On the Problem With the Rules for the Bugbear Roadblock

There's something rotten in the rules. Modern game design is ignoring human nature.

There are too many rules in the newer editions of the game - too much focus on 'building' a character, and game play that is tedious and boring. Some of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons Third edition have addressed these issues before, and I'd like to talk about where their reasoning is suspect.

Before I delve into that, I'd like everyone to know that I greatly respect all those people involved in the creation of the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and it is very important that they know how important and valuable their contribution was. Not only were they successful at reinvigorating the genera, their decisions paved the way to a future filled with retro-clones. Without their wisdom and work we would not be here today to stand in judgment of their choices.

That said, Monte Cook addressed the question here. In his response he points out (rightly so) that there are a lot of individual rule systems and sub-systems in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons (his examples being primarily first* and second edition - not 0e).**

But Dungeons and Dragons is not that kind of game. He says this: "When Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams and I designed 3rd edition, we wanted something for the DM to be able to fall back on. We wanted to provide rules the DM had at his disposal that wouldn't be hard to adjudicate, wouldn't slow down the game (at least not too much), and wouldn't force him to say "no.""

So they created a comprehensive robust ruleset that covered 80% of possible situations, and therein lies the problem.

Comprehensive robust rule sets lead players to think that the only performable actions are ones that the rules cover. Play ceases to become about 'what can I think of to get myself out of this situation' and instead becomes about 'did I place my points correctly at character creation or level up'.

I know I can adjudicate his bugbear roadblock, but if I do, I immediately have to answer questions from each player about why I'm not using the bull rush rules, and why did someone bother to take the feat for improved bull rush if I'm just going to fiat away it's effectiveness.

He finishes with the admonition that we should change or ignore the rules if we wish, because no one will come to our house and confiscate our books. He says "Do what's fun." Only as the DM they've made my job much more difficult by creating this structure of imbalance I have to adhere to, making the play of the game about maximizing probabilities at creation and level up, and earning the ire of my players as I ad hoc something that devalues their character.

* First edition was designed to do much the same task as 3rd edition, create consistency across games for tournaments and between tables. Second edition was designed from first edition.

**Do not misunderstand me, I like a coherent and robust rules set for a lot of games. I am a fan of magic, and more traditional games like chess. These games are not wishy-washy, every action is clearly defined and there are no judgment calls - and that make them good games.


  1. Strong agreement here. You can't un-write rules, unless there's widespread contempt for many of them (e.g., AD&D), which is something 3E tried to avoid by making them so damn reasonable.

  2. My gut instinct is that this is something that can be dealt with at the beginning of a campaign - establishing with the players "We're not going to stick rigidly with the rules, min/maxing and game balance are not top priorities, and be prepared for DM judgment calls". Simply saying you can't ignore rules when one of the rule authors is saying you can is a bit wimpish - in the "good ol' days" the DM was boss, not the rules author, and Monte Cook seems to be agreeing with this. You might not be able to unwrite rules, but you can probably ignore them or house-rule them.

  3. Hear hear.
    I can add or ignore any 'ad hoc' rule subsystem without really affecting any other rule in the older versions.

    With a 'single mechanic for everything' system, tinkering gets a lot harder, because of these unintended effects across feats, powers, whatever.

    The d20 mechanic is ok but what Monte is ignoring is that exception-based rules create a new little rule for every exception. As I understand 3e, feats generally let your character break some specific rule, either by ignoring or replacing an otherwise standard modifier. So really each of these is another rule to remember. I don't care that they're all "roll over on d20." They're still seperate rules governing situations.

  4. This is exactly why I won't run Pathfinder again. While it's a decent ruleset, there are too many moving parts for my liking, but I'm reluctant to strip them away because of the expectation amongst the players that those rules be there when they need them.

  5. Seems we're all thinking on the same topics again. I actually did a blog post about this same topic and why I quit playing 3e last Saturday I think, I like the DM to have the power, not the rulebook.

  6. I've had hands-on experience with players at the table during 4e Encounters organized gameplay, where players literally said, "I didn't know I could do that, it isn't in the rules."

    A case of players self-limiting their actions to what was defined in the rule set. Until I heard that I was DMing under the assumption that everyone knew that they could describe what they wanted to do, and I'd adjudicate it (presumably in a fair manner), on the fly if no obvious rules were apparent. Since then I've started every session by saying this explicitly to my players.

  7. So to play the devil's advocate just a smidge, I want you to remember that rules help people learn to play a game. It opens up the hobby to a number of people who wouldn't have considered it before. Most people don't understand the idea of playing a game with no rules. And even the idea of playing a game where you're able to do something that isn't covered by the rules has many people questioning what you do. I think the problem is generally that everyone knows too many people who are control freaks and frankly @$$holes that the fear of entering one of these games where whether or not you are able to do something is up to that person is a little bothersome.

    You all know what I'm talking about. We've all had DMs (and players) who refuse to reward ingenuity, and even punish it. So having rules in place in something that “should” help prevent that. It's an entry point. Anyone is allowed to play past editions (as evidenced by the fact that many do) but to draw new people there has to be something different. And to draw new people, rules helping to govern types of behaviours are borderline necessary. A good example is that most entry level players play Good types.

    In addition, I'd like to add (coming from someone who didn't play RPGs until she was an adult) that someone who has never played a game similar to D&D or any tabletop roleplaying game may not understand what kind of options they have available. Providing them with a structure like 3rd edition did, (and to a much lesser extent in my opinion, 4th), gives them the opportunity to let their creative juices flow, and come up with ideas that may not be covered by the rules.

    And don't diss on the people who aren't creative enough to come up with something other than what the rules cover. Not everyone needs to be artistic and imaginative to enjoy playing the same game you do.

  8. I'd call myself an old school DM even though I use a universal mechanic with C&C. Having DMed 3.x and played 4th, I don't want to go back to the overhead of character builds and bitching about sub-clauses and foot notes in the rules.

    But I do like having a handy system that will give me a measure of character skill against a difficulty. On the other hand, just because I have a hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail. Even as I'm a fan of universal mechanics, I try to observe universal mechanical precautions. I wrote that post some time ago, but if I were to write it today some of your thinking would be included.

    In a recent adventure, the players were going through a dead wizard's tower because one of the character wizards was searching for some arcane lore (long story.) One session ended with them finding the entrance to the wizard's library, but it was guarded by a 'Demonic Tutor' that informed them that 'all apprentices must pass a test to enter'. Between that session and the next, I did remind the player of the wizard that the tutor would ask questions that he would expect a low level wizard to know.

    Come next session, the tutor asks "What is the range of a sleep spell?" and several other questions on common first level spells.
    The player was flummoxed. He expected to be rolling a d20 on an intelligence check. Some how, he forgot I was the DM that describes the door whenever they say "we search it for traps".

  9. @Dominque:
    In an early session of Zak's "I hit it with my axe" video series, he gave a very succinct explanation of how to play.

    "What can I do?" the new player asked.
    "Anything you can do in real life, except you can also cast spells."

    Second: if your DM is a control freak, rules won't save you.

  10. Well said! This is exactly why I love the AD&D (1e) player's handbook, because it hardly has any rules in it beyond what's needed to make characters.

  11. I'll just say this... I'm with Dominique.

  12. @Dominique,
    You bring up some points I agree with, and some I do not. I don't think that it's possible to simplify or codify a role-playing game to the point where everyone can play without some creative effort. The essence of the role-playing game is creativity - on the part of the person who sets up and oversees the game world, and on the part of the players within the DM's construct. Rules should provide a common frame of reference, so everyone (DM and player) can be on the same page with regards to expectations of the outcome of actions. If a player or DM is not willing to invest enough creativity and attention to fulfill their role within such a game, those people should find another form of entertainment that better suits them. Not all of us are base/basket/football players, and not all of us are role-players. There's nothing wrong with either statement - it's just a fact of differing temperament and not a personal failing.

    From my personal experience, I have found that players and DMs who were introduced to rules-heavy games are initially less creative than those who started off with more rules-light approaches. It seems that the majority of rules-heavy starters think of the stats/skills/feats as limitations on what is permissible, rather than as springboards or frameworks to assist their actions. I think this is -C's point, and it certainly is mine. My girlfriend, who had very little experience with roleplaying games when we first met, started with 3.5e. She would self-limit her actions within the framework of the skills or feats on her character sheet, and would not consider a course of action that had not been codified within the rules. The DMs that she initially played with likewise looked to skills and feats as a means to resolve an action, rather than using them as an assist to adjudicate an action. This is not a flaw, per se, of rules-heavy systems, but it is a flaw in the presentation of those systems; the design of these systems does not take this behavior adequately into account. Lip service is sometimes paid to the fact that a character is greater than the stats, skills, and feats on a character sheet, but the hard facts, hammered in by page after page of examples within player and DM supplements, refute this. DMs and other players who use the rules as a de facto limit on what can be accomplished refute this.

    After experiencing some really great rules-light games run by really good, creative DMs (tip of the hat to Cyclopeatron Bob and Telecanter, who are two of the best DMs I've played with in roughly 30 years of gameplay), my girlfriend now looks at the rules of the 3.x system in a different light; she thinks of actions independently of skills and feats, and tries to determine how these rules can provide a mechanical benefit to a creative solution. She does this both as a fledgling DM, and as a player. She runs her own bi-weekly game now, and is trying to break others from the same mindset that she once had.

    I personally have been playing role-playing games for about 30 years, and I've played the 3.x system since its release in 2000; I can count the number of good, creative DMs and players that I've played with using the d20 system on one hand. For many people using these systems, the rules are restrictions on what can be accomplished, not a tool to assist you become creative in gameplay. That may not be the goal (in fact, it most likely is the absolute opposite of what is intended), but that is how the rules are used "in the wild", and that is what matters.

  13. @Dominique: I hear you. Good points. I think you're right about rules forming a good reference frame for people who are new to RPGs. The experience at the table does hinge a lot on the game master. I'm very open to player ideas that come out of left field, but I've played with GMs who are pretty quick to stifle that stuff too.

    As a GM, I try to encourage new players to focus on what they want their characters to do first, and let familiarity with game mechanics come naturally through play, rather than vice versa.

  14. Dominique, did you just say people should be able to enjoy D&D even though they are not imaginative? And basically imply it's good if the game is designed for such people?

    I take issue with that. The strength of an RPG, the very definition of it, is that it is a game of the imagination. Why should it be dumbed down for these imagination deprived people? That would ruin the experience for those who actually want to play D&D.

    Also, how is keeping track of many fiddly little abilities and powers and feats and skills easier for anyone than just imagining you are there and using real life instincts to decide what to try? if they are incapable of such imaginings how could it be a fun passtime for them in the first place?

    Regarding Monte, the fact that the newer game has "less rules" doesn't hold water because, due to the universal system approach he notes, ALL the rules are intertwined hopelessly, so you cannot easily drop out or change parts you dont need or want unlike the modular various systems in older editions. Try playng a 3E rogue while not using skills, for example. The newer rules might make a bit more sense logically, but the overall effect is increased mandatory complexity, making it feel like there are more rules. Also, the way new editions try to cover everything possible with a fallback rule, which then may have character abilities worked in alongside it, means a DM cannot make rulings. The book is the DMs master instead of vice versa.

  15. Hmm, @Anonymous above, just saw this comment and wanted to address it. I did NOT say people who aren't imaginative should be able to enjoy D&D. I only said people who are LESS imaginative should have the option to participate. People with no imagination wouldn't enjoy D&D so that point is moot.


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