Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Which The Warlock Walks The Golden Mean...

The Oracle at Delphi
The so-called “Golden Mean”—as a philosophical concept, mind you—dates back literally thousands of years to the days of Aristotle and Plato.  Supposedly, as one entered the revered Oracle of Delphi, two sayings were inscribed on the doorway:  on the way in, “Know thyself”; on the way out, “All Things in Moderation”.  And, sure as anything, gaming tends to take a page from greater themes in life and in philosophy in general.

On its most basic level, balance must be achieved in terms of theme—even in the most dire of horror games like Call of Cthulhu or Kult, moments of success, lightness, and even humor must break up the oppressive atmosphere.  Even in a light-hearted or humorous game like Paranoia or ICONS has to come with degree of threat, else the players have no reason to actually play.  Role-players role-play to have fun, but also to tell a unique, collaborative story.  If there’s no story, the game loses focus and falls apart.  If there’s no fun, well…what’s the point?

I’m going to avoid going on another “Wizards of the Coast has it wrong” rant, but I will cite another of Rodney Thompson's editorials, this time as a grand step in maintaining balance in design.  Here, Thompson expounds upon the ratio that the 5e/D&D Next team intends to hold up in their coming rules-set.  Essentially, they’re shooting for a 1:1:1 split between exploration, role-playing, and combat.  While I think that that ratio can work well for D&D, it’s obviously not a sure-fire ratio for every game—just try having that much combat in a Call of Cthulhu campaign and see how long your investigators survive!

General Treister:
The inspiration for our Admiral Birmingham
Our weekly Deadlands game, in many ways, has walked both venues of this treacherous balance for the duration of the game.  Interestingly enough, I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve become such a fan of the setting:  while nominally a horror setting, it’s one where the players can achieve real victory against the forces of darkness; while full of ‘wacky’ mad scientists and hexslinging hucksters, Western genre tropes are played straight to the hilt.  In our sessions, we regularly drift directly from the high action of steam-wagon chase scenes and gunfights, to creeping investigative horror, to outright comedy—just ask ChaoticFrederick and Chris II about Confederate Admiral Birmingham’s waffle iron! 

Without that variety, without those alternated scenes, our game just wouldn’t be the same.  And, fittingly enough, Deadlands (and the Savage Worlds rules behind it) provides ample opportunity for flexibility in this regard.  Players are able to pick the skills, the edges, and the powers that provide them the most “awesome” for their XP.  And, that’s really the way it should be.

As I’ve mentioned in some of my prior design previews for Cold Steel Wardens, I’ve spent a good deal of my original design work establishing a degree of parallelism in my first draft.  Physical and Mental Strain run on parallel tracks—literally on opposite edges of the character sheet—and contribute equally to a burgeoning Hero’s well-being.  Skills are broken up into five categories of five Skills each, making them easy to manipulate and remember.  Those Skills have a nearly even distribution of linked Vitals, ensuring that no “dump stat” arises and that every choice—every XP spent and every choice made—matters.

But what about theme?  Surely, Cold Steel Wardens would suffer in this regard, as the game itself revolves around the rain-spattered dystopia of Iron Age comics?  Well, yes and no.  While maintaining mood is going to be of great import for any would-be Warden, the comfort and enjoyment of the table must always remain paramount. 

As for maintaining that Golden Mean?  Well, it seems I’ve already come across an answer for that…

Pendulum Theory!
While Pendulum Theory isn’t going to be part and parcel with Cold Steel Wardens, it’s a near and dear thing to carry over the innovations of The Pendulum Method into running a solid session of Cold Steel Wardens.

Stay tuned, friends and neighbors!  Grand things are in store!

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