Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Games and toys

What is the difference between a game and a toy? The dictionary definition will tell you something about a game being "structured playing", but basically it comes down to there being rules and win conditions. You can "beat" a game, there is a challenge to overcome; but to achieve that you have to live with the downside that there are rules that limit what you can do. Roleplaying games are very much an attempt to achieve the best of both worlds, having both game elements and unlimited freedom. But that can never work 100%: If you have unlimited freedom, you end up with a toy, not a game, and you lose the advantages of games, there being a challenge and a win.

When you read discussions about pen & paper roleplaying, this fundamental conflict pops up everywhere. The D&D edition wars are very much about the fact that 4th edition is more solidly on the game side than previous or next editions. People fight about the use of battle maps with grids on them, and miniatures, because some find those "too game-y". And there are endless discussions on the subject in how far a DM should fudge dice rolls to achieve a desirable outcome instead of a random one.

My personal observation on this is that games work better for a group of people than toys do. In a game, or a game-y roleplaying session, the rules are agreed upon in advance, and the players can rely on them. When you move towards "there are no rules, DM decides all" systems, the balance of power shifts towards the DM. And like all tyrannies that is more likely than not to end badly. Players lose motivation, attendance drops, campaigns crumble to dust.

On the one side the DM is always the ultimate power, the least replaceable person at the table, the one doing most of the work, and the referee. On the other side the role-playing game is only a part of the social relationship between the group of players, and if viewed as a group of friends there is a clear social need for a more egalitarian structure. Having the DM visibly bound by the same rules and the same randomness of dice rolls as the players are create a feeling for fairness, which is necessary for this social construct to work. If whether the enemy is in range of your attack is clearly visible on the table, there is no argument; but if the DM has to decide that question the suspicion can sneak up that the DM treats one or the other player unfairly, and that creates a tension which is bad.

The same egalitarian considerations of fairness make me prefer rules systems which are more balanced over rule systems in which certain classes are clearly better than others. This is why I play 4th edition, the only edition of Dungeons & Dragons where there is a reasonable balance of power between high-level wizards and high-level fighters.

In the heated discussions on the subject of how much power a DM should have, or how much balance a rules system needs, I observe that those shouting most loudly for imbalanced systems are those who then want the position with the most power. It isn't the players who demand that the DM is bound less by rules, nor is it the fighters who demand more power for the wizards. I find that somewhat short-sighted. In the long run the best system is the one which maximizes fun for everybody. If you disadvantage part of the people at the table, the table might well end up empty in the long run. Fairness and balance is more important to the long-term health of a pen & paper campaign than the power trip of some individuals.

There may be some DMs that fit that description (want to be all powerful). But actually DMs like me play and run RPGs for the shared storytelling and imaginative creativity above all else.

I'm not in the slightest bit ambitious nor power-hungry inside or outside of gaming. I'm one of the softest DMs you could probably find. But I prefer 3rd edition as it's generally consistent without feeling limiting as 4th does to me. Balanced rules and all-encompassing rules can feel like a limit to creativity whether they are or not, since the answer to grey areas isn't in the imagination of the DM and players but always "in the rules".
the answer to grey areas isn't in the imagination of the DM and players but always "in the rules".

Do you and your players all have exactly the same degree of imagination? Or do on your table the participants with the most imagination end up having more options, and a larger part of the spotlight than those with less imagination?

In my experience that which feels like a limit to creativity to those used to hogging the spotlight feels like liberation to those who otherwise tend to be pushed into the background. I get a far higher implication of my less creative players with a more rules-based system.
Do you and your players all have exactly the same degree of imagination?

In the group I've played with most of the time yes, it's very well balanced (imagination wise, we've all taken turns running games as well) and there's no hint of 'power hogging'. The other main group I played with for a few years was also lacking any such players.

It's down to individual groups and their personalities of course. But in my limited experience of RPG groups in the UK I've not seen this.

The balance of 4th edition feels limiting to us but also too uniform, too balanced to the point of being bland. I've said the same about WoW, the homogenisation of the classes to a greater extent has robbed them of a lot of their individuality.

All of my thoughts here aren't any real counter-argument to what you were saying, it's just my own very different experience and perspective on this.
While its true that fighters and wizards are "imbalanced" in 3x D&D, I have come to see this as a feature, not a bug.

People chose to play fighters in part because they were "easier" to play in that they had less choice of action during combat. People who wanted to worry about more things tended to play casters.

When we switched to 4e I realized that this disparity was an advantage to the game. In 4e my "slow deciders" were suddenly faced with many choices when all they really wanted to do was swing their swords. This brought things to a screeching halt and made them uncomfortable while they fiddled with their power cards. (meanwhile the casters all felt gimped).

We have been much happier now that we have switched "back" to Pathfinder. The players are more comfortable with their classes even if they are "imbalanced." In fact, as long as the player feels "useful" it really doesn't seem to matter that someone else is "better."

I find it amusing that people will fight about using miniatures being "too game-y" .. They forget that D&D was adapted from a Miniatures Wargame and every single edition of the game has included a combat system based off of using miniatures.
Heh I like that the DM visibly rolls dice. My brother as GM would always roll the D20 while talking and would pause to see the result whether it mattered or not (we don't know), but it sure seemed like he was testing against our ability scores a lot of the time. :P

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