Several blogs on RPGs have recently contained posts about adversity and GM fiat. Especially relevant is Matt Wilson's post on inappropriate adversity. I quote:
See, and when I'm GM, I want to be able to throw everything I'm allowed to at the players without worrying whether or not I've crossed the line.In a gamist RPG with the classical dungeon crawl challenge - survive as a group and defeat the Big Bad at the end of the dungeon - this is especially important. If the success or the failure of the party is dependent on the Game Master's decisions, the game fails. For this reason, I believe that D&D3E may actually not be a good dungeon crawling game. The GM in D&D is very much within his rights to declare that the players confront an enemy on a small ledge where they can only fight him one at a time; or to put a fountain of healing in the middle of a dungeon; or to rule that the dungeon is either safe enough or not safe enough to take a night of sleep in; and so forth. Although the encounter levels do go some way in ensuring appropriate adversity, the GM can still - advertently or inadvertently - decide the fate of the group.
This must not be possible in Monsters we Slay. Like Matt Wilson says, the GM must be able to throw everything he has against the players without this breaking the game. So how does that work?
Each mission in MwS consists of a series of fights. The level of the next fight is determined by the players (within certain confines); this level determines the total strength of the monsters, which the GM then chooses from a list of monsters. (It also determines how much XP the party will get and how cool the treasures can be that they may find.)
Then, the players roll three dice. These are distributed, a la Otherkind, among three categories: Tactics, Rerolls and Treasure. The die in Treasure determines how much treasure they will get when they win the fight. The die in Rerolls determines how many times during the fight they can reroll one of the dice. And the die in tactics is probably the most interesting one. It's values mean the following:
1. Game Master chooses place, special and monsters.The 'place' is the shape of the arena, which has a lot of tactical significance - you don't want to meet a single strong foe in a narrow corridor, and you don't want to meet enemires with arrows in a huge room where they can shoot at you before you can reach them. The 'special' is a special effect that rules in the room, such as "Unholy aura: all non-undead get -1 to all rolls" and "Good cover: all ranged attacks are made at -2". The order in the table is the order in which the fight is set up; so the difference between 2 and 3 is purely on of order.
2. Randomly roll place and special; Game master chooses monsters.
3. Randomly roll place; Game Master chooses monsters; roll special.
4. Game Master chooses monsters; randomly roll place and special.
5. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place; roll special.
6. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place and special.
What this means is that, hey, the GM is sometimes allowed to make things really hard for the players - but it's always their own choice. And the basic difficulty of the fight is chosen by the players, so there is no blaming the GM if things go wrong. He should always push as hard as he can.
Medium-term dwindling resources
There is a strange thing in D&D and many other games, and that is that some character classes depend on medium-term dwindling resources and others do not. The point in case is that wizards and their brethern have a limited number of spells (or spell points), and thus become less effective the more fights there are between moments that this resource is refreshed. Fighters, on the other hand, are not dependent on such a dwindling resource*, and stay roughly as effective throughout dungeons of any length.
In Monsters we Slay, the moment of refreshing these dwindling resources is mechanically defined, because it should not come down to GM choice. Spell points (called Passion) are refreshed after each mission. A mission only ends successfully if the party kills the Big Bad, in which case the party levels up. If they flee before they kill the Big Bad, they don't get any XP at all, and cannot reattempt the mission - they must start another one. The strategic dimension of Monsters we Slay is thus that you have to be careful with your dwindling resources, because only if you make it to the end of the mission will you get any reward; you cannot refresh your resources in the middle and continue.
Ok, but that threatens to create an imbalance: if the missions are too long, wizards will be at a disadvantage. If the missions are too short, wizards will be at an advantage. But finding the golden middle will probably be very hard, as a game designer.
So I will make all classes dependent on dwindling resources. I currently have two, Passion for spells and Strength for physical abilities (cool combat moves), but I might decide to put them together in one single resource. (Not sure about that.) Anyway, that will hopefully ensure that the above problem will not manifest.
Although some classes may be a bit more dependent on their dwindling resources than others - after all, the classes should play differently! - I will make sure that none of them becomes useless when the resources are spent. Yes, that means that magic users will be able to kick ass in combat. As they should. Wizards with swords are cool.
* Well, there are hit points. But wizards have hit points too, and both their function and their effect is very different from that of spells, so the analogy doesn't go very far.