Saturday, July 28, 2018

Two Good Links on Resource Management

I'm not the only one with resource mobilization on her mind.
In his book Art Worlds, Howard Becker proposes that individual genius isn't what creates art, art is created by communities of artists - working together, trading ideas, improving on one another's techniques, discarding unnecessary elements, refining the elements they keep. In this view Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson didn't invent D&D, the Lake Geneva wargaming scene invented D&D. It's obvious that there would be no Tekumel without D&D, it's less obvious, but no less true, that there would be no D&D as we know it without the educational supply companies mass-producing unusual-sided dice as classroom aids. Individual artists get credit and blame for the final products that bear their names, but if those products are credit-worthy, it's because of the community who helped invent, test, prove, and refine the ideas and techniques that went into that product, because of the community's theorists who justified and explained the ideas, because of the community's trained audience members who had already learned to appreciate what the product offered. It might require painstaking historical research to uncover the individual contributions of the community members, it might be impossible if insufficient records were kept of ephemeral conversations. Individuals get credit. But it's the community that creates.
My point is, resource management is having a cultural moment within what I would call the Old School Renaissance roleplaying scene. (Other people might call this scene/community by a different name, the self-identity of any scene is one of the things its theorists and aestheticians argue over and refine.) I've written a couple posts about resource management, but I'm not the only one thinking about it right now. One of my goals is to take stock of other people's ideas, but I'm not even alone in my stock-taking. Another of my goals is to look for places to innovate, but any innovations I think of will not be my ideas alone, they will be ideas I only had, ideas I only could have had, because of what other people wrote and thought.
Other people working on the same idea as you doesn't mean that you (and the world more generally) is in danger of running out or using up all possible ideas on that topic. It means the opposite. It means that's where the action is, at least right now. It means that ideas will come thick and fast from all corners, good ideas getting replaced by better ideas, today's draft torn down to make way for tomorrow's revision. And if someone else has literally the same idea you just had and posts it first, all it means is that you both looked as the same inspiration, both experienced the same eureka. The same idea might be thought up by many people simultaneously, because it's not any individual's idea, it's the community's. Stay involved, keep trying, speak up faster next time. You may not get credit, out of the whole community, hardly anyone will get credit, but you can still be a part of the scene. That's what's going on with resource management in the OSR right now.
Necropraxis offers a great overview of good ideas that have come out of the OSR, almost all of them related to resource management, or at least ideas that make RM-play possible. Half of Brendan's post reminds me of my own rough outline for my post series, half is full of ideas and suggestions that don't necessarily seem to be part of RM-play, but are principles that are necessary to make resource management function at the table.
"Make chargen fast and easy. Support fully random character generation. Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping."
If you want to free up the cognitive resources necessary to pay attention to resource management, one place to cut complexity and decision-making is in character generation. Making starting gear randomly rather than painstakingly-selected speeds things up a lot, but it also has another consequence I'll talk about in a second. Plus, as Out for Blood (who Brendan links to) explains, random character generation is quick, quick chargen makes frequent character death possible and more palatable, and character death makes random chargen more fair by preferentially culling weaker characters faster, giving players more time to develop strong characters through gameplay.
"Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games."
A game where you're worrying about running out of food or water or light is inherently a low-power game. Keeping gameplay grounded and low-fantasy leaves room that makes resource management possible. Superheroes don't count matchsticks. Gods don't carry flint and steel.
"Minimize bookkeeping. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics."
Figure out the simplest version of things, so that you can use that if you need to, so that you have a baseline to add complexity to if you want to. Use something because you want it, ignore it because you don't. Don't feel forced to include accounting you find unnecessary, don't feel forced to exclude things you want because you can't figure out an easy way to count them.
The Scones Alone also has a recent post about resource management, ostensibly for Into the Odd, but his ideas could be applied to pretty much any old-school D&D-type game. To me, there is one big idea here, and then lots of other smart observations. (Also, I haven't read Into the Odd's latest playtest document, so I'm not completely certain how much of what he's written is new, and how much of it is just new to me.) The big idea is expedition resources. For vital resources like food, water, torches, and rope, one character carries the party's entire supply as a single indivisible object. What impresses me about this idea is that it's simpler than what you might otherwise think is the simplest version of this idea (which would be that each character carries their own supply of torches, let's say, as a single indivisible bundle.)
"If even one character in the group is carrying a single quantity of the resource, there is a sufficient amount for the entire group to use. They have an expected use that does not ordinarily deplete the resource. Creative uses of the resource trigger a Luck Roll that may deplete the resource. Only three states for vital resources: sufficient, resource about to run out, resource gone. If nobody in the group has the resource, the party suffers some negative effect."

Every vital resource has an expected use that doesn't deplete the resource at all (so for food, for example, one ration in one character's gear feeds all party members). Making creative use of a resource triggers a luck roll (Brian's example for food is dropping scraps to distract a monster, you could also imagine leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, eating extra portions to heal damage, or feeding an NPC you just met). The possible outcomes of the luck roll are that the resource runs out, that the resource has only a single use left, or that you get lucky and the resource remains un-depleted.

I like very much that this idea removes the shopping question "how much is enough?" from resource management, and focuses all the attention on the dungeoneering question "how shall we use this during play?" The right amount of anything to buy is one. One is enough ... as long as you use it exclusively for its intended purpose. And this is true regardless of how many people are in your party, so there's no wondering if each person needs to buy extra torches because there are fewer of you this week than last. This approach takes the classic lamp-oil trade off "shall we use it for light or shall we use it as a weapon?" and finds a way to generalize it to all the classic resources. Use your resources as intended and you're done, they're managed. Or use them creatively, which uses them up. Perfect. That's just about the perfect resource management decision, and in The Scones Alone's approach, it's the only RM decision.

"Notice something though? The group has only one of each Expedition Resource. That's a 'sufficient' quantity for the group's expected needs. But if a Luck Roll happens to deplete one of those resources, or one of the characters falls into a lava pit, the group now lacks that resource. We've successfully eliminated the guesswork about exactly how many individual rations, how many flasks of water, how many oil flasks are needed, and instead replaced it with the question of: 'How much redundancy do you want?' Or, what is your risk tolerance? Which is a more interesting question to me. It also happens to be an easier question to manage resources for. Maybe the party hires a porter to carry an extra everything? Of course, porters sometimes get scared and run away with all of their stuff..."
Again, this is smart. If a character dies (or at least dies in certain ways) or if an NPC fails their morale and runs away, you're not just down a person, you're potentially down your entire supply of a vital resource. It's the kind of risk that would basically never occur if you're counting individual torches. I mean yes, you could still run the risk of running out of individual torches, but probably only if you under-shopped. Here the question is not "should we buy 20, 40, or 60?" it's "should we run the risk of carrying only one, or give up the space to bring a spare?"
"Players quickly have so much gold that buying more-than-sufficient quantities of vital resources is trivial."
Resource-management heavy games may inherently be poor and/or low-power games, but if your character is routinely bringing back so little gold from the dungeon that you can't afford flashlight batteries and bottled water, then your campaign world may be a little too crapsack. Remember you're risking death down there. If all you're getting in return is pocket-change that leaves you unsure about whether or not you can afford a microwave burrito and to refill your Zippo lighter, then the risk/reward structure of your world may be too cruel for anyone to survive. Brian's idea would also justify charging non-trivial prices to replenish your expedition resources. Remember, you're not just buying a torch, you're buying all the torches you'll need to get through the dungeon.
"It is difficult for players to know how many individual rations, flasks of water, torches, etc. will be sufficient for the current session. Players will usually have either so much of a vital resource that it ceases to matter or so little that it feels like they guessed incorrectly."
To this I would add that if you are using fully-random character generation, including randomly generated starting equipment, then it feels perverse to punish the players with their characters getting lost in the dark forever and then starving to death, just because you, the judge, made them roll on a random table and then wouldn't let them go shopping afterwards. This is the point I said I would come back to earlier. If random starting equipment is a best-practice that gets games going faster and lets people actually play, then you can't subsequently force them to wallow in misery because they had random starting equipment rather than a painstakingly selected bespoke panoply.
"The more differences items have in relation to encumbrance, the more difficult the system is for players to manage accurately and efficiently. Limit encumbered status to, at most, two states: normal and overburdened. All items are either normal or Bulky. Normal items take 1 slot. Bulky items take 2 slots. There is no 'X quantity of this item fits in 1 slot'. If you have 4 vials of poison, it takes 4 slots to carry them."
"A single treasure is treated as a single, indivisible item. Most treasures are Bulky. Some treasures are Unwieldy - they cannot be carried in your inventory. You must come up with a plan, equipment, personnel, etc. to transport them. An important idea is the indivisibility of treasures. Take this into consideration when making your treasures. A heavy, golden vase makes a better treasure than a pile of gold coins. The latter immediately re-raises the 'how many coins per slot' question. If you really want chests of coins, play the 'It's a game. The chest of coins is a single, indivisible Bulky item' card."
Brian gives his player 8 encumbrance slots per character. Note that the popular encumbrance equal to Strength means an average character in an OSR game will get to carry 10 items, after packing rations, torches, and rope, they're left with 7 discretionary spots. In a party of 3 using expedition resources, each character can pack a single expedition resource and be left with 7 discretionary encumbrance slots. Perfect.
Brian's advice here is also just one more reminder that if you're going to use encumbrance, you have to keep it simple. I'm of the opinion that encumbrance is often difficult to use because we often ask it to do too much, tracking significant items, insignificant items, bundles of items, armors that can take up between 0-6 encumbrance slots, incorporating adjustments for strength, multiple movement rates, etc. Brian keeps it dead simple. A specific number of items, period. No bundles, nothing is special. Just this much and no more, and that's it. Again, if you want to add more complications later, there's still some value in identifying the simplest possible version for now. The simplest simplest version is still just to ignore these things entirely, but the simplest version that actually uses some form of encumbrance is probably going to look something like this.
The treasure rules are dead simple too, and preserve original D&D's challenge of making treasure an encumbering item, not just something that disappears into hammer space the moment you pick it up. I think caches of coins are still do-able, but I would suggest making each cache be a unique currency or denomination. The "late Renaissance gold florins with a rare anti-pope obverse minting" are a separate cache from the "Iron Age iron coins dating from Vandal Savage's third empire right before he was overthrown by Kru'll the Eternal" - and both of them are going to a numismatist to get changed for cash before you can spend them. Brian also points out something that I've noticed recently, and that Luka Rejec is obviously thinking about with his rules for "hacking up treasure", which is that there's a distinction between items that take up 1 or 2 encumbrance slots, and items that are larger than an individual character can carry. While technically, this issue could come up with adventuring equipment too, more often, it's a problem that arises from treasure, and I don't think it's fair that you, the judge, should show the players some cool treasure and then force them to leave it behind because you couldn't figure out what rules would adjudicate how their characters could carry it.


  1. I always look forward to reading your analytical posts!

  2. Thanks Ynas Midgard! I feel the same way about your posts on thematic rulesets.

  3. Useful ideas well expressed. "painstakingly selected bespoke panoply" just makes me smile. I ended up down several fruitful rabbit holes from here and came out feeling great about the thought that Anne, Necropraxis, Brian and other put into these issues we all face.