What Roles Do We Die For?
Large molded and painted pieces dominate Lego sets of today. They look cool, but can rarely be used for anything other than their original design purpose. The same might be said of the design components of RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, which has evolved quite far from its roots. The following article is a critical examination of the loss of narrative interactions in tabletop role-playing, as exemplified by D&D.
There is a lot of discussion about the latest release of Dungeons and Dragons. Now that the the Fourth Edition of the industry leader has been released, the debates have begun as to whether this is an improvement on the game, or a degeneration of the game to appeal to a less sophisticated audience addled by computer action-fantasy games. I'm not going to address those issues here, but would like to trace my somewhat critical opinion of the direction of the game from 1st Edition (fairly close to the beginning of the hobby) to its last published incarnation of 3rd. Along the way I will stop to criticize, tangentially, other RPG's – just enough so that I should have people spewing intelligent invective at me from all directions; from all the traditional gaming "camps."
Which skills do you role for?
In AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd Editions) there were limited skills. When a character needed to bluff a guard or find treasure in a room, they needed to interact with the story and resolve the action. Bluffing a guard depended on the skill of the player (not the character) to swagger to the DM. Certain players, no matter what kind of character they were playing had the panache and personality to achieve results consistently. This flaw in the game would be addressed in 3rd Edition, but at a heavy price. Falling behind a trend in the industry to give characters a growing skill list D&D (3.x) entered the market with both skill and feat mechanisms. They borrowed a mechanism for using these skills (challenged and unchallenged) and applied this across all the skills. They narrowly missed the boat though. This narrow miss was one of the worst blows to Role-playing games in the history of the hobby.
Whoever wrote up the skill descriptions, though, deserves to be fired.
Bluff, search, spot, diplomacy, intimidate: these are certainly good skills to have on a skill list. Whoever wrote up the skill descriptions, though, deserves to be fired. Rather than apply a role-playing game logic to the skill, they applied a logic that is easily emulated by a computer. The problem I have is that the result is a single target (Do you notice the trap door). One number that determines pass or fail in noticing, changing, or affecting what you want. The role-playing is over before it begins. Players are not hanging on the words of the DM, because the narrative is not connected to the roll. Before you scream, "Situational Adjustment!" at the top of your lungs at me, why don't I show you the alternatives?
Had the roll fed back into the narrative with "Search" it would mean that players would get a more detailed description of each room and object. The trap door is not revealed by a very high search roll, but a "long set of scuff marks on the floor that terminate abruptly." A less successful roll would yield "scuff marks on the floor" but without context and imbedded amongst distracting information, may result in the players not finding the trap door. Do you see how the players would still need to respond in the game to find treasure? Imagine setting up your iPod for listen checks – record the noises for each inhabited room. The listen roll determines the volume level you use on playback. Players leaning in quietly and holding their breath on listen checks – now isn't that better than roll-playing?
How heavy are your dice?
Over the course of its evolution D&D has moved away from a loose set of rules to a more linear one. In order to thwart abuse of the rules, they have become narrow. Boots of Striding and Springing increase your speed – that's it. There is never any other situational adjustment for them (oops, there is a jump bonus too). Right after I started playing D&D (3.x) for the first time my character with the aforementioned boots (which he bought at the local magic market?) was equally impeded by a set of low angled stairs as were the others in the party. Maybe I'm just griping, but I couldn't visualize why I didn't get an advantage. Later there were some dogs, behind some double doors, trying to kill us. I thought I'd use my "rope use skill" and tie the two doors so that they could only open two inches. I'd then open the door two inches wide and stab the dogs with my rapier. I was told that in D&D if I can attack a monster, it can attack me. "It is just the way D&D works," I was told. I smiled, said "okay," thinking to myself: "No, that is the way that D&D doesn't work." Different DM's could have handled it differently, and I concede that. In the end he is a decent DM trying to interpret the rules that are given to him.
At this point the RLC (Rules Light Camp) will be ardently in my corner ready to conclude that D&D has too many rules. The boots have a mechanical adjustment and the rules about combat are too mechanical. A narrative description of the boots and a more open set of guidelines for play are what's required. D&D suffers from an appalling level of tactical wargaming rule-consistency. That is to say that the game is now as flexible as a piece of concrete. I'm now going to piss off the RLC.
Picasso starts to play RPG's
The lack of a rule allows you to stay in the narrative context and look for the answer there. This can keep the game moving quickly and ensure that the game is adaptable. Or so the theory went. The problem with fewer rules is that it means that more events and situations are covered by one rule. Because a rule has to have breadth, it typically lacks depth. At the edges of the rules application you get the fun-house mirror distortion effect. The efficiency of rules light means that fewer distinctions are made. This loss of detail is immediate. Players are now less reliant upon the character to solve the problem confronting them and turn to their own skills. Rules Light games work well for comic action, short scenarios, and quick pick up games. It is no coincidence that these kind of games are not typically played in long character-driven scenarios. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the player is again at the forefront. The player is less impeded by the deficiencies of their character.
(A)n abstract rule sits between the narrative and the players.
The other upshot of the RLC is the increasing abstractness of the rules. An abstract rule is more universally applicable than a concrete one. However, an abstract rule sits between the narrative and the players. Dice-matching, action points, counter actions – all of these things focus the player on the rules that sit outside the game. Instead of leaning in to hear the result of their "search" and "listen" rolls they are engaged in the meta-game. Again we have lost the narrative – the story of the other character in the other world.
The not-so-open game license
The D&D setting has expanded greatly over the years. More settings are added all the time and the number of worlds that you can play in are increasing all the time – or are they? D&D introduced an open game license where 3rd party products could be added to the d20 line so long as they don't conflict with the CORE rulebooks. Unfortunately, the core books are so full of setting material already that everything built from it starts to feel the same. D&D is far less open nowadays than it ever was. Building off the four character archetypes seemed easy. From there with a little imagination almost anything was possible. Lego went the same way. For those who don't know you used to get a lot of these things called "bricks" in a Lego set. Each set would have a few new unique pieces that were small and could be built and re-combined in ways that their creators didn't even think of. Large molded and painted pieces dominate Lego sets of today. They look cool, but can rarely be used for anything other than their original design purpose.
In my experience there will be people that will defend the merits of this system, initially on an emotional level because they feel that I am attacking an activity that they enjoy doing. I enjoy it too. The game can be better. Arguments that place the burden on the ability of the players and DM to modify the game according to sense and situation are stating the obvious. It is apparent to everyone that this can be done. However, it is neither a solution nor a justification for a set of broken rules.
Every gaming system out there can use the common and uncommon senses of the individuals to take it beyond the boundaries of its own pages. Let's keep the argument focused on what the merits of the system are without making the banal observation that the game can be changed "in media res" by the judgment of the players and DM.