There are certain things you take for granted with the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. You start out in a bar somewhere, talking to a sketchy old man who wants you to do something he’s too lazy or dysmotivated to bother undertaking himself, and more often than not, you end up in a dank hole in the ground, debating what is the accepted amount of murder required to get you back to that bar where you started. For whatever reason, there are always an assortment of old, dangerous ruins to be plumbed, bringing into question the civic works agenda of the local baron or lord, and a plethora of non-human creatures whose own aspirations or goals are mainly distilled down to being in the way of whatever treasure map you’re following to its logical end. There are variations to the theme, but you get the general idea of where I”m going on this.
One thing that doesn’t normally enter into this is the adventure where the player characters are given a plot hook of one sort or another, only to run directly into an ancient dragon that summarily barbecues the entire party in the space of a round. And if this is the sort of adventure you end up on, it’s not one that you’re going to retell with any amount of joy. Smaug didn’t show up in the Shire while Bilbo was tending his garden. And you didn’t have to defeat Alduin to advance beyond the opening village in Skyrim. Likewise, first level adventurers in D&D shouldn’t have to deal with 16HD monsters when they walk out of the tavern with a map of the Old Ruined Abbey. It isn’t fair, it isn’t fun, and it doesn’t do anything beyond frustrate your players.
You would think this should be something of a ‘gimme’ in adventure design, right?
Oddly, I’ve run into a surprising amount of opposition to this sort of understanding. Between discussions with an old friend of mine about a GM he knows, perusal of various defenses of OSR philosophy and a couple of published gaming products, there’s a strong undercurrent of wanting to do away with or ignore CR (Challenge Rating) balancing. Or the local equivalent in pre-3.x D&D. There’s a tacit belief that it makes the game ‘less realistic’ or that it ‘imposes too many restrictions on the creativity of the GM’ or something.
Let’s start with the obvious nature of this situation. If an encounter is absolutely unwinnable through normal means for the player characters, it’s not going to be any fun to play out. Yeah, the GM may decide that, for whatever reason, the monster is ‘tactically oblivious’ or ‘not paying attention’ in an attempt to depower the encounter, but that sort of solution is outright patronizing. No amount of ‘this monster would normally kill you outright, but it’s totally drunk’ makes the situation all right. It’s not the efforts of the characters that resolve the conflict, but the questionable grace of the GM. And the players know this. Situations like this distill down to the GM narrating a scene while the players sit around powerless. It might as well be written down and read to the players.
It also smacks of railroading. Illusion of free will is a necessity in role-playing games, to the point that accomplished GM’s make a point of finding multiple avenues to pull the PC’s into a plot, even if they seem to otherwise outright refuse to engage it. If they have to force the players to follow a narrow path, we’re back to the written narration model again, especially if high level monsters wait just off the prescribed path.
So, what about the limiting of creativity? After all, in Forgotten Realms, you could run into Elminster in the local food co-op in Shadowdale. That’s awesome, right? It totally shows the low level characters that the suspiciously Gandalf-esque Mary Sue wizard has to get parsnips just like everyone else. And why wouldn’t the big, badass ogre in my homebrew game live just outside of town? Who’s going to stop him, anyway?
Ed Greenwood aside, sprinkling high end monsters into low level settings actually doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or more to the point, it doesn’t make any sense for a low level character to show up in this sort of area. It raises too many questions that cannot be adequately answered. Are the villagers in thrall to the creature in question? If not, why has it not wiped them out already? What is the creature’s role in the local geography or ecology? Why does it tolerate smaller, less effective monsters – the type that a starting group of adventurers would actually stand a chance against – rather than summarily wiping them out as threats to its power?
I’ve always held that, the more powerful a monster or a player character is, the less likely they are to hang around in plain sight near small towns. An old enough dragon begins to isolate itself, either by seeking a high mountain top in which to build its lair or by laying waste to a certain section of land to maintain its privacy. A wizard of sufficient power builds a tower and shuts himself away, either because he’s tired of dealing with the mundane aspects of normal interaction or because he’s undertaking dangerous experiments or journeys that are best kept secret. On both accounts, the higher level the individual, the less likely that it’s going to be hanging around with what amount to be mayflies. If nothing else, they likely view their time as being a bit to valuable to be distracted by something that poses no threat or interest. It’s a theory that’s supported in fiction and makes sense for the segregation of powers.
And this is what the whole concept of CR works to support. Mechanically, it’s a maths-based equation that tries to calculate the general odds of a given encounter, balancing it against the rough expectations of what characters of an equivalent level would be able to readily deal with. A more cohesive group of characters with a better tactical sense will prevail over slightly higher CR monsters, where an average group may have a bit more trouble. At the end of it all, it’s trying to make sure that the players have fun, more than anything else.
I guess that’s what becomes the sticking point for me. I’m a creative guy. But I’ve never seen any logic to throwing unkillable opponents into my games. Depending on the game, my agenda is either to tell a grand and epic story or to simply entertain my friends. At no point do I need to rub their noses in how weak their characters are in comparison to what the world is capable of digging up and throwing at them.
Let’s start today off with a statement of the blindingly obvious – Gamers are tribal.
Every game has a hardcore following, no matter the obscurity of the system, the density of the rules or the strange and distant unplayability of the world. Even if you were to seek out the legendary outliers of the gaming industry – the games that should have no defenders and a perfect world would have them fall into an oubliette of shame from whence there is no salvage or return – there would be a small community of people that would play it, love it, and defend it from the people that ‘didn’t understand its nuances’ or something.
Part of this owes to the ubiquity of the internet, with its ability to connect the unlikely percentages into what passes for a quorum of interest. Part of it also lies in the abilities of the scant few GM’s that understand a system and are able to make that system or world entertaining. I’ve spoken before of playing in a game of Top Secret where the rules had been quietly replaced with that of Phoenix Command and how this remains one of my favorite campaigns overall. I would never try my hand at running it, as it’s firmly anchored in the wrong end of the spectrum for my own interests, but the GM that ran those games for us was a master at making those rules work. I’d play again in a second.
I’ve seen a lot of games that fall into this ‘I love it, and I don’t care what you think about it’ mentality, which tends to be balanced with the strange mirror of hating any revision of the beloved rules they’ve grown so attracted to over the years. None moreso than the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, a phenomenon that I find very interesting on one hand and vaguely stupid on the other.
There is a movement in gaming that has taken on the acronym, OSR. This movement embraces the newfound ability of the OGL (Open Gaming License) to allow the creation of retro-clone versions of many of the older out-of-print editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the cornerstone of the early days of the hobby. This is all fine and good. There are a lot of fantastic adventures that were written using these rules (not that they’d be hard to upconvert, but that’s a case of personal taste and time usage), and the rules are pretty much dead simple. I’ve played older editions, and there are a lot of things to recommend the experience.
My problem comes in with OSR evangelism.The older editions are simpler. I view them as a ‘beer & pretzels’ experience. You don’t have the same sort of options open to you that the current editions (Pathfinder or D&D 3.5) would allow you to have, there isn’t much way to keep rational balance in your playing group, and non-combat options are something of a joke. But they’re quick and dirty and entertaining. Throw some dice, and try not to think too hard about what’s going on. It’s a great time waster if you don’t have anything else going on.
But like any edition, there is a tribe that will rise to claim its superiority. And this is the point that I start to feel my hackles rising. Not because there are people that honestly enjoy this particular rules set, but because they have to try to ram it down my throat. Oftentimes, they use such contorted logic to get to a point that I’ve given up trying to listen some time beforehand. And when it gets especially bad, they write smug little books to illustrate their point.
There’s a pamphlet that a friend of mine pointed me towards, which is just such an exercise in weirdly superior and smug thinking that it took me a full read through to realize that it wasn’t satire. It was, in fact, a serious attempt to justify the game that the author had done a lot of work on and justify the rule-lite aspect of it. (And no, I’m not going to name it or link to it here, as I feel that extra traffic, such as this blog could generate, is more than it deserves.) The underlying thought process behind the book is this: If you think the game that this pamphlet is trying to entice you to buy isn’t awesome, then the problem isn’t with the game, it’s with you. Because you’re stupid.
It then goes on to illustrate a couple of examples using weird logic and fascinating straw men. In what is arguably the best reason to not buy this game, the GM in the example texts has no idea what feats are or how they operate. There’s an underlying assumption that he’s not well-versed on combat modifiers, given the vague nature of the illustrated combat sequence, and his adjudication of movement makes little to no sense. His grasp of skills is questionable, as well. And at one point, he actively penalizes the example player for trying to do something interesting. So, yeah.
The examples parse out into four rough areas, each of which tries to demonstrate how to make an overly simple set of rules pass for a modern game. First, all power lies with the GM, rather than with actual rules. Any attempt to use actual rules can and will be met with the GM overruling you. Second, your character is only a vessel for your own experiences and knowledge as a player. If there is something that your character would logically know or remember that you, as a player, are unaware of… tough shit. Third, your character is only as good as the magic items that they have managed to accrue over the years. And fourth, killing off characters is an absolute right of the dungeon master.
The first ‘rule’ for enjoying this kind of game is an interesting one. Essentially, it requires the GM to remain blandly impartial and keep a running mental file of any and all adjudications that have been made over the course of the campaign. While interesting, this is either expecting the GM to do all the work that the game designers couldn’t be bothered to do. Want rules for how to handle this situation? Tough. Not only are we not going to bother making rules for that, we’re not even going to give you a framework to build from. Make it up as you go along.
The second ‘rule’ is something that I’ve already covered with Player Knowledge vs. Character Knowledge.
The third ‘rule’ runs directly counter to the actual experience of playing the old rules of D&D. I’m not really sure just what set of rules the author was referencing for his game, but when he states that a high level character in this sort of game isn’t invincible, he’s just being an idiot. The yawning gulf of difference between 1st level characters and 20th level is unbridgeable in modern rules; it was even worse in the older editions. But somehow, this guy wants us to believe that it all owes to his scattering of magic items and artifacts, rather than the inane hit matrices, untouchable armor class or the veritable stacks of hit points.
And finally… what may be the crowning bit of indefensible nonsense. I simplified it as being the GM right for TPK, whenever and wherever he feels the need. That may be unfair to what the guy was trying to get across, but the essence is the same. (And sadly, it’s one that I’ve heard elsewhere.) He tries to make the point that trying to balance encounters is a waste of time, since none of it matters in the long run. And once he’s thrown that particular idea into the mix, he jumps subjects to try to justify it all as a ‘story game’ experience.
This is the point where you can visualize me, the lone blogger sputtering and gesticulating at the screen as he tries to reach through the ethers to strangle the author. Seriously, man. Pick a damned argument and support it. If you want to run a D&D game where the dice fall where they may, do that. Don’t make an assertion and then change what game you’re actually playing! D&D is not a story game. It never has been. It’s a game about numbers, all of which matter. If it were a story game, it simply would not be D&D.
And when you try your damnedest to weld the idea of story games on simply to justify using a monster that would casually destroy the party without so much as a second glance, you’re no longer talking about having fun. You’re taking power away from your players, and there’s nothing in that idea that equals fun.
We’ve all heard it. Keep your understanding of the scenario as a player separate from what your character is going to act upon. Metagaming is one of the weirder sins of role-playing, since it works on such a strange depth of immersion. You have to drop into the mask of your character to such an extent that you make a conscious effort to forget that you’re sitting around a table, contemplating a sheet of paper and a handful of dice, and narrating a fictional persona. You have to become the fictional persona on some level, following the established motivations without overthinking the rational consequence.
It’s hard to do. And it’s a great moment when you have a group with such synergy that everyone at the table can get to that point collectively, narrating this fictional world and undertaking fictional conversations with the same ease that we navigate the real world outside of our gaming tables.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
What I’m talking about is the inverse. To be sure, there is more than enough to talk about with metaknowledge and all that entails, of how there’s no way that your character would know things that you picked up from long years of playing the game and perusing its rulebooks. But what happens when your character is confronted with something that they would be generally used to as a matter of inhabiting their world, yet it’s something that you have utterly no connection to?
Consider: I’m playing a young priestess of Desna in the Rise of the Runelords game we’ve been slowly working our way through over the past couple of years. She’s a 17 year old girl from a small town on the outskirts of the greater world. She’s fought goblins and undead and demons. She’s even died once. All in all, a pretty basic character for a D&D game. Other than rules revisions, she could be anyone’s character from the past 40 years.
I have literally no way to make sense of the things that this character has gone through. I can imagine it, sure. That is the basis of my role-playing for her. But if I, personally, were confronted with even a single encounter that she’s been through, I’d probably die on the spot. If I had to fight wave after wave of zombies, it would be a horror movie rather than a lighthearted fantasy scenario. For her, that’s not even enough to break a sweat or be concerned about. It’s a mundane part of her daily routine.
So, when I’m stuck in a situation with no immediately logical way out, my first instinct is to see if my character has a better handle on it than I do. I will admit to being stumped by the way things happen in games from time to time. It could be that it’s an off day for me, there’s some sort of miscommunication between the GM and me as a player, or it could be any of a myriad of other things going on. These are the points when I want the GM to throw me a bone and tell me something that my character would know about the scenario that I, as a player, would not.
Because there have been plenty of situations where not knowing something that my character would innately be aware of would have gotten my character killed. This can come in the form of having the character blunder into a situation that the GM expects the player to recognize, or it can come through an imperfect understanding of the rules, which works to the player’s disadvantage.
I’ve played and read through enough of the classic adventures to understand just how brutal they were inclined to be. You only need to be confronted with a couple of ‘Save or Die’ scenarios to get a feel of the way things were in the early days of the hobby. This is why games like D6 Star Wars were so groundbreaking at the time. Cinematic games allowed your character to have a death that actually meant something, where AD&D and Call of Cthulhu enshrined the meaningless and unmourned death by random happenstance. Characters didn’t have to die from a simple bad throw of the dice. Part of this came from the advent of ‘character points’ and the like from games like D6 Star Wars, but part of it also came as part of the understood conventions of the genre.
Lately, there’s been a movement that’s been trying to romanticize the ‘Save or Die’ era of gaming in the OSR axis of the hobby. One guide I skimmed talked about the purity and flexibility of these rules and the mindset that went with them, contorting itself through justification after justification. The best example of the idiocy of this particular writer was the description of a room within a scenario, where the players had to describe every action that their characters were going to take to search the place. And if it didn’t occur to a player to move the moose head in just the right manner, the treasure of the scenario was never going to be found. It was a case of trying to replicate the old ‘hunt the pixel’ video games in a pen and paper setting.
Narratively, it makes far more sense for a player to simply roll the dice and have the GM describe what happens in the case of a success or failure. As a player, I’m not exactly well-versed in larceny (although, if I were, my collection would likely be that much greater), and I’m not able to read the GM’s mind to decipher what exactly is expected. As such, I can only fumble about the room haphazardly. My character, on the other hand, is a lot more used to doing shit like this, especially if the skill ranks reflect that amount of practice.
This is not to mention that having a group of players rub every square inch of the room is a lot less interesting than things like role-playing or combat. Personally, I’d much rather get a description of the area, investigate the parts that seem to be important, and move on. If I need to throw some dice to get that done, here’s hoping I don’t end up critically failing in the effort.
It also brings to mind an example that I remember from an old Star Frontiers module. (Whuf. There’s a game that no one has any interest in reviving. We’ve had seven editions of Gamma World, but Star Frontiers? Let it stay dead, it seems.) At one point in the adventure, the characters get trapped in a hallway full of junk and the air quality starts to degrade rapidly. I can’t remember if the air was being rapidly sucked out, or if it was a case of simply running out of breathable oxygen over the course of a day or so. (And I’m far too lazy to dig the module out to reference the event in question.) Anyway, the text of the module explains that there are a couple of solutions for the characters to live through the encounter, including using a battery to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.
This was a module that I was reading some time in middle school. At the time, none of the implied solutions would have been terribly obvious to me, so it looked like some sort of awful, awful death trap that killed the module on the spot, full stop. And thinking about it now, my character would have been able to come up with one of the escapes with a couple of minutes of consideration and investigation. But the way the module was designed, it didn’t matter that my character would have been able puzzle it out; he was going to get punished for what I, as a player in middle school, didn’t know to do.
Obviously, there has to be some give and take when applying this sort of logic. The one end of the spectrum, where the OSR dipshits want to dwell, the character is only able to know things that the player himself knows or undertake the actions that the player specifically outlines. The extreme other end of the spectrum has the player refusing to narrate any of his actions, assuming that a simple roll of the dice removes him from having to actually think about things in the game or play his character.
But at the end of the day, gaming has grown past the ‘Save or Die’ mentality of 1970’s D&D. It should also be able to leave the ‘I lovingly caress the moosehead both clockwise and counterclockwise’ sort of actions with it.