Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lessons Learned: D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Champions

On Creating Characters, Game Balance and Min/Maxing

The D&D experience

The main reason I bought modules for D&D and AD&D was because I couldn't figure out encounter balance. I didn't even have a phrase for it when I was trying to play back in grade school.

I didn't even think that monster hit dice was roughly equivalent to the levels of the party, and was perturbed by how many 1/2 HD monsters would be a match for four 1st level characters. Was it really just a matter of adding up HD and comparing against levels? What about magic or special abilities? And did that mean that creatures with lots of magical abilities necessarily had more hit points and no lesser weaknesses? I didn't have a wargaming background and didn't really think strategically at the time. Most of my understandings of game balance came from actualy gameplay successes and errors, and examples explicitly stated in rules.

As a player, I felt that the main thing was to be cautious and circumspect until you got enough hit points, gathered a lot of magical weapons, armor, and miscellaneous items, and just avoided situations with poison or death rays or any instant death saves -- because I hated risking everything I'd invested in the character on one dice roll.

This emergent philosophy dictated that I would tend to play a thief, or a fighter/thief. Someone who fought, but wasn't meant to be on the front lines. Of course, as a thief you were often asked to check for traps which involved poison -- hence the dual-class approach: "I never said I was a thief; how dare you insinuate such a thing?"

It tended to work out well as I gradually got a little more aware about real tactics and strategies (timing, judicious utilization of resources, finding ways to merge role-playing and meta-game techniques) to ensure a greater amount of survivability & success in dungeons.

An optimum build for a character was subject to a good set of rolls, good choices of equipment (and spells and so on), but how you played the character was just as important. While we had some paladins that somehow survived just barreling through everything, and striking first did -- on reflection -- have some merit tactically, prudence was often the better part of valor.

The Call of Cthulhu experience

When I first tried Call of Cthulhu, I still didn't quite grasp role-playing that well. To me, there was this long build-up period until you encountered a cultist group, and then a long build-up period until you encountered the big bad of the adventure, and then you either died horribly and quickly or you went insane or you somehow succeeded in surviving the encounter.

I did feel the atmosphere and the build-up of fear, thanks in no small part to the skill of the Keeper and his insistence on gaming in the garage at a table lit by candles.

But after perusing the Field Manual of the Theron Marks Society (a lovely gaming prop I wish they could do a more modern version of), I suddenly realized not only how important investigation and investigation techniques and roleplaying and an understanding of how civilization and society worked (I was a shy, introverted boy largely into books) when playing the game; I also realized that there was a reason my old D&D buddies would try to find out rumors in bars, and why there were rumor tables in the modules I'd purchased.

Preparation! Investigation! Getting a better sense of what was likely to be an obstacle rather than generally being ready for anything rather than being overloaded like a pack mule! All new concepts to me, as was not acting like a guy just waiting for the next dust-up to commence (especially since it was so easy to die in the game system).

The Champions experience

And then when I began playing Champions, and therefore adventuring in the modern world, I had my first experience in a point-based, classless system, I started to understand more things about attempts to get some kind of game balance.

I understood that two characters built on the same number of points were arguably equivalent to each other in terms of game balance, but that also depended on where the points were spent and how optimized the build was. I mean, you could build the world's greatest detective and the world's handsomest man on the same amount of points, but they just weren't going to be equal in a fight (which tends to happen a lot in the super-hero genre).

I also appreciated little lessons from building and playing characters in Champions -- while you can play any reasonable character build (and yes, there are many unreasonable builds) to survive and even triumph in a game, the best approach is to build a character with an idea as to your non-combat and combat use of the character. For example, if you choose to play a martial artist, in general you've chosen to adopt a strategy of not getting hit, rather than being able to soak up damage; if you choose to play a tough guy, you want to focus on being able to take a hit and keep on clobberin' foes.

All together now

The weird result of all these philosophies is a polarization of gameplay styles. If the game does grant me the ability to optimize a character build, I give some though to how I'll play the PC before beginning to allocate points or make choices. If the game doesn't, or does so in a bad way, I tend to fall back on my Call of Cthulhu and D&D training -- don't go looking for fights, but if you have to, strike hard, strike fast, strike often, and strike first!


  1. My first DM experience, as a young lad, was a case of misjudging (and misreading) encounter balance. I stuck 50 trolls in a cavern, and let them loose on a party of 3rd level characters.


That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...