The Trick of the Trap

I've played a fair bit (thirty or so sessions each) of modern games (D&D 4e, Pathfinder, 3.0). I find the games enjoyable for first or second level play and quickly discover that I become frustrated as the complexity of 'there's a rule for everything' comes to the forefront.

I prefer to play the game I'm playing. For me to enjoy the game, there has to be something at stake. I reject out of hand, suggestions that I should just "make something up on the spot" in these games because their rules or the systems in their rules are too complicated to remember - after all, I am choosing to play these games because they have these systems and rules. And I want to follow them fairly and consistently so that a thing can be at stake.When this is done well, it makes the DM very much like an engaging computer game.

After gaining some degree of mastery in the systems, I just found some of the complexities unparseable. Perception? I understand the complex debate of there being a mechanism for determining resolution (e.g.: Find / Remove Traps as a thief). With perception I don't even really have to be at the table. In fact, what I do is irrelevant, unless you consider 'where I spend my points on leveling' to be the whole of gameplay. Just roll my numbers, and let me know what happens. That is not the type of gameplay I'm looking for in a tabletop session.

There are many examples, but I choose to mention perception because I'm looking at old school tricks and traps to fill rooms for my players. And while reading them over I found some things that shocked me, and perhaps provided a little insight into the way our hobby developed.

From  'Kavanagh'

One trap I like using is a secret door, which is rather obvious. The party triggers the door, and the area is filled with magical darkness. If they move close to the wall, they will all fall into a slide. However, this slide is very tight, and they can only go in single order.
Once in the room, they can see a large monster, or if the DM is rather nasty, a trap may have been rigged in the slide, blowing it up if they try to get out. Or a large nasty monster comes sliding down the slide after them (Giant slug, Metalmaster, etc.)
The only way to get out is via the slide but it cannot be climbed. Magic will not work. The only way to escape is to dig handholds or something with a weapon or something.
Here is an example of an old school trick from an on-line resource, created by an actual DM before the creation of these modern systems.

I'm sitting at the table minding my own business while the party thief is checking for traps and everything goes dark. If I move towards a wall I fall into a slide. At this point I'd be wary but still on board - I'm likely on this slide because it's where he wants us to be. Oh, we all have to go down one at a time? Ok, still on board. All right a monster, we fight it, and presumably win.

Now we're trapped in this room. Oh, this slide we came down can't be climbed. Oh, we can't use magic to escape. Why? Because you said so? I have to figure out that you want me to dig handholds?

This trap basically consists of "I remove player agency to put you in a box where you have to think of this one thing to get out."

Old school play is a negotiation, built on trust and fairness. The DM doesn't place things the party is unable to deal with in their way. I'll assume that you're coherent enough to understand that this doesn't mean that there aren't monsters that can't be killed by the party, or traps that are deadly, just that if there are the players have the opportunity to avoid them. The old school gestalt isn't based around poor communication, unclear and unrelated consequences, and lies. I have never had a player death that did not result from a player choice. I've not run a game where players sit "stuck" (as if they couldn't just go somewhere else!?) because they can't figure something out, punishing them because they couldn't pluck something from my mind - I have no 'story' I want to tell, just an environment, forces, powerful personalities, factions, all with their own plans that do things. The players are free to do and figure out what they wish.

An old school DM is permissive. An old school DM is fair in his dealings with people. An old school DM communicates clearly. An old school DM allows natural and logical consequences to follow from player actions, not applied ones. An old school DM allows people to make their own choices.

You know who else this describes?

An Adult.

Long ago, when we were kids, someone who was a kid, running a game, did something unfair because he was a kid. Now, thirty years later, everyone is seeking to make smaller and more rigid boxes to insure something like that never happens again.

Well, it will happen again, over and over, in the next generation. More rules and laws won't prevent it. Perhaps instead of trying to legalize the risk out gaming, people should take responsibility to be adults with each other.

This is a role-playing blog, right?

6 comments:

  1. I'm not certain I agree entirely with your analysis on why newer versions of D&D are considerably more rules heavy than 1st edition.

    "An old school DM allows natural and logical consequences to follow from player actions, not applied ones."

    It seems to me that many of the added rules were added to deal with how this particular point can go awry, even with a great DM and great communication.

    In almost every game I've run as a DM or played in as a player, there have moments where there were at least two perfectly valid opinions on the 'natural and logical consequences' of an action. Sometimes, when it's just a matter of NPC reactions for example, it doesn't matter too much which way the decision goes. In a few specific areas though (the result of actions in combat, the result of skill-like actions, the timing of actions, and resolving the effects of magic/special abilities) a difference of opinion can have pretty big, long-term effects on a character.

    I don't think it's a coincidence that these are the specific areas where most of the rules-bloat has happened. I'd be willing to bet that the added rules (which are definitely not entirely a good thing) were intended to provide a framework that would give everyone at the table some idea ahead of time of how actions in these areas are likely to resolve themselves.

    Without that framework, playing a really old school game that relied on GM fiat sometimes felt a bit too much like that trap room you were describing, where you were spending a whole lot of time trying to divine the one specific thing you could say to your GM to get their opinion on the logical outcome of events to match your own, and not nearly enough time actually just playing.

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  2. Correction to the previous: "there have been moments..."

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  3. "there were at least two perfectly valid opinions on the 'natural and logical consequences' of an action."

    Aye, and this is why one person is picked to be a Dungeon Master. He picks which occurs by whatever method he devises, and the game moves on.

    "Without that framework, playing a really old school game that relied on GM fiat sometimes felt a bit too much like that trap room you were describing"

    This is a feature, not a bug. Not knowing which valid interpretation the GM is going to pick doesn't mean you have to guess which one he's going to pick ahead of time, and it certainly doesn't limit your choice (unless it's self-limited).

    You're comment about "divine the one specific thing you could say to your GM to get their opinion on the logical outcome of events to match your own" is anathema.

    They are the DM, it's their alien world you are exploring and discovering. The game isn't about trying to figure out how to force them to make it the way you want - it's to play in their world and discover it.

    If one spends their time engaged in trying to 'divine the right thing to say' to get them to give you the outcome you want, especially in a genera where that person is explicitly given the final word, instead of playing the game; that doesn't have anything to do with the DM running it. That's a choice the player is making not to play.

    This is clearly not saying that you don't gather information, or use in game resources, or ask questions in play to discover outcomes.

    Of course your comment does provide some interesting insight.

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  4. "They are the DM, it's their alien world you are exploring and discovering. The game isn't about trying to figure out how to force them to make it the way you want - it's to play in their world and discover it."

    I think we're talking about different things here. I'm not talking about high level concepts like exploration or discovery, I'm talking about the result of very basic actions at the table (i.e., "I'd like to push my foe off of a ledge", "I'd like to draw my opponent back into a specific position in melee", etc.) As a player, I've often had to either stop and tailor the actions I take to the foibles of a specific DM, or worse, try them blind with no idea whatsoever what type of result to expect. (And to be clear, I'm not talking about being able to anticipate success or failure here. That's usually a matter of luck, and isn't something you should be able to entirely anticipate. I'm talking about being forced to make a choice with little or no way to even anticipate what the metric of success might be, let alone the potential results or consequences.)

    For example, given the statement "I'd like to draw my opponent back into a specific position in melee" one DM might decide to handle it with a charisma check or a charisma based skill check (a bluff essentially), one might simply go along with it and require no check whatsoever, and a third DM might allow someone to take the stated action, but then punish them with a full attack routine from their opponent (as if they had withdrawn from combat).

    Each new edition of D&D seem to spend a lot time trying to codify a common framework of guidelines and rules to cover as many situations like this as possible. That's not always a good thing, considering the bloat, but it's an understandable goal. (Or at least, it seems that way to me).

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  5. I think we're in total agreement here.

    When I talk about negoitiation here, it is specifically about this very thing. In leiu of one millyarn rules, instead have a disscussion, with the reasonable people your friends.

    The main thrust of the article is that the addition of rules don't accomplish their stated goals, because the issue isn't 'the rules', it's immature people - no amount of rules will ever eliminate them.

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  6. Fair enough. I think the only disagreement is really over the "immature" bit. I've seen perfectly competent, mature people run into a lot of frustration because of honest misunderstandings, which having a stricter framework defining actions and their outcomes can help avoid. (Albeit, at a considerable cost in terms of complexity, time, and annoyance.)

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