The End of Fairness

Did anybody ever ask you what the object of the game was? I've never been able to answer that one neatly, when explaining role play. It's not like checkers. It's not that easy to sort out. I have to think a long time to say what the object is for me personally, even, and when I do I realize it hasn't always been the same.

I first learned to play D&D when I was eight years old. The kid down the street taught my older brother and me to make characters, threadbare thugs without names who wandered mazes together without ever talking to each other. "Dungeons" in those days were like industrial basements in granite, not even mazes, much less prisons with torture chambers (to this day I have never seen an actual dungeon during any game). The hallways wandered around on a sheet of graph paper, turning at neat right angles; every so often there would be a door, and behind the door, beyond doubt, there would always be a slavering monster, usually an orc, standing at the center of a little room and waiting with sword in hand to kill us. Maybe then there would be a box of gold.

Our doughty adventurers used to lose more often, back then; we never got attached. On one occasion, because we had to leave and were getting bored, my brother and I decided to have our characters kill themselves right there in the passageway. My brother missed himself on his first attempt; I carried only a mace, a clumsy suicide weapon, and had to pound my head with it four times before I could actually die.

What was the object, back then? Mayhem, in general, was what we lived for; ours was not to reason why. An adventure started at the front door of a catacomb and ended when we, or everyone else, got killed. Over time these things got more complex--more monsters would appear at once, rooms might be darkened, secret doors and traps began to appear--but the quest was always for the worst rough-and-tumble perils that could be found.

My induction into an older group of players helped me into the next stage, which was something like Mayhem With an Excuse. In these adventures we would be begged for help, or offered a reward, and we entered usually into a well-defined expanse of countryside which seethed with troublesome creatures. Somewhere at the heart of things would be an extremely powerful malefactor, often a creature of hell. Somewhere, too, would be a red dragon, and certain things were reliably true about red dragons; they could always see you if you were invisible, and they were always smugly conversational, and it was always in your interest to be sly with them a while rather than attempting direct onslaught, because they were formidable.

These were the days when tactics began to matter. We had freedom of motion, then; characters were free to run around the hills wherever they liked, instead of being routed from one foe to the next like machines on an assembly line. There was a great variety of monsters, and sometimes a peace could be negotiated, even an alliance.

Also, in these days, we learned about character advancement. For the first time we saw characters climb in levels, saw them collect a veritable candy-store of charmed weaponry. There was plenty to be had, then, for not so much trouble. We were godlike in our power; we hopscotched through levels faster than we could write them down; we carried whole armories and treasuries without regard for their bulk; we trounced arch-devils on a regular basis. (Those red dragons, though--you always did have to watch your step around them.)

Those were good times. They were formative years, if you will; sometime then we learned to handle our own numbers, learned to memorize all the tables in the books and all the monsters. And sure enough, we learned to argue about them. We scrounged for every bonus the books had to offer, debating what could and could not be made to apply. Each of us wanted the most potent character in the scenario; we wanted twenty-four-hour success with no setbacks. It got even worse as things went on, because true plot had begun to arise. We had started to play campaigns. Adventures strung together and became an ongoing story, and the same characters stayed around until they met their demise, starting at level one and carving their harrowing careers out of the constant risk of life and limb. It made things interesting, when the throwaway demolition had subtly begun to pall.

Following the careers of particular characters, that way, we got to be awfully partial. No longer could death and failure be funny; it was all very personal, and we guarded our characters, nursed them like investments. We multi-classed them beyond reason, we used every score-rolling cheat we'd ever heard of and cheated when we did it, we fudged our hit point losses, we wrote in supplies after the fact. We strove not only to outdo each other, but to smash the enemy as ignominiously as possible, and to be thoroughly undaunted by the most devilish devices of the DM. DMs themselves had varying reactions; some were over-generous, cheating on our behalf, while some took up the wicked position of doing their damnedest to destroy us and being disappointed when we won through. Some did both, lavishing powers and weapons on us and then plunging us among hellions from other planes of existence.

The defining factor in all of this was our own foul play. We had the books memorized, old pros that we were, and never could we meet a monster whose stats we didn't know cold. And we were prepared; we knew the optimum tactics for all villains, like professional exterminators. There wasn't one of our characters in all that time who didn't tote a weapon made of silver and another made of cold-forged iron--just in case.

Eventually we had to put a stop to it. This is silly, we began to complain to each other. How many swords can you carry? Where are they? Can you really put a Bag of Holding into another Bag of Holding?

The rules were our way out of excess, at first. We started paying a little more attention to the letter of the law, and those strictures cut down on the sheer license we'd allowed ourselves beforehand. And as time went on, and we got into the spirit of it a bit, we were more amenable; we rolled our scores fairly, we were painstakingly honest about the numbers during combat, and as we thought more and more about it, we got to be very careful about separating what our characters might reasonably know from what we ourselves could handily guess. Realism, believability, became our yardstick for fairness, and soon we sneered at "brownie hounds," bonus-scrounging kids like we had been so long ago.

I myself strove so hard to perfect my fairness, to attain a fatalistic detachment from my characters' fortunes, that I instituted a practice of entirely random character generation. I rolled ability scores first, then for class, for race, gender, age (within reason but barely so), economic background, and appearance. I tried as best I could to randomize their histories, which produced some interestingly complicated stories. I rolled to check for scars or permanent injuries, for superstitions, whatever. Eventually I tried randomizing names, and had to stop short of that; the results were just stupid. Often, though, I selected the first letter randomly. I rather enjoyed playing whatever part the fates decreed for me.

At this point in my life I played with a wide assortment of folks, and it was during this time that my first serious time as DM began. I painstakingly mapped out a huge continent, peopled it with countries and cities of NPCs, all with their own rivalries and contentions and machinations built in beforehand. Heroes, villains, legends, ranchers, highwaymen, scholars, merchants, courtiers, assistant cooks, what have you. I tried to work out a whole social order; I was so busy with the people I nearly forgot to include any monsters at all.

I was reaching for realism, and it defined all my efforts, then. I wanted the story line to make sense. I wanted to be able to explain the game to my sister and not have her roll her eyes and say "Whatever." And for that, it had to resemble life a little.

That was when character acting began to be at a real premium. One player in my campaign actually retired a character--they were all running multiples, most of the time--because he was on watch while another of the same player's characters savagely and silently murdered a different player's character, as well as an NPC, in a sleeping household. Nobody caught on that this was an inside job, so the fellow on watch felt that the whole fiasco was his fault, and hung up his spurs on the spot (because they had been such a tight-knit group, right?) and stayed in that town, eventually to marry a young heiress and cool his heels for the rest of her life (he was a young and handsome elf with centuries to kill). The player was sorry to see him go, but he felt it was the character's most likely reaction.

The focus on verisimilitude brought its own troubles to the game. Characters suddenly had families, secrets, personal agendas, and peacetime professions. They spent more time in conversation, not only planning tactics but chatting about things, developing opinions about each other personally. They diverted adventures in order to swing by their hometowns, and we all got to meet their families and friends. More dangerously, though, they were no longer blithely ready to walk into danger for its own sake. More than ever there had to be a reason.

How do you assemble a party? The easiest thing is to assume that they all know each other before the action starts, but their histories rarely permit this. Do they meet in a tavern, answering the call of an enigmatic recruiter? Well, yes; all too often, they do. Do they meet in the same tavern during a tumultuous brawl? Even more often. How about jailing them all unjustly, and tossing them in the same cell? How about throwing a spectacular tournament for them to enter? Making them witnesses to the same crime? Starting them on the same road with the same destination and then throwing brigands at them? Hurling them together with a city on fire? Troubling them with the same premonitions until they all ask the same sage for advice?

None of these particulars mattered much. What mattered was, it had to be good--and that was news. Whatever happened, they could no longer be expected to sit down individually in a tavern and walk out together as a paramilitary unit without any motivating circumstances at all. And this led to a lot of awkward situations where an established party suddenly met a new player's character, and groped for some convincing reason to hire the new kid on.

Realism was the arbiter of fairness, and realism gave rise to story; and story, to this day, is the "object of the game" in my role-playing. The most exciting potential of role-playing, to me, is the art of interactive storytelling. The characters have lives of their own, in a way, and no one person can shape the events in any final way. It's like fiction with free will. And it gives you a little something to show when you're finished. If an adventure is over and you haven't got a story worth talking about, then what have you done? It's a way of thinking about the same stuff, but it's revived my interest in the game, and it's made for some good years, playing characters who are people first and adventurers second.

A couple of things start to happen when a gaming group gets to thinking along these lines. One of them is DM's discretion; there can get to be a lot of it. That will vary between groups and between DMs, but a DM whose mind is on the storyline might start to fudge details to keep the plot from being too totally disrupted. Players, too, may want to bend rules to make the particular characters that have caught their interest; it's nothing new, but again, the storytelling style tends to bring these concerns up. I traveled a sort of circle, in that way; after several years of purified chance in character generation, I began to want to experiment with particular characters, but now I'm more likely to handicap my protegˇs than bless them.

And it gets to be thorny, sometimes. What if your ninety-year-old half-elven troubadour has only lately begun to handle a sword? Surely her musical skill cannot be defined by her lowly status as a fighter, after all this time. What if a character's history calls for rather a long period of street-fighting on the bad side of town? It could make perfect sense to suppose he is equally comfortable with clubs, chains, knives, staves, hatchets, slings and fists in combat, regardless of the maximum number of initial weapon proficiencies. What if a young princeling has been given intensive lifelong training in six different adventuring classes? It could happen.

Bigger question. What if a player wants to run a character who's already attained third level before the game starts? What about a tenth-level character? What about a dragon?

I know the more-or-less typical stand on these issues. It seems to be a nearly universal practice that player characters begin their careers at the first level. And perusing the scriptures I can find Gary Gygax' own 1979 sentiments about monstrous PCs: "in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination." Well, fair enough. That probably is the usual reason. And the usual responses are geared to defend against that sort of competitive move; everybody starts about equal, and only the actions and chances of game-time can unbalance them.

I've brought these ideas up in conversation with a lot of gamers, and I've found that this sense of fairness is at work even when some people say they might allow for such characters. It'd be easy enough to keep control of, they reason. Some guy wants to play a high-level character, you just throw tougher villains at him. Or catch him in his sleep. Or wait for him to tick off a whole crowd of people and get bum-rushed. No problem. Similar tactics are put forth for monsters. Keep them in check with doors too small for them to pass through, or specialized NPCs armed against them, or popular prejudices; generally, harp on their drawbacks until the players get tired of it. "You will certainly see," writes Gygax, "the impossibility of any lasting success for a monster player character." In each case the attempt at self-glorification is put down handily by preventing its success; same principle you'd use to discourage any undesirable behavior in a puppy.

Well and good. But that's still presuming that self-promotion is the goal, that role-play is just like a board game, zero sum, something the player either wins or loses. What if that isn't the point? I've been working with a group of people who are all pretty much interested in spinning a good yarn, people who go to a lot of trouble to tailor their characters, compose exhaustive personal histories, and stay in keeping during play. And it's come up, subtly; a character will have a military history, or a long life of street crime, years of deer-poaching, whatever. Some sort of relevant experience that qualifies the character to be adventuring, or at least explains the possession of eccentric habits and exotic weaponry. Nevertheless, the character starts at square one with everybody else. Why? Doesn't that prior experience count? Is it really true that nothing can prepare you for your first adventure?

Another way of looking at it: why on earth would a bunch of previously unacquainted but equally unskilled would-be adventurers take up together? Realism was the arbiter of fairness, once. Well, what's realistic about that? Wouldn't mercenary types be more likely to get their starts under the wings of the more experienced? Doesn't some sort of apprentice system seem immeasurably more likely to be in practice among real people who want to survive? Maybe a bunch of friends would set out together; there are reasons why it might happen. But why the rule? Life is not high school. People are not gathered together and sorted by degree of achievement.

This is a very recent realization for me; or anyway it's only recently that I've put it in words and given it thought explicitly. Realism was introduced into my gaming life as a companion to fairness, two faces of one idea, but that view was flawed from the beginning; you can't have both. Sorry to pull an old saw on you, but it's the truth, after all: life never was fair. So you have to choose between the two. Do you play to make a story that's compelling and meaningful, or were you wanting a battlefield where you and your friends can slug it out for supremacy, with a little pizza and coke on the side?

So look at it like that. A player wants to run a high-level character. So what? Well, that character is going to be tougher than all the others, and things that challenge other characters might be old hat to one like that. Yes, and that character will have a good chance of becoming a leader in the group (though not at all certain), because of the clout that comes with personal power. Well, that's all true. Maybe that's the story the player is interested in telling, though. And is that such a bad story? That's the very essence of a hero-story; heroes are rarely required to start humbly and work their way up. Ask your nearest folklore expert; the world is full of tales of greatness. Why? Because we like them. Just as a big fat example, look at The Lord of the Rings. This is the central classic of modern fantasy, and there sure isn't any kind of equality between characters going on in here. The original fellowship of nine ranges from a couple of adolescent pygmies to a minor divinity. But it makes sense. That's the point; it's a tale worth telling.

And that's the bottom line for me these days. Chance, in my mind, is for settling disputes, and avoiding them; without a number system there would be endless argument about who won a fight and how. But that's as far as fairness goes. And realism ends at a certain point, as well; magic is unreal, after all, and dragons violate the square-cube law (or so I'm told), and any realistic representation of a Medieval society would have to involve horrifying injustice and discrimination of every sort, filth and disease, true squalor of a sort that nobody wants to relive. The aim is story; imagery and meaning are more valuable to the game than either truth or equity.

Lately this kind of thinking is the root of all my questions and answers. There are a lot of issues it brings up. For instance, the common practice of scaling individual adventures so that the party will be challenged, but not overwhelmed, by the opposition. Does that make any more sense than the regulated levels of the PCs? Or a related practice, that of withholding magical weapons until the players have reached certain levels; why can't a first-level duffer inherit a charmed blade from a grandfather? What about the uniformity of intelligent monsters? Surely, if a kobold is of average human intelligence, it could as easily train and specialize as a human could; it's just another sentient being, little more different from a human than a dwarf is. Need it be evil, for that matter? Why can't mages wear armor? Why can't a really weak person choose to be a fighter?

Anything goes, as far as I'm concerned, that's my answer, anything that has reason to have happened and won't absolutely prevent a decent story line. It only needs to keep me interested. We're role-gaming. This isn't checkers. It isn't going to be fair, not really, because it never really could have been. But one way or another, it's going to be a good ride, and checkers is boring.

Written Word