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.

1 comment:

  1. (higher level characters are more lucky?)<

    Wow, in over 30 years of D&D I never once thought about that. But having higher hit points is supposed to actually be, in part, a reflection of a characters luck. But not just in combat?

    This...this will require me to rethink a couple things.