Sunday, December 5, 2010

Exploration Versus Murder, Theft and Vandalism

Some wandering, meandering random thoughts concerning experience and exploration in RPGs.

Exploration is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and it forms a major theme within the Riskail setting.  But the sort of exploration that I've come to expect from games set in Riskail isn't the same animal that one might expect from OD&D and all it's iterative-mutantive dark young.  (IA! IA!)

Kill the monsters and take their stuff seems to be just peachy-keen to a large segment of gamers.  It's intrinsically bound-up inside the very DNA of the game.  Like Trollsmyth said way back in 2008 in his excellent post What Is This Game Supposed To Be About?  It's about exploration, but it is also very explicitly part and parcel of the whole she-bang that any exploration carried out in the game directly in the service to theft and murder, with the occasional bit of vandalism tossed in for good measure.

OD&D was built-up from the core principles of Exploration, Murder and Theft.  Killing monsters was originally tangential to exploring the dismal deeps and looting them.  The real emphasis, in terms of what the rules really rewarded, was in the Theft end of the triumverate of antisocial values near and dear to the heart of OD&D.  The Experience Points accumulated from lugging in massive sums of gold beat what you could earn from smiting hordes of creepy-crawlies or their masters.  And like anything else, you get what you pay for--those actions that get the highest rewards are hard-wired into the game as preferred activities.  Deviating from those things results in lesser rewards, which in effect is akin to being punished for not going along with the program.

But rewarding Theft/looting isn't necessarily the best way to reward exploration.  Or is it?  Tying advancement to money is ultra materialistic, and a dangerous abstration that reinforces some unpleasant and potentially unwelcome tendencies amongst the impressionable young minds being exposed to these questionable messages.  Exploration in the service of Theft backed-up by Violence is about as thuggish a message as you can pass off as 'harmless entertainment,' which ultimately it really isn't, not when you systematically reward and encourage these kinds of activities over more socially responsible, positive and healthy things.  But the debate about morality and all that stuff has been raging ever since the first set of Little Brown Books got shipped out into an unsuspecting world.  I'm not interested in rehashing that old chestnut.  I'm interested in some sort of alternative to the entrenched pseudo-psychotic emphasis on murder and theft.

But how do you make the role-playing of the creation of a work of art (for example) interesting, let alone exciting?  How does one re-orient the game from theft and murder to more creative, positive and worthwhile activities--and how do you do that without chugging on over to mamby-pamby land while you're going about it?

Endless tables for simulating social interactions leave me cold and unsatisfied.  Rules that try to replace human interaction more appropriately belong in a computer game, even a board game, but not a paper & pencil RPG with real living, breathing people gathered around the table.

Coming up with alternatives to rewarding ought-right murder in an RPG ought not to be so difficult, but it certainly seems to be. Quick: name one popular (playable) RPG that does not reward theft and murder.  If you can name one RPG that does this successfully and remains worth playing--please, do let me know.  I'm very interested.  The expectation that killing monsters, slaying dragons and engaging in combat against the forces of darkness is hard-wired into the core of the literary corpus from which OD&D arose, and all that has come up from out of that tiny little acorn that gave birth to role play gaming.  The Quick Primer to Old School Gaming by Mr. Finch does an excellent job of summing-up the way that old school gaming is Approached and Actually Played from an OD&D/old school perspective, but it doesn't go any farther than that.  (the free PDF is here, just in case.) The excellent RetroRoleplaying blog offers a nice addendum to the Quick Primer that expands the viewpoint into the arenas opened-up by Tunnels & Trolls, etc. And that's a nice place to start, but it doesn't really address the matter from the particular angle that I'm looking at things from, so I'll have to go dig a little deeper.  Every subsequent edition and all the retro-clones included have a definite, no bones about it emphasis upon theft and murder as the primary activities that result in experience, advancement, power and wealth.

But that's not enough.

Not by a long shot.

For one thing gaining power by notching off how many critters you've hacked to bits is fairly stupid, not just unrealistic which isn't the problem, but downright stupid.  Power ought to be gained through accomplishment, acclaim, and contributions to society/civilization that are meaningful and worthwhile.  Killing the hordes of enemy monsters is one way to preserve civilisation, but it will never rebuild any roads, nor educate any kids, or put food on the table (aside from goblins in the pot or jugged orc, yeck!).

Violence is far more visceral and immediate and luridly seductive, especially to the adolescent psyche or the grognard alike. It's a very human thing, a very intimate part of life itself. It's also an inherent component of Surrealism, so it's staying around in Riskail, especially now that I've started to look at J. G. Ballard as more than just another boring literary author other people name-check but don't really read.  For one thing, Ballard isn't boring.  But that's a tangent for another post.  I have no interest in getting rid of, nor replacing violence--it's a core tenet of the setting, and a primary reality that I ahve no interest in denying.  But I do want some way of rewarding acts other than wanton violence and bloodshed.

But I still want to suss-out a really effective way to reward the behaviors appropriate to the setting, and to encourage more of the type of gaming decisions and character efforts for which I'm comfortable awarding experience points.  Unless you're Jet Li, it's not going to make you ultra powerful to just kill things or people. 

The process of coming up with a super invention that some superhero RPGs use might be a place to start, but honestly, most of those sub-systems manage to suck the excitement right out of the room. Tunnels & Trolls awarded XP for exploring levels of dungeons, and Rolemaster gave you a point for every mile you traveled, and for other things, but neither are very satisfying solutions in and of themselves--covering ground isn't the point.  Especially when you can extrude an ultralight from nanoplasm or step through a gate and cover millions of miles very quickly and effortlessly.  The distance isn't important, in and of itself.  What you've done at that distant locale, and what you've brought back--that's interesting and worth a reward, depending on just what you did.  Coming back with detailed maps, journals, samples of the local flora and fauna, compiling paintings of the wildlife like Audubon or Peterson, doing portraits of the natives like Catlin, opening up trade routes like Marco Polo, discovering exploitable political opportunities like Cortez (there's that violence thing again...), bringing back more than just your own scarred carcass similar to Lewis & Clark...that's more along the lines I'm thinking about.  Stuff that no one else has ever done, ever seen, or ever had access to before--that's where the whole Novelty as a Commodity aspect of the economy kicks in and takes off in a big way.

Explorers document their expeditions.  In Riskail they have access to GIS, Geocaching, satellite surveillance, holographic cartography, memory recording, UAVdrones, millions of varieties of cameras, and more. Much more.  There's no excuse for not documenting things thoroughly.  Especially when they can auction-off the package to feuding factions of Academics, Scholars and Researchers.  Hopefully the party has decent security so no one gets assassinated, deleted or corrupted...

The Omnipotent Eye blog offers several good posts on Exploration and Experience which are available in their archivesA Paladin in Citadel likewise has ruminated on this matter of Experience in a very thoughtful manner, in particular in this post on Killing Things and Taking Their Stuff.

Rewarding Exploration is a good approach, and one that I have dabbled with over the years and have found to work very well--so long as you set things up to support wide-ranging parties of explorers who are prone to run off of the prepared maps at a moment's notice. (I've had a lot of fun with parties that deliberately sought out opportunities to go off-map at the first opportunity, and that sort of informed improvisation is something that I personally, really and truly enjoy immensely.)  Matthew Slepin has also written quite a bit about experience and advancement that he has provided an index to his various posts regarding these matters as well as discussing his views on awarding XP for exploration.  Jeff Rients likewise has weighed-in on this matter with some very cogent observations and insights on how to award XP for having visited exceptionally weird/dangerous/exotic/cool places such as certain hexes within the Carcosa setting in particular.

But to handle the Exploration-based XP scheme, you need a decent sandbox, and one of the Masters of Sandbox design is Rob Conley over at Bat in the Attic, and he offers a decently concise definition of the term sandbox here.  As work proceeds on Zalchis, thoughts of sandboxes replace sugar plums, but we'll dig into some serious sandboxification later.

Exploration is the key to breaking the monopoly that theft & murder have held over advancement in RPG-terms, it's not the only key, maybe not even the best one, but it is where I've started and apparently I'm not alone by a long shot.

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