Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rules are PC insurance from a bad DM

A topic being passed around with all the hubbub of DnDnext is what role do rules play in the game. How far should rules reach? What should be the breadth and scope of them? Should they be simulationist or should they lean more towards letting a DM make the call?

I believe in having a system of rules. You are playing a game. There should be some structure to that with a framework of rules. Otherwise you are just playing pretend and doing an exercise in make believe. The catch however is how far should those rules go and how much they should encroach on determining the outcome of player actions.

Fearless DM put up some of his thoughts on the recent DDXP held earlier in 2012. A bit further into the post he laments about the state of organized play. I do think he has a solid point that such a structured game environment is not working well with promoting D&D. I feel stuff like the lair assault clicks well. After all that is a very straight forward, hack and slash, beat the monster type of event. D&D encounters and LFR however seem to be a bit of a mess. The focus on fights really hamper what 4E can be as a game, and in the end give people a limited view of how D&D plays. So how did we get here?

With a more open system, you are reliant on having a fair referee that governs the action of the game and makes sure everyone has fun. If you’ve got a good DM, this kind of game can sing. You will have a fun time at the table and really stretch the abilities and resources your party can utilize to overcome obstacles. If you’ve got a DM that shuts you down, is not impartial, and derives more fun in hampering the PCs rather than letting them accomplish key tasks, you’ve got a bad DM. Even worse, you are stuck with a system that allows the DM to do what they want and leave the players powerless. AD&D can fall into this camp. With a good DM you have a fantastic game. With a poor DM, it can be disastrous.

Of all the events in D&D, combat is likely the most needed for having a framework of rules. Lessen DM adjudication and you end up with a very structured way of resolving fights. The more regimented it is in the mechanics, the easier it becomes to predict how certain actions will resolve. If anything, players can call out a DM if they are fudging numbers and breaking the rules. In effect, these rules hamper the ability for a bad DM to throw a fight.

I see this all the time in miniature wargaming. You want a rule system that dictates clear resolution of events. As a fall back, you’ll always see players pull out the rule book and determine if something can be done (or have guys roll off to resolve it, play on, and check it later after the game). The key point is that everyone follows the rules and are not pulling stuff out of their butt simply because they want to pull off a maneuver, make an attack, or avoid having something bad happen to their units. D&D has set up such a structured set of rules in combat to do the same thing. Have a uniform list of possible actions, simply to make sure everyone (both the DM and PCs) play fairly and actions are resolved without bias.

With a good DM this isn’t an issue. The guy (or gal) is there to give a challenge, but make the game fun. With a bad DM, having such elaborate combat rules can curb that. The players have a fall back position within the rules to make sure combats are fair. Without such structure, you can end up with a frustrating experience.

I’ve seen folks call for giving the DM more power to resolve things and how 4E has removed that. I am truly baffled by that statement. I really wish folks would sit down and read the 4E DM guide. It has some fantastic advice for a new DM. Take a gander at pg. 28 and the philosophy of saying ‘yes’, look over troubleshooting and the advice for encounters being too hard or too easy (pg. 30-31). And lastly pg. 42, where right in the text it talks about how to resolve any action that can’t be readily found as a rule. It’s all there in the book. With great guidelines to how to fairly adjudicate any situation and keep the story moving.

If WotC could reprint the book, I’d make pg. 42 almost the first point discussed about DMing. Emphasize a fair, structured, means to resolve events in the game, roll with it, and move the game along. I’d have example after example how a DM can employ pg. 42 to make their game better, and even talk about when you might want to just throw out the rules and let the players run with it. Breaking the rules for story is in the 4E DMG, I’d just make sure that was front and center so it didn’t get buried in all the other advice.

Somehow this idea got lost in the implementation of 4E with published adventures. Somehow they became more worried about making sure players couldn’t suffer at the hands of a bad DM, rather than advising how a good DM can handle tricky situations. There is a solid framework of rules here with 4E, I’m hoping more emphasis with DnDnext is to show DMs how these tools can help them run a fun, and fair, game.