Just one more formulaic CRPG-ification bullet into the imagination at the heart of RPGs

This is another of my rails against the nature of where RPGs seem to be headed in my opinion. So if you’re not interested in reading my rant and joining in on what my horoscope says should be a lively discussion and debate, then move along, nothing to see here.

There’s been a lot of talk of late about the new Magic Item Rarity re-do by WotC and I wanted to voice my opinion too.

Let me point out first that I’m prepared for the possibility of being called a hater here. We all have our own opinions on what’s good for the hobby. I’m sure most of my beliefs are not mainstream, but perhaps there’s a hint of truth in them for everyone. Examine them closely and you may just find that I’m not as radical as you might first believe. And I have been known to laud as well as incorporate some of things some video games do right in my own RPG rule-set, so I realize that this may seem a bit hypercritical as well as hypocritical.*

But some things have been bothering me since the days of 2E. The seeds of my complaints go back a number of years and I’ve been moderately vocal about those things with my circle of friends, but the nature of the new Magic Item Rarity categorization article brought them to a head and I’m finally going to express them to the RPG public.

Furthermore, I completely understand that WotC has an obligation to their corporate interests to sell the most product and generate the highest revenue. Their motivations cannot always fall in line with what I might consider a better track for the hobby. But that doesn’t excuse them from being the target of one of my rants from time to time.

I should also point out that I left this topic alone for a while as I considered what really bugged me about the article, and after authoring this I left it un-posted for some time while I readdressed it. I think the time has come to say my peace.

Let me preface this rant with the following: I’m directing this at D&D because its the elephant in the room. For better or worse, WotC has the market share to drive the direction of the RPG gaming universe. So while it might not be the sole target of my annoyance, it will suffice as the broad side of the barn for this post.

Begin Rant Mode

Stop with the CRPG-ification of RPGs please!

This has to stop. A cancer has crept into the collective RPG consciousness that has to be pointed, and rooted-out. D&D appears to have been infected at a staggering rate. It started in 2E, metastasized in 3E, grew unchecked in 3.5E, found fertile ground in 4E and has now blossomed and engulfed yet another aspect of the game with Essentials. At every turn imagination dies and the game becomes more of a simulation than a game. This isn’t a step forward, it’s a step away. I’ve been marginally silent on this for a while because of my prior voiced issues with 4E and my opinion that it’s a card game masquerading as a tabletop war game, but for the love of God, let’s start focusing on making a better game, not one with all the challenge and edges filed off, chock full of formulas in place of imagination to make it easier and fun for all.

I claim here and now that for all intents and purposes, imagination is essentially dead. What killed it? A lot of things, but here’s a brief rundown of my top 5.

  1. It started innocently enough with the bloat that is 2E and its horde of supplements. No longer were we required to use our imagination to think up how certain roles should be described on our character sheets. We didn’t need to use our imagination to describe how the base numbers fit the differing styles of different types of classes. Subclasses and kits abounded to make sure that if we said we were a swashbuckler, by God you knew it! We didn’t need to role-play a swashbuckler anymore, it said we were playing the one out of that nameless supplement. See, it even said “swashbuckler” right there on our sheet. Now we have all these feats and skills to help us define what a character can and can’t do without ever having to think something up ourselves or ask the DM if we can do something. Isn’t it so much easier like this? Players are no longer burdened with playing a role and the DM is no longer burdened with being a referee. All hail the Rules and Dice! They are the new masters of the RPG Universe. Imagination began to wilt under the pressure of all those supplements and optional rules.
  2. It grew with the notion of Builds. As in, let’s ignore role-playing history for a given power-gamer recipe that will assure your character is the best “Whatever” she can be when she reaches level X. It doesn’t make sense that we’re picking up feats and skills that have no real bearing on the history of a character? Who cares. The build will show you the way to make that uber character you so desire. Sure, let’s put character development on training wheels so we can make sure we’re getting the most of our level-up points. Power-gaming for the win and all that. 4E, in my estimation, took this idea to an extreme… and somewhere the RPG Reaper took a bit more imagination off the table.
  3. But the cancer wasn’t happy with staying on the player side of the table. It found a way into the DM** thought-process too. Somehow it slithered onto the other side of the screen. Enter the manifestation of Challenge Rating (CR). With CR, we are taught that we mustn’t challenge the players by anything that can’t be handled by the numbers on their power-gaming, build-oriented character sheets. God forbid we make the players play more than those builds they’ve decided. And besides, it’s easier on us DMs to make sure things are “level appropriate.” Apparently training wheels are all the rage now, so let’s apply them to our encounter and trap placement and makeup. It’ll all be easier if we just run the numbers against the numbers. Imagination be damned.
  4. Along came Tiers which were basically a veiled effort to making sure we’re all playing rock-paper-scissors with out builds. Yep, we wouldn’t want anything other than the situation where the cleric outshines the thief who outshines the fighter who outshines the mage who outshines the cleric. Why to do anything other than that would be so inappropriate at any level wouldn’t it? Players would cry foul! Anarchy would ensue! Cats and Dogs would start living together… Yes, we mustn’t have a situation where someone is actually at a loss numbers-wise. That wouldn’t be fair to their choice of build now would it? Game balance must be the crowning achievement of all efforts in game design! Imagination might as well be dead.
  5. And now we have formula for where a given magical item should fall within a given level range. Where will it stop? If imagination isn’t already dead, it doesn’t have long now.

Yes, yes, I know that the point of the new Magic Item rarity rules is supposedly to address concerns that magic items remain somewhat rare and players aren’t supposed to use the lists of items as wish-lists. I get that part. Couldn’t agree more actually. But how did this foolish idea take seed in the heads of so many players in the first place? Literal interpretation of the rules as written (RAW.) Was this interpretation flawed? Your guess is as good as mine. Why was this interpretation an obvious outcome? Because apparently the trend has been to rule everything and tighten things down more and more, not less and less.

The sum result of all these things is a game where players play their build-oriented numbers against the virtually risk-less level-appropriate challenges for rule-directed level-appropriate rewards… let’s plant some daisies on that mound of dirt where we buried imagination.

Oh sure, I know what some of you are thinking: bla-bla-bla, he’s just a hater, you can modify the rules to your own desires, etc. Yeah, I know. You probably figure I’m just trying to throw stones at the big boys to fill some deep-seated hole in my soul. You couldn’t be further from the truth. I already know I can modify the rules as I see fit. I think I do that enough already. Now it looks like I have a choice of either buying a ruleset and ignoring nearly all of it while fearing that someone will claim I’m playing it wrong, or not buying it at all… I think you can see where this is headed.

Somewhere in the past this kind of formula-based thinking has burrowed its way into our collective RPG-groupthink. I for one say its dug way too deeply and has now metastasized like the cancerous growth of training wheels-laden rules where failure and innovation are ignored and eschewed for making sure everyone has a fair and “level appropriate” good time. Where’s the challenge in knowing that the bulk of the game has now been made challenge-rating appropriate? Many of us who have been at this a while and recall the 3rd paragraph on the 2nd column of the first page in the Basic Rulebook that states:

While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable – anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed… The purpose of these “rules” is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound by them. – Basic Rulebook, page B3

However, newcomers to this hobby from the CRPG-verse, more accustomed to following the strict rules generated by their medium, don’t have the benefit of this historical truth in RPGs and might read this stuff and think, “Oh that’s how the formula works…” That how it’s supposed to be played since these are the RAW. I’m honestly beginning to worry that someone new will sit down at my table, find the game not conforming to the formula and claim that I’m not playing the game correctly because I haven’t checked the CR of the encounter, or made sure to reward the characters with an appropriate level of magic for their level.

Think I’m out of bounds with my concern? I’ll quote the Mike Mearls, the author of the page I’m referencing as a shining example of what I mean:

A +1 flame-tongue longsword must sit somewhere between levels 1 and 5.

What the..? MUST!?! Says who? Mike Mearls? Why? Who gave him that authority? WotC? When did they decide where a given magical item MUST lie in my game? Is this the same game that claims its roots in the imagination of Gary and Dave? I cry foul! Keep your musts to yourself. I’ll have none of it thank you very much. And what feat of logic leads Mr. Mearls to this mandate?

Above that point, its enhancement bonus is too low to keep up with other weapons, even if it has a nifty activated ability.

Again I must ask, Why? Who decides what enhancement bonus is too high or too low for a given level range? Oh, that’s right. I do. I’m the DM so it’s my decision. And before you all start down the “He’s just an antagonistic DM who wants the game to foster his jerk tendencies” line of thinking, take a gander at the breadth of posts here where I declare my desire to grant license to the players. I’m arguably a as open a DM as you’ll meet. And as long as my players don’t object and leave en masse, then I must be doing something right. Following someone else’s formula for what they think the game dictates isn’t in my plan… nor should the language lead others to think it must be my plan.

Once again, yes, I, and those I play with, know enough to ignore the RAW. But the very reason WotC feel it’s important to have this new formula is to counteract those who apparently don’t. The funny thing about written text and choice of language is that it has a way of being interpreted literally. Even when that literal interpretation is wrong… or perhaps misguided.

Now let’s be fair, I don’t mind the descriptors of Rare, Common and Uncommon items. In point of fact I probably break up treasures of all sorts in similar categories. I’m not advocating for letting players run around like Christmas trees. But it’s the way the language and decision-making process seems to be directing the nature of the game that really bugs me so much. I don’t like feeling like I’m being dictated to. Nor do I like the possible ramification of what these “pseudo-mandates” will bring to those less familiar with the “feel free to ignore the rules” part of playing RPGs. So how about you simply describe the categories, maybe give examples, and let me decide what belongs in which?

Of late D&D has been a bit of a let-down for me. I was really excited and intrigued by 4E. Then I read it and was disappointed about the path it took and the decisions that were made. I won’t go over these issues in detail here, you can probably find the blog post where I spell out my opinion on these misguided changes. Comments are still welcome, though I find my opinion of the M:TG-ization of the game confirmed each and every day.

As an aside, I haven’t forgotten about my claim that I’ll post what changes I would have made instead. I just haven’t had the time (or inclination) to do so – perhaps that might change thanks to this bit of foolishness. – KO

I allowed myself to have high hopes for Essentials, but everything I read leads me to think it’s just more of the same – only now in spades. Someone please help me find a way to get that magic back because I’m about to give up on D&D altogether. But before I go, I’ll try to voice my concerns once again. How about going back to offering guidelines; drop all the musts and shalls in the books and related materials – it sets a bad precedence. Do a roll-back and cut the bloat. I can’t be the only one who still remembers when the game was devoid of so much extraneous material and such mandate-type language and DMs were lauded for removing or house-ruling everything. These days it strikes me that WotC wants to make the prefect CRPG to conform to everyone’s vision of how they see the game must be run instead of a tabletop RPG where we’re given license (encouraged even) to use our imagination.

I know this post may appear to be all over the map, and to be honest I’m not really sure where I’m headed with this other than to hopefully foster some discussion and voice my grievances, but with the previous points in mind, here a few warnings to players at my table:

  • Expect to be challenged… not just the numbers on your character sheet, expect to be challenged Yourself.
  • Expect there to be limited balance. The world is a dangerous place for adventurers, deal with it or go back to being a farmer.
  • Fail to meed the challenge and prepare to have your character suffer the consequences. See dangerous place cited above.
  • Expect at times to be the bad-ass on the block since adventurers live on the edge of that danger in the world more than anyone else. As a corollary however, expect also to routinely find yourself outgunned and outclassed with those around you; be they monster, NPC or fellow party member. Making everyone the same level of special has a way of making nobody special.
  • Expect me to deny you skills and feats if they “come out of nowhere” from a level standpoint. Your character has a history that is being written in-game – make use of it.
  • Expect not to find some “Class Defining” Magical item just because it meshes so well with your character concept.
  • Expect not to have the right to assume the adventure is level appropriate. Again, make stupid decisions and face the consequences. See dangerous place cited above again.
  • Any expectation that there’s some magic formula that decides the challenge of the traps, the dangers posed by the monsters, the rewards both in magic and fortune, or anything remotely resembling anything else that might lead you to think we’re playing a computer game should be dropped immediately.

What you will gain by accepting these warnings:

  • Attempt to cite something in a book to determine if you can do something (in the vein of: are allowed by the rules) and expect me to tell you to put the book down and just play the game (as in “don’t ask, tell me what you’re doing” and I’ll be the referee… that’s my job, not the rule book’s job.)
  • Expect to discover the enjoyment of knowing when you’ve beaten something far beyond the capabilities described by the numbers on your character sheet.
  • Expect to uncover the sense of wonder and marvel that can only come with actually being challenged; not facing a series of “level appropriate” challenge with your “level appropriate” gear and succeeding by expending the formulaic calculated resources before needing a rest as determined by some all encompassing equation designed to assure the character garner the appropriate level of advancement for the appropriate expenditure of resources.
  • Expect to know that when you succeed, often you do it because you were innovative and worked beyond the numbers on the paper before you.
  • Expect to find glorious treasures to evoke a sense of marvel and wonder. For such is the reward of the adventurer who successfully braves the dangers posed by the setting.
  • And finally, and most importantly, expect to use your imagination. I can not assure that you’ll have fun, but I can offer the opportunity. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Maybe I’m way off base here. Maybe I’m just old and jaded. Maybe this is the core of why I say roleplaying is a dying art. Maybe I’m just full of anger and hate for anything new. Maybe I’m a rare bird who finds his imagination flourishes when the rules aren’t as strict and open to interpretation. Maybe new players take comfort in knowing that there’s a rule for everything and everything has been ruled upon. Maybe, but I doubt it.

For those who are ready to flay me on the stake, realize that I seriously love this game. I love role-playing and all it brings to my life. I love it enough to have taken the time to craft my own rule-set and manage this blog. In homage to the D&D Basic Rulebook, readers of my rule-set will note that I refer to them as guidelines, not rules.

So for the love of all that’s holy, please stop blurring the line between CRPG and RPG and killing off imagination. If you want to create a CRPG, then just get on with it. But leave my RPGs alone. Make sure that in every stand-alone discussion of the rules you indicate that ALL rules are optional. Stop trying to turn the game  into some unified RPG-theory magic formula in order to presumably dictate the assured “fun and happiness for all who play.”

Cause it ain’t ever going to happen.

Think I’m wrong here? Then speak up. I can take it.

End Rant Mode

*For the record, the improvement mechanic that KORE incorporates from Dungeonsiege is actually more the child of BRP inspired RPGs. So maybe I’m not being a complete hypocrite.
**Since this post basically highlights D&D and refers to the past so often, I’ve specifically used the term DM (Dungeonmaster) as opposed to the newer GM (Gamemaster.)
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43 Responses to Just one more formulaic CRPG-ification bullet into the imagination at the heart of RPGs

  1. I’m completely with you on this, but well, here’s the rub… WotC and 4E D&D have to have “musts” and dictate things the way they do because the entire game is built around a concept of mathematical balance.

    I also was very, very excited about 4E D&D and I played it from release until just about a month ago when the last game I was involved in ended. I won’t be touching 4E again, as everything they’ve released since PHB2 has been catering to a very specific crowd that I don’t want to be a part of.

    I’ve written on my own about the problems with the language and rhetoric of 4E — and lately I can’t even read the Wizards D&D website without bursting into frustrated laughter.

    But your central theme is, I think, the most important. At some point, game designers started seeing themselves in the role of protecting players from those “mean old DMs.” I’m convinced that everyone at WotC has some horrible DM experience they think about the whole time they’re working on R&D.

    Unfortunately, the only option I can offer is the conclusion I came to — It’s time to stop playing D&D. A whole lot of fantasy games exist that are not D&D… and I’ve moved on. I hope you can do the same.

  2. justaguy says:

    Oh how I wish 4E was released ten years ago when I had real gumption and anger with which to wage these battles. Now I just tend to get grumpy. In other words, that’s a hell of a rant, and while I will reply my reply will likely be inadequate in the face of so much effort expended, as I no longer have quite the focused rage about this sort of stuff.

    There are many people (gamers and non) that when faced with ultimate choice, find themselves unable to make any. The codifying of rules actually helps them to focus and choose something not do. And I don’t think that’s a matter of new vs old, or having imagination vs. not… it’s just human nature. We react differently. I don’t think you are a rare bird for wanting more freedom, I just don’t think the opposite is as rare as you seem to think it is.

    And I really don’t understand why people get so pissed off at things like CR, balance, the term “level appropriate” and all the rest. Modules have long held “Made for x to y” on them, to give you an idea of what characters would be appropriate for them. All the games have done is made it easier to judge balance without having to guess. You can throw whatever you like at he party, it’s just removed some of the guess work on if that encounter will crush the PCS or not. Just because the system supports balance, doesn’t mean everything the PCs do have to be balanced for them… it just means that you know going in if it is or not.

    As for the whole “This item is lvl 1-5″ or what not. That is largely based on something you already don”t like so I know this won’t satisfy but regardless of that… it’s because as these systems have evolved the math behind them has gotten more codified. Creatures that are created with levels in mind have certain defenses and powers and characters (once you enter into a balance game situation) need to be able to handle those. So a magic item will be “appropriate” based on that. Now, 4E actually introduced (in DMG2) a way to change the lvl based bonuses to remove magic item necessity. And if you go that route, magic items regain a lot of their “old time specialty” feeling.

    And I’m not sure when “Failure” became equated with “Challenging and fun”. Over the years I’ve seen this notion that games are “to easy” now, that failure (death etc.) were removed or lessened and thus gaming has lessened and…. why? I understand that with no chance of failure, we’re just making stuff up… but honestly, I hate failure. I don’t really find it fun. I get enough tedium in my real life, that I don’t need it to be in my game experience. I like when I get to be the bad ass.

    I’m old, and bitter, and jaded too… just in a different way. I don’t think 4E is fanfuckingmagical or anything. There are certifiably issues. But these complaints about it “killing imagination” I think are bunk, and I place the blame of imagination death on the people playing more that I do the system.

    … Okay. Done for now.

  3. callin says:

    I like 4E, you don’t. I and my players (all of which have played every edition) have a really fun time playing 4E, you don’t. I tell stories as the GM and my players are constantly using their imaginations, so you are off-base and wrong as far as it applies to us.
    All the things you hate about 4E we like. According to you I am wrong. I am OK being called wrong and still having fun while being wrong.
    In the end I don’t care what edition you or anyone else plays as long as you and I are both having fun in whatever we play.
    As for deriding WotC for misusing their “leadership in the industry” to lead it down the wrong path, I’ll tell you a secret. None of us need any company to provide us with a RPG. If every RPG company on the planet went away you and I would still play. This niche genre of entertainment might die, but it will not affect either of us. I could find players even if there is no “face-company” to lead the way.
    WotC is not doing anything wrong at all…they are just doing something different than what you would do.

  4. Kevin says:

    @Rhetorical Gamer: Glad I’m not the only one who sees things this way. I think you’re on to something deeper that might be at the core of my complaints. I’m beginning to believe (as also eluded in justaguy’s response) that maybe players really want more rules. Maybe they aren’t interested in seeing their games as frameworks from which to create, rather rule systems under which to simulate. That’s not what I’m interested in doing. In that light, perhaps WotC has taken the more popular (and therefore profitable) path I can’t, or am not willing, to tread.

  5. Kevin says:

    @justaguy: Appreciate the kudos on the rant. I also appreciate that, though we’ve come to this disagreement (or one very much like it) in the past, you came back to the porch to chat again.

    re analysis paralysis: I get that. I’m not like that, nobody in any of my gaming groups now and in the past is like that, but I can appreciate how rules-heavy would help. If my opinion is slanted to a given option, it’s likely because of who I am and who I play games with.

    re the codified math behind the magic items, balance and failure as fun: I think we can just agree to disagree on this point. I understand your stance that, as written, certain creatures are designed to be a challenge to a certain group with a certain amount of magic to expend. But by making that a mathematically codified analysis of the game, aren’t we eliminating (or at least limiting the influence of) some of the following:

    1. The role of the DM as a referee.
    2. The risk that must be present to make the reward worthwhile.

    Basically, if nearly everything presented to the players is done so in a “corners padded to prevent harm” fashion, don’t we risk the possibility that, as a collective, players of the game will come to expect the mechanics to cater to them succeeding all the time? I don’t like failure any more than you do. I like being the bad ass as much as the next guy, but when there’s no risk, there’s really no reward. You must chance defeat in order to win, otherwise you’ve gained nothing.

    re this is all bunk: Anyone who is willing to call me an idiot in a constructive manner is worth listening to.

  6. Kevin says:

    @callin: I disagree. I don’t think you and your players are wrong. I totally agree that having fun is the point of this all, and if you’re having fun, then by all means continue. I for one don’t find the fun factor very high in the current versions of D&D. In fact, I think I’ve made it clear that fun started to wane for me somewhere around 2E. I do think that if you like where the game is headed that you’re following WotC down a path that leads to a simulation as opposed to a game. That’s fine and I don’t have a problem with that per se, but to claim that it’s the same thing is, I believe, misguided.

  7. justaguy says:

    Well, so long as no one is waving shotguns loaded with rock salt and pork rinds I’m fairly willing to visit random porches.

    And I didn’t really intend to call you an idiot, so I’m glad you didn’t take that to personally. 🙂 Mostly what I mean by that is, I don’t think the current games are better or worse than the old ones at RP… it’s just different. And a lot of it depends on how the players come at the game.

    analysis paralysis… exactly. In general I’m okay with options (though I’ll admit to moments of pure “Durrrrr, I don’t know”) but a number of the players in my group really function best with some rails under their choices. Something like Fate leads to them staring blankly at their sheets, while a game more like Pathfinder and 4E give them some basis to work with.

    And yeah, we probably have to agree to disagree on this. You see the CR stuff as a limit on your DMishness. I see it as a tool to help me DM. And I think we’re both right, really. Tools are only as much use as you need them. In my view balance is more of a “Removing tacks from the seats” than it is “Removing all the sharp edges”. People can still get cut if you aren’t careful, but there’s less chance of accidentally impaling yourself.

  8. Kevin says:

    @justaguy: I read between the lines on the idiot calling. No worries, I’m pretty thick-skinned… or maybe that’s hard-headed. Either way it takes a lot to get to me personally.

    Glad we can agree to disagree. I like your analysis better anyway. But I still worry that those who enter the hobby from the crpg-verse, and used to “being in the box” rules-wise, will not think of CR and level-appropriate as tools, but as dictated “correctness.” And the language used by WotC seems to confirm my worst fears on this one.

  9. Randall says:

    Nice vent KO!! Mark me down as a “no training wheels” kinda guy. I either get bored and start doing off the wall things just to see how much I can get away with, or I’m screwed from the start because my character development doesn’t allow me to stay on the rails. I definitely hate having to choose to rp the character I created correctly, or do what needs to be done to further the game. What if I just came up with a Rule of Cool way to use a +1 flametongue, but I’m level 7?? Anyways, as those before me have mentioned, as long as your having fun with it, who cares. If it’s not fun, you’ll gravitate to something else. My 2 cents.

  10. Kevin says:

    Thanks Randall. I think the bulk of our gaming group falls more in the free-form camp much more than the strict interpretation camp. Those who try to rule us with an iron fist are likely to find us crying for a revolution.

  11. My take on the issue boils down to this. Those who want a balanced game should play Parcheesi. Role-playing games should be, by their nature, about dealing with the unexpected in ingenious ways, and enforced balance destroys that aspect.

  12. Kevin says:

    @GG: Balance is an illusion. Striving for it a fools venture. Obtaining it a Pyrrhic victory at best.

  13. A good rant! Some points I agree with and some points I disagree with.

    As I’m currently writing an RPG game, the core themes of your article are subjects I’ve spent the last year thinking about.

    I think many gamers tend to come from a very literal perspective, i.e what is written down must be true. This may be because so many of use are engineers, programmers and technologically minded. Or it might simply be because we tend to start gaming in out teenage years when the simple approach of RAW appeals.

    Certainly when I was younger, I very much took the RAW approach but as I’ve aged, I’ve shifted and now see rules as part of the group dynamic. They influence and shape the game but ultimately the group as a whole decides their meaning.

    Balance is a personal bugbear of mine.

    Games do not need to be mathematically balanced by the game designer. They are balanced by the GM who adds monsters or fudges dice roles as they see fit to ensure their group is having fun.

    Last night, we had a new player sit in our playtest session. A very good player and a sharp eye for rules but he had a complaint about the magic system. It was too slow because a beginner spell caster cannot cast a spell every round.

    His complaint was that it was too much like old D&D where 1st level MU had 1 spell. This was very observant because the system was design to be like old D&D. Spell casters should be much weaker at low levels to compensate for the power they gain later on.

    Interestingly, he could not see why anyone would want to play such a character.

    The lesson from this is that there are lots of people who like balance. People who want a mathematically based systems with builds and lots of opportunities for min/maxing.

    As a game designer I’m left with the choice of either ignoring these players (and reducing the size of my market) or try to accommodate them in the game.

  14. Kevin says:

    Sorry Chris, I wanted to respond earlier this morning but didn’t want to take the 500th comment slot from a reader. Thanks to DeadGod’s comment on the use of electronics at the gaming table, those self-imposed restrictions are removed.

    I think your analysis of where balance should reside is spot on. I should reside in the GM. Am I saying that games shouldn’t be designed with an eye to balance? Of course not. But the nature of an RPG is that it’s being refereed by someone at the table. We aren’t playing boardgames where the rules aren’t supposed to be interpreted (someone can feel free to argue with me on that point too if they so desire.) Someone is in charge of the game. For good or otherwise, that person is the GM.

    Honestly I’m beginning to think Rhetorical Gamer may be onto at least a tangential part of the reason behind so much balance and dictation in RPGs these days.

  15. Kevin says:

    @Everyone: The main point of my rant is that you can’t expect balanced and tight rules to ever come close to the beauty and freedom of imagination in RPGs.

    My opinion stated a bit more clearly after a night’s sleep as well as a rather succinct summation by Randall here: http://blog.retroroleplaying.com/2010/08/rules-cant-replace-imagination-rpg-rant.html

    An overabundance of rules in a RPG leads to a simulation. Simulations are not games. We don’t need rules, and only want guidelines.
    Dictatorial language will only increase the chances to foster a “You’re playing it wrong” attitude by those who literally interpret the RAW.
    I for one want nothing to do with either of these outcomes.

  16. Siskoid says:

    With apologies to all the follow-up comments I didn’t have time to read on this pass (you exhausted me with your preface)…

    I’m with you from #2 onward. I don’t think, say, Fighter Kits prevented you from role-playing. Each kit merely gave you a little flavor, stimulated the imagination as to what a “Fighter” could be beyond a goon with a sword, and made suggestions as to how these characters might be role-played. It’s up to the player to play up the kit, just as he or she plays the race, class, alignment, background, whatever.

    But they may well have led to so-called “builds” as players worked to get to positions where they could switch to prestige classes etc. Of course, I prefer non-D&D gaming these days because I find the concept of “class” to be artificial. Face it, even the original game had “builds”. Your class learns new abilities that are close or exactly like everyone’s in the world, ever. All 6th level Rangers have the same abilities (give or take the choices you can make, like their enemy species, spell choices etc.). It wasn’t as bad, but there it was.

    If I did play post-2e D&D, I don’t think I’d ever use CRs or rarity tables or stuff like that. I wouldn’t relinquish control of my world to random tables and artificial mathematical constructs. Harder to ignore the way abilities now often resemble WoW button pressing (buff, debuff, tank, etc.).

    And I agree that while you can ignore and change much of it, it gives a bad example to new gamers. And yet, that familiarity may be what helps draw them in. Damned if you do…

  17. Siskoid says:

    @Rhetorical Gamer (yes I’m only up to the first comment and already I have another comment): I like your point about designers trying to prevent the creation of bad GMs. However, it’s my feeling that they may instead inadvertently be creating bad PLAYERS.

  18. The Princess says:

    Very interesting article, and I tend to agree with you. I’m very underwhelmed with 4E for basically the same reasons. It feels too much like a CRPG or tactics game now than an actual RPG.

    Though I must say, I actually have always liked the variety of classes/kits/builds/pretige classes they offered (particularly in 3E and 3.5E). Contray to your experience, I actually found the presented selection of builds to sometimes help trigger my imagination. I’ve been in situations where I just was at a loss for who or what I wanted to play. A flip through the Player’s Handbook usually helps trigger great starting ideas for the basis of a character. Sometimes a story will just connect to me well I look through my options and next thing I know I have a three page backstory to a fully realized concept.

  19. justaguy says:

    *apologies if this is a double post, the first tiem I hit send it doesn’t seem to have taken*
    Haha! Surprise, I disagree! >.>

    @ Kevin “Balance is an illusion. Striving for it a fools venture. Obtaining it a phyrric victory at best.”

    I’ll agree, in spirit, that balance is an illusion. There are factors beyond pure math that factor into balance, so true game balance is really more of an idea, than an achievable goal. However, I strongly disagree that striving for it is a fools venture. Even in older games there /is/ balance. Mages being weak and growing into their powers later on is a form of balance for instance. It’s just a matter of where people are pegging the “Oh, that’s to much balance” marker. Or as Chris pointed out, is the game itself seeking balance or does it leave it solely in the hands of the GM?

    Encounter levels and such doesn’t mean that it’s “safe”. Even level (i.e. balanced) encounters can go horribly wrong, based on die roles or poor choices… it just means that “On average PCs are equal to beating this challenge with an expenditure of their resources”.

    I guess… I don’t think balance and tight rules are exclusive to imagination and freedom. A strong set of rules can serve as a foundation for building awesome games, they don’t have to be a set of prison walls.

  20. Kevin says:

    @Siskoid: Apparently my rant muse was a bit verbose, but I felt that putting all my “this annoys me too” cards on the table was necessary so everyone knew where I was coming from. If the text got much longer I was considering breaking it into a number of posts but was worried it would lose some of its impact if it just became a “crying wolf again” series. As it is, it’ll stand as a single rant.

    re kits and builds prevent role-playing: I’m not saying that kits and builds prevent role-playing, though that might be the take-away a lot of people are reading. Perhaps I should clarify that I’m not trying to say that. My opinion is that these things stifle imagination rather than foster it.

    re I prefer classless: I’m with you 110%. I even go further to eliminate levels in my RPG. Advancement exists, but not in the artificial sense of: “You gained experience and so now you’re suddenly stronger and better… and oddly (possibly) NOT in the things you did to gain ‘experience’ in that adventure. Oh well, that’s what the rules (or worse yet, the build I’m following) say I should advance in. Otherwise I won’t be able to meet the level-appropriate challenges in my future. We mustn’t allow me to gimp my character lest I enjoy the game less.”

  21. Kevin says:

    @The Princess: I likely addressed a portion of the build/kit lead-in to imagination in my response to Siskoid, but I want to make sure to respond directly. Do you necessarily need the kits and builds to lead you down the path to an outcome? Or are you merely using them as the seeds of your own idea? Are they recipes or inspiration?

    If they’re recipes, then you’ve eschewed imagination for the numbers.

  22. Kevin says:


    1. Nope, no double post.
    2. What?!? Shocking 🙂
    3. Fair points, but I must disagree to some degree (surprise I know.) If the rules (and the language describing them) fosters a belief that leads players to follow them to the end result by leaving their imagination at the door (see my response to The Princess regarding how this can happen) then in my opinion, the rules are broken. I think that’s where we are with 4E. I think we started down that path innocently enough way back in 2E and now we’re seeing the fruits of our efforts. Formulaic methodologies to game-play don’t foster a better gaming experience like they’re touted to do, they just hinder imagination.

  23. Sean Holland says:

    I am mostly along justaguy’s line of thought. I find CRs, magic item building rules, and class options to be useful tools that support a game.

    For me 3.x/Pathfinder gives a good balance between defined mechanics and the ability to build the character you want and have them be fun mechanically. It is not perfect, nor is it ‘balanced’ but it strives to give all characters a chance to shine.

    To me, 4e went too far down the mechanistic route enforcing balance. Which works in a purely mechanistic game which, be definition, RPGs are not. Not to say it does not do what it does -tactical combat mostly- very well but it is not the game I want to play.

  24. Matt says:

    I went through editions 2 to 3.5 and then jumped ship. I’m now happily sailing on Swords & Wizardry and producing some content that I think is pretty imaginative. I think your rant has some credence, and is why I’ve gone to old school rules. New school rules have, well, lots of rules, which means they have lots of room for “exceptions to” or “bonuses to” those rules. Old school games do not have that many codified rules, which means if you’re going to come up with old school content, you almost have to work with about 10% mechanics and 90% imagination. You also feel more free to be imaginative, because you don’t have to worry about stepping on some rule in some supplement, etc etc. I’m not arguing that old is better than new, just that it is different and that the old way has done more to stimulate my imagination than the newer editions.

  25. Kevin says:

    @Sean: I completely agree that 4E is a tactical combat simulator.

  26. Kevin says:

    @Matt: “I’m not arguing that old is better than new, just that it is different and that the old way has done more to stimulate my imagination than the newer editions.”

    I agree. However I go further in that I am saying that the old way of doing things indeed is better than the new.

  27. Philo Pharynx says:

    OMG! I’ve been running 4e completely wrong!

    1) Imagaination does not reside in any rulebook, nor is it absent from any rulebook. That’s something the players bring to the table. A good group of roleplayers can turn Monopoly into a kick-ass RPG.
    2) Just because 4E has a more definied mathematical basis does not mean it “has the corners filed off”. It takes some GM’s a while to understand how to get what they want out of an encounter. This helps give them a guide. I’ve played with GM’s who’ve had trouble making encounters that weren’t TPK’s or player steamrollers. They’re good GM’s outside of that, but it’s a skill they don’t do well. Knowing the encounter level helps guide GM’s who aren’t good at this. It doesn’t mean you have to give perfectly balanced encounters.
    3) One of the annoyances I have is GM’s that rule differently each time a situation comes up. It comes down to the character should have the intuitive experience of the world to know what it’s like. If I walk up to a gap, I instinctively know if I have a decent chance of jumping it, if it’s iffy, or if it’s stupid to try. By having a rules-rich set, our group spends less time dealing with rules issues and more time playing.
    4) I think every player should have a chance to shine both in the roleplaying and the mechanical part of the game. The roleplaying part is up to the group as a whole. The mechanical part is rules based, and I like my games to put people on an even footing. It doesn’t mean the characters are all the same. It just means you don’t have a wizard trudging along with a dagger just because he’s used up his one spell of the day. Or the fighter trudging along to keep paparazzi away from the all-powerful wizard.

  28. Kevin says:


    I’ll state it again: If 4E runs fine for you, then so be it. It doesn’t run fine for me and I think I’ve addressed why and explained how the roots of these reasons were planted way back in 2E. I accept that my direction might not be the most profitable or popular one, but what we have isn’t what I’d have done.

    1. Agreed. Imagination resides outside the rulebook. But rules can and do foster or impair role-play opportunities. Monopoly doesn’t foster much role-play since the rules don’t encourage it. In 4E, the rules lead me to see it as a simulation, not a game. Simulations don’t lend themselves to role-play opportunities.
    2. I think I’ve covered my opinion on this over the course of a couple point/counter point responses with others here. I see the singular focus on a mathematical balance a terrible direction for a rpg. As tools I have no qualms with these ideas, but as I stated, I also see the language used by WotC supporting the notion that the math behind the game is how the game should be played a serious threat to the understanding that these are indeed tools, and not the final decider.
    3. Sorry to hear that you have issues with GMs ruling differently under similar circumstances, sounds to me like you should address those issues with those individuals. I won’t address your personal experiences since I don’t have the faintest chance of knowing the details of the situation. But again, adding rules to cover every possible situation only leads to a simulation.
    4. I agree wholeheartedly that “every player should have the chance to shine both in the role-playing and mechanical part of the game.” I’m with you 110% here. However, the rules should never be written to make sure that chance is fulfilled. They should foster it, provide opportunity for it, but never dictate its result. It’s not WotC’s role to decide what will put my player’s characters on an even keel.

  29. Kevin says:

    Just so everyone can follow along, here’s my first stab at fixing what I think is wrong with D&D: What I’d Change in D&D
    Feel free to continue to discuss the issues identified here (agree or disagree.) I love a lively debate – it makes me examine my own preconceptions and the core roots of my issues. (Not to make it sound like I use the readers here as some cheap rpg psychotherapist stand-in.)

  30. “I’m about to give up on D&D altogether.”

    You needn’t think this way! Real D&D is still alive and still going strong.

    Google “Labyrinth Lord.” Google “OSRIC.” Google “Dark Dungeons” or “Lamentations of the Flame Princess.”

    We’re out there and always willing to welcome another refuge from the corporatized RPG wasteland.

  31. Kevin says:

    Oh I’m not leaving classic fantasy role-playing, but I’m probably done with WotC’s version of D&D (at least in this incarnation.)
    In fact, my last few posts have been about what I’d have done with the game.
    I will have to look into some of the games you mentioned.

  32. AD&D Grognard says:

    Maybe if you thought you were hallucinating all this it would be different, but if the article below is not a prank I’m afraid you fired blind folded into the heart of the beast:


    And so it goes…thank god for the Indie and OSR scenes is all I’m going to say.

  33. AD&D Grognard says:


    Yes, a joke. but god help us if anyone from WOTC is reading this stuff. All they need is an excuse 🙂

  34. Kevin says:

    There’s always a hint of truth in every joke. That’s what makes it funny… or in this case sad. 🙂
    Good read though, had a laugh. Thanks for bringing it to my attention

  35. JB says:

    The best way to stop WotC from the CRPGification of the game is to put them out of business. Stop buying their f’ing product! Vote with your wallet, folks. They’re in business to make money…show them their business decisions are bad for business and stop buying every slick-looking product they produce.

  36. I’ll second Will above and suggest you look at Labyrinth Lord. Swords & Wizardry or OSRIC might be a good fit for you, too, but since you directly quote from the Moldvay Basic rulebook, I think you’d find Labyrinth Lord to be pleasingly familiar.

    And if you prefer more of an AD&D style, LL has its Advanced Edition Companion available as well. Since both are available as free PDFs (http://goblinoidgames.com/labyrinthlord.html) you should be able to check the line out with minimal effort or outlay. If you like it, print versions are available as well.


  37. Kevin says:

    @JB: Cross-posted at your blog. http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/2010/09/stop-buying-their-fing-product.html

    For the record, since my post seems to have been the final straw on the matter, I have purchase exactly one WotC item since AD&D… namely the 4E Starter set.

    Now before someone starts in on the whole “Then how can you be so opposed to this and that if you don’t even own this and that” let me state that I have friends in my gaming group who DO own a lot of 2E and 3E and 3.5E stuff. Personally, I’m glad I never spent the cash.

    I was really hoping WotC would go a different direction in 4E, and that’s why I decided to be the one in my group to see if it was worth the effort. In that light I’m glad they released a starter set so I didn’t have to pick up more than that to get a feel for what it was going to be like. As can be seen by my responses, it’s my opinion that, even though I got it at a discount too, it was still as waste of my money.

    To use your terminology, my complaints aren’t a cry of, “Someone help me stop spending my money like a fracking fan-boyish idiot!” They’re cries of, “What the hell is wrong with the game developers at WotC?”

    I totally agree with you on this point. I’ve been withholding my dollars and voting with my wallet since they started flooding the market with those stupid class handbooks.

    As an addendum to the above comment, since I’m sure some will claim so, I’ll take a moment to counter.

    I’m not saying that if you have fun playing 4E or 3E or 3.5E or 2E or rock-paper-scissors or whatever, that you’re wrong or anything else. I’m not judging the players of the game.

    I’m declaring that the game doesn’t work for me and my group and I find the direction of the development heading further away from anything even usable for us.

  38. Deinol says:

    I’m here late to the party, following the link from bxblackrazor. You’ve got some good points, but I think “the nature of where RPGs seem to be headed in my opinion” is too short-sided.

    In my mind, this is a great time to be a gamer. There is so much material coming out that I’m interested in, I can barely afford to keep up. So Wizards has taken a course you don’t like? There are tons of games out there, getting support from other companies. I really like Earthdawn and Talislanta, but those may be too rules-heavy even for your taste. I haven’t tried Savage Worlds yet myself, but I hear really good things about it. Later this month I’m going to write up my experiences with Dresden Files, but I can tell you it’s a fantasticly light system. If you want something 1E D&D like there is Swords and Wizardry.

    Those are just a few of the examples of great games being published right now. The industry has room to go in many directions. Some people like the direction 4E is going, and I think that’s great for them. Other people want really rules light systems, and there are options out there. Quite worrying about what other people are doing and look around to find a game that fits you. Then support those companies so they can survive and produce more of what you like.

    I was curious about the new Red Box myself. The more I read reviews the more I think I’ll try Dragon Age instead. The magic in the old Red Box isn’t in the new one, I think they missed the mark. I still have a Rules Cyclopedia around if I feel like going back to those days. There’s a lot out there, so just keep gaming!

    PS: I was going to link to all those games, but the blog thought that was too much like spam. Fair enough, I have confidence that you can google the ones you want to check out.

  39. No problem, Kevin. I’m always glad to help. And if LL doesn’t scratch your back just right, no worries. Just keep having fun with the hobby and always remember what Moldvay told us in the passage you quoted – especially that part about “other D&D booklets.” Cheers!

  40. Kevin says:

    @Deinol: There is no late to the party here. All posts are fair game for necromancy. This one happens to still be a hot topic. As for the scope of gaming, I couldn’t agree more. But WotC pulls a lot of weight when it comes to draw in the hobby and I find the track they’ve chosen to be a poor one… in some places the track was poor historically, but that beside the point. It irks me that 4E is what passes in the general populace’s eyes as a good rpg (merely because it bears the name D&D.)

    As for doing my own thing, I’ve been building KORE (a universal d10 system) and taking up the challenge placed before me by wickedmurph on my prior rant that instead of just complaining, I remake D&D into what I think it should have been… not an easy challenge, but a fair one non-the-less.

  41. Kevin says:

    Thanks pao, I promise to look into LL, but I just spent the day driving an 8 hour round-trip with the wife and kids to set up a new place to live, so not tonight.

    For the record, I know to ignore and change the rules since I started playing when that was the vogue. Nobody feared a rules lawyer because we never thought of the rules as RULES. But I fear that the language used in the rulebooks and the nature of the game in general has changed enough that new players are coming to the hobby without the knowledge that we have the option, nay the right – or even better, we’re required to ignore and change what we don’t like. That fear sticks with me the entire time I look at the new rule-sets. Couple that with the way imagination seems to have been dumped at the side of the road in favor of a more crunchy, rule-laden passenger and you’ve got the worst rpg-roadtrip recipe. That’s my issue.

  42. AD&D Grognard says:

    I was wondering what you guys think of the whole M20 scene..especially Microlite 20.

  43. AD&D Grognard says:

    Yeah, I like it enough that I printed the majority of the Spring Compilation out and am re-building some older notes I have to make use of it and the OGC available.

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