Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Time, Resources & Everything

Thankfully, it seems as if my G+ life is starting to normalize after the havoc that two months of holidays plays with them. Finally, the rolling hangouts for this game or the other are picking up in conversation and there's even -- *gasp* -- talk of games being run! Tonight, in fact, we're getting back to my "Unplanned Griffin Mountain" RQ6 game. One of today's fun conversations (I think I should count myself lucky that I get several fun conversations per day) was with +Donn Stroud+Jason Hobbs & +Bryan Meadows, but it was +Ray Case who dropped the serious bomb that blew my mind wide open. More about that later.

We were talking about resource management in old school games, specifically how some players get all butt-hurt when they have to track rations. This expanded into a discussion of +Brendan S's excellent Hazard System (v0.2) and how that handles stuff like this. In hindsight, it seems a shame we didn't talk about Dungeon World's handling of this stuff, too. So, all of this fits in together with some ideas I've been processing lately about the passage of time in games, resource management and the role these two can play in establishing the character of a particular game.

Keeping Time: Two Models of Time In Games

In the last month or so, I've seen a lot of discussion about time in games. Some ideas I liked, some I thought were nuts, but few were really revolutionary. Rather, it seems that they were more endemic of certain trends in time keeping in games. The first model of time keeping is the old one, the classic, the "strict time records" which need be kept, the Gygaxian Model. The second method, which plays a little more fast and loose with the concept of time, is the Bergsonian Model. Each model is really just another tool in the DM's kit, to be applied or ignored as appropriate for the game you're playing. 

Uncle Gary's Wheelhouse, the Gygaxian Model

Much derision has been hurled in the direction of Uncle Gary's classic admonition about time keeping from the 1e DMG. You know the one. The one about "STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT." He said so, in all caps, for a solid reason. In the classic mode of play, time and history are objective things that do not depend on a perceiver to be measured, tracked or even occur. It's yet another moving piece in an objective whole of stuff that is real in the game world, right alongside wandering monsters and movement rates and so on. That is, while we consciously know that the elements of the game are fictions created to facilitate game play, we treat them as if they were objectively real things because to do so allows a high amount of detail (and attention to it). We create these little fictitious constructs in our brains to allow us to project a degree of verisimilitude onto our games, which works great if that's what you're going for. Do you want your game to be consistent? To you want these pseudo-objective structures to matter within your game? If so, the Gygaxian Model is the way to go. In my own Iron Coast ACKS campaign, where projecting a sense of objective reality onto the game is beneficial and key to the game's success, the Gygaxian Model works great.

Time As the Flux of Duration, the Bergsonian Model

The French philosopher Henri Bergson (it's a damn shame that most folks never know about this guy) called time "the flux of Duration;" that is, that time is the change from things being one way, then another. In this view of time, the perceiver/actor is essentially important in that he/she/it is the person whose "Duration" is "fluxing." What this means in game time is that "turns," rather than representing a fixed amount of time (ye olde 10 minute turn in most of the classics), instead represents the opportunity for things to occur, for action to happen. Thus, the action "we search the room" becomes not a certain number of rounds or turns, but rather one single turn, the length of time it takes to do X. It seems to me that this sort of perspective is the one taken by games like Dungeon World and even by Brendan's Hazard System; the game here isn't in ticking off discrete units of time, but in following the PCs from action to reaction to action again. While readers may note that this is an awfully modern sort of interpretation of time in games, it's the sort of handwave-ry we've all been doing for years. Honestly, I don't think I've ever really counted down every turn of an overnight watch while the party camps, but rather sorted out what the "flux" would be and used those as my turns. Which is somewhere between the two models, but still. The Bergsonian Model, I feel, works best in a lighter game, where we're less concerned with verisimilitude and more with making the game flow; it's the model I largely use in my Hyperbarbaria and Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaigns.

Resource Management As Reward Management

Today's hangout conversation was mostly about keeping track of resources; specifically, rations. torches/lantern oil, things of that nature. There are a lot of gamers who look at resource management as an annoyance; and within this subset, there's a large degree of variation. For example, I have players who forget to add up XP, keep track of their GP and tick off rations or torches. Now, rations or torches I can understand a bit; the other two, to me, are madness. Now, not keeping track of XP & GP is just rank laziness on the part of a player and, indeed, means failing to keep track of a thing for which the player is rewarded for keeping track. Gain enough XP? Go up a level. Accumulate enough gold? You can buy that awesome something you wanted to buy. Maybe it's a pony, maybe it's a castle. This should be obvious, folks.
Packing rations prevents this

The conversation earlier today focused on stuff like rations and torches. Why don't people track these things as readily as they do GP & XP? Somewhere along the line, +Ray Case made a connection that I had missed completely: people keep track of GP/XP because they get something, so why not make sure they're getting something out ration/torch tracking, too? Ray's brilliant idea was to have players tick off rations in order to rest for the day; resting means recharging the old adventure batteries, regaining some hp and maybe the opportunity to re-up on spells. Could there be a more perfect thing to connect rations to? After all, rations should have these effects in game! Similarly, you could tie torch tracking to a similar refreshment or small gaming advantage. Maybe you're better prepared for a new combat when you prep a new torch and are at +1 to hit (actually, this could make a lot of sense for the torchbearer, especially if you use a Delta-style "+1 to attack when fight with two weapons" rule). Maybe it's a bonus to your next saving throw, whatever works for you. The point is, if you make resource management reward management, your players might be more interested in the actual managing.

Now, the less generous out there might suggest that not starving to death is enough of a reward to keep track of rations. Why do we have to be so negative about it? Similarly, the stingy DM could stay that the benefit for keeping track of light is not suddenly finding oneself irrevocably in the dark... in a dungeon... with all those monsters who can see in the dark. There is a place for this sort of logic, but I think it works best when tempered with some sort of reward or perhaps even countered by that reward.