The Rules Gap

May 7th, 2009

In my experience, people who play D&D — and roleplaying games in general — have two ways of looking at the rules.

Some try to make their games fit the rules.

Others try to make the rules fit their games.

Tales of the Rambling Bumblers touched on this in an excellent post about two months ago, but it comes to mind now because of what I wrote about in my previous post, and because of several unrelated recent conversations I’ve had with other gamers and bloggers.  My take on it is slightly different from Joshua’s; for one thing, I’m coming at it from the player perspective instead of the system perspective.

The first thing I need to get out of the way before I go any further is this:  Neither outlook is objectively any better than the other.  I say this because members of both camps (myself definitely included) usually address the matter subjectively.  I’m firmly in the “change the rules to fit the game” camp.

The second important thing is that some games work better for one outlook than for the other.  I think that this is part of the reason why there’s so much outcry over 4e, in fact.  I would definitely place 3e as favoring the “game fits the rules” outlook — it contains many rules meant to model the world, some of which seem broken or infeasible.  Consider the original 3.0 Jump skill rules — they actually do a good job of realistically modelling a jump, but they were sufficiently complex that 3.5 streamlined them.  Or take the Profession skill, the Craft skill, and the implications of both upon the game world’s economy.  On the other hand, 4e favors the “rules fit the game” outlook — it’s practically built for recasting or “shemping.”

The two editions are, basically, supporting different groups of gamers.  Not entirely different, because outlook is not a binary state — I’ve known some gamers who switch outlook depending on the GM, the group, or the system, and others who are neutral enough on the issue to function happily in either type of game.  But those who lean more strongly toward “game fits the rules” have reason to prefer 3e, while those who lean toward “rules fit the game” have reason to prefer 4e.

The third important thing is that most systems are not exclusive to one or the other.  There are “rules fit” people who played (and extensively houseruled) 3e.  There are “game fits” people who played 4e and found it to be something very akin to a wargame.  The systems were not ideal for those gamers, but they still worked.  I’m not sure that the way a system “fits” an outlook is necessarily an obvious or even inherent part of the system, in fact.  1e as a system muddies the waters a bit, because it contains plenty of support for “rules fit” gamers, while also encouraging the kind of improvisation and “refluffing” that suits “game fits” gamers.

Indulge me for a bit longer and I’ll try to show how this is related to the roles I was talking about.

When it comes to character creation, one frequent complaint 3e players voice about 4e is a lack of character options.  They feel pigeonholed or stereotyped into a small array of choices.  Oddly enough, the comment in that article came in response to a post in which I tried to show just how flexible the character classes of 4e could be.  Or perhaps not so odd:  this is a case of differing outlook.

In 3e, if you were building a certain concept, you would assemble it from class levels, each of which contained its own distinct class abilities (which sometimes included nothing more than a hit die and perhaps some BAB or save progression).  You would work rules-first, thinking about which defined class features you wanted to gain and how you could go about getting them.  If your concept were a nimble adventurer who could easily escape danger, you’d probably want Evasion, so you would probably plan on a couple of levels of Rogue or Monk.  Or prestige classes, but it’s the same idea.

It’s sort of like making a sandwich:  You have a set of distinct ingredients, and you layer them on until you end up with something that suits your taste.  Some ingredients go very well with each other.  Others could ruin your meal if you combine them.  You can pick the ingredients, but you can’t pick the taste of each.

In 4e, you start with the concept, figure out which class’s abilities would best represent it, and then change the fluff (and perhaps even the rules) in order to make it a solid fit.  You’re still thinking about which abilities you want to gain, but instead of looking for an all-around match, you look for a mechanical match and reinvent as necessary.  In the case of that nimble adventurer, you’d examine the classes with an eye toward powers and features that allowed for mobility and self-defense.  So far, very similar.

The difference is, in 4e, maybe you choose Warlock.  Odd choice, right?  There’s nothing particularly nimble about them.  But if you look past the name and the flavor text, what you find is a class that possesses a great number of powers useful for movement, escape, and self-defense.  You might need to do a little work here:  Change the flavor of flight powers to represent acrobatic tumbling, maybe, perhaps reimagine the attack powers as Dexterity-based ranged attacks if your desire is to play a nonmagical character.  But it’s less work than you might think, and the result is pretty guaranteed to be balanced with the guy who just played the Rogue.  (Which might, in fact, be a better idea — but the point is, it’s not the only choice for your concept.)  If you’re a little leery of recasting the mechanics along with the fluff, there’s always the Avenger or the Barbarian.  (Another neat thing about 4e:  “nimble” doesn’t have to mean super-high dexterity.  Above-average, probably, but it needn’t be your highest stat, necessarily.)

4e is more like a salad:  You might have the exact same set of ingredients as your neighbor, but it’ll taste different depending on how you dress it.

This is also “old-school”:  remember the Basic version of the game, with just four classes?  Your knight, my barbarian, and the other guy’s hoplite were all Fighters.  They all had very similar abilities, straight out of the book (certainly more so than in 4e).  Were they pigeonholed, stereotyped, “all the same”?  Hell, no!  Their personalities, approaches, methods, and tactics were all very different.  Even if there was no official structure to recognize those differences at the time, the better GMs would rule them, de facto, into place:  my barbarian would probably be better at surviving in the wild after all our party’s gear was lost, while your knight would be far more comfortable than my character among the noble courts in times when diplomacy was called for, and that other guy’s hoplite seems to have an old army buddy in every town.

4e is like that.  The rules give you the rules… but they don’t give you the whole game.

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Related posts:

  1. Launching a Campaign: The Ground Rules Sheet
  2. Defining Roles
  3. Class Design for 4th Edition
  4. What D&D Is (To Me)
  5. Developing Roles

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5 Comments

  1. SuperSooga, May. 7, 2009, 11:52 am:

    Some really good points here. Very much enjoying this blog at the moment!

    SuperSooga´s last blog post: Skullados, a 30 minute MS Paint RPG

  2. Wyatt, May. 7, 2009, 12:40 pm:

    Very good points. Coming from a DM’s perspective, I’m also in the “make the rules fit your game” camp, and I’m enjoying all the homebrew and houseruling I do to 4e. I practically play a different 4e every single game I run, and it’s been a very satisfying and simple experience for me. Now if only I could play more games instead of having to DM all the time!

    Wyatt´s last blog post: Wyatt’s Words: Daydreaming Design

  3. Wimwick, May. 7, 2009, 2:29 pm:

    You present some interesting arguements and I really like the direction that your thoughts are going in. I’ve also been pondering the use of roles in 4e which I talk about in my post today.

    I wonder if Wizards of the Coast will loosen up the way roles are defined and make them slightly more generic? I think there is still a lot of work and thought that can go into these concepts and I’m eager to see what you and the D&D blogging community (myself included) come up with.

  4. Scott, May. 7, 2009, 5:44 pm:

    @Wyatt: Heh, I know the feeling. It’s hard to get on the other side of that screen sometimes! That’s one reason I occasionally play in RPGA events, even though they’re not much like real roleplaying…

    @Wimwick: I think they will. One thing we saw in PHB2 is that Wizards is now acknowledging that most classes have a primary and a secondary role, like Bards being leader/controllers. Most of the PHB classes did, too, but it wasn’t called out. I suspect the PHB3 classes will be a little more complex than those in the PHB2, and if nothing else its dual-classing mechanism seems primed to make “blending” roles for a concept much easier.

  5. Drax40K, May. 11, 2009, 10:41 am:

    Excellent article! I agree, sometimes you need to be creative and bend things a bit to make them work for you. It’s my opinion that 4th Edition is so much MORE open to this then 3.5 ever was.

    The biggest argument that 3.5 players use to compare to 4th Ed. is the number of availble ‘options’ and ‘combinations’ for player character creation. However, it was my experience, that this only muddled things as the vast majority of these options were really artificial and weren’t worth a damn. Sure you could make a very different kind of Cleric who specialised in Divination, but, how long would he last in the common adventuring party? How many sessions do you think it would be before he was finally pressured into doing what Clerics needed to do in that game and just take healing spells? How many successful fighters do you know from 3.5 who didn’t have ‘Power Attack’ and ‘Great Cleave’? If you made a Barbarian that didn’t have a Great Axe…what was the point?

    I don’t dislike 3.5 and respect people who after making a big financial committment to that game and buying all of those book, decide to stick with it. It could be a very fun game! I played it for quite awhile myself. I just get very disappointed in people panning 4th without ever having really tried it.

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