Thursday, November 26, 2009

D&D Patch Day Makes Me Feel Like a Grognard

A couple of weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast released a major rules update for Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (yes, this is one of -those- posts for all of you non-gamers). Instantly, the D&D Community forums lit up with angry protests (from players) and relieved cheers (from DMs). As an occasional, casual MMORPG player, I am no stranger to 'patch day' on the forums. It was just a little odd to see it for D&D. Just like I still find it odd to see people arguing about how a certain rule should be applied based on the choice of one tiny word over another. These debates often quickly turn into people bludgeoning one another with circuitous legalese interpretations of what should be pretty natural language and, of course, accusations of logical fallacies.

During the 2nd Edition years, the internet was just getting its start and I wasn't anywhere near it. Even during 3rd Edition, I was pretty well insulated from the 'gaming community' on the internet. I played with my friends, occasionally hung out in the game store and swapped war stories, and ran my home brew games without any real awareness of the fact that there were other DMs out there.

But now, in 4th Edition, I am suddenly trying to be an active (semi-active) part of the community and this whole thing is really bothering me. Not just the arguments, but the whole patch day idea.

Whenever I have run a game in the past, if there was a contradictory spot in the rules, I made my best guess and kept the game running. Oh sure, occasionally we would argue the point a bit after the game and sometimes things got heated if someone felt they had been cheated, but there was never this sense that there was a RIGHT ANSWER and that we deserved to have it. Interpreting poorly worded or contradictory rules was part of the game. It was the job of the DM.

Now, don't get me wrong, I see the value of DMs and players talking about specific interpretations and things, but on the D&D Community, the arguments always seem to follow this pattern:

Original Post: This came up in my game and the rules weren't clear. I made this ruling. Was I right?
Response 1: Well, I can see why you made that ruling, but I think you should have done this because of this rule here.
Response 2: I disagree with Response 1 because of this wording which seems to suggest they meant it to work differently.
Response 3: I think Response 1 is better, but you handled it okay too.
Original Poster: Yes, but what is RAW?
Response 4: I think RAW means this.
Original Poster: Well, where does it say that. Can you give me a page number?
Response 5: Customer service said that Response 2 is right.
Original Poster: Customer service is never right. What is the RAW?

For those not well versed, RAW means "rules as written," and its similar to demanding to see exactly where the Constitution actually guarantees that you can take out your boobs in public as a form of protest against people keeping lemurs as pets.

This worship for the Rules As Written frankly has me baffled. It frankly means that people have kind of missed the point of having a human being adjudicating the game rather than a computer. The point is that any set of finite rules cannot possibly cover every situation that will come up in the game or every particular combination of peculiar closet-case circumstances. Any rule system that tries will become an overcomplicated nightmare. For example, remember that scene in "The Two Towers" when Legolas hopped onto a shield and surfed it down a set of stairs while rapid-firing his bow into a horde of orcs. Well, there aren't rules for that in D&D, but some player should be able to try it if they want to. The DM is there to figure out how to make it work. That possibility and all of the other infinite possibilities are the things that set tabletop RPGs apart from video games like World of Warcraft. It hardly needs to be said that a video game limits you to only the things that the developers thought of (or were capable of programming).

Now, I agree that the DMs true role is to provide infinite story possibilities so that the players can decide that they want to kill the king and sieze his kingdom instead of rescuing his daughter from the dragon. Again, no matter how freeform the video game, ultimately, the story is limited to what has been programmed.

But isn't rules adjudication a part of this?

Okay, so I understand that there is a question of whether a character should be allowed a saving throw when a forced-movement power slides him into and then out of and then into again the damaging area created by a firewall spell, and maybe the rules could be a little clearer on that point, but they aren't. So you, the DM, are going to have to make a call. And you might make a good call or a bad call, but you aren't going to ruin the game if your interpretation isn't the one the designers had in mind. And other DMs may call it differently (I am pro-save). But exchanges like the one I've paraphrased above signal that some DMs seem to think there is actually a right answer and that they might be doing it wrong if they don't get that answer. This makes me sad.

It makes me sad for the same reason that watching DMs struggle with the format of skill challenges or arguing about whether the DCs are too high or too low makes me sad. They are just guidelines. The format is anything special or magical and it isn't even always the best format. Three failures does not always have to mean the challenge failed. The DCs don't always have to be 5/10/15. You're supposed to fiddle with it. You're supposed to push it to its breaking point. You are not supposed to just fill in the blanks. "Level 1, Complexity 3, Diplomacy (Hard), Insight (Moderate), Intimidate (Moderate), Bluff (Easy)."

Oh sure, you can if you want to. You can just fill in the blanks and you will have something that works okay most of the time. But if you are just going to fill in the blanks and follow the form, you are cheating yourself and your game out of something great. And if you are complaining that filling in the blanks and following the form isn't a shortcut to a great game, you have completely missed the point.

Anyway, this is really nothing more than a rant. Because, in the end, I can promise that my game won't go this way and that's all I really care about. Except that, suddenly, by virtue of hosting a podcast that has become a bit popular, I am an authority figure and people are starting to listen to my opinions and ask for them. I am just starting to get the sense that some of my answers are unsatisfying because the best answer I can give in any situation is: 'I don't know what the developers were thinking, but here's how I would handle it. Of course, your way is good too. Whatever keeps your players happy is good.'

I guess I can't really claim to be part of the old guard, though. I am part of the aging guard, but I was just being born in the late '70s, so I don't remember the original editions. I do remember endlessly discussing in AD&D Second Edition exactly when a thief was entitled to actually backstab someone. The rules helpfully pointed out that if the thief could approach a target unawares, he could cause a very serious injury, but they didn't bother to spell out how to determine when a victim was actually unaware, particularly when a pitched battle was already underway. We made do with what we had and had a lot of fun. And best of all, the players tried a lot of crazy and outlandish stunts and they let me do a lot of wild and crazy things to them in return.

This rant was supposed to have a very different point when I started and go in a completely different direction. It was also supposed to be a witty and fun jab at the idea of patch day and changing attitudes toward the game. Sorry about that. But its too late to write something else.

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