This is the second part in my “frustrated DM working with 4E D&D” series. This time out I am focusing on a topic that has been troubling me since the first days of 4E.
The Falseness of “Always Say Yes.”
Let me start with a story. This story involves my friend Griff. Say hi Griff.
Griff says hi…
So Griff is playing in a 4E game I’m running and this game falls shortly after the release of PH2. Griff is playing a Druid. So, Griff wants to ride around on the gnome sorcerer’s shoulder and he tells me he’s going to Wildshape into a squirrel. I tell him he can, but he’s still going to be a medium sized squirrel. Griff is upset about this. He’s not powergaming, he’s not trying to abuse the rules, this is just for fluff, right?
And I get that. But…
Being able to change into a tiny animal with Wild Shape is a Level 2 Utility Daily. That’s a significant investment of character resources. You could use that Daily for a lot of things. So you have to invest if you want to turn into little, itty-bitty creatures. Why is this? A lot of answers probably exist, but my personal take is that 3.5 made everyone so gunshy about polymorph powers that they beat Wild Shape with the nerf bat so hard it got all deformed in 4E. But more to the point – even more than powers – what bothered me about this scenario is that I had to say no or I’d break my own immersion. I’d take away my sense of fun at the table.
Griff is not going to abuse this. I could’ve said yes, I could’ve allowed it and the game would have gone on just fine. Until they needed Griff to be a squirrel again, or a mouse, or something else Tiny and he wasn’t able to do it. Because if it really affected the rules, if it was a mechanical situation, I trust Griff not to say, “oh, well, I’m turning into a mouse now because I ride around on Nox’s shoulder all the time as a squirrel.” That’s fine, I’m lucky to have a player who won’t abuse the rules, but this situation would bother the hell out of me. The party is looking at the druid, “So, wait, you mean you can only turn into a squirrel when it doesn’t matter?” And the Druid says, “Yep, that’s right. Once we find another way out of this dungeon, I’ll totally turn right into a squirrel and crawl up the gnome’s arm again.” To which the party replies, “Well that’s just #$#@@(#$#$ stupid.”
And I agree.
Yes, that’s one silly example, with a case of a player asking to do something that clearly breaks the rules. But I’m saying “No” and it’s affecting his fun. So, according to 4E, I’m a bad DM.
Let’s look at another example. Griff again. He decided shortly after that session that he wasn’t as big a fan of the druid as he thought. (Wonder why?) and I let him make a new character – an avenger. Now, he liked his avenger, really thought he was cool. I agree here too. The avenger is the only striker in 4E I might ever want to play in a long-term game. But Griff never asked me if he could have a +6 Greatsword at 4th level. If he had, I would have said no. Any sane DM would. Why? Because clearly, giving the Griffvenger a +6 Weapon at level 4 breaks the math. Everything is way too easy for him now. I suppose this point ties back into my earlier post about balance issue as well, but it’s still a DM saying no. And this time the rules back it up.
Now, I’m not much for edition wars so please don’t read anything extra into this. I have enjoyed playing every edition of D&D since original purple box back in the early 80s. I mention this because lately I’ve been reading quite a few of the OSR (old school renaissance) blogs – some are excellent – and I’m planning some old-school play of my own over the summer. So, I’ve been rereading some of the original D&D and 1st edition books. Do you realize that in OD&D the DM rolled almost everything? The DM rolled the thief skills rolls, rolled damage and even some saving throws. First of all, this was a lot of rolling on the DM, but also, I think about this as the ultimate expression of the way RPGs have changed over the years. Now we have conversations about whether DMs are cheating if they roll behind a screen. Listen, the DM might be a jerk, the DM might drive players away by blatantly abusing them, but the DM really can’t cheat… That’s a silly accusation. The DM is supposed to be metaplaying, both for and against the players because that’s how the challenges get designed. At some point, some designer had enough bad GMs that this (imaginary) designer started inventing games that shared the narrative control.
I’m not a fan of the modern generation of the “indie” games with intense focus on deconstructing the DM/Player relationship. I don’t want to imply “control-freak.” I do want players to be active and involved and really make their mark on the game, but I also appreciate the DM role for its separation from the player roll. I don’t want to play the game as “DM as player.” I suppose for some groups this works really well. I mean, I had a couple of Amber DRPG groups I ran two-year long campaigns with and they were the most active, proactive, I-barely-had-to-do-anything-but-show-up bunch I’ve ever met. And even they were happy to have a Game Master because someone had to be the arbitrary voice. Someone had to speak for the endless NPCs of an Amber game, and someone had to make decisions when the players needed them. But I’ve also grown a little bitter, I suppose, because I’ve also run games for a lot of groups who were nothing but reactive, did not want to “go to the story.” They want the story to come to them. They want to go on an adventure. They want the DM to set up a scenario and they want to interact with it. This is not, despite what the internet will tell you, “railroading.” Some players just aren’t as proactive as others. And nothing is wrong with this. I mentioned being bitter above. I’m not bitter with my players, I’m bitter with people who are telling them (and me) that we’re playing wrong because we might like a story that has a DM plot that the PCs figure out and defeat.
To get back on topic: “Just say Yes” is a great philosophy, but I think it falls short because the fact that the game is about mechanical rules almost requires a need to say No. And this is, again, a way that I find it difficult to be a DM for D&D4E, because I feel limited, as the DM, by the player expectation that I am supposed to say, “Yes.” The example and ideas above pretty much express my concerns with “always say yes.” If I get the great feedback I got with my last post then I’m sure that I’ll have more to say when responding.
That said, this idea is still just build-up (to the point that I thought of combining this with the last point) but I think I’ve covered the preliminaries. Now I can get to the most important idea to me. The last post in this series will be about, “The Paralysis of Freedom.”