Friday, August 29, 2008

Debate

Resolved: That the entire history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons as a set of rules has been one of incremental change in order to minimize, if not outright eliminate, the likelihood that a "bad," which is to say inexperienced, arbitrary, or malicious, referee might adversely affect a player's enjoyment of the game.

39 comments:

  1. I'm honestly inclined to agree. What else explains the inclusion of encounter and treasure balancing systems, if not that?

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  2. I read on Crothian's Livejournal about new RPGs being written to introduce people to gaming, instead of RPGs being games for gamers. Assuming this is the case, and looking back on my early years as a DM, I think they're doing what they should be doing, in this respect. I would have appreciated it back then. It's just that these days I'd rather have less guidance.

    So yes, I agree with the observation. And I add that the goal is a worthy goal.

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  3. This is pretty the consensus among people with an old-school disposition.

    I will add the more recent evolution of the concept, the Tyranny of Fun -- trying to create an environment of fair play by eliminating or toning down systematic (non-DM related) effects that might adversely affect player characters. This is well present in modern game design rhetoric.

    --Melan

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  4. In 4e, They've even allowed the removal of the D/GM! There are somethings I love about 4e, and some things I despise. I honestly can't decide which category that fits into.

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  5. D&D 3e, yes, both my interactions with Skip Williams before it came out and a quote I've seen from Monte Cook explicitly point at this goal.

    4e certainly looks like the same process.

    AD&D 1e, as a core, yes, I've seen enough remarks about standardizing and codifying and tournament play to buy that that was the end at the beginning, at least.

    But, well, the rules tinkering from roughly Unearthed Arcana through the end of 2e? I don't think any of that could really be said to have immunizing from bad DMs as the goal. There were roughly fifteen years of accretions and variant rules and options that needed good DM intervention to keep workable. Look at the difficulties with, say, barbarians and cavaliers. Or the disruption that would come with bad judgment about kits. Or the painful abuses possible in the Players' Options line. Good DMs were more, not less necessary under the reign of the Complete Book of Splats than they were under core AD&D 1e.

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  6. I can agree with that, but I also wish to submit an amendment. That the changes in the rules set is also being influenced by changes in the grenre it was meant to emulate, from pulp fantasy lit to modern action films and its own particular flavor of action-fantasy lit.

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  7. In seen this trend in LARPS particularly NERO LARP, a fantasy boffer larp. Bad results led to policy and rule changes. When you pile on a decade worth of this the result is a fundamentally different game than what it was when you first start. For D&D it just took a little longer.

    It boils down that when you have a people doing something, half of them will be below average. When you are the world's most popular role-playing game that is a lot of people.

    In D&D 4th defense people really need to read the DMG of 4th edition more carefully.

    Yes it give a method of GMless play
    Yes it give a precise system of setting up encounters.
    Yes it gives a parcel system for doling out treasure.

    However they are presented as recommendations. Just like OD&D dungeon level charts for monsters and treasures.

    The new DMG goes into old school, new school, many other schools of playing D&D.

    Every playing style that has been talked about here is discussed in the new DMG. (Which is not new of course as much of that section of new DMG is inspired by Robin Laws of Good Gamemastering)

    Where D&D 4th has issues is the fact is it branded D&D not the game of D&D. That it's power system gives the feel of high powered fantasy 24/7 whereas older editions was more flexible in it's "feel"

    The game itself is solid and does what it advertises. It is about as easy as to prep as OD&D. The crunchy combat is easily learned by the GM and players due to the exception based design.

    Again good game but is is not the D&D game despite the branding.

    This gives the old school community a great opportunity to appeal to players who like the type of game that OD&D/D&D/AD&D 1st represented.

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  8. I'm honestly inclined to agree. What else explains the inclusion of encounter and treasure balancing systems, if not that?

    How is what presented in the 4th DMG any different in goal than the original monster/treasure assortment for OD&D.

    I say goal because in actual design the 4th DMG encounter/parcel system is a much more detailed tool than the level charts used by the original assortments.

    I bring this up because if you want to promote old school gaming you need to focus on what older edition offer. Challenging the player, simple to understand combat, and so on.

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  9. the Tyranny of Fun
    I'm stealing this for the title of my second book.

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  10. Sorry to be rude, but the Tyranny of Fun is hyperbolic bullshit. Nothing is more needlessly antagonistic than to declare the way someone else decides to design or play a damn game as tyranny.

    Or would it be best to let discussions of OD&D's rules in comparison be framed in terms of the Tyranny of Nostaliga?

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  11. I agree that the rules changed at each new edition in order to weed out bad DMs. But it wasn't a steady trend. 3.5e made bad DMs more likely than all the previous editions because of the complicated nature of the rules. IMHO, 4e has helped to remedy the situation.

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  12. AD&D 1e, as a core, yes, I've seen enough remarks about standardizing and codifying and tournament play to buy that that was the end at the beginning, at least.

    Most definitely. It's pretty clear to me that one of the driving forces behind AD&D was the need for standardization for use in tournament play.

    But, well, the rules tinkering from roughly Unearthed Arcana through the end of 2e? I don't think any of that could really be said to have immunizing from bad DMs as the goal. There were roughly fifteen years of accretions and variant rules and options that needed good DM intervention to keep workable. Look at the difficulties with, say, barbarians and cavaliers. Or the disruption that would come with bad judgment about kits. Or the painful abuses possible in the Players' Options line. Good DMs were more, not less necessary under the reign of the Complete Book of Splats than they were under core AD&D 1e.

    That's an interesting observation. I'm not sure what I think about it, because I dropped out of D&D for a good portion of 2e's run, but I think there's some truth to what you say.

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  13. I can agree with that, but I also wish to submit an amendment. That the changes in the rules set is also being influenced by changes in the grenre it was meant to emulate, from pulp fantasy lit to modern action films and its own particular flavor of action-fantasy lit.

    Certainly. It's not an either/or situation, although I do tend to think that the perceived need to weaken the possibility of a poor referee has had a more powerful impact on the game's development than the shift in genre expectations. Of course, I haven't thought as much about the alternative, so I reserve the right to modify my interpretation.

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  14. Rob,

    I have read 4e and I generally agree with your assessment. I think it's probably a fun and enjoyable game. I think, though, that its mechanics militate against anything that's genuinely old school and that its obsession with balance in all things eliminates most of the "rough edges" that helped make OD&D and 1e the quirky, sometimes frustrating, but always memorable games they were. I also think that, had it not been branded as D&D far fewer people would complain about the changes but also far fewer people would have cared about the game overall.

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  15. I say goal because in actual design the 4th DMG encounter/parcel system is a much more detailed tool than the level charts used by the original assortments.

    The treasure tables of earlier editions only "scaled" in the sense that more powerful monsters typically had greater treasures. Typically. There was a random element that ensured this wasn't always the case and there was also a certain degree of "naturalism" as well, meaning that certain types of monsters, regardless of their relative power, had certain types of treasures because they ought to. The only balance that existed was in whether the referee allowed certain types of monsters into his game in the first place.

    I bring this up because if you want to promote old school gaming you need to focus on what older edition offer. Challenging the player, simple to understand combat, and so on.

    Absolutely. From where I am sitting, the old school gaming projects most likely to succeed are those that present old school principles in ways that are appealing. That's why I love Points of Light; it's a near-perfect example of this approach in action.

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  16. Or would it be best to let discussions of OD&D's rules in comparison be framed in terms of the Tyranny of Nostaliga?

    In some cases, yes. I think I'm rare among old schoolers in not believing that every single jot and tittle in OD&D is there because of some grand philosophical principle that Gygax and Arneson were trying to impart to the hobby. Yet there are those who hold that view and I think they're guided primarily by nostalgia rather than rational thought. That's why I don't think that everything that's come into the hobby post-1983 is worthless and beneath consideration, even if I do think that most of it has been driven by very different concerns and interests than those that are primary to me.

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  17. There's a definite lack of trust in the newer games, yes.

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  18. "I agree that the rules changed at each new edition in order to weed out bad DMs"

    While the goal may have been weeding out bad DM's in practice the changes limited DM discretion, which curtails both Bad and Good DMs, with the effect of moving towards "vanilla" Dms. Of course really good DMs will just ignore the part in the book that tries to vanillify them.

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  19. Hi, James. Offtopic - I found another AD&D ad with Elise (maybe you saw it). Vide my blog.

    Greets
    J.

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  20. I have read 4e and I generally agree with your assessment. I think it's probably a fun and enjoyable game. I think, though, that its mechanics militate against anything that's genuinely old school and that its obsession with balance in all things eliminates most of the "rough edges" that helped make OD&D and 1e the quirky, sometimes frustrating, but always memorable games they were.

    Curious, in your opinion so what newer (or even different older RPGs, Runequest,etc) can be run old school and which can't. Maybe a future blog post in answering this question.


    I also think that, had it not been branded as D&D far fewer people would complain about the changes but also far fewer people would have cared about the game overall.


    I agree 100% with this. It is a different game (good or bad) that is branded D&D. I believe Wizards has underestimated the turn off this would be to the existing market. Combined with the failure of the GSL have left people seeking alternatives in other system. *

    Rob Conley
    *Note I am not saying that 4th edition will cease being the market leader.

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  21. "the entire history" overstates the case, but I agree that you outline a devinite design trend.

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  22. 'There's a definite lack of trust in the newer games, yes.'

    I would almost go as far as to say there is an assumption of mistrust in modern game design. It makes me wonder if this is done in order to make games more playable when the groups are composed of people who are less familiar with each other, and so more desiring of balance and fairness through rules.

    I may be making an assumption here, but it does seem that the earliest RPGs were coming from people who were involved with clubs and groups, which I think would help a lot in the social side of things. There was a pool of players who were familiar with each other.

    I gotta admit though this is an idea that should be subject to scrutiny.

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  23. I think there are three trends that have all converged on and cannibalized each other to bring us the modern mainstream RPG, the more recent versions of D&D included:

    1) Fidelity of Model: The earliest tabletop RPGs were primarily designed to simulate imaginary realities (aka “sandboxes”). Early versions of D&D offered a relatively simple model that aspired to simulate a simple reality. Many of the designers who followed in the wake of Gygax and Arneson believed that an obvious way to improve upon D&D was to create a more complex model that allowed for the simulation of more complex realities. From the late 70s until the late 80s, rules complexity was usually seen as a virtue—giant skill lists, large numbers of attributes and hefty page counts were all selling points. These newer games were all more “realistic” than D&D. (Wargaming experienced a similar fad in the late 60s and early 70s when games like D-DAY and AFRIKA CORPS started to give way to more complex designs--THIRD REICH, PANZER LEADER and SPI’s “monsters”).

    CHIVALRY & SORCERY and RUNEQUEST were the early poster children of this era. It may have reached its apotheosis with games like SPI’s DRAGONQUEST, AH’s POWERS & PERILS and a couple of the later FGU designs (I’m thinking of AFTERMATH! And SPACE OPERA). Remember the absurdly over-complicated rules for hand-to-hand combat in Merle Rasmussen’s TOP SECRET? Eventually the complexity became a liability but a lot of the concepts born here became part of the working set of assumptions that most mainstream RPG designers have employed ever since—“skill” systems, detailed rules for tactical combat, etc. Those assumptions eventually found their way into D&D (beginning with the SURVIVAL GUIDES published for 1st edition AD&D).

    2) “Helping” the GM: Eventually designers started to justify their complex rules by insisting that complexity actually makes it *easier* to GM. This school of thought holds that a GM is never more flustered than when he is confronted by a situation that isn’t explicitly covered by the rules. What’s the poor DM to do when a non-thief tries to sneak past a guard, when the adventurers interrogate a captured ogre for information, and so forth? Gygax’s preferred solution to such problems—briefly consider the factors at play, assign an arbitrary percentage and roll the dice—was seen as inadequate. This trend ultimately led us down the path toward even more comprehensive skill lists, long lists of explicit situational modifiers and the “universal mechanic” that aspires to resolve *any* situation.

    (Personally, I think this whole movement is based on a false premise. I believe it’s *far* easier to assign an arbitrary chance for success than it is to master countless rules pages full of exceptions and specific modifiers. Nor do I believe “universal mechanics” are inherently superior to composite systems. For example, a common knock against pre-3E D&D is that it “uses an entirely separate system to resolve thieving abilities. But who doesn’t understand “90% chance to climb walls?” Learning this “separate system” requires zero overhead. I believe it’s self-evident that earlier versions of D&D are *far* easier to run than their modern cousins despite these efforts to help the DM.)

    This trend also gave us the more explicit guidelines for balancing encounters and rewards that are ingrained in D&D 3E and 4E.

    3) Character Differentiation: Beginning with CHAMPIONS in the mid-80s, RPG designs started to place a high premium on the differentiation of characters. Mechanics that reinforced the fact that your strong-jawed hero is somehow different from my strong-jawed hero were now important. The differentiating mechanics built into early versions of D&D were crude—mechanically, all Fighting Men are pretty much the same—but nobody saw this is a problem. Back in those days it wasn’t the mechanics that were supposed to make your character unique; it was his exploits and the way you chose to play him. The movement away from simulation/sandbox games toward “story” oriented games made mechanical differentiation even more important. Most modern systems offer up variations on Advantages, Drawbacks, Disadvantages, Bennies, Perks, etc. all designed to better differentiate PCs. It was this trend that brought us 2Es “kits,” 3E’s “feats” and “prestige classes,” and 4E’s “powers.” I’d argue that this trend more than any other has guided the evolution of D&D over the years.

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  24. "3) Character Differentiation"

    I gotta say, when I think of the common criticisms leveled at D&D, the class and level system is right near the top. Though thanks to MMORPGs, niche protection through classes is having a resurgence, I am aware that there are plenty of people who prefer to have greater degrees of PC customization and consider classes as both too simple and confining between them and too similar within them.

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  25. Great comments on this topic! I think mistrust of the DM is indeed the major trend, but it's a bit hidden along the way.

    First edition was designed to allow a common language for tournaments, magazines, and TSR modules. It also took a first step toward inculating the idea that rules rather than the DM should handle more situations. Rules grant rights to players. House ruling also took a hit from 1e, although not a critical hit.

    Second edition took an odd sideswipe at house ruling, because it game the DM much more in the way of flexibility. Tailored thieves and clerics, specialist mages, etc - all these allowed lots of scope for individualizing the campaign, but (and this is critical) it was house ruling within a set and established framework. So, even while it gave the DM lots of cool ideas, it restricted deep-surgery house-ruling. To me, that was about an even trade-off, because the ideas they provided were indeed pretty good. Second edition (late) provided a MAJOR hit to the DM's ability to free-form things, though. This was the skill system which signaled the end of what I consider the heart of old-school gaming. Here, the DM's ability to provide free-form resolutions of events became vastly curtailed by a player right to have things depend upon a particular character-sheet number. This was an optional development in the core books, but it had eaten the game by 1999.

    Third edition took mistrust of the DM to a whole new level, when WotC brought a more traditional view of what a "game" is. Games are head-to-head, with fair rules that should cover every event. The concept of "fair" as a structural matter in game design was a watershed. Skills were deeply implanted into the system, much more than even late 2e. House ruling becomes almost impossible. I once wrote an essay on ENworld about how to play "old school" 3e, but the basic conclusion was that it can't be done without being very unfair to the players. All you can mimic is the attitude and the setting, not the fundamental mechanism that drives old school play.

    4e I haven't seen enough to comment. I've played it but not DMed it. It's a complete change in the game, a fairly good tactical wargame but no longer D&D by any measure other than the words on the box. There seems to be a return to simpler DMing, but no real shift away from the boardgame concept of embedded fairness. It just allows the DM to go head to head with the players on a level playing field without being hampered by a system that makes him use exactly the same rules as the players.

    Long post! I will stop writing.

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  26. Zweihander wrote:
    "I would almost go as far as to say there is an assumption of mistrust in modern game design. It makes me wonder if this is done in order to make games more playable when the groups are composed of people who are less familiar with each other, and so more desiring of balance and fairness through rules."

    So, the Tyranny of Fun, stated in other words.

    --Melan

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  27. "So, the Tyranny of Fun, stated in other words."

    No, what it means is that it should be no surprise when a group of strangers has different expectations than a group of friends where a RPG is concerned. There's nothing tyrannical about it. As a matter of fact, all clever witticisms aside, there pretty much have to be groups of friends out there playing games like these and having a blast with them. For every blog out there criticizing D&D 4e, I've found one that sings it's praises. It's a game, and games can be matters of taste without resorting to insult.

    The Tyranny of Fun comes off as just another smarmy internet rhetorical device apparently designed to sum up a game but more importantly, insult those who play it. So saying it like it's some kind of holy truth is being an ass, stated in other words.

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  28. There's a definite lack of trust in the newer games, yes.

    It certainly seems that way, yes. My suspicion is that shift away from the "high trust" element of earlier games is a symptom of some other shift that occurred either in the hobby itself or society at large and it's that, more than anything, that's at the root of much of the dissatisfaction I feel toward many contemporary RPGs.

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  29. Offtopic - I found another AD&D ad with Elise (maybe you saw it). Vide my blog.

    Thanks for that!

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  30. Curious, in your opinion so what newer (or even different older RPGs, Runequest,etc) can be run old school and which can't. Maybe a future blog post in answering this question.

    You're right that this would make a good post for the future!

    To clarify: I think there are two different things people mean when they say "old school." One of these is purely a question of "feel" and I think it's possible to run most RPGs in this fashion. I suspect that, for a lot of people who tout 4e as "more old school" than 3e, they're talking about feel, which is a very nebulous and subjective thing.

    The other possibility pertains to mechanics and here, by definition, only games of a certain vintage -- or newer games built specifically to emulate them -- can qualify as "old school." This is partly why I tend not to fixate too much on the whole "Save the Great Wheel" criticisms of 4e, because, while I do think it was a mistake to ditch the shared traditions of D&D in 4e, it's not this abandonment that strikes at the heart of what's wrong with the game, but its mechanics.

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  31. I gotta admit though this is an idea that should be subject to scrutiny.

    Me too, but I think you're on to something.

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  32. (Personally, I think this whole movement is based on a false premise. I believe it’s *far* easier to assign an arbitrary chance for success than it is to master countless rules pages full of exceptions and specific modifiers. Nor do I believe “universal mechanics” are inherently superior to composite systems. For example, a common knock against pre-3E D&D is that it “uses an entirely separate system to resolve thieving abilities. But who doesn’t understand “90% chance to climb walls?” Learning this “separate system” requires zero overhead. I believe it’s self-evident that earlier versions of D&D are *far* easier to run than their modern cousins despite these efforts to help the DM.)

    Not surprisingly, I strongly agree. Of course, the counter-claim would be that any arbitrariness is simply "unfair" and thus anathema. I think this plays into the "trust" discussion that's occurring in other replies to this post. I can't help but think there's a lot to be learned if we consider the causes of why the "high trust" environment of the early hobby disappeared.

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  33. The "high trust" environment of the early hobby disappeared due to the rules became more accessible. This includes how they were written (compare the Moldvay Edition with the Little Brown Books) and the fact that you could start picking them up in places like Sears. This lowered the barriers to entry, bringing in less mature players as well as gamers who were not cut out of the same cloth as the original wargamers who tried out this new-fangled thing called D&D.

    I believe TSR, attempting to attract a younger, less sophisticated audience, initiated the loss of this "high trust" environment.

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  34. A big motivator for change, one that I've not seen listed in this particular discussion, has been the creation, protection, and elimination of various intellectual property interests.

    Whether it's eliminating the ability of previous creators to claim property rights or creating a more easily protect-able right, there's been a trend, starting with the 1981 edition of D&D and then the 2nd edition of AD&D, which has only accelerated at a fever pitch ever since.

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  35. Whether it's eliminating the ability of previous creators to claim property rights or creating a more easily protect-able right, there's been a trend, starting with the 1981 edition of D&D and then the 2nd edition of AD&D, which has only accelerated at a fever pitch ever since.

    Very true. It's definitely another important aspect of how and why D&D has developed the way it has over the years. What bothers me most, I think, is not that such forces are at work -- they have been for a long time -- but that they're among the most important considerations in the development of the "brand" now.

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  36. I think there are three trends that have all converged on and cannibalized each other to bring us the modern mainstream RPG, the more recent versions of D&D included:

    Ray is smart.

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  37. Ray is smart.

    Indeed he is -- which probably explains why he's not involved in the RPG industry anymore ;-)

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  38. I disagree, up to a point.
    The five Supplements published for OD&D (GH; BM; EW; G, D-G & H and S&S) were expressly designed to help the DM be better at his craft. (Sadly there were no female DMs in the "old school" days.)
    I feel qualified to make that statement because I edited and contributed to the last four.

    It is true the one of the many influences in creating AD&D was more consistent tournament judging, something that had bedeviled us since the very first tourney we sanctioned and ran.

    Having studiously avoided the versions from 2e on, I am not qualified to judge their incentives or intentions, except as a method to increase sales on a sagging product.

    It does seem to me, though, that each subseqent edition hassucked more of the creative juices and life out of the game.

    Tim Kask

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  39. I disagree, up to a point.

    I do as well. The original resolution was intended to engender discussion, which is most certainly has.

    Welcome to the blog, Mr Kask. Your insights into the history of the hobby are most welcome.

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