Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Equally Valuable But Certainly Different

I was reading my friend Carl's blog this weekend, intrigued by the post where he claims that

I run a Mutant Future (heavily houseruled) game, and I run a D&D 4e (heavily houseruled) game, and I play in a Labyrinth Lord (+AEC, heavily houseruled game)... and guess what. IN PLAY, the experience is exactly the same in all three. And of course, the experience is totally different.

While I am completely in agreement with Carl's general point, that "the differences of edition are trivial compared to the commonalities experienced at the table," I still do feel that different rules systems do produce slightly different gaming experiences. Perhaps not radically different ones, but different ones nonetheless. For me, there is a palpable difference between a game that has "healing surges" and one that doesn't, one that has "tieflings" and one that doesn't. This may, as Carl suggests, be a matter of houseruling, or simply my own curmudgeonly partisanship shining through, though I would say (as I have said before) that the actual rules mechanics you play with DO have a noticeable impact on what kind of game play occurs at the table.

I have debated this point with Carl before -- see comments here -- and he and I have a healthy "agree to slightly disagree" pact on this. Looking back over those comments from late November, I really like the way our back-and-forth brings out some very interesting points about the role of the rules system vs. the role of DM style and houseruling. I want to contribute a few more good-natured thoughts to the ongoing discussion of this topic, in order to

(a) voice my total support of Carl's community-building premises, i.e., that "the differences of edition are trivial compared to the commonalities experienced at the table" and that "the final product of houseruling plus the old school game system of choice is far closer to the current iterations (Pathfinder, 4e) of D&D than most of the OSR would care to admit"


(b) reiterate my view about the role of rules systems (and to explain why I suspect that edition differences DO matter at least sometimes) via a driving metaphor.

To start off, a recent post by Al Krombach has forced me to re-evaluate how different 4e might actually be from older editions, or at least to reconsider when those differences vis-a-vis original edition D&D began to take shape. In short, did min-maxing begin with 1e AD&D?

Al writes that 1e AD&D

moved the bonuses for [attribute] scores to the higher end of the score range. A 13, which got you a +1 to-hit and damage in B/X, got you squat in AD&D; you needed a 17, a much rarer ability score (see the no-doubt peyote-fueled bell-curve and mathematical discourse on DMG pg10) to get that +1 to-hit and damage. This new element of D&D would help add yet another new element: min-maxing! You usually needed higher scores to even play one of the nifty new classes AD&D offered like the Assassin, Monk, or Ranger. And, no one wanted a sucky fighter with no bonuses to hit, or a thief with no bonus to AC, or so on. So, a way had be invented to provide players with a means of getting higher ability scores. Interestingly, the "need" to min-max must have been apparent very early on, as Gygax takes time to introduce ways of getting those higher ability scores (DMG pg11), stating "it is important to allow participants to generate a viable character of the race and profession which he or she desires". Note the word "viable", which means "doesn't suck".

Al notes what a major departure this was from earlier editions of D&D:

Before AD&D the dice fell as they would: maybe you got a 7 strength and a 16 wisdom, and no matter how much you might've felt like running a super-strong Gilgamesh-type hero, you were stuck with either a weak fighter or a decent cleric. Now [with AD&D] you could roll strength six times and unless you were pretty unlucky, you were going to get something you wanted.

Wow! So maybe Carl is right, that 4e is not such a radical shift from earlier editions when we note this transition away from the "old-school" sensibility already underway in the 1e DMG.

But why, then, do I find D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder combat and feat resolution so time-consumingly dull?  Is it possible to have empathy for a system (which I do, greatly, for Pathfinder, since I actually had some great times playing it and I like Paizo and their fan-centric vibe) yet to not want to play it?  Do edition differences matter?  (Again, I ask this question analytically, not evaluatively.)

A recent post by A Paladin in Citadel mentioned that Paladin had played in a 4e game only to discover that

I find 4E to be too mechanical and combat-centric for my tastes.

Carl commented that

My experience with 4e and every other edition is that the group and DM determine exactly how much combat is the focus of the game. If the DM wants to feed encounter after encounter to a group willing to hack and slash, then sure, any edition is combat centric. If the group wants to talk, or find alternate solutions to problems, adopts a "fight as a last resort and usually in self defense" policy, gets involved in political intrigue between factions, etc... then any edition is not focused on combat.

This line of reasoning, while correct in terms of the overall game play experience, is not directly relevant to how combat itself (or other actions governed specifically by the rules, like chargen) feels or plays within the different systems. My guess is that Paladin feels that 4e is too "combat-centric" NOT because it forces 4e games to be all about melee combat, but because ONCE YOU DO ENTER COMBAT it is quite sophisticated and detailed, and therefore takes longer to resolve. Sure, Carl is right, players and DMs can choose to play combat-heavy or combat-lite D&D regardless of edition; but I argue that what happens once the party actually enters a tactical situation definitely feels different -- and takes different amounts of time to adjudicate -- depending upon the rules system one uses.

It's like this:

I grew up in Seattle, and learned to drive there. When I was growing up, my parents only had stick-shift cars, so manual transmission is I what I learned on. Downtown Seattle is steeply hilled, and there are certain stoplights on those hilly streets that one comes to dread when one is a novice stick-shift driver, because once you are stopped at such a light on the downhill side waiting for it to turn green, you realize that as soon as it changes, you have to remove your foot from the brake for an awful split-second as you move your foot over to jam on the accelerator as you pop the car into gear. Even highly experienced drivers quite used to manual clutches get to test their mettle in such a scenario -- there is ALWAYS a slight roll backwards in that split-second before the clutch engages and the car surges forward, up the hill.

James St., downtown Seattle.

This moment of releasing the brake and rolling backward (potentially into the car right behind you) is something that drivers of automatic transmission cars simply never have to deal with. They just push the gas and go, no terrifying split-second roll backwards for them at all. Unless those drivers have driven or ridden in a manual-transmission car on a similar hill, they will not even know of this phenomenon that so haunts the manual-clutch driver on certain stoplights on steep hills in Seattle.

Now take the same experienced driver in two different cars, one automatic, one stick-shift. That driver can do everything in his or her power to make the automatic transmission car drive just like the stick-shift one, and vice-versa, and under certain circumstances, like the open highway, he or she might succeed. But if that driver ever comes to a stoplight on a steep hill in Seattle, no amount of driver style or finesse is going to change the fact that an automatic transmission car will simply hold its position on the slope, and the stick-shift will not, once the brake is released for that harrowing split-second. In other words, in certain conditions, each type of car is going to reveal its nature, even in the hands of the same, incredibly experienced driver.

Similarly, 4e combat is 4e combat. It does not rule out or discourage great roleplaying nor does it dictate a combat-o-centric playing style. But it governs combat and tactical situations in a specific way that does feel and function differently from other editions of D&D.

Is this sufficient grounds for those of us who prefer older editions to be 4e (or even Pathfinder) "haters"? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Does it point to the fact that even though individual DMs and players do indeed heavily influence what happens in their games, nevertheless the game experience cannot be "exactly the same" from edition to edition? Absolutely.

This is NOT an incitement to Edition War, nor a rebuttal of what I take to be Carl's main point, that "we should all be friends and appreciate our commonalities." Agreed! But this is a plea that we remember that "all being friends" means tolerating each others' differences, including edition preference, NOT insisting that those differences do not exist or that they can be erased given the presence of the right DM.

This has also been a bit of a rant; so, following the Joesky Protocol, here is my offering:

Ring of Alignment Change
This ring functions as a +1 Ring of Protection but also has another, more subtle (cursed) function.  Once someone dons the ring, it cannot be  removed for 1d6 weeks; over the course of those weeks, the being's alignment will gradually shift from its current state to one other randomly-determined alignment.  Optionally the DM may choose the alignment to which the ring-wearer shifts.  In any case, this shift is irreversible by any means, and the being must now act and behave in accordance with the dictates of the new alignment.  The ring continues to function as a +1 Ring of Protection at all times, but can alignment-shift each being only once.


  1. Oops, my comment exceeded the character limit and became a new blog post over at my blog!

  2. http://backscreenpass.blogspot.com/2011/02/edition-differences.html

    - forgot to provide the link!

  3. One specific point I didn't cover in my response:
    you mentioned "My guess is that Paladin feels that 4e is too "combat-centric" NOT because it forces 4e games to be all about melee combat, but because ONCE YOU DO ENTER COMBAT it is quite sophisticated and detailed, and therefore takes longer to resolve."

    I would agree with most of this, except for the inference you draw that BECAUSE 4e combat is sophisticated, THEREFOR it takes longer to resolve.

    This leap of logic is not supported by the facts, in my opinion. Just because a system is complicated, does not mean it takes longer... IF EVERYONE INVOLVED KNOWS THE SYSTEM!

    Again, the whole point I was trying to make is that the differences between editions are differences in the amount of work the player is assumed to have to put in BEFORE the first session, in the form of char gen and rules mastery. Once that work is put in, the actual play experience is nearly indistinguishable. 4e combats can be quicker than LL - they can take longer as well. 4e actually provides many mechanics specifically to enable quick fights if that is what is desired; players get "daily" powers that end fights quickly, much like the use of a d30 roll in your game ends fights quickly - it is up to the players to decided when to use them, and if they use them each fight and then rest between (actually very close to how we tend to use the d30 in your sessions, saving them for big fights or the end of sessions, so that we can use them again next session on the next big fight we seek out). 4e also provides the DM with "minions", monsters that die with a single hit. 4e provides all kinds of tools that a DM can use to custom create EXACTLY the kind of combat experience the DM and group desires. Labyrinth Lord does not do this. If the Labyrinth Lord group WANTED complicated, tactical combat, you would have to houserule the shit out of Labyrinth Lord - but if the 4e group WANTED simple, quick combat, 4e supports that as written with no houseruling.

  4. "the differences between editions are differences in the amount of work the player is assumed to have to put in BEFORE the first session, in the form of char gen and rules mastery"

    Well said, I ought to have acknowledged that point of yours in my post.

  5. @Carl: From what I've seen, it doesn't matter how well the players know the 4e system, even if players have everything memorized and have played the game for years, a given combat will take much longer to play through under 4e rules than in will in my 0e or BECMI games. Most combats in my games take 10 minutes of real time or less. Similar combats in the 4e games I've seen -- played by people who like and know the rules -- take 30 to 60 minutes (or more). That's far more time than I'm willing to devote to any one combat, save perhaps for epic campaign climax battles once every 30 or 40 game sessions.

    Sure, for players who enjoy combat the 4e combats may be more fun, but for those who don't really enjoy combat they are as boring as watching water drip. I enjoy combats in TSR editions because they are fast, abstract, and don't need minis, battlemats, and skill with rules (skill at real world tactics, yes, with the details of the rules, no). This is one of the biggest differences between TSR D&D editions and WOTC D&D editions, at least to me -- and one of the reasons that the games aren't anywhere near the same to me.

  6. @ Randall - and you would not be alone at all in thinking that 4e combat was slow. That is basically a topic debated endlessly back and forth on rpg forums, and a ton of people report a similar experience - combat just takes a long time for them in 4e.

    I personally feel like that is still more a matter of playstyle, or more accurately, it is a fundamental matter of DM encounter design. 4e provides a way for the DM to gauge the relative toughness of a monster vis a vis the party - many DM's take that to mean that they should ALWAYS be providing encounters that are more or less balanced to the party.

    This makes combat take forever! B/X combat would take forever too if each time the DM threw something at the party it was designed to be as tough as the party. A group of orcs of equal number to the party, with equal hp, wearing the same armor, with the same number of spell casters, among their rank, with missile weapons, magical items, etc. Then what would follow would be a long and singularly boring sequence of rolling d20's.

    The point is that combat in 4e can be lightning quick if the attitude of the group and DM is the same as the attitude of an old school group and DM - key to this is knowledge that there are TONS of creatures around that can swiftly kill the party. A group with an "old school attitude" makes quick work of combat because they avoid an even fight at all costs! Fighting is not the goal, so controlling the terms of battle to the point that when combat actually begins the party is able to either quickly win or quickly realize that their plan isn't working and they need to RUN!!!

    I am just inherently skeptical that you can separate the enormous influence of DM and group interaction from the impact of the rules in a meaningful enough sense to talk about differences in combat time, for example, across editions.

    I am far more likely to believe that people who don't like 4e don't like it because the default assumptions of the game are that you have to enjoy a complicated char gen and have to want to and be able to assimilate a complicated rule set before play will run smoothly, than for the often stated reasons: "I don't like 4e because combat takes to long." "I don't like 4e because it is less lethal." "I don't like 4e because it has too many rules slowing down play, rules light systems run faster."

    With players that enjoy 4e and a DM that has an old school mindset, the game can flow fast and free, combat lite, with combats lasting less than 10 minutes on average, and with virtually no referring to the rules. I know this because I have personally observed it.

  7. Carter, I agree with you 100%. Systems matter. You will get a different experience with a manual transmission than you will with an automatic. A different experience with a motorcycle than a motorhome. Same for bicycles vs. rollerblades.

    They will all get me from point A to point B. But the experience will be different.

    Same goes for role-playing games. If I want free-wheeling game, why would I use a highly regulated game engine? If I want system complexity, why would I use rules-light game engine?

    To say that systems don't matter makes no sense to me.

  8. It may be far too late to get a pertinent comment in. If so I'll just email it. But if the way the game plays out edition by edition depends on the DM's skill, then do any of the editions make it easier or more difficult for the DM to do their job?

    I know no systems after 1e, and I have no dog in this fight, I'm just wondering.

  9. @Spawn: I think the answer to your question depends upon what the DM sees as his or her job, and what the gaming group wants. Rules-lite DMs like me don't want a bunch of rules getting in the way of the DM-Player dynamic, whereas certain DMs and players love (or at least easily and readily assimilate) more complex rules mechanics, since that is more fun for them. Part of the reason I got out of that 4e group -- besides my gut feeling that newer editions of D&D (including 3.5) just aren't for me -- is because the two most dominant players in the group, who I enjoy and respect very much as people and role-players, are "power gamers" who LOVE crunch. I am willing to tolerate crunch to make the game better, but take no inherent pleasure in such "gamist" concerns -- I am a "method actor." So there was kind of chemistry mismatch there, edition considerations aside. Though I would submit that those two players, who love crunch, were thereby predisposed to prefer newer editions of the game, which are "crunchier" than older ones, whereas I, who had played 3.5 for two years by then, had had enough.

    @Paladin: Yes, you've grasped my main point precisely: I am not making a value judgment here, nor am I denying that Carl is correct to assert that DM and player chemistry can make a big difference in how a given system plays or feels at the table, but "To say that systems don't matter makes no sense to me" either.

  10. @Spawn - 3e is far more difficult to DM than 4e, and 3e is almost infinitely more difficult to DM than any other edition. 3e is the peak of mechanical complexity and player choice in D&D - and for some reason, the designers also made the decision to have everything on the DMs side of the screen work using the exact same mechanics as the players used - in other words, every monster had to have skill points spent, and had stats, etc. I quit DMing 3e when we got up to about 10th level because it was getting to the point where it would take me several hours just to stat up a couple of NPCs for the group to tangle with.

    RE Cars and Drivers - I don't like the car as system analogy because if I get in a VW Beetle its max speed is going to be the same as if you get in it. You might be a better driver, able to get around tight corners quicker, you might have quicker reaction times, etc., but the biggest limiting factor of what you can do in the VW Beetle is the VW Beetle.

    I would buy the car as system analogy if I could get in VW Beetle and make it fly; if I could literally hover straight up in the air at the steeply inclined stop sign in Seattle, and then just teleport straight to my destination.

    Because in my experience, the players and DM have that kind of impact when compared to the system - while I am flying around in the VW, my legs are cramped and the heat doesn't work, but I am still looking down from above and laughing at the poor fools stuck at the stopsign because they don't know how to work the stickshift.

    And I can hear them talking clearly from above, "Man, driving with a stickshift sucks! It is difficult to start on hills!".

    And I and all the passengers in my car chuckle to each other, move the stickshift over to second gear and warp off to the moon.

  11. Man, sorry for posting literally thousands of words on your blog the last few days! I have been having lots of thoughts spin off this discussion, so I hope it is of some use to you as well.

    One more stab at why I feel group and DM matters so much more than system that it is very difficult to make direct system - gameplay correlations:

    The entire scientific method is about controlling variables. If you want to test one things impact, you try to isolate it so you can change JUST THAT THING and then observe the effect.

    This is impossible when talking about game play. Any one thing that you hold out as a direct result of a game mechanic, I would be highly surprised if I could not point to many other possible causes, and it is impossible to control these other variables because they are human variables.

    People constantly talk about such things as the lethality of an edition, how fast the combat goes, how rules lite a system is related to time spent at the table referring to rules; and for each of these things, I have always observed that the assumptions that the group and DM bring to the table, which may or may not have been explicitly stated at the beginning of the game, control these things.

    Does the DM present an obvious linear adventure and expect the players to play along and go where they are supposed to?

    Or does the DM present a bunch of possibly interesting stuff going in a sandbox and let the party do what they will?

    If the party runs into a creature much more powerful than they and attempt to fight it, what does the DM do? Slaughter the party? Let them run away?

    What happens if someone dies, does the party get them Raised? 2 out of the 3 character deaths in the LL game have resulted in the character returning to play, and had I not stopped playing for a while the session after Barberella was killed, that might be 3 out of 3. Does that mean that Labyrinth Lord is not lethal?

    Does the party treat combat as something to be avoided and minimized, to engage in only on the party's own terms, and not just for its own sake, but to gain some other reward?

    At the table, I am not convinced I have ever observed ANYTHING that I could say was a direct result of the mechanical choices of the system used, and I could point to countless examples of play at the table stemming directly from the particular way the players and DM interact and the assumptions they bring about how the game should be played.

    Once I wrapped my head around that, I began to question how useful it was to talk about mechanics as they impact play AT THE TABLE, and started creating this framework to discuss mechanics as they piss people off and PREVENT THEM FROM EVER GETTING TO THE TABLE.