Yesterday, I missed most of the football games on television, including the entirety of the Seahawks game. I did hear the first touchdown on my car radio before losing reception in Lynnwood, but between 1:30 and 5:30 I was effectively out of action, because my son and I were at Chuck E. Cheese, celebrating the birthday of a two year old amigo.
Now, I don’t know if Chuck E. Cheese exists as a franchise outside of Washington. Hell, it barely exists here…the one in Lynnwood is one of only a handful remaining in the state. I should note the place was high on my list of All-Time Favorite Places as a child, so there’s a certain nostalgia assigned to it, but I haven’t been to one in years…not since a buddy decided to have his 20th or 22nd year birthday bash at one (I’m not the only person subject to nostalgia) and everyone, including my buddy, was sorely disappointed by the experience.
For one thing, the concept seems to have changed immensely over the last couple-three decades. When we were kids, I recall the place being bigger, and having a much larger assortment of video games (what we used to call arcade games)…yes, it had the animatronic rat and cheap pizza and play areas for small children, but pre-teens had much more of the types of games one might find (these days) at the larger arcades, like GameWorks. “Cutting edge” arcade games used to be the order of the day…I remember when Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace were these incredibly awesome, super-cool/high-tech vids and the only place you could find them to play them were at Chuck E. Cheese. But anything resembling cutting edge electronic entertainment seems to have been dropped by the franchise sometime circa 1989 and the place is now geared more to small children (like my son). Perhaps there’s just no way to keep up with the technology and quality of console games available to your average teenager at a reasonable price.
|This game took a lot of tokens, back in the day...|
So instead, most of the games are of the “carnival” variety (throwing balls into hoops or rings or bopping stuff or shooting water from a gun), and ALL of the games offers tickets at the end of a round of play…tickets that can be redeemed for fairly cheap carnival prizes. How cheap? Well, most games seemed to offer three to six tickets based on the quality of one’s play (several “maxed out” at five) and it took 100 tickets to get a keychain, and 400 to get a non-articulated, 3” Spider-Man action figure (which my son wanted). There were some really cheap-ass board games on the wall that required 1500+ tickets to redeem. I think part of the scam is parents have the ability to make up the difference in the price with cold, hard cash if a child hasn’t earned enough tickets through play (keeping in mind that each play costs money…or “tokens”…as well).
Still, D hit the jackpot a couple times on one or two games and ended the day with almost 200 tickets (186, actually) which we were able to redeem for a small (6” long) nerf rocket launcher, a curly straw, and two tiny rubber frogs. My boy, being two and a half, had nearly as much fun with these “prizes” last night as he’d had running around and playing games at Chuck’s. Okay, maybe “nearly as much” is a stretch, but certainly he had much more than I would have enjoyed had they been my reward for five hours of play.
But, of course, I’m not two years old.
One can draw an analogy (well, I can draw an analogy) between this type of play and the play of our favorite table-top role-playing game. I mean, can’t you? You spend several hours, hopefully enjoying play (as my son and I did), and then you get a paltry award of “tickets” (experience points) that get exchanged for…well, for very little on average. In fact, most game sessions probably sees players receiving NO reward for the actions in a particular session, and only after several sessions does one receive a reward (“leveling up”) and even then the reward isn’t all that great. Depending on the edition, you might receive a handful of hit points, you might (might!) receive a slight uptick in attack chance or saving throws, you might learn a new spell…and that’s about it. 3rd Edition/D20 at least packed more into the reward by giving you skill points to spend (about as useful as rubber frogs, in my opinion), some bonus feats (staggered by level depending on class), and some attribute increases. Even so, there are still some “level ups” where “not much happens” (ain’t much difference going from 4th level fighter to 5th level fighter, for example).
I wrote a bit before about the “leveling-opens-content” thang, and how I’m tired of it…been tired of it for a while, but am now more tired of it than ever before. You know, my big “claim to fame” was my writing of the B/X Companion for high level B/X play…but how many B/X campaigns (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) actually get to a level where such a book would be useful. In the three or four years I was playing B/X prior to my “play-testing phase” (in which all the games I’ve been running seem to be testing one thing or another), none of the player characters ever reached Name level, let along the 15th plus range postulated in the B/X Companion. Sure, you could have your players create high-level characters from the get-go, but this is still only a “patch” to the issue of closed content…besides which it trades off (i.e. loses) the actual play aspect of the game (the fighting and finding of all those low- and mid-range monsters and treasures), which is hardly desirable.
Yes, “paying your dues” is an essential part of the D&D game, but not everyone wants to play the young farm boy that grows up to be a glamorous Jedi Knight. Some people simply want to have a series of adventures as Han Solo. And some people want to be Old Man Ben Kenobi from the start without going through all that prequel jazz.
[sorry for the Star Wars references…it’s been on my brain lately]
I’ve been revisiting The Hobbit quite a bit lately, both the novel and the Rankin-Bass film. The reason being that I have a young child to whom I read at night, and who really digs the music (because originally The Hobbit was a children’s fairytale, unlike the ridiculous action film currently being sold to the public as Tolkien). I’ve discussed before my whole problem with assigning a “class” (in D&D terms) to the dwarves or hobbit in the story, but after analyzing the thing (with regard to my recent game concept musings) I see less and less where there is any “advancement” that is taking place in the characters. Despite defeating lots of monsters (trolls, goblins, spiders, etc.) and finding lots of treasure and magic items (from the troll hoard, to Gollum’s ring, to the dragon’s lair) these characters aren’t developing in the traditional D&D sense of the term. They are maturing as individuals, they are seen as more heroic based on their actions, but their inborn effectiveness remains the same at the end of the adventure as at the beginning. Where their effectiveness does improve, it is based on the finding of magical equipment (Orcrist, Sting, Sauron’s One Ring) and the use of that equipment.
[as a side-note, has anyone ever noticed that while the dwarven adventurers are defeated at every turn, the penalty for that feat is ALWAYS capture? At the hands of the trolls, the goblins, the spiders, the wood elves, the dragon…the only consequence they ever face is being bagged, chained, webbed, imprisoned, or entombed in the mountain. The only time any of the character’s dies is at the end of the book/film…and then, that is death in VICTORY (over the goblins in the Battle of Five Armies), not death in defeat. Just thought that was interesting, and certainly something I’m considering in the design process as well]
Now, the game I’m currently working/writing still has “bean counting” because…well, because it appeals to my snarky sense of humor as well as my competitive attitude. However, right now the “beans” turn into a meta-game mechanic, increasing character effectiveness in game (similar to “karma” in the old Marvel Superheroes RPG…thanks, Mr. Grubb!)…there’s no rules for using them to “advance” (i.e. “permanently make more effective”) the baseline character a player is playing. If you start as Bilbo Baggins, you remain Bilbo (though perhaps one who has lost his pipe and pocket handkerchief). If you start as Gandalf you remain Gandalf (though you might acquire a magic sword along the way).
Is that “fair?” Boromir is one tough hombre, but Aragorn is better (and has other skills to boot). Moonglum might be a better swordsman, but will never have the sorcery abilities of Elric (and both will always be better swordsmen than Count Smirogan Baldhead). Does this make them less heroic in the stories in which they appear?
Again, you have to ask what is the point of fantasy role-playing…is it to become more powerful? Why? To open up content? Why not simply open content from the beginning? Because the characters will all die if they’re forced to face the dragon? Would a character in a story die for facing a dragon? Neither Bilbo nor Bard got cooked by Smaug…but Beowulf wasn’t quite as lucky.
Characters die in fairytales…both modern ones (like Tolkien) and ancient sagas (like Beowulf and Arthur). Sometimes characters die long before the end of the story (i.e. they don’t wait for a “dramatically appropriate climax” in the action)…like Hector or Ajax. That’s fine…the idea of a serial adventure game (like D&D) is that the campaign or saga goes on…the PCs are protagonists and the main characters, but if they go down the story continues and others must “take up the torch.” In other words, I’m not talking about “taking death off the table,” or even meaningless death. Death has meaning in a story…or should have meaning…regardless of the point at which it occurs in the tale.
So why does a character need to have these regular level increases? Why is it important to give the PC an extra 3-5 hit points every five or ten or 20 game sessions? That’s a cheap-ass prize.
There is something to be said for experience…the paragraph Kevin Siembieda includes in every Palladium rulebook holds true to a certain degree. But show me an experienced adventurer, and I’ll show you a guy with a bad back, a trick knee, and a lot of gaps in his teeth. Scars and a hook for a hand…not to mention night sweats and fantasy PTSD from facing giant slavering monsters should be the order of the day for an “experienced” adventurer. Frodo’s Morgul wound never fully heals and bothers him for years after his adventure…why would a veteran of a dozen dungeons remain in happy health, only getting better with time? Because of clerical magic? Doesn’t every raise dead spell sap a point of Constitution?
The issue raised by Will (mentioned in my prior post) was one of what motivates players better than regular continued improvement? What indeed? That’s the real question: what GOALS can you provide players that they can shoot for…what WIN conditions can you provide that will encourage players to come back and keep playing? Because serial play…accompanied by development, identification, and fantasy escapism…is desirable. We don’t want just a one-off game.
This isn’t Dungeon! where a player wins once after collecting 10,000 gold and returning to Start.