A Snake and a Rose

Totally random thought of the day:

Could you run a D&D campaign set in fantasy wilderness inspired by the style and themes of Metal Gear Solid?

As absurd as it first seems, I think this might actually work really well. Snake is an extraordinary warrior and thief who ends up in remote desolate places where evil madmen with their quirky superhuman henchmen prepare their villain lairs for devastating attacks with mad superscience. Make the big bads sorcerers and the weird gadgets into magic artifacts and it all should work just as well in an Iron Age tech fantasy world.

I think the best thing about MGS that makes it such an amazing series are the characters, especially the villain’s henchmen.Every single one of them is completely fucked up in the head, but occasionally sympathetic and even reluctant to help the villain. I think that would make for excelent NPCs in an open ended adventure with a lot of potential for really unexpected turns. And what player wouldn’t love to deal with an antagonist like Ocelot? That’s a guy you just have to love to hate. And then there’s also the betrayal by friends who don’t want to see you harmed but have other greater loyalties. Not being able to tell friend from foe (even after they’ve shown their cards) and conflicting loyalties from NPCs who are carrying various personal burdens is just the stuff behind ideas like Against the Wicked City and Blue Rose.

Speaking of Blue Rose, the pdf of the new second edition has just been released. Didn’t get it yet but really looking forward to seeing what they did with it.

But back to Metal Gear Solid antagonists. Another great aspect of them is that every single one of them is a completely different type of opponent with unique abilities and powers. Not just unique within the respective game, but unique within the world of the series. In Dungeons & Dragons there’s always the common tendency to make opponents based on the rules for making PCs. They tend to have classes, levels, and spells that are all available to the players as well. And for a great number of NPCs that works perfectly well. But I am a fan of mythic fantasy and the otherworldly and in such a campaign there is no need to have the main NPCs be ordinary people who have trained their skills. Making a decent number of opponents completely unique entities with distinguishing powers might do a great deal to make the world seem more magical.

I just started my three weeks off from work and plan to really throw myself into working on the Forest of High Adventure sandbox. Thinking of the main dungeons as Metal Gear Solid lairs is already getting my imagination bubbling.

Not everything is trying to kill you

I think the greatest thing that oldschool roleplaying brought to the attention of younger GMs like me is the whole system of wandering monsters, reaction rolls, and morale checks. When I first got into RPGs I occasionally saw mention of them, but they seemed silly and annoying for what I assumed a good adventure to be like and a good riddance in general. But after having played and run games for over 10 years, all the adventures never turned out to be anything like what I had been hoping they would. And I think it really comes down to D&D of that time having abandoned the aforementioned mechanics. Which didn’t start with 3rd edition but actually preceded even AD&D 2nd edition for a good number of years.

My first contact with RPGs was Baldur’s Gate and that set a precedent of what I expected adventures to be like and I found it confirmed by AD&D modules I’ve looked at. When you encounter a creature, one side makes a surprise attack and then the fight continues until one side has been wiped out. The characters get XP and the treasure lies where the enemy fell. Having creatures appear randomly and someimes trying to run away would be a nuisance and interrupt the plot. But videogames NPCs are still absolutely primitive compared to one controlled by a GM and I much later learned that most of the modules were not meant to be normal AD&D adventures but tournament modules for conventions where many groups would play the same dungeon simultaneously as a single session one-shot and then compare which party got the most points. Which is why The Tomb of Horrors is so awful. It’s not meant to be part of an ongoing campaign, but unfortunately fails to explain that to GMs who read it.

Wandering monsters in a dungeon have the main function of keeping the party moving and the clock ticking. They make resting in a dungeon almost impossible and that means your spells and hit points have to last you through the whole expedition. Since wandering monsters have negligible treasure and roughly 75% of XP are expected to come from collecting gold, fighting them is just a waste of resources and a risk of death with barely any reward. And as wandering monsters are encountered based on time spend in the dungeon, there’s a real incentive to be quick. Giving the majority of XP for treasure also has the effect that it is often more efficient to just steal treasure without a fight and minimize the loss of spells and hit points (and party members). Getting 75% of XP for stealing treasures without defeating the owners will get you more than getting 100% from just one creature. XP for gold seemed silly, but is actually great design.

It also makes morale checks much more interesting. An opponent who runs away may abandon its treasure. Every round you don’t have to fight saves you more hit points and spells and allows you to continue the current expedition a bit longer. Yes, they run away with their pocket change, but you still get all the XP for having defeated them.

But let’s now look at reaction rolls, which are perhaps the most intriguing element of oldschool roleplaying. A reaction roll tell you how a group of creatures or NPCs will react to encountering the PCs when their reaction is not predetermined by the adventure or obvious. I took notice of this and mentally filed it away to be used with animals encountered in dungeons or NPC parties encountered during overland travel. But what does “obvious” actually mean? A group of zombies? Yeah, obvious. A golem guarding a door? Predetermined by the adventure. But what about a group of orcs sitting around a campfire? Obvious?

Well, I always assumed it is, based on fantasy books, movies, videogames, and all the adventures published by WotC and Paizo. But this is a preconception that is not actually supported by the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules. Yes, orcs are chaotic and it says that Chaos generally means evil. But player characters can be chaotic as well and they are members of the party. Chaotic indicates breaking rules and promises when it benefits you and you can get away with it. And what benefit is there in randomly attacking groups of well armed people?

I always found it somewhat difficult to interprete the rection table. What does it mean if the result is “Hostile, possible attack” or “Uncertain, monster confused”? But with a bit of searching you can easily find a few examples from fiction. When Bilbo encounters Golum under the mountains, Golum plans to kill him and eat him. But he doesn’t have surprise and knows that frontal attack is risky so he keeps Bilbo talking in the hope of getting an opportunity where he has advantage. That fits very well with “Hostile, possible attack”. Another good example is in Return of the Jedi when Leia encounters the ewok Wicket whose reaction is just spot on “Uncertain, monster confused”. He holds up his spear but only to keep her at a safe distance, not with an intention to attack her. Because she handles the situation well she’s able to get the ewoks as allies. A bit later the others get in a similar situation but Han handles it less well ad the ewoks decide to cook them.

return-of-the-jedi-ewoksOnly on a roll of 2 on a 2d6 does a reaction roll actually indicate an immediate attack and a 3 to 5 indicates hostility with a chance that the creatures might attack. This results in only a 28% chance that a fight breaks out without the players initiating it. If you start making reaction rolls for any encounter where the reaction isn’t automatically fixed, it will change the game quite a lot. Orcs and ogres are no longer monsters but people just like bndits, mercenaries, or barbarians. Their culture might be different and unappealing to many of the PCs, but if the players handle it right they can be interacted with just like people.

This affects both worldbuilding and the way that adventures play out. A dungeon in which only a third of encountered denizens are hostile and the rest could provide information, cooperate with the PCs, or even offer free help is a very different place from the common deathtrap presented in most modules in which everything including the kitchen sink tries to kill you on sight. And again, this is supported by XP being gained mostly through finding treasure. How much XP you get out of a dungeon does not depend on the number of fights. XP for gold may not be perfect, but it certainly beats XP for combat only. If you get a reward for fighting and no reward for not fighting, the message for players is clear. Kill everything. (Don’t let them run away, they take all their treasure with them which you need to buy magic items from stores.)

This encourages and supports a play style that is really about exploration and discovery of fantastic environments the PCs will find themselves in. Treasures are an incentive to poke around and find hidden rooms, but seem much less like the main purpose why you go on an adventure. The options to discover things about the environment and the greater world are very much limited when all your interactions are with statues and wall paintings. There is so much more that can be leared by interacting with other people and the knowledge you gain becomes much more useful and meaningful if it can help you with dealing with other people you’ll encounter later. Or possibly people you encountered before and who might reward you for sharing your discoveries.

Another fascinating part of the rules that had almost entirely disappeared are retainers. In 3rd edition you have to be at least 6th level and spend one of your precious few feats to get only one retainer. In Basic everyone can have around 4 at first level for free. (You have to pay wage, but that’s no limited resource.) My assumption was that you’re meant to post job offet notes at the market place and then pick one of the people who come to apply. But that’s not what the rules demand. A much more fun and interesting option is to recruit people you meet on adventures. It says retainers can be of any level or any class but not have a higher level than the PC they follow. But the Hit Dice of a monster are effectively the same as class levels in every way. Once you make it practice to befriend monsters, why not let players take them along as retainers? The GM would have to rely on making good judgement calls on what kinds of monsters might possibly be hired. A black pudding or a purple worm would be silly. But if it’s reasonably intelligent, able to integrate into society, and the player mange to get it friendly, why not?

While working on my setting and preparing for my next campaign I wanted to do something different than the average treasure hunt or assaulting the lair of a villain over and over. Instead I want to do something much more fantastic that focuses and supernatural things and discovery. I mostly failed at this with my last two campaigns and even in the last months much of my preparation once again ended up focusing on humanoid antagonists. Realizing that the 35 year old Basic rules suggest a world that is much less hostile and encouraging cooperation with dungeons denizens between the line has been a major eye opener for me. And once more makes me feel amazed that an RPG so close to what I consider perfect has been around almost from the very beginning. (There’s still negative armor class and spell preparation, but those are easily fixed and exist for the purpose of edition compatibility.)

The Specialist class in the Old World

Probably the biggest oddity of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess system that makes it stand apart from any other versions of the Basic/Expert rules of D&D is the specialist class. It takes the position of the traditional thief class but attempts to be a lot more than this narrow character archetype. LotFP really only uses the rules of D&D but does not attempt to retain its style. In fact, it very much gets away from that to be a more generic system. (Which is part of what attracts me to it.)

The specialist is an attempt at greater versatility. You can easily make your specialist a thief, but you don’t have to. By focusing on other abilities you can also use the class to represent a range of characters who would not outright be considered combatants. Which I find very interesting as a possible character concept in a 16th or 17th century campaign that is more about being smart than fighting battles.

But in a setting like the Old World? This setting is very much Sword & Sorcery with a more hopeful outlook. And Sword & Sorcery is all about… well, swords and sorcery. What’s a noncombatant character to do in such a campaign?

One of the nice things about LotFP is that every character can pick up any weapon and put on any armor and use them. A specialist who is dressed in armor and has a spear or bow in hand fights just as well as any nonheroic warrior. Better actually, with a +1 bonus to attack rolls. And as the character gains more levels, hit points and saving throws keep improving, so even without the bonus to attack that fighters (and scouts) get, you’re still not completely useless in a fight. Quite far from that, actually. As a specialist you won’t be the big ass dragon slayer your fighter friends are, but you’re not limited to stand in a corner and wait until the fight is over. In the LotFP system, clerics, dwarves, nd halflings (which are not classes in the Old World) all fight only just that good as well.

But when does a specialist actually do shine in this setting? When is a specialist better than any other characters in the party? I spend a good amount of time thinking about characters from fiction with dynamics similar to what I have in mind who would make good examples for the specialist class. There weren’t a lot but the two main examples I found are Leia from Star Wars and Naomi Hunter from Metal Gear Solid. And no, it’s not a coincidence: Almost all specialist type characters from pulp-style fiction I could think of are women. That’s how competent female characters in the 30s worked and how it was retained by works that aimed to capture the style. Which is not really a bad thing for a single character. It’s only unfortunate when you end up with all the men as warriors and all the women as clever manipulators. Some sharing between the two is all I want to see. But I think it’s actually a very interesting and fun character archetype.

One thing that almost all these characters have in common is that they are smart and good at talking, which is generally their primary special power. OSR type games usually don’t address that. And I am mostly very much in agreement with that. When you have a group of people together verbally discussing and describing the actions of their characters, then it becomes necessary to rely on abstract game mechanics to represent combat actions, but it makes little sense to do the same thing when their characters are talking. You’re already talking so just say what your character is saying. However, the side effect of this approach is that it really comes down entirely to the players how a conversation with an NPC turns out with the players’ characters making no difference. Having some kind of Persuasion skill for the specialist class would be nice, but it should also be in a way that does not negate the need and purpose of talking with NPCs.

A potential solution to this mismatch of goals is the Angry GM’s advice to not let the players roll any dice when the result won’t make a difference. Say the players talk to a chief and make an offer of alliance which the chief likes. Why roll dice if the players can convince him, he already wants to agree! Or the players make an offer that goes completely against the goals of an NPC. Again,it would be nonsensical to have a player mae a dice roll with a chance of only 2% to succeed. Instead a die roll should be made in situations when the GM just doesn’t know what should happen. Say the players make an offer or demand that the NPC doesn’t really care for but also isn’t fundamentally opposed to. That’s a good situation to call for a roll. For regular characters, the odds to make such a roll is only 1 on a d6, which will mean mostly failures. 1 in 6 is really quite bad so it really makes sense to only have the players roll on these things when you think it probably won’t work but they might get lucky. But specialists have the unique feature of being able to improve the odds of any such skill by one every level and become really good at it.

One benefit of such an approach to specialist skills is that players don’t get to say “I make a Persuasion roll”. In any situation the players first have to talk with the NPCs and at the end the GM decides, based on how the conversation went, whether the NPC has been won over or refuses, or if he wants a player to make a roll for Persuasion.

This is also the same way I approach the Stealth skill. Any character can attempt to be sneaky and for as long as they don’t get close to any guards or stay out of sight this will usually work, no roll required. Sneaking up on a guard in a lit empty corridor while he’s looking in the character’s direction is impossible. But occasionally you might have a player who wants to sneak right up to a guard while there is no loud noises nearby and it would be a minor miracle to pull off. That’s when a role is made. For a fighter with only a 1 in 6 chance this is grasping at straws, but there are many situations where this has to be good enough. But a specialist with a chance of 5 in 6 this might actually be a decent chance to take even without great pressure.

However, I think for my own campaign I am going to remove the option to bring a skill to a chance of 6 in 6, which means that on a 6 a second d6 is rolled and only a second 6 means failure. That’s a chance of failure of only about 3%, which really is too close to being negligible for me. Getting people who are on the fence to come around 80% of the time is already really damn good. You don’t need to be able to impove it to 97%.

Villains for the Old World

As I was writing on the idea of Hope & Heroism, someone pointed out to me the importance of motivations for the antagonists. Coming up with a list of heroes who represent all the ideals I am looking for in protagonists was very easy. But examples for good antagonists turned out to be a much more difficult task. I had a few ideas for villains who I think are cool and who I would love to put into the Old World, but thinking of any reason why the heroes would be fighting them was a lot harder.

The more I was thinking about it, the more I came to the conclusion that good motivations for an antagonist are much more dependent on the specific attributes of the setting than it is the case for heroes. Heroes are generally easy to create as they really just need to be good people with the determination to take action against villainy. You can quite easily move these from one setting to another and their motivation to do good always works just fine. But antagonists don’t have to work just with the heroes, but also with the many unique aspects and elements of the setting. They need much more than just a hero to oppose them. They need to have a goal that benefits them and a plan that is actually feasible. And these things really depend a very great deal on what and who else is all in the setting.

So I’ve decided that a post on Villains of Hope & Heroism wouldn’t be making any sense and not be useful. The same narrative principles can be applied to a huge range of very different settings. Instead I am focusing on the nature of antagonists in my own Old World setting.

After going through all the examples of books, ,movies, TV shows, and games for ideas what kind of antagonists could work in such a setting, I narrowed it down to four main types of antagonists.

  • Warlords: Perhaps the most classic type of antagonists. These people are military leaders whose long term goal is to hold their territory against their many enemies, and often to destroy them before they attack on their own terms.
  • Sorcerers: If there are antagonists for Sword & Sorcery type tales more iconic than warlords then it’s the sorcerers. Masters of dangerous arcane powers who are always looking for more knowledge and power and often try to take direct control over the domain of the master they serve.
  • Bandits: Simple but reliable. Some antagonists don’t have any big elaborate plans or higher goals. Some are simply content with taking what they want and killing those who resist them.
  • Avengers: In a world where might makes right and the law is in the hands of whoever carries the biggest stick, vengeance is the way to put the offenders in their place. In many tales the protagonists set out to avenge their fathers and masters, but in a tale of Hope & Heroism nothing good can come from that. But a lot of bad for a lot of people who are only tangentially involved. Whether the tool of vengence is poison, an army, or a horde of demons, it’s always a great source of trouble for the heroes to take action against.

Regardless of who the antagonists and their minons are, every heroic tale needs some type of villainous plot that the heroes are trying to stop. (I wonder how far back this convention goes. It doesn’t seem to be common in ancient hero tales.) For a setting of city states and barbarian tribes I found these following ones to be a good set of templates to work with.

  • Conquest: Sometimes an antagonist of the warlord type simply wants to expand his territory for greater wealth and fame. It is simply ambition that drives him and a need to show his prowess. Not a particularly interesting motive but a simple and uncomplicated one. Probably works best as an additional complicating factor in situations where tbe heroes are already busy with going after someone else. The conquest might be just an opportunistic small warlord seeing a chance to make his move or be the backdrop for the tale of the heroes. In either case, the conqueror is probably not being to be the focus of the adventure since he’s not very interesting in himself.
  • Resources: In this situation a warlord is in the whole conquering business just for the sake of it, but it really is just the means to get access to very important resources. Something that the antagonists needs, and needs so badly to kill for it and take it from others who need it as well. This is much more interesting as it’s probably easy to see that the antagonist had to do something to keep his people fed and save. But it’s going to be the method with which the heroes will take objection. Simply beating back the antagonists forces won’t end the conflict, only delay it for a while at best. This doesn’t have to be a military invasion of a neighbor. It might very well be the antagonist’s own subjects who have to carry the burden.
  • Defense: Things get even more ambiguous when the antagonist is taking drastic actions as a measure to defend his domain against another foe. The measures taken to improve defenses might lead to hardship for the farmers and workers, but can also mean attacks on and annexation of vital territory. Many of the locals might even support a change in leadership which will only make the antagonist to resolve to even more draconian measures.
  • Magic Power: True magic power is in a wholly different league than ruling over land or people. This alone might lead sorcerers to see the hardships of others as a very accepable price and warlords might very interested in getting their hands on a magic weapon that can secure and expand their power. The plans to attain a new source of magic power can be very complex, but as a motive for an antagonist it’s actually very simple. Many of the lunatic sorcerers who want to destroy the world can be made much more plausible if they are simply searching for magic power and are willing to pay a very high price for it. Or rather, have someone else pay that price.
  • Vengeance: A relatively simple and straightforward motivation, but one with endless possible applications. Pretty much any character imaginable can be motivated by vengeance and the possible plans to gain it are endless. The main use of vengeance in tribal society is to scare away enemies and prevent further attacks in the future. Retaliation as a show of strength. In societies with no police this can put the heroes in quite difficult positions. For a short adventure a group of warriors seeking vengeance against someone in the protection of the heroes makes for a great conflict. But revenge for past crimes that have already been mostly forgotten can be a much bigger source for a lot of trouble that is still to come and the heroes are probably going to much less sympathetic to such a cause. Especially when the revenge comes in a form that affects many other people mostly unconnected to the original offense.
  • Plunder: And sometimes all that bad people want is some wealth and comfort. Other people’s wealth to be specific. Greed is as basic a motivation as it gets and there is little about it that would justify negotiating some kind of compromise between parties. But used for minor antagonists or as an easy break between more complex adventures it’s still something that does the job. Antagonists out to burn and pilage (and that other stuff) might either be in addition to the primary opponents of the adventure, or they might constitute a particularly unpleasant segment of the main antagonist’s minions.

These lists are both not very long, but I think each of them comes with so many variables that they can be reused many many times without becoming overdone. Especially when you switch between them regularly to avoid falling into a regular pattern. Even when not looking specifically for something to use in an adventure of Hope & Heroism or something set in a Bronze Age setting, all of these motives should easily work in most types of tales.

A case for Hope & Heroism

This probably should have been my first post on this subject and not the third, but now I am getting around to it and hopefully clear some things up for the future, as I think this is probably going to be something of an ongoing theme here.

Hope & Heroism isn’t any kind of established fantasy genre. I actually made it up just this week.

I am going to make my own fantasy genre…

Why do such a thing? Isn’t that really pretentious from some nobody who hasn’t published anything yet? Well, yes it is, but I think there’s still a good reason. When I gave up on the d20 System and the kind of fantasy RPGs that are being published by Wizards of the Coast and Paizo a few years back, I went from Myth & Magic through Castles & Crusades and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea to Barbarians of Lemuria and on to Fantasy Age. But eventually I came to the venerable Basic/Expert rules of D&D that are even older than I am and the most simple system I’ve ever seen (after RISUS). And looking for a version that comes with sensible modern improvements like increasing AC (Decreasing AC is dumb! And it was dumb back in 1974!) I eventually chose Lamentations of the Flame Princess over Basic Fantasy (It was the thief skills that won me over.)

That’s how I got in contact with the LotFP adventures and their Weird Fantasy style, and I found something that I’ve always been missing in RPGs. I am still not really sure what it is, but I think it’s an appearance of some kind of greater cerebral depths that sets them apart from regular fantasy elfgames. Sure, a lot of the earlier stuff was junk, but I still appreciated the effort and could see the honest attempt to be something more. But Weird Fantasy is not what I really want out of a roleplaying game. It’s all soo bleak and grotesque in a way that just doesn’t seem fun. Interesting certainly, and probably fascinating, but not fun.

Another effort to take D&D type games in another direction away from just killing people and taking their stuff and then patting each other on the shoulder that happened a few years before the whole OSR thing gor of the ground was Green Ronin’s Blue Rose setting that they marketed as Romantic Fantasy. A term freshly invented to summarize the kind of fantasy novels it draws from and give an impression of what people can expect from them. But again, though I appreciate the attempt, the execution is not what I am looking for. Even though I had been looking for ideas to get some of my mostly female friends who are interested in fantasy but not about monster slaying into RPGs, Blue Rose clearly wasn’t the way to do it. It’s peaceful egalitarian setting of love and respect always seemed just way too sappy to me.

But now just a few days back I read a very interesting post that describes Romantic Fantasy as something broader than just princesses and unicorns and girls falling in love with dashing heroes and heroines. And I think Joseph’s approach to thinking about fantasy that follows the ideals of Romantic Fantasy lines up very much with my own. What I am calling Hope & Heroism is basically the same thing that he describes as Romantic Fantasy.

So why not just go along with that and call it Romantic Fantasy, too? Because for everything outside of Blue Rose and its source material, it’s a really awful term. The word romance has become so closely associated with love stories these days that few people even know about its earlier meaning. I think the last time it was used to simply mean Fantasy as it had been for centuries before was with the Planetary Romance genre, which today is much better known as Sword & Planet. For Blue Rose the association with love stories is not a problem because that interpretation also works. But for everyone else the term Romantic Fantasy is much more of a liability than a benefit. Of those people who encounter the term Romantic Fantasy for the first time, only those intrigued by fantasy love stories will even take a second look at what you’re presenting. It won’t gain you an audience but probably lose a lot of potential readers. Something else is needed and after discussing it for a few days with other people the term Hope & Heroism emerged as the most popular substitution. I am not a big fan of X & X titles, but it just emerged that way and once you’ve started using a term for a while it feels odd to change it. But other than that I think it’s a pretty good one. It’s snappy, it says what it is about on the tin, and you can use it in a sentence as a descriptor in a way that makes grammatically sense. So Hope & Heroism it is. What is it really about?

It really starts with my idea of an ideal fantasy hero and the kinds of conflicts that make for meaningful fantasy stories. What does that include in practice?

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them. (That’s what makes them heroic.)

Is this a new genre? Not exactly. This is not a new branch in the taxonomic system of fiction genres. This is much more like a new circle drawn on an extremely messy Venn diagram of fantasy styles. Hope & Heroism is a group of certain qualities that have been existing in works for ages. Nothing new has beem created, only discovered. And it might not even be new. The link I put above shows at least one person did it before me.

The type specimen of what I think of as Hope & Heroism is the movie Princess Mononoke. I thknk it has everything that I consider important. Other great works that I consider great examples are the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the TV shows Avatar, Seirei no Moribito, and Rune Soldier; the videogame series Mass Effect (at least when following mostly the Paragon path) and the main plotlines of the games Witcher 2 and Witcher 3 (there’s way too much combat between scenes for my taste). My love for Mass Effect was actually reason I got interested in doing more with fantasy than just destroying evil monsters.

From what I’ve seen in recent years, there seems to be a lot of people looking for something more in RPGs. Both Weird Fantasy and Romantic Fantasy are probably too niche to ever become widely popular. But I think Hope & Heroism is much closer to the RPG mainstream and might be of interest to a wider range of people. I think it’s certainly an approach worth sharing and a convenient name for it could only help. Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on over time?

XP in campaigns of Hope & Heroism

When it comes to RPGs that are meant to result in campaigns that follow a certain style or genre, one of the strongest incentives to get players to play along with the concept is the way the game awards experience points. Since the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the early 90s, giving the players XP for defeating enemies has become well established as the most common and perhaps default method of character advancement. Often it is never questioned at all but it’s far from being the only option.

Giving XP for winning fights sends a very strong signal to the players: Go and find any enemy you can and defeat all of them, or you will be at a disadvantage later. It’s a mechanic that tells players not just that it’s okay to fight everything but that they are supposed to fight and defeat everything. Not doing so effectively results in a penalty.

An interesting alternative used by earlier editions of D&D is to give only a small amount of XP for defeating an enemy in combat but a much bigger XP reward for leaving the dungeon with treasure. With a combat system that makes fights pretty dangerous and death a constant risk, taking enemies on head on isn’t such an attractive choice. Instead the option to steal a treasure without a fight looks much more promising. 70 to 80% of the reward for only a fraction of the risk? That sounds like a really good bargain. In some cases avoiding any kind of confrontation becomes the best choice. What are you going to gain from fighting wolves who don’t have any money? The potions and spells to heal the wounds from such a fight could have been much better spend on letting the party steal more treasure. It seems somewhat strange that stealing gold makes a fighter fight better and become more durable, but then it’s just as nonsensical that a wizard would learn new spells from hurling sling stones at enemies. XP are always an abstraction of heroism, they can’t really represent skill training.

When I was looking for interesting Sword & Sorcery games a few years back, one very interesting one was Atlantis The Second Age. In this game players get XP for attempting cool and amazing stunts. And they get full XP regardless of success or failure. It’s so simple but also brilliant. As a GM in a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to play larger than life heroes who do crazy awesome things. Players don’t want to risk their characters getting hurt with nothing to show for the effort. So if you give XP only for successful stunts they will only attempt it when they are reasonably certain they will make it. Playing it safe is not the Sword & Sorcery way. Doing cool stuff that is excessive and out of proportion is the way things are done. Giving full XP even for failed attempts to be awesome encourages players to go looking for opportunities that could serve as a pretext to do something cool. If they fail they get hurt, but you also get hurt when fighting an enemy for XP, so it’s fine.

I really like this approach of both old D&D and Atlantis. Reward the players for acting in ways that match the genre of the campaign. You don’t have to ask the players to do it and you don’t have to explain to them what you want them to do. Players also want to play their characters in the way they see fit, it’s not the GM’s place to tell them what their characters should be doing. But when you reward certain behaviors this does change. Players will adjust their perception of the campaign and image of their character so they can gain more benefit from the way the game handles character advancement. Most players are pretty happy to play a wide range of different characters. But they will make their choice based on what they expect the campaign to be like. Once that choice is made, the GM telling the players what they should be doing is just not done. But seeing the XP reward system in action can make players adjust what they want to play. If you explain it from the start before character creation that’s even better.

When I had abandoned XP for defeating enemies, the new approach I used was to tie character advancement to completing goals. If the players accomplish the objective without getting into any fights they still get the same XP as if they slaughtered everything that moves. But if they failed and could not complete the goal their characters did not advance. This seemed like a good idea and worked quite well for a long time, also because it rarely happened that the players failed completely. It was somewhat based on the ideas of Lamentations of the Flame Princess where getting into fights with nightmare creatures is a certain way towards a quick and horrible death.

But now that I am working on methods to run a more heroic campaign of bold warriors confronting evil, this approach doesn’t seem right anymore. Caution, careful planning, and cutting your losses isn’t the kind of behavior I want to promote with Hope & Heroism. I want something more like Sword & Sorcery with heroic bravery. And I think the way Atlantis approaches XP is the way to go.

What things are expected of heroes in a campaign of Hope & Heroism? I think they should race to the rescue of people in danger, intervene when witnessing injustice, and be an example to others. It’s a style in which it seems very appropriate to treat it as more important to try than to succeed. I want the players to give it their all even when the odds are dismal. “Nah, sorry. This looks too tough for us” isn’t something that players should be saying. So the mildly radical idea is this: Player’s get full XP for an encounter any time they take a risk to save someone or confront villains. Doesn’t matter if they fail or if they have to flee or surrender. It’s the effort that counts. But they only get XP for encounters if it’s to advance an attempt to restore peace and order and save people from danger. Getting into any other fights or dangerous situations without need doesn’t get them any XP.

But of course, any encounter has other consequences beside XP or no XP. Trying to save someone and failing might mean they get no reward and no recognition. Confronting villains will likely gain them new enemies regardless of which side loses the fight. Trying to talk opponents into changing their behavior but leaving with no success will affect how others think of them. In some situations it might be best to not get involved and accept that the odds are stacked against the PCs. But if they risk it anyway, the players always get at least the XP for it. There is always the temptation to interfere even when it’s against the players’ best interest. And for a band of courageous heroes this seems very appropriate to me.

(And now I realized I have to determine XP values for all my monsters. Damn.)