PC empowerment vs. immersion

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willpell
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PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by willpell » Sat Sep 08, 2018 12:06 am

Was thinking a bit yesterday about the key differences between the world's most popular RPG in its recent incarnations, and various alternatives including what is probably the runner-up, Call of Cthulhu (I don't have any data to back this up, but I'm inclined to suspect just on the basis of name recognition, CoC probably leads the pack among all RPGs that aren't versions of, spinoffs from, or thinly disguised clones of D&D...and it likely beats the thinly disguised clones for that matter). it might also be an edition difference, but my familiarity with D&D's original ownership is minimal.

At least since the start of the 3E era if not before, D&D has been a game where your character is virtually always a superhero, or at least a highly competent professional. Everybody seems to be a "career adventurer" of some sort, a person who does nothing with their time other than go kicking down dungeon doors, stalking monsters back to their lair, engaging in covert plots, etc. And mostly I'm fine with that; one of my main reasons for wanting to play an RPG at all is the desire to feel powerful, and I'm far from alone in that.

But there is another side to the RPG experience, and it seems as though modern D&D, if not all D&D, really misses an opportunity by going so unilaterally toward the "you are a Hero(TM)" angle. The point of an RPG is not to WIN. If your goal is to defeat the monsters, then the most expedient way for the DM to facilitate you accomplishing your goal is to simply declare that the monsters drop dead of terror the moment your character walks in the door, because you're just so awesome they can't stand it. The DM absolutely has that power; he can wipe all evil from the universe without so much as clicking his fingers, just by declaring it so, and he can give the PCs the credit easily enough. This obvious absurdity illustrates that winning isn't the point in D&D. Fighting might be the point more nearly, and certainly there are some D&D games that aren't much different from Gygax and Arneson's original wargames; nothing's wrong with that. But as roleplaying becomes a more and more popular hobby worldwide, I think it might suggest that at least some people are playing a roleplaying game because they like to role-play.

And if you're trying to bring a character to life, with the kind of authenticity that Hollywood has taught you to expect and enjoy, making that character a wish-fulfillment fantasy who is hypercompetent in his chosen field might not be the ideal choice. Consider the movie Die Hard - while the main character John McClane is a policeman, he's a fairly ordinary one, not some Rambo/James-Bond-esque supercop who was called in specifically to fight terrorists. Much of the tension of the story comes from the fact that he's underequipped, unskilled in this field, and way over his head. To go even farther, nearly every horror movie, and a lot of comedies, and many other genres rely heavily on the characters being almost completely powerless. So why doesn't D&D get played more often as a game where a bunch of monsters attack the town, and you all play commoners just trying to survive and escape? This gets done with zombies on occasion, but otherwise there's very little interest in this kind of play, and I think partly that's because the rules don't support it, and partly because it's not what people expect from D&D, in part because the rules don't support it.

Call of Cthulhu characters seem like a good archetype of the "not hypercompetent" non-hero protagonist (usually at least; some people do try to play Indiana Jones, but at least as many are out there playing a Xander Harris without the aid of any Slayers or good witches), and proves that there is a market for "disempowerment" as a fantasy for some gamers. The term "gamer" itself suggests a desire to want to WIN, which is perhaps part of why D&D remains so far above the competition, but as the RPG hobby continues to expand, there are more and more slightly successful experiments which suggest that there's a market out there, perhaps being somewhat underserved. Just something to muse upon....

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Digitalelf » Sat Sep 08, 2018 7:52 am

I've always preferred for the characters to start out their "careers" as an average Joe, who later, through successful adventuring, becomes something akin to Batman. I've never liked the idea of characters starting out as Batman, only to become Superman (to stretch the analogy a bit further).
I DMed my D&D games with this approach even when I converted from 2nd edition to 3rd edition... And a good part of why I returned to 2nd edition was that it became harder and harder to use this "starting out as an average Joe" approach.

A concept I wanted to try out back when I was running 3rd edition, was to have the players roll up characters using the NPC classes and start the campaign out in Ravenloft. Unfortunately that idea never materialized, but I am thinking about trying it with my next campaign and have the players roll up characters using some of the various commoner styled classes of 2nd edition, such as those from the blue covered "Sages & Specialists" sourcebook for example (I have a player that has always wanted to play an archaeologist styled character, and that book's "Historian" class would suit that concept well).
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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Sat Sep 08, 2018 9:28 am

This was several time a source of contrast with some players I had who basically wanted the game world to be balanced to their power level, while I had a completely different approach. In fact I like the game world to be realistic in itself and for example "let's go there and fight them" it's not going to work, Ever, because it's the obvious tactic against which the adversary will be prepared. While I always "help" the players in several ways, for example with allies and clues, I also want them to work for their success, not just go and fight, expecting to win because the monsters must be balanced to their level. This videogame like approach was what I despised most in D&D 3ed and 4ed. In older editions it was present but less pronounced.
That said I never went with "full immersion" so I certainly created adventures with adversaries the PCs could defeat, with a bit of planning.
In general I think the hero is the hero only if he goes against greater odds, and he is the hero exactly because he is the only one brave or foolish or motivated enough to do so. Otherwise the PCs are just mercenaries and thieves.
Also lately I have a problem with the concept of levels in itself, which probably make D&D too much a videogame like game and make the world less realistic and full role play less likely.
Still I never found players really interested in full role playing so I always had games where the PCs were more or less focused on fighting and progressive empowerment in classic D&D style, so this is what the huge majority wants in my experience, they want a game which has some of a challenge, but with the almost certainty they will win it.
That's why for example the original Tomb of Horrors is anathema to most players. They cannot accept defeat is likely unless you are very smart and cautious. People do not want to make an effort and are afraid of challenges, which is IMO a general problem of the modern world.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Khedrac » Sat Sep 08, 2018 9:46 am

Me too.

What's more, I find the argument that WotC staff have put forward for the skill system for 3.5 D&D being balanced as to what characters are severely flawed. It looks at skill DCs and world records in things like athletics to show that a world champion is probably a level 3 expert - which is "as designed" according to the claims. One of the problems I have with 3.5, and the main flaw with this argument, is how little experience it takes to get to 3rd level. Consider a rookie police cop (level 1 which I think is reasonable), he works with a more experience partner so let's assume that he gets half the xp from each encounter and further let's assume all the encounters are CR1 (because the xp table doesn't go below CR1).
80 encounters of this type will put our rookie police officer to level 9 and unable to gain xp from CR encounters.
Now, I am not arguing that every arrest is an "encounter" - some "encounters" will be far more complex and some arrests probably won't count as an encounter, but the rules do state that opponents just have to be 'encountered' not 'defeated'. According to the xp rules rookie police officers will be level 9 before they get promoted!
So, whilst the argument can be made that the skill targets are correct for a level 3 world champion, the xp system is totally wrong for this model.
In the days of the Living Greyhawk campaign it led to PCs retiring having hit the level cap in their low-20s.
D&D's low-level experience rocket boosts the PC's out of normal very very quickly.

What is worse, to balance this, a lot of adventures then make the NPCs (whose job is not adventuring) much higher level (e.g. 6-15) to stop the PCs being able to ignore the rulers and guards of the town. It also leads to the quesiton of why the high-level monsters haven't obliterated the low-level countries.
The BECMI D&D companion rules actually tried to answer this last! The advice was that for companion-level play (and master) most adventures should be on other planes - so the opponents are not positioned to obliterate normal humans, and the PCs have to spend a lot of their resources simply surviving leaving them less over-powered.

When I run 3.5 D&D I try to have the "normal human" level in the 3-6 range, it takes longer then for the PCs to become "exceptional" so they can start as the novice.

It is also why I prefer BRP games (Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest etc.) where characters can start at whatever level the game needs (from novice to expert) and then slowly work they way up to becoming outstading (I currently have a Call of Cthulhu character with both handgun and first aid in the 90%s, but it has taken a long time to get there, and he started out well trained in both - ex-FBI).

On the idea of transitioning from commoner to adventurer classes - have have never seen this tried, just discussed on boards so my only comment is "good luck - let us know how it goes if you ever get to try it".
"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a crow".

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by agathokles » Sat Sep 08, 2018 10:15 am

Sturm wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 9:28 am
This was several time a source of contrast with some players I had who basically wanted the game world to be balanced to their power level, while I had a completely different approach. In fact I like the game world to be realistic in itself and for example "let's go there and fight them" it's not going to work, Ever, because it's the obvious tactic against which the adversary will be prepared. While I always "help" the players in several ways, for example with allies and clues, I also want them to work for their success, not just go and fight, expecting to win because the monsters must be balanced to their level. This videogame like approach was what I despised most in D&D 3ed and 4ed. In older editions it was present but less pronounced.
I think D&D is simply not geared for that kind of play. You can of course make some adjustments, but you'll never have an actual sandbox that works at any level -- what happens if the 1st level PCs take a ship and land on Teki-Nura-Ria or the Isle of Dread? A guaranteed (and unfair) TPK.
At the same level, if you put signs "danger -- enter only at 8th level" everywhere, 1st level adventures will be underwhelming: your adventurers become indeed only mercenaries and thieves, because that's the only way to survive (but, in "gritty", dark fantasy there are no heroes -- just mercenaries and thieves, anyway).
Note that this has always been a strong critique against Forgotten Realms -- a world where powerful NPCs are behind any corner, and PCs are basically their busybodies.
Of course, 3e and newer editions (including Pathfinder) only make the problem worse by allowing PCs to raise in level within the same adventure -- thus making sandboxes completely non-viable.

What can be done IMO is to create a bit of an illusion of realism, which lessens the problem, while sticking to sandbox-friendly versions of the rules (e.g., BECMI or even more AD&D 2e). A typical trick I use is to keep the general, non-level-specific random encounter tables -- so a group of travelling 1st level PCs may actually encounter a dragon -- but allow the PCs to easily escape from out of level range encounters (e.g., they do encounter a dragon, but the dragon is flying on its own business and will not take notice of the PCs unless attacked). Another is to make high level locations hard to reach -- e.g., the location of the Isle of Dread is unknown, and the Sea of Dread is known to be dangerous on its own.

If more realism is desired, then you need to switch to a rules set where PCs don't get such a major improvement in their power level -- Call of Cthulhu is a good example (Dark Ages or Invictus can be used for general fantasy roleplay), Warhammer FRPG may be a more balanced take (I'm speaking of the 2nd edition). However, you'll probably need to adjust the adventures too, since D&D adventures are generally built to favor combat -- I'd find it almost impossible to adapt a Pathfinder adventure path, where almost every encounter is a combat one, to CoC Invictus, where combat typical means at least one or two casualties.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by RobJN » Sat Sep 08, 2018 11:43 am

willspell wrote: At least since the start of the 3E era if not before, D&D has been a game where your character is virtually always a superhero, or at least a highly competent professional.
Not before, certainly.

A first level party in BECMI D&D is far from "superheroic.*" Highly compentent? A first level thief? Have you looked at the Thief Abilities table? If you're not climbing, you're looking at 20% or lower success rates.

Roll up some PCs (by the book, none of this "4d6 and drop the lowest" hand-holding) and make it through the first or second cave complexes in the Caves of Chaos.

You probably won't make it if you go in swords a-swingin'. Your heroes will need to rely on stealth, a bit of parlay, and a heavy dose of luck.

*Fighters don't get to be Heroes until level 4, and Superheroes at level 8.
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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Sat Sep 08, 2018 2:05 pm

Yes indeed now I am oriented to creating a bit of illusion of realism as you said above, this is also why in the PbP I have provided plenty of allies and help, to have the adversaries powerful enough to be a realistic threat, but still allowing the PCs to matter.
Certainly this moves them a bit to the side of the stage, but otherwise either you take into account a high PCs mortality or give them some kind of special backing or power. In my first campaign I explained the PCs success with a hidden sponsor indeed.
But probably now I would prefer a leveless system.
Pathfinder style paths could still be played by levelling the enemies at the same tier and creating maybe an ad hoc PCs group..

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by agathokles » Sat Sep 08, 2018 4:10 pm

Sturm wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 2:05 pm
Yes indeed now I am oriented to creating a bit of illusion of realism as you said above, this is also why in the PbP I have provided plenty of allies and help, to have the adversaries powerful enough to be a realistic threat, but still allowing the PCs to matter.
Of course, there is always the option of making initial adventures less connected to the major events of the campaign -- e.g., first level PCs may be involved in "local" adventures in regions where the are no major forces, such as fighting rogue goblinoids or exploring tombs near one of the many unmarked settlements in Karameikos or Norwold, or be involved in more skill-based urban adventures.

Also, a mix of approaches can be used as well. E.g., in my Norwold campaign it is well known that the Gnomstal Forest is cursed and dangerous, that dragons live in the Wyrmsteeth Mountains, and the certain Alphatian ruins are protected by magical traps. PCs typically steer clear of those areas (sometimes even of areas that are actually not so dangerous, but have a reputation). The Northern Reaches gazetteer provides a reputation system, so Skald PCs almost always know of powerful NPCs by fame, and will be able to navigate away from the dangerous ones. A similar system is found in Al Qadim, IIRC.
Certainly this moves them a bit to the side of the stage, but otherwise either you take into account a high PCs mortality or give them some kind of special backing or power. In my first campaign I explained the PCs success with a hidden sponsor indeed.
But probably now I would prefer a leveless system.
The problem is not only (or even especially) with levels, but with any "vertical" progression where in time PCs become much stronger. For example, Warhammer essentially does have levels, but they tend to broaden the skills of PCs rather than make them much better at what they do -- there is still a bit of progression, but at some point the character is forced to branch out rather than improve its strongest skills, as skills are capped . On the other hand, any skill-based system where you can linearly increase your skills is likely going to have endgame PCs that are much stronger than the initial PCs (e.g., Unisystem).

Let's consider Warhammer 2e. Initial Weapon Skill ranges from 12% (Halfling with no training and poor initial rolls) to 55% (Dwarf with 5% initial training and maximum rolls). At every level, you can theoretically increase a skill by 5%, but actually, each career has a cap on the Weapon Skill increases -- which for Basic careers is 15%. For Advanced careers, it is 35%, and it only replaces the cap from Basic careers -- so that's the maximum overall increase (to a maximum total of 85% for the dwarf, compared to a 35-40% or so for a starting fighter). Since each 5% in a d100 game is essentially the same as a +1 in a d20 game, it's as if at most a PC could improve their THAC0 or BAB by 7 points (i.e., a cap at level 8 or so). Wounds work more or less in the same way, starting between 8 and 14, and improving by up to 7.

On the contrary, Unisystem doesn't have levels, but, depending on the type of game, characters may acquire additional talents and powers that make them very powerful -- a baseline level WitchCraft character can easily die in a fistfight with an professional pugilist, but a similar character after acquiring a Bear patron spirit or Solomon's Key of War would survive a fistfight with a demon, and eat the pugilist for breakfast.
Pathfinder style paths could still be played by levelling the enemies at the same tier and creating maybe an ad hoc PCs group..
Well, that would require a major rewriting -- since in 6 adventures the PCs get from level 1 to level 15 (generally), basically you'll have to redo the balance for all but a few encounters. Possible, but at that point not very useful, since you'd be better served with more sandbox-style adventures, to take advantage of the flatter encounters.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Sat Sep 08, 2018 5:06 pm

I never tried to do realism or wanted realism when I played D&D. Its always been pretty clear to me from the start (B/X) that the game was about heroic questing. In LOTR, except for the hobbits, everyone is experienced - not level 0. Players come to the table expecting to do the same as what they read in the book.

Older editions did not promote role play within the rules (other than creature reaction, moral and a parley which is very war-game like) but rather forced more tactical thinking and preparation before combat or TPK happened.

I've said this before. There is no difference between TSR D&D and WOTC D&D. They only shifted the power of characters from having all kinds of magical objects, scrolls and potions to become more powerful, to giving feats and abilities gradually. Its less DM dependent. Which guarantees a fairer and uniform experience. Prior to 3e remember defining my characters by what kind of magical items they possessed because essentially all characters of same class were practically photocopies. With 3e and after I define my characters with what choices I made at creation and during his levelling up.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by agathokles » Sat Sep 08, 2018 5:47 pm

shesheyan wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 5:06 pm
I've said this before. There is not difference between TSR D&D and WOTC D&D. They only shifted the power of characters from having all kinds of magical objects, scrolls and potions to become more powerful, to giving feats and abilities gradually. Its less DM dependent. Which guarantees a fairer and uniform experience. Prior to 3e remember I defining my characters by what kind of magical items they possessed because essentially all characters of same class were practically photocopies. With 3e and after I define my characters with what choices I made at creation and during his levelling up.
I wholly disagree. There are major differences between TSR D&D and WotC D&D. Primarily, WotC D&D's obsession with balance and fast progression, which is nowhere to be found in TSR D&D. In TSR D&D, large adventures take place while characters improve only by one level. In WotC D&D (and Pathfinder), the expectation is that a few encounters will lead to level raise. As a results, WotC D&D/Pathfinder adventures are primarily railroads, since changing the order of events will lead the PCs to face underpowered or overpowered encounters, whereas TSR D&D adventures are often sandboxes, since all encounters are designed for the same total party levels range.

Second, "essentially all characters of the same class were practically photocopies" is also entirely false. A BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia Fighter with Battleaxe mastery and the Boating, Navigation, Skald and Swimming skills is completely different from a BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia Fighter with Longbow mastery and the Stealth (Forest), Hunter, Danger Sense, and Animal Handling skills. Certainly much more different than most 3e Sorcerers, for whom the main decision is Fireball vs Lightning Bolt.

Playing without skills and masteries is a perfectly legitimate decision, of course (and indeed many OSR avoid those customisation options), but it doesn't mean that those character abilities are not there (and equivalent abilities are provided in AD&D 2e, with greater degrees of customization available in the Player's Option books).

Thus, there are certainly vast playstyle differences not only between TSR D&D and WotC D&D, but within various versions of the TSR rules (BECMI/RC plays rather different than B/X or White Box) and within various WotC versions (in particular, 3.5e and 4e Essentials are likely at the extremes).
Furthermore, also the interpretation of a D&D game as a loosely tied sequence of combat encounters is just one possible interpretation -- albeit a popular one, culminating in the 4e experience on one hand, and in certain OSR tropes (e.g., the endless, irrational megadungeon).
That doesn't mean that other people can't play D&D in a more exploration- and/or investigation-oriented way, or allowing a mix of sandbox and story-based play, and at certain incarnations of the game (or at least certain features, such as a more complex skill system) are definitely more supportive of this.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Sat Sep 08, 2018 6:12 pm

agathokles wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 5:47 pm
shesheyan wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 5:06 pm
I've said this before. There is not difference between TSR D&D and WOTC D&D. They only shifted the power of characters from having all kinds of magical objects, scrolls and potions to become more powerful, to giving feats and abilities gradually. Its less DM dependent. Which guarantees a fairer and uniform experience. Prior to 3e remember I defining my characters by what kind of magical items they possessed because essentially all characters of same class were practically photocopies. With 3e and after I define my characters with what choices I made at creation and during his levelling up.
I wholly disagree. There are major differences between TSR D&D and WotC D&D. Primarily, WotC D&D's obsession with balance and fast progression, which is nowhere to be found in TSR D&D. In TSR D&D, large adventures take place while characters improve only by one level. In WotC D&D (and Pathfinder), the expectation is that a few encounters will lead to level raise. As a results, WotC D&D/Pathfinder adventures are primarily railroads, since changing the order of events will lead the PCs to face underpowered or overpowered encounters, whereas TSR D&D adventures are often sandboxes, since all encounters are designed for the same total party levels range.

Second, "essentially all characters of the same class were practically photocopies" is also entirely false. A BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia Fighter with Battleaxe mastery and the Boating, Navigation, Skald and Swimming skills is completely different from a BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia Fighter with Longbow mastery and the Stealth (Forest), Hunter, Danger Sense, and Animal Handling skills. Certainly much more different than most 3e Sorcerers, for whom the main decision is Fireball vs Lightning Bolt.

Playing without skills and masteries is a perfectly legitimate decision, of course (and indeed many OSR avoid those customisation options), but it doesn't mean that those character abilities are not there (and equivalent abilities are provided in AD&D 2e, with greater degrees of customization available in the Player's Option books).

Thus, there are certainly vast playstyle differences not only between TSR D&D and WotC D&D, but within various versions of the TSR rules (BECMI/RC plays rather different than B/X or White Box) and within various WotC versions (in particular, 3.5e and 4e Essentials are likely at the extremes).
Furthermore, also the interpretation of a D&D game as a loosely tied sequence of combat encounters is just one possible interpretation -- albeit a popular one, culminating in the 4e experience on one hand, and in certain OSR tropes (e.g., the endless, irrational megadungeon).
That doesn't mean that other people can't play D&D in a more exploration- and/or investigation-oriented way, or allowing a mix of sandbox and story-based play, and at certain incarnations of the game (or at least certain features, such as a more complex skill system) are definitely more supportive of this.

GP
I clearly stated I was taking about B/X... Not BECMI. Balanced in TSR D&D happened because my 80s players complained a lot about the discrepancies in power levels between classes. Having to wait while the fighter(s) finished the combat was very boring. So I had to balance them by giving out magical items that «fixed» the problem. Every one could take a good swing at the enemies and not have to wait as bystanders. With 3e+ games I don't have to do that. The game does it for me. So, what I'm saying is true, from my point of view... ;)
Last edited by shesheyan on Sun Sep 09, 2018 5:37 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Sun Sep 09, 2018 8:55 am

In my experience with BECMI, AD&D and 3ED it's true that with the first two I had to give PCs magic items to have more powers, but it was more or less justified in game by a sort of arms race for magic items among adventurers and powerful people. Still the slow progression favoured long campaigns and PCs development, which was what really differentiated PCs.
3ed fast progression ruined this and, in my personal experience, players which grew on 3ed opposed to those who grew on the older ones seriously lack a sense of character and story development for their PCs, focusing instead on powers development, even if both types may be quite focused on fighting and empowerment.
So I think 3 and 4ed had too much focus on PCs empowerment for that reason.
About the difference between common man and superadventurer much can also be done by capping the hp, maximum damage and chances of hitting target, even if maintaining D&D rules. This removes a bit of focus on empowerment, hopefully shifting it to immersion, at least a bit.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Sun Sep 09, 2018 1:21 pm

Sturm wrote:
Sun Sep 09, 2018 8:55 am
In my experience with BECMI, AD&D and 3ED it's true that with the first two I had to give PCs magic items to have more powers, but it was more or less justified in game by a sort of arms race for magic items among adventurers and powerful people. Still the slow progression favoured long campaigns and PCs development, which was what really differentiated PCs.
3ed fast progression ruined this and, in my personal experience, players which grew on 3ed opposed to those who grew on the older ones seriously lack a sense of character and story development for their PCs, focusing instead on powers development, even if both types may be quite focused on fighting and empowerment.
So I think 3 and 4ed had too much focus on PCs empowerment for that reason.
About the difference between common man and superadventurer much can also be done by capping the hp, maximum damage and chances of hitting target, even if maintaining D&D rules. This removes a bit of focus on empowerment, hopefully shifting it to immersion, at least a bit.
Its very interesting how our experiences with systems is different. For my part I always felt and observed during the 80/90s giving XPs for gold and/or kills fostered are very agressive and murderous behavior in (some) players. Its one of the major critics against D&D that spurred many other approaches to gaining experience.

During my AD&D period I once had a group kill a large town jeweler to steal all his jewels hoping to gain all the XPs in one encounter to level up more quickly. By RAW they did kill the creature that owned the treasure and wanted the XPs. We had a big 1-hour long argument that lead to the split of the group. Some players are always trying to abuse the system regardless of the edition. 1 gold = 1XP is very bad for role play.

For the DM the incredibility high number of XPs required to level up force me do endure the drudge of needlessly long dungeon crawls with too many rooms and encounters just to hand out XPs. I think that is why I decided to become a DM early on. I wouldn't have to sit in the players chair and watch my XPs raise by tiny bits wanting to reach the next level.

I got so fed up with the XP system that I threw it out the window during 2e after talking with players. We were not in our teens anymore. We were in our mid 20s with jobs and could only play once every three weeks if we were lucky. We decided that characters would level up every three games regardless of kills/encounters. It freed me to do the stories I wanted to do with just enough encounters and combat to present a good and engaging narrative to the player. They responded in kind by doing more role-play and being less geared towards kills, acquiring magical items and optimization.

I continued not following XP guidelines with 3e, 4e and 5e. Its all working for the best. I have no problem with player empowerment in 3e and other WOTC editions. It gives players mechanical stuff to chew on and be gratified regularly while I concentrate on day-to-day story, character development and long campaign arcs. Both sides of my screen are very happy with 5e and the milestone leveling up approach. It took them 3 editions but WOTC finally realized the larger community had changed and it was time to let groups throw the XP system out the window if they wanted to.
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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Havard » Sun Sep 09, 2018 5:09 pm

When looking at the TSR era editions, I think that 1st level play was in many ways its own game. At 1st level, you would have a group of PCs where some members could have as little as 1 HP when fully rested, spellcasters might have only one spell per day (BECMI Clerics had no spells untill 2nd level) and everyone's combat abilities were fairly poor.

These games became a kind of survival games where you would see how many PCs would even make it out of the dungeon, if any. Online I see many gamers feeling nostalgic towards this style of play, although I suspect many of them were DMs rather than players. In our groups, we often ended with the DM's being overly kind during the 1st adventure so that we could get on with a more stable campaign. Super deadly dungeons were fun once or twice, but they got old rather fast in my group.

3E and onwards seems to have simply eliminated 1st level and 1st level later edition PCs more resemble 2nd or 3rd level PCs from the TSR editions. That's strictly talking about combat and spells though, since the skill systems in later editions would often make PCs feel less competent at such tasks than older editions where a simple ability check might be sufficient to accomplish any non-combat action. Depending on whether NWP or General Skills rules were used or not.

I think players wanting to run competent PCs is not the same as them not wanting to be challenged. I think most of us want to play characters who at least somwhat resemble the characters we see in movies or read about in books. Perhaps not superheroes or epic level legends, but not bumbling incompetent fools either. While it is fun to win, winning without a challenge gets old real fast. How much of a challenge you want probably varies alot from player to player.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by willpell » Sun Sep 09, 2018 10:59 pm

My concept for the "immersive" style of game is less about whether the characters are powerful, although secondarily that does get involved, but rather the main point is about their attitude...getting them to think "what would be natural for my character to want to do in this situation", rather than "how do I overcome this challenge and get my reward".

To whoever said 3E gives "fast progression", I disagree for the most part. Spellcasting classes do improve every level, but most other classes really don't...Feats every third level and a very limited number of skills don't create much of a sense of progress with most of the character updates I do. If I could figure out the exact balance ramifications, I would let players gain a feat every single level, whether a limited bonus feat from their class or a "personal interest" feat, although I would need to invent some sort of category system that limited your ability to climb to the top of a single "feat tree" and instead forced you to branch out, making multifaceted characters that are no more powerful within their bailiwick, but have more options outside of it. Likewise, while I don't want to entirely get rid of the idea of class skill lists and cross-class skill caps, there is something about the existing system that's very wrong. I nearly always have to give a character some CC skills, despite this being un-economical, because if you don't have Knowledge: Local then you don't even know what a dwarf is, and if you don't have Knowledge: Arcana you won't recognize a dragon when you see one, and if you don't have Spellcraft then you can't tell that the roof of your college being on fire suddenly means a Fireball spell. Survival, Gather Information, Appraise, Bluff, Jump...these are skills that nearly every character should have some facility with, but even a Human character with a +4 Intelligence bonus who levels as a Rogue is not going to be able to get ALL of the skills that a Rogue obviously should have, particularly not if he has any decent sort of a backstory. Yet every time I try to fix this by giving more stuff away, all I end up finding is Prestige Class exploits and a broken CR system.

I haven't come up with an answer I like as to how to make a more "natural" feeling character, who doesn't seem like either a "living weapon" who is ultra-competent in one area and completely useless in all others (congratulations, you have +15 to Intimidate rolls, but you're all alone in the woods and your Survival check is -1), or else just a total cipher whose identity is entirely subsumed by her class ("Welcome to Rangers Anonymous, raise your hand if you have max ranks in Survival, Knowledge Nature, Hide, Move Silently, Listen, Spot, Search, Climb and Jump...hm, okay, there's one guy in the back row who didn't raise his hand...oh, it's cause he doesn't have arms."). The closest I've been able to come up with is to play strict RAW, give my characters a "triangular" array of skill points (one at max rank for the class, then try to have one skill at one less and one skill one less than that, all the way down to two or three skills at +1), and then just accept that the character gets a lot of Circumstance Bonuses on checks that they clearly don't officially have any real competence in, just because they've at least invested one cross-class rank as a "footnote", indicating that they know they're occasionally meant to TRY and make those rolls. (I tend to have a lot of +2s on attributes, so many of my characters are rolling at +3 to most of their nonessential skills, unlikely to succeed at even a DC 15 check.)

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Mon Sep 10, 2018 8:20 am

shesheyan wrote:
Sun Sep 09, 2018 1:21 pm
Its very interesting how our experiences with systems is different. For my part I always felt and observed during the 80/90s giving XPs for gold and/or kills fostered are very agressive and murderous behavior in (some) players.
Well I realized quite early this was going to be a possible problem and indeed I house ruled money and treasure would not give XP after the first three levels. Also I was very strict on punishing anti-social behaviour from the players, assuming guards and more powerful people were often quite near to do so. Still I think the slow progression forced players to commit more and be more patient. At 2nd or 3rd level they had to work with the abilities they had for a while, rather than expect to raise levels quickly. Eventually we played for almost 15 years with some gaps and the PCs went from 1st to 33th level in BECMI with 24 years passing in game world time. It's a completely different kind of game than an adventure path in which you play some months in real time and some days/a month pass in game time, while the PCs raise from 1st to 20th level. The latter could be fun too, but personally the utter lack of realism disturbs me. Obviously there are many mid points between playing with the same PCs for 15 years raising on average 2-3 levels a year (with weekly or monthly sessions) and playing for some months gaining a level each session, but I generally prefer the first half of the spectum, as I do not see how you could have immersion in the game world with the second half. It becomes more of a wargame. It could still be D&D and could still be fun, but it's not the same thing.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Mon Sep 10, 2018 8:32 am

willpell wrote:
Sun Sep 09, 2018 10:59 pm
I haven't come up with an answer I like as to how to make a more "natural" feeling character,
You see this is essentially a problem of D&D 3ed only, in older editions we did not have it, the DM simply assumed the PCs had some basic reasonable knowledge and skills based on their background. If one was a farmer of a small village, no DM would have negated him/her some basic hunting, tracking and survival abilities. And if was capable of understanding and speech, no DM would have negated him a basic knowledge of the game world. Older editions were based on imagination, not rules, and the rules heavy environment of 3ed damaged the game as it made some people more lazy and did not encourage imagination. Note I've played 3ed and appreciated some of its aspects, but I've noticed that many people who started with it have a concept of D&D which is definitely less imagination, less immersion, less development, more empowerment, more rules, more wargame.
Treasure haulers and powergamers existed before 3ed obviously, but it pandered to them and exacerbated the problem.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Mon Sep 10, 2018 12:34 pm

Sturm wrote:
Mon Sep 10, 2018 8:32 am
willpell wrote:
Sun Sep 09, 2018 10:59 pm
I haven't come up with an answer I like as to how to make a more "natural" feeling character,
You see this is essentially a problem of D&D 3ed only, in older editions we did not have it, the DM simply assumed the PCs had some basic reasonable knowledge and skills based on their background. If one was a farmer of a small village, no DM would have negated him/her some basic hunting, tracking and survival abilities. And if was capable of understanding and speech, no DM would have negated him a basic knowledge of the game world. Older editions were based on imagination, not rules, and the rules heavy environment of 3ed damaged the game as it made some people more lazy and did not encourage imagination. Note I've played 3ed and appreciated some of its aspects, but I've noticed that many people who started with it have a concept of D&D which is definitely less imagination, less immersion, less development, more empowerment, more rules, more wargame.
Treasure haulers and powergamers existed before 3ed obviously, but it pandered to them and exacerbated the problem.
Even in 3e I let the characters have basic knowledge of their world. How could someone be raised by a family and not learn anything prior to becoming an adventurer. D&D characters don't spontaneously appear out of thin air like in a computer game. Also, rolls are not always required. If you see a dragon for the first time you will know its a dragon because of folks tales. Its just part of the world.

For things that require a roll IIRC in 3e it is possible to make a skill check even if you don't have the skill (if its not a specialization). You only have the attribute bonus + d20. That is the equivalent of rolling against your attribute in prior editions.

Page 62 3.5 PHB :
«CHARACTER SKILLS
When you create your character, you will probably only be able to purchase ranks in a handful of skills. It may not seem as though you have as many skills as real people do—but the skills on your character sheet don’t actually define everything your character can do.
Your character may have solid familiarity with many skills, without having the actual training that grants skill ranks. Knowing how to strum a few chords on a lute or clamber over a low fence doesn’t really mean you have ranks in Perform or Climb. Ranks in those skills represent training beyond everyday use—the ability to impress an audience with a wide repertoire of songs on the lute, or to successfully scale a 100-foot-high cliff face. »

So how do normal people get through life without ranks in a lot of skills? For starters, remember that not every use a skill requires a skill check. Performing routine tasks in normal situations is generally so easy that no check is required. And when a check might be called for, the DC of most mundane tasks rarely exceeds 10, let alone 15. In day-to-day life, when you don’t have enemies breathing down your neck and your life depending on success, you can take your time and do things right— making it easy, even without any ranks in the requisite skill, to succeeed (see Checks without Rolls, page 65). You’re always welcome to assume that your character is familiar with—even good at, as far as everyday tasks go—many skills beyond those for which you actually gain ranks. The skills you buy ranks in, however, are those with which you have truly heroic potential. »


@the OP author : Seems like you forgot part of the rules of the edition you are playing. Its good practice to regularly re-read the basic rules of a game because we tend to forget and it doesn't get better with age believe me !!! :lol: :lol: :lol:
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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Sturm » Mon Sep 10, 2018 1:51 pm

Yet that's not how I saw many people, players and DMs, behave at the table. I do not want necessarily to put all the blame on the 3ed, but it seemed people wanted a rule for everything and assumed a PC was unable to do something he/she had not a skill for. Maybe the rules-heavy environment encouraged a bit this line of thinking, maybe it was only my limited sample of people :)

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Mon Sep 10, 2018 2:20 pm

Sturm wrote:
Mon Sep 10, 2018 1:51 pm
Yet that's not how I saw many people, players and DMs, behave at the table. I do not want necessarily to put all the blame on the 3ed, but it seemed people wanted a rule for everything and assumed a PC was unable to do something he/she had not a skill for. Maybe the rules-heavy environment encouraged a bit this line of thinking, maybe it was only my limited sample of people :)
Could be. Maybe they were house-ruling 3 edition to work a specific way at their table.

I never modified my way of DMing or playing throughout the various editions I played since B/X. Things are just codified differently and one has to forget how things worked and relearn the game with each edition change. Some editions are like tennis while others are like badminton or ping pong. Same basic principles but very different appeal! To each his own. :lol: :lol: :lol:

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Illuminatus » Mon Sep 10, 2018 5:28 pm

Digitalelf wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 7:52 am
I've always preferred for the characters to start out their "careers" as an average Joe, who later, through successful adventuring, becomes something akin to Batman. I've never liked the idea of characters starting out as Batman, only to become Superman (to stretch the analogy a bit further).
I DMed my D&D games with this approach even when I converted from 2nd edition to 3rd edition... And a good part of why I returned to 2nd edition was that it became harder and harder to use this "starting out as an average Joe" approach
Amen to that! I joined a post-2e RPG game once and quit after a few games…my low-level character had a list of powers longer than my arm and I couldn’t even remember them all. Not my cup of tea. Superheroes should be made, not born. “Tactics,” such as they were, mainly had to do with figuring out which abilities to use to solve a problem. I think I was the only person there for whom “tactics” meant something like “why don’t we hire some local drunks to cause a distraction at the front door of the warehouse while we try to sneak in from the rear?”

In the games I DM’d most recently (2e) I went to the opposite extreme. Characters were first level but NOT adventurers (instead, various apprentices and acolytes, military conscripts, etc.) They were drawn into their first adventure by accident while going about daily life…unarmored, unarmed except for knives or walking sticks, with only a few coppers among them. Instead of finding magic items they were finding pitchforks and woodsmen’s axes and tattered leather armor - and were thrilled to get them! Major upgrades! It was a blast, focusing on tactics and stealth and squeezing out every advantage they could from the few abilities they had, along with lots of role-playing.

That being said, if I had tried this with the group I had when I was 18 I would have faced rebellion. Anything short of superpower was no fun. I guess it’s all about knowing your audience. And how do you build a game system that can cater to one crowd without alienating the other??!!
Sturm wrote:
Sat Sep 08, 2018 9:28 am
This was several time a source of contrast with some players I had who basically wanted the game world to be balanced to their power level, while I had a completely different approach. In fact I like the game world to be realistic in itself and for example "let's go there and fight them" it's not going to work, Ever, because it's the obvious tactic against which the adversary will be prepared. While I always "help" the players in several ways, for example with allies and clues, I also want them to work for their success, not just go and fight, expecting to win because the monsters must be balanced to their level. This videogame like approach was what I despised most in D&D 3ed and 4ed.
I personally have no problems with the idea that weak monsters are closest to settled lands and strong monsters are far away. Communicate that concept to the players just once and the problem is pretty much solved. It’s perfectly reasonable IMHO for low-level characters to expect low-level foes near town, and for high-level characters to travel farther afield for greater adventure. After all, I live in the American West. There are no bears or mountain lions wandering through town. If I walk one day in any direction, I’m still unlikely to find a bear or mountain lion. But two days out…it’s probably a good idea to hang the food from a tree branch at night.
shesheyan wrote:
Sun Sep 09, 2018 1:21 pm
I got so fed up with the XP system that I threw it out the window during 2e after talking with players.
Yes to this! I did this too in my most recent 2e game and it was a smashing success. Just awarded lump xp for reaching milestones, plus the occasional individual award for special situations. The "kill everything in the world" ethos vanished in an instant, and it was all about "how do we achieve our goal?" (I recently saw that Havard had posted some alternate experience rules like this over at pandius)

The idea of giving everyone a level after so many games doesn't really work in 1e/2e, because different classes have different progressions and you would be robbing the thief to pay the paladin.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by Khedrac » Mon Sep 10, 2018 6:03 pm

shesheyan wrote:
Mon Sep 10, 2018 12:34 pm
@the OP author : Seems like you forgot part of the rules of the edition you are playing. Its good practice to regularly re-read the basic rules of a game because we tend to forget and it doesn't get better with age believe me !!! :lol: :lol: :lol:
The D&D 3.X authors are notorious for not knowing the rules.

For the, the problem with this style of skill system came from the introduction of a skill system to BECMI D&D by the Gazetteers - for me this type of system better defines what a character cannot do that what they can. 3E has tried to mitigate with the 4× skills at first level, but even the sample packages for each class in the PHB show the fallacy by every one of them putting 4 ranks into all the skills taken.

Oddly, I didn't have this problem with RoleMaster and MERP - probably because characters got so many more skill points and skills (though it had other problems such as gaining a new spell from a spell list and finding that you have no chance of hitting with it because you know how to aim bolt spells not ball spells).

It is probably what leads me to have RuneQUest and similar skills as my favourites - everyone tends to have some skill at nearly everything - and, if the GM remembers to assign large modifiers for trivial tasks, they can usually use those skils successfully some of the time.
"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a crow".

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by willpell » Mon Sep 10, 2018 6:21 pm

The problem being that if you give away too many "well obviously" kinds of things to people who haven't paid for them, the people who DID pay for them will be annoyed that others are getting it for free. If I have max ranks in K:Local, I should obviously have an advantage over a character who put his points in Hide instead; otherwise it is always mechanically correct to "dump" Knowledge skills.

There's obviously a better way of handling this, but I haven't figured out what it is. I definitely don't agree with the DM just assuming stuff; the exact capabilities of the character ought to be spelled out in detail, so that the player knows what options he has available.

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by agathokles » Mon Sep 10, 2018 7:07 pm

Khedrac wrote:
Mon Sep 10, 2018 6:03 pm
For the, the problem with this style of skill system came from the introduction of a skill system to BECMI D&D by the Gazetteers - for me this type of system better defines what a character cannot do that what they can. 3E has tried to mitigate with the 4× skills at first level, but even the sample packages for each class in the PHB show the fallacy by every one of them putting 4 ranks into all the skills taken.
Actually, the two systems are completely different. 3e has a fixed skill set, and every character has an explicit skill rank for each skill -- which may be 0. BECMI has an unlimited skill list, with skills that can be fairly specific (such as "Knowledge of the Specularum Underground"), and it is not specified what happens when a character does not have a given skill.

IMO, 3e does not mitigate anything, because in 3e there are skills that are used in combat or to support class feature (Concentration and Spellcraft), which must be maximised in order to be effective. I'm particularly fond of the Sorcerer example -- a typical 3e Sorcerer does not have high Int, since he has to focus on other stats, so it is limited to 2 skills, one of which essentially must be Concentration.
Furthermore, since Thief skills are now general skills, also the Rogue and Bard have similar problems (the Bard also has to take Perform and may need Concentration). In the end, 3e characters have even less skills than 2e or BECMI ones, especially at high levels. Also, the 3e skills do not actually characterise the PC that much, since they cover mostly generic actions (Spot, Swim, Diplomacy) or class-specific actions (Spellcraft, Concentration, all the Thief skills). Furthermore, there is very little evolution, since in the end the character will put at every level one more skill point on each skill in order to keep them viable (otherwise opposed checks will likely fail). On the contrary, BECMI (or AD&D 2e) skills are always relevant, since their value is absolute and not level-dependent -- which also means that a Master craftsman in BECMI does not need levels, he just needs a high ability score.

The main problem is, then "what happens in BECMI when the character does not have a skill?". Well, that's up to the DM. In general, you have two options: either you keep skills as "professional" knowledge, thus avoiding skills such as "Spot", or you allow them. In the first case, then every non-professional activity is resolved with a simple Ability check for the relevant ability. In the second, the DM can allow untrained checks at half score, or, in case of abilities that everyone has, but some people may have honed further, such as the BECMI skills muscle or persuasion, the DM may allow a trained character to roll both an ability check and a skill check, keeping the best result.

Note that an intermediate approach could also be conceived, leveraging the Weapon Masteries. In this case, you may assume that, for each skill, an Unskilled character can only rely on his natural ability (1/2 Ability Score -- which does not allow anything more than an Apprentice level, according to Rockhome Gaz skill rankings). Then, you can use skill points to buy more ranks (Basic, Skilled, Expert, Master, and Grand Master), where a typical character would be Skilled in 4 skills (i.e., each skill slot equals 2 skill points), and each rank add +2 or so to the score (this still caps each skill at 20).
This would allow a PC to choose between specialisation and breadth of skills, without actually hampering them (i.e., a high-Dex PC may choose to have just a Basic skill at Riding, whereas a low-Dex one may choose to be Expert in order to compensate).

IIRC, I once posted a more formalised version of this system in the BECMI board.
Oddly, I didn't have this problem with RoleMaster and MERP - probably because characters got so many more skill points and skills (though it had other problems such as gaining a new spell from a spell list and finding that you have no chance of hitting with it because you know how to aim bolt spells not ball spells).
From my point of view, there's no real difference. Most RM characters don't really have many general skills -- three or four at most, and then mostly Bards (who typically get some performance and oratory skill) and Dwarves (who generally pick metallurgy skills). Even there, to make a skill count, you need to spend 10 points on it (after that, you get diminishing returns and may be better off taking a new skill).

GP

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Re: PC empowerment vs. immersion

Post by shesheyan » Mon Sep 10, 2018 7:12 pm

willpell wrote:
Mon Sep 10, 2018 6:21 pm
The problem being that if you give away too many "well obviously" kinds of things to people who haven't paid for them, the people who DID pay for them will be annoyed that others are getting it for free. If I have max ranks in K:Local, I should obviously have an advantage over a character who put his points in Hide instead; otherwise it is always mechanically correct to "dump" Knowledge skills.

There's obviously a better way of handling this, but I haven't figured out what it is. I definitely don't agree with the DM just assuming stuff; the exact capabilities of the character ought to be spelled out in detail, so that the player knows what options he has available.
I've used the 3.5 system (+d20 Modern) for years and no one ever complained things weren't fair, at my table. On the contrary we found that it simplified things greatly for ordinary day-to-day actions and we could concentrate on the narrative because that is why we play D&D. I gave you the answer within the rule system you are using and you reject it... you should modify the OP text to include that. :roll:

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