Monday, 16 February 2015

Investigation (Part 1): System-mungering

Swords and Wizardry, and by extension early dungeons and dragons, does one thing really well. There is really no other game that captures the spirit of going room to room in a evil temple, slaying cultists and monsters with sword and spell.

But beyond this focus, the game almost entirely ceases to exist.

That possess a problem, because, while I have specifically come to swords and wizardry for the elements it is great at, I want to use it to run games with it, that owe as much to the masks of Nyarlathotep as they do Keep on the the borderland.

Before delving in the how of all this, there is a question that needs answering. Given the focus of swords and wizardry, should I be messing around trying to make it do things it was never meant to do? The simplistic answer is of cause that  yes I should, because it is the game I want to play. But that answer ignores the fact that system shapes the feel of a game and I am digging back into older approaches to fantasy role-playing exactly exactly because I wish to capture some of that feeling once more at the table top.  The very focus Swords and Wizardry means that making changes to the game is almost certainly unwise, and even adding to it in a discrete manner is an approach filled with traps and snares. In trying to make the Swords and Wizardry everything I want it to be, I risk destroying the elements of the game that have drawn me to it. So given this concern, and the assumption that I will continue onwards, it is worth taking a moment before delving into the various approaches that lay open before us, to think about what it is I wish to preserve, and set some design considerations in place to avoid damaging them.

- Do not alter existing rules to achieve.
- Where possible use existing attributes to work out character competence within Investigation
- Don't add a perceptions mechanic which interacts with traps or combat encounters
- Every character should have a chance to contribute to Investigation.

So there are a number of ways you could possibly deal with running an investigation in Swords and Wizardry. They loosely fall into two categories; clues hidden systems and open clues systems.

In a clue hidden system, the player has no idea what clues are available, and the system is used to determine IF the character gets the clues or not. Call of Cthulhu is probably the best known example of a Hidden clue system. In a Call of Cthulhu game, failure to pass a skill check can mean that a clue cannot be accessed. This has advantages and dis advantages. It entirely possible for an adventure design bottle neck to prevent narrative advancement as a vital clue is cut of from the PCs, much as an unspotted secret door can stymie an adventuring party. On the other hand, such systems can add a deal to the verisimilitude of a scenario, and re-enforce themes such as an uncaring universe, after all, why should the universe care that the PCs are the heroes, why should they get plot immunity from failure.

In an open clue system, such as Trail of Cthulhu, fate plays no part in the PCs ability to access the clues. Rather, should the adventurer look for it, they find it. Such systems are much more difficult to road block, they draw the investigator into the heart of the story (and there by the horror). However, they can provide a great deal of agency to players, which can be, if mishandled, counter to horror and a source of disbelief in the setting.

Both approachs hark in their own way back to the old school. Hidden clues with their tough luck attitude to dice rolling, while the principles of giving the players the clues and letting them make there own decisions based on them, hearkens to Matthew J. Finch discussion of trap use from "A quick primer for Old School Gaming"

So lets look at the various approaches that can be taken.

Lets start by looking at the Hidden Clue approaches by starting with "a DM Fiet approach." When using this approach, the players describe their characters actions within an area. If the Dungeon Master believes that there actions are consistent with the discovery of the clue, the players
 get the clue.  This approach as a lot of advantages, such as being quick in play, prompting player attention and active description of their interaction with the game world, it is also fairly flexible and keeps the DM on their toes. On the other hand, it provides players with minimal narrative control, can lead to allegations of DM favoritism, and is dependent on player knowledge, meaning that the barbarians being played by the medieval history major is starts finding the clues to a mystery involving high ritual magic, that the wizard's player doesn't have the first clue where to start looking for.

Next is there is the "success = clue approach". This is pretty much the default assumption when it comes to investigation in gaming. The Player makes a roll, if it succeeds, they get a clue related to the investigation. This is how Call of Cthulhu does it, as wells as most games that include any sort of investigation.  There are a couple of possible approaches we could take  with it, either adding a set of skills, or using attribute rolls.  Of all hidden clue systems, this approach is most vulnerable to road blocking, and characters can easily become locked out of progressing in a scenario, even where good design principles, such as the three clue rule are applied. Such an approach, if based on attributes rolls, can also be unrealistic, as list of applications to which Intelligence can be applied to is far greater than the range of most intelligent peoples skills.

Lets take a look at open clue systems next, starting with an open hand approach. So named, because it is a little bit like playing a card game with someone who has laid their cards face up on the table, in an open hand style investigation, the Characters are just assumed to find all the clues upon entering a scene and stating there intent to search for clues. There is no road blocking from lack of clues(or minimal) in such a system. But literally any character can discover any clue, even if it makes little to no sense at all that they would know it.

Then there is the gumshoe approach. In gum shoe, clues are key'ed to skills, and if your character has a skills, you can search for and find clues appropriate to your character. Additionally, you can spend skill points to find additional pieces of information which maybe of use to the characters, such as information that the BBEG of the campaign is vulnerable to silver weapons for instance.
This approach adds in a resource management element, in keeping with spells and  hit points, it is hard to road block, and it provides a good deal of narrative control to the player. However, it does give a certain amount of plot protection to the characters, they can't fail to get the clues needed to solve the mystery. Arguably such a state of affairs in not very old school.

Anyway, time to ruminate on the approach I will actually be taking. Check back soon to see the fruits of my labour.

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