Time and Expectation in RPGs

This is a post about expectations and the interaction of reality and fantasy at the table. I don’t want to bog myself down thinking too much about the extremes of reality in games where people can throw fireballs and routinely get attacked by undead creatures. Overall, that dichotomy doesn’t bother me too much, I genuinely enjoy fantasy. But I’ve noticed that certain expectations are dictated as much mechanically as they are narratively, and the interactions are sometimes jarring for me.

Here’s an example taken from another medium, video games. Specifically, the awful travesty of a game that was Dragon Age 2. I could occupy pages and pages with my dislike of DA2 but my focus now is strictly on art direction and how it affects the play experience. Why, in the game, was it necessary for warriors to be animated as springing across the screen like crickets, contorting their bodies in odd ways before striking ridiculous overhand blows to their enemies? Why did wizards need to be animated as spinning dervishes of spell-slinging fury? Especially considering how much a contrast this was to the first game’s combat aesthetic, this seemed an odd choice (to me). And judging from the fact that Dragon Age Inquisition seems to be going this way as well, I’m less hopeful about the upcoming new game…

My own griping aside, Dragon Age 2 had other significant shifts from Dragon Age: Origins and for me, this was starkly represented by the characters. Instead of what was fairly straightforward fantasy in the first game, in the sequel everything had to be bigger, badder, louder, and all that. The Qunari had to be huge and have giant horns (cough, Klingons, cough). The dwarf had to fight with a crazy clockwork-punk repeating crossbow. Then there’s Fenris… a barefoot, rune-etched, magical-slave-warrior-elf-of-doom. It’s a pretty stark contrast from the original game and as such it genuinely thwarted my expectations about the game I was playing, thus compromising the overall experience for me.

All of this talk about Dragon Age though is just build up. Thinking about the stark changes between DA: Origins and DA 2 is kind of like thinking about the difference between playing original Red Box D&D and playing D&D 4e. Without the commensurate evaluations of quality (there are still a lot of good things about 4e D&D even though I realize it’s not the game for me) it is apparent that the Old School experience is much more often Dragon Age: Origins and that 4e is the DA 2 experience. And it’s a matter of expectations. One of the things I like about D&D 4e is the incredible diversity of races they built right into the core experience of the game. You can play a dragon man or a demonspawn type right out of the box alongside the elf, dwarf, and halfling. 4e created a specific expectation that it was true to throughout its design and play experience.

That is a lot of build up to get to the “thingy” that I want really want to talk about though. Much like my previous post about spears it concerns one of those little oddity areas of some roleplaying games that varies a great deal and always leaves me scratching my head for how I really want to feel about it or experience it at the table. Mainly, how long it takes to do things.

As I used up so many words building to this point, I’ll restrict myself to a specific example – Locks and Traps.

How long did it take for the thief to check for traps or pick a lock in old school D&D? To be fair, looking at my copy of the Moldvay Basic book, I have no indication of how long it takes to pick a lock but to search for traps, search a 10×10 area, or search for a secret door takes a turn (10 minutes) of game time. Contrast this with Pathfinder where the time to disarm even an Extreme trap ranges from 12 to 48 seconds – less than a minute – and there is no concept of the Turn as a mechanic at all. Picking a lock is a full-round action, so it always takes six seconds (ish). Now, I’m sure that there are real world examples of folks who can pick locks fast… a quick internet search turned up a guy who opens a Masterlock 9 times in a minute (so, that’s about on par with a six-second pick) which is pretty cool but I wonder if the desire to have traps and locks work in a quick set of rounds rather than the longer “turn-based” action with traps is more about the desire to incorporate them into combat encounters in a highly mechanical way? Perhaps it’s just me but it thwarts my expectations for the thief to be hunkered down calmly picking away at a lock or a trap in a six-second combat round. Again, this is just me but I really appreciate the idea that these things take time.

One more example to consider… things in bags. Nothing frustrates me more as a GM (that’s hyperbole, but maybe only barely) when I’m running a game a player just assumes that they have instant access to everything in their inventory. These games have a certain amount of abstraction to them, it’s true, but I assume that when you are carrying around fragile vials of magical liquids (for example) that you don’t have them just hanging out on your belt where they will knock into shit, get smashed in combat, or every single time you fall down… I assume you have them wrapped up in cloth tucked in a safe corner of your pack where they are very likely to survive the rigors of adventuring. So when players just blithely exclaim, “I drink my potion” in the middle of combat I tend to go slack-jawed and just stare at them… Then we usually finish the combat and then have a discussion about expectations that I always realize we should have had at the beginning of the game.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame video games for this one (though they make an easy scapegoat) but I think I more blame the crazy imagery of modern D&D and its depiction of PCs with a veritable apothecary full of potions strapped to their belts/chests/bandoliers. Such things really make me appreciate the Complication systems of games like ICONS where, hey, you might get some small compensation but yeah, you just fell down a hill, sorry, your potions are all gone. Maybe don’t wear them across your chest next time…

Okay, this feels a little on the complain-y side, even to me. After all, play what you like and I won’t tell you that you’re wrong – this really is just my two cents. But I hope what it points out is that even in the space occupied by “D&D-like fantasy game” an amazing range of expectations exists about all kinds of actions/happenings in the game world and at the table so they are worth considering before you end up like me, at a convention, staring at some poor player like he’s an idiot and having him stare right back at you the same way just because he thinks that potions should appear in his hand without any intervening steps.

Ah well. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you’ll share a few of your own expectations of the table experience (and feel free to rag on Dragon Age 2; that never gets old…) (I’m kidding. Sorta.)

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2 responses

  1. Inventory management was definitely underdone long before the video game era. I think some people call it “hammerspace” — the mysterious space from which Daffy Duck or Woody Woodpecker suddenly produces a big hammer to whack someone with? Our D&D characters drew on hammerspace all the time back in the day. And only with video game RPGs has a detailed encumbrance system worked easily.

    As for shitty overdone fantasy design and animations, I blame anime. 😉

  2. I suppose I enjoy inventory management more than most… but even so, it’s not really about inventory management so much as the idea that a fighter in the middle of a battle can unsling a pack, open a potion, drink it, and still be actively protecting him/herself and all the rest in one six second round. My wife will be the first to tell you how long it takes her to dig her phone out of her purse – and she doesn’t even carry a particular big or full purse by comparison.

    Over the years, I’ve found that certain games do a much better job with encumbrance than others. It’s a matter (I think) of the expectation you take in with you. If you’re okay with Hammerspace then good on you. I tend to prefer a little more careful awareness of these things, but to each their own.

    I don’t really blame anime or video games (I enjoy examples of both)… I just don’t enjoy when the expectations of one creep into another, if that makes any sense?

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