Monday, 30 May 2011

B is for Bennies Before Balance

I have recently heard someone complain that “sandbox” was an elitist term….which, frankly, left me nonplussed.  In my not-so-humble opinion, games are either driven by the decisions of the players (sandbox games) or the needs of an overarching plot (plot-driven games).  As a big advocate of a GM’s right (and responsibility) to say No, I fully endorse that any GM should run the type of game he or she prefers.  So long as you can find interested players, no one can tell you you’re wrong!

What I’d like to talk about today is Bennies – those little, unexpected, bonuses that come about through playing role-playing games.  In early editions of D&D, these bennies might have included finding a special magic item, or special gear, that makes your character more powerful.  In the early, sandbox-ier, days of rpgs, this sort of benny made perfect sense.  Playing more, and playing better, meant more and better rewards.  In addition, earlier systems used a shallower power curve and the sort of broad-based balance that easily supported these extras.

(In my own home game, I recently decided that the participating characters all became Trained in Profession: Sailor as a result of in-game action.  Although this “benny” is equivalent to only 1 skill point in game terms, it negates a -4 penalty to related skill checks, and was well received at the table.)

Some more recent games – most notably the WotC versions of D&D – have taken a narrower view of balance, with specific guidelines as to what characters at any particular level should have.  This would seem to work counter to the idea of bennies, because any benny sufficient to have an in-game effect is also perforce sufficient to “throw off the math”.

I would like to suggest that this need not be so.  Indeed, that it need not be important, even if it is so.

Especially if you are running an “adventure path” type scenario, rather than a sandbox, there is very little cost to granting bennies.  After all, if you run through a campaign over a period of six months, when the seventh starts, you start with a fresh slate.  Meanwhile, so what if a few fights are easier (and take less time!) than expected?  So what if the players can bypass your skill challenge?  There is no point to giving bennies that don’t have some effect on how the game plays.  And, when earlier clever play means you get an additional boost now, the players get a sort of shiny, glowing feeling.

The converse, of course, is that, if they don’t do well, they don’t get the benny.  Maybe they don’t even get the wealth-by-level guideline treasure.  And that is cool, too.  Consider it a “negative benny”, if you will.  Decisions mean more when they have ramifications down the line.  Even if that does mean that things are that much harder later.  Even if it does mean that the PCs lose.

Balance only takes you so far, in my experience and in my opinion.  At the end of the day, as a player, I want my decisions to have consequences, good and bad, both for me and for the campaign world.  Bennies are more important than balance.  But you need to strike a “balance” between the two!

(Sorry....this is a bit of a wandering post.  I suppose I should have called it "B is for Blathering"!)

1 comment:

  1. There are substantial additional advantages to this kind of in-game reward. They are special and personalised. A character build path is a pre-calculated road anyone can take with approximately the same results; that little something you got in the campaign is yours alone. This goes for both tangible benefits ("you learned the Swim skill, no skill points needed") and intangibles ("you are Somebody in the City State of Khonón").

    The other advantage, as you noted, is involvement. Contribute to the campaign as a player, get involved in it, and you it will be giving back - little extras, a deeper context to your character's presence, shared history and war stories. A growing thing, basically.

    This goes to the heart of balance: a character is not just a mechanical construct, it is not an optimalisation problem. In a campaign that isn't entirely compartmentalised on the module level (so your actions have consequences beyond the individual session), it is what you do in the environment and how you do it; a focus of the interaction process. A party can be different from the sterile understanding of balanced (and this understanding has become very, very sterile), while everyone will still have something meaningful to contribute, not by virtue of five pages of character background, but by virtue of having done things.

    Finally, WRT sandbox games being "elitist", it is a bizarre statement. It is a style that comes pretty naturally with the idea of gaming, and isn't exactly rocket science. It is when you use the fallacy-laden definition (where "you have to know every single detail of your creation to run a meaningful campaign" that, nevertheless, will consist of "meaningless wandering among throwaway encounters") that you get in trouble - of course, since the definition makes the game style seem obtuse and unfun by design. Sometimes there is no way around it: language has to be rejected or clarified to make sense.