Friday, June 19, 2009

Rules are for amateurs

My last post was basically a rant about how being a DM has morphed over time from referee to computer program. This is directly related to the number of rules present in the game; the less rules, the more opportunity for judgment based on situation. I suppose I could say something about how the rules should simply be a framework, but that should be self-evident, at least as far as D&D is concerned. A thought: any meaningful game or sport requires a referee. Sometimes the referee can be a player as well, but they must demonstrate impartiality during rulings. For example, I bought Heroscape a few months ago and played a couple games with my buddy. Neither of us had any experience with the game, but I had read all the rules. During the process of learning the game, I referred to the rules several times to adjudicate situations, but tried to apply them fairly. There were a few instances that I came to the conclusion that, by the rules, my buddy was at an advantage. It was more important to me that the game be run fairly and I win through sound strategy than by lying or misinterpreting rules. We even discussed certain situations and gave each other help in moving our pieces. Later games had no "friendly" help, and there was less need to refer to the rulebook as we knew how the game operated. Still, the groundwork was laid and there was an understanding that rules questions would be refereed fairly. As competition becomes more intense, the need for a third-party ref is more important.

Something I was thinking about last night: it seems that after a certain point, ad hoc mechanics are better than explict mechanics, at least for D&D. Perhaps any game, actually. Baseball has a lot of rules, for instance, but there isn't ANY rule that tells a player how fast he must run to first base, how to throw a ball, where he can hit the ball with the bat, etc. To include such rules seems absolutely meaningless and would make the game impossible to play. "Three strikes is an out" is probably equivalent to "Roll over 18 to hit this monster" in D&D. These are concrete rules that define how the games are to be played. But really, both rules simply provide the framework for their respective games. What constitutes a strike is for the umpire to decide. What constitutes a hit is for the DM to decide. As every pitch differs in speed and trajectory, and every batter is of a different size and holds his bat in a unique style, the umpire must make a decision for each and every pitch to determine if it is a strike or not. The "strike zone" isn't arbitrary, but it obviously cannot be applied the same in every single instance. The DM must decide if an 18 will hit a monster given the situation. It is entirely possible the monster is shielded by a table, or that the ground is slippery and it's not as agile, thus there might be a modifier to the 18.

In my own experience, rules directly impede play. I am not talking about "framework mechanics", but specific rules. T0-hit charts constitute the framework of D&D as far as I'm concerned. They are mechanical constructions that are applied to situations, namely combat in this instance. The DM applies those charts to combat, and thus determines if a monster or character got hit. Sometimes he might apply those charts to see if a character can grasp a scroll (specific example from the AD&D DMG...) or perhaps to grab a ledge to keep from plummeting into a pit. Maybe he could use them for gambling (higher level characters are more lucky?) or as a quick-n-dirty skill chart. In reality, the to-hit chart is merely a framework that shows the relationship between character level and effectiveness in combat, but it can be interpreted in any way that seems appropriate. The rules that impede play tell the DM how to apply those charts. Extensive lists of modifiers slow down combat, for instance. Certainly, slowing down play isn't always a bad thing in a game. Instant replay in the NFL is a good thing when applied to the proper situations (game winning TD catch in the endzone). Having a long, tactical combat with a major villain using all the appropriate modifiers might actually be good as it will make a victory more satisfying. Instant reply for every single catch, or using all the combat modifiers for a lowly kobold...waste of time.

However, rules about application, for the most part, are bad. Yes, I am using a normative statement. Guidelines are good, rules are bad. Guidelines allow a referee to use his own judgment and enable the game to flow at an even pace and fairly apply those guidelines to every situation that arises, even if completely new. Specific rules are inherently unable to apply mechanical frameworks to every situation; as I stated in the last post, this implies that certain things are "impossible" to do. Well, they really are because the rules won't allow them to occur. By extension, sometimes even guidelines get in the way; mechanics can cause problems if too rigid. Ad hoc mechanics or guidelines, proposed and used on the spot, are extremely useful for a game such as D&D.

My own campaign moved to Castles & Crusades for a bit. One of the mechanics is the Prime Attribute which is tied to skill use. Rogues (thieves!) for instance have Dex as a Prime which influences their ability to Sneak or Hide. Other classes can Hide, but they aren't as good. Or something like that; I'm sure all the C&C advocates will school me on how it works. The problem I had with the mechanic isn't that it sucks or is hard to use or doesn't make any sense. In reality, it's a great idea. No, what happens is that, in play, sometimes it slows down the action unnecessarily. An ad hoc mechanic, such as determining if a wizard knows anything about a thoul, might suffice. Why do I need to know that there's a skill called "monster knowledge" and tied to Int and that wizards roll a Prime and other classes don't? Further, I must apply a modifier that is dependent on how difficult knowing what abilities a thoul has. As a DM acting as referee, I find it easier to simply determine that a 4th level wizard has probably heard of a thoul before, and I let them roll a d20, compare that to Int and go from there. Fundamentally, these two are the same. The second case is a lot quicker, though. "Monster knowledge" doesn't even exist in C&C, I just made it up. How does C&C handle such a thing? Well, it says you roll against a Prime or something like that. Why do I need a mechanism that is simply an explicit description of how I'd handle the situation anyway? Ad hoc mechanics are much more flexible and in fact more applicable to any ruling a DM has to make. C&C is a good game, but I noticed that a lot of the time I was more worried about fairly assiging a level to the Prime check than simply using my own judgment. The paradigm implied by the rules and mechanics actually was a limiting factor simply because they led me to believe that certain things had to be handled in specific ways as opposed to simply approaching them from a logical way.

The best games I ever ran where when I was a kid, knowing jack about the rules, determining what happened by being fair and fast. The worst games were always those that got bogged down in mechanics. Something about rules creates rules lawyers, and not having any explicit rules means arguments cannot exist. Again, this goes back to the social contract between DM and Player. It is my estimation that the only real reason a DM needs to exist when playing D&D is to keep the game somewhat of a mystery. It is difficult to pose challenges if you already know the answers, but this has nothing to do with fairly handling combats or whatever.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dungeon Master: Referee vs. Idiot

I have a bad habit about not posting to blogs unless I'm really pissed off about something. It's a lot easier to rant about a topic that annoys me than speak positively; blogging is certainly cathartic in that regard. It's been a while since my last post, so I purposefully thought of something annoying and stupid that would spurn me to write: Dungeon Mastering like an idiot.

What exactly do I mean by this...back in ye olde dayes, being the DM meant quite a bit. The DM was the final authority, tthe man with the power who described the world and told you whether or not you hit the orc or you didn't. If you hit AC 5 and the DM said the orc wasn't damaged, there wasn't any arguing. Well, okay, there might be a little bit of annoyance, but God knows you didn't complain more than half a second. Perhaps there was a reason this orc had better armor than every other orc in existence. Maybe he had a magic ring or something. Who cares, as a player you trusted the DM to not screw you over. The DM had signed an implied social contract with the players to collectively seek a common goal which was fun. If the DM arbitrated situations that were obvious hose jobs, people usually never played with that guy ever again. In every sense of the word, the DM was a referee. He applied the rules fairly, not favoring any particular side or outcome and created ad hoc rulings whenever situations came up not covered by the book. The best DMs would give clues and hints but would allow the players to succeed or fail on their own merit or stupidity. Deus ex machina wasn't in the vocabulary of a good DM. If there was a TPK, the players were to blame for being dumbasses. The DM didn't "set out" to kill them. The attitude that the DM was a referee allowed meaningful gaming to take place. Obstacles were overcome through guile and strategy, not because they had any meaning in some over-arching plot. Certainly, most DMs would tend to favor the players over the monsters in situations that were unclear, but NBA refs tend to favor superstars when calling fouls; the players are definitely the most important aspect of the game and thus are often given the benefit of the doubt.

The referee model for DMs really succeeded because it is impossible for a game, any game, to take into account every single variable unless it isn't realistic or is extremely simplistic. Chess has a rule for every situation, and bears no resemblance to real life. Some might go so far as to call chess a mathematical exercise instead of a game; I wouldn't, but that is a logical conclusion. D&D is supposed to model fantasy reality. It is ludicrous to think any set of rules would be able to take into account all aspects of such a world. No book exists that tells me how every single thing operates HERE, much less in a fictional reality. Such rules do not need to exist when a DM acting as referee is present. If a player says his character wants to get drunk, does the DM need to refer to "drinking rules"? I've seen such rules, but are they necessary? A good DM might think, well, it takes me 5 beers to get a buzz and I'm average size, the character has an 18 CON and is pretty big, so he'll be drunk after 12. Easy and reasonable. Being a referee means deciding outcomes based on reason and logical extension of known facts.

Modern versions of D&D seem to completely throw out the referee notion and treat the DM like some sort of proxy to a computer program. There are countless rules for every single task a character might take. If a rule doesn't exist that describes how to do something, the assumption is that it cannot be done. Even if the action makes perfect sense, if it's not in the rules you can't do it. Further, these same rules layout "necessities" that must be present in the game for it to operate correctly. Parties of characters must meet specific levels of challenges, gain a certain amount of treasure, level up at a linear rate based upon session length, etc. The DM's only job is to apply (if possible) the rules, not interpret them. Creating a new rule is out of the question, and ad hoc judgments are an impossibility. The DM is nothing more than an impediment, with the players having some sense of entitlement to succeeding, regardless of how they approach the game or play their characters. If they show up and roll dice, they'll be level 10 in 6 months. If a PC dies, the DM must make amends for killing him off. Magic weapon destroyed? It is the DM's responsibilty to replace it so the character can be made whole again.

Fuck that. DMs are not computers, nor are they required to coddle lazy players who need a carrot dangling over their face to have any motivation to even roll dice. Treating D&D as a contest between DM and Player is truly the worst thing that has ever happened to rpgs. The DM isn't against the players any more than he's with them; his job is to be a referee. By acting like a complete idiot, goals and accomplishments in-game are made trivial and marginalized to the point of being completely meaningless. The DM is no longer respected and is simply an impediment to getting more treasure and power. Instead of running the show, the DM is really a second class citizen in the game, with the players calling all the shots.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Archetypes in D&D

A thread over on Dragonsfoot sparked this post. First of all, don't ever try to use logic on the internet; it's a complete waste of time. Further, no matter how valid your point, someone will figure out a way to call you stupid. I tried to be civil at first, but the incessant insistence (nice) that I was wrong was getting on my nerves. I really don't know why some of those guys were trying to "prove me wrong" anyway. I was fairly explicit that idealism and reality are two separate things, but they wanted to ignore that and stretch out the conversation so they could be right. Whatever. Sometimes I troll message boards, sometimes I don't. Might be a good time to go back to trolling on DF as it's fairly obvious most of the people there just have too much time on their hands (see earlier post on this blog).

WHATEVER. Done with that diatribe. My point in the thread was that the character classes in D&D are peripherally related to their literary counterparts, archetypes prevalent throughout heroic fantasy. The classes themselves do not directly model any specific character, but are amalgams of many different character-types. Thieves, for instance, are a combination of Cugel, The Grey Mouser, maybe a bit of Bilbo thrown in. Magic-users are Gandalf, Merlin, Rhialto and a bunch of other guys. I don't see how you can really argue this point as Gygax explicitly states his sources of inspiration. That said, D&D cannot really replicate any of these characters in-game. It sorta does, but to accurately reproduce Gandalf, for instance, is nigh impossible. You can make a MU called Gandalf, but he really won't be like Gandalf in LotR. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does demonstrate that D&D itself is its own genre of fantasy. MUs in D&D behave uniquely and have no analogous literary figure that is the archetypal definition of a D&D wizard.

Given that, D&D character classes replicate D&D archetypes, not literary archetypes. Again, nothing wrong with that. The game is fun. However, a problem crops up when people try to justify certain behaviors in-game by using the literal descriptions of the character classes. That doesn't work, mostly because the character classes, as written, really don't work properly within the context of the game. The classic example is the paladin. Literary references to paladins would not permit them to operate in a generic, dungeon crawling game. I highly doubt Charlemagne would go traipsing about in some dank cave, looking for a coffer of copper pieces, nor would he ask one of his knights to do the same. When you read the description of the paladin character class, the assumptions inherent to that description lead one to believe you're a knight of Charlemagne. But you're really not, you're a D&D paladin. It doesn't take much thought to figure this out. "Hey, D&D dungeon adventuring really wouldn't be something a paladin would do." The step that must be taken is to simply put the character class into the D&D context. The D&D paladin isn't really a knight of Charlemagne, he's a combination of characteristics that resemble those knights, but lives in a different universe with different assumptions. D&D = Greyhawk, which both resembles and differs from every other fantasy world out there. In Greyhawk, paladins go into dungeons to kill goblins. I can live with that, and it makes the class playable in the D&D context. Paladins praying, proselytizing and looking for grails is closer to the literature but don't make for a good game. Thus, for the game part, we need to hand-wave those "realistic" goals and have our paladins go into caves to look for lost treasure. Any sort of flimsy excuse works, even one so lame as "it's a game". In fact, this is the best excuse we can possibly come up with because it IS a game, nothing more. Trying to find some magical justification as to why paladins are killing orcs in caves as opposed to managing their money and trying to figure out a way to feed all their peasants this year is pretty boring. Sure, we can maybe say, "well the peasants are hungry, we need money", and thus the paladin goes to look for gold coins. That's still basically a hand-wave. Again, I have no problem with this, but it seems like a lot of people do. The classes, AS WRITTEN, have no legitimate reason to go out and adventure. Within the context of the D&D game, however, we must simply accept that they do adventure and in fact do it all the time. What's wrong with that? Nothing as far as I'm concerned. I can accept that the classes perform illogical actions on the basis of comparison, i.e. class write-ups vis-a-vis fantasy literature vs. D&D adventuring, because who really gives a fuck in the end? It's fun to have paladins go into wizard's towers and combat kobolds. I don't need any more justification than "fun".

Monday, June 1, 2009

Yeah, right...

I Am A: Lawful Good Human (5th Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment because it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Monks are versatile warriors skilled at fighting without weapons or armor. Good-aligned monks serve as protectors of the people, while evil monks make ideal spies and assassins. Though they don't cast spells, monks channel a subtle energy, called ki. This energy allows them to perform amazing feats, such as healing themselves, catching arrows in flight, and dodging blows with lightning speed. Their mundane and ki-based abilities grow with experience, granting them more power over themselves and their environment. Monks suffer unique penalties to their abilities if they wear armor, as doing so violates their rigid oath. A monk wearing armor loses their Wisdom and level based armor class bonuses, their movement speed, and their additional unarmed attacks per round.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus