Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Troll Questions are Trollish

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…?

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18 responses to “Troll Questions are Trollish

  1. The Delver October 17, 2013 at 6:05 am

    Being “this guy”, I baffle at how the use of a single word can set something like this off… does “fundamentalist” (a word I, in addition, use more in jest than anything else – I’m very much not that way with respect to gaming) really entail all this to you? Have you bothered to ready anything else on my blog, or am I just too sweaty and loud-mouthed for you to stomach?

    The reason I answered these questions is because I read a lot of the other answers and found them enlightening, and they gave me lots of ideas. They’re not a checklist, but a way to start a discussion on how and why you’ve changed the game. Which we all have, I think, it’s part of the charm of the OSR that you make the game your own.

    • jeffro October 17, 2013 at 8:28 am

      Yes. I did write a rant in response to somebody’s answers to some troll questions. If it wasn’t strangely controversial, they wouldn’t be troll questions. Still, I do want to speak up for the (minority?) position of just playing these old games like they are without the usual changes people make to “make it their own.”

      • The Delver October 17, 2013 at 8:39 am

        I don’t mind playing RAW, at all – that’s what bothers me. It feels like you just googled “fundamentalism” and “D&D” and then picked my blog to link to… I personally play LotFP, a retro clone, not D&D as is, but not even that as written, but I have no objections whatsoever to playing either way. The reason I started playing a retro-clone is because I like a lot of the core things about the old games, such as gold as XP, high lethality and a true challenge to the players.

        You should definitely speak up for your position (the post above has some good points), but at least ask me about mine before referring to me in this way. If I’d written a post specifically about the original game being crap and house rules being a must, then I’d not object at all, but my answers to ten “Troll Questions” says very little about my position, and I’ve never called you or anyone else a fundamentalist either, which you seem to claim here.

      • Alex October 17, 2013 at 9:44 am

        Those Troll Questions were mostly just a thought exercise and sort of ‘opinion’ poll organized just for funzies by Random Wizard to both explore and illustrate the different takes on the game and, to an extent, how house rules have shaped the game. Certain people out there have had the answers to their troll questions incorporated into the official rules. People like Eric Holmes. And I KNOW Frank Mentzer was trolling like a mo-fo when he introduced attack classes for demi-humans.

        It’s kind of like you hate the puzzle that Pat Sajak has put up on the board for Vanna, but you’re yelling at the player for buying a vowel.

  2. MishaBurnett October 17, 2013 at 6:24 am

    I remember when I first started playing D&D, about thirty five years ago. There were two main DMs in the high school group, and one was “Orthodox”, one was “Reformed” as it were. They alternated, and so we all had characters in both games.

    The orthodox game was very low power (ridiculously so by today’s standards). I had a fourth level dwarven fighter with a +1 warhammer and (non-magical) mithrel chainmail, and he was THE major badass warrior of not just the group, but the surrounding area.

    The other group was high powered and free-wheeling. When the Eldritch Wizardry supplement came out, for example, we all rolled for psychic abilities, and most of us got them. That DM allowed monsters as player characters, scattered magic items like candy from a pinata, and made sure that nobody ever died. The power levels went through the roof, and balrogs were the kind of cannon fodder that kobalds were in the other game.

    The thing is–the orthodox game was a lot more exciting. When we sat down to play, we concentrated on the game and the objective. We clustered around the maps and planned our raids carefully, strategically dividing the party like a SWAT team.

    The other games were more of an excuse to socialize. They would frequently get derailed with silliness, and laughed a lot.

    Both games were fun, but they were fun in different ways. When I think back on the gaming experience, I have to say that I miss the feeling of genuine risk. Having spent a year building a character and knowing that spells to raise the dead were way out of reach of any mortal in the area meant that I had something on the table that represented a real risk.

  3. Chris Mata October 17, 2013 at 6:30 am

    @the Delver. Love the profile Pic. GO FOR THE EYES BOO!!!!!!

    My god did I waste days on end playing Baldur’s Gate.

  4. Chris Mata October 17, 2013 at 8:19 am

    of course I am always back and forth on RAW for any RPG. I have GM’ed so long my elitism always keeps me thinking I know best for myself and my players. (especially my players)

    We played it hard and fast by the rules for so long when we were little, I don’t know now if its the fact that I think I know better or I just wanted to do something different.

    This post actually has really got me thinking. From my humble beginnings in ’83 with the red box till about ’00, I don’t think I used a house rule ever. I am gonna have to email a couple of my players but I think I was a RAW guy for 20 years. I was burnt out on DnD by then of any flavor. When 3rd came out, we ran a little 3 man party using 2nd ed and a player brought the 3E book to the game one night. After flipping through it I was inspired to turn the campaign on its head. For some reason I decided to just start altering character progression and abilities granted in a willy nilly fashion. You just made 3rd level as a thief? You now have +1 to hit with a dagger when wearing leather or lighter.
    I was doing this with every class and when the players asked what happens at 8th? I just added an ability on the spot. With only 3 players and there reluctance to hire NPC’s, it didn’t swing the power balance very much at all. This stream of consciousness kind of DM’ing, really just using the first thing that came to mind when asked what do I get at this level type questions were asked, improved the hell out of the game and my interest in DM’ing. By the 3rd session none of the players even looked at the books anymore, they were really engaged. I think because the *rules* we were using were no longer mostly in the books. It was about 90% adjudication on the DM’s part.

    I can appreciate the why not play the game as written statement, because I use it all the time in boardgames and wargames. I mean come on, either play it as they wrote it or play a different game. I say it constantly. The creator of the game obviously knew what he was doing.

    Now.

    Put this to em when I am DM’ing, I will run your ass out of the room quick, fast, and in a hurry.

    I know better than the creators when it comes to RPG’s. DUH!!!! Mister 30 yr old veteran gamer, you must be stupid.

    I still think for me personally, at my age and level of involvement with gaming which usually involves me arguing on gaming blogs more than actually gaming, we just do whatever we like in RPG’s.

    I just do what I like. Period. If that brings 2 to the table or 20 so be it. It does matter to me if the group has fun. I won’t break my back to make sure they do, but I do put forth every effort to lay out a table that fun can be had.

    For my Virtuacon game saturday I totally broke the hell out of the rules.

    I mixed B/X, LL, and LLAE.

    Thieves are d6
    Max HP’s at first level.
    4d6 drop lowest arrange as desired.
    Started off everyone with magic items. (mainly misc ones)

    I wanted to encourage fast play and hopefully get into the meat of the module I am running as deeply as possible in the 4hr time constraint. I could care less if they live or die. Getting deep into the story was more my goal than player survival.

    /end rant. (I have no idea what I am trying to say anyway :) )

    If we ever get to play together Jeff. I will jump at the chance and commit wholeheartedly to a B/X RAW game. So keep on blogging my friend!! Otherwise I will have to rant alone in the closest as usual.

  5. Jason Packer October 17, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Would it be fair to summarize your stance as being that there are rules, and there are rulings, and the rulings should not overrule the rules, merely supplement them where there are no rules?

    My, that sentence got away from me there…

    I’m also really keen to sit down someone who came up through gaming by way of FATE et al and see their response to your commentary. I wonder if there would be enough common frame of reference for them to even understand what you were saying…

    • jeffro October 17, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Common frame is the key driver. I really depend on the rules to provide that even though by necessity my rulings determine when and how they are applied.

      • Alex October 17, 2013 at 10:01 am

        Well, yeah, cuz otherwise you’re just playing Calvinball. I think the main point is that everyone around the table needs to be able to agree on single set of rules for sake of arbitration to prevent discord.

  6. Brendanrendan October 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Of course… until Moldvay, there really wasn’t a comprehensible set of rules-as-written to go by! But never mind that for now…

    Well, there is Holmes, which can be used as a full game, and is less ambiguous that OD&D.

    But why privilege Moldvay so much? It is a good ruleset, but is not without flaws (like, in my opinion, the rule that you can’t search more than once for a secret door).

    I agree that it is worth considering the side effects of changing rules, but Moldvay was not infallible, and I don’t see any reason to assume that his tinkering will necessarily lead to better results than my tinkering. Which is not to say that one can’t learn from rules as written, but they are not gospel.

    • jeffro October 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      While Moldvay’s edit is maybe not infallible, it is certainly inspired. Especially when considered along with the Expert Set, Keep on the Borderlands, and the Isle of Dread.

      • Alex October 17, 2013 at 1:23 pm

        That’s totally the same argument that people use in favor of the King James translation of the Bible.

        I think it’s high time we start referring to segments of the OSR movement by the schismatic movements within the early church that they most resemble. I’ll start us off by saying that we should refer to all of the grognards who assert that only Gary and Greg actually knew how to run games and no other DMs are pure enough to offer the sacraments of gaming as they are truly intended as D&Donatists.

    • Chris Mata October 17, 2013 at 6:09 pm

      If rules were gospel, I would have been excommunicated a long time ago. ;)

  7. Radpert October 18, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    I would love to open the can of worms that is level drain, but I would have to reinvent the wheel. I’ll just look it up on Forchan, and no more mixed metaphors, I promise! I will mention that when my longtime Third Edition DM found out I was tracking my hit points, skill ranks and so forth, he said there was too much to keep track of the old way. He let me, though, because -5 HP and a spell lost per level per level lost (that was fun to type) would have crippled my bard.

    I don’t know where people find time to troll the boards at Wizards, but I’m a very active commenter on just the articles. I’ve noticed that the vast majority of posters (old-schoolers aren’t well represented) crave a game which restrains both deadliness and potential for abuse. About 3 people who write in North American English idiom, and an equal number who seem to be from Northern Europe, that is 3, regularly demand bloody literary- to cinematic-style believability. Not a large sample, but it leads me to believe that the alikeness of socialism and the mass-market call for conformist consumption are leading toward very different demands in recreation.

    I think the number of roleplayers today is somewhere between exactly what it was in 1978 and proportional to that number now in America. As a market segment it’s shrinking, and safe to say subordinate to whatever they call video and computer games today. I often disagree vigorously with the advocates of option-rich, “balanced” Dungeons & Dragons. My criticism is often accompanied by calls to compromise, and always tempered by an awareness that most players are younger than me, and arrived at their opinions via a journey through the vagaries of more recent editions.

    I speculate that we all want to play the edition we grew up playing, and in my case that would be AD&D. The first time I played, however, I saw a player roll a 9 and write it down as an 18 in his stats, and immediately resolved through the process of reaction formation to mind my own business and reap the rewards of honesty. He thanked me by tricking my 1-HP fighter into attacking a sacred oak before I knew what druids were. If I had been exposed to Fourth Edition right after that, I would have signed on with no reservations! I’ve been trying to start a new group with no success, so my personal perspective is one of extreme reluctance to alienate anyone. When somebody new joins, I think it’s important for them to have a good time, whether that means being the character who makes pretty speeches or a gore-fisted avenger of innocence lost. This is hard for me to separate from what I learned playing AD&D with nicer people later, but I think either rearranging the 3d6 or having a selection of evocative character classes really gives a feeling of choice in the matter. The second one really resonates with me because, I’ll admit it, I’m imagination-challenged. But choice in general connotes to a feeling of control and power, and I think pretty much everybody tries fantasy gaming because they want to escape the mundanity of being just another cog in the industrial machine.

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