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Video Games, Meet Old School Gaming

Over on Jeff’s Gameblog [1], Jeff Rients quotes Settembrini (author of the The Prussian Gamer [2]) as describing two ways to play D&D [3] thusly:

Challenge but don’t overpower the PCs,” which I think of as the video game approach to GMing [4], vs. “If the PCs tug on Superman’s cape it’s their tough luck,” an approach that Jeff rightly points out was a lot more common in earlier editions of D&D.

He also mentions that there’s a hybrid approach, and he’s absolutely right. Combining the video game model of scaled challenges with the possibility (really, the threat) of Shit You Shouldn’t Mess With is a lot of fun.

Mentally reviewing my GMing history, this is a core part of my default approach to running games, and it’s one I’ve used across multiple systems and genres. It’s not a new idea by any stretch, but I find it useful to see things like this spelled out — it makes things click in my head, and gives me a new perspective on how I GM.

Do you use this same hybrid approach in your own games, or handle things differently?

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#1 Comment By Telas On March 27, 2007 @ 6:30 am

I personally like the hybrid approach (one of my favorite videogames ever was Wasteland, which used it extensively). However, my current party would probably turn it into a series of TPKs before they learned how to handle themselves.

I guess I’ll file that under “giving the group the game they want”.

#2 Comment By jerm On March 27, 2007 @ 6:45 am

I hadn’t thought about it in such terms, but I use the hybrid approach. I try to flesh out a world that is alive around the players. And so if they go looking for trouble, they can certainly find it, and just might find more trouble than they’re prepared to handle, in a confrontation, that is. On the other hand, it is still a game, and the players have showed up to have a good time (and no one wants to spend a few hours a week getting their ass constantly handed to them), so I try to arrange sessions in such a way that the opposition that they are likely to face is either not too difficult to be handled, or at least to provide them with or point them toward the tools that would enable them to handle the opposition.

#3 Comment By Alex Schröder On March 27, 2007 @ 6:48 am

I usually have very tough monsters (yesterday my party of fighter-5, fighter-4, ranger-3, sorcerer-2, cleric-2) fought against a CR 11 evil outsider and won. These fights are epic, and the only way the party manages to pull them off is because of diligent preparation. They checked out the castle, made a plan, organized an ally (the fighter-5 was a prisoner they freed), befriended a powerful wizard-9 in the area by performing a service and, befriended a cleric-4 in the area by performing a service, and thus got access to scrolls with arcane spells up to level 4 and scrolls with divine spells up to level 2.

So, essentially I like the approach where “too much to handle” can be overcome by doing lots of sidequests that are challenging enough to be entertaining. These sidequests provide the means to finally overcome the big boss: Allies, magic items, getting rid of enemy lieutenants, etc.

Check out my Kitsunemori Campaign Journal.

#4 Comment By Will On March 27, 2007 @ 6:58 am

I actually find the “challenge-but-don’t-overpower” method to be gobs of fun. Without it, IME, players are overly cautious, and pretty much not-at-all heroic. With it, players know they don’t have to take lip from every little NPC that wanders by. It gets them into interesting situations very quickly. “What? Your third-level party wants to assassinate the king and take over? Okay…now what are you going to do?” 🙂

#5 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On March 27, 2007 @ 7:05 am

I believe the DMG for 3.5 calls these approaches “tailored” and “status quo” and leaves it up to the DM to decide which to use. The hybrid idea is a good one, however. It means that your world looks from the outside like it’s not centered around the characters which adds a healthy dose of verisimilitude, but in reality (of course) mostly is.

Interestingly enough what just occurs to me is that in a status quo universe, your characters could get quite high level and wealthy by being “agents”. What I mean by that is: you find threats/challenges/adventures, gauge their danger level, and contract them out to NPCs / NPC groups that are up to about that level of challenge for a finders fee/cut of the loot. Eventually, you’d become well known enough that both people with work and adventurers would just come to you, knowing that you’re good at arranging these things, and you’d have choice pick of the jobs you wanted, and get a (small) cut of the rest for minimal administrative work.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On March 27, 2007 @ 7:17 am

I’ve always patterned my style off of Video games. Those being my first exposure to the worlds of gaming. Scaling challenges, I think, is one of the essential things for making the party feel like they are an influence in the world. If your game world concept is that this group is one of a multitude of mercenary parties you lose some of that “epic” feel you get in video games. If you close off the barriers of the world a little, and give the players the feel that there haven’t been many who have tread where they are walking now, then they start to feel like they are some of the big heroes of the world. It all depends on style and what you are aiming to achieve with the game.

#7 Comment By Martin On March 27, 2007 @ 7:28 am

(Telas) I personally like the hybrid approach (one of my favorite videogames ever was Wasteland, which used it extensively). However, my current party would probably turn it into a series of TPKs before they learned how to handle themselves.

You could probably handle that with a quick upfront discussion (social contract): “I’m going to be using a hybrid approach, so most challenges will be scaled to your abilities, but there’s stuff out there in the world that’s waaaaay too tough for you, too.”

(Will) I actually find the “challenge-but-don’t-overpower” method to be gobs of fun. Without it, IME, players are overly cautious, and pretty much not-at-all heroic.

I’ve never looked at the video game approach that way, and now that you mention that makes a whole lot of sense. Just like Jeff’s original post, it makes something go click in my head — thanks!

#8 Comment By Spleen23 On March 27, 2007 @ 7:51 am

Maybe start off a game by handing out starting characters at 9th level or the equivilant, and then run the group through a TPK senario that run along the line of “after numerous room filled with deadly traps and fierce monsters you reach the final room, before you stands a set of double doors with the familiar eye in the diamond symbol”.
Then let them make thier starting level dudes with the fact that they may run into something they can’t handle fresh in thier minds.
Plus you now have a excuse why at least one monster has a bunch of usefull magical items perfectly selected for a group of mixed class adventurers as part of it treasure.

#9 Comment By Crazy Jerome On March 27, 2007 @ 8:08 am

I’ve mostly run hybrid for many years now. The main thing is expectations. If the players know that there are things out there that can stomp their characters flat, they take it into account.

I find that such expectations lead to more satisfying play, because even when the characters are in control, they still hold something in reserve. They use utility spells. They plan for retreats. The seek information before jumping in. And occasionally, it becomes clear that they are in something up to their eyeballs, and they let fly with everything they have, and hope. In short, we get more variety that way.

I don’t care for the video game model (in this respect), because it leads to the kind of thing I saw in WoW last week. I teamed up with a guy to kill a boss. He goes tearing through the location, finds the boss with about 15 other things chasing us, and proceeds to barely kill the boss before we die. It was effective, since death doesn’t mean a whole lot in WoW. It was even faster, since we didn’t have to fight our way in. But it’s not the kind of metagaming I want from tabletop play. 🙂

#10 Comment By drow On March 27, 2007 @ 10:04 am

i suppose my style has tended to be hybrid. more powerful foes exist in the world, but the party doesn’t normally come into conflict with them until they’re powerful enough. or if they choose to go hunt superman themselves, of course.

#11 Comment By brcarl On March 27, 2007 @ 11:43 am

I think that making the decision between a tailored and status-quo approach comes down to two things: perception and choices.

First, you should make sure that the players understand the situation the same way you do. (This topic has been nicely covered here at TT.) One of the big things to confirm here is that the players know they have a way out if they want to pull back. It sucks to feel cornered, especially if the situation came as a surprise.

Second, once you’re sure the players are on the same page as you, see what choices they make. If it’s clear they’re in over their heads but they charge in anyway, then let ’em have it (status quo). If instead they try to pull out and plan, then perhaps scale it to match their abilities (tailored). Similar adjustments can be made for when the situation is on par with or below the PC’s abilities.

On a related note, I think a cool topic for discussion here at TT would be tips on how to relay meta-game information subtly. Like I read somewhere recently (over on Jeff’s blog?), having an NPC show up wearing a known powerful magic item can make it clear what that person’s “power level” is. Being able to communicate this kind of information without breaking character can add to the immersion many of us seek.

#12 Comment By Porthos On March 27, 2007 @ 2:10 pm

It’s funny that you wrote this since this very issue will be front and center for my players this weekend. They just finished killing off a semi-powerful evil priest in Melvaunt (Forgotten Realms), a neutralish city where evil gods are worshipped freely. This on top of foiling some plans of the Red Wizards of Thay (who are coming to town to investigate what’s going on).

So they’ll have a choice–stay in town and face the big bads OR bug out for a bit and come back when things have cooled down.

Either way should prove interesting. It might be the first time my players create their own recurring villian by running away!

#13 Comment By Patrick On March 28, 2007 @ 3:57 pm

One occasionally-important issue is the question of the every-once-in-a-while underpowered NPC. Scaling adventures to match the PCs as they grow is important, but you also want them to every once in a while beat up on the guards trying to arrest them without breaking a sweat. Not as a regular event, to be sure, but you can’t have the entire world as a whole arbitrarily grow more deadly in time with the PCs. What’s the point of becoming ultra-powerful if the town militia becomes level 9 Warriors at the same time?

Anyone who’s played Dungeon Siege (at least the original) knows what I’m talking about.