On Early, Mid, and End-Games in RPG campaigns

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the World of Darkness Documentary and I noted that while I was never able to get a game off the ground, I did buy pretty much all of the original World of Darkness titles. Given that one of the reasons for never successfully getting a game off the ground was my profound antipathy to the old Storyteller system, it is interesting that I persisted with buying the products.

One reason for continuing to hand over my money was that the World of Darkness games were all pretty to look at and pretty well-written at a time when neither of those things were particularly common in the RPG industry. Even if you never actually sat down to play a WoD title, you could still look at the art, read the introductory short-story, and generally explore the very clear thematic vibe that each game put out.

Another (not unrelated) reason was that reading the books would inspire you to not only create characters but also to imagine how those characters might evolve over time. You could imagine a Vampire rising through the ranks of the local Camarilla but you could also imagine playing a Werewolf or a Mage and reaching the point where you got access to very specific powers. You could imagine your character changing and the games you played changing with them. It is interesting how few options there are for marking the passage of time and allowing your gameplay to evolve alongside your characters.

This thought puts me in mind of the 2008 Electronic Arts game SporeSpore turned out not to be a particularly interesting game but its launch trailer generated a huge amount of hype by virtue of the fact that it showed you starting off with a single-cell organism that could be upgraded until it gained the capacity to leave the primordial ocean, at which point the game changed into a kind of beat-em-up in which your species tried to carve out enough of an ecological niche to be able to reproduce and spread. At which point, the game changed again in to a real-time-strategy game in which your species fought to become first your planet’s dominant species and then the dominant species in your corner of the galaxy.

It is interesting how few RPGs seem to put any thought into their mid- and end-games. For example, Call of Cthulhu characters start off as sane upper-middle class professionals and the unspoken aim of the game is to ward off madness and death for as long as possible before having to roll up yet another middle-class professional with a death kick and desire to know the unknowable.

In fairness to game designers, this is one of the major technical challenges involved in designing points-based character creation systems as the overwhelming majority of games that are not explicitly level-based tend to provide players with the rules for creating characters of specific types who will then grow stronger without ever having the ability to change types or to evolve into something qualitatively different to how they started out.

Dungeons & Dragons and the World of Darkness games were different in this respect as those games were always built with long-term campaigns in mind. In the World of Darkness games, each new level of skill unlocked powers progressively different to those that came before and so even though your character might remain of a specific type, the range of things they could do became ever-more inhuman and supernatural meaning that your character could not help but evolve into something qualitatively new. A similar path was taken by D&D after 3.0 as the ability to acquire levels from different classes combined with the ability to unlock prestige classes meant that while you might start out with the idea of playing a Level 1 Barbarian, time and experience would eventually compel you to re-imagine what your character had become. This is why front-loaded character concepts like ‘aspiring knight who is obsessed with his father’s sword’ tend not to work in D&D: A few adventures down the road you’ll not only be a knight, chances are that you’ll also have a sword that’s considerably better than that of your dad.

The other day, I happened upon my old copy of the AD&D 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook and I noticed that AD&D2 still had the stuff about your character acquiring a following around the time they hit 10th level. Those rules always struck me as incredibly weird as the idea of ‘a following’ came with no broader mechanical or non-mechanical context. You just… acquired a load of soldiers. I’m reminded of that (under-appreciated) joke in a Terry Pratchett novel about how a load of Shaolin Monks had built a religion around the ‘teachings’ of a working-class housewife in Ankh Morpork meaning that they all started turning up at her door and treating her every act and utterance as spiritual instruction. This lead to the monks creating a martial art based around hurling racial epithets, hitting each other with brooms, and telling them to clear off back to wherever it was they came from.

I decided to look into these rules and discovered that they were in fact a mechanical vestige of first edition D&D where the ‘expert set’ included not only rules for level 4-14 characters but also guidelines for running adventures appropriate to characters of those levels. These adventures were qualitatively different to those covered in the basic set in that they shifted the focus away from dungeons and towards wilderness exploration and campaigns with on-going narratives. In other words, first edition D&D assumed that you would start out by dungeon-crawling and then, eventually, progress onto something referred to as ‘domain play’ where the focus would shift away from dungeons and towards exploring, conquering and holding territory. Fighters automatically acquired a following because it was assumed that 10th level fighters would be spending their time carving out a fiefdom rather than running through high-level dungeons or scripted adventures.

Like a lot of neat ideas that fell by the wayside during the long slow march from first to fifth edition, the OSR crowd have tried to reverse-engineer the principles of ‘domain play’ based upon the original texts as well as a number of third-party supplements released back in the early 1980s.  This process of re-discovery triggered an explosion of interest in what are now commonly referred to as hex-crawls. As someone whose early gaming experiences stem from the early days of AD&D2, I remember DMs using random encounter tables and these tables coming across as tedious Final Fantasy-style encounters in which you were dragged into a randomly-generated monster battle that had no connection whatsoever to whatever storyline you happened to be following. At the time, I saw random encounters as combat for the sake of combat. However, I now see things a little differently…

A lot of the heavy conceptual lifting behind the contemporary hex-crawl comes from a blogpost by Ben Robbins in which he lays the foundation for a sandbox-style campaign he refers to as the West Marches. Though wilderness adventures and hex-crawls may originally have been things you did once your characters had a few levels under their belt, the contemporary hex-crawl seems to be all about embracing procedurally-generated content and the idea of campaign settings being things that emerge spontaneously through play rather than serving as a well of pre-built stories. Nonetheless, I think there’s something really cool and interesting about the idea that you start off by having one type of adventure before progressing on to another type. A lot of games acknowledge this type of thing as a possibility but relatively few provide you with very much support for playing characters who are more seasoned, experienced, and whose ambitions extend further than kicking in doors and accumulating loot.

I suspect that trouble might well be rooted in the history of RPGs. According to Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, one of the ways in which the old roll-playing vs. role-playing debate manifested itself was in attitudes towards procedurally-generated content. Those who tended to view RPGs as a means of delivering narrative tended to frown upon table-based content creation, preferring instead to handle the idea of beginnings, middles, and ends through the medium of story. Indeed, RPG culture at the time appeared to metabolise the narrative-based critiques of procedurally-generated content to the point where the processes for generating in-game content degraded to nothing more than Final Fantasy-style random encounters. While I think the people on the OSR-side of the hobby have done some great work in re-habilitating the creative potential of using dice rolls to populate settings, the only other people to think about changes in narrative type have been the indie and story-game people who have never been shy about mechanics such as having distinct, pre-planned stages that the players pass through on their way towards completing the game. Indeed, I think one of the major advantages that story games have over traditional games is that they tend to have robust structures with clear beginning and end points whereas most traditional RPGs are set up in such a way that they can support either a single session or a hundred but then that flexibility can be preferable in any number of situations.

One area in which traditional RPGs have tried to engage with the idea of time passing is in games with a dynastic element such as Ars Magica and Pendragon. While the concept is addressed in very different ways, both games invite you to manage both your character and their dynastic holdings; in the case of Ars Magica, it’s the alliance whose power can wax and wane with the passage of time. In the case of Pendragon, it’s the character’s bloodline and the maintenance of his fiefdoms as well as his growing responsibilities within the kingdom. I think that sense of time and growing responsibility is what originally sold me on both of those games but I would argue that while both of those games address the issue of characters moving into different roles as they grow more powerful, neither game provides much in the way of mechanical support. There are no rules for governing how or why a magical alliance might grow and Pendragon tends to buck underneath you the second you start to engage too closely with in-game economics. Pendragon likes the idea of household knights becoming

I’m not sure I have any particular conclusions in mind when it comes to this topic, I just think that the idea of starting in one kind of game and then having the game change once you have a bit of power/experience/in-game clout strikes me as rather fun and I’ll be thinking about it a bit more in future.

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