I’ve been reading a couple things lately that all seem to center around one of the most fundamental changes in gaming, and especially in D&D (which drives most other gaming because of its stature in the industry, like it or not), over its nearly forty year lifespan. And that is the reduction in the role of the gamemaster, placing more of that in the hands of the rules in an effort to give it to the players instead.
The first thing I read was Ari Marmell’s ENWorld blog post on how he doesn’t house rule anymore, and the forum thread it spawned. I love the 3e line of D&D stuff and still play Pathfinder, but I’ve mused before on some of the ill effects the D&D Second to Third Edition transition caused. A lot of the Old School Revival movement is less about those old crufty rules actually being better, but about bringing back “rulings vs. rules,” code for re-empowering the gamemaster at the table. A lot of that power has been stuck into the rules. (Side note, the indie game scene has tried to do the same thing by giving explicit narrative control to the players while still maintaining light rules.)
There’s also a Paizo forum thread about point buy for ability scores and ability score inflation. It seems to be infected with a sense of player entitlement to have high stats, as high as they like, and especially the ability to craft your character down to the finest detail. That was definitely rubbing me the wrong way in my new Pathfinder campaign – I tried to convince the players to roll for stats, but they were all, “Ewww no we want big point buy! Randomness means we’re not all not super optimized!”
And then I read the interview Steve Kenson, Mutants & Masterminds designer, did with Comic Hero News. Most of it’s about about the upcoming M&M 3e and the DC licensed game they’re putting out, but he also talks about a smaller game called Icon he worked on. He says:
While it’s easy to understand the desire for a good, simple superhero RPG, compared to the significantly more complex games like Champions, GURPS, and Mutants & Masterminds, why did Kenson go for a random character creation system? “ I got inspired to work on it again when I was thinking a lot about the process of random character generation,” Kenson explained. “One of the things that I really liked about some of the old-school superhero RPGs like Villains & Vigilantes and the original Marvel Superheroes game was that random character creation system. While it tended to sometimes be kind of wacky, it would often times be very inspirational. And I liked the idea of a character creation process that was fun in itself… I had been talking with somebody about the Planetary profiles for the old Traveler game and how, like with all random generation systems, you get some weird corner cases and some seeming contradictions and things like that. Like with the Traveler thing, you would end up with a planet that had a really high population and no atmosphere, or something like that. And the way some people chose to view it was ‘Yeah, sometimes those oddities crop up,’ but it was also a really interesting creativity challenge to figure out how does this work? Let’s assume that this is in fact the case. How do we get there? And that was often the case for these superhero characters too. You’d end up with this weird combination of powers, and it’d be like ‘Really? Ok. How can I make this into a coherent character?’ And it was funny, because it really does force people to be creative, and often results in characters that they would never have created on their own if you just sat them down and said ‘Make up a superhero.’ The popular example that cropped up early in the discussion of Icons was Saguaro the Man-Cactus, who was an actual playtest character.”
Kenson went on to describe how the player took the rather random mixture of superstrength and some sort of damage aura, and developed the idea of a spiny humanoid cactus. “And he had a blast,” Kenson concluded.
That resounded with me. I always liked crafting a character out of the stats I was given rather than vice versa. Rolling stats right down the line was always fine with me. I fondly remember a bard character of mine that I used all these cool tables in the 2e Bard’s Handbook to roll up random appearance and personality traits for. Even though they were ‘random’, I came up with a more fully realized and realistic character than, I daresay, any of the others at the table.
It seems to me that the culture of player entitlement – of course you should be able to play whatever you want, with whatever stats you want, and do whatever you want – is certainly fine from the power fantasy point of view but nowhere near as satisfying from the game challenge, simulation, or horizon broadening aspects that are in my opinion good things I got out of playing early D&D.
Of course as a gamemaster it’s hard to militate for that because it seems like you just “want the power.” Seems undemocratic, right? Why isn’t everyone else’s vision as valid?
Well, because democracy in art – “art by committee” has always sucked, as has “art by the numbers.” If you have a vision, take a turn running a game. But when I’m GMing, and I say “X happens,” when someone says “Oh but that’s not what the RULES say” it immediately pisses me off. The rules aren’t crafting this game for you; go play World of Warcraft if that’s what you want.
Trying to turn D&D into a commodity experience instead of allowing GMs (the ones who do 90% of the work, I’ll note) to craft it is one of the surest ways to eventually kill it. D&D by the rules is “shitty World of Warcraft.” D&D with a vision can be great.
This standardization is always cited as “the way to get more people into the game.” And people complain about the bad GM experiences they’ve had over time, where the GM’s vision sucked and therefore their game sucked. But there’s a reason millions more people played D&D back in the old days as opposed to the number that do today. I know WotC hopes that standardization and mediocrity will bear the same dividends it has for McDonald’s and WalMart, but I say “screw that.”
Not to put the blame all at WotC’s feet; it’s not like Pathfinder is doing anything about that except “not becoming as bad as 4e,” which is a low bar to aim for.
I really don’t like the crufty old rules, but it’s the conceptual direction that is making the blogs I read more and more OSR-centric.
So what do you think? Are you all about the new age of player empowerment? Did your DM touch you in a bad way back in the day? Or do you want to see less “the rules are right” and more “the game is right?”