Sunday, December 1, 2013

Abstraction and characterization

So, it's December, NaNoWriMo has come to an unsuccessful close, and it's time to get out some of the ideas that were bouncing around my head for the last month.  One of the most persistent was this one, which grew naturally out of my musings on the abstraction of combat.

In the past, I've alternately bemoaned and been intrigued by the profusion of options for character customization and adding more choices and flavor to encounters and combat.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the mechanical complexity, bonus inflation, and other factors made most of them simply not worth the bother.  There's a lot of room within the confines of "vanilla" classes for varying style without mechanical distinctions, and, as it turns out, there's even more room for developing a given character's unique style within the abstract resolution systems for combat and other actions.

That probably warrants a little more explanation.  In the former case, the objective is to provide players with tactical options at the front end, that are applied before the dice are rolled to gain a modifier or attempt to achieve some special outcome.  These may be abilities available to anyone, or restricted by class, or may be dependent on choosing the right "feats" at character creation or level-up.  The point is that you choose them in advance, and they alter the baseline chances to perform some action, or the range of possible outcomes.  You parry to block an attack.  You use Dirty Tricks to gain a +2 to hit.  You take a Counter-curse feat to gain +2 on saves vs. magic.

In the latter case, actions are declared in broad strokes (melee attack, spell, withdraw, etc.), the dice are rolled, and the exact events of the round are narrated in post hoc fashion.  Instead of choosing to parry before the dice are rolled, the opponent rolls its attack, and when it misses, you say that your character parried all its thrusts.  Instead of declaring Dirty Tricks during the round, you roll your attack first, and if it hits you say, "I threw a handful of dirt in his eyes and sucker-punched him."  You don't choose a feat that gives you a bonus vs. spells; when you make your save against that wizard's charm, you say that you recited a counter-curse and that's why you made the save.  Rather than stacking on bonuses before the fact, you let the unmodified roll determine whether an action succeeds or fails, and then describe what your character did to achieve that outcome.

This is lousy for munchkins and min-maxers, but terriffic for imaginative role players.  All fighters, for instance, have the same chances to successfully attack in combat (assuming equal levels and Strength bonuses); the player's choices about what kind of fighter she's playing don't give bonuses above and beyond that, but describe HOW that particular character fights.  The honorable knight who fights with focus and discipline is no better or worse mechanically than the scoundrel who throws dirt and stomps toes.  The scholarly warrior who thinks her way through a fight, using knowledge of leverage and an economy of well-placed blows is exactly the same mechanically as the crude brawler who swings first, swings second, and maybe thinks after the dust settles...maybe.  That very lack of mechanical fiddly bits gives the player great freedom to decide which sort her character is. 

You can even add elements of other classes to the character's schtick, while keeping her a fighter in every sense that matters rules-wise.  That fighter character could be a pious champion of the faith who gains confidence or divine favor by letting the spirit of her deity inhabit her as she fights, or a heathen who unnerves or jinxes her opponents with evil eyes and curses.  In narrative terms, they may be praying or casting minor spells, but in game terms they're fighters because those "abilities" apply only to the game-mechanical actions available to the fighter class, and even then only in a descriptive sense.

Instead of being limited by formal game mechanics and related concerns like niche protection and bonus inflation, the possibilities are limited only by player imagination and DM approval.

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