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?