Firstly, this is a postgame analysis of my recent Conan 2d20: Death in Fort Defiance. But it has resulted in some observations that I believe apply almost equally to all other rpgs. I don’t believe that this second insight is original to me, by any means, but, for me, consideration of this fairly prevalent feature in all RPGs through the lens of the 2d20 system provides some sharp and useful focus.
Last night was my first roll-out of this new original scenario, which is inspired by Henry Whitehead’s “Black Tancrede” and (now I can say it without giving anything away) Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand.” I had two players, which, personally, is my sweet spot for 2d20, because force of numbers among PCs is unnecessary in 2d20, and fewer players obviously consequently receive more time to expand and dominate the screen, which is an essential aspect of the source fictions. As was my experience with Conan 2d20: Servants of the Charnel God, for “Death,” roleplaying in the first act was fantastic. In fact, my players sort of intimidated me with how seriously and sincerely they settled into conducting an investigation into who slew Mendoza, the Master of Discipline, sometime in the night, before the commencement of the adventure.
My prior offering, “Servants,” had felt to me to have a fairly leisurely first and second act and a somewhat rushed third act. “Death,” in contrast, had a mostly robust first and second act only; it could have employed a third act, but I was alert enough to keep an eye on the clock and know that I had to introduce and accelerate elements in the second act that, for me, worked out in a suitably satisfying way.
Both “Servants” and “Death” have been intentioned attempts at providing well-rounded adventures to be completed in a single session. Most of my experience has had the privilege of multiple sessions that allow the adventures to breathe, if need be, to wrap up loose ends or to explore unanticipated avenues. In a home game, “Death” could be allowed to fill two or three sessions, easy.
For one-shots, I feel that the first act of an adventure tends to develop rightfully slowly. Usually, in a one-shot, I haven’t gamed with these players before. We all need the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with each others’ personalities and to establish a table culture. The first act is also the time wherein many “sidebars” are made to explain the rules or to articulate nuances or granularity in the mechanics. Despite this, I find the first (and second) acts of one-shots to be very rich and immersive roleplaying experiences: dice are rolled infrequently and sometimes with little more reason than to demonstrate how a mechanic works; at the same time GM and players alike are discovering each others’ play styles and the emerging narrative, and the two features seem to coalesce.
But then the action happens. If roleplaying is a form of oral storytelling, if our vtts are, in some measure, the crackling flames of a fire about which we all sit while we contribute our individual pieces to unfolding tales, it really feels like, in the moment of action, that the one who mostly is in possession of the story stick holds it up and says, “Hold on. All of you come over here. Grab some pebbles for figures. I’m going to draw out a grid here in the dirt.”
This isn’t a complaint. This is a feature of the discourse. Roleplaying is a game as well as storytelling. But what I think is evident in rpgs—especially when it comes to combat, because life or death resolutions are the most important—is that the narrative s-l-o-w-s w-a-y d-o-w-n precisely at the moment that it should be its most adrenal and visceral. When we play rpgs, it’s almost as if all our action movies start filming every scene in slow motion, or as if all of our sword & sorcery writers use pages of description to evoke a barbarian raising a blade to parry a blow.
My players last night were gracious enough to hang around for a few minutes, postgame, to offer some impressions about the adventure and chat rpgs in general. @huscarl recommended that I use the Foundry combat tracker. @jim reminded me of our mutual love of Swords & Wizardry. I suppose it’s alarming that the “best” game still might be the Original Game.
But… I’m still not convinced that more reductive tools are the answer. Conan should be allowed to parry, to shield-bash, to duck and weave and leap. I understand the argument for abstraction and simplicity (again, love LOVE Swords & Wizardry, see above), but I don’t think that method properly emulates the fiction that Conan 2d20 is going for. My point is that pulp style sword & sorcery gaming should be tactical and nuanced, but it also, somehow, should play fast.
Before we cue “you should check out [fill in the blank],” let me point out what I absolutely love about Conan 2d20 and why, for now, I’m absolutely sticking with it. I love its rich and inspiring character creation. I love the Momentum system, how great successes are not gone to waste simply because either the system is basically pass/fail or because excess accomplishment doesn’t have functional use for the specific moment at hand. I love the tactical choices, the many resources that the players have at their command, though it’s understandable if players and GMs are overwhelmed (and they are) with the wealth of possibilities. In short, there is so much game in the 2d20 game, and, to me, these are optimal tools for collaborative, collective story-making.
I have thought of some “hacks.” There are many 2d20 games, and some employ innovations I could employ. John Carter of Mars (also D&D 4e, or so I hear) allows a Minion to be dropped with a single hit (rather than the Harm, which usually is occasioned by taking 4 or 5 Vigor, that the standard game uses). I have considered theoretical systems that simply give heroes and their adversaries individual pools of resources that they must spend as they take actions; once one or the other is out of resources, any intended actions resolve, and the process starts again. My significant other recommended something like dealt hands of cards. The cards define actions; specific PCs may often be holding permanent, specific cards (based on their abilities).
Finally, I know I am overdue for a long and careful look at Barbarians of Lemuria. I’m looking forward to it!