Player Empowerment or Player Entitlement?

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?”


27 responses to “Player Empowerment or Player Entitlement?

  1. Its one of the major reasons I started our Diceless Patronage Project, to do a game that is about GM Empowerment, where we require GMs to adjudicate.

    I know the idea was to put less work on the GMs part but its become a rules lawyers paradise.

    I wanted to get away from the rules and get back to guidelines.

    Steve Russell
    Rite Publishing

  2. I am not convinced that “player empowerment” and “the game is right” are of necessity opposed. We are both trying to have a good time and tell a good story. Part of that is having a character the player enjoys.

    Though I agree with Kenson, sometime explaining a random character can be a lot of fun. But again, the important things is a character that is fun to play be they random, constructed or whatever.

  3. I don’t think I’d want GM empowerment back. Because GM empowerment meant Player disempowerment.

    You use a 90/10 figure, most players back in the day used the 99/1 figure. They showed up (maybe with a char sheet, maybe not) and rolled some dice and maybe paid attention to what you were saying.

    Since half the time your rulings changed based on whom they applied to or bad memory.

    It also lead to the 2 hour long ruling fight and simulation debacle. Or you as a GM said “Just go with it” and dealt with 4 weeks of passive aggressive bollshoi, or you cancelled the game.

    People always look with rosey eyed wonder to the “Good ole days” and never stop to wonder why we left them behind for where we are now. It was a logical progression, it always is in any field.

    Add to that, as a GM 99.5% of the time **I** like player empowerement/entitlement.

    with power comes responsibility. Players do 10% of the work now by your numbers (I’d say more like 25%), thats 9-24% more than in the old days and 9-24% less work for me to do. It means I don’t have to remember 10 years of rulings like some kind of commonlaw magistrate lest I face (potentially accurate) claims of bias.

    Being told “Hey your wrong” is a check on GM entitlement and a check on the “Story GM”.

    Players may have “Stat Creep” over the years, but GM’s keep having “Plot Creep” and that bugs me more.

  4. Do keep in mind that random chargen tends to be most prevalent in games that also feature major sandbox elements and high mortality/high ease of inserting a new PC. IME, these features are very helpful to make the most of it. That is, random chargen is far more likely to lead to hard feelings in games where the PCs are expected to stick around for a while (either because the GM doesn’t want to kill them off with plotlines unresolved or because the system flat out makes it difficulty to kill them permanently).

    The move to point-based chargen has more or less coincided with higher PC persistence, as there’s more of a barrier to “this guy sucks, but when he dies, I can try for a better set of rolls.” As a player, when offered the choice between random and point buy, I’ll take the point buy not because I plan to minmax, but because I’d rather not risk getting stuck with a character that’s far behind the other PCs for a long-running campaign. Interestingly, in my latest Pathfinder game (Kingmaker, with an assumption of less story and higher mortality than my normal campaign), I offered the players the choice between a relatively low point buy (enough to get the elite array) or the standard 4d6. All of the players went for the random rolls, but it primarily seemed to be because they were gambling that they could get better stats than they could with the point buy (and, indeed, the first player to roll only got a couple of points better than the point buy and immediately began angling to get a reroll when the other players all did significantly better than the point buy).

    Ultimately, I’m a fan of randomness in chargen for the same reasons you are: the challenge of trying to bring meaning to a disparate set of traits and the interesting characters that result therein. But I think that works best in games where you don’t expect to play the same PC for long and/or just have no ideas up front, such that a really fun to play character is an unexpected bonus, but a really unfun to play character isn’t a years-long drag. For a story-based game where a player has a good idea for a character, it seems equally weird to me to insist that randomness needs to be involved.

  5. Most games depend on randomness to be interesting.

    I, however, greatly dislike something so permanent and fundamental being left to chance. I’m more accepting of a low d20 roll, even if it kills me, than to need to fit my character vision to stats I didn’t choose.

    Once, I wanted to play a Wizard but was stuck with random rolls. The stats hovered around the adventurer acerage- 11 to 14- with 14 being the highest stat. The game didn’t last long, but I felt annoyed that I felt like I wasn’t playing the character.

    Randomness can inspire, of course. Rolling for random appearance or personality traits can be a fun hobby, but as GM, why would you randomly roll these things for another player’s character in a persistent campaign?

  6. Well, a couple things. My point isn’t all about the chargen but about the rulescentric approach in general, but on the chargen…

    The problem is it’s a slippery slope. As seen from the Paizo discussion, first you go from dice chargen to point buy. Then 15 points isn’t good enough any more, you have to go to 20. Then 20 isn’t good enough any more, you have to go to 25. If “a fun character to play” is defined as “is min-maxed”, and sadly that’s some of what I’m hearing, then that’s the outcome. Because now, if a character has a stat below 10, or a prime requisite that’s a 14, that’s seen as horrible or unplayable. But why is that? The GM can pace the game difficulty for characters with stats around 14 or characters with stats around 20… But the stat inflation makes it harder. There’s too much variance; you have the “well some of these first level characters do 20 points of damage a round” problem that makes you have to throw higher and higher CRs at them. The fourth level party I’m GMing for right now, I have to use CR8’s to provide a meaningful challenge, but that’s pretty dangerous – and as anyone who’s studied D&D game theory knows, the wider the variance, the worse it is for the PCs, because monsters just die but bad luck catches up with them eventually.

    Also, from a concept level… No one has full control over how they are. You were born a certain way and can influence it somewhat but in general life is an exercise in dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Playing a character that isn’t 100% built to spec helps capture that element of life. Raistlin wouldn’t have chosen to have an ultra low Con score, but it makes him a much more interesting character. And it would be one thing if the decisions when generating a character were simply authorial decisions to make an interesting character – but they’re not; the inevitable siren song of min-maxing is too loud.

  7. A couple of points…

    Random Character Gen blows, and I almost always DM. When a player comes to the table he has a vision in mind of what he wants to play. A mighty barbarian, crafty rogue or maybe a bard who likes to swing a greatsword. Rolling random stats takes away that choice.
    Example: Player has a vision of a coo, rogue concept. The random dice come up with horrible stats for a rogue but awesome ones for a cleric. The player hates playing clerics and he also hates playing rogues that can’t do anything effective at the table. You have now doomed the player to having a crappy time at your game.
    Personally I do point buy. It has enough to allow a player to play a character he likes but keeping it within a set of boundaries. If you feel the pressure to allow for more build points that is your own fault. The key here is that the player likes the character. Uber stats does not equal liable character though, unless you allow it.

    And here is the crux of my thoughts. A DM only gives up as much control as he allows himself to give up. personally I give up no control. I use the rules as a baseline to keep the game honest, but when I say something happens it happens. When I make a ruling it stays.
    4e is awesome since it simplifies my job with prep but I do not have to give up any control.
    The GMs who give up control are too lazy to take the control.

    • “Example: Player has a vision of a cool, rogue concept. The random dice come up with horrible stats for a rogue but awesome ones for a cleric. The player hates playing clerics and he also hates playing rogues that can’t do anything effective at the table. You have now doomed the player to having a crappy time at your game.”

      Umm, I’d just let him roll a new sequence. But that’s just me, being silly creative and not going 100% by the book.

  8. Agree with OP. Although, I believe “player entitlement” is a misdiagnosis. The point buyers, the min-maxers, the can’t play a wizard unless int is 18 or 19 types aren’t playing the same game as we. They aren’t playing to have “fun”. They are playing the game to “win”. Win every battle, win by being the most damaginist fighter or uberist mage. Character death means they lost and so is unacceptable. DM having control of game, making rulings makes it hard to plan and guarantee wins. Conversely the more rules, powers, splat books, etc the more tools and angles they have to *build* unbeatable character.

    There is very little point or enjoyment in DMing players like that, at least for me. If “3d6 in order” makes them go play in someone else’s game that’s reason enough to use it.

  9. Although I DM most of the time (and have since 1979), I tend to prefer point buy, or giving my players the option to arrange rolls to suit their character vision.

    I’ve always worked to keep my rulings consistent (via notes, etc.) when dealing with grey areas, or areas uncovered by the rules. I’ve noticed with 4e that players seems quicker to pipe up with the “actual” rule when I ad-lib to keep the game flowing. My response is, “thanks for the info. Next time we’ll go with that”, if it makes sense to do so.

    Perhaps it’s the art of adjudicating fairly that is being lost? Online “RPGs” tend to spoon-feed everything to the player, so having a human being adjust to circumstances on the fly may not be something they’re used to.

  10. I think there has to be an element of randomness in every RPG, just as there is an element of randomness in everyday life. Without random elements, life would be boring and RPGs tend to go that way if you don’t have the random element. I know, I know, we roll dice to see how successful we are at actions, but those dice start to mean less if you’re totally min-maxed.

    There has to be a blend of choice and random elements. Personally, I like random rolls for character stats and maybe some characteristics, like scars, background, etc. It saves us DMs from “My character is a perfect warrior-princess who is slender and charismatic, but has 25 strength”. It gives the players something to ground their characters and something to build on. Why does their character have this noticeable scar? Why are they from the big city but are a barbarian?

    I think they should be able to shuffle their stats around in terms of which number goes with what stat, but not redistributing points. I hate that system, always have.

    In terms of player empowerment, I think you’re right that some of the stringent rule-building of 3.X and 4E may have harmed some people’s interest, but there were reasons and good ones for that to occur. People still use house-rules and make rulings on events that occur in the game but less of them are game-breaking now since I know that at least 4E takes some of that into account and gives guidelines. My players are more empowered in the choices they make and thus I don’t feel I have to railroad their choices, but I’m more empowered (as the DM) to make decisions that won’t completely destroy an encounter outright. Sure, a lot of things are completely nerfed, but they also mean that players don’t walk through the entire goblin complex with their ring of invisibility and only take it off to kill the goblin king before slipping it off and avoiding the 300+ monsters on the way out. Yeah, I did that in 2E a long time ago and the DM was flustered to say the least because he didn’t WANT to railroad us, but it became increasingly apparent that certain magic items and whatnot couldn’t be around us without us exploiting them. Thus the grand magic item nerf of 4E.

    Anyway, I like your posts on these nebulous gaming ideas, mxyzplk. Keep them up.

  11. Opinions differ. The best systems allow point buys and random stats with equal merit. The reward of getting every stat as uber is too little to sway me from having to play with a bad stat that feels like it cripples my character.

    Let’s assume you use D&D 3.5’s system of 4d6 drop lowest. Nevermind character concepts; in a group of 4, assume 2 people got average rolls, 1 person got uber rolls, and another got rolls just above the legal reroll level.

    This may make for interesting gaming, but when Wonder Boy is outdoing everyone else in their roles, especially since he merely rolled high, how is that fun for the others?

    “Equal footing” seems the term. Let the players be what they want so long as it fits the campaign. It’s fantasy, it’s fiction, and ultimatetely a game with rules unlike our reality.

  12. @ Greg Campbell: I use that rolling system with my players to get them their stats and rarely deal with issues. I let them throw the whole lot out and start again if they want, but most do that only if they’re sitting at that “minimum” reroll sort of place. Everyone knows that flaws to their character mean they have more to work with in terms of characterization. I’m just lucky since I have a set of amazing players who I’ve gamed with for nearly a decade on and off and solidly for 5 years now.

  13. rorschachhamster

    The more I read from and about the OSR, the more I have this feeling of: “OK, this old rules are too short for me, but the attitude is what I’m looking for in gaming ever since.”
    I really like skills and prestige classes and fiddely options – but I , as a GM, like to have the power to rule over anything that does not compute in my opinion.
    As a player, I totally would like to roll my stats with 3d6, one complete reroll if it sucks too much (no positive stat modifier). I want back my Dexterity of 5 and prevail against all odds – even my own disabilities!

  14. Point buy creates all kinds of subtle inflation problems, as well.

    1. You can put just the exact amount you need in each stat. Even if you roll and arrange as desired so that you’re strong in areas you want to be strong and weak in areas you want to be weak, it’s not as super-efficient – you can’t arrange to just have even numbered stats to squeeze every last modifier out, you can’t always just have that 13 to qualify for that feat tree you want but not “waste more points” on it…

    2. The problem is multiplied at the group level. A party that is super customized can craft themselves into a super optimized team as well. When you had “no rearrange” stats then maybe your party *didn’t* have the perfect balance of classes (God forbid). Which was a lot more interesting.

    And it all ignores the fundamental issue, which is that I the DM scale the level of difficulty to you anyway!!! Fine, have 25 point buy on your stats; you’ll just be fighting ogres instead of orcs at first level. It just adds a lot of riskiness because your strong points and weak points are so far apart, and also makes high level play suck more and be even more untenable swaps of save vs die kinds of things, and “whoever gets initiative wins in a half round.’

    Stats have become too important to the game. It’s easy to start out with a 20 Str, and a 20 Str is *better* than having five levels of fighter from a to-hit and damage perspective!

    Beyond stat rolling, I just find that the “rules are God” approach constrains me as a DM. In a recent game, I had a player send his animal companion snake after a guy on horseback. I said, “It can’t reach the guy on the horse, but it can attack the horse.” He started giving me a line about “that’s not in the rules,” and I was actually taken aback. It was quickly resolved, I told him “I don’t really give a shit” and he had the snake climb a tree and drop down on the guy (the kind of old school problem solving thinking that not getting your way all the time generates, I’ll add).

    To bring it back to the stats question, I like rorschachhamster’s point about prevailing against your own disabilities. Exactly, instead of just power-tripping, you are a person who doesn’t control every aspect about who you are, and you have to figure out how to be a hero anyway; one of those player skill things that modern D&D has been abandoning.

  15. Just checked the 4E PHB and was disappointed to see that rolling your scores came up as the third method you could use. The 1st method is to rearrange a standard array of stats and the 2nd method was to use a fairly complicated system of buying points along with a set of standard sets of stats that you could use that adhered to the point buying system.

    I’m sticking with rolling, thank you very much.

  16. I don’t see what is wrong with both systems. Some games, some experiences, are good with random character generation. We did a random char gen for a Dark Heresy game I’m in, and people have been having fun. The game is good, small, but good and the GM has been doing a good job of using rulings and the rules, while leaning primarily on the rules.

    However, at the same time in that game I’d have to point out that there have been several times where situations have been significantly harder for my character because I just rolled crap stats for myself while everyone else rolled fairly well. I think fast enough to make up for it, and the GM is good, but it is still a problem.

    I’ve also never liked the idea of “I want to play a Paladin” being responded to by “Well, you didn’t roll a 16 and 3 14s in your stats, so you can’t” I’m sorry, wtf? I can’t play a concept I have because I rolled crap stats? So what, I re roll them? Sure that’s fine. But at what point does “Re-rolling to have a chance” change into a hassle or just rolling for maximum advantage?

    I’m not trying to say random char gen is bad, I’ve had fun with it. I sometimes enjoy the obstacles it presents. But you also have to acknowledge that while it can somewhat prevent min-maxing, it also can put HUGE power gaps in between players, which in games like D&D can be a death sentence. The player didn’t do anything wrong, they just rolled crap for stats and died.

    That was the problem I feel point buy was trying to get around. Both are possible, both work, but saying that one is wrong is kinda rough. The GM can keep power with both, and part of that is just having a good game group around you, while knowing how to deal with problem players.

    The real thing to keep in mind though is what works for this group? For this game? Dark Heresy is a world where you can literally just drop ANYONE into the game, and so random chargen works very well. Legend of Five Rings, this is less the case, and so its point-buy system works for it.

    You just have to find the balance that fits your preferences.

  17. Greg Campbell and others have mentioned, sometimes more than once, that they come to the table with a character concept, and then – in effect – hope to roll that character when presented with a random generation system. To my way of thinking, that is the source of the dissatisfaction, not the system, the roll, the resulting character, or the game.

    As the OP mentioned the concept in question is a return to the cliche-phrase- in-the-making “rulings vs rules.” That a GM learns to arbitrate fairly and well, in the same way that the players learn to work together, apply creativity and complexity to their problem-solving, and that everyone works together to co-create an excellent tale is the actual goal.

    We have all had bad GMs and we have all had whining self-important players. Learning to get over these less than spectacular traits is one of the great side-effects of the hobby. All the great innovations and permutations of how we play are evidence of how people have taken the game they were given and learned how to make something new from it to heighten or focus on an element in gaming or a problem in game design that was important to their group. Clearly, people can learn. What they do with their learning can often make play experiences better for a great number of people… but nothing is ever perfect. Hence… the return to some of the elements of where we started. Random chargen is a great example of this.

    If the player comes to the table with a clear character concept in mind, communicating with the GM should be able to resolve the issues caused by trying to shoehorn a pre-envisioned character into a random roll generation process. There have been tons of articles on how to deal with this and the OP has responded with some of the better ones already.

    If the player… the much more common player, to be honest, shows up with no clear idea of what it is they’d like to play, then the random stat generation approach is ideal. It gets creative sparks flying and again, when set as a limiting factor, provides a framework for the player to game within, and thereby raises the level of play rather than encouraging it to drift along the dull river of wish-fulfillment.

    I have been thinking about this sort of thing a fair bit recently, and your post helped me clarify my thoughts. Thanks~

    Of course, now I won’t have to labour over a post on my own blog as you have already said what I wanted to say, so I guess thanks for that too.

  18. And I am sympathetic to those with character concepts, but roll and arrange (plus discretionary racial bonuses and all the other tricks) should account for that. More than that is min-maxing. “Oh, my vision is a guy with a 12 Str and 14 Dex, not a guy with a 13 Str and a 13 Dex. That misses out on a +1 I could have had. And my vision is that I’m not weak at anything!”

  19. Yes, a lot can be said for learning to play the hand you are dealt~

  20. 3.5 spellcasters DEMAND a certain stat to cast a spell of X level. Also, any concept that demands a high stat (casters relying on high DCs) gets nerfed by a group of entirely above average stats, but nothing outstanding.

    If I must, I can deal with my pre-dealt. I’d prefer to design my character to my liking.

    • I’m sorry, that’s not a character concept, that’s a game strategy.

      Good illustration of the point the article is making though.

  21. I had decided not to say anything, because the basic statement of sides was amicable and clear, and we can all agree to disagree, etc, etc…

    …but I have to admit that is what I was thinking.

  22. Pingback: Old-School-Infusion für Pathfinderregeln: 3W6, Baby « Rorschachhamster

  23. Pingback: The Heroic Character « Crossing the 'Verse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.