The Agency of Resources

I hope this doesn’t come off as, “get off my lawn, you whippersnappers.” I’m a middle-aged gamer who cut my teeth on the D&D box sets of the 80s. I also love a lot of modern games. But I’ve noticed something of a trend that – while not necessarily a bad thing – tends to confuse me.

Basically, no one wants to keep track of anything at the table anymore. So many games have wealth stats instead of tracking money, games set in modern or sci-fi locations don’t have players track ammunition, no one tracks encumbrance, or rations, or you know… the little details.

Now, I get it… some of that stuff is tedious and some of it is only appropriate in certain kinds of games. If you are playing a game set almost entirely within the confines of civilization and your characters are reasonably well-to-do, then there is no real point in tracking rations. Or even meals for that matter.

But this really came home to me as I was reading the Modern AGE rules from Green Ronin. I like the AGE system. It’s a simple, clean system with some great ideas in it. But one of the things they do is that ammunition in your weapon is defined as a “capacity” number that matters when you fail an attack roll. Basically, you fail an attack roll, you check against your capacity number, and you might then “be out of bullets.”

I have many issues with this as a system but I’ll leave those other things aside for now. The thing that rubbed me wrong was that running out of bullets will come as a surprise to the player (and character). In an effort to streamline something you’ve removed the decision making process from the player. I don’t want fights to play out like the bullet counting scene from CLUE (1+1+2+1…). I want to feel like I’m making a decision when I take that shot with only one bullet left in my gun. I want to know that my last shot was my decision – whether I hit or miss – and not at the whims of the dice.

A lot of old-school play revolved around making resource-based decisions. Pressing on in dungeons vs. turning back to town. How much loot could you carry without weighing yourself down too much. Was the care and feeding of a mule too much to deal with just for some extra carrying capacity. These issues may annoy some players, but to me I see them as questions worth asking. And not only for the sake of some concept of agency. Even though I think that’s important.

I also think they are worthwhile additions to the game because they do exactly what some people complain about… they slow down the pace of play a little. I often find that in games like Pathfinder and new editions of D&D – as well as many modern RPGs – that the goal is to pack as much EXCITEMENT into each session as possible. There’s an impetus to just run from one thing to the next without a lot of downtime or “between things” time.

This shift also becomes apparent when I think about shopping trips. Some groups I’ve been with couldn’t wait to just blow past the shopping with a few rolls, marking off some coins, whatever and getting it over with. But a lot of fun, weird, in-between stuff happens when you drop the players into a city and they have to find their own healing potions, or sages, or guys who’ll make them a silver dagger. I know it can be overdone, but I’m sentimental… I don’t role-play for the kewl powers and awesome action sequences (even though those can be fun). I play these games because I enjoy getting to live a little bit of the life of the character I’m playing. And that means enjoying the mundane tasks as much as the epic ones.

To get back to my point though. The concept of not-tracking items and mechanical bits that are inherently trackable in lieu of letting the dice decide is something that I’ve seen cropping up and it seems to me that despite the potential advantages of streamlining… it comes at the cost of making things that should be decisions into capricious events instead. And that – for me – takes away some of the fun. I like the difficult choices that the mundane decisions can impose on the epic action. I think the glory is in the details.

What do you think?

 

4 thoughts on “The Agency of Resources

  1. Dave West

    Nice post! Aspects of agency within material tracking is an interesting one, and has a relationship to another aspect not mentioned: Preparation vs Improvisation. For highly Intelligent characters, we can imagine the packing of an assortment of supplies that will fit the bill in any situation. But that can be tedious, and often I like to think our characters can be smarter than their players. This mode can also make a player character feel lack of agency, because “I guess I don’t have my 10 foot pole after all….” The freedom of a player character to improvise on whatever is found nearby can also be fun, but can put the GM on the spot for providing these things, potentially giving the perfect solution to their carefully orchestrated problem, and slow down play anyways.

    Dungeon World tackles this topic in a really cool way. You can get “kits” of things like “Adventuring Supplies”, “Arcane Tomes”, or even “Broom Closet Supplies” with a limited number of uses. The point is you define the category of things, and number of uses and keep on playing. No need for lengthy downtime, but you can still get all of the benefits. Each time you come upon a problem, you get the chance to permanently define one of these items, and either use it up or at least it decide it can’t be something else. This gives freedom to both players and GMs to engage in world-building even in the moment, and let your genius characters pull out that absurd trump card no one (not even their intelligent players) could have seen coming. And you can even incorporate the RP aspects in after the fact: With flashbacks, storytelling, and so forth. “How on Earth did you know the villain would be allergic to wolfsbane?!” Well, my dear, let me tell you….” as they pull out the faded diary of the villain’s mother. Instead of flashbacks, you could roleplay some NPC encounters at the beginning of the adventure in order to build those kits, and when you reveal something from it, perhaps you also reveal something of those NPCs? Or their relationship to the PCs?

    The issue you mention about ammunition is slightly different, and I agree sounds unsatisfying and agency breaking in that system. In Dungeon World, you still track a relatively limited number of ammo, and when you miss you can start to run low as one of the options to “succeed with a cost”, perhaps because you had to flee at the end of the fight, or the arrow broke or went over a chasm…). But it could also be that instead of losing that arrow you would have collected at the end of the fight, you have to put yourself or an ally in a more dangerous position, or some other cost. The decision is still there, but the players get to decide what the result means to the fiction instead of an inflexible and arbitrary die roll.

    Somewhat related: An interesting world building exercise involves considering the “full kit” of a main character in the world, where each item came from, how it was made, what trade networks were needed to allow that to happen, etc. “My horse was bred by the nomadic steppe warriors of the north, bought in hard earned silver from my father’s mine on his estate, which is destined for the coffers of the Great Khan. My horse’s harness was crafted by a journeyman leatherworker at the stables of a nearby cattle ranching town, which sprang up around the old now abandoned Legionary Base before they marched away to war a few generations ago. The silk banner was woven from imported silk across the great desert and was very expensive, but my lord is a wealthy man, and his trust in me is not unplaced…” and so forth. You can quickly flesh out an entire world and history this way. 🙂

    -Cheers!
    Dave

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    1. I’ve tried Dungeon World on for size but it didn’t seem to fit. I love how it handles characters but I’m not sure I really enjoy the “moves” aspect of play.

      I agree that it is annoying when a player forgets something that his character likely wouldn’t. My thoughts on that run more to what I was saying above about slowing down the pace of everything happening at the table so that players don’t feel hectored into hurrying along and thus, forgetting things.

      The “kits” idea is something I’ve seen around but just for me, I’m not as fond of “undefined” resources. They tend to fall into the category of, “wait, you were carrying a ten foot pole when we went through that tiny passage?” Stuff like that.

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  2. Mike Timonin

    As a gamer of similar vintage as yourself, my experience with tracking ammunition and the like was that it didn’t really contribute much to my experience as a gamer. So, as a DM, I’ve told my players that unless they are expending magical ammunition, I wasn’t keeping track of how much they had – if archery is your characters thing, I assume that you have sufficient arrows to see you through. BUT, I’m currently playing in a cyberpunk game, and I KNOW that I’m running low on bullets, and you’re right – it’s making my think very carefully about if I want to pull the trigger or not. So, maybe I should rethink my view on ammo and supplies…

    Additional – I love when my players go shopping in character, it’s a lot of fun. But in a one shot I recently ran I didn’t want to bog things down with a lengthy shopping montage, so one of the NPCs I built was a scrounger (they were all soldiers with some quirks, and he had the ability to find stuff). I came up with a fairly simple roll – I don’t remember exactly what it was, but a 70% chance to find what he was looking for in his backpack or environment if in a city/army camp (that is, if he hadn’t packed it, he could, with some time and effort, find someone who had one), and a 40% chance to find what he was looking for in his backpack in the wilderness (that is, he tried to prepare for every eventuality before going out into the wilderness, so a decent chance that he had one of whatever). I think that worked fairly well.

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