The Bad Side of Balance, The Falseness of “Always Say Yes,” and the Paralysis of Freedom, Part 2

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.”

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4 responses

  1. Let me preface this by saying I intensely dislike 4th ed., so it almost pains me to defend it. Having said that, I don’t get how telling players that they can’t do things is a problem, let alone a specifically 4th ed. problem (Unless of course, there’s a section in the 4th ed. DMG that says you should agree with anything the players propose.).

    Grif could have asked you to the slightly break the rules in any system. And he wasn’t asking “Hey man, can I use this one variant class out of this magazine I found?”. He was asking you flat out “Can I break the rules a little?”.

    You decided to go with the rule (Which I agree with, for what it’s worth). Now, if you think that Wildshape is underpowered, and that the Druid should be able to change into Tiny creatures at an earlier level, then you have a problem that is specific to 4th ed.

    I don’t quite understand the anecdote about the +6 sword. Does the Avenger come with one or something?

    As for GM rolls, I agree that GM should be separate from Player. I’ve played with GMs that believe otherwise, and if I enjoy the game it’s despite the GMPCs wandering around.

    Having said that, I think the GM is perfectly capable of cheating, and I am very wary of having a defined overarching plot. Simply put, NPCs should follow the same rules as the PCs. If they violate the rules, the entity controlling them has cheated, the same as the PCs. I didn’t always follow this philosophy, but every time I cheated for an NPC I felt lousy. I eventually decided that my ill feeling came from the implication that my Plot was more important than the PCs’ accomplishments. I was robbing them of the story that might have been.

    The incident that made me feel the worst was when the party in a 3.5 game set out to overthrow the “evil” regime that ruled a particular city. The party had never been to this city before, and only knew of it through the being who asked for their help in the overthrow. Their source was incredibly biased against the city’s ruler (A harsh but fair man), but the PCs never checked their source’s credibility.

    During the climactic fight in the dining hall of the city’s ruler, my brother hit him with a death effect. I rolled behind a screen, and failed horribly. My plot called for this man to live, and to demand to know what crimes he was accused of to show how misguided the PCs were, so he “made” the save. The next round, my brother cast the same spell, and I rolled the same result. Again, he “made” the save.

    My brother began to look at me incredulously, since the DC was pretty high. I went with it, the party got beaten back, and my Plot continued. To this day I haven’t told him I fixed the rolls.

    Why didn’t I let him die? The townsfolk could have started a riot to protest his death, his children could have started hunting the PCs, the actual villain could have shown up and mocked them… There are so many interesting paths the story could have taken organically, but I forced it to go as I wished.

    Now, I figure out what my NPCs want to do, and how they plan to do it. If the PCs do something that affects the NPCs, the NPCs respond. If not, the NPC’s continue to function as they did. I’m much happier with the results.

  2. I think you have brought up a couple of issues that are tangentially related. The first: the “Always say ‘Yes'” problem. For me, my rule is “Never outright say ‘No'” *. I’m going to get quite a few exceptions pointed out to me, but in general, I will at least hear what the player wants. I might be able to help them out, or I might say no.

    I think the difference between my rule and “Always say ‘Yes'” is that I make the PLAYER justify it to me and do the leg work, rather than have it thrust all upon the GM’s shoulders. You want to take super-awesome background feat that only people in this small village ever learn – Let’s see, are you from there? No? Lived there, visited there, drunkenly walked through it once? No? Then why should I allow you to take it? No, pick out a feat that relates to your character’s background.

    Perhaps not a great example, but if I’m letting the players take a background feat, and I tell someone no, that is limiting their game play. However, I wouldn’t outright tell the player that they couldn’t take the super-awesome feat** – they just need to do the work to justify it to me.

    I guess the problem is that it seems that 4e has shifted the focus from ‘the GM can make exceptions for a single game’ to ‘the GM has to allow everything (or say No and look like a jerk)’. The latter makes the game feel watered-down – look at Eberron in 4e compared to 3e: Dragonmarks can be applied to any race (instead of just one), Any race can be used (Dragonborn, Genasi, and others do not fit in with the old fluff – they had to be forced in)…It gives players more choices, yes, but it waters down the setting. Why play in Eberron if it doesn’t feel like Eberron? And when a GM wants to play in the more traditional setting, he has to go against the standard expectation of the players.

    I see the ‘Always say ‘Yes” philosophy as a symptom of making D&D more generic (is that possible?) and shifting most of the responsibility of ‘making the game work’ to the GM, instead of making it a group effort between the GM and the players.

    I will post back later on my comments about the other issue you raised (this is already majorly long)

    * Because I used the absolute ‘Never’, I need to disclaim that there are occasions where it’s alright to just say ‘No’. I am talking about in general, and not outlier situations.
    ** Ok, another caveat – if I deem it broken, then I will say No. However, I don’t do that lightly, and think it falls into the outlier category.

  3. I promised another long winded post…..
    Anyways, the second thing that you brought up, which is sorta related to the ‘Always say ‘Yes” thing is ‘Can GM’s cheat?’ My opinion is that they do not always have to follow the (mechanical) rules, but that it’s not cheating.

    Paul’s example is a pretty good illustration of this: Could have he let that leader NPC die? Yes, and the story could very well have been fantastic had he gone that way. However, Paul made a decision that he wanted him to live – whether or not the plot demanded it, he deemed that the story was better that way. And since he was the GM, that was his job.

    The GM has a vastly different role to perform than the players. Even if the story is mainly player driven and doesn’t have to do much other than voice NPC’s, his responsibility is to tell the story – to be a force OUTSIDE of the player group. If that outside force wasn’t needed, groups would only consist of player characters – because, more often than not, the players are the ones who have the most fun.

    Because the GM is outside the player group, he has to be able to go with whatever the group throws at him – and make the best decision he can at the time. Paul did not expect that the leader was going to have a problem surviving that battle. If he had, he would have made his defenses higher, or maybe not even had him in the battle. However, he made the decision that players would be better off if the leader survived, so he fudged the roll. Paul thinks that is cheating – but I would say it was part of his job as the GM to make sure the game continued to be fun, which in my opinion, trumps the mechanical rules of the game.

    Now, could this be taken to extremes – of course, every situation could be abused in some fashion. A GM could go out of his way to always ‘Win’ battles and kill PCs, or could go in the opposite extreme and let the PCs always hit and take out the bad guys easily. Neither of these are fun (in my opinion) – and although I would say that the GM should play however he wants, I would also agree with any player of that GM to leave if he wasn’t having fun. Who knows, maybe there are groups who like to be whooped up and down the field…

    Anyways, I wanted to produce an example of my own: Shortly before my Eberron game disintegrated, we had three players, with a fourth character whose player had just told us that he would no longer be able to come to game. Because it would have been awkward for the cleric to just disappear, we decided that one of the other players would continue to play the cleric (as well as his own character) until they were out of the dungeon and I could come up with a good excuse to have him leave. Also, because this was 4e, I had very real issues with the battles already being balanced for 4 players and going down to 3 was going to take a lot of work.

    Now, they were in the middle of a dungeon, and the cleric triggered a hazard (not on purpose, he was dragged into it 🙂 ). The paladin was also caught in the cross fire. I rolled both of the to-hit dice at the same time, and both numbers would hit both of their defenses; however, one of the dice (or is that die?) crit. The hazard was particularly dangerous (a by-product of the pre-published adventure I was running – another rant on it’s own) and would have instantly made both characters go unconscious (and may have killed both, I wasn’t sure at the moment). So, I made the decision to crit the cleric and to just hit the paladin. It insta-killed the cleric (as I was afraid it might), and the paladin received a fair bit of damage from the other hit.

    Now, I think I made the right decision. I made a split second decision to not instantly kill a beloved (by the player) character over one that was going to leave anyways. Perhaps the game would have gone better if it was the other way around – heck, the paladin might not have even died – I never calculated if the crit would have killed her. However, in that moment, I decided that it would be more fun for everyone if the paladin lived. And the cleric got a totally epic death (well, not really. He disappeared in a puff of some kind of gross black-necrotic mold-like stuff).

    So, I guess that’s my main point – you can’t take into account everything and it’s better to make the experience fun and interesting than going strictly by the (mechanical) rules.

  4. To respond a little, I feel late getting back to my own blog…

    I agree that in Paul’s case he just made the best decision he could at the table, at the time. It’s not worth making a fuss over. Without knowing the whole situation I can’t say much more than this… but I suspect that he really didn’t expect his players to start flinging death spells at the guy in the situation…

    Thank you Jenny for pointing out Eberron. The Always Say Yes philosophy and its damaging effects on “home brew” settings is shown very well with Eberron. Explain to me why, exactly, Dragonborn and Eladrin needed to be inserted into Eberron?

    They didn’t, but since everything is core is part of the design decision making now, PCs must be allowed to be Dragonborn if they want, even if playing Dragonborn doesn’t make any sense…

    The same is true with the issue of the Dragonmarks. If your player wants to have a dragonmarked eladrin running around the world, despite the fact that this is a complete departure from anything “Eberron” well, don’t say no, don’t tell them that in this world the Mark of Shadow only manifests on certain beings, no. Instead, completely rewrite all the fluff and make them a hunted fugitive pursued by the real bearers of the Mark of Shadow because the PC is so “unique.” Frankly, I find all that a little silly.

    But that’s the way it is in 4E and that’s a big part of my frustration in trying to create a home brew setting. “Always say Yes.”

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