Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Rules Should Be Invisible

Or, My Troubles With 3.5e

As I have previously noted, I stepped away from D&D around the time 2nd Edition AD&D came out, and played my own home-brewed game, Crimson Blades of Ara, for most of the 1990s.  But a year or two after I moved to Oregon to attend graduate school in 2002, I joined a local group of RPGers who played D&D 3.5e.  I was so happy to have found other RPGers in town, and I did not really know what to expect from D&D 3.5, so I had no reservations about joining them.  I somewhat naively thought at the time that “D&D is D&D, how different can the Wizards of the Coast version be from the AD&D I remember?”

It did not take me long to figure out that the 3.5e rules felt needlessly cumbersome to me.  Why so many rules?  To this moment I do not understand fully why skills or feats even exist in a class-based rules system, nor do I understand the (gaming) logic behind why the “core rules” are published across so many goddamn books in more recent iterations of D&D.  Sure, I knew everybody always had their own version of D&D, their own house rules that delineated which stuff would be followed and which stuff ignored.  But to me, it seemed the game ought to be playable with just the three core rulebooks, and when the other players in that 3.5 group started whipping out their copies of the Complete Adventurer and referring to rules found in supplements like The Book of Vile Darkness, I knew I had been left behind somehow.  What was with all these damn rulebooks?

Then I realized that this was WotC’s take on D&D, and WotC are proven experts at designing games that require a constant, ever-accumulating buy-in of newly released products in order to “keep up” with other players (e.g., Magic the Gathering).  Luckily, I was only a PC in this group, not the referee, and I knew I had never been a rules-heavy kind of player, so I figured I would simply need time to get used to 3.5.  And this group was great fun to play with on the purely role-playing level, so we had a lot of fun for a few years and I did not complain much about what seemed to me to be over-complex, over-produced rules mechanics.

But as much as I love being a player character—it gives me a chance to play psychotic, bloodthirsty fighters—I really ultimately prefer to referee.  So when we reached a point where the other two guys who had been alternating DM’ing were both too busy to prepare further adventures, I decided to “pony up” and volunteer to DM a 3.5 campaign.  By then we were using the Pathfinder Beta Playtest rules.

Now I want to admit up front that I was a somewhat under-prepared referee.  “Under-prepared” in fact describes my preferred refereeing style – I want a few key plot points and bare-bones encounters in place, then I want to get in there and improvise with and respond to my players.  Furthermore, in my other life I am an instructor of college composition, film, and literature courses, so I get plenty of “critical analysis” and “playing by the rules” time at work; I want my RPGs to be fast, loose, rules-light, and imaginative.  On a certain level I must have known that 3.5e and I would not make a good match; but I hadn’t discovered the old-school revolution yet so I was trying to make do with what I had.  One or two of these players, especially one key player I’ll call Horton, seemed particularly loyal to 3.5, had the rulebooks encyclopedically memorized, etc., so since I had no particular investment in the rules as such (a mistake in retrospect) I figured I’d meet them halfway, using their preferred rules system but bringing my own freewheeling, improvisational style to the proceedings.

The moment I realized that there was something wrong with this approach was one night at a 2008 gaming session when I was DM’ing—actually, trying to translate my Ara campaign setting into 3.5 terms (which I found difficult—again, too many rules, not enough prep time!).  I had a key villain who was spying on the characters from a spyhole in a dungeon they were exploring, and the point of the encounter (from my point of view) was only to let the characters know they were being watched; they weren’t really intended to engage the villainous voyeur in direct combat – yet.

But one of the characters rolled a Spot check and saw the spy, and this character could fly and assume gaseous form, so in seconds he was up and through that spyhole, chasing my villain down a secret corridor.  Everything was fine to this point.  I had an escape route planned for my spy, and he flew into a secret chamber that was actually a tunnel leading straight down vertically into the depths of the earth.  The player character had some kind of special vision or spell that allowed him to detect secret doors, though, and he followed my villain in there, and now they commenced a flying chase into the bowels of the earth.  I wanted my villain to simply dissipate and/or outrun the PC, but Horton questioned me about how that was possible, since they were both gaseous beings flying at the same rate of speed.  And I was so ignorant of the magic and movement rules that I felt I had no position from which to argue with him, short of pulling rank.  In truth, I see now that the very question caught me completely by surprise, as I did not expect a player to ever challenge me on rules-based grounds.  Yet it became soberingly clear that this player actually expected me and my NPCs to play by the rules!!  To me, this was unheard-of.

Mind you, I am not an over-controlling GM who must have his own way.  Just the opposite, I love for my players to surprise me and to triumph over my villains.  In the “gaseous form flying chase” situation, if the players had deduced some really clever way to outsmart or entrap my villain, I would have been pleasantly surprised, and would have happily allowed them to succeed.  But instead the whole episode devolved into a debate over the movement rules and movement rates per second, etc., which I find to be the epitome of boring drudgery.  The player character defeated my villain because of the player’s superior knowledge of the magic system and the rules, not because his character did anything particularly inventive or amusing.  Now obviously, as the DM, I myself was to blame for this pretty pass; I was not “on the ball” enough to see that this subterranean gaseous chase was where the episode was heading, so by the time we were in the thick of our argumentative movement-rates pickle, I decided to concede the point to the player since he was clearly going to be upset—his idea of game fairness would be violated—if I ruled against him.  Plus, if at that point I had let that villain escape, that player would wonder the whole rest of the campaign about what special power the spy had that allowed him to escape.  Again, I see now that perhaps I should have pulled rank and simply let the player stew and wonder.  Hindsight = 20/20.

It is also true that I am something of an emotional softie, and maybe I should have played hardball with Horton and told him he was screwed, that my villain escaped.  But the real point here is not the game-world outcome of this specific incident, but rather that it showed me quite clearly that Horton and I have fundamentally different ideas about how D&D (or RPGs in general) should work, what the game should focus on.  I didn’t know it fully yet then, but I really needed to be playing old-school D&D rules, where the referee has more power to adjudicate unusual occurrences and unforeseen situations – in my mind, the referee should only have to concede power to the roll of the dice, never (or rarely) to a rules technicality.  I want the rules to be more or less invisible so the players’ and referee’s imaginations determine what happens or what can happen.  I do NOT want the rules to be the main focus of the game!

I do not blame Horton for the sour taste the “gaseous form chase” incident left me with; he was merely playing the game as he understood it.  If I could have beaten him using the rules, he would have accepted that.  But not only did I not know the 3.5 D&D rules well enough to outmaneuver Horton’s remarkable flying gaseous character, the truth is I did not want to know them, I just wanted to say: “my villain escapes” and have done with it.  I needed a rules system I could master enough to level the playing field between myself and my player, whose vast rules knowledge ultimately overwhelmed me in that situation.  I needed a rules system that placed imagination, quick thinking, and ingenuity over rules-knowledge.

What have I learned?  I learned that I want spontaneity and story rather than rules.  I have learned that in D&D, skills suck, and therefore it just doesn’t make sense for me to play any version of D&D more recent than good ol’ AD&D, the same game I left behind back in the late ‘80s.  So I have jumped ship for Labyrinth Lord!  I may even ask Horton to play in my new campaign.


  1. Wow. That almost exactly mirrors my own experience. Leaving around 2nd ed, coming back for 3.5 (cause of ToEE computer game), I skipped being player and went straight to DM. I also had a chase scene but with a minor character I said "escaped". Players said I'd done this and this how could he escape? Ok, you catch him. Then the players wanted to battle it out and I said no you defeat him, done with, over. I didn't want to spend an hour resolving combat with a unimportant character, at unimportant moment, and with a inevitable outcome of player victory.

    The players were aggravated. For them combat, using all the rules and abilities they spent hours building was the point and fun part of the game.

    And I've also gravitated towards the OSR in response to my 3.5 disillusionment.

  2. I somewhat naively thought at the time that “D&D is D&D, how different can the Wizards of the Coast version be from the AD&D I remember?” Count me in this club, too. I stopped playing D&D right after MM2 came out. So when my preteen daughter wanted to play, we started with D&D 3.5. Mind you, I started gaming with Avalon Hill games like Panzer Leader and Tobruk, so it wasn't like I couldn't figure out complex rules. My daughter didn't enjoy the experience.

    We ended up with Castles & Crusades, mainly because I didn't really know of other options at the time except to track down and repurchase my old AD&D books. C&C is working out well and I still purchased all the old AD&D 1e books.

  3. Yes, MM2 was a key turning point for me too, a book I refused to buy on principle and/or out of TSR apathy.

    I have realized lately that bringing together the right group of players, all of whom share a vaguely similar playing agenda, is essential. I am being very careful about who to bring into my upcoming campaign, because as GM, I have a responsibility to avoid accidentally bringing a rules-maxer into what is sure to be a rules-LITE kind of affair.

  4. I've had several similar experiences using D&D 3.5, and I've also blogged on these topics. However, I've come to the conclusion, that issues like these have less to do with the actual rules system than player expectations on how the rules should be implemented. In other words, the social contract between you and other members of your player group should dictate just what kind of situations should be covered by the rules and what by the GM's fiat.

  5. I would have had the villain hit the PC with a dispel magic JUST as the characters gaseous self was halfway through the peephole...

    problem solved !!