Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lessons from Mordheim (Angry DM Randomness, part 2)

I played a campaign of Mordheim earlier this year. It was a lot of fun in its own right, but after a couple years of playing and developing narrative-based RPGs, it was also a breath of fresh air and a real eye opener in terms of game design.

The thing that separates Mordheim from other skirmish games or wargames that I've played is that there is a continuity from one game to the next. Your little warband grows, changes and adapts over time. You gain the resources to hire new members or upgrade their equipment. They gain experience over time and can become more effective, and through injury they can also be wounded, maimed, or killed.

What makes this really charming is that when a character "Advances" (read: levels up), the exact nature of that advancement is randomly determined. When one of your men earns enough experience points, you roll to find out what they gain. Likewise, when one of your heroes is taken out of action during the game, you get to roll afterward to find out what happened to them. Do they succumb to their injuries or find themselves permanently diminished by them? Do they live with scars from their trauma, or do they walk away stronger for it?

Sometimes, this gives you hilariously useless results (Str4 archers? uh, thanks), other times, this winds up being completely broken, but that's part of the experience. That's part of the draw. When you aren't in direct control of what happens, the excitement becomes watching it develop. You want to watch your men organically grow and change through the trials and tribulations set before them, and regardless of the outcome, a story emerges.

I've talked about the idea of Post-Narrative gameplay before, and I'll have to write more on the subject here sometime, but there is a significant draw to finding out what happens. When an outcome seems to come about organically, there is a satisfaction in watching it even when it's not an outcome we would have wanted. This is the draw behind such masochistic endeavors as the computer game Dwarf Fortress, and most of my experience with minecraft (I never knew how much could go wrong in a game).

This idea even cuts both ways. One of the most interesting events of our last Mordheim campaign was that the Kislevite player had a youngblood he named Wesely Crusher. For whatever reason, this character routinely managed to get credit for kills, get away with objectives, and otherwise pull off MVP status even with the awful stats youngbloods start with. He was busy using his heavy-hitters to do heavy-hitter stuff, after all. Halfway through the campaign though, those experience points start adding up. Through absurd advancement rolls, Crusher winds up upping his strength and toughness, gains a couple extra wounds, extra attacks, and then special abilities with greatweapons.

Wesley Crusher gets swole'.

Soon, Wesley is not just good. He's a broken one-man killing machine with something like 3 greatsword attacks per round and the ability to soak wounds like he was on PCP.  It was insane. And hilarious.

Conventional wisdom would argue that this is actually a failing of the system, that it can create such monstrosities, and they would have a point - if the player had been able to intentionally build him that way. Because it was decreed by the dice gods however, it became a spectacle. A quirk of fate that created this god among men, and it was awesome.

Competitive players will probably not buy this logic, I'm sure, but Mordheim is not meant to be a competitive game. There are plenty enough of those floating around out there as it is. Mordheim is a game that is played to find out what happens, and it is awesome.

(So awesome, in fact, that we wound up writing a skirmish war game after the campaign ended. It's sitting in my google drive, waiting for me to finish the writing on it one day..)

Smart readers will counter that there are a lot of differences between this kind of game and an RPG. Mordheim is a skirmish war-game. You're not expected to role play your decisions, and you control a whole group of men rather than a single character. You aren't attached to the individual members of your warband in the same way you are attached to your player character. These are all true and valid points, and I'm not sure that I would advocate that character advancement in an RPG be random (though it might be an interesting experience), but the heart of the lesson is the same:

We crave randomness in our games. Unpredictability fills a certain need and provides a certain joy that can't be fulfilled through deliberate decision making, even if we say we prefer to be in charge.

And this, my friends, will be the topic for tomorrow.

Until then,

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