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Think Like an Adventurer or Like a Rules Lawyer?

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I may have finally put my finger on why later versions of D&D not only don't feel much like D&D to me but simply do not get me excited enough to want to play. Mike Mearls, one of the main designers of the upcoming 4th Edition of D&D ran a game of OD&D for some of his officemates earlier this year and posted some reports and comments on the game at the Original D&D Discussion board. A comment he made in this post about the difference between OD&D and current versions hit home as soon as I read it:

A lot of the fun parts of the session (the talking skull; the undead and their bargain) were possible under any edition of D&D. However, I think that OD&D's open nature makes the players more likely to accept things in the game as elements of fiction, rather than as game elements. The players reacted more by thinking "What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?" rather than "What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?"

Pay special attention to that last sentence: "The players reacted more by thinking 'What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?' rather than 'What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?'" I think this sums up my deepest problem with the WOTC editions of D&D. These editions encourage and reward being a "rules lawyer" -- a type of player that most of us who started playing long ago abhor even more than power-gaming munchkins. The type of player who has memorized every rule in every rulebook and loves to argue those rules (and their most obscure interactions and combinations) with the DM and other players in order to wring every possible rules advantage for his character out of the system he can.

If I wanted to play a game where memorizing rules and their interactions were the way to play, I'd just play something like chess where one's ability to win comes from having memorized the rules and thousands of standardized opening sequences and the like. When I play in or run D&D I want my fellow players to be thinking like adventurers, not like rules lawyers. If one needs to keep a dungeon door open, I want my fellow players to have their characters looking for rocks or spikes or the like -- what a person actually in that situation would be doing. I don't want them trying to think of what rules pulled from eight or nine rulebooks and supplements and combined will give them the best chance according to the rules of keeping the door open.

Sadly, I have come to believe that WOTC purposely designed the rules this way for a couple of reasons that have little or nothing to do with the good of those playing the game:

* To encourage more people to buy lots of rulebooks. In previous editions of the game, the DM was really the only person who needed a copy of multiple books. Players only needed a copy of the Player's Handbook. Worse, from the point of view of selling lots of books, one copy of the Player's Handbook could easily be shared between several players as there was little need for it except when creating characters, advancing a level, or selecting spells. Players did not really need to know the nitty-gritty details of the rules, let alone think in rules.

* To encourage the purchase of adventures and campaign settings over creating your own. Complex and very detailed rules make it harder for DMs to create their own campaigns and settings as it greatly increases the amount of work needed to do so at all, let alone do so well. When you repeatedly hear DMs talk about it taking several hours to prepare for each session of a pre-written, store-bought module, you can easily see why they don't have time to create their own adventures.

While lots of players seem to like later editions of D&D, please give me "Old School" games where players are expected to think like an adventurer instead of like a rules lawyer.

13 comments:
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Aaron W. Thorne said...
April 25, 2008 at 1:13 PM  

After playing 3.0 and 3.5 games off and on over the years, along with messing around with Rules Compendium D&D, BFRPG, and other older-style games, I must say that I totally agree with you on this one. Too many D&D situations are handled by rooting through the rulebook to find the optimal tactical action, rather than just acting out your character and doing what seems like the best option that the character would have.

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Sham said...
April 26, 2008 at 8:06 AM  

Very salient observation. I guess I always realized that this was the case, but your post really put it into definable terms. Let's face it, the industry is there to make some money, so I can't fault them for inventing new and more insidious methods of adding value to their product. Magic the Gathering is at the far end of the spectrum, with constant change requiring a steady investment by it's own players. It's no surprise that WotC is doing the same, on a lesser scale, with D&D. I don't have to like it, but from a business standpoint, I do understand it.

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Robert Fisher said...
April 28, 2008 at 10:58 AM  

I am a recovering rules-lawyer. I used to lug...what?...nine hard backs to every game, even when I wasn't the DM.

You can really see the shift towards the end of 1e. First the UA was added to the player's arsenal. Then the WSG and DSG.

(There was the OA as well, but it's kind of a special case.)

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Badelaire said...
April 28, 2008 at 1:04 PM  

Not to necessarily disagree with you, because I think you have a point, but this problem is not due to Wizards - it's due to an OVERALL trend in the entire game industry.

From the mid 90's on, how many RPGs actually had distinct "Player's Rules" and "GM's Rules" volumes? Not that many. None of the White Wolf books did, and the WW games did more for gaming in the last decade than D&D, I'd be willing to wager, right up to the point where 3.0 hit the scene. Many of the other games at the time were the same - there was one single big-ass rule book, and then you'd have "Player's Guides" and "Storyteller Guides", but that had more to do with plot hooks and setting descriptions and the like.

Actually, thinking back...

GURPS - Third Edition was one big book, new edition is not REALLY broken down between "Player" and "GM" either.

Rolemaster - One big main book with rules supplements, again not really broken down into DMG and PHB formats.

In fact, my biggest single complaint with the new Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane RPG is that it's $50 for the rule book, and yet probably 60% of the volume is for the GM only. Yeah, it's a really impressive book, but I don't know if I'll ever run it because I don't want to either A)buy multiple copies, B) be handing around this immense book all game long, especially in the beginning, or C) ask players to shell out fifty bucks for the book when they're only supposed to read a smallish fraction of it. Would have been MUCH better to make a $20 PHB and $30 DMG style breakdown.

Anyhow, yes - I agree with you, but again, this is hardly the fault of WotC.

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Badelaire said...
April 28, 2008 at 2:02 PM  

Actually, thinking more on this, I think a BIG distinction needs to be made between "Rules Lawyers" and "Players who Use The Rules Appropriately".

As a player in a new RPG system, I find a great deal of frustration when the GM is purposefully obscure on how competent I am at certain tasks or which skill/tactic would be more effective. This isn't "Rules Lawyering" - this is trying to overcome the disconnect that arises with players not necessarily knowing what their characters might take for granted. If your GM just twiddles his thumbs and gives you the poker face when your character constantly fails at a task that, according to the rules, you have almost no chance at, I think that's a case for player empowerment - I want to know if I have a better chance at killing the orc if I shoot my bow at him as opposed to hitting him with my sword or charging him and trying to knock him down. The GM doesn't have to give a precise answer, but I'd at least like to hear "well you're better with your broadsword and it'll hit harder, so you're better off trying to cut him down". A GM who is reluctant to give that much of an answer is just being a jerk in my book.

From the GM's side of things, I'd also like to point out that while some GMs might like running a game with a bunch of ignorant players, some do not. I actually LIKE my players to read the rules I provide for them so that I constantly don't have to answer the "which die do I roll now?" and "what does that number mean" or "wait, what does this spell do?".

In the end, faulting players for looking at their character sheets and going with whatever action gives them the best chance of success is foolish. Faulting them for wasting time and causing conflict by tearing through every supplement for some obscure rule to defend their case, slowing down the game and making things more boring for everyone, is more appropriate.

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Robert Fisher said...
April 28, 2008 at 2:49 PM  

Actually, GURPS 3/e had a cool Players book. (The page numbers were the same as the equivalent pages in the Basic Set. It also had the Instant Characters pamphlet that could serve part of that role.

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Randall said...
April 28, 2008 at 5:29 PM  

Badelaire,

You have a good point about gaming trends.I certainly did not mean to imply that WOTC created this idea, just that I suspect they decided to design the third edition game so that Players would NEED to buy the Player's Handbook to play. There are far more players to sell to than GMs, after all.

While this was a great business decision, I think it was the wrong decision for D&D as a system as it had the effect of turning the game from one anyone could play with a bit of instruction and help getting started to a game that required each player to buy books and learn lots of rules to even begin to play effectively.

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Randall said...
April 28, 2008 at 5:52 PM  

Quote: I want to know if I have a better chance at killing the orc if I shoot my bow at him as opposed to hitting him with my sword or charging him and trying to knock him down.

The rules would not tell you that in any campaign (in ANY game system) I've ever run. A player would need to have his character find that out in the game. Trial and error would be one way, but probably not the best. Especially as the answer would likely vary from one tribe of orcs to another. Asking npcs who have fought the orcs in question could reveal all sorts of information.

Buy a veteran or two a drink and ask about how the Bloody Hand tribe fights and you'd probably be able to figure out which combat methods you have available to you would work best against those orcs.

It might not be as direct an answer as you'd like, but most players should be able to figure it out. Of course, I'm like Gary Gygax in that I think the player's should be challenged by such in game things instead of the challenge being mastering the rules.

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Badelaire said...
April 28, 2008 at 10:27 PM  

Quote: The rules would not tell you that in any campaign (in ANY game system) I've ever run. A player would need to have his character find that out in the game.

Hrmmm. So if I am a player new to this system you're running, and it's obvious I don't have a very firm grasp on how the game in general and combat in particular works, and I look at my character sheet and see some number next to "Archery" and some other, different number next to "Sword", and I ask which is going to give me a better chance of success because I am not familiar with the rules yet, you as the GM or a fellow player would not give me some assistance?

I'm just trying to clarify exactly what your stance on this sort of scenario would be.

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Randall said...
April 29, 2008 at 10:28 AM  

Badelaire,

Quote: ...I look at my character sheet and see some number next to "Archery" and some other, different number next to "Sword", and I ask which is going to give me a better chance of success because I am not familiar with the rules yet, you as the GM or a fellow player would not give me some assistance?

This is a much different question that the original orc example you gave. Sure, I'd help you learn what the numbers on your character sheet mean and how to use them in play.

For example: You are +1 to hit with a bow because of your high dexterity, so all other things being equal you will hit slightly more often with your bow than with your sword, but that bastard sword you have will generally do more damage when it hits. To hit you need to roll a D20 and beat a target number based on the armor your opponent is wearing (adjusted by cover, that +1 for you dex when you are using a bow, etc.). You are first level, so you will need roll X or higher to hit an unarmored foe -- assuming no adjustments apply. You chance to hit will go up as you gain levels.

This still would not tell you which weapon to use to maximize your success against those orcs, however. That would depend on the specific situation, not the rules. That's a choice for the player to make, not for the rules to dictate.

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Badelaire said...
April 29, 2008 at 10:55 AM  

Quote:This is a much different question that the original orc example you gave. Sure, I'd help you learn what the numbers on your character sheet mean and how to use them in play.

All right, I didn't think it was a different question - I guess I mis-represented my scenario to mean more of a general "give me tactical advice" when what I meant was "help me understand what I'm doing so I can make an informed decision".

Although, having said all that, the idea that newbie players can't be given friendly advice by their fellow players is something I disagree with. If the DM/GM doesn't want to give advice, that's fine - that can easily be seen as favoritism by some players - but I despise the notion of newbie players being left to fend for themselves in the game by veteran players who don't want to "coddle" the newbie.

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Robert Fisher said...
April 29, 2008 at 11:08 AM  

"This still would not tell you which weapon to use to maximize your success against those orcs, however. That would depend on the specific situation, not the rules. That's a choice for the player to make, not for the rules to dictate."

Personally, (as DM) I like the player to try to convince me why he thinks one weapon would be better in the situation than the other. (Not using rules, mind you.) Because I may have not thought of everything.

The big thing to me is that I don't want the nature of the game to cause/trick the player into a bad decision. I want the player to have all the information they should have. As DM, I'm happy to answer any questions or volunteer information to ensure that is the case.

In some ways, it can be better if the player isn't familiar with the rules being used, because then they don't make wrong assumptions about how I interpret or implement those rules. Not that I think the rules should be kept secret from the players. I'm just trying to explain my attitude towards this topic.

Also, I want us (the players and the DM) to be on the look-out for situations when the rules give results that seem out-of-line for the game at hand. The rules aren't the final word, the group is. (With the DM granted veto-power.) So, if the player is depending upon a by-the-rules result, they may be disappointed.

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Randall said...
April 29, 2008 at 8:25 PM  

quote: ...but I despise the notion of newbie players being left to fend for themselves in the game by veteran players who don't want to "coddle" the newbie.

I agree with you completely on this point. That behavior is silly. If a new person joined a party of sane adventurers in real life, they be giving him more advice then he/she probably needed as they were going to have to depend on him to cover their back at some point

Heck, this happens at any new job I've ever had -- advice from just about every person there on how I should do it.

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