Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Did You Change That Rule?

Dungeons & Dragons has always existed amidst dichotomies. One of the most frequently experienced at the table is the injunction within the rulebooks of the game that the rules are not the most important thing. Gary Gygax points this out early on in the evolution of the game, and explicitly in the AD&D rulebooks appointing the Dungeon Master as the ultimate arbiter. At the same time, some very specific rules were laid out in the books, quite a few in the case of AD&D, which seem to be begging to be followed.

In point of fact the very openness and flexibility of Original Dungeons & Dragons seemed to be answered by the specificity of rules outlined in AD&D. It was quite common that players of the game would even write, call or speak up at conventions to ask pointed questions about rulings and game rules, or the absence thereof. Often these questions involved very specific situations that had arisen in the game on which a rule was needed or clarification of interpretation was required. The exactness and multiplication of rules in AD&D did not fix this situation entirely, and some might say compounded it. However, it could be argued that the multiplication of rules in the Advanced edition of the game was a direct response to the lack of rules previously.

It could also be argued that the Advanced game had more rules simply because it was "advanced" and hence lent itself to more complex gameplay. Whichever argument might win out, the dichotomy was here to stay. Now, whether the original intention of the statement that the rules are a guide came about because it is simply impossible to cover every conceivable rule to cover every possible situation that might arise in a D&D game; or if it arose out of a desire to place imagination and flexibility in the hands of the master and players of the game, is hard to know. Likely, it was a combination of the two, the first pragmatically, the second idealistically.

The question then is which playstyle should win out? Of course such a question could be seen but as aught but a variation of the endless argument of which game is better. Both styles of play, hew to the RAW or wild and free, are perfectly viable ways to play as long as the social contract has reached consensus. However, is there a way that seems to make more sense in relation to the game itself?

I've struggled with this for some time now, and it recently came to mind again when I received the latest issue of my favorite gaming magazine in the mail this week: Knights of the Dinner Table. The Knights, and the Hackmaster game as represented in the Knights, like to play with this dichotomy. Most recently in a grudge match between Gary Jackson and the Hard Eight staff and the Knights themselves in DAWG the RPG. The much renowned GM Jake Berlin decides to house rule a few things in addition to his scenario and is lambasted by Gary Jackson the creator of the game. This is one of the beautiful ironies of KODT that it can play satirically with these things we all experience at the table, and dream about in our mind. Every regular reader of the comic knows that GJ would bend or break a rule as long as it suited him, all the while using the same logic that he created the rules, he knows what he meant, or intended, or hell, he can do whatever he wants--they're his rules after all. And his own book "Hackmaster" also makes clear as does the DMG after which it is modeled, that the GM's the thing, not the rules. In fact the GM very literally "rules"!

I mention this because, as the comic always does, the argument playing out in the panels drew me in and I found myself siding with one of the characters. In this case, I was with Berlin. I mean, he hadn't really changed any rules, he had just added rules. And I really want to see the Untouchable Trio +1 hand Hard Eight and GJ their asses. Oh, there'll be hell to play in some way, but the sip of sweet justice is fine. Anyway, by siding with Berlin I really surprised myself. I usually side with those arguing with the rules, instead of against. In an early such debate at B.A Felton's table his players are about to mutiny because B.A. has "tweaked" a Spiny Blue Dragon to be much harder than the Knights are expecting. He has clearly gone against the rules, in fact even the explicitly written rule which Brian, the resident Rules Lawyer, brings up from the Hacklopedia of Beasts, Dragon stats should never be altered! Of course, what he is trying to do is make the Dragon a challenge for the players, but I found myself, though sympathizing with B.A., siding with the players on this one. That's where I usually come down. Don't change or rewrite or erase a rule without being _really_ clear about it.

The reason such situations are so successfully funny and compelling to us is that we have all been in that situation. We all know there is an insoluble dichotomy at work which naturally breeds humor. We all know it is true. And we laugh or at least grin, because we know the Trio +1 would just as easily support B.A. if he tweaked something that made it easier on their characters and brought them more wealth, power or experience. It is a self interested struggle on behalf of the players. And we sympathize with B.A. because his is not as self interested, but done in the interest of providing an adequate challenge to his unruly and perhaps overpowered bunch.

Classic humor aside, however, the struggle between these to poles is very real. Gary Gygax's weight on the matter seems clear:
Used as a standard by which to weight this argument for decades now, and to bequeath to DMs the ultimate power over their game. The loosely defined words, like Spirit, Obvious Intent, Major Systems, Uniformity of Play, and Broad Parameters make the statement almost legally useless however--which might have been the intent after all.

Most of us are quite comfortable with the balance that arises between DM fiat and flow, pacing and direction of play to roll with less exact applications of the rules in order to facilitate engaging and sustained play. In other words we want the story to move on at a nice pace and not have rules get in the way too much. The rules are less like train tracks and more like guardrails on a wide, unmarked two-lane country road on a broad flat field. Even if you broke through the rails, the truck is most likely going to keep on running.

However, what official tension should exist? Well, I offer the following. It is sort of an approach that is honed over time but seems to interpret the intent as well as the spirit in which D&D was created.

1. Rules should be followed if they are written in the official rules of the game, unless specifically represented as optional. And when the need arises and there are optional rules offered in the rulebooks, these optional rules should be preferred over houserulings.

2. When gameplay is ongoing it is quite common for situations to arise upon which a judgment is made that might be found to contradict a rule later. This can be shelved and remedied later so as not to interrupt the flow too much, unless some critical decision would affect a player negatively or positively to the point that a clear decision should be backed up by rules.

3. It is also common, especially when just learning a game or as a new DM, to not play with all rules initially given that as time goes on and situations arise play is more and more aligned to the rules as outlined in #2 above.

4. Additions to rules should be preferred over changes or exclusions to rules whenever possible, and it is quite common to need to add a houserule to handle situations not covered in the rule. In such cases the rule should be noted and referred to in the future when such situations arise in order to foster uniformity of play at least within the group.

5. Interpretations of rules should likewise be recorded and kept as a houserule with the same guidelines as expressed in #4 above.

6. Excisions or alterations in rules should be avoided if at all possible, but when they are done should be explained before hand to players and common consensus achieved. These should be presented as a houserules addendum which are kept in written format and then recorded so as to provide uniformity of play within the group. Note that not all the specifics of rules changed by the DM need be outlined to the players, if keeping specifics hidden to maintain exciting and engaging play.

Example 1: DM Johnny decides he wants critical hits and fumbles in his game. Such combat specifics are not a part of the main game, but optional rules for crits and fumbles are provided in the GMG. Johnny should adopt these optional rules before adopting or creating his own.

Example 2: In play at Johnny's table that night Swaray the Bard rolls a 1 on his check to play his lute to charm a crowd. Not sure if the Fumble tables handle non combat situations Johnny rules it as a simply, if awful, fail but no actual fumble with more deleterious effects. He didn't want to take the time to look the rule up then, since the thief was about to backstab a guard and the crowd might react, so he just made a ruling and kept the game flowing. However, he notes this to look up after the game to see if he ruled correctly. Note here that if the results of properly determining if a fumble applied in this case could have meant the difference between life and death, or perhaps the thief's success or failure or some other critical action that could permanently affect gameplay the actual rule should be sought and consulted.

Example 3: Evalynn, Johnny's spouse and long time player at his table decides she would like to GM a one shot for a Halloween game. Evalynn has never GMed before, but Johnny is confident she'll do fine. Evalynn decides to not use the extended combat rules, critical or fumbles, because she is still learning to GM. Everyone understands and is fine with this for now. If she continues GMing she'll add those rules in later.

Example 4: Johnny has a player that wants his mage to have an herbalist background and be able to pick herbs that could perhaps substitute for certain material components. There are no rules for backgrounds, so Johnny includes a brief list of proffesions in which players can choose to be trained in before training in their class by adding 1d6 additional years to their age. Also, there are no special rules to handling spellcasting with inferior material components in Johnny's game, so he comes up with a rule on the fly that the spell is less effective, thus either making the save with +1 or damage reduced by one die if a caster tries to cast a spell with less than adequate components. Later that week Johnny comes up with a table that outlines such modifications when the situation arises again.

Example 5: Evlaynn is running her Halloween one shot and comes up against a situation where infravision is used to detect undead. She is not sure if infravision could see the undead since it is a type of heat vision, so she rules that it sees them as an absence of heat, or cold spot, ruling that necromantic magic is maybe cooler than the surrounding area. This is recorded as an official ruling of an interpretation of infravision at her table.

Example 6: Johnny decided that he would share his table for casting spells with inferior material components with his players so they would be able to make informed decisions about their spellcasting (note he could have decided not to share his table, and only told them it was possible to cast spells thusly, but that they would be altered or inferior in most cases, to preserve the element of the unknown, a bit of mystery if you will, about magic in the game). This brings up a discussion among the spellcasters at his table if it would be possible to cast spells without verbal or somatic components at a similar deduction. In fact the discussion moves into casting spells without any components at all. Johnny is not comfortable with this as it would amount to cutting out the component rules altogether and won't go this far. Even before Johnny can get this out, his fighter asks if he can add rules about fighters being able to throw swords with his circus training background ... Note that Johnny's admission of an additional rule in #4 which amounts to a change to a rule opened the can of worms that led to the present discussion. Once rules start changing things can quickly spiral out of control.

So, is this the way the game is supposed to be played? Heck, I don't know. But I will say that we can assume most games are designed with rules that designers have at least given some thought to, and that few know the game quite as well as they. If we are going to play that game we should owe some allegiance to the rules. And in my book we shift more towards the RAW rather than the alternative. If you desire a game of D&D with less rules I would encourage the rules light play of Original or Basic D&D rather than the more explicitly written and designed AD&D and it's offspring.