One of the best reasons for not updating a roleplay-gaming blog is being too busy with the actual hobby—busy roleplaying—to have time to update.[1. I suppose I should make a post about what I've been up to, at some point. The short of it: Google Wave; reading a pile of new games; playing Diaspora; playing Savage Worlds/Shaintar; adapting Shaintar to Burning Wheel.] One of the not-so-best reasons is that I used to blog when my son napped and he's stopped doing that. Tonight is one of those rare nights where I'm not gaming or prepping for a game, I've slept well the night before, and I have a post in mind that shouldn't take more energy to write than I have left but is still worth posting.
So, on with it.
Greywulf wrote a post on why the D&D 4e Powers system is good. I didn't find myself agreeing, but he wrote a follow-up comment that illuminated a dynamic between the Powers system and player creativity that I hadn't thought about before. One commentor was unhappy with the way players seem to prefer invoking powers over creative tactics. In part j_king wrote (emphasis mine):
It seems that whenever my players get into a combat, their most difficult choices are: where to move and which power to use. And perhaps whether to use an action point once in a while. I find that it’s rather rare that they think of clever ways to gain the advantage over a monster; especially if the encounter is balanced so that the party is likely to win. More often than not, once an encounter gets past the 15 minute mark it devolves into “Great cleave, 18 — hits, 12 damage. Marked.”
Could just be uninspired players. However, I think the system could do more to encourage more imaginative thinking rather than purely tactical.
To which Greywulf replied:
4e does rather hand it to you on a plate, doesn’t it? I think the key is for the GM to present situations that can’t be solved using their Powers alone – a 100′ chasm or trap’n'monster setup, for example which just begs for the players to stretch their imagination a notch. Once they get the hang of using their brains rather than just what’s written on their character sheet, it will soon become second nature.
The parts I emphasised are about the role the character sheet has as a tool for creative play. A character sheet has a lot of stuff on it, and what that stuff is varies tremendously from system to system. Often enough most of it is just pre-crunched math that is collected on the sheet for easy reference. Increasingly in the games I read and play I'm seeing another category of stuff present on the characters sheet, things I'm going to call levers.
Moving the world
Levers are things that a player can look at on their character sheet and yank on for effect in the game, often (but not necessarily) as a response to a problem that needs a solution. One of the most common types of lever is the skill. How often, as a GM or player, have you seen a player confronted with a crisis immediately look down to their character sheet to scan their list of skills for the magic bullet that will solve the problem? The player is looking for a lever—something they can yank to make the game do what they would rather it do.
Skills aren't the only kind of lever that show up in systems. An example of a lever that has mixed mechanical and story effects are Aspects in FATE. These are short phrases like "Twitchy as a ferret" that can be called on to influence a roll in the player's favour, or to bribe the player into making a choice that's probably not in their character's best interest for the sake of a more interesting story.
Power are a major type of lever in D&D 4e. Powers are the primary mechanic through which characters can have significant effects on the world and through which players can have significant mechanical impact on the game system. There are a lot of options, and the character advancement system is set up so that Powers are a large part of defining and refining a character. For any given situation in combat it's likely that the character has (or could have taken) a Power that would optimally exploit or solve the situation. Need to whack a badguy but you're a bit low on hit points? If you've got a Power that strikes and lets you use a healing surge, that's a lever you can pull to solve that dilemma.
It might be obvious by now what I think this has to do with creativity. When you've got a problem on the one hand and a lever that fits the problem on the other, the obvious choice is to pull it. In a game with few or no levers there are few or no ready-made answers to the game situations, while in a game with many and varied levers there is always going to be one or more that are good enough to apply to the situation.
Whether pulling that lever results in a creative addition to the game or not depends greatly on the game system that lever is part of, and I think this is part of why the Powers system in 4e leaves me cold. Not only does it give a player many levers to pull in combat, but the system doesn't ask anything more of the player after the lever is pulled. You can get creative with the use and description of a Power, but you don't have to in order to make the game's engine run.[1. To be sure, this is a benefit in other ways. For instance, the tactical aspects of combat run very smoothly because you only have to make a choice of Power and then the mechanics follow smoothly from that choice.] 4e provides lots of levers, which makes it easy to just pull a lever. Of course this could be waved away as an example of lazy play—but who's going to stop that lazy player, and haven't we all been that player at some point?
So levers can be creativity inhibitors.[6. One of the most uncontroversial examples of a lever that greatly inhibits creativity is Diplomacy in D&D 3.x. Part of why that skill is so reviled is because, as written, it short-circuits any roleplay that is about conflicting PC and NPC interests. With a high enough Diplomacy, any time the player wants they can pull that lever and make the game instantly less interesting to everyone else.] Given a choice between McGuyvering up a solution to the challenge and using a Power that is obviously going to do the trick, pulling that Power's lever is going to win out for most players in most circumstances.
That's not to say that levers are inherently bad. They're not. A system can also provide levers as a kind of story bribe: "Here, you can pull this thing for powerful effect, but before it does its magic you have to add a bit to the story yourself…" Levers of that sort work as a bribe for the player to add to the ongoing story because their in-game effect is partly undefined and needs that bit of player storytelling in order to have a defined effect.[2. How levers can require story in order to work is a matter of their mechanics. In Burning Wheel for example, in order to earn Artha (an important fate-point currency) the player has to make decisions that further their character's goals and beliefs. In order to pull a lever like the belief "I am the greatest swordsman alive" so that it pays out in Artha, you have to do things like challenge the king's champion to a duel. You don't get the mechanical effect of the lever until you create some story, because the act of creating that bit of story is what pulls the lever. I'm sure there are more and better examples, but forgive me my blogging rustiness.] Levers like that have a coin slot—you can pull the lever, but you have to pay into the story before the lever will let you effect the game.
Which leaves the other way that levers can encourage players to be creative: by not existing. A lever that isn't there is a lever that doesn't offer a short-cut to solving the problem. Are you an untrained schmuck with a rusty sword and nary a stealthy skill to your name peering down on the four bugbears guarding the cave entrance you need to get into? Without a skill or a fighting chance there are no levers to provide obvious solutions, so you have to get creative.[3. I'm not saying sneaking past the bugbears or slaughtering them is a badwrongfun thing here—I love me some steathly characters and enjoy the more fighty parts of this hobby fine—just that not having the two most obvious answers of "fight" or "sneak by" available means that an unorthodox solution is the only option left.] Shoving boulders onto them from above, luring them away with a clever strawman silhouetted against the moon, or some other unorthodox solution is going to be fun to play and memorable after the game.
Which brings me back to the insight that j_king and Greywulf's exchange gave me. The abundance of easy levers on a D&D 4e character sheet don't prevent creative play, but by being there they make it easy to just pull a lever rather than get creative, and the system doesn't make up for that damping effect on creativity by making those levers require creativity after pulling them. Since I'm personally not interested in the tactical combat side of D&D 4e, the abundance of purely mechanic levers in 4e explains why as a system it doesn't excite me.
Greywulf's suggestion to j_king that the way to solve that is to set up situations where Powers aren't the answer to the challenge is a good one for people who already like 4e but want more opportunities for creative problem-solving. From my perspective, the Powers system is what makes 4e different from the stacks of other games I own—having to write scenarios to work around that core of the game seems to me like a reason to use a different system. As I wrote in my comment on Greywulf's post, the core system of a game shouldn’t be an obstacle to creativity that needs to be GMed around to make the gameplay good, and the contents of the character sheet should be inspirational rather than creativity-damping.
There are a lot of other half-formed thoughts bumping around in my head about how the lever metaphor can be used to understand what makes different games tick, but those will have to wait.[4. Now I remember why I haven't been posting. This took the better part of three hours to write, link, and shoddily proofread. Three hours used to not seem like a lot, but now that it's my entire post-toddler evening it seems like a lot more.]