Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 31, 2012
 
Rules, rulings, and role-playing

Once upon a time, about a quarter of a century ago, I played a pen & paper roleplaying game called Ars Magica. Quite an interesting system, as the players were all playing wizards who had to invent their spells on the spot. There was no given list of spells, the player said what he wanted the spell to do, and there were some guidelines on how to determine probability of success. Instead of rules that were binding to both players and DM, there was roleplaying from the players, and spontaneous rulings from the DM to determine success.

I could imagine a similar roleplaying system which had other character classes than wizards. Every action from every player would be based on the player roleplaying what he wants to do, and the DM making rulings to determine success (yes, no, roll this high on that dice). But Dungeons & Dragons never was such a system. Instead earlier versions of D&D had a fundamental imbalance between characters classes in terms of how many pages of rules they got: Fighters got something like 3 pages of rules, Wizards something like 30. 4th edition fixed that imbalance, in 4E basically every character class has the same number of pages of rules. It could be argued that 4E has *too many* rules per character class, which is a subjective thing; but objective fact is that at least this is balanced, every character class has the same amount of powers, the same amount of premade options. Whatever the players decide to roleplay on top of that then depends on their creativity.

And roleplaying and rulings are still very much a part of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, as long as the players want it and the DM isn't horribly bad. I've seen a YouTube video of a 4E play session where the elven mage had replaced all his spells by effects based on birds: His magic missile was a bird shooting out at the target, etc. If there is a chandelier hanging somewhere in the castle, there is nothing in the 4E rules that prevents a player from trying to swing from it. In one of the Penny Arcade 4E D&D podcasts Jim Darkmagic is hanging upside down from a rope ladder while casting spells. And because everybody has the same amount of rules to deal with (or to fall back upon if creativity fails), every character can contribute the same amount of roleplaying.

The playtest material for D&D Next was released with characters who were very far from such a equal distribution of rules. In fact several people complained on the boards that their fighter character sheet was missing pages, as it was the only one being only 1 page long. But what was missing wasn't some pages of a character sheet, but pages of rules in D&D Next regarding the fighter. We are back to a situation where wizards have lots of rules pages full with spell descriptions, and the fighter has to make things up. That turned out to be especially annoying for those players who envisioned their fighter as being "a tank", a protector of the squishier characters in the second row. As D&D Next in the playtest version has no attacks of opportunity, no zone of control, no "marking" an enemy, or any other form of aggro control rules, the fighters were told to make up those rules by roleplaying. Which would have been a good idea in a system like Ars Magica where the wizards have to make up stuff through roleplaying as well. But having rules for wizards and rulings for fighters struck many people as unbalanced.

Both rules-based and rulings-based systems can work. Rules-based systems have the advantage of being more predictable, but require the DM to learn more rules. Rulings-based systems are more flexible, but can easily become bogged down in negotiations between the players and the DM. A good system has an equal amount of rules for everybody, and allows everybody to roleplay based on DM rulings. That is the sort of mix of rules and rulings that works. Mixing rules and rulings by assigning them to different character classes works a lot less well: Why should a players preference for rules-based or rulings-based system end up determining his class choice? The guy who hates rules might have wanted to play the wizard, while the guy who never roleplays might have wanted to play the fighter. In D&D Next, like in pre-4E versions of D&D that leads to problems.

The problem gets worse once you realize that the power of a rules-based character is fixed, while the power of a rulings-based character depends on the generosity of the DM. If all your "may I" requests to the DM are answered with "No, you can't", you not only have a bad DM, but also end up with an extremely underpowered and boring fighter standing next to a powerful wizard with lots of options. But if the DM allows any crazy idea, it is the wizard who ends up being underpowered and restrained by the rules.

D&D Next is a game under development, and the forums are full of people complaining about the fighter. I hope WotC is listening and the next playtesting material brings back more rules balance between the different character classes. I'd be okay with a system in which every class had equal number of powers, but those being a lot less complex and numerous than they were in 4th edition. But having complex spellcasters and simple melee characters isn't the way to go.

Comments:
Given that this is a game you implement yourself why dont players address their disatisfactions by just modifying and using the rules they want to use? Seems like an easy fix. If you dont like 30 pages of rules circle the ones you wish to implement and ignore the rest.
 
Or even better, everybody could make up their own rules.

But as long as we are trying to discuss a published rules system, we need to assume that people play by the rules. Your "House Rule System #317" might be a lot better, but then it isn't D&D Next any more.
 
The concept of having simple fighter characters and more complex wizards works well if the intention is to enforce the stereotypes of the genre. Fighters are supposed to be simple to play, wizards complex, right? It's a complexity slider but the settings are called character classes.

It would be interesting to have this complexity slider within each class. Would it work equally well, I cannot tell.
 
> in 4E basically every character class has the same number of pages of rules

As I recall a common criticism of 4e was that certain classes did not get parity with the original (PHB1) classes in feat and power support.

In response to snowlantern, I think that WotC tried that with Essentials and it created a lot of confusion and imbalances.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
By "balanced" I think you mean "all classes are exactly the same."

They all have two at-will powers doing 1W + modifier, two encounter powers doing 2W + modifier, and two daily powers doing 3W + modifier. Secondary effects were balanced by nerfing them into being laughably weak (for instance, giving a +1 to an ally's next roll).

You don't get credit for "balancing" a game by simply eliminating all diversity.
 
Same number of powers, yes. Same powers, no. Character classes in 4E still play very differently from each other, there is no way to confuse your fighter with a wizard.
 
The difference is only in role playing (aside from ranged vs melee).

I could lie to you, the DM, and say my paladin was a fighter, by merely changing the names of the powers. You would never know. There is nothing about how that paladin would play that would tell you it wasn't a fighter.

Through careful power selection, I could do the same thing with a ranger and a warlock. You could not distinguish based on how the class is played.

Don't give credit to a lacking rules system because players fix it through role playing.
 
Every action from every player would be based on the player roleplaying what he wants to do, and the DM making rulings to determine success (yes, no, roll this high on that dice). But Dungeons & Dragons never was such a system. Instead earlier versions of D&D had a fundamental imbalance between characters classes in terms of how many pages of rules they got

This is fundamentally false.

Look at First Edition AD&D, for example. Only the thief had the ability to climb walls, unlock doors, and disarm traps, but Gygax goes out of his way to explain that every class can attempt such things and let the DM make a ruling on the outcome.

To illustrate this, let me give an example of the basic rules/rulings system that 1E provides (and how I play my games):

1.
Players with inherit abilities (such as climbing walls) can automatically attempt the action using a die-roll if they so choose.
--OR--
They can choose to role-play out an action instead, relying on their own player skill to overcome it.

2.
Players without an inherit ability can ONLY choose to role-play out an action. They cannot use a die roll like the class that has the inherit ability.
---------------
Here's a 1E example of play using both rules AND rulings:

A thief and a fighter stand above a 30 foot chasm near a bridge. From below, they can hear the screams of the lost princess they were sent to rescue. Because this isn't a steep cliff (and doesn't fear the damage he would take if he fell), the thief decides he will simply risk using his inherit climbing ability by rolling a die for success to get down to the bottom. He rolls a 17 - success.

The thief reaches the bottom with ease.

The fighter has no such inherit climbing ability (as stated in the rulebook). Instead, the DM allows him to look for solutions to the problem and role-play his actions without rolling. The fighter notices a long, 12 foot vine hanging a few yards behind him, hacks it off with his sword and ties it onto the nearby bridge. By inquiring of the DM, he is told that there is a slight outcropping about 10 feet from the bottom, under the bridge's shadow. The fighter throws some of his heavy baggage down below first, then lowers himself into the chasm and, using his great strength, swings himself and drops onto the outcropping. From there, he simply drops to the floor taking no damage at all.
---------------

Had the fighter decided he was simply going to start scaling the wall with no preparation, the DM would have likely let him fall. Also a character with low strength (such as a mage) would not have been able to swing on the vine as the fighter did, and would have needed another solution.

You see how the statement that such role-played rulings never existed in D&D is untrue? You are implying that by omitting climb rules from the fighter's character page, he could NEVER, EVER, EVER climb. That's a ridiculous assertion. Of course he can still climb, but he doesn't get the option to take the easy way out like the Thief does.

Go to any classic D&D community anywhere (Dragonsfoot, EnWorld, etc) and they will give you a similar answer as mine.

That's why I love First Edition AD&D - it has the best of both worlds; It's not the, "by-the-book" rules hog that 3E and 4E are, yet it isn't so free-wheeling a game like "Ars Magica" where anything goes.

1E provides class distinction that 0E and Basic didn't have, but it doesn't go overboard with kits and clutter that 2E brought in.

Because of this (and many others) 1E, IMO, is RPG perfection and I believe THE definitive version of D&D.
 
Oops, double post. Sorry. :)
 
CF, what I'm saying is that spellcasters in 1st edition didn't work that free form. They had pages and pages of rules with lists of spells and how exactly they worked.

Of course 1st edition had lots of roleplaying. Every edition has, sometimes even 4th edition. But 1st edition was a system in which mostly the weapon wielders played using rulings, while the spellcasters most of the time used the rules for their spells instead of their imagination.

That is why in your examples there aren't any spellcasters.
 
CF, what I'm saying is that spellcasters in 1st edition didn't work that free form. They had pages and pages of rules with lists of spells and how exactly they worked.


Well it sounded like you were referring to non-spellcasters in your post:

I could imagine a similar roleplaying system which had other character classes than wizards. Every action from every player would be based on the player roleplaying what he wants to do, and the DM making rulings to determine success (yes, no, roll this high on that dice). But Dungeons & Dragons never was such a system.

You're saying that with non-wizards in D&D, there "never was such a system" of rulings rather than rules. Am I missing something?

Of course 1st edition had lots of roleplaying. Every edition has, sometimes even 4th edition. But 1st edition was a system in which mostly the weapon wielders played using rulings, while the spellcasters most of the time used the rules for their spells instead of their imagination.

That is why in your examples there aren't any spellcasters.


But think about what you're saying. A spell caster couldn't simply hack a vine and swing down into the chasm, precisely because he wouldn't be strong enough, and because his class wasn't fighter. He also couldn't scale sheer cliffs because he wasn't a thief. Just because he has a lot more pages in the manual doesn't mean he couldn't do as much as the thief or fighter could do. The thief and fighter would have had a lot more freedom, physically, than the spell-caster who was limited more to his spells and intelligence creativity.

But we can even go beyond that. I've seen spell casters use their abilities in ways that have nothing to do with their by-the-book rules and require DM rulings all the time. For example, a spell-caster with a high intelligence score would succeed far more often at intelligence-based challenges. Rather than climbing down a cliff, the magic-user, with his superior intellect, may decide that the length of the bridge is as long as the chasm is deep and use a well-placed magic missile to break one of the connections, sending it below where he could use to slide down with a grease spell.

The reason why the bridge was the perfect length was because the magic-user's intelligent was high enough. In other words, the DM would actually subtly change his architecture to rule that the action worked, merely because the magic-user was smart enough. Had the lower-intelligence thief or the fighter tried it, they would have likely guessed wrong and come up short.

Yes, he used his by-the-book magic, but certainly in far more creative ways that allowed for a ruling rather than a rule to take place.
 
And those examples of the fighter, thief and magic-user sum up reason #2 why I love D&D 1E so much more than the modern game. No skills, feats or powers.

Did I need a climb or jump skill for the fighter to make his way down? No. Did I need some video-game named feat for the spell-caster to use his superior brain-power to determine the length of the bridge? No.

Everything you need is in the classes and ability scores. The skill, feat or power list is no longer your limit, but your ability scores, class and imagination.

And, yes, some would argue, "well you can certainly do those things in 4E, nothing is stopping you". Correct, but now are you really playing the game as it was intended? Who is bending the rules more by ignoring or overriding skill and power lists? The one who's book is chock-full of them, or the one who has none provided in the first place?
 
Somewhat off tangent: I know this would remove it from D&D but they really need to get rid of classes. You should be able to evolve your guy how you see fit.

This is not to say you will ultimately become the most powerful spell-throwing, undetectable warrior-bard and high priest to diety "x" with one character.

More like, the PC says ok I spend my "level up" by learning magic. Magic skill + 1, Int + 1, Str -1, Dex - 1 etc.

"Feats" then just become a skill check per use, and only get unlocked when you have stats at a required level or higher, instead of actual character level (which really becomes a non-issue with this setup).
 
After re-reading my post I just wanted to add a correction: With that setup you *can* become the most powerful spell-throwing, undetectable warrior-bard and high priest to diety "x" with one character...

Just not all at the same time. :P
 
@ CF -

I think the biggest issue I have with any of your thinking is that none of your examples are unique to 1&2e. You've made a number of comments about why 4e is inferior to... well, really anything... but then you use a bunch of examples that require only the 6 abilities and some creativity. As it turns out, 4e has those. So what's your point?

As I understand Tobold (and most critics of pre-4e editions), the biggest issue comes up when a player wants a complicated character class. In classic D&D, this most obviously comes in the form of spell lists. Some people like spell lists. They spark the imagination, they evoke great fantasy imagery, and it's fun to find the perfect use for an overlooked spell. There's certainly nothing wrong with someone wanting to play a class with spell list-style complexity.

However, that person then must play a spellcaster. If the player has fantasies of Conan the Barbarian kicking down the door and demanding justice with his giant two-hander... then he's out of luck. The classes with the giant two-handers don't get spell lists, or if they do, they're usually neutered versions. The paladin's Bless is embarrassing compared to the wizard's Change Self in terms of utility and complexity.

Therefore, pre-4e editions refused to cater to the players who liked complex martial characters (also, these editions didn't have much for the player who wanted a simple arcane caster, at least until the 3.x warlock). And that's a design problem. Thus, critics of previous editions are pretty unhappy with the D&DN playtest, since it seems to move backwards to a time when complex martial characters didn't exist. If that stays true upon release, it will still be a design problem.
 
@CF, let me highlight my phrase for you:

I could imagine a similar roleplaying system which had other character classes than wizards. Every action from every player would be based on the player roleplaying what he wants to do, and the DM making rulings to determine success (yes, no, roll this high on that dice). But Dungeons & Dragons never was such a system.

What I tried to say is that Dungeons & Dragons never was a system in which this rulings based approach applied to every character class. Instead we always had a hybrid, of rulings for non-spellcasters, and lots of rules for spellcasters.

In your example of climbing the wall, the wizard climbing the wall would rely on his Spider Climb spell, well described in the rules book, not his imagination.
 
Wow... you mean there are parties out there playing by "The book and nothing but the book"?
 
Nobody said that. But if you have a rules system with lots of options, and you come into any sort of situation, the natural reaction of most players is first to look whether they have some ability on their character sheet that solves the problem.

For example that wall that is in the way of the party as an obstacle: A wizard with the spider climb spell or a rogue with a climb walls ability on his character sheet will automatically use that to overcome the obstacle. Another class without such abilities will consider other options, like a rope he noted on his character sheet, and will maybe try to improvise a grappling hook.

It is simply a priority of solutions: If you have a spell/power/ability that solves a problem, you don't necessarily look for other solutions.
 
Lot of rules for spellcasters/few rules for nonspellcasters situation was already eliminated in 3/3.5 edition of D&D.
While spellcasters had their spell lists, they only has so many skillpoints and only a few skills that would benefit them.
Rogues, on the other hand, could have 8+int modifier skills maxed out, and more if they didn't go for maxing out anything. Rogues had skill lists instead of spell lists.
Fighters had their bonus fighter feats instead of spells. If you say that fighters just got to swing their weapons every round then you probably never planned the feat progression for a fighter or actually used feats in the course of fight.

I also would like to point out that using a MMO-style role trinity in pen&paper looks silly to me. I couldn't care less if someone want to play "tank" in D&D. We are supposed to fight sentient beings (most of the time), not scripts.
 
@ souldrinker -

1) I think you're misstating the power of the fighter's bonus feats from 3.x. A quick review of the SRD shows very few feats that significantly change the way a martial character plays, either in or out of combat. Most of the feats give you some sort of passive bonus to various stats. Those feats that do open up other options - the bull rush line and the trip line, for example, each give you one other option that in some cases is in fact less effective than just attacking for damage (remember that DEAD is the best status effect to apply to a monster).

It wasn't as if the fighter could do nothing interesting. But most martial melee characters were very limited in their options, or they became one-trick ponies that were often disparaged by DMs (e.g. the spiked chain tripmaster, the grapple specialist, etc.).

Furthermore, those bonus feats did not scale in power like spells. A 7th level spellcaster (4th level spells) could transform himself into a dire bear or a dire hawk or could teleport anywhere on the battlefield or summon an angel or "Save or Die" a monster or use a Wall of Fire to redefine a battlefield or Scry... the list goes on. By comparison, the 7th level fighter with his 4 extra bonus feats could attack in the middle of his move or get +2 to hit and +4 damage. Those two progression tracks don't even remotely compare to each other in either complexity or utility.

2)As to your second point, I don't think anyone is suggesting an MMO-style holy trinity with lockdown aggro mechanics and dedicated healers and all the rest. The term "tank" still exists in a much more fluid system like D&D combat, but it comes with the assumption that people are flexible. Because, you know, no one is that stupid.

And the concept of "tank" has existed in combat strategy since ancient eras. Roman archers, for example, would hide behind the legionnaires whenever enemy troops got close to the formation. The legionnaires would "tank" for the archers, since the legionnaires were better equipped for melee combat.

Furthermore, the enemy was never able to just run past the legionnaires to get to the archers - they'd be stabbed in the back! D&DN's playtest is missing this aspect. Melee "tank" characters have no means to punish monsters for just running past them to attack the archers (wizard and healer, in this case). Such a mechanic wouldn't be MMO-like, it would be realistic! It's a lot easier to kill someone if they're ignoring you and running past you, so why doesn't the D&DN Defender get such a bonus?
 
A wizard with the spider climb spell or a rogue with a climb walls ability on his character sheet will automatically use that to overcome the obstacle.

Not true. There are cases in which it is simply a better choice to not use what is on your sheet, and role-play it out. Remember, by going by your sheet you are literally, "rolling the dice" to succeed.

For example, picture a thief standing next to a 10 foot pit with red, hot magma. He has two choices, 1) roll the dice using his climb ability in hopes that he can make it across without falling, or 2) use his surroundings and his resources to carefully get across.

If he screws up: instant death. Would you rather trust your character's life to mere chance, or would you rather use all your wits and resources to find a cunning way to cross? I think the answer in most cases would be the latter.

In non-life threatening situations, yes, it is obvious that a die roll would be sufficient.

In the case of a wizard, is it always good to rely on your magic and hope that it does not fail? Using a levitation spell to cross a hot magma pit seems pretty risky, and maybe not always the best choice.
 
What I tried to say is that Dungeons & Dragons never was a system in which this rulings based approach applied to every character class. Instead we always had a hybrid, of rulings for non-spellcasters, and lots of rules for spellcasters.

Maybe that's what you tried to say, but that's not what you said. Anyway, moving on...

I don't think there was much difference. Most 1E games I've seen, the magic user gets just as many rulings applied to him as any other character class. He's going to role-play out his intellect, bribing the guards, solving a puzzle, finding mathematical weaknesses in enemies and obstacles, and using his brain to find secret doors. All of this was done using rulings, not rules.

But what I'm seeing a lot of, are posters complaining something to the effect of, "why does my non-mage class have less pages of rules? That's not fair". A lot of people here are equating rules for the amount of things a class can do. More rules DOES NOT mean less things a class can do. A thief and fighter can do just as many awesome things using their dexterity, strength and constitution as a mage can do with his spellbook. There's no imbalance, unless you play your games like a munchink instead of a like a role-player.

In your example of climbing the wall, the wizard climbing the wall would rely on his Spider Climb spell, well described in the rules book, not his imagination.

Not always. 1) He may not even have the spell memorized for the circumstance, and 2) he may not want to risk it to chance, or waste a spell.
 
Something we forget is that a magic user's spell list is not always available like the list abilities for other inherit class abilities like fighters and thieves. A thief will always be able to employ his climb walls ability.

A mage will not always have the right spell at the right time, nor will he have it memorized, nor will he always be willing to spend the spell on something if he feels he might need it later.

So it's a straw man to argue that a spell is the equivalent to another class's inherit ability when the inherit ability is a permanent affect and always available.
 
That is why 4E has powers for non-spellcasters which have exactly the same availability as spells.
 
That is why 4E has powers for non-spellcasters which have exactly the same availability as spells.

And that's what makes modern D&D a game of rules, not rulings, like early D&D such as first edition was. My point exactly.
 
I suggest you read the "Quick Primer for Old School Gaming", by Matthew Finch if you haven't. It's a free download and describes the overall rulings-based feel of, not only 0D&D, but how that play style bled through AD&D. This document is heralded by many old-school D&D players as highly descriptive of the way the game was and is played.

http://www.lulu.com/shop/matthew-finch/quick-primer-for-old-school-gaming/ebook/product-3159558.html
 
I think you are falling into the old trap here that there are only two ways to play this game: Your way, and the wrong way. In reality every group plays the same rules edition very differently. There is not *one* old school way of how everybody "should" play. There are as many ways as there are groups, and each group has an optimum which is different from each other.
 
I think you are falling into the old trap here that there are only two ways to play this game: Your way, and the wrong way. In reality every group plays the same rules edition very differently. There is not *one* old school way of how everybody "should" play. There are as many ways as there are groups, and each group has an optimum which is different from each other.

That's a fair statement, but you're first one wasn't, "But Dungeons & Dragons never was such a system".
 
I have played with many different groups over 30 years, and I still believe that the majority of players will first check their character sheets for options before bothering to come up with something creative. Thus my experience with the older editions of D&D remains one of spellcasters being rules based, and that getting worse the more spells they get with level.
 
I have played with many different groups over 30 years, and I still believe that the majority of players will first check their character sheets for options before bothering to come up with something creative. Thus my experience with the older editions of D&D remains one of spellcasters being rules based, and that getting worse the more spells they get with level.

Good for you. But don't claim that D&D was never such a system to allow rulings for magic users. That document alone is evidence to downplay that statement.

All I can say is, in my experience, a good old-school player thinks of their player skill, not their character sheet, first. Go post that statement on the Dragonsfoot (old school D&D) forums and see how much support you get.
 
The Old School Primer is a good way to explain one definiton of it, but of course there are others as Tobold already pointed out.

My way of playing was and is close to the Primer. It works really well with kids, too, who don't have the patience to learn complex rules. This way of playing can be applied to many rpg's, not only D&D.

What would be the minimum number of rules needed to retain D&D feel in the game?
 
My way of playing was and is close to the Primer. It works really well with kids, too, who don't have the patience to learn complex rules

I play with my kids as well who are only 8 and 5 years old. We usually play right before they go to sleep. They get in bed, we turn off most of the light and I only bring my maps and character sheets. The game, as we play, is practically a step above a bed-time story, but they're making the choices for how it goes. Setup/takedown time is all of 10 seconds, no minis, no mat, no table, no DM screen, no clutter.

I recommend using OSRIC to play with, rather than the original source books. While they are a great read, they are extremely cluttered. Though the DMG is quite possible the greatest RPG book ever made and a must have for any collection. Read that a few times and your entire perception on RPGs will change.

What would be the minimum number of rules needed to retain D&D feel in the game?

I don't know, but let's just say that you'd be losing a lot more rules in 3E and 4E than you'd be losing in the classics such as 1E.
 
Oh, and this is hands-down the best site I've ever found for generating maps for D&D games.
http://www.wizardawn.com/rpg/

Try the Ultimate Dungeon Creator and the Fantasy Settlement Map Creator. Wow! Dungeon maps come complete with all the creatures, treasure, traps and info about every room. Settlement maps come with every establishment, and citizen in the city with their names, what they own. Instant fun.
 
Ars Magica was a great game, you should go back to that :)
 
On the topic of magic users in old-school D&D, I found a couple great youtube videos detailing the differences from the modern game.

Once you start looking at him in a little more detail, you really start to understand why his spellbook would be anything but automatic go-to source to solve encounters.

Many spells in AD&D 1E had permanent negative effects for casting them, they had long casting times, and most required more than just a verbal component to casting - many needed physical objects not dissimilar to EQ1's magic system.

Anyway, here they are. Very informational:

#1: http://youtu.be/yA9wNnL2M60
#2: http://youtu.be/DTnYLVkTthA
 
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