Friday, November 18, 2011

To Rule, or Not to Rule

D&D developer Monte Cook recently posted an interesting article about game rules and the style of play they promote. He asked a couple of questions about RPG rules, and briefly talked about the differences between past and present iterations of D&D rules.

Does the game present players with challenges that have pre-made solutions?

For example, can all monsters be defeated in straightforward ways, which is to say, attacked with swords and magic missiles until they die? Can all physical obstacles (walls to climb, narrow ledges to traverse, rivers to cross, and so forth) be overcome with die rolls? Are those die rolls achievable given the PCs’ level and abilities? Is the solution to every puzzle available to those with the right skills or spells? Is the counter or resolution to every problem hardwired into the game?

Put another way, need a player look any further than his character sheet to solve every in-game challenge? Are the bounds of the game defined by the bounds of the rules?

Looking back at the game’s roots, the answer to these questions was usually no. In the early days, the game’s mechanics rarely provided solutions to the problems the characters faced. Players stretched beyond the bounds of the rules and looked for solutions not covered in the books. Player ingenuity was always the key to winning encounters. And very often, the DM didn’t actually have a set solution in mind ahead of time. He expected the PCs to come up with something on their own.

— Monte Cook, Legends and Lore columnist, in the article Out of Bounds

In the first D&D Encounters session of the new season on Wednesday, we met to create characters. About half the players at my table had played with me through the last season, so they were pretty familiar with my GMing style. We got to talking about my style, and in particular how it worked, or didn’t work for them. I really appreciated the input, and it brought to mind a couple of things that crystallized for me when I read Monte’s article.

In general my GMing style is to play encounters without set solutions in mind. I’m open to letting players explain their intended actions outside the context of the rules, interpreting a probability and either calling for an appropriate roll, or narrating the consequences of their choices. During the Encounters season just finished we had a player at the table who specialized in creating elaborate sequences of actions in response to encounter circumstances. I indulged him, perhaps a touch too much, in that his play style was what I expected from players, as it fit my GMing style.

However, most of the rest of the table was playing in a style that fit the structure of the present iteration of D&D rules. They had the expectation that the encounters they faced during the session would have pre-made solutions that were designed to be arrived at using the options available to their 4e D&D characters. This was true, of course, and I was open to either approach, but failed to adequately communicate that. The more elaborate sequences of actions presented by our unique player also took up more time in the spotlight than the more efficient 4e actions. My players candidly told me that, while they were entertained by the antics of our unique player, they didn’t want to be short-changed for playing by the rules.

This was good food for thought for me in considering the mixing of gaming styles at the table. Monte ends his article urging players to consider the rules not as definitions of their actions, but as a framework upon which they can build actions, sometimes making choices that go outside of the framework.

The rules are not the sum total of the game. The game is larger than that. Breaking the rules, circumventing the rules, or ignoring the rules does not take you out of the game.

—Monte Cook

As a GM, recognizing the style of my players, and making on-the-fly adjustments to my own style in response, is part of the cooperative nature of RPG play.  In designing my own rules for my home campaign, I’ve deliberately left a lot of open space for interpretation and exploration by the players. One of the great strengths of 4e D&D is how much of the game mechanics it puts in the hands of the players, freeing up the GM to focus on other issues. I really value that design consideration. However, the old saw about “with great power comes great responsibility” is a core truth in 4e D&D. Players are faced with an often-bewildering and ever-expanding array of character options, each with its own seemingly-unique mechanic. (More experienced players are quick to recognize the modular design of the options, and often quick to criticize 4e for that.)

Looking at the Encounters season ahead, I want to take my players’ input into consideration and adapt my GMing style to encourage their participation. And, as Monte said, look for opportunities for everyone to play in the spaces between the rules when that feels comfortable to them. In my home game, it is less of an issue, but it has certainly raised my awareness of barriers to player participation. As a GM I most enjoy sessions where the players drive the story. Making sure my players have the tools to do that, and the space in which to do it, is part of the balancing act of GMing.


  1. I look at Monte Cook's statement and wonder how he really feels working for 4e. While he never actively spoke out against it, he never really professed his love for it either (from what I've seen).

    The thing about 4e is most of the rules are hardwired into combat and encounters. I remember that Mike Mearls released a blog post w/ how to handle powers outside of combat.. Something that never was an issue prior to 4e.

    3.x and 4e have honestly created the situation that we are in now with new style players. Everything has a rule made for it and the players look to that as a guide/rigid structure. This is reinforced with Encounters because you are expected to follow the official WotC guidelines and rules and when you don't, as you've experienced it can lead to consternation by players.

    I know many have said this before and I'm sure it will offend some people, but my opinion of 4e is that it is heavily inspired by MMOs. Your powers are the class abilities you get that you than put in your UI and press F1-F12 repeatedly until X targets are killed. Just like a MMO almost all of the abilities, as I said above, have no bearing outside of combat.

    I think the designers at WotC have recognized this but now they are faced with the unenviable task of figuring out how to backtrack on this line of thinking they have created while not alienating their current player market (I honestly don't think WotC can afford to alienate any more players).

  2. Mike, I agree with your assessment. I think the attempt to systemize skill challenges is a failure in its present form, and I think that a rethink on skills is part of the opportunity to "backtrack", as you say.

  3. How is WotC doing financially? Has it taken a net loss with 4e? (Although, I'm not sure if that's where most of its revenue comes from anyway....just curious.)