Monday, November 6, 2017

How Video Games Conspire to Ruin My D&D Sessions

What, the blog title wasn't clear enough?  Get ready for some high-quality whining, which may or may not have actionable advice packed in at the end!  No ponies, though; if that's a deal-breaker, you can pretend I'm talking about Ponyfinder instead of AD&D.  Check it out below the break.

I started up with a new AD&D group last month--only one person in it I've played with before, and the rest all P&PRPG newbies.  Today was their third session... and it was their third disappointing result.  And although it took me three sessions, I've finally figured out why they're struggling--or rather, I've figured out the root problem which lead to their struggles.  See, they wanted to play some "old-school dungeon crawls," or so they said.  But much like Wimp Lo, they were trained wrong, and it's hard to overcome your training.

Let's back up.  In traditional dungeon crawls, the player goal is to go as deep into the dungeon as they can without dying, grab as much loot as they can without dying, and get back out before they die (there are a lot of other ways to game, of course, but for this column, we'll be speaking exclusively of "traditional dungeon crawls").  The more dangerous monsters inhabit the lower levels--along with all the best treasure.  A party will typically try to get as low as they can as fast as they can, to avoid using up precious ammo/spells/HP on weak monsters, until they start getting nervous.  Then, they'll scout that floor, trying to avoid combat except where necessary to get loot (loot obtained without combat is the best loot!), and once they start getting a little worn down, will head for the exit.  Once they're back in town, they can divvy up the loot, collect their experience, rest up, and prepare for whatever they're planning next.

Now, this is not a secret to my players.  Given that they're mostly newbies, I explicitly spelled this all out.  But it turns out that playing a "traditional dungeon crawl" is extremely counterintuitive to someone raised on CRPGs.

See, in CRPGs, there's this addiction to 100% completion, and the games themselves feed it.  The game designers want you to explore every nook and cranny of every cave, field, and town they programmed, and why not?  The longer you spend poking around, the more content they can claim their game has, which makes it easier to justify those price tags.  So even though a game might be completable by following the shortest path, it's often easier if you head to all the side areas and collect all the bits of loot, kill all the monsters for their XP, etc.

Moreover, in those games, "kill the monsters for XP (or to otherwise power yourself up)" is the accepted model for leveling characters.  In AD&D, by contrast, monsters are worth a little experience... but mostly, you get XP for loot (assuming you don't shift the balance with "roleplaying XP," as most DMs in non-crawl games do).  Every gold piece (or equivalent in magic items, gems, etc.) is worth one XP.  So when you come across a dozen kobolds guarding a chest with 500 silver pieces, a pouch with 11 platinum, and a +1 short sword, those kobolds are worth 84 XP... but the chest is worth 480!  And even a little bit more, if you take the chest and sell it, too!  So your best plan is to grab the most valuable stuff you can carry and get out.

Plus, monsters in CRPGs are pretty dumb.  If you get overwhelmed, you can just retreat to safety, recover you health/spells, and come back once you're good and ready.  Depending on the game, either everything will be just as you left it, or all the monsters will have respawned (but you'll be more powerful for having killed a bunch of them before retreating last time); either way, you can just keep doing this until eventually you clear the level.  But when a DM controls the monsters, they have an annoying habit of learning.  The first time you come tromping through the dungeon, maybe you'll catch its denizens off-guard.  But when you kill a bunch of kobolds, leave, and then come back two days later for round two?  Don't be surprised if there are barricades and everyone is on high alert.  And not just for the kobolds, either--any friends or allies of theirs will certainly have been informed of the recent attack, and some of their tougher friends from the lower levels might have come up to D1 to check things out and makes sure a human army isn't coming.  Or alternatively, don't be surprised if they've all up and moved somewhere safer, taking all their valuables with them--but leaving a trap or two behind as a "thank you."

Add it all up, and you can see what's been happening: I set up a classic-style dungeon of a type I've run before, and the party went into it like they were playing Diablo or something.  In three tries (at the same dungeon!), they haven't gone past the first floor, and have earned only a couple hundred XP each (depending on class, you need between 1250 and 2750 to reach level two, so that ain't much for a month's worth of gaming).  They baffled me in the first sessions by engaging in easily-avoidable combats and ignoring some obvious treasure in favor of languid exploration, and in the third by finding the stairs down (via what I only realize in retrospect was a deliberately on their part circuitous route), and electing to keep exploring D1 for a while instead of heading down, and in every session by seemingly approaching every fork in the road with the intent of following the path least likely to advance them farther into the dungeon.

Because of course, they were following the path they thought least likely to advance them farther into the dungeon, their years of CRPGs having set them up to believe that doing so would maximize their XP haul and chances of finding the best items.  Instead, they found a bunch of easily avoidable traps and monsters.

Anyway, this isn't a post about who was in the wrong or anything; it's a pretty straightforward case of the players and DM not being on the same page (the only twist being that in this case, we'd talked about what the players wanted in advance to make sure we were on the same page, to no avail).  But it is a warning about assuming that just because you're using the same words, you're talking about the same thing.  "Old school dungeon crawl" clearly meant something different to my players than it does to me, and pointing fingers doesn't solve that issue (even though I'm objectively right and they're objectively wrong).  If you've spent hundreds or thousands of hours learning to kill every monster you see and always try the correct door last, you aren't going to unlearn that from a pre-session reminder and couple of sessions of lackluster results.  And if you're used to running classic-style games, you're not necessarily going to recognize the difference between objectively poor decisions and a strategy which, while counterproductive in these particular environs, has served them well in superficially similar circumstances.

The players still want something different from the computer game "kill everything, you unstoppable juggernaut" experience, which is good, because I don't think I'd even have fun DMing that.  But after talking it over, I think we've figured out a good way forward.  For their next session (they'll be taking on a new dungeon, finally (which, unbeknownst to them, is the same dungeon from the second level on down!  Hooray for kludge-dungeons), they're going to bring along a hireling trained in appraisal.  In addition to giving them a way to appraise what items are best suited for hauling out and selling, Merv the Moneychanger-turned-Mercenary('s assistant), he can handily point out for the party's benefit when sneaking past some orcs might make more sense than assaulting them, or when to forgo the road less traveled in favor of the way down, or whatever.  He can't order them around, of course, but for a quarter-share of the treasure not including magic items or ten gold, whichever is greater, he can probably give them a chance to be a little more successful with their next crawl.


  1. Not going to lie: I find that kind of D&D is what gives RPGs a bad name. The 'XP per gold' thing is why I never touched AD&D again once I played another system for the first time.

    I think all those habits that computer games have came from AD&D in the first place.

    1. XP for gold makes perfect sense for dungeon crawls; it rewards concrete achievement while discouraging hack-and-slash non-strategy. It doesn't work well for anything that involves character development or plot, but that's why you homebrew up a roleplaying-based system for that kind of gaming.

      (One of the things I appreciate most about my AD&D, as I've become at least passingly familiar with other game systems, is how easy it is to houserule things. All the rules are deliberately discreet, so changing something over here doesn't break the game over there, the way it does with so many D20 system games, for example)

      And my players' bad habits definitely aren't rooted in any version of D&D that I've played. They come from a system that punishes expediency and rewards corner-poking, and which frowns upon efficiency when it comes at the expense of completeness. Those are things that get really boring face-to-face!

  2. Something something kids these days? :V

  3. You want your group to panic? Use the Lord Victor Nefarious strategy on them. He's the one in World of Warcraft who in the middle of a complicated boss fight with monsters flying all over, bellows "Kill the one in the dress."

    Personally, I find having monsters who *run away* instead of sticking around to be killed to the last one to frustrate them the most, and drag them in bits and pieces into ambushes while a small force sneaks around the back of the group where the low HP and poor AC mages and clerics tend to lurk.

    Did you know that you can get *six* kobald thieves with clubs to grapple a mage and subdue him in jiffy-quick time? Only the first one gets an attack of opportunity from the mage, while the rest grab on and beat the snot out of him with the intention of dragging him silently away. For bonus points, include a kobald cleric with Silence so there's no need for move silent rolls, or the noise from the tussle getting to the front-row. Oh, and you can't cast spells while being grappled.

    1. My group had the opposite problem with fleeing foes. When a group of goblins they attacked broke and ran, the party let them get away, which was fine... but then they decided they were going to set up camp in the middle of the dungeon, in the room they'd just chased those goblins out of! And then they were shocked when they were attacked while they slept...

  4. As someone trained on CRPGs, my biggest problem when I started running a Pathfinder game was how to handle "loot". I was shocked at how few mundane equipment options there actually were in D&D/Pathfinder compared to your average CRPG, or how much of a difference even a minor magical enhancement can make to a character's power.

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