Monday, February 2, 2009

"A Game About Finding Money"

The one comment that bothered me after Friday's Olden Domain game was Maria telling me that while it was interesting noting the group dynamics, the game itself seemed a bit shallow (my sum-up, not her exact wording), with the sole activity being running around grubbing for coins.

I could see her point. And I've sort of written about that very thing.

It also occurs to me that all this talk of "no plot, no story," can get mangled between the initial concept and the recitation of the mantra.

But the proof of there being more in there is already in the game. It hasn't been all about going in the dungeon or exploring the castle. There is more there. They've already thrust themselves into the conflict between the Kur-Kaloo tribe and the gnolls in the Sunken City, befriending the tribesfolk. They're planning on arming them and taking the gnoll's tower to use as a forward base for further expeditions into the Olden Domain.

Right there, the players, without any guidance from me, took a situation they could have completely ignored, decided to interact with it, and are basing plans around it. I didn't do that, I didn't lead them into that. They could have sided with the gnolls. They could have decided to join neither side and just hack through whoever was in front of them. They could have decided to hell with the city and crawled around the caves on the side of the sinkhole, or traveled to one of the other locations listed on the beginning map.

But they didn't. They befriended the tribe, and they are already spending the money to start arming the tribe. They need more money (thus a reason for adventuring beyond because it's there) to really do that, they need a bit more experience before being comfortable taking on the gnolls, but it's discussed every session.

When they do make their move (if they do... for all I know they'll just talk about it forever and never do anything), it'll be a story climax (here's hoping it's a happy ending for them... I'll be rooting for them while at the same time playing the gnolls for all they're worth), and I'll bet money that the outcome will be more meaningful (or at the very least no less meaningful) than if I had set up a "aid the poor tribesmen from the vicious humanoids!" story arc from the start, and it will have been entirely player-driven.

That won't be the only opportunity for such decisions and interactions. The past couple of sessions, the PCs have recovered maps of the greater Olden Domain, showing the lay of the land, locations of possible interest, but little in the way of details and nothing in the way of information about inhabitants. I may not have a lot of detail finalized yet, but I have a lot of sketches and a lot of rough notes.

What do the players want to do?

Tool around dungeons and such, collecting treasure and slaying monsters? Sure, they can do that.

Explore the ancient sites of the Olden Domain and create a comprehensive history of the region? They'll be able to do that.

Will they want to interact with various factions and become involved in greater-scaled conflicts? Oh yeah, the opportunity will be there.

Do they want to fulfill the traditional D&D endgame and eventually create a kingdom of their own within the Olden Domain? I wouldn't say no to that.

But I won't be telling them to do any of this. I won't have to. I'll just have locations available, creatures lairing therein, and then intelligent groups of various power, wealth, alignment, and size. The players will decide what is important to them, and make plans accordingly.

And if I gather enough players to have a situation where multiple groups are competing for the same treasure and magic and alliances and information and double-crossing each other, so much the better. A little pressure-cooking never hurt anyone.

And that's just possibilities I'm intending to make available. I'm sure there are going to be many things that I think are just set dressing or an offhand idea that I throw out there that will be used by players as a motivational hook for future activities.

Hell, they don't even know where any dragon lairs are yet. :D

The more the Olden Domain is explored, the more pure options the players will have about where to go, the more knowledge they'll have about who's there (and who's where), and I'm sure they'll come up with ideas I never even dreamed of involving characters, places, and things that I never even considered could be related with one another.

And I have a feeling the grubbing for coins in random places won't be a primary goal or activity, competition or no, for so terribly long, even if all I do is place locations and inhabitants around the landscape. Traditional D&D seems to morph quite nicely into different modes of play where the game is about different things. I wonder if anyone will ever want to establish their own dominion someday...

Yet the XP for GP system will stay. I insist on an absolute and objective measurement for advancement, for that keeps me from playing favorites ("XP for role-playing!"), keeps me from railroading ("XP for story goals!"), and it creates possible dilemmas for the players ("Do we do this interesting thing this time or do we go for the gold?" or "Look at this helpful, peaceful little village... with a golden idol!"). But players that want something a bit more from the game just have to claim it. They'll advance a bit slower, but if they are looking for more than dungeoneering and looting, will they really care?


  1. We kicked off a Swords & Wizardry game today, and the issue of money seems to be a means to an end in our game... in addition to all of our characters having long term goals (one wants to get rich, one wants to build a temple, etc) we find that "finding money" is something we need to do to fund the things that are interesting to us. Our characters took their first job just to get the money to buy a raft big enough to get us and our stuff to the part of the campaign world we want to go to!

  2. Being a regular at the Olden Domain sessions, I must say that to some extent I agree with Maria.

    It's true, the situation with the gnolls and the so-called "Village People" is interesting and will be developped within a couple levels (that is, 14 to 28 sessions).

    I take advantage of being here to say that I would personnally like to for example find out what happened in that Castle to make it as it is. We already have elements, but I'll want to find more.

    The same holds for the dungeon under the city. We've found remains of some weird frog cult, a flying golden sphere and a black and white zone. To me, one of the objectives could be to find out what they are and why they are there, but I am not sure it is even possible (I may be wrong since we haven't finished exploring all those areas).

    Well... I'm criticizing, but I still enjoy those sessions. My point is just that it would be an additional thrill to the game.

  3. Some things will have explanations (certainly there is a greater background to the castle, for example)... not always wrapped up neatly (there's no reason why the full story of a location will necessarily be found in that location) and of course some unexplained weirdness is mandatory!

  4. Are you familiar with the T&T system of using Saving Roll scores as the major source of XP?

  5. The point that scoring XP need not be constantly the primary goal is one I think some people miss. It seems a bit funny to me to hear that "treasure is its own reward" (hence not worth XP??) -- but that roleplaying and "story-building" accomplishments (defeating a villain, saving a village, etc.) require XP awards.

  6. Great read, James. This:

    players that want something a bit more from the game just have to claim it

    is worth quoting! This is the essence of sandbox and eventually west marches. Good stuff.