[OSR] Passions, motivations, relationships and such

Paul had a thesis in the other thread:
I think that if I wish to play a more dramatic/character-oriented kind of game, I wouldn't hesitate to play something other than D&D. I'm not sure (although I'd love to hear arguments to the contrary!) why I would want to reach for D&D for this kind of gaming instead of a more well-suited game. Passions, moral and religious alignments, crises of confidence, and mental illness... I don't really see why bolting such onto D&D is a better idea than designing from scratch (or playing a more appropriate game).
This was in response to me kneading out some ideas about alignment being potentially useful in challengeful wargame-like D&D. So let's look at it closer.

My core thesis on this is that there is very little inherent in human psychology and dramatizations of the same that would make them the sole purview of story games. Rather, it's a nice change of pace and an actual necessity for ambitious wargaming to consider these matters sooner or later: if your goal is the Great Work of Wargaming, the mastery of dynamic systems as they actualize under this common sky, then why wouldn't humanity be just as important as encumbrance rates?

So it's not "this kind of gaming" that I'm pursuing here - it's the other kind, except with a different subject matter.

For clarity's sake, this proposition implies an universal view of D&D: it's not just a game about dungeon skirmishes with monsters. Rather, it's a game about the low trash of a hierarchical society, working their way to fortunes by hook or by crook, in a world where the GM actively facilitates "adventures" - opportunities to succeed in an exciting, dynamic, challenging way.

(In a completely real world this sort of "from rags to riches" is really rare, and when it happens it's not gonna be a romantic adventure sort of enterprise. That's the big, fat genre element in D&D: it's a pulp adventure wargame, not a "everything's gotta be as real as science can make it" wargame. It's a game where we speculate about how to best kill a dragon or become a king, not how to actually succeed in the real world by boring work or low graft. You gonna graft in D&D, it's going to involve the Mob + poison hijinks at the least, and it's going to be the romantic sort of Mob and the kind of poison with a skull on the bottle.)

Given that, what does D&D look like when it gets into the human element? This is actually under constant exploration in the adventure game scene, it's not some weird personal obsession of mine. Consider these keywords:

Urban adventure is the third big milieu for D&D alongside dungeons and wilderness. It's not about conducting commando operations or expeditions; if anything, the urban adventure resembles a '70s cop show: detective work that may burst into violence at the moment's notice. NPC depiction is central to the detective work bits, it's all about human nature. It's an old and established genre for D&D, you can already see Gygax in struggling with its construction in the first Dungeon Master's Guide.

Intrigue gaming is hella popular, but it's not all drama, drama, drama. There's a vivacious tradition of intrigue wargaming that shows up here and there, also in D&D on occasion, even if in a hamfisted way. I see no reason why Amber, Paranoia, the more wargamey sort of Vampire - why they all couldn't and shouldn't be brought back into D&D. We do that in our sandboxing regularly, in fact, because why not, seems like an adventure. I've toppled royalty myself in D&D, you should try it - great fun.

Psychological thriller is a literary genre that has been bothering me lately in D&D terms. To be specific, I was watching Hannibal (the tv drama about the villainous cannibal doctor from Silence of the Lambs) a couple years back when I became convinced of the potential greatness in playing that sort of shit in D&D. Specifically, it would be interesting to play D&D where characters are constrained by their human weakness, and where psychological stress and obsession are real tactical issues. Sort of what Vampire tries to be when it occasionally tries to be a challengeful game.

In what manner would D&D step when it attempts to take a step in this direction? This isn't even some sort of abstract issue, one could well argue that the fundamental artistic failure of the 2nd edition era was that what they really wanted D&D to be was the kind of game that could meaningfully act upon human nature and make adventures out of relationship maps. We know what the failure looked like: long and detailed NPC descriptions which the GM was responsible for regurgitating for the players in the context of a railroaded plot.


  • edited January 2018
    In what manner would D&D step when it attempts to take a step in this direction?
    Or, interchangeably:
    * What is the proper procedure and mechanization for urban adventures, to equate dungeon crawling and hex crawling processes? What is the "urbancrawl" like?
    * What are the risks and rewards of intrigue in D&D, and what is the battlefield like? How is the human factor properly quantified for a D&D game that gets out of the dungeon?
    * How does this interface with the D&D core proposition, the pulp action adventure? Are these separate modes of play, or do they impact each other like the wilderness element expands upon the dungeon?

    I have some answers, but not a complete picture.

    Awareness of danger

    One could argue that if it's not potentially lethal, it's not a D&D adventure. It could be something else for D&D, and have value as that "something else" despite not being worth experience points. For example, maybe it's a particularly elaborate form of pre-adventure negotiation? Or it's something new?

    Ultimately you want the XP, though, and that means that even something with the shape of drama is best treated as a battlefield: there are adversaries, even if those adversaries are kings and barons, and the maneuvering is political and personal. The stakes need to be deadly.

    For example, a couple of years ago we played a scenario where the local ruler had been Charmed by an evil witch whom the ruler had consequently taken as his queen. The scenario was, technically speaking, entirely interpersonal: our victory condition was convincing the king, or failing that then his inner circle, of the witch's nature. I wrote about this in length at the time. I think that what made it a legit adventure was the lethal danger that the witch and her companions presented to us: if we had failed in our social game, the likely outcome would have been a hopeless fight against the ruler's guard, ending in death resisting arrest or execution in the hands of the self-satisfied witches.

    With this sort of example, can we really say that the human aspect has no role in D&D?

    I want hit points to feature heavily

    If there's going to be some sort of "social combat" or something, I want hit points to play a part. You go to zero points you go insane, that sort of thing. Psychological stress obviously makes you more likely to die of the next sword stroke, I have no issue whatsoever with that, what with the hit points being so meta a resource in the first place. If they magically defend you from dying of a sword stroke, they might as well be reduced due to psychological stress. You first make Spider-Man disbelieve in himself, and then it's gonna be easy to defeat him.

    I sort of have the psychological model I want to use for social combat, too. It's based on the precept that people build their social realities upon foundational psychological commitment, and emotional pain comes from the abuse of those commitments. I see no reason why you couldn't sketch out something wargame-worthy along these lines:
    1) Say that character A is loyal to character B. This fact is on the character sheet or the social map or however we construe the mapping of the social reality. It's a public fact, others know of it.
    2) Character C wants to destroy A, so they conduct a social attack against their loyalty to B. This could take the form of e.g. ruining A's reputation in the eyes of B, or vice versa. They could just kill B.
    3) The rules say that you take 1d6 damage when your social reality is stressed severely. As C succeeds in all the dicing and A fails their will check or whatever, the injury occurs. Now A is weaker for the ensuing swordfight, when they challenge C, or maybe A is just a 1st-level dweeb who goes insane from the stress? A fine outcome for C, either way.
    4) Note that A has a choice when reacting to what C did: they can attempt to retain their social bond to B, which means that they can be hurt repeatedly by the same, or they can break the bond to protect themself. Existence on the social map implies vulnerability, the only way to be truly safe from hurt is to refuse human connection (and the social influence that implies).

    Could something like that not be gameable? Note that the reason why dungeon commando raids don't devolve into flinging insults is that you need certain intimacy and familiarity to hurt another socially: you need to know what they care about, and you need to be in a position to injure that commitment. Sure, I'll let your social ninja character have a 3rd level class talent to fish out these commitments in the middle of combat, why not - that's what levels are for, you get to do the funky shit. So go ahead and capture the only child of the orc chief and use them as hostage for big psychological impact, I don't mind.
  • edited January 2018
    Ultimately it's not about hit points

    That being said about hit points, though, I think that should merely be the baseline, a starting point into the intrigue wargame. What use is hurting others when you can make them work for you, after all?

    If we're capable of defining the social passions and psychological convictions of individual characters, why couldn't we allow others to manipulate them? Seems technically very straightforward and objective - gameable: instead of hurting A through their bond with B, C could rather cause A to act in a beneficial way by playing on A's bond. Maybe it's a momentary indiscretion that A makes due to the situation C engineers?

    Maybe it's a choice for A? The GM describes the scene, tells you how your character is sad due to what happened with character B, and now he's gonna get drunk as fuck as a consequence. Don't want that? Well, would you prefer 1d6 stress damage instead? Your call, wanna go into the upcoming ambush drunk or stressed out...

    The easiest bit is making motivations into strengths

    What's a circumstance modifier again? Oh, it's "something that makes the task harder or easier than usual"? Something like the hatred burning in your gut? Sounds to me like a circumstance modifier, yeah.

    So of course, aside from the wider strategic benefits of having social commitments and psychological values, characters gain immediate benefits in tricky situations for having concrete, pre-established emotional stakes in them. You fight just a bit better when you're fighting for something real. That's not even a horridly romantic high fantasy concept, that's just how the world is - I'd find any wargamer who didn't accept this to be somewhat suspect.

    Obviously you want to populate your crunch landscape with some key powers that tap into the "what do you care about" issue, if you're interested in this sort of "let's make D&D into a shonen manga" project in the first place. Barbarians berserk harder for things they care about and so on. In fact, let's just say that you get to pay HP to activate over-leveled class features when working with passion, so anybody and everybody get to have their desperate nova scenes.

    Remember, not doing this for the sake of having dramatic scenes; what we want is the strategic grounds: how do you plot and threaten and murder in a world where the wizard is at their most dangerous when personally offended?

    Speaking of those strategic benefits...

    Why would a D&D character ever have social commitments in a campaign like this? I think it's because ultimately that's where the scoring comes from: we're scoring your play (giving you XP) as per your success in building and maintaining a life for your character. That's what the "get rich or die trying" default D&D campaign goal means. You get points when you succeed in your life goals.

    In concrete terms, your social commitments are automatic quest goals. Somebody threatens your loyalty or love, that's instant XP for protecting them successfully. The lone wolf guy who fears to love, they're not getting those opportunities. I see this all the time in sandbox D&D, and we don't even implement this sort of intrigue D&D rules framework. The characters with the firm social support network simply get the best adventure hooks and entry positioning on adventures. They also have more fun objectively speaking: part of D&D's emotional element is the rush you get when you successfully defend your character's own mansion. Even if that means that you have to defend that mansion instead of just bailing on it if you feel like it.
  • Eero,

    This is totally fascinating. I wasn't entirely sure what you were talking about over there, but now I see your designs. You want to attach a strategic landscape to intrigue/drama and social maneuvering to enable challenge-based adventuring in that type of scenario. That's not at all what I thought we were heading towards!

    My take was that the D&D formula really deals with the character as the player's tool towards interacting with a "real" world, and that defining the *interior* of the character was a bit of faux pas when it comes to enabling that play. However, you're talking mainly about the passions and emotions of the people populating that world, and that makes a lot more sense to me.

    Generally speaking, this is all pretty cool, although, aside from the general idea of challenge-oriented play with an impartial referee, I'm not sure what D&D has to do with it at all. I'm not sure if you're just really into hacking D&D these days, or if you're using it as a label for all play with that style of agenda.

    Pretty interesting, though; a solid formulation of this style of play, like you and the OSR has done for old-school dungeon crawls, would be a pretty important resource, in my book. I bet all kinds of gamers would eat that up!

    As for "why would characters bother with emotional connections?", my take on that would be incredibly simple:

    * You've already spoken of emotional and psychological motivation as a strategic factor. Perhaps nailing down your attachment to people or things is rewarded because you can use it as a bonus when it comes to defending that thing; that would be a good reflection of the mechanism and appealing to players.

    * More specifically, though, if having attachments to important NPCs (say) makes you vulnerable to various forms of attack, then of course having those attachment should also give you the means to better hurt or manipulate *them*. This creates a strategic need to create those connections if you wish to be an important player, which would feed nicely into the intrigue/drama/challenge we're aiming for in this style, and reflects both the feelings of the character (as well as their fictional position) and the desires and interests of the player.
  • Generally speaking, this is all pretty cool, although, aside from the general idea of challenge-oriented play with an impartial referee, I'm not sure what D&D has to do with it at all. I'm not sure if you're just really into hacking D&D these days, or if you're using it as a label for all play with that style of agenda.
    My reason for this is pretty much that the game's theoretical and practical limits seem to encompass something like this as well as other things. I mean, it's literally the case that when I look at the game's creative agenda and technical implementation, I see nothing to suggest that D&D should not encompass intrigue play. The only reason it doesn't is that you don't do it. If you were playing Birthright the way it should be played, presumably you would do intrigue play as part of the game. Every urban adventure kit every created for the game seems to vaguely suggest that there should be "roleplaying" with the NPCs, and that should matter somehow; the precise nature of how to go about it is just very systematic.

    If there was something fundamental in the setup of the game (having a GM, Abilities, hit points, attack rolls, organic task-looping conflict resolution, negotiated challenges, sandboxing, precedent-based rulings...) that inclined the game to e.g. dungeoneering only, then I could see the argument. It's just that, well, how does one justify wilderness adventuring then? It seems to me that the only reason we accept wilderness adventuring as part of D&D is that somebody cared enough to write up some rules conventions like hex maps for it. If we didn't have that, then you could just as easily say that wilderness adventuring is not part of D&D.

    I could say the same for running mass combat and sieges, too: not part of D&D because it's not strictly necessary for a simple low-level dungeon, or part of D&D because somebody's indeed written some rules for it sometime? Or, maybe, part of D&D because it's natural for play to flow into a mass combat situation, and it's a legit challenge to tackle in a game that has a lot of freedom for the group to choose what kinds of situations they want to game?

    Saying that it's not part of the game is like saying that playing a child as your character is not what Sorcerer is about. Technically speaking you're right in that there might not be a single example in the rulebook about playing children, and the book doesn't suggest it, but then on the other hand the game's creative agenda and the way it works do nothing whatever against applying it that way. The only thing Sorcerer "has to do with it" is that it suits the purpose, and creative inspiration might take you that way during real play. Maybe I could play Little Fears or Under the Bed instead, just like I could play Amber instead of D&D when it comes to intrigue play, but I don't think that it's in any way wrong to pick Sorcerer in that situation.
  • I see what you mean, Eero! It does seem like a natural extension of the game, and your analogy to wilderness exploration as a similar "extension" of the game is quite right, I think.

    However, I also feel that the amount of hacking required to get D&D to work well in that context would be enough that... well, aside from theory geeks like us, few people would recognize the resulting game as still being D&D.

    I will ponder, though! You make a strong argument.

    I can definitely imagine something like Vincent's "Freebooting Venus" with a bunch of tools, mechanics, and prep techniques built around relationships and intrigue (perhaps like Monsterhearts' Strings) to create just this sort of play.

    My sense is that I would need:

    * Very likely different classes or "starting positions" and character defining features like ability scores. (For instance, Saving Throws against Dragon Breath seem totally out of place here. Never mind a dwarf's ability to detect the slope of mining tunnels!)

    As a simple example, does it make any sense to allow an extremely low-Intelligence and low-Charisma character as an option in this kind of game? Depending on the further details, the answer may well be "no"; it's just not a viable starting position for social maneuvering, perhaps.

    * Much less focus on combat abilities and power up with levelling (the sense that a high-level warrior in D&D can take on a small army, for example, seems entirely inappropriate to a context of intrigue play).

    (Whenever I've played intrigue games with d&d's rules, we found it almost impossible to recreate the fiction or decision points which appear in those stories without basically ignoring the rules of the game. A classic example is, "You're in the marketplace, alone for once, when ten hired guards surround you. They're pointing crossbows at you, and they demand you come with them to speak to their boss." A typical mid or high level character (which you would expect an important person to be) would find that their best option might be to simply fight them off and then go home to drink a healing potion. A dozen crossbow bolts sticking out of you is just a temporary hindrance, after all. And if the guards are worth some XP on top of that... the incentives feel pretty out of whack with what we are trying to play.)

    * Rules which handle social interactions, relationships, and social pressure. This form of play will be VERY difficult (maybe impossible) without some clear procedures for resolving conflicts between NPCs and such - although your suggestion for using hit point damage you can CHOOSE to avoid by taking a hit to your standings or relationships instead would be a pretty clever way to getting to that in short order!

    * Most importantly, you'd need a completely different approach to prepping for the game. The GM's job here would be quite different, both in prep and in execution, and that process would need to be outlined clearly. Location-based encounters, wandering monsters, treasure lying around, and all that stuff (tables for restocking dungeon levels, for instance) is not helpful here.

    * The rules for advancement would have to changed pretty dramatically, it seems to me. Scoring experience for killing creatures and collecting treasure in dangerous environments... which then feeds into your character becoming better at killing things... doesn't seem right for this kind of thing at all.

    I can see how we could still consider the resulting game to be D&D from a theoretical or conceptual standpoint. But I think the average gamer would consider it a pretty different game.

    At the same time, you're right that there is something quite natural about extending the game into this domain. Hmmm.
  • At the same time, you're right that there is something quite natural about extending the game into this domain. Hmmm.
    It is natural, I've experienced it. I think that our witch scenario earlier this decade was just like this, really, except we didn't conceptualize it as somehow special or the focus of the campaign - the game just unfolded that way. Thinking on our mid-level play, particularly, I'm forced to conclude that sandbox play dips into social scenarios semi-regularly even when we don't recognize it as a natural extension of D&D.

    But anyway, you have good points on the practicalities. They're not insurmountable, I think, and as I said earlier, people have been slowly hacking away at these issues at the fringes of the D&D scene for years and years. It's not just Scenic Dunsmouth and similar modern pieces, but old stuff as well: TSR's Lankhmar box walks in the same territory, however ham-handedly.
  • Social hostile environment. Social random encounters. Social Hit Points for Rank. +1 Argument of Reasoning. Dual wielding Cynic. It is feasible.
    The trick I suggest is to translate every single item term to term. This way you can take advantage of the existing material. This will produce huge amounts of gibberish, among which some gold nuggets.
    If you don't use D&D supplements and all, how would you not need an army of monkeys working day and night into eternity ?
  • There is stuff about running city adventures, including a review of known art, at the Alexandrian blog: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/36473/roleplaying-games/thinking-about-urbancrawls

    I remember that some of the later parts of the series were interesting, but it has been a while since I read them.
  • Tony Bath's book Setting Up a Wargame Campaign, 1973 compiled about 20 years of best practices including individual characters and their characteristics, generations of the family, and social and political encounters. This was assumed knowledge for early Blackmoor D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne. I am less sure about how Greyhawk D&D incorporated any of this.

    Sort of me say Yes! Bring back some of the challenge-based wargame stuff into D&D. Those streams were lost/ditched and I think we lose something of the game.

    I'll post a few excerpts from Bath's book below.
  • Example families from Bath's war/adventure games.
  • How to roll up your family.

  • Individual characteristics
  • Huh, that's some great stuff. I've never seen that. Very much in the vein of things that I consider relevant for wargamey D&D sandboxing.
  • This stuff exists in D&D in all kinds of forms. One example is the Ravenloft setting. Pretty much hits all the things outlined in the OP and even has mechanical support for morality, madness, and dramatic irony.
  • @Eero_Tuovinen The whole book is worth mining for ideas for a challenged based sandbox.
  • edited January 2018
    Indeed! Quite interesting. I feel like the same things could be accomplished in a simpler process, but I like the oracular approach, which will bring up questions as you're going through and force out to come up with new solutions and situations.
  • Bath also includes stats for each character along with an advancement scheme.
  • edited January 2018
  • Ho ho, that character advancement table is intriguing. Given modern sensibilities, something like that could as well be used for player characters. A compact way to organize information on a multi-tracked advancement scheme.
    This stuff exists in D&D in all kinds of forms. One example is the Ravenloft setting. Pretty much hits all the things outlined in the OP and even has mechanical support for morality, madness, and dramatic irony.
    Indeed, this sphere of interest has been pinballed around for a long time. That was part of what I wanted to tell Paul in the first place, that I'm not hopelessly insane in considering human psychodrama as part of D&D [grin].
Sign In or Register to comment.