Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A History of My Complaints, and More Lessons

But before I go on to the OSR, let’s take a look at the lessons learned from the last blog:

Lesson #6 – Too many rules is too many rules.

I like rules, and reading rules, as much as the next gamer, maybe more. But playing and reading are two different things. By and large, most toolkit games (like Rolemaster or GURPS) don’t even intend for you to use all the rules. Believe me, I tried, much to the regret of my players. While not a toolkit game, D&D has Lots and Lots of Rulez, and for the most part you are expected to play with them all. This trend starts out with 1st Edition, which had many rules we all ignored (like segments and weapon vs. armor modifiers) and get more pronounced with every succeeding edition. I am reasonably sure that the three core books for 4th edition had no optional rules, while 3/3.5 had a few, and 2nd had a few more.

Maybe some of you young studs can handle all that rule-mongering, but at this point in my life, I want less, not more. That means a game where there are fewer rules, not a game where I ignore most of the rules.

Lesson #7 – The GM should be the final arbiter of the rules.

Every ruleset I know plays lip-service to this idea, but if you have three hardbacks full of rules, it doesn’t make much sense to ignore several pounds of books you just bought. The very presence of the rules means that you are going to be looking up stuff some of the time. Again, only by limiting the rules can I feel free enough to be that final ‘decider’.

Lesson #8 – The less rules options characters have, the better off your campaign will be.

Look at that statement again. Less is more. Really. Still don’t believe me? Character options, once thought to be one of the holy grails of gaming, are now just another sacred cow. It does seem to make sense that the more options you give people, the happier they will be. The problem is that most players don’t know where to stop. There is a whole class of people who will endlessly tinker with their builds, trying to find the fastest way to kill, the best way to deal combat damage, the best way to cast two spells a round, etc. There are whole games dedicated to this sort of principle, like Champions/HERO System, and those sorts of games rapidly become more focused on the builds, and not the character within the context of the campaign.

I don’t know about you, but I want my players to become fascinated with the play of the campaign, not the next level-up or how their guy is cooler than the guy of the player next to them.

I am all for having characters that seem individual, but that has to come in the context of the campaign, not what monstrosity the newest builder book allows me to Frankenstein up.

Lesson #8 – Freedom only works if your players are prepared to use it.

When I tried to run my first modern sandbox game, my players rebelled. Too much freedom meant they didn’t know what to do next. Digestible information is key, here. If I give my players the 50 page bound Player’s Guide to Doyle’s Kool Kampaign, their eyes will glaze over. I now intend to give them a background in a paragraph, and a fair amount of rumors each (3?) at the beginning of the campaign. I also have an idea how to get them to give their characters structure, but that's for a future blog. If you are reading this three years after I wrote it, look for the Milestone blog entry.

Lesson #9 – Stat blocks should be able to be generated on the fly.

Seriously, in any game, but especially in a sandbox game, you need to be able to generate content on the fly, ideally without your players noticing. I once thought Complete Preparation was a key to a well run game, and there is still plenty that you can do to prepare generic resources: names, stat blocks, one page adventures, etc. But planning a scenario in such detail that you could publish the thing is too much to do every week. Stat blocks that are more than a line are too much every week.

Believe me, I am not a proponent of ‘handwaving’. The key here is that effective improvisation isn’t about lack of preparation, it’s about using the content you carry around with you in your head, and well as some minimal stat blocks, maps and notes to their fullest possible potential. If your rulebook has three gazillion options, stat block bloat ensues. Another reason for having very few rules.

Lesson #10 – This is a game. You should be happy and looking forward to playing the next session of your campaign. If that’s not the case, something is wrong, and you should fix it.

I don’t know about you, but I am people-pleaser. I get off on creating an emotional and visceral reaction in my players, whether that is laughter, horror, sadness, or passion. That’s my definition of fun. And if they weren’t having fun, I told myself that I was doing something wrong. There’s still a lot of truth in that, but the reality is that some people will never be pleased. Everyone (including you) can have an off night, but if someone, including you, is not having fun, sometimes the answer isn’t the game, or how you run it, but the fact that they will never have fun in your campaign. There doesn’t have to be blame about this, and it doesn’t even have to be their fault. That’s just the way it is, and if you are the GM, then they need to find a game where they can have fun.

In many ways, that’s always been the hardest lesson for me to learn, and the one I have to re-learn every few years.

Now here’s the biggie. Drum roll, please.

Lesson #11 – The success of a campaign has very little to do with the quality of play of the campaign. A successful campaign is one where you show up every week, and there are players there, waiting to play.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, until you remember that players only show up if they are having a good time. Most of my longer running campaigns lasted until I ended them – not because people said they were bored. As the cliché goes, half of life is showing up.

Next: The OSR. Really.


  1. A very perceptive and eloquent post. I'm looking forward to more!

    I'm very interested in the viewpoint of gamers who went through long periods of playing modern rules-heavy games, then end up finding themselves returning to simpler classic games. This is much different than what happened with me - I'm a fossil gamer who stopped playing altogether when RPGs got too heavy, and only recently returned to the games I originally enjoyed.

  2. OMG if I only lived near you and could attend RPG games every week.... I love everything you have to say and miss the old days...

  3. Lesson #8 – The less rules options characters have, the better off your campaign will be.

    Malarkey and otherwise... this is solely personal opinion and nothing more. There are oodles of players that want plenty of rule options, if only because it allows for them to do things when other players have the spotlight.

    Look, not all players are comfortable interacting with NPCs or using their real-world social skills. For a DM to try and force that on them breaks your own rule #10, ie taking the fun out of it.

    For these players, expressing themselves through a carefully-considered PC build is perfectly acceptable. Role-playing doesn't always involve the use of one's mouth. A large selection of rule options becomes their palette, from which they paint the role they wish to play. Don't limit their color selection just because of your personal preference.

  4. The Jack Kirby school of character development is a fine argument to make (conflict reveals character), if that were the argument you were making. But nothing about character builds reveals anything remotely about character among most players who engage in it. It's simply the old story, best phrased today in WoW-speak, "How can I get the best DPS (damage per second) for my build?"

    And all that feat-mongering comes at a cost: prep time, table time for battles, time wasted looking up the effect of rules, time, time, time rolling down the drain that could be dedicated to other pursuits. Not to mention the frustration that such rules-mongering engenders.

    I don't doubt that all those options are attractive and interesting to players; after all, they wouldn't be there otherwise. But they are definitely a detriment to the overall campaign, which was my point. I know players think all that crap is cool, but all that crap comes at a cost, which I am no longer interested in paying.

  5. Interesting (and revealing) response... so, by your definition, a player that has you RPing every shopkeeper so they can purchase the exact clothing outfit they feel they should have (while the remaining players sit about the table and wait) is ok?!

    The time issue shouldn't be a deciding factor... because, well, lets face - by definition (ie, gaming) we're wasting time!!

    Look, I understand your point of delays getting between you and whatever aspect of the game you want to get to quicker, but to apply a blanket statement like "all that feat-mongering comes at a cost" shows enormous self-absorption.

    A good GM balances his desires with those of the players... in fact, that should be extrapolated out to the entire table: All players have to balance their desires with those of the others. Some players live for the tactical, dice-rolling encounters... while others will take most interest when storyline-NPCs show up.

    In my opinion, this journey of personal exploration (which I'm all for and applaud you whole-heartedly for undertaking) should be more about style and less about rule sets. Your statement "I don't doubt that all those options are attractive and interesting to players; after all, they wouldn't be there otherwise. But they are definitely a detriment to the overall campaign" reveals that you have fallen off the operating table of fact and deep into the pit of opinion... and that's OK. Just bear in mind that many of us don't agree with you.

  6. "Just bear in mind that many of us don't agree with you."

    A point well taken. :)

    You are certainly not the only participant in my previous campaigns who feels the way you do. Alfredo, who has taken me to task over some of the same issues (in Facebook, as he didn't want to post here), feels much the same way. You may well insert the note *IMO in virtually all the comments I make on this blog. But I was unhappy with 3.5, and I remained unhappy with both Pathfinder and 4.0. There would not have been an old school movement if many others didn't share my dissatisfaction. Take a look the right side of the blog, and you will see just a few of the many hundreds of blogs dedicated to the (most) of the same principles as I have discussed here. The dissatisfaction is directly connected to the burdensome rule sets that 3.0 and its successors imposed, and is not just a play-style. As I have said many times over the years, "Why would I want to play a game where I ignore 1/2 to 3/4 of the rules?"