Monday, September 27, 2010

The A-Team and the B-Team

No, I'm not talking about Hannibal, Face, Murdock, and B.A.

This is an idea I had when I was planning the Maritime Campaign.  It comes from a lot of complaints of newer gamers, or those older gamers who've moved on in 'RPG game design' to the newer models.  There's that idea that if combat is a big part of RPGs, then every character should be good in combat.* 

4E of course tried to make everyone nearly identical in combat, to mixed (IMO) results. 

And of course there are skill challenges where again everyone is supposed to be able to contribute.

So nobody's ever supposed to be bored during the game.

The criticism leveled against older systems, both class & level games like D&D, and skill based systems is that some characters are good at combat, others are good at out-of-combat challenges.  And the players playing one type are supposedly bored during the encounter that isn't tailor made for their character.

Well, while I don't find this to actually be true in practice, there are plenty of players out there who do believe it.

So here's an idea:

Players each run 2 characters.  One is made to be a combatant.  The other is made to be useful in exploration, social situations, or other non-combat situations (as the genre allows).  They all go along in a party, but in combat the (assuming D&D) Fighters, battle-Clerics, stabbity Thieves, and blaster-Magic-Users step up and tackle the challenge.

The rest of the time, those characters take a back seat as the rest of the characters explore, look for traps, make deals with the gnoll tribe to attack the owlbear enclave together, and puzzle out the mystic runes to close the Gate to the Elemental Plane of Water.

So everyone's got two characters, which can hurt immersion for some players, and stretch credibility for those who want a logical story, but at least from a gamist perspective, everyone's got something to do all the time (if you can't figure out how to make your character useful when there's nothing written on your character sheet for you to riff off of...)

*I really don't think this is needed, but here it is as an idea for those who do need it.


  1. A Paladin in Citadel made an interesting post about "XP = Killing stuff & getting loot" and about how 4E motivation breaks down to simply "killing stuff." The mixed results aren't mixed--4E does what it is supposed to do, and does it brilliantly. It is basically a streamlined combat system. Period. It's WoW.

    OD&D was mechanically all about combat. But it was more abstract and less purely gamist than 4E. Also, the focus was on getting loot and getting out alive, and if you killed monsters it was usually through wits and stuff.

    Remind me to tell you how we killed a dragon with a rope trick and a bag of holding back in college.

    Anyway, boredom in the dungeon was, in my opinion, one of the design flaws of D&D--over-emphasis on dungeon crawl and not enough emphasis on interaction with the world. You get no XP for converting people to your faith (if you are a cleric) or for composing a ballad about your adventures, or crafting a magic item. This, to me, is more interesting than gathering loot and slaying monsters.

    Good DMs and good players can easily compensate for it, however. But, there's only so much you can do at first level. XP is basically a reward for getting loot, killing things, and surviving. Not for doing anything else. It forcibly puts the emphasis on being a rogue and plunderer. For example, to me, a cleric is more interesting if he's like the company chaplain in Martin's band of brigands in FLESH AND BLOOD (with Rutger Hauer)--preaching, reciting scripture, pointing the finger of God, and functioning as a spiritual center for the party. In my opinion, that's more important than getting loot--his function in the group and how well his player performs that function. That's where the boredom dissolves, and that's what the game fails to reward.

  2. I think early editions of D&D were designed around the idea that instead of playing a lone character in perpetuity, you'd eventually gather henchmen and retainers so that in effect, you were playing one Main Guy and one or more Secondary Guys to shore up the Main Guy's weaknesses.

    This never got explicitly stated that I know of, but the relatively extensive rules about henchmen in OD&D and AD&D, along with contemporary anecdotes from the designers, seem to bear it out. If your primary character didn't have something to do, presumably one of your secondary characters did, assuming you selected the secondary characters to be complementary.

    This probably doesn't go over well these days because of increased emphasis on identifying with a single character, but in the abstract sense, having "One Guy Who's Fun All the Time" isn't that much different than having "Several Guys, One of Whom Is Fun at Any Given Time." :)

  3. (if you can't figure out how to make your character useful when there's nothing written on your character sheet for you to riff off of...)

    It's sad but true. I have often had friends who were great fun with whom to play DnD, who nonetheless suffered from this. I've recently offered up one possible ODD solution on my own blog, but haven't tried it in practice yet.

    The basic idea is letting characters start to learn little special tricks or skills, but in a free-form ad hoc manner.

  4. @ Dave Cesarano,
    Those are some great comments.

    I did a reply blog on my blog:
    (also mirrored on my website

  5. The funny thing is I've never been as bored during combat as I was in 3rd and 4th Ed. D&D. I think part of it is the long time it can take people to resolve their character's actions, and another part is that there's a sense you can get a quick update on the battle by glancing at the minis/board, so you don't need to pay attention when others are doing their thing. In the days when we played without a battle grid we listened more carefully because we had to imagine the scene and keep a constant mental update on what was happening.

    Your idea might work, but personally I've had enough of running more than one PC at a time. I find it's harder to play each one and it exacerbates the problem of thinking about combat and not character. I agree with those who mentioned this is what henchmen were for...