I know we’re all supposed to be mature enough to set the edition wars aside. Role playing is such a small segment of the gaming scene anymore, it’s pretty ridiculous to even start down the path of sussing out some sort of one true system to rule them all. The last thing we need at this point is an internecine struggle in the old school camp. Shouldn’t us crusty old dungeon masters be able to stand back from all this and just say “whatever works for you and your group” is cool and then keep on rolling?
Well I can’t, for one. And why should I? Like this guy, for instance. You’re going to open up your answers to some troll questions with the insinuation that anyone that takes a fairly strict approach to the game is some kind of fundamentalist…? Wait, what?! Oh, what you really mean is that how we answer these questions is our chance to show each other how fundamentalist we are. Keep digging there, fella. I mean… you say “fundamentalist,” I think some sweaty overweight dude in a cheap suit haranguing the mobs. How kind you are in regards to folks that play a bit different from you!
But if you’re going to invoke some religious terms in mixed company, let me take this line of thought to its logical conclusion and get Old Testament on it. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Dig it, bro. The application of this verse in game design is that there are plenty of simple, obvious rules changes that people love to make in their games… and that they might never think to do it any other way… that they maybe even don’t know are actually against the “real” rules… that if any stuck up fuddy duddy ever told them to do different, they’d just sneer and scoff at the idea of anyone being such a party pooper. And all that time… they could be playing games in ways that completely break the intentions of the designer or that otherwise undercut the point of the play experience.
The classic of example of that sort of thing is in Monopoly where people put all the Chance, Community Chest, and Income Tax money in a pot to give to the next person to land on Free Parking. The thing about that seemingly innocuous rules change is that it keeps just enough money in the game so that the weakest player never really goes bankrupt. But hey, whatever floats your boat, right? But here’s the kicker: these same people will complain that Monopoly takes forever to play… when they’ve insisted on a house rule that means practically no one can ever go bankrupt. When winning (and thus ending the game) requires someone to bankrupt the other players.
I guess that’s the thing that really sticks in my craw with this. It’s not that they’re playing it wrong. It’s that the house rules that they take as being unassailable and self evident cause them to have such a horrible a play experience that they end up slandering an otherwise well engineered game design.
Which brings me to all the usual “fixes” people take to their D&D’s. Why is it that people feel so compelled to pull the teeth out of the consequences in the game? Why can’t energy drain actually cost someone a level’s worth of experience? Why can’t people just die when their hit points reach zero? Why can’t you bring yourself to let someone roll “save or die” when they drink the poison? Why do you have to give the clerics a cure light wounds right away at the first level? (Can’t you live without it for a few sessions?) Why do you feel compelled to let people reroll their “hopeless characters“? Why are you spending so much time tinkering with alternate ability roll sequences that make it almost impossible to create a below average character in the first place? Why can’t you just let the default character generation system be the baseline for the sort of resources players are going to start with? Why can’t you let a dangerous world be dangerous?
And I realize that even Gygax himself fell prey to most of these, but you’ve seen what happens to Monopoly when people take the bankruptcy out of it. Do you really want to spend all of your session time exploring a D&D without average, below average, death, and failure? Ah, but no…. You’re not that wimpy. You’re old school. You just want to make a few changes, that’s all. Eh, okay; whatever. I’m sure you have the perfect house rules, the ultimate distillation of decades of old school play. And I’m sure your players have more fun than mine. But I seriously doubt that all these rules changes that you consider to be essential came out a serious attempt to play by the rules as written. (Of course… until Moldvay, there really wasn’t a comprehensible set of rules-as-written to go by! But never mind that for now….)
The point is… maybe you’re missing something. Your buffing of those first level characters is just moving an arbitrary starting point that everyone in the session will ultimately just recalibrate around. Yet at the same time you’re also sending a message that the players should be able to look outside the bounds of their own ingenuity in order to succeed in the game. And that stuff you’re doing to nerf level drains and poison– sheesh, it’s like you’re toddler proofing your game world or something. And when the players screw it all up, what’s it going to be? The fact that you’ve already gone this far down these paths means that their failure is your responsibility. You didn’t give them enough perks and you didn’t give them enough second chances. Creep.
However you play, and whatever you run… you are at some point going to have to exert your authority as a dungeon master. Unless you’re playing the “everybody wins, nobody dies” game I see at most cons, you’re going to have to be the bad guy sooner or later. In that moment… you’re going to have to look impartial. Sticking to the rules at the arbitrary points will help you seem far more impartial when you do have to make the tough calls. Just sayin’.
The greatest tragedy of these troll question style fiddlings is that they aren’t actually the focus of the game: the rules are not the game. But your constant tweaking gives the impression that they have something to do with what goes on at the table. Instead of chasing some impossible Zeno-style paradox, why not adjust the game with all those other, much more fundamental dials? Why not… let the players adjust their play based on the known risk and reward ratios of the actual rules? Why not adjust your scenario designs, your pacing, and your delivery around those same rules? Ah, but don’t mind me. I’m just the unhinged fundamentalist that plays Monopoly in the R.A.W. And hey… it’s all arbitrary, yeah? And maybe it is. But if it really was arbitrary and if it really doesn’t matter which way you do it… then why are you futzing around with the rules in the first place…?