So, last week, I introduced the problem I was having with making engaging combat encounters with my teenage player group with a DnD homebrew system I’m running. And I promised an answer for my game design woes. Well, here it is:
I don’t really enjoy combat encounters myself. (Was that dramatic reveal worth the wait? Don’t answer that).
And from what I’ve seen, my players don’t either. But games like DnD are literally designed around combat encounters (or at least the first four editions were, I don’t have much experience with 5e); your character gains power and levels through EXP and loot obtained after beating up baddies. It’s more than something you’re encouraged to do via game mechanics; it’s the game’s M.O. It’s how you play the game.
That’s my reasoning as to why I drag my players into combat encounters that feel more obligatory than anything else. We’re playing my homebrew system that’s essentially super-condensed/simplified DnD; thus, I guess they should fight monsters n’ kill ‘em? And yet, more than half the time I throw at them some snarling, multi-mouthed creature that squelched its way up from the ass-crack of Tartarus, the players fall in love with it on sight and try to befriend it even as it’s trying to melt them with its externalized digestive oozes. I’ve wasted enough of my breath trying to convince them that they should be slaying these denizens of evil, not trying to domesticate them. But taking a step back, I’ve finally realized that the activity of winning over a strange new beast to their ever-growing menagerie of monsters is when they’re all having a whole lot of fun.
Ever since the first session I ran with them, which was their first foray into roleplaying ever, I knew that I would also have to teach them what a roleplaying game is and how one plays it. There are “big rules” and “little rules”; the little rules are “this is a d20” and “add your Strength modifier to your attack roll”. The big rules are “create characters that aren’t going to make this experience shitty for everyone else playing” and “try to stick with the plot I’m writing or else we’re never gonna get anywhere”. As a teenager myself I learned these rules intrinsically by growing up in the gaming community; I met good examples and bad examples, and figured out the unwritten rules of what made gaming experiences fun and what made them awful. I cut my teeth in the cult of number-crunchy, munchkining games like 3rd ed DnD and Hackmaster. And nostalgia has a funny way of blurring out the bad times; it all sorta gets rolled into “building character” or “taking your lumps” to gain status in a subculture.
These kids I GM for have done most of their roleplaying in a vacuum. They aren’t connected to other gaming communities, and they don’t really embrace the “gamer lifestyle” outside of our sessions (though they are all fantastic geeks in their own ways and I couldn’t be prouder). I don’t have to make them accept the parts of Dungeons and Dragons that honestly kinda suck, for the sake of “nerd cred”. They don’t know what THAC0 tables are, and all that means is they’re missing out on some of the worst game design this hobby’s ever seen. They don’t have to suffer first to find real enjoyment in these games, despite what the gatekeepers say.
There’s a lot I’m trying to say here, and each new topic brings me further away from the point I was trying to make, despite it all being part of this whole convoluted puzzle. To recap: I design a DnD homebrew based on how I’ve been taught games should be played. My new players find most of these rules pointless and ignore them in favor of pursuing what they want to try and do. I try fruitlessly to get them back “on the right track” so they can have fun, as dictated by what my concept of fun is in this game. I watch them foil my efforts, continuing to have fun doing shit that feels chaotic and unreasonable, but that’s partially because I’m the one controlling the world and making those judgment calls. I finally start thinking, hey, no one besides me is saying these kids have to be a certain type of hero, to act a certain way or to savor a particular experience. What would happens if I give them a fair chance to actually domesticate any creature they come across? What happens if I allow a chance of success for their raids on magic item shops, or creating a quasi-nuclear warhead through dubious convergence of magic and science? Terrible things for them, no doubt. But couldn’t the results be incredibly entertaining as well?