Monday, 25 January 2016

"The Horror! The Horror!"

John Wick is one of those gaming industry personalities that always seems to be lighting fires wherever he goes. Recently, he wrote an article about one of the most infamous AD&D modules of the early days of roleplaying, THE TOMB OF HORRORS. Predictably, the gaming Internet imploded, or at least certain segments of it did. Here's one of the rebuttals. Make of it what you will.

For what it's worth, I agree with Mr. Wick. Even back in the day, when all this newfangled storygaming nonsense was still just the fevered dream of a few contrarians, I was a little baffled what was supposed to be fun about that adventure. Just in case you didn't grow up during the same era of the hobby that I did, the cachet of ToH is that it's the deadliest D&D adventure EVAR. It's filled with traps so lethal it makes GRIMTOOTH'S TRAPS look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Even back in the days when it was expected that you might be instantly killed by a devious deathtrap in a commercial adventure, ToH was on another level of deadliness. It's one of those things that gamers of a certain vintage trade stories about when they're well in their cups. A rite of passage.

I don't have any particular cherished memories of this adventure. I can't remember how far we got in it, but "not very damned far" is what I remember. My recollection is that everyone who talked about it knew its secrets not by careful delving but by reading the module to marvel at its horrors. I'm sure some people played through it, using their wits and nerve, but I have no idea how.

For gamers like me, ToH is more of a warning about how GMs can abuse their authority in totally unreasonable ways. What some gamers think of as an Everest-like challenge seems more like a toolset for deprotagonization to the rest of us. I get what's supposed to be fun about it, I just don't see those things in the actual adventure. And I am one, for the record, who agrees with those (like the writer of the above rebuttal) who think modern games are too balanced, too weighted toward PC success. I suppose the degree to which you can reasonably take the lethal challenges posed to player characters is a matter of taste, and as long as your tastes line up with those of your players, you can play the Tomb of Whatever You Please.

What this comes down to for me is part of another great big argument in gaming circles, the reasons why people game in the first place. I'm not going to get into that again, except to reduce it to an illustrative micro-argument.

It's about How We Die in roleplaying games.

For some players, the setting of a roleplaying game is everything, and it's implacable and non-negotiable. Your characters are at the mercy of the things that exist in the setting and the whims of the dice, and only careful play can keep you alive. This can be interesting and rewarding in play, but I've never had the experience of playing with someone who lived by that rule so strongly they weren't a little pissed off when they lost a long-standing character either through a random die roll or the random placement of an unbeatable challenge. I'm sure they exist, somewhere, but not at my table.

For others, death is something that should only happen at "significant" moments in the game, and never as a matter of happenstance. These players are usually strong believers in the death of player characters mattering, and they're pleased to go down fighting a particularly nasty foe for the fate of the kingdom, just not as the consequence of turning right instead of left. This is the way it's pretty much usually been at my table for decades.

And then there are the players who want death either explicitly off the table, or else they would prefer that it only happen at a time of their choosing. And yes, sometimes players do choose to die in mean, nasty ways that aren't at climactic moments of the game's narrative, because it feels right or interesting to do so. Some modern games even make the moment the characters are vulnerable to death explicitly defined in the rules, so that characters don't drop like flies before the third act of a story.

Part of this is about the whole shared concept of what a roleplaying game is, and why we do it. It says that we get particular rewards out of playing the hobby our way (not the right way, because there is No Such Thing) and thus find it difficult to wrap our minds around why anyone would do it differently. Is it an exercise in realism? Heroism? Storytelling? Randomness writ large into something that isn't quite narrative and isn't quite a game, in the way that we understand other games played around a table?

Do we value shared ideas of realism most highly? The cold logic of the rules, and our ability to master them? The tale well told? The dramatic moment? What part of this is what we'll be talking about over beers at the local pub some night? Where do we place our value in a roleplaying game?

Oh boy, it's the Tarrasque! Everybody loves the Tarrasque, right?
Let me finish with two anecdotes which may or may not be illustrative of where I am with this. First is from the golden age of gaming, early 1980s. I had a DM back in those days who I mostly loved, a guy who was very well read in fantasy books and had a real gift for turning that into interesting play at the table. He had a mean streak, though. One day the usual suspects weren't available for our usual weekend game, though, and he decided he'd solo me through White Plume Mountain. This is an adventure that would have been plenty hard with a whole party of appropriately-leveled characters, let me tell you, and my poor ranger was outnumbered and outgunned. Then the DM decided he'd really give me a good stomping, and had the Tarrasque show up to finish me off. (The Tarrasque, in case you've never heard of it, is a virtually unkillable Godzilla-size monster. Not exactly Fun On A Bun.)

That wasn't much fun. Scratch that - it was no fun at all being someone's plaything.

Second anecdote: I had a setpiece moment in my long-running MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS game where the player characters were aboard a space station that was knocked out of its orbit. The characters had to escape from the tumbling station before it burned up, then find a way to get themselves to the ground safely, a neat trick when not all of them were fliers. It happened that one of the characters had a stack of Hero Points and supersonic flight, so he was ferrying people down to the ground. One of the players said that he'd be the last person to be picked up, and when we were trying to decide whether the flier would be able to catch him in time, he said "That's okay." He wanted his character to die heroically, allowing the other characters to continue. To my everlasting regret, I decided that the flier indeed had just enough time to catch him and slow him down, landing them both in the ocean with a hard splash. Whenever I think back on that moment now, I remind myself that I should always listen to my players and give them the adversity -- or the ending -- that they're asking for, not the one that I think is most fair or interprets the rules in the most correct way.

Two bad deaths, for two different reasons. One was arguably out of meanness on the GM's part, the other averted by misplaced kindness. Both sucked.

This is why we have to constantly talk this shit over, and make sure we're all playing the same game with the same assumption.

What you think is fun may not be the same thing that other players think is fun.

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