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.

"No, that is the way that D&D doesn't work."
Beauty. Thanks for stating what I've been feeling. I loved my old-school Lego blocks. They served emergent gameplay in a way the new molded specialty pieces can.

Nicely, this article falls inline with a project I wanted to start working on at Gamegrene.

To give some history, I'd like to return to the world of Ghyll. Ghyll is a serious, but darkly humorous, world that came into creation as part of a game called a Lexicon (where you "roleplay" scholars writing an encyclopedia about the world). Ghyll, as it stands, largely has no combat whatsoever - even the major war that does exist is called the Conflict That Is Not Happening - consensus reality, and ignorance, is a major aspect of the Ghyll world (so much that if the inhabitants believe it enough, it'll probably end up happening).

Since Ghyll has little combat in its current makeup, it doesn't really fit into the mold of the D&D 4E rules. Instead of looking into a different narrativist game engine, I still have a desire to return D&D to its previously narrativist rules - AD&D 1E and 2E according to Gilgamesh. As such, I keep envisioning a total conversion of the D&D 4E feats and skills and classes into what I'm currently calling "Sojourns and Scholars" - a Ghyll D&D game where you start off as Level 1 scholars desperately trying to get an entry into the Ghyll Encyclopedia. The only way to do so is to head out adventuring to learn new things so you can really impress the Encyclopedants (the GM) with your article.

This project would end up happening as a play-by-post game in the forums. Thoughts?

Very well-written, Gil. I'm glad you carried our discussion to an article where we can debate it fully. I think you carry a strong point, but your point also has several weaknesses.

First, I agree that both a completely rules light or a rules heavy system are broken. It seems apparent that we need to walk the fine line between the two and balance out their differing aspects. How is one to do this? Considering I have yet to invest a great amount of thought into this, I don't have an answer at this point. So I'll go about addressing your points while searching for my answer (coming soon!).

The problem here is, Gil, with either system you're ultimately suffering from the same problem. It is definitely more apparent with the rules-light system, but the rules heavy system suffers it as well. The fact of the matter is, we can't get ourselves out of our characters heads, no matter how hard we try. None of us is able to pull ourselves out of our characters. In fact, I would dare say that the aspects of our characters that they share most with us are the ones we usually play up, because we're most comfortable with them. You example of D&D 3e gameplay is perfect - it takes an intelligent player to come up with a good idea like that and implement it. It doesn't matter too much whether your character was intelligent or not (I'm assuming he was), because the idea came from you.

This happens whether in a D&D game or Risus. Both times you run into the problem that is not a problem: you can't pull the players individual skills out of the game. More charismatic players will usually get the GMs attention before anyone else and so take on something of a leadership position, just by virtue of going first. More intelligent players will act more intelligently, even if that means passing a note to a less intelligent player playing a more intelligent character because good roleplaying says that his character wouldn't come up with that. More forceful players will probably get what they want more often, just because they're willing to argue the GM into submission. A player who's a closet kleptomaniac will steal everything he/she can, just because, even in game, it gives them that thrill.

We all bring ourselves to the table, and that is unavoidable, and, I think, a good thing. I'm not advocating rules light systems here, though I do enjoy them from time to time. What I'm saying is that you never can take a system on it's own merits, Gil. That's why we playtest new systems - they need the players to exist, to be what they could be, and they need good players for that. Granted, some systems are more player-friendly than others, and we should have an independent standard by which to judge these systems, but the only standard we can have is experience. That's partially why, though it may not appear that way, I'm withholding judgement on 4e until I've actually played it and seen it in action. You are as well; if I recall, you said in an earlier post that you wouldn't know concerning 4e until you'd played a couple of weeks from then. But what happens when you play the game? You play it with a group, all of which bring their own personalities to the table, from the charismatic player to the cling-to-the-rules GM. Changing just one of these people changes everything. For example, you all know Lorthyne. Well, Lorthyne actually brought me to this site when I moved here and I, in turn, brought him an actual roleplaying game to play, being 3.5 D&D. Well, now Lorthyne's on his mission, and, I gotta tell you, it changed our group. We haven't played since he left, partially cause another players gone for a little while, too, but I know for a fact the same group dynamic won't be recovered until he's back, and that the three of us are gonna need to find other people to play with. Don't know if it's gonna work - we had great group dynamic. This just underscores my point. Playing, for example Dogs in the Vineyard, with my old group and playing it with another group in my neighborhood that Lorthyne and I introduced is going to be an extremely different experience. This is the nature of roleplaying games, and something that is unavoidable.

It is not banal to say that so much about a system depends on who's playing it - it's the truth. That's the nature of roleplaying games as compared to video games. Video games can make a system for everybody cause they can limit your options to a little text box that says: "1) Open the chest. 2) Open the door." Roleplaying games destroy that limiting factor and allow, theoretically, players to do anything possible in that little room, from setting the chest on fire to drawing cave paintings. Now, if I'm in a room and I ask the GM if I can draw cave paintings and he tells me there's nothing in the rules about cave paintings, so no, then I know I'm dealing with a bad GM. The GM has to think outside the system, beyond the rules, and let realism do it's job. If I were GMing that D&D game with you, Gil, you coulda poked them dog's eyes out, cause what you were doing made sense. I'd probably allow the dogs to struggle against the doors to try and open them (prolly a Str check in D&D 3.x), and then, when they'd taken a certian amount of damage, to run back into the room, whimpering and trying to hide.

A good GM can make any game worth playing, while a bad GM can ruin the best system. This is unavoidable, and should be. If a roleplaying game creates too much of a safety net for bad playing, it becomes nothing more than the video game options outlined above. There is no, and never will be, perfect system that will be amazing or even playable with both bad GM and good GM. It just isn't possible. Roleplaying, being a social activity, rests on the people involved. For instance, football (or soccer for those of you not in America) is a great game and a lot of fun. But if I'm playing with a bunch of jackasses, then it's no fun, no matter how much the rules try to prevent cheating, no matter how much the ref calls people out. They ruin the game. It's the same way with roleplaying. You have to look at a system from the perspective of it being played by a good gaming group, one with good group dynamic who won't do things like purposefully attack each other and a creative GM who doesn't cling to the rules.

Both football and D&D, as far as I can see, do well with good groups. I know 3.5 does, cause I played one of the best games ever using that system. A bad group can ruin any system, and it's a cancer on any roleplaying game to demand that it have a built it method for dealing with a bad group. It just can't, and any attempts to put it in will ruin the system and make the game devolve into useless fighting and stupid back-biting. Any social activity works like this. There needs to be rules, but there also needs to be people involved willing to not be a jerk. That's the way this stuff works.


As always, I am interested. Count me in.

Tzuriel - for your own early benefit, I've started writing this over at the admin-only wiki. It's a very early draft, and is mainly a notepad for ideas and historical introductions at the moment. When it becomes more solidified, it'll may move into a more proper location.

I'm game for Sojourns and Scholars.

"It is not banal to say that so much about a system depends on who's playing it - it's the truth. "

I disagree. The game depends on who is playing it. The system is a tool. It doesn't change no matter who is playing it.

Imagine we were having the discussion about golf clubs. I can go out and have a fun round of golf with a pretty shabby set of clubs. My fun is determined by the group I am playing with. At a higher level of competition, however, the clubs begin to impede my ability to compete and have fun.

Tiger Woods is really good with a bad set of clubs. He is way better than me with a good set of clubs. A gaming system is like the golf club -- anyone can screw up a good game and blame it on the tool, but playing with a piece of crap certainly doesn't help your game. The quality of the tool is only important when it makes a difference to the ability of the player. The tool can have specific deficiencies that can be weighed, measured, and compared. D&D might be likened to a bag full of drivers, poorly weighted, with an uneven face -- lots of weight for crushing the ball, but little control.

"Both times you run into the problem that is not a problem: you can't pull the players individual skills out of the game. "

I agree. You can however balance the game so that the player is: engaged in the action; engaged in the narrative; rewarded for acting in character; and, limited to bending - not breaking - the rules.

Let's take a look at experience points. This is a well-documented flaw in D&D because it encourages fighting monsters and acquiring treasure. This skews any gameplay experience with the system. A bag full of drivers. A better system could encourage those two facets equally well, but also encourage other experiences depending on what kind of game you are running. "Why would you need to putt?" In D&D the yardstick for measuring your character is the same if you are a barbarian, rogue, or wizard. This flaw is part of the tool. It can be overcome by good players, but it makes the tool less than ideal for running the game.

Yay for debates! I love doing this stuff.

"The system is a tool. It doesn't change no matter how you're playing it."

Disagreed. You're using a bad analogy here. If I don't like my golf club, I can't legally change it beyond what would be considered moving up or down to a bigger size. I can't bend the club to better make up for my stance or anything like that. The difference here is that in a roleplaying game you can change the rules, you can fix what you don't like. I agree that D&D in all the versions I've yet to see has many flaws, but the major flaws I can fix, I can change with house rules and on the fly adjudication. This is why playing D&D whichever version would be so fundamentally different with your group than with my group, or aeon's group or Morbus' group or whatever. We each have our own changes we make to almost any set of rules that makes the game very different. If it's my first time roleplaying, doing D&D let's say, and I find a great group, I'm gonna come away thinking D&D is a great game. If I find a bad group, I'm gonna come away thinking I should just stick with Monopoly and Mario. A good group molds the playing experience and the system - they decide to ignore banal rules like "whenever you can hit a monster that monster can hit you" in light of common sense.

It's granted that D&D has many deficiences and may not be your piece of cake. But it's not a purely broken system, especially with the new edition, which I still get the feeling you have yet to really look into. And, like any system, broken or not, it depends on the group playing it. Let's use World of Darkness 1st ed for an example. As I understand it (I've never looked to much into 1st ed) the system was vulnerable to munchinism, which we can all agree is a major flaw. And yet World of Darkness became such a mainstay in the market even with such a glaring flaw. Why? Because, unlike D&D, World of Darkness didn't normally attract munchkins and power gamers, it attracted people with a strong interest in roleplaying first and foremost, people who didn't exploit that flaw. Yes, the system was still flawed, but it held up by pure virtue of the demographic it encouraged and the people who generally played it in opposition to such systems as D&D, which, being a system that does attract munchkins, has to worry more about that flaw.

You can't force people to be in the game. No game in the world will make every person who plays it sit in rapt attention, especially not a roleplaying game. You have to work with the lulls. I'll grant, however, that what you say is true - a good roleplaying game encourages players to be "engaged in the action; engaged in the narrative; rewarded for acting in character; and, limited to bending - not breaking - the rules." However, I think at least half, if not so much more, of this battle is on the shoulders of the group. So much of our style of play depends on the group we are a part of, we mold ourselves to those around us. For instance, I've always been a roleplaying heavy, character development story driven player and always will be, but the first group I played with was a bit different...we were kind of split between being big into character development and story and being a power gamer. So I took on aspects of the latter that I didn't have before. Even now, I power game (sometimes) because I want my character to be cool AND deep. It's hard for me to do things like Lorthyne where you automatically take an 8 or a low stat in one of your abilities cause I like my characters to be good at most everything but especially good in one or two things (as D&D allows you to do). This is just a tendency I picked up from my old group. There's a player in my current group who started out as basically an evil little gnome that liked to set things on fire. Because the rest of us are all heavily story driven and character driven, she picked up those tendencies from us. She's still a trouble maker in game, but at least now it's small pranks and not grand arson. And it fits the characters she plays.

For the record, the experience system is much better in 4e. As stated previously, you're rewarded for succeeding in an "encounter" which is anything where you have a chance of failing, whether it's diplomacy or climbing a wall or beating up some monsters. They all reward you equally. You could level up only doing diplomatic encounters, and you could also level up only doing combat. Again, it depends on the group. Even a system with such a strong roleplaying bent as World of Darkness can be played entirely in combat, with the Storyteller just handing out 5 xp to everybody regardless. It really isn't difficult to mold a system to your style of play, and will happen regardless; even if the system goes down screaming and clawing at the ground, it will go down. This is what roleplaying games are about and why they will never die - no other game is so easily molded by it's players, so dependent on those involved. I agree we should judge a system by it's various merits and demerits, but we should also always keep in mind those we are playing with. Some people just don't fit a certain system and will never do well with it, no matter how good the system is. Only systems that cannot be molded, cannot be changed, and suck at their original purpose, too, are broken. D&D is not such a system.

Though I do agree the new license is crap.

"Disagreed. You're using a bad analogy here."

Perhaps a vehicle would be a better metaphor. That way you can tinker with it. At the end of the day a lowered racecar is going to have a hell of a time navigating rough terrain, no matter how much time you spend fixing the sloppy steering and underpowered engine.

"but the major flaws I can fix, I can change with house rules and on the fly adjudication."

How do you fix hit points? I think 4e may normalize HP distribution, but I doubt it resolves the issue. In any case how did you fix it for 3.5?

How did you fix voodoo-blood-magic-theft (experience) points?

How do you fix a class based system that has skills and powers tied to a rule mechanic called class that has little (if any) connection to the story? Do you seriously write every class into your setting when a book comes out? I admit this one is a little easier to fix, but few people actually do the work required to add a new "class" to their campaign. The off-the-shelf games don't address it.

How do you fix artificial rounds? Characters cannot respond to an opponent as he is doing something. Because the opponent has a TURN he can move across a room, perform a free action, and perform his standard action. A character standing beside a door cannot close it in response because it is not his turn. 3.5 is much tighter on the dynamics of a round. This makes the action farcical.

Claiming that these can be fixed by a house rule is a big statement.

"It's granted that D&D has many deficiences and may not be your piece of cake. But it's not a purely broken system, especially with the new edition, which I still get the feeling you have yet to really look into."

I like D&D. It is not purely broken. It has the widest available array of powers and abilities, by far, of any game on the market. It has the most source material; the most monsters; the most items of magic; and the widest fan-base. A lot of effort has gone into making it one of the best balanced games on the market.

This only makes its shortcomings all the more painful. D&D cannot model the perils of a journey -- hunger, thirst, dis-orientation, inedible plants, terrain. Although several supplements try to add these in they are poor bolt-on solutions that do not work. D&D cannot model injury well. D&D cannot model time and action. D&D cannot model skill improvement.

More later ... got to go.

"Yay for debates! I love doing this stuff."

Sorry, it's been a long weekend. My older brother's getting married, so things are pretty busy until tomorrow. So this'll be short.

I can only say I concede here, Gil. The flaws you mention are the main problems of D&D, and they are not minor concerns. Also, I grant, they mostly cannot be fixed with house rules, though I do think that 4e has improved on many of your concerns here.

However, these problems are almost universal. How do we represent something as conceptual as "life" in a gaming system, with numbers that allow for the strange little miracles that happen sometimes yet still forces you to face the inevitability of death and therefore create that tension? How do we represent something like "experience" which has so many different meanings as to defy definition? Most every gaming system represents combat in a turn-based form, and those that don't have other problems that leave lots of gray space and, sometimes, too much room for GM fiat. Most games that present an adequate solution to these problems are highly specific games with systems that are really unintegratable into a different, ultimately better system. All of these things are going to have problems in a table-top rpg. I've had some ideas to help with the "fake" feel of combat (mostly never tested), but never really removes it. Ultimately, combat will never be quite as excited, or at least have a very different excitement than that found in movies and video games, where it feels much more real. You can't integrate that into a gaming system without it getting clogged up and making combat last 8 times longer than it already does in D&D.

I like D&D, too, Gil. It's still fun, despite it's flaws, and now serves even better as an introductory game, because it, to me at least, feels much more intuitive. I think 4e has been an improvement in just about every way other than feel. This new version is definitely more geared towards a younger audience and that grates when you like to run serious games and they get rid of half-orcs and make half-elves everybody's favorite friend. But, the best part about flavor text is that you can ignore it! Which I chose to do in the game I'm running here, telling my players (both new) that half-elves often deal with the problems they dealt with in 3.x. So, I'd like the darker feel back in the original product, but I know it doesn't matter that much, because darkness is my style, and the game will be full of it without any help anyway. And my players are much the same way. It's gonna be a fun game.

If you've found solutions to these problems than I must say that I am very excited to look into your game.