What Huensao pointed out is really interesting. Is the inability to gauge how deadly an encounter is Good or Bad? It also is echoed in KODT, when Heidi Jackson wanted to get rid of all the deadly risks and installed a "time out" system. It also follows question is the sense of risk essential for something to be heroic or worthwhile?
Challenge Ratings, HD progression, Encounter Levels, etc. All figure into making risks and death predictable. So when the system becomes this transparent, that all odds of success can be calculated with encounter formulas etc. what happens to the immersion?
uncertainty and risk cannot be divorced, both in a situation and in the meaning of the words. Once certainty kicks in, you throw away risk and everything just becomes a repetitive ritual... Its just a matter of going through the motions.
Some of the Old School Rhetoric is about risks. Its easy to take on great risk if characters required little personal investment and the process of attachment came with the achievements garnered despite odds. Until there is a way to make believable and lovable characters easy to generate, i think overprotecting the investment will always be a problem in achieving real adversity.
I guess, character detailing being achieved on a installment basis. Where the player has access to a huge Roster of Characters and through the campaign gets whittled down to survivors. These survivors only get their character made fleshing out per session they survive.
I think you have to look at it from two perspectives.
On the one hand, the single most common point of failure for an RPG is the Game Master. If he screws up, it tends to ruin the whole game. Ideal design "idiot-proofs" its elements, so that mistakes are less common. A very common GM mistake is the TPK or the boringly easy fight. Thus, ideally, it should be easy for the GM to judge what is an appropriate challenge for his group, or to say it better, he needs to understand what to expect when he employs a certain set of monsters ("These monsters are a level too high, so the fight should be really hard.")
This can go wrong when it reaches the players. D&D games seem designed exactly even challenges. Level 20 characters never find themselves facing goblins, and level 1 characters never find themselves facing dragons. Thus, you know you can handle every fight. "It all cons white to you." And so there are no surprises.
I think the problem in this case is not transparency for the GM, but too much predictability for the players. I personally love throwing too-easy or too-hard fights at my players, or situations one cannot solve with the same tactics (usually violence) that they always use. The D&D model doesn't really support this.
GURPS has a slightly undeserved reputation for poor encounter-balance indicators. Many people say "Points don't matter," but that's not strictly true. One would expect that two reasonably built, combat focused 200 point characters should be relatively well-matched. Kromm and others suggest further benchmarks to ensure this, and that's good advice. But where D&D says "No, it's safe, just match Challenge Rating to Player Level, then it's ALWAYS ok," GURPS suggests you stop and think about what you're doing, about how you're designing your characters. I think that's quite the feature, and encourages more creativity and flexibility than D&D typically does.
Your right to correct me about the of pushing uncertainty or risk beyond levels of control. I forgot about that, and your right that there should be a bit of a balance.
One nice trick I learned lately when preparing to do something new is have a back up of something certain. Try an uncertain thing, but have a satisfying old staple just in case the uncertain challenge is too much or too little.
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