Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Resource Management: Why You Need To Go Retro To Hex-Crawl

Today the retro-RPG community (organizing around Eric Tenkar's blog) has spontaneously organized a promotional campaign for the Swords and Wizardry system. For anyone not aware, S&W is a consolidation of various rules from the early days of D&D into a single unified rule book. Back in the 70s, most games were released in a piecemeal fashion through various supplements, expansions, and magazines, and so it's debatable whether there's even such thing as "classic 70s D&D rules", given the tendency of playing groups to pick and choose their own rules from a nebulous universe of such supplements and articles to create widely dissimilar experiences. But if such a thing had ever existed, it probably would have looked quite a bit like S&W does!

This put me in consideration of why the "dungeon game" (dungeon-crawling) has been so dominant in subsequent RPG products, while the "wilderness game" (hex-crawling) has virtually died. Here's my hypothesis.

Each game has an organic unit of resource management. For a classic RPG game (anything in the 70s, plus most of the "basic" line in the 80s), the organic unit was the adventure, which usually lasted for at least a day, and possibly as long as a week. Here are the resources that would slowly be whittled away over the course of the adventure in the classic era:
  • powers like the druid's shapechange;
  • spells, which (until the introduction of "portable spellbooks" in Unearthed Arcana, couldn't be rememorized anywhere except the home base;
  • consumables like food, torches, ammunition, oil, holy water, spikes, etc.;
  • hit points, which took forever to recover (maybe 1d3 points per rest-day, or something similar), and also the initial freedom from status impairments (like level drain); and
  • pets, hirelings, and henchmen, who tended to have very short life expectancies!
Now look at a modern RPG, or a computer game like World of Warcraft. Virtually all these resources have been eliminated, or allowed to replenish almost instantly. This results in a new game model where the organic unit of play isn't the adventure, but a single battle. At the end of the battle, resources like health, spells, etc, all get reset back to "full", and play continues.

A consequence of this is that there's little point in fighting anything but the toughest fights. The original purpose of random encounters (what computer RPG players call "trash") was to whittle down the party and create dramatic tension. Now they're just there to kill time and let people practice. In a computer game killing time is part of the point, but in a group session around a table, everyone's time is too precious. So the focus collapses onto a few "boss battles" and elaborate set pieces.

This basically kills the whole idea of exploring a huge, organic, realistic, sandbox-ish world. If the judge (DM, whatever) needs to prep those huge set-piece battles, then it's crucial to railroad players into those encounters and keep them from exploring anything else. This also creates a snowball effect where the game system keeps inventing cool combat-only powers/feats that further slow down the pace of those huge set-piece battles, making it necessary to invest more and more time in them and make them even more elaborate to justify the rules that support them.

Breaking out of the cycle requires everyone to give up their massive laundry-list of feat-based builds and revert to a simpler and faster style of combat. It also requires a reversion to the old "adventure-scale" resource management systems, rather than "battle-scale" resource management with full post-battle recovery. Although I see some indication that D&D Next is aware of the need to support both play styles, I'm afraid that when both exist at once, players will always gravitate toward the more-powerful feel of characters under the battle-unit model.

Hence the need for retro-clone versions of games from the classic era. It's no surprise that, of recent hex-crawl designers (like John Stater and Robert Conley), Swords and Wizardry has been the system of choice. Here's a big tip of the hat to Matt Finch for creating the omnibus rules book, and to all the folks who have supported S&W since then. The current publisher Frog God Games (which always releases dual product versions for both Pathfinder and S&W) is offering a one-day sale on their entire S&W line, and I can recommend any of Stater's Hex Crawl Chronicles as a good example of this play style. I've been consciously imitating his event description style while writing my own game events.

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