DM’s Rant: A Response

This post is a direct response to my friend Matt’s request that I comment on his post DM’s Rant. I originally was going to post in his comment section, but my train of thought derailed and I was spilling verbage onto his site. I removed the debris and started over. Here’s the result after the cleanup effort.

First things First, Matt, I agree with your premise that the Game Master should not be bound to the book. The Game Master should of course use the rule to run a fair and honest campaign, but there are so many more things to a good game than adherence to the rules.

Now, onto the part of my post where I point out (not always with the best of tact, but with the best of intentions) the errors I see in your self-admitted passionate rant.

To begin, Matt you appear to be contradicting yourself in the middle of your argument. In your fourth paragraph you hold forth with this:

I’m reading this thing and I’m scratching my head, thinking, why is this guy awarding XP based solely on how much treasure the players find or how much of a body count they rack up? Because the book told him to? Is this the kind of gamer we have now? Slaves to the Almighty Rule Book? In the seminal guide to D&D, the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Mr. Gygax says over and over again, “All of this is optional. Do what you want.” He says it in many different ways, usually with some much prettier language – some would say overly obscure, and I tend to agree in most places, but this is clear as blue skies.
All. Of. This. Is. Optional. Do. What. You. Want. When it says “all”, it means all

Then in your seventeenth paragraph you say:

This notion that this rule and that rule doesn’t work and this and that doesn’t fit is so much lazy bullshit.

If I have taken this out of context, please forgive me and correct me, I think you are off on this. If everything is optional, then any rules one finds cumbersome or annoying can be tossed as needed or desired. I believe that anything that doesn’t work for your personal Table should be dropped. If a rule is too cumbersome, trim it down or cut it out. I did this with weapon speed, wandering monsters, one minute combat rounds, etc. Also, Gary Gygax may have changed his mind later in life, but early in TSR’s run, he held a play my way or you are not playing D&D attitude. I’ve quoted part of an essay from Dragon 63, here, which makes this very clear. Also, I went back and reread the preface to the First Edition Dungeon Masters Guide and Mr. Gygax seems to be very intense on uniformity of rules across the board. If you are not playing with the rules as written, then your game will collapse or be so esoteric that no one outside of your limited community will want to play it. I feel that he was a rules guy and he would expect the GMs and the Players to use the Rules at their Table.

Now, let’s get to the meat of your rant, Matt. You are frustrated by GMs who can’t go Outside the Box of Rules. I’m with you on this. You focus on the idea of how Experience Points (XP) are awarded in your rant. Here is my take on it.

Every game has rules. Be they, pretend games from our childhood: “House” or “Cowboys and Indians” or complex games from our board games heyday: “Axis and Allies” or “Diplomacy,” games have rules. We are taught to play by the rules. When we don’t play by the rules, we are called cheaters.

1E D&D told us that the rules said Experience comes from Killing Monsters, Collecting Gold, and Having Magic Items. So, we played that way. Gygax even used a jeweled man as a lure to get PCs into a dungeon, because of all the XP that automaton offered. The progression tables in 1E expected PCs to get gold and count it toward their XP advancement. There was no XP for overcoming traps or parleying with NPCs. 1E was a game about Slaying and Looting; a dragon was the best target for any group of PCs…It offered Monster XP, Gold XP, and Magic Item XP. Players looked at every encounter as a potential combat.

By the time 3E hit the scene, we had Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, and other games focused on story and player options beyond the standard D&D formula. While the rules for awarding XP changed to shift away from Gold XP and Magic Item XP, not everyone wanted to let go of the way they learned to play years before. It is similar to growing up playing Original Rock/Paper/Scissors and learning that in 2nd Ed. R/P/S Rock beats Paper, Paper beats Scissors, and Scissors beats Rock. It is in the rules and it is perfectly legal, but it is not what you grew up with and it flies in the face of what you believe is core to YOUR game. This, I believe, is what is at the heart of the Edition Wars and nearly every Grognard Complaint.

Matt, it appears that you want a game wherein the PCs are rewarded for experiences that they have. Thus to you XPs mean “real experience;” RPGs are not really about the “real” (The Games Librarian has a good post on this), they are about the “simulation of the real.” The rule set of a game really doesn’t define the laws of that particular universe. The rule set gives Players and GMs the tools to simulate those laws.

Jason Holmgren (Designer of Ironclaw) told me that rule sets determine the style of play for a game. I think he’s right. In 1E, the rules lead to a game with wild, unexplained magic and every encounter was expected to turn into a combat encounter. In 3E, magic was a regulated, understandable force with crafting classes taught at the Co-Op. Gone were the days, when Players had to take the Great Weapons of Power from their fallen foes; they could now craft the uber-weapon they wanted from their “Experience” and components bought at the local mage shop. The style of play had changed and some liked the change and others did not, but they played the game anyway. This is not to say that people didn’t Play Outside the Rule Box. Rule sets determine the style of play, but they can’t chain players or GMs to that style.

Monte Cook (my Go-To Guy when it comes to game design) has written about simulation in role playing game design and about how rule set can affect game play. I think both of these posts reflect on the topic of your rant and offer better explanations than I can devise. It is the application of these two ideas that I believe embodies your rant.

Matt, we agree on the most important piece of your rant. This a game and it should be fun. Thanks for asking my opinion.

Game On!