Tag Archives: dungeons and dragons

The Side Effects Of Organized Play

Organized Play – Pathfinder Society for Pathfinder and the RPGA for Dungeons & Dragons – is very popular nowadays, and they’ve all gone to what was originally called the “Living” format, where you have characters that progress as you move from table to table, group to group, GM to GM, made possible by strong standardization.

The benefits of Organized Play include spreading the game through play opportunities at conventions, increased regular play options for those without regular gaming groups, and provides adventure content quickly consumable by GMs. It also provides a sense of community among the participants that make them stickier to Pathfinder and other Paizo products.

There are downsides to Organized Play too however. Let me preface this by saying “yay, Organized Play is good, its adherents should not be drowned in drainage ditches or anything.” This isn’t an argument against it. I’m sure people will trip out, but just because you like something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be advised of its side effects, just like any other medication :-)

However, I’ve been involved in organized play for a long time (RPGA, including Living Greyhawk Triad duty), and here’s some issues I see coming from it. It’s mostly an extention of “Walmart/McDonald’s syndrome” (Or now “Netflix syndrome”) – the kind of specific decisions you have to make to create something that works impersonally at scale become predominant and affect even smaller venues because they set specific expectations.

1. Strongly sets a playstyle that disallows GM flexibility/fiat in favor of rules adherence; this is pretty much unavoidable due to the format. This allows a strong focus on character optimization to flourish and become a default way of looking at the game. This isn’t all PFS, but I believe a lot of the rise of RAW/CharOp playstyle from fringe to majority in the last decade has been as a result of the strong 3e/3.5e/PF Organized Play movement. When 3e came out, no one dreamed of using the CR system, or wealth by level, or any of those things as a straitjacket, but now that’s common. Optimization was mentioned only in terms like “min-maxing” or “munchkin” beforehand, now it’s a major part of almost all rules discussion. Of course, if you love RAW rules theory and CharOp this isn’t a downside. But it’s clearly a side effect.

2. Normalization of rules. Authors are loath to put non-legalese rules into products because it’ll be unsuitable for OP use; this means fewer cool experimental rules, fewer rules that depend on GM adjudication, and more fuel on the fire of the expectation that RPG rules should be a legally complete document. Whatever books are allowed by PFS, players feel entitled to use and feel ripped off if a home game doesn’t allow them. Third party publishers, since not allowed in PFS, are marginalized in home games too. Long term, this normalizing pressure ends up leaving us with more Quarter Pounders than home-cooked meals. I’m happy that things like Mythic are still being put out but just not allowed for PFS; it would be easy to be pressured into decisions that don’t let that happen. The more that PFS is tapped for playtests, etc. the more that can happen.

3. Promotes cookie-cutter adventures. To be fair, PFS innovates within the strict time/XP/treasure format a lot more than RPGA Living adventures did, but even so, there is a strong driver towards a very common “4 scenes 2 combats 1 RP 1 puzzle” or similar formula. When I lament the death of Dungeon Mag, James Jacobs says “well use some PFS adventures!” With respect, the PFS modules don’t compare favorably with Dungeon adventures in terms of raw diversity. And they’re not supposed to; like everything else for Organized Play they have to be crafted for large scale, transactional use, with little prep required and change allowed from page to play. And that’s good for PFS but tends to drown out deviations.

Now, I’m not saying OP has killed all third parties or interesting adventures or people that make RP decisions over rules ones. But it has clearly influenced the hobby in specific directions. There’s restaurants other than McDonald’s still, and stores other than Walmart, and movies you can’t see on Netflix. But the existence of a somewhat homogeneous monolith does create downward pressure on other types of gameplay. In our FLGS there’s seriously maybe 40 people a weekend playing PFS that “can’t find a home game.” There’s 40 of you there, sure you can – it’s just not as repeatable as that Quarter Pounder, so we go for the QP.

What’s interesting, besides the arguing over “IT DOES NOT!!!”, is figuring out how to run OP in a way that mitigates these three effects. I think there have been some steps in this regard already; being able to sanction home play of APs and still putting out rules that aren’t PFS-safe are great. And I am sure this isn’t the intent of many of the venture-captains and all, who work hard to provide interesting and customized experiences especially at big cons with interactive events and such. What else can be done to have an OP that doesn’t go “full McDonald’s?”

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.

De Ludos Maleficus – On Evil Campaigns

As inspired by an RPG Stack Exchange question on how to run evil campaigns.

I’ve run a variety of tones of campaigns over time and some could be considered “evil”; in fact currently I’m running a three-year long Pathfinder campaign where the PCs are pirates, Reavers on the Seas of Fate.  Not all of them are technically evilly aligned, but murder, torture, rape, slavery, etc. have all come up in the game. Here’s how you make it work.

Why Do It?

Why would you run an “evil campaign?” Sounds like hassle!  And dubious morally, I mean, it has “evil” right there in the title.  There’s a couple reasons to run an evil campaign and the measure of success is different per type.

  1. I want to freak out and kill everyone! Not a real mature campaign type, but often behind more immature groups who want to play an “evil campaign.” Tell your players “go play Call of Duty and teabag noobs if that’s what you want.” There is no meaningful success metric here.
  2. I want freedom! Much of the time people want an ‘evil campaign’ it’s because they feel constrained/manipulated by their GM and/or other players based on an overly restrictive interpretation of alignment (or whatever similar concept your game has). They’re tired of “you can’t do that” and “Your character wouldn’t do that!” and want to cut loose. If that’s the case, consider running an evil campaign once, use it to demonstrate that criminals generally enjoy effectively less freedom than good folks per the above reasons, and then take the hint and run ‘good campaigns’ with more meaningful character choices and letting the PCs be proactive and diverse in their belief. Success is measured by whether you all learn how to do that from the game.
  3. I want to explore the darker side of human nature! This is why I run evil games. I actually have stronger beliefs on goodness than most folks in real life. I like confronting people with the consequences and ramifications of their actions in games to make them think. Is trading off part of your soul or good name or humanity worth it for that goal? How about long after you’ve achieved the goal but you’re still marked by the act? Success here is fuzzier, since games that actually uptake more roleplaying have less clearcut “win conditions” in general. But it’s successful if it’s enjoyable and if it causes people to grapple with moral questions.

But What’s It Really About?

“Evil” is not really a campaign concept (well, not one that passes muster past the 9th grade level). You need a campaign concept and one that will generally keep the PCs acting together instead of being at each others’ throats unless you’re looking for a very short, PvP campaign, which is legitimate. In fact, there’s plenty of short form indie games that facilitate that (Fiasco is probably the most notable). If you are more going fora longer campaign, however, it needs to have as much in teh way of concrete goals as any other campaign. Smart PCs know they need other mighty people to achieve their goals, good or evil.

Heck most “normal” campaign setups work as well or better with evil groups – just because you’re evil, you don’t really want where you live and work taken over by zombies or whatever, that interferes with your cashflow. Often times players want to “play evil” because they feel like the GM has been using “goodness” to manipulate them into being passive and they want to be proactive and smart in confronting threats. Squinting too hard at many campaign concepts passed off as “good” reveals them to be a sequence of home invasion, murder, and robbery anyway.

The main trap you’re trying to avoid is the PCs just self destructing by going nuts on each other and everyone in the world in general – at least, if they’d be unhappy with being hunted down and slain a couple sessions in.

Decide on Limits, Within Limits

Some people, when they say “evil campaign,” just mean “I want to kill lippy villagers like they’re orcs,” not that they want to really delve into the darker aspects of human nature. You may want to establish an agreement on tone/content with your players up front – you are not required to run (and the players aren’t required to participate) in anything they feel like is over their boundaries. I’ve been known to have players vote on approximate levels of sex, violence, etc. in a game ahead of time, and where they want it to “fade to black.”

However, a lot of that will be emergent. In my current pirate campaign, no one really thought about torture until they caught an assassin who was trying to kill the crime-boss they were aligned with. The PC halfling rogue decided he’d torture her extensively to find out who sent her. This definitely put off the other PCs – but not enough that they stopped him. Boundary established (well, lack of one).

Not every “evil” person is 100% evil and on board with everything “evil,” though. The ship took two elven women prisoner and one was claimed as a slave by a vicious half-orc pirate. The PC captain didn’t really like that but felt somewhat constrained by the expectations of the crew (mutiny is always a threat if the crew doesn’t think they’re getting their due) so he allowed it. The PCs and that half-orc were having dinner in the captain’s cabin, and the halfing from the anecdote above suddenly stabbed the half-orc to death on the dinner table (he’s an assassin now – successful death attack). He explained to the shocked command staff that he wouldn’t have any slaves on board or associate with slavers. Boundary established.

If you have real characters really roleplaying and thinking through their motivations, you’ll still have limits, whether it’s “no women, no kids” or the Mafioso that are patriotic and still want neighborhoods to be “family places.” Try to depict other “evil” people as complex in that way as well so that they will understand that evil isn’t just a race to maximum depravity. With that halfling, torture of captives is OK but slavery and rape is a killin’ offense. There’s no “Evil Checklist” you have to adhere to and say every crime ever considered is OK – in fact most evil people really are just into one and consider the others to be as bad as other folks do.  Realistic motivations and roleplaying are what will make the campaign something real and not goofy.

However – some people make too much of setting boundaries for their games. If you came up to me and asked me “Do you want to see some chick saw her cheeks off?” I’d say “No! What are you talking about?” But I just went to see the movie Evil Dead, where that exact thing happened as part of the overall horror movie experience. “Boundary pushing” can be good and desirable and allowed based on initial buyin to the general campaign premise. Sure, there’s a very slight majority of people so traumatized by something that if it comes up in game it’s going to truly trip them out, and there you have outs just like any other kind of media – “press stop,” say “I can’t deal with this” – but most gaming groups don’t really need to do more than establish the general MPAA-rating (e.g. “Hey guys I’m active in my church and I don’t really want to go past PG-13 with this game”) and then mess around in that area. Worrying too much about what exact things might disturb your players is overthinking it IMO. If you go see Evil Dead, you’d better expect that if you have a fear of/complex about anything, there’s a nonzero chance it’s going to come up in lurid color. All the buyin we required for the pirates game was “people can be evil if they want, and expect HBO Original Series level depravity, the pirate world is not a gentle one.”

Actions Have Consequences

Review How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? – there are a lot of reasons people don’t perform unrestrained evil deeds all the time, from “I don’t want to” to “I will get in trouble for it.” Sometimes my players complain that the pirate-friendly port city they frequent is “too lawful” just because they can’t get away with any heinous crime or breach of the peace they can come up with – but all societies need some kind of stability and will crack down on those affecting that too much. On the other hand, they have become used to not going out into the city alone; traveling in groups is mandatory to not be victimized themselves.

Many evil societies are like this – see how lawful Drow society looks from the outside. Our pirate PCs have to fear their pirates mutinying, the law/navy hunting them down, the bigger pirates in port deciding they’re too big for their britches or have so much loot that they’re a tempting target in turn. Criminals “hide out” for a reason – they are not free to operate within larger society, and therefore end up having less freedom than good people (something good to play up as the GM). The law, higher level “good” adventurers, etc. are always looking to wipe you out with a clear conscience.

A mechanical option here is keeping track of “infamy points” – I have my own homebrew system I use, but there’s a lot of extant reputation-tracking mechanics in the world. People have heard of the big bad people and will react like people do – avoid, confront, narc them out, victimize them, etc. Remember that many victims of crime are doing something bad themselves – criminals, or at least the dishonest, make the best marks for cons and crimes because they have little legal recourse. The pirate PCs can’t go just anywhere as their infamy becomes known; honest ports reject them, and other evil folks are generally not the best allies because they like to turn on you when you blink.

So that’s my take on evil campaigns.  Our current one is turning out very well, with complex characters. Sindawe the captain is reluctant to do much “really bad” stuff himself except the occasional act of violence – but he’s happy to let/order others to do them. Serpent is concerned with getting married and having a kid, and even surreptitiously tried to let some of the elven women escape, but he’s even more murder happy than the more measured and Lawful Sindawe. Wogan tries to not do much evil himself but he doesn’t speak against it either. Tommy tortures and worships lust demons, but will do anything to free some slaves. HBO Original Series achieved!

D&D Gen Con 2012 Keynote

Here’s the full video of the D&D keynote from Gen Con.  Sounds largely positive. They are taking the Domino’s route of owning up to screwing up.  Mike Mearls says that D&D R&D went astray and started to prescribe certain playstyles and they want to move back to empowering all styles and making it “your” game.  And that it’s not the rules that are important, made to be broken, a minor part of the shared gaming experience, there’s freedom to do whatever you imagine, etc.  They’ve put the rules and designers first lately and that makes in “their” game not our game. It’s nice to hear it said out loud, but they have to put their money where their mouth is.

The one thing they did do to back it up was to announce all the D&D backlist will be made available electronically!  They didn’t say “PDF,” it may end up being some crappy device-tied DRM in an unusable format, but it’s a start.

On the bad side, they’re doing yet another major Forgotten Realms shakeup, “The Sundering.” This is why I hate the Realms, its continuity is almost as bad as the comic Earth’s (DC or Marvel,  your choice). When challenged on this Mearls says “Oh sure but AFTER the sundering it’ll all become normal and the stories are yours.”  Of course this new era only lasts until they decide to do a shakeup or have a D&D After Next, says the cynic in me. They’re also going to have people send in results from published adventures with majority results to decide “what happens to the game world,” which has always been gimmicky when done before. This is less “you shape the Realms” and more “dance for me my little monkeys” IMO.

Dark Documentaries

Check out this trailer for a new in-progress documentary about D&D, courtesy Topless Robot.  I am ambivalent, since we’ve already progressed from documentaries to satire documentaries as the main mode of discourse on gaming, but good luck to them…

Another Bad Dungeons & Dragons Movie

Why is the preeminent  fantasy franchise, Dungeons & Dragons, doomed to horrible movies?  The first one with the Wayans brother and Ewok village was godawful and I didn’t see the second.  This trailer for the third, which allegedly even Syfy won’t air because it’s unwatchable. Just the trailer makes my colon spasm. Awful dialogue, acting, CGI…

Morale in D&D

The D&D 5e design team is talking about morale in D&D. I miss morale.  For those not familiar with morale, it was a mechanic that told you when foes were likely to break and run or give up instead of just fighting to the death like killbots. (Yes, I know, hard to believe.) It was in Basic and 2e if I recall correctly, and you’d roll 2d6 against it and apply penalties in various circumstances. For examples from my 2e MM, Kobolds were unsteady (7) and Kuo-toa were Elite (13).

To forestall the inevitable poorly thought through complaints, you can ignore it just like you can any other piece of a stat block or monster writeup as a DM, you don’t have to be beholden to it.  (“It says they appear in mountainous terrain and it’s not mountains!  NOOOOOO!”)  But it helps define more specifically how vicious/cowardly a monster or NPC (or PC ally) is. I have this problem right now in our Reavers campaign – the PCs have a bunch of pirate allies, and I’m continually having to make 6 judgment calls a round as to which keep fighting and which fall back; I’d rather have a mechanic for it.

In fact, I think morale can be improved. Back in my Animals in D&D article I proposed to split morale into two factors – one which determines how likely something is to attack in the first place, an aggression value – and one which determines how likely something is to keep fighting. This is especially great for animals – unlike in computer games, animals usually don’t just attack for grins.  And some will flee if they get hit once, while others won’t.  Heck, it’s good for NPCs too – I remember as a new GM back in AD&D 1e days being confused in T1 the Village of Hommlett as to whether the berserkers in the gatehouse were just going to attack anyone they saw, or what? They’re berserkers, but on the other hand they seem to just be chilling in a building with other kinds of creature around…

Sure, if you plan out every single encounter and what is “supposed” to happen you might not need the aggression. But many of us use random encounters, and also have just stuff out there people can wander across – is that owlbear feeling very irate, or just standoffish today?

So I’m definitely in favor of morale coming back.  Let’s say convert it to a d20 roll as is more traditional now. First value, roll over to attack, second value, roll over to keep attacking. And you get a bunch of more interesting behaviors quickly defined…

  • Morale DC 20/10: isn’t going to attack unprovoked, will bail about half the time if it’s in a fight that’s not going well (most animals might fit in here.)
  • Morale DC 10/0: Somewhat likely to attack you, but once the fight starts there’s no going back! Maybe a good value for those berserkers in T1.
  • Morale DC 20/20: Not gonna fight, always gonna run, like a peasant or small herbivore or my dog.
  • Morale DC 10/0: Going to attack half the time, will never flee or surrender
  • Morale DC 7/15: Likely to attack, but not likely to stick with it (many ambush predator types fit into this category, like my cat)
  • Morale DC 5/5: Aggressive and elite critter
  • Morale DC 0/0: Stone golem, crush them!

Etc.  Thoughts?