Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rough Edges

I still have a head cold, so I'm feeling miserable, which may explain my current crankiness. Mind you, the latest excerpts from 4e, to which everyone keeps sending me links, certainly haven't helped my mood. I don't have much to say on this score that others haven't already said, but, reading them, I was reminded of a couple of things I'd been meaning to post about, things that say a lot about where our hobby has been and where it's going.

A lot of 4e's design decisions seem to have been made to address "issues" I've never had with Dungeons & Dragons or indeed gaming in general. That's because these issues are in fact features of the hobby. They're not things you can simply extirpate through good game design and, if you try to do so, you'll wind up ripping the heart out of why I game rather than making the experience more fun for me.

The first issue 4e looks like it was intended to tackle is the "swinginess" of gameplay. "Swinginess" is a function of the fact that D&D uses dice as random number generators and, being random, there's no guarantee that the outcome of any character's action, whether player or non-player, will be what anyone wants/expects. Sometimes, this is a good thing, such as when a character makes a saving throw at just the right time avoid certain death, while at other times it's not, such as when a wandering monster that slaughters the PCs as they are preparing to take on the evil necromancer who's holed up in the dungeon they're exploring.

For me, swinginess is part of the fun. I wrote earlier about the oracular power of dice and I stand by my contention that swinginess, even when it swings against my character, is essential to the magic of roleplaying games -- or indeed games in general. Rolling dice is the closest to risk taking that we can get in RPGs and there's a thrill that comes with knowing that it's always possible, however unlikely, that something monumentally bad could happen to your character when you toss those polyhedrals. At low levels of D&D, the likelihood of a bad outcome is quite high and so there's a sense of "danger" that I've always felt formed the basis of a unifying experience for all players of the game. The war stories of how your now-higher level PC narrowly escaped death at the hands of a fire beetle or a lowly kobold is one of those things that used to be commonplace. And what elevated those stories about your standard "let me tell you about my character" tales is the understanding that, for every character whom the dice favored, there was at least one whom they did not. PCs slain by random chance were a part of life, the somber backdrop against which one drew the story of a successful character's career.

That's just one example, of course; there are many other examples of "swinginess" in action and I'd speak glowingly of most of them. I like the unexpected in my games, even when it's bad. Sometimes -- many times -- dumb luck has a better sense of drama than I ever could. Sometimes -- many times -- the game is enriched by the fact that stuff happens for no reason at all. I can't shake the feeling that 4e is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by trying to provide a formula for fun, whether it be in making low-level characters more "robust" or in ensuring that just the "right" amount of magic items are distributed to the PCs as they level up. I think the quest for a more regular, even play experience will suck the life out of the game.

Which brings me to my second concern: hand-holding. Some will say and indeed have already said that much of what I see and object to in 4e is easily eliminated by an experienced DM. The guidelines I hate are there to help novices, to train them in the fine art of Dungeon Mastering. To that, I say hogwash. You cannot learn good refereeing from a book and I could argue that there's no better evidence that a lot of game designers never bothered to understand Gygax than the continual desire to turn the latest edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide into a how-to manual for DMs.

The ability to referee a RPG is a skill like any other. You get better at it by using it and that includes making mistakes and getting hung up on the consequences of your mistakes. It also means learning from others more skilled than yourself. When I started gaming in the late 70s and early 80s, there was an unofficial apprenticeship system to become the DM. You learned at the feet of more experienced DMs, like my friend's older brother and his father, until you were ready to try your hand at it yourself. In turn, you would train others in the ways of the Dungeon Master, thereby repaying your debt to your own teachers. I get the sense this system doesn't exist anymore and that people somehow expect the rulebooks to give them everything they need to be able to run a fun and satisfying adventure every time.

Well, it simply doesn't work that way; it never has. Conservatively, I'd estimate that, especially with less experienced groups, at least half of all RPG sessions end in failure, with "failure" being defined as a disjointed, possibly nonsensical, and certainly frustrating few hours. That's just the nature of roleplaying games. I don't think you can mechanize this away. There's no magic formula or recipe I can put in the shiny new DMG that will guarantee that every session is as satisfying as a finely-crafted R.E. Howard story. That's simply impossible and I think the sooner we teach new gamers that "successful" gaming takes time, effort, and a lot of luck, the happier we all will be.

For some, tabletop gaming will simply be inadequate approximation of literature, movies, or video games. So much of the success of gaming depends on intangibles and unpredictables; there is no way you can put that in a box and sell it. Gaming has too many "rough edges" that can't be pounded smooth -- and shouldn't be. For those of us who love this hobby and have stuck with it, those rough edges are what keep us coming back. We know that there's a chance -- a good chance even -- that almost given session won't be all that enjoyable or even coherent. But we also know that, when everything falls into place, when everything clicks, it's an experience unlike any other, an experience to be savored and remembered for a lifetime.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I think the hobby has taken numerous wrong turns over the years, but, even with all those errors, I still think the core of our hobby, the one Gygax and Arneson created back in 1974, is still very compelling. Especially now, when so much of our entertainment is slick and computer-generated, when fun has been reduced to a formula or an algorithm, there's a more a need than ever for something that's random, unpredictable, and often frustrating. The quest to make RPGs like every other entertainment is a deal with the Devil in my opinion.

I don't know about you, but I don't want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it's not. Most of us, I think, if we're honest, understand that we like rough edges -- we need rough edges. Something that's too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis. I realize I'm just a crazy, aging gamer, but I've been at this hobby a long time and I've tried a lot of stuff and I can tell you one thing: there is nothing more truly fun, either as a player or as a referee, than watching a D20 turn up 1 and continuing the game anyway. Failure, even death, is not the end; it's an opportunity. But to seize it you need to embrace randomness, laud unpredictability, and understand that fun cannot be bottled and sold.


  1. Thanks James! I was wondering how to post about this in my own blog. Now I can just link and point people here. You hit the major themes of "Why I think 4E is not for me." The part especially where people think you can coax the game into a "more perfect" form of entertainment like literature or computer games is probably at the crux of the whole situation. In World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, and other MMOs, even when you lose, you win... you don't die, you just respawn. Failure isn't really an option in those games. There is no real challenge. If you keep grinding away at the game regularly, you will eventually reach 60th level and "win." And that's what they are doing with 4E; cutting away all the real challenges and giving everyone a cookie-cutter "win." Not for me, no thanks.

  2. Quote:I don't know about you, but I don't want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun.

    I will caveat this.

    I don't want every session of a game to come with guaranteed fun because that "fun" is built into the rules themselves.

    I am becoming more and more of a low-energy gamer - that is, I need an impetus for gaming these days beyond just "gaming" to get me to spend my time and energy on it - I have a lot more things in my life vying for my attention than when I was 17. So I do need fun in my games on a regular basis, otherwise it's not worth my time.

    But that "fun" should be coming from the GM and the other players and all of us working together to have that fun, warts and all. Failing to hit the bad guy and then getting gacked by an owlbear would be fun because we all make it fun.

    A system that is essentially built to continuously stroke the egos of the players, that is built to provide just enough of a challenge to make it seem difficult but in the end pretty much guarantees victory, grants only a veneer of fun, a hollow victory. What feelings of awesomeness does a party get from beating the big bad guy when, by the rules of the book, they are pretty much mathematically guaranteed success (with a margin of error of +/- 20% resources expended)?

  3. Amen. Tell it brother!

  4. This past weekend I ran a session (of "pulp fantasy" using the nWoD rules) and the new way of thinking showed its evil influence in the players, where their failure in a combat encounter had me accused of "railroading".

    Is there a form of exorcism for this?

  5. It feels to me like they are trying to productize the "fun" so they can package and sell it, rather than leaving it up to us to produce our own fun.

    Which fits with the general trend of pulling D&D away from being a hobby and towards being a brand identity and multi-media sales engine.

    I still think one of the early goals of 4e was to eliminate the DM and turn everyone into a player - but that they discovered this was too difficult to manage, and have instead pulled back to a slightly less radical approach of reducing the DM input into the process as much as possible.

  6. I still think one of the early goals of 4e was to eliminate the DM and turn everyone into a player - but that they discovered this was too difficult to manage, and have instead pulled back to a slightly less radical approach of reducing the DM input into the process as much as possible.

    That actually was one of my predictions for 4E, back when on EN World. That and more dependence on the minis, which they say is not true, but everything seems to indicate that yes, minis are as needed if not more needed for 4E than for 3E... they just like to prentend they are not, so they won't be accused of forcing players to buy the minis.

    But yes, everything I've seen so far indicates that the DM is reduced to little more than the equivalent of a fleshy AI used to run the game for the enjoyment of the players...

  7. It seems to me that every edition of D&D codifies how to play the game more and more.

    OD&D was so loose that people ended up writing their own games in an effort to figure out how to play it. :P

    AD&D hard-coded in the epic quests (if we take the modules, especially GDQ, as examples of how a campaign is supposed to progress).

    2nd edition came up with so many specialized settings to enforce certain atmospheres even more.

    3rd and 4th continue to refine that level of top-down control (someone on some board pointed out that pretty soon, you won't even be playing at your table anymore, you'll just be going through WotC's motions) to the combat and encounter level, and the progression of a campaign seems hard-coded into the rules.

    argh. Yeah, not for me. I'm treasure-stingy (like the process of playing the game is so horrible that it's just miserable to do without all the power-ups), I place lots of encounters with the sole purpose of seeing if the players are smart enough to not attack everything on sight... and my current campaign is over ten sessions in and most of the characters are still 1st level.

    I'm not a conscientious DM at all.

  8. DM Apprenticeship
    That died with the boxed sets. I started with Moldvay/Cook, and in my very fist game of D&D, I was the DM. I didn't know anybody else who played.

    Today, it's easier with the internet, but I see no problem with trying to teach the basics of good DMing in the books. Unfortunately, that's not what I see with 4e. Instead, I see a rigorous system that mostly reduces the DM to running tactics for the monsters. Yeah, they're doing their best to make the DM as small an element as possible, because good DMs are rare, and they can't count on people hanging around long enough to develop the skills. Even worse, a good DM doesn't need to buy much. Which brings us right back to the problem of an industry based on publishing being supported by a hobby that's interested in playing more than reading.

    - Brian

  9. I too started as the DM. I discovered this crazy game on my own, and didn't know anyone who played it at the time. My fist game was me as DM, my neighbor Alex, and my Mom, using the Holmes version.

    I opened up B2, placed it down on the kitchen table like a Monopoly board, and we began. My Mom started by rolling a d6 to move like it *was* Monopoly. She just didn't get it!

    I have improved a little bit since then.

  10. Wow, I think that this article just changed the way that I see the game.

    I am with you with experienced DMs, but I never realized how much I fought against the randomness of the game itself before. There are benefits, and I guess that I forgot about them.

    Great post, as always James

  11. James,

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've noticed and commented unhappily on the atrophying of the role of the DM in late v.3.5 D&D and guessed that it presaged what would come in 4e. This is one case where I'm sorry to see I was correct.

  12. I don't want every session of a game to come with guaranteed fun because that "fun" is built into the rules themselves.

    That's in fact what I meant by my statement, but, in my zeal, I didn't make that clear. Thanks for drawing it out.

  13. Re: Exorcism

    I'll have to check my copy of the Encheiridion of St. Gaxyg the Gray, but, given the large number of things the guy managed to pack into that book, I can't imagine there isn't a rite of exorcism as well.

  14. OD&D was so loose that people ended up writing their own games in an effort to figure out how to play it. :P

    That's actually a very good way of putting it. Thanks for this; I may have to use that line some day.

  15. Ripper,

    Glad you're enjoying yourself here :) Goodness knows I'm having a blast and it's really gratifying to see not just the response to what I'm posting but also the large number of old school and old school-sympathetic blogs that are popping up and interacting with one another.

  16. James you nailed it between the eyes.

    On the codification of the game as it progressed though, to some extent I agree. However my caveat would be AD&D 1e, regardless of which modules you hold up as an example, even those that were "in series" never ever really showed a DM how to create or advance a campaign. The DMG made some reference to it but nothing in depth. Likewise there were a few articles (pre 2e) in Dragon that tried to get into the meat of the matter and did provide some decent hints and suggestions, but the first time we really see the "campaign design" theory of TSR put into practice is Post-Gygax and comes in the form of the Compilation Modules such as The B Series In Search of the Unknown (which was modules B1-4 or 5) all in one package, and of course ToEE, and of course (shudder) Dragonlance.

    And what exactly was the tie that bound these somewhat unrelated adventures and the obviously releated adventures (i.e. Dragonlance)?

    Pure and simple Railroading. There was no logic or thought process. You force the party here so they can complete mission "A". Then you force them to go here so they can complete mission "B" and so on.

    Even the most classic modules that I and many others hold up as the BEST examples of module and dungeon design are hard core rail jobs. But since most every one of those classics started out as a tournament adventure, it was not surprising - it was expected (will by many).

    Those who never "got it" and we are talking about long time DMs here as well as the writers that came to TSR and WOTC always created adventures that were rail jobs. I can't think of a single module or campaign sets (post World of Greyhawk Boxset) that has been published by the big publishers that didn't rely on the rail job. Some more overt than others.

    I had my share of great DMs that taught me over the years. I also had my fair share of DMs that never got it and just because every character got stripped of everything including his skivvies in the beginning of the Slavers series and was forced to find a way out or die, they figured that it was only natural to treat the characters the exact same way whenever their campaign dictated that the characters must do this or that or go this way or that way in their grand design scheme.

    Gary published a couple of decent books on design and theory and what it took to be a good player and good "G"m but they were so vague and had to avoid language that would likely get him sued again by TSR that many of the gems were lost in the mud of it all.

    Then we have to seriously ask, what would a good guide book to DMing look like? What would be within it's pages?

    As was pointed out, you can't learn to DM by reading a book. You can get a few pointers, a few suggestions, maybe some technical notes on different ways to stock a dungeon or what percentage (works best) of rooms should have only secret door access per level. etc.

    James said GMing a game is a skill like any other. I would add to that, that not only is it a skill that needs to be practiced and honed but is also an Art that needs just as much practice and just as much work. There are the skills of GMing such as knowing the rules well, knowing how to design a good dungeon or castle as well as others , but there is also the Art of being able to bring that fantasy world to life with realistic NPCs, room or area descriptions that cause the hair on the back of the players necks to stand up with complete uncertainty of if they really want to send their characters into that chamber. There is a Art and Skill combination of being able to make a ruling on the fly when something happens that isn't specifically covered in the rules and another Art/Skill combo that is LEARNED over many years of being a DM on how to run a game "off the cuff".

    No these are not things, like hundreds of others that can not and never will be available to learn from reading a book.

    And this is what disturbs me more than anything else about the RPG community as a whole. There really is no longer a DM/GM apprenticeship in place like there used to be. At best it is fringe activity of our small niche of OOP gamers. We have become so obsessed with instant gratification and the "entertain ME!" mentality that the whole notion of learning the ropes so I too can DM and give back to the game and my group has all but been forgotten.

    (at some point that turned into a rant so...)

    //rant off


  17. OD&D was so loose that people ended up writing their own games in an effort to figure out how to play it. :P


    That's literally true of Tunnels & Trolls, FWIW. St. Andre bought it, thought it was interesting but couldn't make heads or tails of how to actually play it from the rulebook alone, so he wrote his own game with a similar theme.

    - Calithena

  18. I know. I didn't pull that statement out of my butt. :)