Friday, July 11, 2008

Skipping Time

Something that is fairly rare in campaigns in my group is the concept of time passing.

Now I obviously don't mean this in the sense of everything happening in the same second. No. What I mean is that from start to finish on my last level 1-20 campaign, the time that passed in the world may have been as much as one year. That's it. Go from scraggly farmer-equivalent fighting ability as level one guys, to (literally) gods among men in a year's time.

This is largely due to the mercenary kind of work most of the campaigns with my group tend to take on. As described in the previous post, it often becomes sort of a cyclical quest-money-quest-money sort of thing. The PCs spend exactly enough time in town to buy stuff, then they are out rampaging through dungeons or wilderness encounters again. There's no feeling of the town/castle/safeplace being anything more than a string of shops and quest givers.

It wasn't always this way, mind you. In the first campaign I DMed (Back in college, remember I'm not a grognard), the players interacted heavily with the town. It was a bardic town, however that works, named "Crumbsprinkle".

Crumbsprinkle had all kinds of problems once the PCs started basing there. Demon attacks, theives, orcs, goblins, svirfneblin, drow. But the PCs cared. They even built a castle outside of town with some dwarven allies they'd made. They designed the castle, the paladin placed a temple to Hieronius in there, it was neat.

Despite being based out of Abbigallen, the capital of the nation of Stark, from about level six to around twenty, the PCs in my latest campaign seemed to have a hard time even remembering the town's name, let alone giving a crap about what happened to the place. I'd chalk it up to gamer burnout, since we've been playing basically weekly for years, but still it's disconcerting.

What do you do to keep players interested?


Tom Martin said...

It may be gamer burnout, but I really wouldn't know. So far, my gaming group has always spent a pretty hefty amount of time in towns. We usually would scout out a town after entering it just so we knew where everything was, down to where most commoners would live.

The whole quest-money-quest-money part of gaming is kind of tiring for me, and probably for the others in my group as well. I think that in all of it, we all enjoy the story as much, if not more, than the questing aspects of it.

Developing the story of a town and having the characters become somewhat attached to it adds so much more to the game, especially when the town becomes the focal point for the PC's enemies...

saxifrage00 said...

I've recently come to believe that the lack of interest in a setting, and the resulting quest-money-quest play style, is an emergent property of the design philosophy at Wizards. When they took over they deliberately aimed for less fluff and more crunch, shifting the target market from DMs to players. (They saw TSR's failure as being too setting/fluff-centric, rather than abysmal management.)

The result is that 3e and 4e are focused on making the characters cool entirely independently from their world context. In previous editions what made a high-level fighter worth playing was not only the skill and treasure they earned, but also the accolades, land, and titles they received, and having their exploits sung by bards. The player needed to know the world in order to leverage it for their character's benefit, since the mechanical advantages that accrued with level were fairly modest. In 3e and later, a character can develop in relative isolation from the game world.

True, this is something that can be mitigated by the DM: require game-world relationships in order to enter into prestige classes, seek out training for new feats and skills, enmesh their advancement in guild or somesuch. The trouble is that those things take recognition of the problem and its source, deliberation and thought on what will work without annoying the players, and are discouraged by the rules at written by Wizards. Most DMs aren't going to realise that the rules aimed at the players can undermine the kind of game they envision running.

So, tl;dr version: requiring more points of contact with the fiction in order for a character to advance gives the players more reason to care about the fiction. A rules system like 3e or 4e encourages players to focus their energy on contact solely with the rules in order to advance their characters, which needs to be worked around by the DM in order to get them more involved in the setting.