Friday, March 18, 2011

Bad Habits in the Vineyard

Last night I ran Dogs In The Vineyard for the weekly one-shot group. Actually, this was part two of what looks to be a three-shot. I'm finding I really like the system, but it has some awkwardness. There's specifically three bad habits I'd like to "break" my players (and myself) of, if I were to run something longer than a single scenario.
  1. Bad Habit #1: Spending too long agonizing over how to total up your See.
    I'm guilty of this one as well, and I figure if I'm going to be hypocritical, I might as well put it up front and label it as such. I had one See in particular that I really just should have Gave on, because I was taking too long to calculate all my strategic options.
    I think this one would sort itself out over time. As you become more familiar with the system, the decisions will become more intuitive.
    Seriously, if you're agonizing over whether to take the blow on four dice, or take it on five dice but leave a higher die for your Raise, you've already failed to assess the situation properly. Unless the stakes are "do I die?" (or maybe if the conflict hasn't escalated beyond talking) you should really be Giving in once it tips past the third die on your See.

  2. Bad Habit #2: Trying to use all your available stats and items in every conflict. 
    For example, one player wanted to call on his d6 in "Exorcist" during a conflict with just a shady character trying to talk them out of poking around in his silver mine. I told him he could roll it, but only if he publicly declared that the man was clearly possessed. 
    There's a strong impetus to call on everything to get the extra dice every conflict, but it's often not appropriate to do so. I imagine that over a long campaign, always calling on everything would make conflicts repetitive.
    It also makes conflicts much longer, where Giving more often would speed things up. The problem is that no one wants to Give because it means you sit around with nothing to do while the conflict rages on. Given the choice between sitting around idle, or grasping and stretching to invoke the trait that will score you another die, people will almost always make the "non-boring" choice even if it drags out the fight. After the fact you might realize that you were sacrificing the group's enjoyment for the sake of your own, but in the heat of the moment such clarity is unlikely.

  3. Bad Habit #3: Picking the same fallout again and again.
    The game tries to counter this by letting anyone veto a proposed fall-out effect, but the issue I keep seeing isn't about people choosing something narratively lame.
    The problem is mechanical, not conceptual. Most bad things that could happen to you could be represented in several different ways (adding d4, downgrading to d4, subtracting other dice, reducing a stat, losing an item, etc), but one of those options is clearly better than the others.
    The rule system's insistence that +d4 is actually a bad thing is a little odd. I've seen how it can be bad, because a big pile of dice fools you into getting cocky and taking the blow when you shouldn't. But from the point-of-view of a player who's new to the game, adding a die looks like it's always a good thing. Perception becomes reality.  Mathematically, it's certainly better to add +1d4 to your sheet than to downgrade an existing 2d8 down to 2d4 or 1d8. The fallout system treats them like they're identical, but clearly they aren't. Plus 1d4 is just better than  minus 1d8, anyone can see that. Even losing just a d6 is arguably more than twice as bad as gaining a d4.
    Let's face it, you'd rather add "Blind as a Bat" at d4 than downgrade "I'm a handy with a rifle" from d6 to d4. Ironically, being blind would make you a better shot. The system is a little weird.
None of these three problems with the system (or players) are insurmountable.  Bad habit #1 will work itself out naturally over time, and #2 will be easy to solve over the same stretch of time with just a tiny bit of intentional effort.  I could see myself running this game system as a campaign, and it'd be a lot of fun.

Issue #3 is the only one that presents a real long-term problem, worthy of a house-rule.

UPDATE: My first proposed house-rules to "fix" issue #3 were far too draconian, and as was pointed out in the comments to this post, would result in a spiral of death over the course of a few sessions as PCs were forced to burn through their good traits. A better rule would b: The first time in any session that you get a fall-out total of 12+, you're required to pick something other than +d4 for at least one of the two long-term effects. 

Invoking this just once per session per player will prevent abuse, mandate some variation in results, and most likely not result in an undesirable death-spiral. Plus, by linking it to taking Injury, you further motivate players to sometimes Give in challenges instead of taking the blow.

Such a rule may also help address another problem I've noticed with system, namely that since Body is used for the "Do I die?" roll, it's more important than the other three stats. With this house-rule in place, having a really high Body score doesn't take all the danger out of being injured.


Anonymous said...

I must admit, I really didn’t have difficulty with #1. At lower levels of conflict 4 dice of fallout aren’t really that much worse than 3. At d10 from shooting even 3 may really be more than you want to deal with unless the conflict is really important. I think that the decision time will drop off pretty rapidly as people get used to the mechanics.
#2 could be annoying, but simply being aware of it should solve most of the issue.
#3 is very tricky. I personally don’t think gaining a 1d4 is that horrible, from a GM point of view, in that if the trait is well chosen it opens up some nice role playing possibilities, though it could get annoying if it was taken for a dozen conflicts in a row.
The really big problem with changing things is that other than the ‘gain a 1d4’ the fallout consequences are basically negative experience. Given that experience comes from rolling fallout dice, and is likely to be less common than damage from those dice, without the ‘add a 1d4’ the game really becomes a question of how long it takes for your character to lose all of their equipment, relationships, and traits and have their stats reduced to 1. Though, in all fairness they would probably die before then.
Your second method would make one consequence effectively neutral, but with damage more common than experience it would just be slowing the rate of character burn. The first method would vary depending on the number of conflicts per session. If it’s one then it’s no change while if it’s many then it’s just slowing character burn.
There is also the possibility of characters ending up very focused. The system is sort of like playing DnD where damage doesn’t cost hit points but permanently reduces attack bonus, armor class, skill levels etc. Experience allows you to increase those, but only comes from being damaged. A fighter certainly would try to avoid reducing their core competency by reducing attack or AC and so would probably take the hit on Survival or Animal Handling or some such. When it came to gaining via experience, would they really restore the lost skills, basically just running in place, or would they increase their core, upping attack or AC? I would imagine that characters would burn away their peripheral abilities while increasing their main powers and end up as one or two trick ponies.


r_b_bergstrom said...

Erik, you raise really good points about #3. The +1d4 keeps the characters from burning out, and I wasn't taking that into account.

Problem is, +1d4 is so much better than all of the alternatives, that the alternates would be chosen maybe 1 in 50 times. If that. I could easily see a PC going through a 20-session campaign and never even once choosing anything but +1d4. That would wear thin, but be hard to discourage.

I think perhaps the best thing would be on your first injury per session (that is the first time per session that you have to choose 2 or more long-term fallout items and roll Body to avoid death), you must choose one item that's not +1d4. That would force injuries to have some actual sting, but only come up once per session (and most likely not every session for most players).

Just looking at it at the table, I had an immediate sense of dread that you might have one player who just constantly adds d4s, while other folks at the table burn stuff out. My inclination was to mandate a little burn for everyone, rather than allow that.

My heart was in the right place (protect the casual gamer who isn't min-maxing their character), but my reaction was taking it to an unnecessary extreme. Thanks for being the voice of reason I needed to hear.

Anyhow, all of this is somewhat moot, since I'd only invoke a house-rule of any sort if running a long term campaign. ...and despite running to a 3rd session, campaign is not my intent.

Anonymous said...

You did find a real problem with the game. 1d4 is much better and this could be abused and cause issues for casual gamers. But game rules tend to be complex, linked systems. Push one place and things can fall apart at the other end. Increasing the effectiveness of fate points in FATE 2.0 sounds fine, characters can do more cool stuff. But as you pointed out, this erodes character niches.
How you managed to keep Scion from just imploding within a few sessions is beyond me.
Anyway, I kinda like the injury idea. Would make injury even scarier than it is now.

r_b_bergstrom said...

I've deleted the flawed death-spiral house-rules from the original post, and replaced them with the better rule inspired by the comments here.


Here's the original text of the last bit of the now-updated post, just for context if anyone reads this and wants to know what proposals were considered (and shot down)...

"If I were running this as a campaign I'd probably restrict +1d4 fall-out to a once-per-session (per player). Another way around it would be to fold it in to the other option, so every time you take long-term fallout you would gain +1d4 and downgrade one of your other traits. I'm not 100% happy with either of those proposed rules, but I think they'd be improvements on the current fall-out options. Anyone got any other suggestions on ways to "fix" problem #3?"

woodelf said...

When I ran a short campaign of DitV, your #3 problem simply wasn't, so it's at least partly a matter of the playgroup. Every one of the players was very conscientious to try to pick the most narratively appropriate fallout, and we all helped out if it wasn't obvious. Nobody consistently chose acquiring a d4, because each conflict was different.

So, maybe, it would work itself out in actual play for your group, too, and you're seeing a problem only of the algorithm, not the game as a whole.

r_b_bergstrom said...

@woodelf: Consider yourself lucky. Problem #3 is definitely something that varies from player to player, so I could see how it could vary from group to group as well.

We had 5 PCs at our table, and about three of them were choosing based on "what makes the most sense?", occasionally marking something off their sheet or downgrading the dice in something.

The other two (who shall remain nameless) were clearly approaching each fallout decision from the perspective of "what +d4 option makes the most sense?". I look at their character sheets after 3 sessions of play, and can clearly tell that neither of them ever took any fallout that wasn't +1d4.

The most egregious "offender" in that regard really surprised me, because he's a guy that's never even once munchkined, point-weaseled, or rules-lawyered in the nearly 3 years I've been gaming with him. But I totally get why it was hard for him. +d4 certainly sounds a heck of a lot smarter than -d(anything).

Anonymous said...

I ran a session of DITV recently and #3 didn't seem too bad to me - it's a clear choice between the player self limiting (removing D / downgrading D size) and making thier character more interesting (expanding options via +d4, even for traits they might not 'like'(eg 'Rednecked and Proud d4')

If the trait becomes 'fun' in play, it will naturally get promoted in fallout to a bigger set / size, if it's not to the players liking (eg 'burned d4') then they may chose to scrub it out with Fallout in future - maybe in this way the #3 problem could be framed in terms of the Use it or Lose it approach. Players either boost the d4s in some manner with Fallout or remove it with Fallout.

If the issue is one of players inflating thier characters capability with a bunch of d4s, then the more likely candidate seems to be getting a fairly neutral trait (Lucky, Capable, I'm Right) at d10 and buying a bunch of extra dice to provide a massive bat to swing (those 3d10 traits will destroy most opposition). If it's that the players were selecting the type of Fallout they felt most comfortable with, I'm struggling to really see what the problem might be - other than simply not using sections of the rules.