Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 16, 2013

When pen & paper roleplaying games got out of their first hack'n'slash dungeon crawl phase and started to focus on storytelling, a conflict between narrative considerations and gameplay considerations evolved. People started complaining about certain things in the game not being "realistic". To which others replied "how realistic can throwing a magic missile at a dragon be?". Thus some people use the word verisimilitude ("the likeness or semblance of a narrative to reality") instead of realism. A dragon is never realistic, but his behavior can well be coherent in a story. That took care of the semantics, but the underlying conflict was never resolved.

One eternal issue is how complex a pen & paper roleplaying rules system should be. I have played systems like Rolemaster (aka Roll-master), where every single attack was handled by series of dice rolls that were cross-referenced on tables based on what type of weapon hit what type of armor. Not only was that rather a lot of work for each fight, it also had rather random results from glancing blows that effectively didn't do anything to insta-kill critical hits or permanent crippling wounds. And while it is "realistic" that somebody who is in a lot of sword-fights ends up missing an arm or a leg, it doesn't make for a very fun game if you play a group of adventurers on crutches.

Another problem was that class design was often based on what developers considered "realistic". And because magic is a kind of a cop-out from realism, spell-casters ended up doing all the interesting stuff, while fighters were reduced to dumbly swinging swords. 4th edition D&D approached that differently, considering class balance first and verisimilitude later, and that led to endless complaints how "daily attacks" from fighters were not as believable as daily spells from magic-users.

But even once you found a rules system you like, the problem of verisimilitude doesn't end. The flow of time in a pen & paper adventure or campaign is special: Interesting things tend to happen exactly in the moment the players arrive at a location. Very few people ever played an adventure where they storm the inner sanctum of the evil shaman and find that they are an hour late, the princess has already been sacrificed, and it is too late to close the gate to hell. They don't arrive at a city to find that problem with the orc invasion has already been resolved and there is no murder mystery to investigate for weeks to come. It is a bit like in a computer game, where the scripted sequence starts on arrival of the player, not before or after. That has very resemblance to realism, but is often a necessity for the game to work. In a realistic world, even a fantasy one, on most days nothing special happens to most people. But you wouldn't want to play that.

My players finished their previous adventure by storming the final lair of the vampire lord Count Strahd von Zarovich without taking an extended rest before; in spite of having been told that he was hiding behind fire they opened the secret door in the fireplace and started the final boss fight of the adventure. That is somewhat unusual insofar as players usually are aware of the "fake" timing of events in adventures. Thus players in pen & paper adventures, just like in computer games, rest up before a final fight, even if the narrative implies some sense of urgency. As a DM I might at some point play out a scene where that dawdling leads to the players being late and having to deal with the consequences. But that doesn't work for all adventures, and often I just stick to the script, even if the flow of time isn't very logical that way.

A logical approach in some cases might be to make the monsters better prepared if the players have delayed.
I am too conditioned by an early DM who was a big fan of having monsters attack us in the middle of the night unless we were barricaded somewhere (and sometimes they broke in anyway) to trust being able to rest before the last encounter. There are few things more annoying than a DM that takes the "8 hours of sleep" rule seriously for magic users. "Interrupted after 7:45 hours? No new spells today."
I think as a DM you need to do something to prevent meta-gaming. If you weren't aware, 4E brought a ridiculous strategy that groups could try to do if the DM didn't stop them. Every player started the first round the same way: 1st daily power --> action point --> second daily power.

I'm sure you can imagine with the entire party using 2 daily powers each, the encounter ended abruptly. After that, the party took an extended rest so they could do it all over again in the next encounter.
" If you weren't aware, 4E brought a ridiculous strategy that groups could try to do if the DM didn't stop them. Every player started the first round the same way: 1st daily power --> action point --> second daily power."

That's an interesting perspective. Tobold believes 4E definitively fixed that problem.
My players learned very quickly that was a suboptimal approach.

Used all you dailies on a few grunts guarding the outermost part of the fortress and then you retreated for a nap in the forest?

When you come back they have reinforced the position in the past 10 or so hours.

Did it again? Now they're beginning to send out search parties...

The mundane boring warriors issue was one reason I adored the late-in-the-3.5-lifecycle Tome of Battle. It actually made playing a martial character enjoyable again.

And of course, some people reacted REALLY negatively to it and still hate it. There is a good correlation between those players and the people who tend to play mages (Though admittedly the r^2 isn't that high)
...oh god, I just presented an anecdote in the same form as data, I need to be keelhauled.
I think Mass Effect has some good takes on this. In ME2 if you do too many side quests between main quest parts X and Y you find that allies start dying.

In ME3 there was an invasion taking place, slowly reducing your resources.
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