Saturday, May 11, 2013

dSection: Escalate! Escalate! Escalaaaaaaaate!

I am so sorry for the horrid pun. "dSection" is an idea that I had a while back that I'll probably carry out for a few posts. My intention is to have a series of posts where I delve into various games, dissect out an element from a game's rules system, and then discuss how to apply it back into D&D, as a model for how to do it with a more traditional game. I'm doing that because D&D is a nice baseline that everyone in the hobby knows and can relate to. For the debut, I'm gonna take a closer look at part of Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard. As one last note: this has not been playtested in any way. Mostly, it's my mulling over an idea. So take that into account if you've got critiques; this is more about the base idea, and not the details.

The Dogs Intro
Way on out in the Wild West That Never Was, Dogs in the Vineyard spins a yarn of a people protected by the King of Life against the demons who prowl about the wilderness. These demons roam about, searching for towns that have abandoned the ways of the King of Life in even the smallest of ways--for when a town begins to stray, they lose that protection. The Dogs are an order of lawkeepers who ride from town to town, setting things right in sinful towns. If it helps, imagine a Mormon cowboy version of Judge Dredd, except that they're not the only law around.

Dogs is about pushing your characters, finding out what happens when they (as teenagers, no less) are asked to make life-or-death decisions, to stand up and cleanse a community for its own good. It's not pretty, and it's actually pretty intense. The game is all about asking "how long can you keep this up?" and "how far will you push yourself?" One of the ways that it does this is through the mechanic of Escalation.

Escalating Things
In Dogs, there are four different "arenas" of conflict: talking or arguing, physical action (like shoving or wrestling), fighting with weapons (like a knife, an improvised weapon, etc.), and shooting. Each arena is respectively more damaging (but I won't go into that mechanic in this post), and rolls two of your four stats. In the game, you pick one arena to start out in, your choice. That gives you dice to roll, according to your stat. The dice rolled form a pool that acts as a resource during the conflict, and you spend dice to counter your opponent's moves.

When you run out of dice, you have to give in. But that's where Escalation comes in. If you switch to another arena, you get to roll the dice from the two stats in that arena. So you could be wrestling, and losing, so you decide to escalate to guns.

Admit it. At least 50% of you were waiting for that meme.

Back on track. Escalating to guns means that you get to add more dice to your pool (including the dice associated with your gun), but it also means that you've committed in a new way to the fight. To me, that's awesome. It really helps measure the characters. You give them a yardstick, and see how far they'll push in order to win the fight.

Back to D&D
This doesn't necessarily map directly to D&D; after all, there's no such thing as a resource pool that gets depleted during a fight, without which you lose. Right? Oh. Huh. I honestly didn't have that in mind when I started writing. Holy epiphany, Batman! So, let's have a look at that. This is probably going to break verisimilitude for you, assuming that you thought D&D had any verisimilitude left. Your HP is a measure of how much longer you can stay in the fight. Tweak HP (or damage) a bit, and suddenly it's a fragile little beast. But that's okay, because now you have a way to regain it: escalation.

You might be wondering how escalation works in D&D. "Wait, so we start off fights by talking?" And that doesn't really work, no. D&D is a game about fighting and being tricksy (and being a wizard), so that doesn't quite hold up. But if escalation is about characters finding the limits of their ethics, we already have something like that in D&D: the oft-maligned alignment. Okay, you can stop rolling your eyes now. But seriously--let's see what we can do with this overworked animal.

In D&D, alignment has two components: Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic and Good/Neutral/Evil. But that's not nearly as interesting as making it personal. So let's do that. Each player can write their own two-word alignment, and then beneath that, they write three Lines, absolute statements that describe an action that they will always or never take to win a fight. This is their Code.
Grawl Jibberfingers the Thief is Chaotic Neutral. Her Code is comprised of the following Lines...[1] Never ignore a comrade. [2] Never cripple without killing. [3] Always attack the weakest.
Whenever you cross one of those Lines, you can immediately recover a substantial amount of HP; but you can only cross a Line once per fight. I'm not sure how much HP, but it should be sizeable; maybe comparable to 4th Edition's healing surges. At any rate, crossing a Line represents the fact that your character is coming back into the fight with a renewed vigor, because they're committed. It's up to you to decide what this means for them.
Grawl's in the middle of a fight, and her allies are in a tough spot. She's got a nice squishy wizard in front of her, though. Despite her allies' calls for help, she ignores her comrades, crossing a line and recovering from the fireball that the wizard just blasted her with.
After the fight, you're free to rewrite a Line that you've crossed to something different. You might even decide that your overall alignment has changed, but that's up to you. As in Dogs, it's up to you to decide where your character falls.

It's not perfect, but I think it's an interesting idea. What do you think? Do you have a better idea on how to implement the idea of escalation into the game?