On the subject of Bad Games

This is something that’s growing to bother me in the midst of the ongoing Edition Wars D&D is currently plagued with, not just between 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e but also between those and the various OSR factions as well. And the problem would be that “such-and-such mechanics” don’t facilitate roleplaying, dumb down the game, etc., therefore making at least one of the above a Bad Game in the eyes of many people.

What makes it painfully laughable is that compared to my indie-hippie storygames (namely FATE, and The One Ring once I can afford it), hell even compared to the ’90s RPG paradigm shift (Storyteller, roll-and-keep, Deadlands, etc.), many of these same complaints can be applied to all the various D&D editions. In the grand scheme of things, most of the Edition Wars complaints are hypocritical; being based on personal opinion is one thing, but trying to argue that X is logically and statistically the best vision out there comes across as lacking if you bag on things your chosen system contains.

For example, the “X dumbed down D&D,” the prime contender being the skill system introduced in 3.0, modified for Pathfinder, and revamped for 4th. No need to roleplay or improvise; just roll your die, note your result, and wait for the GM to tell you whether you succeeded or not. Or, the “I rolled X and succeeded, now let’s move on” effect.

And it is part of the mentality for a lot of newer players; it was worst in my Tomb of Horrors game, when one of the two/three 3.5 fanatics got vaguely annoyed when I made him try to improvise or roleplay his rolls. Several other players I’ve had drifted into the same category. I wouldn’t blame video games or mumorpugers like many people do, though; it’s more an issue with newer players, or people who like a good hack-and-slasher, and therefore either based on their knowledge of the game or their style preference.

But while you can blame the rulebooks for lacking the emphasis you’d like on roleplaying, or thinking creatively, or putting themselves into character or whatever… This is all up to the GM: if you don’t emphasize those values, teach the player those values, or explain those values to them from day one, it’s hardly fair to take it out on them. If you want them to roleplay their Diplomacy check, tell them that. And cut the guy a little slack, people only get better at roleplaying with practice; it doesn’t come easy for everyone.

And even mechanics that sound bad still have a lot of potential. Take 4th’s Skill Challenges: roll a certain number of successes before you roll a certain number of failures. This is an idea that I thought was idiotic at first, but grew on me.  If all you’re doing is making six skill rolls, yeah, it’ll be boring as dirt. Roleplay it out, and make it a little more interesting. The examples under the link have a lot more depth than “roll X skills, total five successes, don’t screw up three times or more.” There’s a series that replicates a prison break, and another about rescuing people from a burning city. Roleplayed out, those could be pretty awesome set-pieces.

Personally, I like pushing for a little more roleplaying, even when doing Pathfinder. The whole “all in-character, no rolling dice” game isn’t my thing—there’s a reason I don’t like Vampire lARPS. Not that I like RPGA/Pathfinder Society mini-module Monty Hauls either. But this is a “roleplaying” game, and even in high-crunch games like Pathfinder, roleplaying has its place. (This is also coming from my Exalted background, where describing actions can net you stunt dice, and from my unnatural ability to yammer in-character when Matt is nearby.)

Another big complaint that comes to mind are the use of miniatures… something that has plagued the game since it split forth from the head of Chainmail and became the Little Brown Books, yet an argument which has reared its ugly head frequently. 4th isn’t the first game to push for using maps and minis in a game; it’s hard to imagine that Pathfinder and 3.5 players have forgotten 3.x, where they’re explicitly pushed for in the DMG, and 3.5, where all the speed values conveniently listed the distance in squares. Or that most versions of D&D had rules for attacks of opportunity, reach, special attacks (charges, trips), and the like. Glancing through my AD&D books, all of those features were a part of the game in the ’80s… even grappling was included, in AD&D’s trademark variant subsystems. Hell, AD&D measured distance in inches. No amount of “NOT IN MAI D&D” can apply to miniatures and maps.

Besides, it’s such a simple thing to leave out if it bothers you: I’m a sucker for maps, so I like to draw out battlemaps or throw down some gaming tiles, but there are a number of situations that don’t need them. Not every encounter is epic enough to necessitate the ~10 minutes spent drawing a tactical map. Minis and maps speed up combat and play, but a large part of RPGs is, and has always been, using your mind. One big bitch about the new Pathfinder miniatures line is that they might not have (because the spoiler isn’t released yet) the all-important commoner miniatures. Proponents argue that they could be put in “rare” slots, so customers end up with 15 goblin raiders instead of pig farmers. Because I love spending $4 to get a “rare” pair of halflings with pigs and pipes.

On the one hand is the argument that games don’t necessarily need maps, and that it should be kept all in your mind, and any deviation isn’t “roleplaying” but some war/board game aberration; the other is that figures can’t sub-in if they have weapons, that innkeeper and commoner minis are necessary to replicate innkeepers and commoners, and that there are enough situations where these are used to require prepainted $4 figures instead of the cheap batches of metal ones several companies put out. These two extremes exist solely to irritate the hell out of the logical center.

Gamers. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Look, I had my knee-jerk reactionary moments about 4th, and while it’s not my ideal system my opinion of it has softened now that it’s actually out. (That it’s having its own weird Edition War issues between the hardbacks and the Essentials just further complicates the Edition War Clusterfuck, and is pretty ironic to boot.) I also had some knee-jerk reactions against 3.0, but for some reason apparently I’m the only person on the internet who actually thought the 3.5 improvements were worth it. (Then again, I didn’t spend any money 3.0 books; the ones I own were gifts.) It’s not like the game system you’re chest-beating for didn’t have its issues—I seriously can’t think of a game I own that I can’t find a complaint for, however minor—or that it had a short life and deserved more sourcebooks. (Though Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium could have used a character guide.)

The bottom line: there are no bad games, only bad GMs. Well, bad interpretations of rules and game design. No game actually emphasizes roleplaying (well, besides my indie-hippie storygame swine RPGs), and that’s something a lot of people tend to forget. What emphasizes roleplaying is the GM: the way the GM runs the game, the way challenges and skill checks are handled, that kind of thing. The GM has always been the most important part of the game, because it’s through them that the rules are presented and adjudicated, and the simplest resolution to fix any system you don’t like is to Golden Rule it and cut the Rules-As-Written you don’t like.


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