Resource management, roguelikes, and role-playing games (2022)

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Resource management, roguelikes, and role-playing games (1)

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I’ve been having a lovely old chat with Anne and Gus L. over at the DIY & Dungeons blog. We’ve been talking about the similarities and differences between RPG computer games (particularly roguelikes) versus gaming with a group of friends around a table in real life. Is it possible to learn lessons from one that can be usefully applied to the other?

Anne’s most recent comment linked to a series of posts she’s been publishing on resource management in tabletop RPGs. I absolutely LOVE this stuff. For me, D&D is most interesting as a low-level, exploration and resource management game, rather than a tactical combat game (or a vehicle for telling stories).

Resource management creates all these really interesting emergent events and dilemmas (e.g. do I press on, even though we might not have enough food or torches? Do I take this treasure, even though it will slow us down?). From what I understand, resource management was much more important in early D&D (and was definitely something that’s been transmitted into roguelikes).

Personally, I’ve had the most success with resource management when I’ve designed my dungeons around it. So, for example, Anne was been trying to figure out how encumbrance should work given that most dungeons are so compact that travel speed between rooms never really becomes an issue. My solution was simply to make all corridors longer. It takes an unencumbered party one turn to travel a corridor, two or more if they’re encumbered.

I also really, really connect with what Anne says when she writes:

“One thing I like about procedural generation as a GM is that it puts me in the same head-space as my players, and all of us are focusing our attention on the sense of wonder and mystery of finding out what comes next together.”

For me, that is absolutely how RPGs could learn from roguelikes. Create a procedurally generated experience for both players and DM, where a focus on resource management encourages emergent gameplay decisions that surprise even the DM. I have run games like this, and they’ve been among the most fun I’ve had at the table (one particular game in which an army of 300 gnomes turned up out of nowhere springs to mind).

On the other hand, Gus L. makes some excellent points about the differences between the two mediums. Indeed, Anne argued that maybe too much of a focus on procedural generation and resource management might turn D&D into more of a boardgame.

Early computer RPGs tried to emulate the experience of playing D&D in real life. Very quickly, however, it became clear that computers were much better at some things than human DMs (such as presenting a multimedia experience, or processing data and rules quickly). In order to differentiate themselves from computer RPGs, I think a lot of DMs now highlight the things human DMs do better (such as social interaction, talking with monsters, faction play, flexibility with the rules or making up new rules on the spot, creative responses to player choices, etc.).

However, early RPGs (and this only a suspicion, because I wasn’t there) didn’t have that hang-up. They didn’t really care if something could be done better by a boardgame or a computer. They just did it. That’s why I want to push past this impulse that CRPGs should stick to what they do best, and TTRPGs should stick to what they do best. I think there might fun to be had by cross-pollinating a bit.

Comments

  1. Arthur says

    The best way to cross-pollinate, in my view, is to have robust computer tools to make the players’ and DM’s life easier. 99% of people’s concerns about trying out a high-crunch system – or even a system they simply aren’t familiar with – would evaporate if every player at the table had a handy smartphone utility which explained the rules to them, let them store their character sheet, let the DM assign experience and items to them, etc.

    The only time anyone has consciously designed an RPG to work hand-in-hand with computer tools has been 4E D&D, which was very much designed with the character generator and virtual tabletop in mind. Unfortunately, the virtual tabletop project crashed and burned due to a murder-suicide…

    (Video) New Resource-Management Games

  2. Gus L. says

    There’s a lot of strands to unpack here – and I think you’re doing admirable work coming at it from the CRPG side. Stepping back from procedural generation a bit I can only offer thoughts on how TTRPG design plays into all this.

    One item that I see popping up in your theory is the question of what did early games look like. While there are discussions and records of how those early tables played, from the design side of things (for CRPG or TTRPG) I find the most interesting question about play style, including Braunstien and Castle Greyhawk is “What mood and experience am I trying to evoke and how can my design aid me”?

    In indie TTRPG there’s a lot of discussion lately about the degree to which “System Matters”. I come down fairly hard on the “it all matters” side, but I suspect that’s a bit less contentious in CRPG design – because without the mechanical underpinnings of the code you can’t play. The question though might still be meaningful in a distorted way … how much of play experience is mechanics and how much is surface stuff? Could you make a gritty “Soulslike” with the aesthetics of “The Yellow Submarine”? While I obviously want to play that game – it’s going to be harder to evoke the oppressive paranoiac feeling that I at least associate with Souls games in a candy colored world.

    Back to the old TTRPG (and by extension early Roguelike) context. Regardless of the historical intent of Gygax and Arneson (or even the early published adventures really) the playstyle and ethos of early fantasy TTRPGs is the experience of gritty dungeon crawling – worries about supply, time as an enemy, dangerous monsters that one can’t defeat in a fair fight lurking in the mythic underworld. There’s room for questioning if early D&D’s mechanics work for that – does it’s system matter? There’s also a fair number of folks who are interested in that emulation of old playstyles – how close can they make their table to Castle Gygax. I suppose in the CRPG context this is less interesting because one can still just boot up Rogue.

    At the same time a more interesting space for me at least is to ask can I make the system matter? Can I use mechanics to make play reproduce that dungeon crawl experience with any fidelity? I think this becomes an interesting question in CRPGs, and likely trickier because the players (or table) will have less control. In a CRPG the designer is effectively handing the mechanics bundled with the play experience to the player and without room for adjustment. The game can’t (maybe it can – but it seems like it’d be hard) up the sense of risk and grim danger by changing the graphics to be spookier when the player seems to take the challenges too glibly (though how grimdark one can actually make a game is a worthwhile discussion – grimdark is easy to evoke).

    I think that intentional design and thinking about what play experience the mechanics produce are really interesting, and I suspect that the differences between CRPG and TTRPG platforms mean that to get the same play experience different mechanics are needed.

    I.E. Limited slot based encumbrance works will in risk management TTRPGs because it’s limiting but easy enough to actually use. IN CRPGs scheduled (weight based) or paperdoll encumbrance works a lot better – because the computer can track the equipment location and weight easily. However, in TTRPGs individual items become a lot easier to use in multiple ways – your flask of oil is lantern fuel and a bomb, but also: a way to grease squeaky hinges, something to pour over things burrowing into the skin, a trap to make the floor slippery and component of whatever other schemes the players come up with. It’d be hard to anticipate and hard code all those situational uses in a CRPG. So CRPGs can do encumbrance easier – but individual objects are potentially less adaptable for problem solving. I think there’s ways to use both strengths to produce the same concerns about what to carry – but I suspect the means are different.

  3. Anne says

    I’m really enjoying this chat! And if you haven’t seen Gus’s blog about exploration-style play, you might enjoy checking it out: https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/

    One thing I think I need to be careful of is separating my personal preferences from “what actually works” at the table. So for example, I have a sense that if I’m going to play a hardcore resource-management game, I want it to be in a truly toxic, hostile environment, like the vacuum of space, or the deep sea, or a Roadside Picnic zone, or Stranger Things’s upside down dimension. But that’s my preference, it doesn’t mean RM “doesn’t work” in a standard dungeon.

    And likewise, my sense that RM-play pushes you a little bit away from “role-playing” and a little bit toward “boardgame” style might just be my personal preference to emotionally distance myself from characters who are going to suffer and maybe die alone in the dark.

    But I will say, I do kind of think that real exploration and resource-management requires large dungeons. The space needs to be big enough that exploring it isn’t trivial, and big enough that you have to ration your supply if you want to get through.

    The nice thing about leaning in a more boargame-like direction is that it moves faster and lets you focus more on the part of the game that only works if you have time for it. That might just be my personal preference, but I kind of think its pointing in a more general direction.

    (Video) Top 25 Best Roguelite/Roguelike Games That You Should Play | 2022 Edition

    Also, UC, I think you make two really good points that I want to highlight. The first is that RM might work best in a dungeon that’s specifically designed to facilitate it. And second, I like your idea to extend the corridor length to make normal-vs-slow travel time a meaningful consideration.

  4. Uncaring Cosmos says

    @Arthur said:

    The best way to cross-pollinate, in my view, is to have robust computer tools to make the players’ and DM’s life easier.

    On the one hand, I partly play tabletop RPGs to get away from screens and gadgets. On the other hand, I do love the interface between digital and analogue (particularly when the digital technology is extremely simple and primitive). For example, I’ve played around with having character sheets stored digitally so they can be printed if we lose the physical copy. I created a cloud version of the Delta Green character sheet and that’s worked extremely well (and it’s even been adopted by the r/NightAtTheOpera open table / living world thing on Reddit).

    99% of people’s concerns about trying out a high-crunch system – or even a system they simply aren’t familiar with – would evaporate if every player at the table had a handy smartphone utility which explained the rules to them, let them store their character sheet, let the DM assign experience and items to them, etc.

    See, here I think I’d be too concerned about my players getting distracted by their phones during the session (even if they’re looking up rules, etc.). And I anyway tend not to play systems crunchier than B/X or CoC (though we’ve been playing a bit of the new RuneQuest recently, which is the crunchiest we’ve ever gone).

    For me, there’s an inverse correlation between rules crunch and rules fidelity – the crunchier the rules, the less likely I am to stick to them faithfully. If I reach a point where I don’t know what the rule is, I usually just make a ruling rather than take time looking up the actual rule. I’ll tell the table this and will then maybe check the official rule later (but, often, we’ll just stick to the house rule). That usually solves most crunch-related issues.

  5. Uncaring Cosmos says

    @Arthur said:

    P.S. I wonder if the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks might actually be a way for a DM to learn a crunchy new system. The FF book becomes the DM, and you just play along, substituting the resolution mechanics from the system you want to learn (e.g. when it says you’re in combat, you resolve the combat using the game system you want to learn instead of the FF combat system; when it says you have to climb an obstacle, use the climbing resolution mechanic from your new system instead of a FF skill test, etc.). The best way to learn is by doing. B/X had a crude “choose your own adventure” in it for precisely this reason, I think.

    Of course, I don’t think players (at least, my players) could be arsed to do all that. But, then, if the DM knows the system then she can teach the players.

  6. Uncaring Cosmos says

    (Video) Brutal Orchestra - A turn-based roguelike RPG with resource management and deck-building elements!

    @Gus L. said:

    Thank you for an extremely thoughtful and superbly-articulated comment. I think it needs a proper response, and it’s Christmas Eve, so I’m going to reply in detail in a couple of days.

    In the meantime, Happy Christmas!

  7. Uncaring Cosmos says

    @Anne said:

    I’m really enjoying this chat!

    Me too! :-D

    And if you haven’t seen Gus’s blog about exploration-style play, you might enjoy checking it out:

    Cheers, I’ve added it to my site’s blogroll, and am looking forward to reading through his essays after Christmas.

    And likewise, my sense that RM-play pushes you a little bit away from “role-playing” and a little bit toward “boardgame” style might just be my personal preference to emotionally distance myself from characters who are going to suffer and maybe die alone in the dark.

    I think that’s a really interesting observation. I tend to get most attached to those characters that, despite playing in a cold and uncaring world, randomly survive against all odds. Of course, when they DO die, the emotional impact is even stronger. I lost a long-surviving Delta Green agent the other day to a stupid decision (never march across a bridge on your own when you’ve inexplicably time-travelled back from present-day Ukraine to the jungles of 1960s Vietnam) and the table was absolutely mortified. I almost think we need to RP a funeral to mourn poor Agent Reggie’s loss properly.

    I don’t know if you ever played the old 1990s game UFO: Enemy Unknown (called X-COM: UFO Defense in the States, I think)? I got quite attached to the little buggers that survived.

    But I will say, I do kind of think that real exploration and resource-management requires large dungeons. The space needs to be big enough that exploring it isn’t trivial, and big enough that you have to ration your supply if you want to get through.

    Completely agree!

    The nice thing about leaning in a more boargame-like direction is that it moves faster and lets you focus more on the part of the game that only works if you have time for it. That might just be my personal preference, but I kind of think its pointing in a more general direction.

    (Video) 10 Roguelike Deckbuilders That Everyone Should Try!

    Again, I completely agree.

    RM might work best in a dungeon that’s specifically designed to facilitate it

    That’s definitely been my experience. Also in terms of challenges like “what happens if the torches run out?”. If you design the dungeon to be a RM dungeon, then you can create rooms with really interesting challenges in the dark, for example (noises, lights, broken glass on the floor, specific monsters, etc.).

    Most RM places a lot of emphasis on the system to create interesting resource management challenges. I think designing with an emphasis on the environment is just as important.

  8. Uncaring Cosmos says

    @Gus L. said:

    Right, time for a proper response! Though… in fact, I don’t have much to say. Pretty much everything you write seems eminently sensible.

    I have only two things of any value (and even that questionable) to add:

    “There’s also a fair number of folks who are interested in that emulation of old playstyles – how close can they make their table to Castle Gygax. I suppose in the CRPG context this is less interesting because one can still just boot up Rogue.”

    That’s an excellent point that, thinking about it, seems completely obvious but which hadn’t struck me until you wrote it. I would only add that the Rogue player in 2020 will have experience with modern video games that the Rogue player in 1980 would not. In other words: Rogue players in 1980 didn’t have much to compare Rogue to except tabletop gaming. We can never really know what it really felt like (unless we experienced if ourselves the first time round). It’s probably not possible to completely “recapture the magic” of playing Rogue, Moria, Hack, etc. for the first time. Was playing Rogue as impressive in 1980 as playing something like Skyrim today? Maybe more so, because it was so novel (and because imagination filled in all the details)? Or am I overstating things (as I frequently do)?

    “At the same time a more interesting space for me at least is to ask can I make the system matter? Can I use mechanics to make play reproduce that dungeon crawl experience with any fidelity? I think this becomes an interesting question in CRPGs, and likely trickier because the players (or table) will have less control. In a CRPG the designer is effectively handing the mechanics bundled with the play experience to the player and without room for adjustment.”

    Again, an excellent point. I would only add that the lack of “room for adjustment” is relative to the technical proficiency of the player.

    Now, I can’t prove it, but I’d imagine that the average computer user in 1980 was likely to be relatively technically proficient compared to the average computer user today (given how user-unfriendly early computers were + how computers first took off with early adopter hobbyists, with students studying computer science, etc.).

    Rogue was inspired by the 1971 Star Trek video game and by Colossal Cave Adventure, and itself inspired the entire genre of Roguelikes. When it comes to games like Angband, players could easily tweak the code to change things (often forking it into their own variant, like ZAngband).

    I would argue that almost every Roguelike (certainly every early Roguelike) is the product of someone playing Rogue and wanting to change things. So, I would say there was plenty of “room for adjustment” and, in fact, that explains why there is a Roguelike genre at all!

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