Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Grinder Characters & Heroes

In exploring some solitaire B/X Dungeons & Dragons gaming recently I’ve realized yet another distinction in my preferred play style. Some “old school” games like D&D or other retro-clones in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) exemplify a “grinder” mentality, where new characters, rolled up in large crowds, are funneled through deadly dungeons and meet horrible deaths, with only the most worthy surviving to rise through the levels (a kind of “survival of the fittest” mentality devised by some roleplaying game Darwin). Yet I’ve spent much of my life enjoying games that treat characters as heroes in a greater saga, ones with mechanics to reinforce that concept while still imbuing the setting with a degree of risk and suspense. While I’m currently enjoying my exploration of my B/X D&D roots with a resurgence of excellent OSR supplements, I can’t help but question the grinder mentality and seek ways to ensure my characters survive more as heroes than ground meat.

Two elements stand out for me in the balance between grinder and heroic play: the literary origins of fantasy roleplaying, which emphasize a central hero who grows and faces risks but ultimately triumphs; and the mechanics of early class-and-level games which emphasize chance and, in doing so, deal mercilessly with beginning characters. While the literature (and to some degree other media) influencing the development and early popularity of D&D offers rich setting inspiration, the form requires a linear plot and protagonists readers care about who survive through much of the story. Literary influences play such a large role in D&D that both the Dungeon Masters Guide and versions of the basic rules include references, the infamous “Appendix N” in the DMG and the Moldvay Basic D&D rulebook’s “Inspirational Source Material” page. As a kid I was invested heavily in similar influences, particularly in tales of myths and legends, Tolkein’s Middle-earth, epic Ray Harryhausen films, and Star Wars. The literary tradition focuses on the central hero overcoming obstacles; this isn’t always conducive to the kind of experience games offer. Roleplaying games merge elements of heroic literature and other media with the uncertainties generated by game mechanics. Randomness plays a major role in many game elements, from creating a character to determining who succeeds in combat and other critical tasks. As I’ve written before, the random nature of conflict resolution in games, despite one’s best effort to hedge their bets with modifiers and bonuses, can lead to some intense frustration at dice that keep rolling poorly.

One might argue the grinder adventure embodies the true ideals of D&D as defined by its designers, a concept some in the OSR movement today embrace with delightfully gonzo relish (Dungeon Crawl Classics comes to mind, but I’m sure others exist). Early D&D convention games run by the game’s creators reinforced the grinder play style where the gamemaster devised a lethal dungeon to see if various characters survived (perhaps best exemplified by Gary Gygax running what eventually became the infamously trap-filled S1 Tomb of Horrors). It greatly reinforced the adversarial relationship between gamemaster and players and challenged the greater gaming community growing at the time to question the nature and form of roleplaying game adventures.

I wouldn’t say there isn’t any appeal to this play style. It’s certainly offers a power trip for the gamemaster, but it could also encourage a flippant attitude toward characters. There’s a certain morbid satisfaction in whipping up a measly character to take delight in the varying forms his all-too-soon demise take; this doesn’t surprise me in a world where fans flock to such insensitively sadistic fantasy fare as Game of Thrones (which I’ll admit is not to my taste, either). Many gamers seem to prefer this, as evidenced by Dungeon Crawl Classics’ popularity and the host of fan material published for it. There isn’t any universally “right” or “wrong” way to enjoy a game...the enjoyment matters most. I don’t mind playing a lethal funnel scenario if I’m in the right frame of mind and know what I’m getting into. The Hounds of Halthrag Keep is a wonderfully self-contained solitaire grinder experience where you go in knowing you’re creating a near-pathetic character who faces daunting odds. The adventure set-up does a very good job orienting the reader to this kind of play and the mindset it requires. Because you realize going in the character has a slim chance of survival you expect he won’t make it and often times look forward to seeing what kind of demise he suffers. I’m sure I’m missing the point of grinder games, despite my enjoyment of Halthrag Keep primarily for its solitaire format but also its sci-fi fantasy gonzo elements. This ruthless mentality just isn’t a fulfilling play style for my own roleplaying game endeavors.

I don’t have a lot of time for roleplaying games, certainly not for group play and only occasionally for solitaire play; so if I’m going to take the time to roll up a character, figure out all the modifiers, buy equipment, and bother with any background elements, I expect that character to have a fighting chance, not die in the first pit he falls into or the first battle with kobolds just because of a few lousy die rolls. Nobody likes the inevitable streak of bad die rolls; nobody likes it when those die rolls doom a character they liked or for which they had aspirations in the setting. Grinder games don’t always impart a positive experience for players, essential when introducing new people to gaming. Nobody likes losing, whether it’s a six year-old upset when someone blows up his TIE interceptor during an X-wing miniatures game or a 45 year-old making poor die rolls as his valiant British troopers fend off wave after wave of Zulu warriors. The grinder play style seems – to me, anyway – to offer little campaign possibilities unless players get lucky with characters who survive to more powerful levels. While some gamers enjoy rolling up characters they aren’t really invested in and watching them die in simple one-shot grinders, others prefer extended play infused with greater narrative meaning.

Although I started with B/X D&D and other “class-and-level” games in high school, I transitioned to skill-based systems in college, more because games using those mechanics released at the time incorporated appealing settings (such as the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game and first edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game). I recently decided to do some solo B/X D&D gaming using Kabuki Kaiser’s excellent Ruins of the Undercity supplement. It’s nicely built for solitaire dungeon delving with a solid city resource where characters can heal, re-equip themselves, and find much-needed henchmen to swell their ranks. I created B/X D&D characters using my preferred system of rolling and assigning abilities, but crafted them as three archetypical characters from another fantasy roleplaying game I’m developing, particularly because, at least in that game, I liked the concepts, personalities, and interplay they offered. They suffered miserably at the hands of monster hordes and deadly traps. Even with the addition of hired henchmen – which, according to the system, increases the difficulty of challenges – the party fared only marginally better.

(Kabuki Kaiser recently released Seven at One Blow, a darkly comic group grinder experience billed as such. Like Halthrag Keep it includes character creation guidelines – some of which actually occur while running the scenario – with an eye to making ordinary level characters with mundane professions to send through a brutal adventure...a clearly marked “grinder” adventure with an integrated infrastructure to generate appropriate characters.)

I started considering different strategies to bolster my starting B/X D&D characters to give them a fighting chance in such solitaire dungeons, as opposed to devising my own encounters and scaling down the lethality. Plenty of opportunities exist to modify the B/X D&D character creation rules to generate slightly more hardy heroes. I already use a system of rolling 4d6 and keeping the highest three for ability scores, which I assign based on what kind of character I’d like to run. I suppose I could give starting characters the maximum hit points; maximum gold might help equip them better, though I tend to go more thematically for weapons than arm everyone to the teeth. Clerics could definitely use a spell at first level, even just cure light wounds, to give them a bit more of a role than glorified fighter. Years ago in my youth I even created low-powered magical items to give to starting characters to improve their chances of survival. I suppose I could simply start characters out at a higher level, perhaps two or three (to preserve the feeling of low-level characters striving for greatness), but in some solitaire systems that simply scale up the challenges. A fellow gamer suggested using mechanics from Kevin Crawford’s Scarlet Heroes rules in which damage overall is scaled down and adversaries have one hit point per hit die, or something like that (I don’t own the game myself, so I’m relying on second-hand information). It’s designed specifically to facilitate solitaire play with one or two characters; the mechanics deserve some examination and possible implementation into m B/X D&D house rules for solitaire play.

Other games use different systems to handle characters whose hit points (or equivalent) fall below zero. Greg Costikyan’s landmark Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, true to its subject, makes characters who lose all their hit points “fall down,” sending them out of the game for three minutes to represent their stunned state, after which they return to the action with full hit points. Justin Halliday’s Hero Kids and some other kid-friendly rolelplaying games use a similar technique when characters’ health reaches zero; they’re out of the game for a short while, but return without their characters suffering some horrid death. Aside from managing disappointment in the what’s supposed to be an enjoyable pastime, such methods also help deal with issues of death and loss; as young adult gamers – in a period where teenagers typically consider themselves invincible and capable of anything despite the odds or dangers – death doesn’t seem tangible, but for young kids, who can’t always seem to comprehend the implications of death, or older adults, who know all too well our world is filled with it (both in the news and our personal lives), death has greater implications when personalized in a game character. Such “non-death” results in the game can help mitigate the final disappointment at a character’s demise with a temporary setback.

Even if one spends a brief 10 minutes making a B/X D&D character, I can still choose a template, add 7D to skills, and be ready to play the D6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game in less than five minutes...and that character has a better chance of survival thanks to game mechanics like character points and Force points to boost my chances of success. I can spend less time worrying about character creation game mechanics and more time envisioning character background, mannerisms, and in-play behavior. But it’s not fantasy roleplaying, it’s not B/X D&D. If I’m going to spend the time to roll up a character and thoughtfully determine race, class, equipment, and some basic story elements for roleplaying I want that character to at least survive one night’s gaming instead of perishing needlessly in the first trap or monster he encounters. I don’t mind an occasional divergence into the gleeful death and dismemberment of a grinder game – especially for some solitaire gaming – but for satisfying, meaningful, and extended play I prefer my characters as more heroes than cannon fodder. After exploring various games within the OSR, and dabbling with other class-and-level fantasy roleplaying game systems, I still return to my nostalgic B/X D&D rules. Nothing else fulfills that medieval fantasy urge for me; yet the traditional treatment of characters as more meat for the grinder than heroes doesn’t sit well with me. I need to fine-tune my personal house rules, particularly for solo gaming, to better cater to my particular gaming style.


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