Rollplaying 101

For the Halloween game, we decided to focus on a meat-grinder Dungeon Crawl to kill everyone off. What started with my normal Exalted playgroup eventually took over our Friday game, where half of the players are from the Exalted game and the other half are Freshmen new to gaming or transfers new to the group.

Running through the 3.5 version of Tomb of Horrors, a lot of problems become pretty inherent in the system. Obviously, the game isn’t meant to handle a lot of characters (like, say, two per player) running around at the same time, especially since combat, traps, spells, etc. tend to take up a lot of time: crawl is an apt description. Four sessions in and we’re only halfway through the tomb, though a good number of characters have bit the dust. Likewise, dungeon crawls specifically cater towards the tactical, the skirmish-based, and are direct offshoots to the game’s miniatures (Chainmail) roots; the problems inherent in the dungeon crawl are many, specifically after running and playing a number of other games since my last dungeon delve.

Though, the biggest problem I found with the system is the total lack of innovation or incentive to roleplay actions. This is a problem I’ve had with the system since I started playing, and it feels like it’s gotten worse with each edition’s attempt to streamline things. At one point, developer Mike Mearls (who helped design 4th Edition) ran an OD&D game (Original D&D, as in the little brown books that are damn near impossible to find), and came up with the following:

I think that OD&D’s open nature makes the players more likely to accept things in the game as elements of fiction, rather than as game elements. The players reacted more by thinking “What’s the logical thing for an adventurer to do?” rather than “What’s the logical thing to do according to the rules?”

OD&D and D&D 4 are such different games that they cater to very different needs. For me, in OD&D things are fast, loose, and improvised…[OD&D players] are probably more likely to accept…a game that requires a bit more deductive reasoning (I disable a trap by wedging an iron spike into the lever that activates it) as opposed to D&D 4 (I disable a trap by finding the lever then making a skill check).

This is the problem I’ve had with D&D all along, and continues to this day. People who started with earlier editions of D&D, or other games in particular, tend to approach problems from a specific logical viewpoint: what can I do to achieve the desired results. They then roll the dice to see if their intended action succeeded or not. However, a lot of newer players–particularly those who started with 3.x–come at it from a different mindset: I make a skill check, therefore it works. There’s little actual innovation there; the players like this I know seldom actually give me a description of what happens, or what they even wanted to do. It’s kind of annoying, for a number of reasons: I know these players are better and more capable than that, and besides, I feel kind of bad when it’s always the same couple of guys who do the really awesome stuff.

For example, running Tomb of Horrors, a number of instances came up where some of my Exalted playgroup tried intricate means of disarming traps, sticking pins in and making excellent use of ropes and poles, while some of the D&D-based players gave me the standard “Well, I made my check, so I disarmed it.” Disarmed it how? A lot of the traps don’t make much logical sense, so I’d like to hear the explanation of how they were disabled, usually resulting in “I made my check.” Rollplaying has always been a part of the game–some people just like the stats-crunching, tactical-skirmishing, and loot-grabbing aspects, which is fine. I can roll with that. And while it’s not all the player’s fault, it’s not all part of the system either.

In another game (using the White Wolf Storyteller/d10 system), one of the D&D players was trying to climb up the roof of a tower to escape; when he neared the top, he realized a guard was posted on the roof. The GM then asked him how he was getting onto the roof, hoping for a wild flip to knock the guard off, or for the player to otherwise do something cool to get some stunt dice. “Well, I reach up, and get one leg over, and pull myself up, and stand up.” This continued for about ten minutes, until the player, getting pretty irritated, snapped back with “Well, I made my damn check, so that should mean I’m on the roof,” followed by a “Yes, but *how* did you get on the roof?”

Compare to one of the other guys; Matt started gaming during my Freshman year in a homebrew Fallout pnp game, and played a lot of Deadlands, Exalted, and Star Wars d6 with us. After moving out of town for a semester and a summer, he came back with some pretty hilarious stories. One friend of his coaxed him into a d20 Modern game, where he gave the GM headaches by thinking so much outside the box. For example, during the first firefight, he shot out power lines to blind and distract the enemies, since the players had low-light vision while the enemies did not. This so boggled the GM and other players that they literally had to ask why he would shoot out the power lines, and further, what it would do. Matt ended up leaving the game because it grew into a homebrew munchkin fest rather quickly, to the point where he got sick of it (his character had a bluff of 36 at 3rd level, yet couldn’t do pretty much anything with it).

It’s that kind of thinking that I love as a GM–watching players come up with brilliant ways to combat whatever I’ve thrown at them, more than just “I shoot at him with my rifle,” or “I made my skill check.” Originally, I used to hand out extra XP for doing cool things and thinking outside the box, but by now I’ve realized that some people do it instinctively while others have a hard time with it, to the point where some characters will be a level or two above everyone else. That doesn’t encourage creativity–in fact, it just disenfranchises people who think tactically instead of cinematically. Rewarding the lateral thinkers just hurts the horizontal thinkers. Still, I do think it’s good to reward players who do amazing things, although I now hold them to a higher level to try and balance things out. For example, I expect Matt and Reuben to try something nuts on the go-big-or-go-home level, and while I’ll still reward them when they do it, I’ll be comparing it to their past few stunts when I hand out XP.

Granted, this isn’t a problem for everybody, and therefore I have no good solution for it. It all goes back to the standard dichotomy on how you want to run your game: tactical or cinematic. I do love some tactical gaming–don’t get me started on my various ideas for linked miniatures campaigns–but for roleplaying, I always enjoy a blended game, though a blend which leans more towards cinematic. Mostly, it’s the problem with the dungeon crawl format–there really isn’t much to do for anyone without intelligence bonuses or trapfinding abilities. It’s also something that really turned me off from D&D 3.0, and now 4.0: the difference between gaming group styles. Until I found my current group, I’d just about sworn off D&D, having run in some miserable adventures (see the GM’s Workshop article I wrote a few months back). When you have a gaming group that you can mesh well with, every game is fun; but until then, you’re stuck in the realm of differing play styles.

A related issue was brought up by one of my players, who happens to be the major GM in our group. After watching two characters come very close to making DC 18 will saves and failing (rolled 15 and 17, respectively), thus becoming dominated, this player mentioned to me the arbitrary nature of D&D dungeon crawls; no matter how close you came in a skill check or save, if you failed, you failed miserably. I’d like to branch this out into gaming in general: games, as a whole, need to have certain gaming elements in them. Without the win/fail scenario, games don’t have the challenge, and thus they need certain elements like this to stay games. But, I agree with him my player: as a GM with a story/campaign planned, we don’t want to see characters bite it just because they were a point away from an arbitrary number. D&D, while a fantastic game, is still somewhat bogged down in this respect as a tactical dungeonpunk game, with the “Press X or Die” mentality. I see each cumulative edition trying to break that mentality as much as it reinforces and streamlines it: to fix non-weapon proficiencies, which enable characters to be fleshed out, we have skills, which leads to skill-checks and “Well, I made my check.”

As always, this is incredibly subjective; I already view rules not as an absolute but as guidelines. The point of gaming is to maximize fun, and if there’s something that detracts from that fun, get rid of it. (Yes, this is probably a throwback to my 2nd Edition AD&D days, when we jokingly referred to half the rules-as-written as “poorly designed optional rules,” such as the demihuman level limits, the rules for non-weapon proficiencies, character kits, etc.) That’s not to say I don’t kill characters–some situations, and some games, like Deadlands/Call of Cthulhu, demand it. I wouldn’t change the way DCs or skill checks work for 3.5–that’s just the milieu, the style and focus of the game. Most of the group is very intuitive, and the rest are grasping the concept of a cinematic game pretty quickly. But it does make me a lot more appreciative of how my players handle Exalted and their dice pools.

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