Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More on Rules and Roles

There is a compelling post by j-u-i-c-e over at HubPages on “Why RPG Gamers Fight All the Time”. The author breaks it down to rules and roles, uses examples from the CRPG Skyrim, and deftly illustrates the differences between rule gamers and role gamers while arguing the necessity of both.

On the one hand, the rule gamer is right: if you don't have rules and statistics, if you don't have attributes, classes, racial modifiers, and skill requirements, your role is undefined. That isn't role-playing, that's pretending the way kids pretend. There's no hard limit to push up against, no consequences for your decisions, no meaning to any of your actions. You might as well not play the game at all and just sit in the dark pretending your way through every conflict.

On the other hand, the role gamer is also right: if the rules prevent you from playing a desirable role, what's the point of playing? If there are too many arbitrary rules restricting your freedom of choice you're not really playing a role, you're just following a script. It might be a good action game, or a good strategy game, but it's not really a role-playing game if you can't make basic decisions about things like your character's skill development, what kind of armor they wear, or whether or not Absalem the melancholy Elf can reject his racial heritage and live in the cities as a drunk pimp with an Orc girlfriend and a gambling addiction.
 — j-u-i-c-e

Meanwhile, Greg Tito over at Escapist Magazine has written an interesting series on the past, present, and future of Dungeons & Dragons. I reference the future article here, because I think it makes some interesting points considering j-u-i-c-e’s comments above. Tito quotes Mike Mearls, head of Dungeons & Dragons development at WoTC, regarding the ways in which 4e D&D may have gotten out of balance. It is apparent from the article that the perception is that 4e D&D suffers from being too rules-oriented, per j-u-i-c-e’s definition.

According to the past-present-future articles, older versions of the game (and modern variations spawned by the Old School Renaissance) are more balanced in this regard, if perhaps hampered by somewhat arbitrary rules and/or too many allowances for the role gamer. J-u-i-c-e argues — in the context of Skyrim — that gamer immersion comes from a balance of both rule-gaming and role-gaming opportunities. Immersion being the nirvana that RPGs generally seek to achieve.

I think what immerses devotees of the OSR is the rich tradition and history of settings like Greyhawk (among many others), and the familiar mechanics of exploration, combat and magic as defined and refined by game masters from Gary Gygax to James Raggi. Such games include just enough rules to satisfy most rule gamers, while focusing on role gamers.

4e D&D, as originally released, emphasized rules in an effort to create a playing environment that included more gamers. But, as Mearl’s admits, "We've lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG." In creating a rules game, they lost touch with the role game heritage of D&D.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Lest this devolve into yet another bashing of 4e D&D, I’d like to point out that there are many elements of that game that I, as a role gamer, find compelling. I have just enough rule gamer in me that some of the more arbitrary rules and game mechanics of the original editions of D&D (often perpetuated by the OSR, in my opinion) ruin my sense of immersion.

In my evolving homebrew rules, I’ve incorporated a core set of the conditions imposed by D&D spells and powers, as well as specific powers and effects that cause those conditions. Further, I’ve arranged it so that the player may tactically choose powers and effects that apply those conditions on the fly, in the form of customizable attacks and spells. For example, a weapon user might choose to sacrifice a die of damage in order to knock an opponent prone, if the situation warranted it. Or, a spellcaster might decide to expand the area of effect of a spell, sacrificing some duration, for a temporary advantage.

In the update I’m working on now, I’m tying skill development to defenses. For example, devote more of your skill development to lore-based skills such as history or spellcraft, and your Will defense will increase. Choose agility-based skills instead, and your Reflex defense is emphasized. Additionally I’m tying feats and powers into skill advancement, much as perks are used in Skyrim. When a player spends a point to advance a skill, they may have the option to select an associated feat or power. For example, a player might invest points in their character’s One-handed melee skill, and select the power “Disarm” as part of their advancement. Then, in play, the player would have the option to sacrifice a die of damage in order to disarm an opponent.

Ultimately, my goal is to have a rule system that contains a rich set of choices for rule gamers, while remaining straightforward and streamlined for role gamers. I try to invest as much of my development time in my campaign setting as I do in campaign rules, but finding the personal balance is as challenging as finding in-game balance.

The conflict between rules and roles seems central to dissension in the ranks of gamer hobbyists. Tabletop RPGs that try to become too rule-centric (like 4e D&D), and CRPGs that endeavor to be more role-centric (like Skyrim), inevitably cause a backlash from gamers dissatisfied with the attempts. However, I think it is important to keep trying, from both sides of the issue. If you have examples of games that you feel are nicely balanced in this regard, or thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them!


  1. Happy New Year!

    Let me preface by saying this comment is essentially coming from a gaming outsider. I freely admit that and, while that leaves me lost at times in many systems (not just D&D), it does give me a certain outsider’s perspective.

    There seems be very strong emotion revolving around 4e, especially around those who play D&D exclusively. Is this strong emotion primarily from the veteran players? Is the unhappiness really at the complication of the rules or at having something changed that people grew up with? Is the anger at WotC? One would think yes, it was a business decision they made, and, yet, there still seems to be such a strong loyalty to the company….or is there? Have they been hurt financially? How much? Most of the people I know play so many games, but I do see certain loyalties here and there like to White Wolf (which no longer exists by the way), but nothing like when it comes to Wizards. Can Wizards simply go back to the way things were or are they on a business path they can’t retreat from (since they sold 3.5 to Paizzo or whatever it’s called.)

    As far as 4e for me, when I first played it, I did find it complicated and didn’t really like it much. But I didn’t have the history either to draw in my loyalty. 1e, 2e, Gygax, Greyhawk, etc. did not really mean all that much to me. I never experienced the evolution of the game through all those iterations. There were no landmarks or fond recollections and stories to tell of other worlds or character classes or adventures. I had no buy-in or stake in the game. I have the same situation with people who criticize new World of Darkness games vs. old World of Darkness games. I’ve never played the old ones so I can’t really relate or understand the changes that have occurred and whether they would matter to me. For example, to me, the only Mage is Mage:Awakening, NOT Mage: Ascension.

    Therefore, to me, D&D IS 4e. That’s not a criticism, just a fact that I state to show my admittedly limited perspective. I realize other versions are out there, but if you want to play 3.5, then play Pathfinder. Or, play another game. There are many, many RPGs out there, even fantasy ones, and there are games like Heroes that are way more complicated than 4e (whether they are moneymakers is a topic that I’ve seen argued both ways.) And, many people are doing just that….playing other games. We just bought MouseGuard to add to the collection (yay!).

    Moreover, philosophically, if one is creating their own D&D rules all the time, is that really still D&D? Or is that something that’s always been done with the corporate-issued rules? But then what is D&D exactly? If it’s what the players make it anyway, then why is there so much unhappiness at rules changes?

    A response to this probably requires a long post rather than a short comment….or even a series of posts, I don’t know. No worries, just thoughts spiraling about from an uppity female.

  2. Anna, I think one has only to look at how people react to changes in the Facebook interface (which are admittedly done mostly as marketing exploits rather than "improvements") to understand that most people don't like change.

    That said, progress really only happens when people mess around with the existing stuff, add in something new, or try something off the wall. In the context of a cooperative game like an RPG, this is a challenge. Most of the players don't really want to change the game, they want to play the game.

    D&D came about because Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson added characters to the wargames they were playing. It was founded on the idea of tinkering with existing rules. I learned to play "D&D" in campaigns that followed this tradition. I don't think I ever really played the game "by the book" until I got involved in organized (by WotC) play.

    In general I play RPGs as a hobby that I share with friends. What ruleset we use is a secondary consideration, apart from the fact that everyone has to be willing to learn the basics of the game. But it is the time together with friends telling stories that I value most. We're just here to play.

  3. You're probably already aware of this....

    Players Roll the Dice for Dungeons & Dragons Remake