Sunday, May 1, 2011

Avoiding the Vale of Weirdness

In the process of preparing a post about an idea for old-school "contests of skill" in Homebrew '82, I found something quite fascinating.  But not in a good way, I'm sorry to say! :-)

I learned a bit more about "skill challenges" in the 3rd and 4th editions of D&D. I guess it wasn't surprising that these appear to be as rigidly programmed as the overall adventures themselves seem to be. But what shocked me was that even the knowledge held by the player characters can also be similarly programmed! How else can one explain the strange ways that PCs minds are altered by the outcomes of the skill challenges?  Let me paraphrase a few example outcomes from a chart on a 4e forum thread, in which a PC is rolling dice to see how well he or she haggles with a merchant:
  1. If the PC succeeds at a "Nature" skill check, the PC now knows where the merchant can find the herbs he needs in a nearby river, and the PC uses that information to his or her advantage.
  2. If the PC succeeds at a "Streetwise" skill check, the PC now knows that the merchant's competition is undercutting him.
Am I misunderstanding what is going on in these charts? The most straightforward explanation can only be that PCs in "new school" RPGs tend never to build up a rich history of experience in their campaign setting, so these new pieces of information just have to be occasionally "downloaded" into their heads by the DM.


Well, maybe this is consistent with the recent comments on a podcast (quoted by Greg Christopher here) that "...The GM is responsible for the plot. So he owns that plot. Just like the player owns the character. And so the player shouldn't necessarily alter the plot, just as the GM shouldn't necessarily alter the character."

Again, I ask: Really?  Greg implied that there was additional context in that podcast that explained that the speaker wasn't truly advocating "railroading" the players, but I haven't listened to the thing. I just have to say this feels just as wrong to me as suddenly telling a player that the character now knows a key fact that didn't exist a second ago. Having the GM micro-manage reality to his degree can ruin the player's sense of cause and effect -- i.e., it can easily lead to an "Alice in Wonderland" effect where all knowledge is up for grabs and nothing really matters. It also can ruin the sense of earned accomplishment that players feel after struggling to get to know their world. Yeah, I'm with Alexis on this one:
"The DM and his or her world must not act as a impositional dictator over the player's actions.  The world must be a learning annex, allowing for player improvement and development.  The player must know why things are happening.  The player must be able to apply his or her experience of the real world, and get results back from the fantasy world that make sense.  One can only go so far into the Vale of Weirdness."

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