Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Tyranny of the Gamemaster

While I was writing the previous essay, I realized I'd left something out. The reason I don't like target numbers placed in the hands of the gamemaster. First, while I generally believe that the only people who visit this site are already game players and/or game designers, I feel there needs to be some background. Just in case Anne Hathaway has secretly become addicted to my prose, and harbors an unspoken passion for me, one that can only be aroused by my writing. In which case, Anne, I shall write game design notes to you while we repose beneath a banyan tree. The rest of you will have to just muddle through.

There are generally two ways in which to define a target number (the number that you must either roll over or roll under in order to determine the success of an action). The first, chronologically speaking, was to define this target number somewhere on the character sheet. You generated your character's strength, for example, and whenever you had to make some kind of strength-based test, you tried to roll under that number. Original D&D defined these numbers by the rules. Your character's saving throw and "to-hit" number were defined by your character's class and level. Roll under or roll under (depending on the task). This was later expanded to include skills, which were again the target number against which you rolled the dice. Thus, my skill at fishing is 14, so I must roll under 14 on 1d20.

Then, the element that determined success or failure in a task was placed in the hands of the gamemaster. The gamemaster is the referee. He's supposed to be impartial. I generally don't believe this, but more on this later. You have to do this once you make success the aggregate of attributes and skills. In simple English, once you say that success is a factor of an attribute (dexterity) and skill (sword), the numbers get too big to be the target number. Thus: DEX 10 + Sword 5 = rolling under 15 on 1d20. (First, you'd have to roll under in this system to account for character improvement. Second, yes, I know in D&D this actually works differently; I'm simplifying here. Bear with me.) You have to devise a scale by which you measure success or failure. This is the "difficulty table."

We had one of these in the ICON System. You're all familiar with them by now. The table says a routine task has a target number of ten, difficult tasks might be a 15, etc. This is why I, as a game designer, was concerned with statistical probabilities. If rolling 2d6 produced an average of 6-8, then this defined my difficulty table. Thus, if I roll 2d6 and add an attribute value (say 2) and a skill value (say 1), then my average roll is 9 to 11. So I'm going to make 10 the target number for a routine, average roll. Even an infirm, mentally deficient character can open doors and dress themselves (in other words, routine tasks). Adding an extra six-sider to the roll, or rolling 2d8, gives me a different bell curve, and thus a different difficulty table.

But it's this difficulty table to which I object.

First, I, as game designer, have to write up a whole bunch of situations and define their difficulty. I have to signpost what I mean by a "routine" task as opposed to an "impossible" task. And I have to do it objectively, without consideration of a character's attributes and skills. This is hard; is repairing a car "routine", an airplane "difficult", and a starship "impossible"? I don't know; I've never done those things. It also generates a lot of words. Game designers love generating words. Too much so, in my opinion. This leads to big, bloated game books that sell for $49.95.

Second, I'm placing an important decision in the hands of the gamemaster. He (or she) defines how difficult a given task is, using his (or her) assumptions. I may consider finding a particular secret door to be a "difficult" task, but someone else may rule that it's actually "nearly impossible." So what? I'll tell you: I don't believe the gamemaster is the impartial referee that we assume him to be. Because he's written an adventure, but forgot about the Elven thief's insanely high ability to spot hidden doors, and realizes his carefully designed adventure goes in the toilet if the Elf makes his skill test. So he sets a ridiculously high target number. In other words, he cheats. I can hear my friend Matt Colville in my head saying "so what? Any game can be broken. If a gamemaster is going to cheat, he's going to cheat." But why hand him the tools with which to do that? My apartment can be burglarized at any time, but I don't leave the front door unlocked.

Those are the two reasons I don't like the externalized difficulty chart mechanic.

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