20 April 2013

R is for Rule

Rules rules rules! D&D has too many rules! Combat is a slugfest of counting squares and remembering what triggers an attack of opportunity; the wording of some of the rules directly contradict each other; spells are so confusing to keep track of their myriad of effects. Rules are the bane of my existence as DM, but I understand their use and in the case of my players, it is their only defense against me, so they are important to their survival. Rules are simultaneously what makes the game run smoothly and what makes it grind to a screeching halt.

Matthew J. Finch's "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" states that the first zen moment he had about gaming was "Rulings, not Rules". The idea is that modern DMing has become too much about following rules, strictly following what the game dictates happens, when once it was more of a nebulous experience, with the DM as arbiter between the events and the players. To me, I see the game in the old days as the DM having all the power. As the game evolved and editions progressed, the power slowly started to shift to the players. In my opinion, 4th edition has the players having almost all the power. DMs exist mostly to tell the players what happens, not actually act as referees; there are too many rules (I'm not a huge 4th edition, if it isn't obvious). 3rd edition and Pathfinder has a healthy balance in my opinion, though still a bit too rules-heavy.

Its no secret that my favorite edition of D&D is 2nd edition. It was the first edition I ever played and it blew my young thirteen-year-old mind. The way I DM today tends to mix 3rd edition rules with 2nd edition heart. The game is difficult, with victory not guaranteed or even expected, but I'm not able to use rulings as much as I'd like to, as the rules are clearly defined. The players have a lot of power, and the rules act as their shield against the DM. I can see the point of this shield, as in a ruling system with little clearly defined rules, a bad or inexperienced DM can ruin a game. I'm sure when the game kept progressing, the designers were trying to make life easier for the DM, allowing for those inexperienced Masters to jump in, since there are already so few of them.

I personally feel that the game lost something in this change, a certain magic and fun that made it stand out from other games. Now players clamor about 'balance' and 'scale'. These notions when applied to games are a modern convention, brought about by video games in my opinion. In modern video games, a game is designed to be beaten. A player spends $60, he wants an experience he can see from beginning to end. Thus, the game has certain checks built in for balance, e.g. not attacking a level 3 party with a level 60 dragon king or some such encounter. The video game follows certain rules and cannot deviate from those rules. If this encounter ends up in a game, unless a programmer remembers to program a way around that encounter, the player must fight it and lose. In Dungeons & Dragons, the balance is as balanced as the DM makes it. If he chooses to attack his players with a fight they cannot win, do they stand and fight like programmed sprites unable to deviate from the rules given? No! They run their butts off, or come up with an ingenious plan to defeat the dragon king anyway, if the DM uses rulings, not rules, to allow them to do so. This is tabletop's ultimate strength, and why it has survived the test of time, and what it offers than no video game can ever reproduce. As the DM, you are what makes the game, along with your players. The books are just there to help the process along, but one should never see them as writ in stone, to do so is to deny yourself the glory of D&D.

In conclusion, I highly recommend reading "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" if you get the chance. It's a free PDF, only 13 pages long, and has a lot of really awesome information for aspiring Dungeon Masters. If you're feeling like tabletop RPGs have too many rules, I would suggest checking out an older edition of the game, scaling back to just the core books, or integrating an "old-school feel" by making more rulings, not rules. Thanks for reading, stay tuned Monday for "S is for Swarm".

Relevant Links
A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

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