Tag Archives: D&D

The Time For Experience Points Has Come And Gone

The WotC designers have just presented some polls about how XP progression should work in D&D Next and there’s a lively discussion on ENWorld about it.  I have mentioned in passing that none of our group’s Pathfinder campaigns use XP any more, but I thought this was a good time to unpack that a little and discuss why XP are an outmoded solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Accounting Work

Some of the drawbacks of XP are obvious. It adds a significant amount of non-fun accounting to the game. Most of that burden is on the GM, who has to look up charts and add numbers like it’s tax time for the last 15 minutes of the session, and then all the players get to do some too. This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Accountants & Ledgers. The justification is usually that it’s a “necessary evil” as the only sound way to conduct character advancement; we’ll examine the falseness of this claim below.

It Makes Adventures Suck More

I was just listening to a Know Direction podcast where Amber Scott was talking about the process of working on an Adventure Path chapter lately, and discussed that some of the challenge was the changing/padding required to generate the ‘right XP budget’ and that the actual theme/story of the adventure had to be compromised somewhat to make that work. That sucks, and it illustrates how any published adventure has to make a lot of Hobson’s choices just to get the ‘correct amount’ of XP generated. I had a discussion with James Jacobs about a number of questionable, from the story and GM standpoint, decisions in the Dragon’s Demand module – it was giving out “story awards” to the tune of 200 XP for climbing a DC10 mount of rubble to enter the dungeon. He justified it by saying “Yes but we need people to get from first to sixth level over the course of this one module to fight our end dragon so we padded the shit out of it” (I’m paraphrasing :-).

RPGA/Organized Play adventures, from my experience there, suffer horribly from this problem.  I was a Living Greyhawk Triad and most attempts to innovate in adventures were squashed by the ever-dominant need to have “N encounters that generate X XP for levels Y-Z in H hours.” Of course the other layers of homogeneity required of OP on top of that make the problem even worse, but that’s a big part of it. And in the end, if there is a “correct amount” of XP to give, then why are you spending the effort to micromanage it?

So basically the adventures we play are not as good as they could be from other perspectives because of this unnecessary constraint.

It Makes Players Suck More

Here’s the deal – I like open-ended, in character roleplay, and the ability for PCs to innovate to reach their goals (often referred to as Combat As War in online discussions). XP for monsters (I’m not sure adding “for gp” really helps that) drives a playstyle where you confront everything head-on, grinding like it’s WoW.  If the goal is “save the princess from a castle full of bad guys,” you can’t just do that, because the ugly head of metagaming rises up and says “If you just scry and teleport in and grab her you won’t get as many XP as if you do a room-to-room fight with every orc…” Therefore you start making decisions based on metagame concerns instead of in-game factors. Of course as the GM you can try to give compensating story awards for solving it with different approaches – but then why are you tracking XP again, if there’s a “right number” to give?

I was in a team that took Silver in the D&D Open at Gen Con back in… Uh, the 1990s sometime. We didn’t get Gold, we were told, because we bypassed the penultimate encounter (a nuisance encounter of some humanoids) by flying over it to beard the BBEG directly. So even though our judge said we rocked the adventure and did it better/faster/cheaper (no character loss)  than everyone else, you know, we didn’t harvest enough souls. Lesson learned, we’ll shout our battle cry of “No Witnesses!” in the future.

The Theory

Obviously, the theory behind XP is that they are a needed reward system. Pavlov, Gygax, and Ayn Rand have worked together to come up with the ultimate system of motivating PCs to go out there and adventure, and it is both that and a semi-realistic way to reflect people getting better at what they do.

The problem is, these motivations are a thin lie to begin with, and don’t accomplish their desired ends in practice either.

First alleged reason to have XP, motivation.  Without XP  you don’t incentivize desired behavior in the game. I’m pretty sure we all play D&D to have fun, and adventuring is fun. If there weren’t XP, would our characters not go out and defeat the invading orc hordes? What degree of player and GM sucking must be required for such a low rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to kick in?

Second alleged reason to have XP, realism.  It models the growth of your character by getting better through experience and shepherds them through their Campbellian arc. OK, so the more goblins I murder, I get better at playing my lute? Ridiculous.  You could make this claim for a system like BRP where you “tick” skills you use and those skills advance, but the dull blade of XP as implemented in D&D and its derivatives can make no such virtuous claim to simulation.

Let’s look at XP in practice.  First, let’s assume you are running a story-oriented game, or using an Adventure Path or series of modules (that’s not a new idea, ahem, T1-4, A-14, GDQ1-7). To not have that go badly awry, you need the PCs to be at a certain level at certain times. So unless they successfully tread the primrose path on the adventure you’ve set up for them, you as the GM end up needing to accommodate that.  Throw in some random encounters, some story awards, role-playing awards, some side adventures, because you know you can’t send them to the Demonweb unless they’re at least approaching the right level.

But if you are trying to generate a ‘correct amount’ of XP then having XP is of no value, as it loses its lovely alleged Randian properties. It can’t motivate behavior if you’re trying to get them to the right number by any means necessary. You could argue that it provides the illusion of player agency, if your players are dumb, but in the end you have a predetermined outcome and are forcing yourself and your players to jump through more and more  hoops to realize it. Boo.

But XP also hurts sandbox gaming.  Why? It’s the Gygax Way, right, he wouldn’t have written it if it wasn’t the right thing to do? Don’t tell me about “OSR” like I’m a noob; I’ve been playing D&D since the original Red Box.

D&D is still a game full of murderous cretins, and the XP system is a lot of the reason for that. I find it hard to say that the behaviors XP drive are actually the desired ones. Even the D&D Next article I link discusses XP in terms of “how many goblins you need to kill to level.” As discussed above, actual innovative goal-achievement, one of the pillars of the OSR, is quite specifically countermanded by XP (unless, again, you adopt the “give them anyway” rubric, and get to do extra math to justify a predetermined outcome). A decent GM should be able to reward desired behavior in the game.  Do you get nothing for saving the princess or completing a quest besides XP, really? And if you get loot, isn’t that its own reward?

The Alternatives

Well, what we do is “level when the GM says.” Pretty simple.  Sure, this might be a problem in those first spazzy 12-year-old games we all had, where the  GM’s trying to screw the players and all – but how many pages of rules have been written trying to fix that lowest-common-denominator problem, and has it actually succeeded?  No, those who are playing “level 30 silver dragons!” or “being killed by cats!” type games continue to do so. This approach requires zero math and is very easy for the GM – pulling out a level 7 adventure you want to run?  You don’t have to throw weeks of grind at the PCs, just tell them “you level!” In my Reavers campaign, the PCs are like 7th level after four years of play, because I have plenty of piratey adventures appropriate for those levels to bring them!

Or… Now, this is super hippy-dippy, and I know that before I say it, but you could even just level by consensus, in a more sandbox game. If the GM cares about what level they’re prepping for, then the GM should level.  If the GM is just “whatever, I’m a judge OD&D style, hexcrawl yourselves into a coma” then maybe players should spend more time at the levels they enjoy.  I personally would usually vote not to level, as I enjoy the low/mid-levels best and over about 12 starts to suck.

Or, you could level by IRL time.  This is interesting because it allows you to set a goal as to how long a campaign should take, and since levels will vary it will vary the speed at which the PCs progress to naturally keep them on track.  Let’s say our gaming group says “OK, Paul is going to run Wrath of the Righteous next, and we want it to last a year and then go on to something else.” Then you set out a schedule – to finish out, PCs have to be level 16, so they need to get more than a level per month, say one every 3 weeks, to make that happen. So then level on schedule. This is kinda brilliant, because as you level up, earlier parts of the adventure get easier, and you accelerate – more encounters/day, more adventure/IRL week. If you get ahead, it’s harder, and you are slowed down accordingly.

You can somewhat mitigate the cost vs benefit equation here by using a simpler rubric, like “you level after X adventures/sessions/whatever”, where X = character level or a constant. This loses some GM control (especially if it’s “sessions”) but it’s a good compromise for, say, Organized Play setups where you need a way to track character leveling outside the bounds of a traditional campaign.

A very simulation-minded GM could derive their own way of character advancement – in-game time, whatever – easily on top of this framework.

XP As An Option?

Sure, but so, in D&D Next or whatever, can’t we just have XP as an option and “GM levels whenever” as an option?

As described above, XP forces compromise from both the adventure author and GM in terms of adventure design and the players in terms of in-character play. Having “the option” not to XP doesn’t help that all that much – we already have that option, but our adventures and players are still tainted by the XP-oriented mindset. So even those deciding not to use XP will get compromise adventures that had to be designed with that stricture in mind. Kill it with fire.

XP Should Be Buried Now

I know that it’s so “traditional” that it’s hard to accept, but after 30 years of gaming and some careful analysis I really can’t say that the many man-hours spent calculating XP (or worse, gerrymandering it as a GM) have had anywhere near a positive return on investment in terms of game quality or fun.

Happy 40th, D&D!

Turns out this week is D&D’s 40th birthday!  I’m slightly older than it is, and have been playing for somewhere around 30 of those years.

My first D&D game was in a car on the way to a Boy Scout camp.  It was diceless and mostly rule-less.  I joined in progress; one guy had Blackrazor, one had Whelm, and one had a crossbow. Encounters usually ended with us all trying to kill each other as well.  Good times. (I find it interesting that nowadays people contend you can’t play D&D diceless, or can’t play it PvP…  Kids nowadays.)

I was always more of a SF guy so I played Star Frontiers, but got frustrated with buying Dragon Magazines for the Ares section and not being able to use or understand the rest (What’s a “hit die?”) so got the original Red Box, and then it was off to the races!

So thanks to D&D for many years of fun.  I still play it (even though it’s called Pathfinder now)!

Link

Noob the Loser D&D Comic

If you haven’t seen this yet, you deserve to treat yourself to a NSFW, hilarious D&D comic from “Noob the Loser”!

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Seventh Session

Seventh Session (12 page pdf) – “The Sun Temple Colony” – The crew finds the lost Andoran colony built atop an Azlanti ruin.  They fall in with religious extremists as an Azlanti artifact nearly burns their ship to the waterline! Then they start poking around the island.

lost_citiesI liked doing the Sun Temple Colony after I did From Shore To Sea, because they were used to the WoW-like architecture of the Azlanti, and even knew to talk to the will-o-wisp streetlights in Aklo… But first they get lit up by the main attribute of the Sun Temple Colony, its big ol’ sun-focusing floating lens.

The Sun Temple Colony is from the Lost Cities of Golarion supplement. The intent here is that there’s parts of it about 10 CRs above the party’s level, so they have to keep it a bit on the down-low and play the locals against each other. They meet the “free” colonists and learn about the cult, the God-touched and breeder varieties. And they get a mascot, the impressionable 15-year-old Lefty.

Sindawe gets to exercise his captaining skills, which is generally “issue orders and then beat the nearest crewman unconscious since he’s clearly not moving fast enough.” They do get loot shares; this is probably the best place to give the pirate crewmen treasure because they are a thousand miles from anywhere they can spend it.

Then, it’s off to hexcrawl and explore the island!

 

 

D&D Next Might Be OGL?

In an ENWorld thread about their Amethyst Kickstarter, Chris Dias of DiasExMachina claims to have it “on good authority” that D&D Next/5e will be released under an open license, possibly the OGL.

If true this would be huge, and possibly bring D&D back into the living mainstream of gaming from the weird blind alley it’s been coursing down.  I’ve been reading the next playtest docs and it’s OK – but not OK enough for me to bother with if it’s not open with a SRD and third party support (especially for adventures). If it is actually open, and distinguishes itself enough from Pathfinder (ideally by being way more simple and D&D Basic like), then it might just have a place at my gaming table after all.

When I got my copy of Third Edition at Gen Con 2000, it was the Green Ronin Freeport module that was the first thing we ran, and their (and other 3pp’s) rapid adventure support after that was what kept us in avid 3e gaming goodness for quite a while. If Next can pull off the same thing, then it could light WotC’s D&D back up!

 

Rule Zero Over The Years

A recent question on RPG Stack Exchange had me researching the attitudes of Dungeons & Dragons towards rule interpretation over the years and I thought I’d expand it into a post here.

The allowed scope of DM rulings has absolutely changed over time in D&D.  The balance between Dungeon Master’s discretion versus reign of the rules versus player empowerment has always been debated in D&D circles but there’s a clear evolution of thinking across the span of versions.  The attitude towards rulings vs. rules in the game shows up

  •  directly and explicitly in the rules text
  •  implicitly in the text and detectable via textual analysis
  •  in the surrounding publications considered semi-canonical (Dragon magazine, nowadays forums and designer blogs), and
  •  the culture of gamers surrounding it.

Let’s stick mostly to the first two in the interest of space.

Dungeons & Dragons 0e

In the origins of the game, Chainmail, there was no concept of straying from the rules – it was a wargame.  You could (and often did) mod the rules prior to play, but the whole thing about wargaming is that, like board gaming, the rules are considered inviolate during an instance of play as a core assumption. Some wargames didn’t have a “referee” role, and those that did, the role was very much like a sports referee – to determine if some violation of the rules had occurred.

But in the very first version of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson open the OD&D “Men & Magic” book with this admonishment to the “referee”:

These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable. – Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1, Men & Magic (1974), p.4

This is supported by textual analysis as well – the game rules’ intent (medieval people having adventures!) versus the relative paucity of the rules basically required large degrees of interpolation and discretion just to run a game.  The gap between the mode of play and the written rules is so wide that reading the rules as an all-encompassing legal text on how to play is infeasible. Still, the metaphor is of the referee changing the rules as you proceed, with little discussion about ad hoc rulings.

Later supplements continued this theme.  In “Swords & Spells,” the mass combat add-on, they note:

The second thing to remember is that these rules deal with fantasy. If something is unclear as to how or why it works that way, remember that it is all fantasy.  Fantasy is not bound to rigid rules and rationales.  Fantasy is imaginative. If you feel that your fantasy is better that this in some aspect, that’s fine. After all, it’s your fantasy.  Be warned, however, that unless certain balances are maintained, the game soon becomes very lopsided and very little fun. BALANCE is to be maintained at all times.” – Tim Kask, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Foreword.

In any case fantasy is a growing and flexible form of gaming, and referees must feel at home modifying and expanding upon rules as the situation dictates.  – Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Introduction.

The terminology – “referee,” “modifying the rules,” still hew close to the wargaming metaphor. Also in Kask’s quote, you see the first time balance, or as he states it, “BALANCE“, is mentioned. You’ll see it again…

Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Moldvay/Cook

The 1977 version of Dungeons & Dragons births one of three major strains of thought on the issue of DM rulings.

Moldvay p.B2 (Foreword) on changing the rules: “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.” Paragraph 3 of the second column p.B3 also discusses how the rules are good as-is but should be changed if desired by the group and with the DM’s permission. Also notable for using the term “rules as written”, but only as normal descriptive English rather than a technical term.

Moldvay also has most of a page (B60) devoted to telling the DM that they’re the boss, not the players or the rules. Notably, it has explicit guidance on making rulings when there aren’t obvious applications of the rules. It also notes that though a good DM will discuss rulings with players after the game, a player who still disagrees is welcome to quit as their only recourse.

As you can see Basic moves well away from D&D’s wargaming roots, gives the players a voice but puts the DM in the predominant place. I would venture to say that regardless of what the text of each game says, this became the predominant model of operation for the vast amount of the history of D&D.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – 1e

In first edition AD&D, you see further development of ambivalence between the role of the Dungeon Master and the beauty and balance of the rules, though the DM is still considered the apex. It departs from B/X in that players are pretty much actively denigrated. In the opening pages of the 1e DMG, Gary Gygax rambles on at some length on this exact topic.

What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another. Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from “on high” as respects your game. Dictums are given for the sake of the game only, for if ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is to survive and grow, it must have some degree of uniformity, a familiarity of method and procedure from campaign to campaign within the whole.[...]  In this lies a great danger, however. The systems and parameters contained in the whole of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS are based on a great deal of knowledge, experience gained through discussion, play, testing, questioning, and (hopefully) personal insight. Limitations, checks, balances, and all the rest are placed into the system in order to assure that what is based thereon will be a superior campaign, a campaign which offers the most interesting play possibilities to the greatest number of participants for the longest period of time possible.[...]  Naturally, everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work. As a participant in the game, I would not care to have anyone telling me exactly what must go into a campaign and how it must be handled; if so, why not play some game like chess? As the author I also realize that there are limits to my creativity and imagination. Others will think of things I didn’t, and devise things beyond my capability.[...]  The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign. Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far desire is to issue a death warrant to a campaign.[...] As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. – Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Preface pp.6-7.

You can see that player empowerment definitely isn’t on the menu in the seventies, but there is a stronger strain inserted of the wisdom of the rules and how while the DM is still above the rules, they should tread lightly and wisely in changing them. After apparently sucking down some whip-its, he goes on to say:

Know the game systems, and you will know how and when to take upon yourself the ultimate power. To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it. Remembering that the game is greater than its parts, and knowing all of the parts, you will have overcome the greater part of the challenge of being a referee. Being a true DM requires cleverness and imagination which no set of rules books can bestow. Seeing that you were clever enough to buy this volume, and you have enough imagination to desire to become the maker of a fantasy world, you are almost there already! Read and become familiar with the contents of this work and the one written for players, learn your monsters, and spice things up with some pantheons of super-powerful beings. Then put your judging and refereeing ability into the creation of your own personal milieu, and you have donned the mantle of Dungeon Master. Welcome to the exalted ranks of the overworked and harrassed, whose cleverness and imagination are all too often unappreciated by cloddish characters whose only thought in life is to loot, pillage, slay, and who fail to appreciate the hours of preparation which went into the creation of what they aim to destroy as cheaply and quickly as possible. As a DM you must live by the immortal words of the sage who said: “Never give a sucker an even break.” Also, don‘t be a sucker for your players, for you‘d better be sure they follow sage advice too. As the DM, you have to prove in every game that you are still the best. This book is dedicated to helping to assure that you are.  – Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Introduction pp. 9.

This would certainly excite comment if written today in a RPG.
And then in closing out the pages of this hallowed tome, Gygax writes:

It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. NEVER hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, IF it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters give in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Volumes, YOU are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a WHOLE first, your CAMPAIGN next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do.”
- Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), Afterword.

This marks an interesting change. In Chainmail and 0e the referee is just there to facilitate play between players. In Advanced D&D the DM has a predominant role and, while he is expected to become a master of the rules, reigns over the rules and players alike and can essentially extrapolate and make rulings according to his sovereign will.

Also notable here is the extensive (if mildly mental) discussion of the subject – many later editions barely spare a couple sentences on it.

Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Mentzer

Ah, my first Dungeons & Dragons – the Red Box. In the Basic Player’s Manual, it briefly describes the DM as “the person who plays the parts of the monsters and runs the game” (p.23). I think it’s so interesting that all the player books over time don’t really expand on the DM role to players beyond one sentence of “this person’s gonna run the game.”

The Dungeon Masters Rulebook makes a dramatic break with all that has come before.

The Most Important Rule
There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this: BE FAIR. A Dungeon Master must not take sides. You will play the roles of the creatures encountered, but do so fairly, without favoring the monsters or the characters. Play the monsters as they would actually behave, at least as you imagine them. The players are not fighting the DM! The characters may be fighting the monsters, but everyone is playing the game to have fun. The players have fun exploring and earning more powerful characters, and the DM has fun playing the monsters and entertaining players. For example, it’s not fair to change the rules unless everyone agrees to the change. When you add optional rules, apply them evenly to everyone, players and monsters. Do not make exceptions; stick to the rules, and be fair. – Frank Menzer, Basic Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Rulebook p. 2 (1983)

The DM’s role as described is exceptionally limited when you compare the parallel AD&D. Heck, the DM can’t even change the rules without group consensus! All the advice in the first section harps on the fairness aspect.  “…so should the DM keep the “monster knowledge” completely separated from the “DM information.”” It tends to assume the rules are complete and impartial application of the rules is all that is required in the game.

There is no explicit discussion of the GM using their judgment or making rulings at all. The rules section just says briefly that if the DM has questions they should 1) read the rules, 2) read some more rules, 3) ask an experienced DM, 4) send mail to TSR to get an answer (no, seriously).  The only other mention is under the “Complaints” section that talks about listening to player complaints and admitting to your mistakes.  The subsequent sets (Expert, Companion…) have exactly zero to say on the topic of the DM’s dilemma of making rulings using their judgment except inasmuch as constructing the adventure and choosing monsters is within the DM’s purview.

As you can see, BECMI takes the ideas from B/X and then apparently reacts against the strong strain of competition and DM entitlement in AD&D and swings way over in the other direction. Basic’s decline came when 2e came out but its concepts get picked up much later by 4e.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition – 2e

The Second Edition DMG kicks in with a significantly different attitude towards rules, picking back up some of the B/X thread. Rulings are discussed explicitly and rules are put in the back seat in terms of primacy.

Choice is what the AD&D game is all about. We’ve tried to offer you what we think are the best choices for your AD&D campaign, but each of us has different likes and dislikes. The game that I enjoy may be quite different from your own campaign. But it is not for me to say what is right or wrong for your game. True, I and everyone working on the AD&D game have had to make fundamental decisions, but we’ve tried to avoid being dogmatic and inflexible. The AD&D game is yours, it’s mine, it’s every player’s game.
So is there an “official” AD&D game? Yes, but only when there needs to be. Although I don’t have a crystal ball, it’s likely that tournaments and other official events will use all of the core rules in these books.[...] Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don’t just let the game sit there, and don’t become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can’t figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.
At conventions, in letters, and over the phone I’m often asked for the instant answer to a fine point of the game rules. More often than not, I come back with a question—what do you feel is right? And the people asking the questions discover that not only can they create an answer, but that their answer is as good as anyone else’s. The rules are only guidelines. – David “Zeb” Cook, Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Foreword (1989).

This is very notable – the rules are super flexible, both the rules as written (RAW) and even the rules as intended (RAI) are completely at your discretion, is the messaging. The DMG then talks a lot more about the players’ role in creating the story and in the DM’s role in entertaining them.

A mailing list debate from 2000 highlighting the difference in attitudes – 2e was more about freedom with less specific prescription, and some folks liked that and some didn’t:

1st edition was very personal and idiosyncratic, and not to everyone’s taste.[...] The second edition represents a shift in paradigm from this model (the shift began, of course, right away, as the D&D rules quickly mutated in the hands of individuals, but 2nd Edition was the first time it became evident in the products produced by TSR).  Where once there was a complete game found in a few canonical books, now there is a nebulous web of possibilities spun through any number of sources.

In reply:

There are some good ideas in 2nd edition[...] Other than that, my opinion is that it’s a mish-mash of rules that nobody ever took the time to playtest in conjunction with each other. Put the burden on the DM?  Like I need to have more burdens placed on me!

Some folks are more comfortable with a more constrained and prescriptive ruleset; 2e (along with a lot of the storytelling focus of that decade with Vampire and the like) sets the rules aside for the focus on story and DM discretion.

Dungeons & Dragons 3e

In the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook is the source of the term “Rule Zero” which is often used as shorthand for “DM discretion.”

0. CHECK WITH YOUR DUNGEON MASTER
Your Dungeon Master (DM) may have house rules or campaign standards that vary from the standard rules. You might also want to know what character types the other players are playing so that you
can create a character that fits in well with the group. – Character Creation, Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (2000).

Since then, Rule Zero has been expanded in the popular mindset to be “The DM Is Always Right/Can Do What He Wants” or, alternately, “Having Fun Is The Most Important Thing.” It caught on as a term to describe judiciously breaking the rules – and the very fact that it emerged as an explicit term shows that there was discussion of the concept going on.

In the 3e PHB, it is pretty matter of fact about “Here’s the rules.  You’ll be using them.” Except for Rule Zero there’s no mention of possible variation and no real discussion of the DM’s role beyond:

One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (DM), controls the monsters and people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face the dangers and explore the mysteries your Dungeon Master sets before you. – Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.6 (2000).

The 3e DMG stats out with a whole chapter on the Dungeon Master’s role.  This edition talks a lot about the player role – “The players and the DM work together to create the game as a whole” (p.8).  The DM provides the adventure and the world and adjudicates, but the book provides a whole checklist to guide adjudication and creating house rules. For adjudication, check the rules, check similar rules, if you make something up it’s a house rule and you should be consistent with it for the campaign because “Consistency keeps players satisfied and gives them the feeling that they adventure in a stable, predictable universe and not in some random, nonsensical place subject only to the DM’s whims” (p.9). Any ruling made effectively should become a consistent, permanent house rule.

For house ruling, there’s a section discussing it, and the overall gist is to read the rules, understand why the rules exist, be careful about changing the rules – but still do it.  “Given the creativity of gamers, almost every campaign will, in time, develop its own house rules.”

I have extensive RPG mailing list email archives going back to 1997, and as I search for incidences of the phrase “rules as written,” there’s occasional uses of the phrase all the way back but it comes into heavy use as a gaming jargon phrase on D&D lists in 2000-2001 with the advent of Third Edition.

My experience is that since 3e didn’t really explicitly say a lot about the DM’s role, 2e attitudes mostly carried over into 3e until 3.5e, when new players without previous edition experience and the more tactical rules focus enhanced in 3.5e caused a shift in attitudes not strictly prescribed by the difference between 3e and 3.5e text.

Over the course of 3e/3.5e, there was a significant culture change around rules adherence. WotC put a lot of work into their RPGA/Organized Play campaigns, and especially the Living campaigns had to, due to their format, enforce strict “rules as written” adherence (as predicted by Zeb Cook in the 2e preface, you’ll note!). This generated debate, and as time went on, altered more of the default mode of players towards the rules being fixed above the individual DM’s discretion.

A quote from a Living Greyhawk organizer list email in December 1999:

Last I heard, the rule from on high was:  Greyhawk will be the flagship campaign.  It WILL follow core rules, period.  I suspect we both agree this means we will be playing some silly rules, tho not necessarily which ones actually are bad.  However, until we hear
otherwise, we had best be prepared to accept Core rules as written in stone.

And an immediate counterpoint:

I would be very…disappointed…if this were true. If this is the case then another Fate of Istus type thing seems inevitable – weird things springing up in the setting just cos they changed the rules again. The mechanics of the game should poke through the skin of the setting as little as possible IMO. Setting over rules – other wise you make things a complete homogeneous sludge.

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e

The 3.5e Player’s Handbook still cites Rule Zero (though without the “0,” so it’s just a sentence in the Character Creation section). Its description of the DM role is:

The DM controls the monsters and enemies,
narrates the action, referees the game, and sets up the adventures. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.4 (2003).

The DMG is largely the same as 3e with some slight shading of language couching the DM’s role and authority in more limited terms. “you control the pacing, and the types of adventures and encounters, the whole tenor of the game is in your hands” (p.4).  Collaboration with the players is called out explicitly more. Also, the sheer magnitude of the rules and their attempt to cover all conditions makes the book more inherently readable as a self-contained guide to the game.

Gary Gygax had some harsh words for D&D 3.5 on this topic:

The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good. – Gary Gygax, GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)

At the end of 3.5e’s reign, the Rules Compendium had this to say, in departure from what had become the mainstream, about this essential assumption behind the rules:

ADJUDICATION
Essential to the D&D game is the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is the referee and storyteller for the game, as well as the judge when the rules don’t cover a particular topic.

Let’s face it: No set of rules can cover every possible circumstance in a game meant to mimic life in a fantasy world. The rules clear up as much as possible, assuming the DM can make a judgment in a situation that the rules don’t cover or that they don’t cover adequately. DMs are expected to use knowledge of existing rules, common sense, realworld knowledge, and a sense of fun when dealing with such special cases. Knowledge of the existing rules is key, because the rules often do cover similar cases or combine to make such judgment calls unnecessary. It’s not always true, but you often can do or at least try something the rules fail to directly forbid, as long as the DM thinks doing so is reasonable. For example, the rules don’t come out and say that a Medium creature threatens all squares within 10 feet while wielding a reach weapon and wearing spiked gauntlets. However, it’s appropriate to assume the creature does just that.

The DM is also there to keep the game moving. Doing so might require expedient rulings that later prove troublesome or just plain incorrect. That’s okay. Players and DMs make mistakes, and these mistakes tend to average out over time. It’s better for everyone’s fun if the game just keeps going rather than devolving into a rules argument or going back to revisit the round in which a mistake was made. – D&D Rules Compendium p.5

This statement, while still backing the rules, tries to cut beleaguered DMs some slack in the rulings department, even saying “let’s not go back and hash it over again” as some of the other advice gives on this subject..  James Wyatt writes a full page essay called “Rules and Fun” in the Rules Compendium (p. 63)  that explains why we have rules and how they are important for balance and for introducing new possibilities, as opposed to their function as limits. He argues that the rules aren’t as restrictive as say a computer game’s, and says the D&D rules “limit your options without too narrowly defining them. The beauty of D&D is that your character can try anything you can imagine. The rules are there as a yardstick to measure your chance of success.”

The problem with this from a textual interpretation standpoint is that it’s hard to not interpret the raft of “possibility” options in the 3e branch of D&D as being restriction of options.  I can try to throw my opponent in a grapple – until a feat comes out that says “In a grapple, you can now throw your opponent.” Thus despite mitigating statements by the designers, their design itself passively promulgates an approach to the rules as written.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – 4e

The 4e DMG does a lot of recasting of the role of the DM.  He is described “one of the players,” a turn of phrase never used before in D&D, albeit a player with a special role (p.6) – “The DM is the rules moderator, the narrator, a player of many different characters, and the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.” He “stands as a mediator between the rules and the players.” If he makes a rules call during the session, it should be re-discussed later and he should “admit his mistake” and “make it up to the players.” The tenor of this couldn’t be more different from that of Gygax in AD&D, but you can see callbacks to BECMI in the wording.

4e does have a section on house rules (DMG p.189) as something “some DMs” might like to do, and allows that changing the rules is within your rights.

The word “judgment” in reference to the DM using their judgment or making judgment calls is used only 4 times in the 4e DMG, as opposed to 10 in 3e and 15 in 2e. In general it is stressed less in the text as a concept; implying that the rules handle most situations without that being necessary or desirable.

Another significant change here is the formal introduction of dissociated mechanics. In later 3.5e the concept had definitely emerged of “RAW, right or wrong” and that attempting to use game world simulation or physics was undesirable and you should just do what the rules say whether it makes sense or not.  4e codified that and formally dissociated the character powers into “rules first” mechanisms that can be skinned into the world however you want, but that have entirely deterministic effects not beholden to game world simulation. This mode of play places story above world/fiction and thus eliminates a lot of the motivation for rulings calls beyond pure “the rules aren’t clear here” in the game.

Pathfinder

(Yes, Pathfinder is a version of D&D, duh.)  Much of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook’s GM advice is cribbed from 3e, with slightly stronger statements echoing earlier editions about “All the rulebooks, including this one, are his [the GM's] tools, but his word is the law” “GM Fiat: The GM is the law of the game.”

When complications involving rules interpretations
occur, listen to the player and make the decision as quickly as you can on how to resolve the situation. If the rule in question isn’t one you’re familiar with, you can go with the player’s interpretation but with the knowledge that after the game you’ll read up on the rules and, with the next session, will have an official ruling in play. Alternatively, you can simply rule that something works in a way that helps the story move on, despite the most logical or impassioned arguments from the players. Even then, you owe it to your players to spend time after the game researching the rule to make sure your ruling was fair— and if not, make amends the next game as necessary.

Cheating and Fudging: We all know that cheating is
bad. But sometimes, as a GM, you might find yourself in a situation where cheating might improve the game. We prefer to call this “fudging” rather than cheating, and while you should try to avoid it when you can, you are the law in your world, and you shouldn’t feel bound by the dice. [...]
Likewise, don’t feel bound to the predetermined plot of an encounter or the rules as written. Feel free to adjust the results or interpret things creatively—especially in cases where you as the GM made a poor assumption to begin with.

So they come out on the side of GM rulings, fiat, and fudging (all forms of primacy over the rules), with a bit of the “make amends if you weren’t fair” flavor.

The Gamemastery Guide has lengthy and detailed advice on running a game including a section called “Winging It,” “GM Subterfuge,” “The Illusion Of Free Choice,” and other related topics. Most of it tiptoes around the topic of ruling in addition to/overriding the rules. It talks about the GM having the final say and not wasting too much time in game with rules disputes but still comes strongly from the rules-fairness viewpoint. It does talk about dealing with “Rules Lawyers,” and says

Even if you follow these rules, you may still have trouble with rules lawyers. Not everyone views rules the same way. The important thing is to stand behind your rulings, and when certain things break the rules—for good reason— don’t feel like you have to reveal world secrets just because the rules lawyer demands answers. GMs work in mysterious ways, and with any luck history will vindicate your choice.

There’s also an “advanced” section on “Customizing Your Game” and it talks about making some non-rules-supported rulings – as long as it’s carefully concealed from the players. “And with some shuffling of notes
and hidden dice roles, no player should be the wiser tosuch an improvised ruling.”

This is an interesting and ambivalent approach – sure, the DM should be ruling, but it’s somewhat shameful and if the players find out then you will be somehow compromised.  It’s like being a closeted 1e DM posing as a 4e GM.

OSR

It’s worth noting the Old School Renaissance movement to bring back older versions of D&D, with its seminal A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming using the phrase “rulings, not rules” to try to describe the spirit of older editions as compared to newer editions. It cites these four pillars:

  • Rulings, Not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget “Game Balance”

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.

Some, however, consider this to be a bit of a retcon of how old school gaming actually worked. As you can see from this research, it is and it isn’t – the “rulings vs. rules” concept was very strong especially in B/X and 2e, somewhat less so in 0e/1e, and actively militated against in BECMI. Hackmaster and the Knights of the Dinner Table comic prominently parody the not uncommon rules-adherence mode of play in AD&D. As all nostalgia does, the Quick Primer picks certain elements out of the past to bring back and leaves aside some other elements.

D&D Next

The last D&D Next playtest packet has some very retro things to say about the interaction of DM and rules.  “The rules are a tool that you and the players use to have a good time,” “The rules aren’t in charge. You, the DM, are…” “the DM’s power comes with responsibility. Be fair and impartial with the players.” This last quote directly hearkens back to a quote from Zeb Cook’s 2e introduction – “As a Dungeon Master, you have great power, and ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Use it wisely.”  D&D Next even goes on to discuss ignoring the dice – “The dice don’t run the game. You do.” This sweeps aside a lot of the underlying play assumptions of later 3.5e/4e and brings back a lot of B/X and 2e concepts.

Conclusion

Though in each edition you had some elements of each approach, there’s a clear move in philosophy over time from

  • 0e the referee is an aribter and fills in the gaps
  • 1e the DM is large and in charge, the rules are pretty good, your players are at both’s behest
  • B/X and 2e the DM and players are both important, the rules are super mutable
  • 3e/early 3.5e the rules and players and DM are leveled out in importance, meaning rulings are minimized and a negotiation with players
  • BECMI/late 3.5e/4e the rules are pretty fixed and players and DM are equal and subject to the rules as law; RAW is an option
  • OSR and Pathfinder splitting off in their own directions in reaction to 4e, OSR back to a mix of 0e and B/X flavored attitudes and Pathfinder to a hybrid of 1e/2e/3e attitudes
  • D&D Next is reincorporating a lot of the 2e and 3e thinking into the game

At the same time, prominent “D&D Offramp” games like 13th Age and Numenera have a large portion of their pitch not just new setting/rules but explicit attitudes towards the running of the game – in Numenera, Monte Cook has a very large section about GM empowerment that, while not written in Grand High Gygaxian, still recalls much of the AD&D 1e and 2e advice about the GM being in charge and doing what they darn well please. 13th Age is a little more 4e-ey but both with rules-crafting and rules advice tries to take D&D in more of a storygaming direction.

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Sixth Session

Sixth Session (12 page pdf) – “Quest for Azlant” – The crew sees some hot action against the Mordant Spire Elves as they fight a skimmer to the bitter end. Then they investigate the weird dangers of Azlant, finally arriving at the Sun Temple Colony.

mordantspireThe fight against the Mordant Spire Elf skimmer is very different from their previous naval combats.  The elf ships are small and nimble, with small but very expert crews. Sindawe was shocked when they handily outsailed him and then the magic started – elementals, an unseen servant dropping the ToA’s anchor, fireballs, glitterdusts, fly, invisibility, and much much more!

And they maroon the female elf captain, eschewing torture, rape, etc., possibly as a result of last session’s heart-to-heart on the subject of pirate ethics. They do enjoy taking all the elves’ masks however! The Mordant Spire elves consider the Azlanti islands a “no go” area so patrol it and drive off outsiders. Didn’t work in this case, but it was a solid combat!

Then the crystal pillar they come across and decide not to enter is directly from a legend about real-life St. Brendan the Navigator I read in some book of exploration stories.

And finally they reach the place they end up staying a while – the Sun Temple Colony!

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Fifth Session

Fifth Session (15 page pdf) – “Island Tour” – The Teeth of Araska crawls through the sunken spires of lost Azlant looking for Morgann Baumann and the Black Bunyip.  And one crew member falls to MURDER! But a new and unusual  member joins the crew.

The Teeth of Araska ventures into the shattered remnants of lost Azlant in the middle of the Arcadian Ocean. Much of the action is ship-navigation, storms, and minor random encounters. Except for Tommy murdering Bojask over dinner.

Tommy’s player had to leave the game but we keep in touch.  Last time we talked he told me “Tommy’s totally against slavery, and he’s not going to put up with Bojask and his elven rape slave.” So at officer’s mess one night, he death attacks Bojask right in front of the other PCs, which they find appropriately shocking. Then there’s a lot of discussion and hashing over ethics and morals and feelings and practicalities…  This provides them an opportunity to actually discuss and introspect about the crew’s slaving and raping and whatnot, up till now it’s been happening as snap decisions without real party discussion.

And then, they find J.J. the seamunculus! He turns into a hilarious long-term NPC, an “anatomically correct” aquatic homunculus that a flamboyantly-dressed wizard made… He makes the PCs a mix of entertained and uncomfortable, just how it should be.

I like sessions like this where there’s some stuff going on but it serves mainly as a backdrop for PC/PC and PC/NPC interactions. The PCs are very invested in their ship and crew and are happy to go into great detail with them. Heck, it’s these roleplay sessions that turn into 15 page summaries like this one, as opposed to the combat ones where it’s 8 pages of “someone hit somebody.” Enjoy!

Best line:

Jaren the Jinx shouts out, “Buoy Ho!” The crew becomes so embroiled in making ribald jokes at this they nearly miss what he’s pointing at.

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Fourth Session

Fourth Session (10 page pdf) – “Zombie Proof” – as if zombie barbarians and zombie Red Mantis assassins aren’t enough, the crew ventures beneath the waves to the wreck of the Tammeraut, following their own fates.

In this session, we resume in mid-fight as the zombies threaten to overwhelm the hermitage on Firewatch Island. When they all have to fall back and barricade themselves into the scriptorium to avoid the undead hordes comes my favorite dialogue of the session:

Daphne says, “It’s days like this I’m glad I was kidnapped by pirates.”

I turned the spellcasting into a mini-game to race against time, and when Wogan and Janore finally got the spell cast they doubled down on the existing storm to waterspouts that cleansed the island of zombies!

The generic ghost that’s the end of Tammeraut’s Fate is instead part of the legacy of the shadow phantom-haunted members of the small band that got Cypher-glyphs exploded into them at the climax of Season One, Madness in Riddleport. The ongoing theme of the corruption of that kind of magic continues!  And then, they depart with a spell that can find them the Black Bunyip and Morgan Baumann!

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Third Session

Third Session (17 page pdf) – “Reindeer Games” – Survivors are found in the monastery! And then, it’s John Carpenter’s “The Fog” time as waterlogged zombies besiege the place.

We continue with the classic Tammeraut’s Fate from Dungeon Magazine. The first part is all investigation and talking to Janore, the remaining hermit worth talking to.  It gets more lively with the (advanced) peryton attack that almost kills Sindawe. The party was grumped that it snuck up on them “in the sky” but the belfry has only pretty narrow windows and a roof and all, it’s not high visibility unless you walk around sticking your head out to look up and down.

My favorite part was when they had the ship send a longboat – the pirates didn’t know anything was up, so when Sindawe told them “send spears, there may be an undead attack tonight” they thought he was being coy, and returned dressed as zombies. “The disappointed pirates return to their ship, pausing to moan for brains from time to time.”

Then they encounter two hags… I wasn’t even thinking, in the adventure it’s just like Sea Hag (2).  But of course the PCs immediately came to the conclusion that Janore must be the third hag in the coven. (Heck in our current Carrion Crown campaign, the party’s ready to lynch three sisters who live together on the grounds that they’re surely witches or hags.)

This was nice and sandboxy – “Here’s a location, harden it against an undead attack!” They came up with every plan they could, then when night falls they fight a very large supply of draugr (drowned Vikings) while Wogan and Janore use a scroll to whip the storm into a hurricane. The dramatic finale, next time!

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Second Session

Second Session (15 page pdf) – “Tammeraut’s Fate” – The  Teeth of Araska crosses the Arcadian Ocean headed for Azlant, and finds an abandoned monastery on Firewatch Island, the first major waypoint in the islands. What’s going on?

The crew wavecrawls their way West across the Arcadian Ocean. As usual I use a mix of random weather generation and the Today at Sea encounter generator.

Crazy ships!  Ghost ships!  Bad storms! They become concerned their ship is haunted! It was really just a couple coincidences but I enjoyed how quickly a couple unexplained minor occurrences turned into a major witch hunt; welcome to shipboard life.

And finally they reach Firewatch Island, home to a lone monastery – and the location of famed Dungeon Magazine adventure Tammeraut’s Fate! Dungeon #106, written by none other than Greg A. Vaughan. Think John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and you’ll be on track. Besides a peryton it seems abandoned, but something bad happened recently… More on that next time!

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, First Session

First Session (17 page pdf) – “Reavers of the Coast” – The group decides to embrace their piracy and raid the little Chelish logging town of Hollobrae. But can they live with the results?

Warning, adult content.

In the first session of Season Three the Reavers get on the road – well, the open ocean – and want to raid a town. OK, I think. Every adventure module ever wastes 10 pages of its limited space on “here’s another shitty little starting town” so I pulled some old third party modules I’m unlikely to use as written, pop one open, oh look it’s the logging town of Hollobrae. It’s from an old Fiery Dragon module called “The Silver Summoning.” Little crap town, VIPs in town for an elf-human wedding. I plunk it down in Cheliax and we’re ready to go. Cleverly, they send in a scouting party first, who figures out what’s up and gets Lavender Lil invited to be the entertainment at the bachelor party.

They devise a careful multi-pronged assault plan on the town that starts to go awry immediately. Turns out there’s a sorceress in the inn who Glitterdusts the pirates (after they murder her uncle the bartender), this makes the fight with the locals and bachelors harder than they planned. The inn and people there were largely detailed in the Silver Summoning adventure and so it added a nice layer of realism and complexity to the NPC interaction. There were lots of great little moments, especially because they took the crewmen they know the best with them. Sevgi went upstairs and had a real round by round knock-down-drag-out with a bachelor that reminded us of the knife fight in Saving Private Ryan. Then in an anticlimactic moment, they met Martino Marcellano, a Chelish noble who used to own Bel, Sevgi, and the ex-slave members of the crew! He’s a hotshot duelist but Wogan blinded him and Sindawe beat him unconscious with no opposition. Dang it.

Then Wogan and Sindawe got to the “bachelor party room” – it was funny, they peek through the keyhole, see a sick orgy with Lil, Tommy,  Seyanna the succubus (allegedly back in Riddleport) and some rakes. By the time they gather Serpent and bust in there’s no succubus but everyone is dead except Lil and Tommy. He claims “poison.” Wogan really did investigate the keyhole after to make sure it was “reading right.”

They head out, loot, and as the ship bombards the town they leave, taking the sorceress from the inn and Marcellano. The group that hit the armory decided to go out on their own initiative and kidnapped a bunch of elf women from the bride’s party!

One of the things I like to do in evil campaigns is to test the PCs.  See what their limits are. As they fought off a couple devils from the local church of Asmodeus’ quick response team, Serpent actually tried to free as many of the women as he could in the confusion – three of the five thankfully got away as a result.  (Marcellano escaped on his own recognizance to torment them later.) None of the three pirate command staff were in favor of taking the women really, but Sindawe didn’t want the morale complications from saying no and Wogan’s a pretty “go with the flow” kind of guy. Serpent was willing to help them escape but once they were at sea with the last two he didn’t stick up for them.

Then we have the moral interaction play itself out.  Sindawe didn’t see a way out of letting the agitated crew auction for the elf women (Nariel and Natulcien). Morale and mutiny is a real thing, so he didn’t do the ethical thing but it was probably the practical thing. So Bojask the half-orc rapist gets one, and Tommy and Lil get one (actually they bid for her out of compassion, to keep her relatively safe – don’t tell anyone; a couple of the other pirates did too – Little Mike is a nice guy at heart). Similarly, Samaritha saves Daphne the sorceress’ life by promising to keep her Dominated – she is forced to sign the Articles by Sindawe in exchange for this “favor” though. The rest of the time is trying to ignore the screaming.  (Yes, I laid it on thick to try to generate guilt.)  Captive women on a ship, pirates… You know that this is going to cause a lot of turmoil going forward.  And stay tuned, it does! No bad deed goes unpunished in the long run. It’s hard to blaze a path between “pirate” and “psycho dirtbag” especially when you have a large group that’s a mix of those, and that’s part of what we’re exploring in this campaign.