Monday, August 15, 2011

Free Markets don't work in RPGs

As I was working a printable copy of my homegrown rules, I can across an old issue with the Artificer skill (i.e. the one that could under the right conditions make magic items).

In real life, I'm far more Hayek than I am Keynes (rather sneaky way of sharing two really cool videos that). I love free markets.

In the real world, I don't own a Seawolf Class submarine to cruise around the world for a simple reason. I can't afford it. Heck, I can't afford a simple sail boat. Well, I could but I have more important things to do with the money and I'd never get a good return on what a sail boat would cost.

Real limits those. And limits is what the free market is all about.

This doesn't work so well in RPGs. There reality is inversed, and players expect to to chase impossible pipe dreams. Destroy the dark lord, save the princess, and along the way gain a flaming sword and a mountain of loot. That sort of stuff.

Thus balancing a RPG based upon rarity is basically a fool's game. You're going to allow players to create magic items but control it by requiring rare materials? Won't work, you just made it more desirable and thus the players will bend all their will to getting it. Soon you're be drowning in magic items.

If you block them (i.e. keep rare stuff rare), nine times out of ten the reaction won't be to thank you for the game balance. It will be to find a better game that allows players a shot at reaching their goals.

I overstate that some of course.

Rarity works fine depending upon what we're talking about. One princess, one Excalibur, that sort of thing. It goes without saying that someone will get the princess and someone will get Excalibur (likely the same guy, success breeds success but one never knows. A jerk with Excaliber may still in the eyes of the princess be a jerk).

Good players will let you get away with that sort of thing.

But in general I'd suggest to avoid rarity as a method of game balance with anything that would have a 'market' price. That is, it just costs a bunch. Never works.

And with anything, if you don't want to the players to have something, don't put it in the game. If you do put it in the game, make it plain by what it is that it won't work for the players (Excalibur? Dude you're not the rightful King of all the Britons, it stays in the stone where it belongs).

It will save you trouble down the road.


Joshua said...

I think much the same thing applies to rarity of skills and powers in games that allow players to "buy" them with character points or whatever. "Balancing" stuff by making things expensive doesn't really work, and (as I think Mary Kuhner used to point out) making a power that'll break your setting "expensive" is no substitute for forbidding it.

Gleichman said...

Yes this is true as well, for the save reason and it's easier to it to appear and affect the game.

Warren Dew said...

I seem to have had better luck than most people with this; many items in my game actually are restricted primarily on the basis of cost.

Of course I don't mind if the player characters do manage to get them. Ultimately I'm happy when my player characters eventually become the movers and shakers of the world, rather than the average Joes.

Joshua said...

Wow, Warren, it's been a long time. Believe it or not, I was just thinking about you and ballroom dancing the other day.

Gleichman said...

I think Warren you're an exception due to how extreme your simulation style is.

Success in the typical fantasy style just isn't part of your campaign.

Warren Dew said...

While I don't disagree, I a curious what kinds of things constitute success in the typical fantasy style. Can you give an example, perhaps?

Gleichman said...

The successes of fantasy are those successes that break pure simulation (as you would define it). Hence the reason for the term fantasy.

The type of fantasy matters here as does the type of simulation. But I think the basic rule applies.

To use one example: High Fantasy is about the battle with Evil (Lord of the Rings, Prydain Chronicles). As I recall you don't even have Evil in your game.

Your goblins are large and dangerous vermin, not the physical respresentives of Evil's mindless reach for destruction.

Yours is the trappings of fantasy constrained to simulate reality. It has a shorter reach, and even if a player doesn't directly consider the question- they know their reach is less and thus will never attempt to reach as far. They will be happy just living and achieving simple goals.

So while my players are out saving the world from the Dark Lord, yours are hunting wild beasts for money.

Players in my games are the Fellowship. In yours, buffalo hunters with more dangerous buffalo.

That simple difference changes everything about how the campaign is played and approached and what is expected.

Now to be honest here, I am being rather centered on the High Fantasy of my own gaming styles in this contrast.

But I think the same basic rules apply to others types of fantasy. Straight line OD&D where the only goal is killing things and taking their stuff has its expected encounters and outcomes that aren't possible in your game as well.

Warren Dew said...

I was going to give the example of a hobbit dropping the one ring into the crack of doom as something that would not happen in my game, yes. I think the battle of Pelennor fields could happen, though; some similar battles have happened.

I suppose my campaign owes as much to Swords & Sorcery - Karl Edward Wagner, say - and to other fantasy such as the Earthsea series as it does to high fantasy, and that may be part of the difference. I let the characters define evil for themselves, though from the characters' standpoints, there are certainly great evils.

It seems to me much of the difference is between what happens on screen versus off screen. The current dwarf arc seems to me very similar to Balin's attempt to retake Moria, for example - it's just that we're playing through all the details of setting up base camps for military operations against the goblins and such. And yes, that means they have to deal with money and raising money, which is normally not addressed on screen in the stories. Is that really what the difference is?

Janistaar's county focuses on hunting things they know they can beat rather than fighting things where the party's lives hangs in the balance, but I think that is a player choice. Other players who are not currently playing were much more conservative about what risks they are willing to take with their characters.

Or am I still missing your point?

Gleichman said...

I think you're still missing it.

This part is likely key: "I let the characters define evil for themselves".

It changes a setting from epic fantasy (with epic goals) to just a world with different types of inhabitants and some magic.

I know it would lower the reach of my goals greatly. I'd likely want to do nothing more than be a scribe or a bard.