPG world. What is important is that the game group decide which approach would be more appealing for them.

Money, Equipment, and Encumbrance

The D&D Equipment List, circa 1993.
(notice the lack of barrels of pickled fish)
As a player and Dungeon Master, I never realized how little I cared about tracking money, equipment, and other personal property until I spent some time running d20 Modern. d20 Modern gave every character a "Wealth bonus" that was a general representation of their overall wealth. Players did not track each individual dollar but instead had a sense that this character was middle-class, poor, or disturbingly wealthy. If a character wanted to buy an item, they made a corresponding wealth check to see if they had the means to purchase it. Purchasing especially expensive items could lower the character's wealth bonus while earning significant amounts of money could raise the wealth bonus.

As a (young) player who had grown up tracking wealth down to the copper piece, the idea that it could be abstracted was fascinating. For some reason, this had never come up before. This idea sat in my thought-space throughout the near-decade that I managed to avoid playing any tabletop RPGs. When I finally came back to D&D, my approach had changed considerably. Seeing the "adventurer's kit" appear in the equipment list seemed enough for me to decide that the odds and ends of equipment, like wealth, were generally not worth the time to track. We just assumed that unless it seemed interesting otherwise, the characters had the typical equipment that they needed. Who cares if your character has five torches or two, thirty arrows or sixty. What matters is whether you run out. From my experience, running out of equipment, be it rations or crossbow bolts, is something better decided by the table (both players and Dungeon Master) when it's interesting in the context of the narrative. I felt the same about encumbrance rules. If I did not intend to bother tracking the details of what players had, why would I care about the details of how much it weighed?

Right. Encumbrance rules are optional.
Of course, that is my perspective on equipment. There are many players for whom equipment and wealth, like any other details, are important elements of the game worth tracking. I have met a number of people that really enjoy that aspect of the game. How much you have, how much you can carry, and how much it matters can be an important (and interesting) element of gameplay that may potentially shape the direction of the campaign. Getting that huge pile of gold out of the dragon's lair is important; knowing how many trips with how many mules is an important part of the game. At least for some players, that is. The important point about equipment, gold, and encumbrance, as with distances in combat, is making sure everybody at the table cares about the same kinds of things.

Other Details

There are a lots of details to focus on in a tabletop role-playing game. Everything from mapping a dungeon to counting experience points is something that a game group may, or may not, consider important. Being able to recognize that different players are interested in different things is important in putting together and maintaining a game group. Hopefully, by realizing that almost every aspect of the game is a potentially unnecessary detail that is up for discussion, groups will more readily come together and stay together.

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