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

I’m finding it a little difficult to dive into this post because this last part is so tied to the previous issues about always saying yes. In retrospect, the two should have been together. That said, I want to define a little what I mean about the paralysis of freedom. Because this isn’t about player issues, it’s about DM issues.

Players often contend with a difficulty the theory people like to call “analysis paralysis,” which means that players have so many character building options that they have trouble analyzing the options in any efficient manner. I certainly agree that 4E has this problem in spades, but it’s certainly not the only game to fall to this trap. 4E also does a great job of trying to mitigate this problem with resources like the Compendium and the Character Builder. Even though these are online and the CB is only for subscribers, these resources are still excellent. The paralysis I want to talk about is that afflicting a DM trying to create home brew content for 4E. And for my first example I want to discuss the Malkind.

The Malkind were inspired by a picture I saw of a lion-like creature, clearly a quadruped, but it had very human-like paws. Something like the paws you’d see on a raccoon or an otter, but with claws. The other inspiration was the Prairie Cats from the Horselords novels. So, I started creating stats for these guys. I thought about how their claws would be represented and balanced, I started creating barding-style armor so that they could be members of heavy armor classes. I made up some weird new weapons for them, so they could have the same variety of weapon proficiencies that normal PCs have – and then I was talking to a friend and she pointed out that they couldn’t use ranged attacks – Um, no, they can’t really use bows or crossbows. I thought about it. How could the Malkind use bows? Nothing seemed plausible or interesting. And after a week of thinking about it, I realized that just because a Malkind can’t be an Archer Ranger or Seeker shouldn’t be a big deal… Except that every race in 4E has to be able to participate as a member of any class… And that’s the problem. That little restriction, and the design philosophy it supports, limits the design space for home brew races.

This same issue appears when I considered setting up regions in my new world. I tried my best to be sure that every race would have a place in this new world. I wanted to “Always Say Yes.” Unfortunately, this thinking meant that I had to explain why Goliath aren’t in Al’Ara. I don’t want to have Eladrin at all, but if a PC wants to play one I need to have that option available. I can’t exclude races without changing the design/player expectation of 4E. I’m certain that some readers think this sounds like a stupid gripe, after all, if I want to exclude Eladrin, just do it right? Except that I don’t really have the luxury of playing with a group of people who are always the same or particularly close-knit outside of the game – or even in-game really. So when you mostly game with strangers or semi-strangers, it’s hard to have agreed upon changes at your table.

The issue is, as mentioned in the comments of the last part of this series about Eberron, everything in 4E is Core. Everything in 4E is expected to be included in every setting. (And everything fits into the narrow design range of “humans in funny costumes.”) So instead of having a lot of options that DMs can add at their decision for a setting or adventure, the game assumes that everything is always present in every setting. Put another way, instead of allowing a DM to choose to allow (for example) “a unique Warforged, who has been marked with a mysterious dragonmark” the setting/4E assumes that it’s okay for any Warforged to have a dragonmark and a DM has to say No if this is inappropriate in their setting. This takes away from the uniqueness of each setting and really creates a very generic feeling for all settings. After all, why play Eberron if it doesn’t feel like Eberron? I mean, when you run Star Wars games, you don’t normally include Vulcans, right? This approach is also prevalent in the application of Backgrounds. After all, how many PCs have you seen with the Windrise Ports background? Lots. The mechanical benefit of being able to take two multiclass feats is excellent, right? How many characters are actually created in the Windrise Ports region of the Forgotten Realms? But again, this becomes an issue of the DM saying No instead of the game reinforcing the DMs ability to houserule to say Yes.

A big reason why I object to this way of thinking is the paralysis it creates for DMs. It puts the entire burden of every choice made by the designers on the shoulders of the DM. The paralysis comes in when I start plotting out a region in my home brew world and I say to myself, “Well, how am I going to fit Githzerai in here?” “Would this culture have shamans, or ardents, or X?” “Why would Wilden be in this desert kingdom?” I’d like a kingdom where Wizards ruled everything and felt that only arcane power gained through study was acceptable so they impose restrictions on Sorcerers, Warlocks, and other amateurs. This kind of design is unthinkable in 4E though. Because everything has to have a place at my table, in my world, and in my thinking, because everything is Core and it’s my job to say Yes.

I’ve spoken about this at length in other places, but I don’t really like to “House Rule” because I see the rules as the “common tongue” that players of a game share. D&D4E has a very restrictive vocabulary for DMs though. Something has to really torque me off to get me upset enough to actually ban it for mechanical reasons (like the *expletive* Expertise feats and the changes they’ve wrought on the game) but I enjoy tinkering with world-building and with adding new ideas to the game. I feel that D&D 4E has such a narrow window of what works that it might be time to just move on. The problem is that 4E does some things really well, and if I want to play high fantasy, no system does it better than D&D. So now I’ve got to make a decision. As a DM I’ve never been so frustrated with a system as this one. I hate trying to design for 4E, for all the issues mentioned above. I added constantly to my 3.5 campaigns. I add freely to Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2e. But I feel paralyzed when creating for 4E. So, I’m learning to hate it.

Any suggestions on a good high-fantasy, class and level style system to play instead of 4E? Or am going to have to just switch back to Pathfinder?


12 responses

  1. You’ve said that you can’t houserule stuff… what about reflavoring stuff? The Forgotten Realms regional feats are a good example. Why not take away the line that says you must be born in X location, just a similar location? That’s how I dealt with them in 3.5. Really, most people who want to take them want the mechanical benefit; they don’t desperately want to be from Waterdeep. And if they took “Born in Waterdeep” (which you have reflavored to be “Born in a Meteropolis”) because they actually love Waterdeep, they can still be from Waterdeep.

    But yeah, you’ve definitely given me more reasons to not play 4th.

    I would suggest that you move to 3.5 with some tweaks, but I know you’ve tried it, so I don’t know what else to suggest.

  2. 1. This is from the previous entry…. was Griff really there? because I don’t believe you.
    2. I was really sad about not being able to have Griff sit on my shoulder… maybe you could come up with a way to have us be able to have things like that but still adhere to the rules. He “looks” like a squirrel, but I have to make a strength check to be able to hold him. The times I do would be hilarious, and good fluff in its own right. Or we could “try it once” and have my character fall over and all of us laugh, together, as characters, not just as players. There’s always a way to compromise and play with the rules.
    3. If someone wants to get their weenie in a knot because they don’t get to be the prettiest butterfly in the party (an eladrin) then let them take their ball and go home. Look, I’m all for the DM’s not being dictators at the table, but a problem player should not rule the table either. nothing’s more annoying than a player who tries to run the show, and making their whim everyone else’s problem (this felt a little inflammatory… I’m probably not helping)
    4. I know that every race should be able to be every class… and there are plenty of choices for everyone. more than plenty. What were you saying before? there are so many combinations of things w could do, sometimes it’s mind boggling…. so if you have a few races that can’t do absolutely everything, it doesn’t mean they’re gimped… just because they cannot be a bowman doe snot mean that they won’t be the best damn swordsman in the whole wide world…. they’re not gimped, the player just cannot have AS many choices… for that exact problem, if someone just has to be an archer but wants to be a Malkind, let them play a cat shifter…

    There’s also reflavoring, which is something I’m COMPLETELY for. As long as they can explain the race and are willing to go into background details and put a little more work into their character (if they HAD to play a character like that, they’d better be willing) I don’t see why they should not be able to do such a thing.

    I am with Jennifer, however, that sometimes it’s okay to say “no.” If something is completely outrageous, if someone is trying to push some aspect of the game to the very limits, they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not eight (usually). They can handle being told no without pouting, and they usually already know they’re going to far. (Am I making sense? work is melting my brain)

    Leave some things out of your world if you want. If the player wants THAT particular race and/or class THAT badly, then they will work for it, or find another DM… they’re an exception, not a rule… DnD becomes boring if it’s always, basically, the same game, just with a slightly different colored background… I’m reminded of mario games for super nintendo, or an episode of HOUSE M.D. Go ahead and put in your own variety… it’s part of the fun of homebrewing… players are often more flexible than you think, a lot of them just want SOMETHING to play.

    I’ll write more later, maybe when I’ve let my heads condense a little more.

  3. Holy Crap. Thoughts. I meant Thoughts.

  4. I’ve spoken about this at length in other places, but I don’t really like to “House Rule” because I see the rules as the “common tongue” that players of a game share.

    See, I think this is where you and I may well differ. The rules certainly suggest that a good GM should “Always say yes” but that’s bullshit – and you shouldn’t feel like it’s a hard and fast rule that you can’t get rid of. You want to restrict a race from being a seeker or archer ranger because it doesn’t fit the race? Do it. If your players complain that that’s the ONE race/class combination that they just had to play, especially after you explain to them why you’re not offering it, then maybe you should consider whether your players are going to fit the game…because if they’re willing to go to the floor over that, what else are they going to fight you over? Don’t want to offer Goliaths as a race? Don’t. Don’t think Dragonborn fit in Eberron? Leave them out. As a GM your responsibility is to guide the players into a good experience, not make sure that every single dish is on the buffet at any given time.

  5. “I’ve spoken about this at length in other places, but I don’t really like to “House Rule” because I see the rules as the “common tongue” that players of a game share.”

    I really don’t see the problem here. As long as you’re only changing a few things, it’s still a common language between the players and the GM, it’s just a different dialect. If you feel the need to change a significant portion of things, it can be a problem but not allowing some feats or races does not mean you’re changing the common tongue.

    Since I mostly play 3.5, I’m going to use examples from there. In 3.5, I have never played a game without house rules. At the very least, massive damage was taken out because it’s stupid. As long as the DM tells me up front which house rules he is using, we are still speaking a common tongue. If the DM says “No, you can’t use Precocious Apprentice* to qualify for that prestige class early, whatever. As long as the GM explains the dialect he is speaking, I’ve never met a player who wasn’t also a total asshole who would do anything but say “OK, cool.” You don’t have to always say yes, if it would mess with the game, it’s your game and you get the final say. Just learn to say no every once in a while, I think it will help your gaming experience.

    *Feat from Complete Arcane, gives a second level spell slot and is used to get into prestige classes a level early. This use is not abusing the rules as written, but is almost certainly abusing the rules as intended and is thus a favorite of munchkins playing wizards and sorcerers.

  6. It’s funny how we can come to completely opposite conclusions about the game based on who we play with. I too have had the life long experience that playing with house rules is the norm.

    Anyway, on the subject of your Malkind, it might ease your mind to know that WotC has already broken their own “any race should be playable as any class.” Well, technically you can play a non-melee minotaur if you really want to, but your stat boosts essentially punish you for doing so and your racial power is useless without some serious character build creativity.

    So the way I see it, offering a home brew race that is simply incapable of wielding a bow is better than publishing an official race that some poor newbie might mistakenly decide to play as an archery ranger, for example.

  7. Your problem is not unique to 4e, it is a problem with every game system. From the moment you create your own stuff, you are immediately saying “trust me”.

    One are saying, in effect, that although you, the player obviously enjoy the game out of the box, I the DM can make some changes, which will change your experience, but you will still enjoy them enough to take your time and invest it in my game (rather than some other generic out-of-the-box game.

    This problem exists in every game system, it is not confined in any way to 4e, and it is not even particularly pronounced in 4e. The issue is, as I said at the top, an issue of trust. Do I trust that your changes to the game will fit my taste? If you have changed core rules are you a good game designer? Are you a good world builder or story teller? As soon as you depart from printed content, all these questions come up, and they are all really questions of trust.

    I suspect that you feel the way you do about 4e because it is the dominant game system (in terms of mind share). As such, you are reaching into the pool of relatively conservative players (the more adventurous may well play several different systems). These players know what they like, and may well be unwilling to take risks to try something different. This has nothing to do with the printed rules.

    In direct answer to your issue with races – as has been pointed out, you should simply create an appropriate race, don’t give them a Dex bonus, and make a special price on any crafted item to be used by those without opposable thumbs or whatever. Chances are they cannot even make their own gadgets – so the price will be whatever more human like craftsmen can charge. If the race is otherwise fun, people will play it. If not, you can keep them as NPCs.

    1. I agree that every game has the issue of needing to communicate with and have mutual player/GM trust.

      The issue I’m discussing though is that the rhetoric of 4E — the way the game presents itself, the written positions of the designers, and the general attitude of most players I’ve encountered with 4E — actually encourages players to argue with their GMs. 4E writing and the “always say yes” DM issue really creates a dynamic where the game is written not for player empowerment, but player entitlement. Entitlement is always bad.

  8. Dominic Amann | Reply

    Being someone not born in “the era of entitlement”, I don’t tend to read the rules with a view to exploiting every opportunity to “win” in spite of what my DM is telling me is consistent with his world view.

    That said, entitlement is not always bad. If I am invited to someone’s place to play D&D 4e, I am entitled to a game which more or less resembles D&D 4e. I can reasonably expect some deviations in such matters as race and class choices available, deities (or their absence), equipment and magic availability etc. I would feel entitled to some explanation (fluff if you will) about why these changes exist. I might reasonably expect some house rules that cover core-rules situations – fumbles and critical hits are a DM favourite. On the other hand, I do feel entitled that if a particular class is permitted, that it not be lop-sidedly nerfed just because a particular DM has it in for a class or feels the interest of “realism” trumps that of game balance. This would include such things as “Rogues don’t get to sneak attack constructs or undead”, or “you cannot mark creatures without a common language”. While these are both reasonable things in and of themselves, they are both examples where the main schtick of the character class suddenly becomes basically worthless under circumstances entirely outside the players’ control. This comes back to trust, and I would need a lot of trust in my DM to believe that although my character’s main ability was being nerfed at his whim, I would be compensated by opportunities to shine elsewhere. Unfortunately, my experience has been that such DMs actually go out of their way to ensure that such opportunities don’t exist, because basically, they “have it in” for a particular class, class feature or rules design issue.

    I would say that if one communicates clearly, outlining not only one’s house rules, but some of the background behind them, and you are willing to listen to some counter-arguments and entertain them seriously, you will actually end up engaging the players more rather than less with the idea of house rules. Such ventures are ideally collaborations between the DM and the players. The game should be seen as an opportunity for players to enact their fantasies as well as a chance for the DM to write and set the stage for fantastic things to happen.

  9. Dominic – I appreciate the point you are making. You are right. In any game where a game master is creating house rules or home brew content it is important to discuss the changes with players.

    That said, for most games, math balance, and “always say yes” are not a basic sticking point of the game. While I think that 4E has made interesting strides in trying to create a game where the math is so tightly balanced and making all PC roles more integral to the game-play experience, it has downsides.

    One of those downsides is that the ‘math’ creates a very narrow range of design space for new creations, because they have a very small window to fit in… this is a problem that 4E has more than any other game system I’ve played (and that’s a lot).

    The other downside is that I feel 4E violates the PC/GM trust wall in the opposite direction than is normally experienced. 4E entitles players at the expense of the GM. The rhetoric of 4E, the discourse it creates is about telling players that if your DM says “no” then that person is a bad DM, get a new one.

    Also, when it comes to the issue of entitlement… spend some time on the D&D Community Forums… It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

  10. Indeed, there are many over-entitled individuals out there. I have fathered one of them (they seem to learn more from their peers than their parents), and he still thinks I am the cause of everything wrong with his life (he is 22). I have visited the forums from time to time, and I agree that there is a spirit to many of the posts that is very sad indeed.

    However, I have long felt that such forums are actually inhabited by a very vocal minority (not disimilar to the folks who in a bygone age wrote letters to the editor). They are not particularly representative of either the folks I game with by choice, or even those who sit themselves down at my table when I DM public game days.

    That said, I do understand the issue you describe, but I don’t see it as black and white as you do. Either we want a rules heavy system (which really began in earnest for version 3.0), or we want rules-light and we should be prepared to do a lot of house, ad-hoc ruling and hand-waving. If we want rules heavy, I suspect that it is necessarily hard to house rule succesfully. Does game balance impact that? Yes, it does – in that in 4e it is very obvious that classes are pretty balanced with each other and with the threat levels they are up against.

    I would argue (and used to, strenuously in 3e) that 3e’s game balance was way out of wack wrt classes – the full-casters being head and shoulders above all other classes, and multi-classing being absolutely necessary for non-casters and absolutely anathema to full-casters. What this meant (in practise) was that I felt free to modify (and often improve) the situation for non-casters, and haul back on the full casters. These house rules had only a positive effect on game balance, and even so, were a very tough sell to those who wanted to play full-casters. Talk about entitled – try “taking something away” from a group that has been given it already.

    Now to return to 4e – the problem is different, but the results are similar. Here the game is already balanced, so you have to be careful about adjustments. For myself, adjustments are largely either cosmetic, or whole-cloth additions and subtractions of races and classes to fit the theme of the campaign world. You can see clues as to how to do this successfuly in the new Dark Sun campaign world (D&D Encounters – Dark Sun starts on June 9th). I rarely (if ever) see any real need to house-rule actual rules within the core game anymore. Now I get to tinker with the stuff that was always intended to be modified, without worrying too much about the mechanics and overall game stability.

    For example, in prior editions, gaming in a Dark Sun world or a Warhammer like world was extremely dangerous because without divine healing sources, characters died early and often. The expectations of players had to be radically altered. In 4e, there are arcane, psionic and even martial sources of healing and party bolstering, so as a campign world developer it is easier to remove a massive element of the game (say, deities) without radically altering game play. It is also easy to remove (say) iron from a game world and not have that (only) nerf martial characters to an unacceptable degree. One can even remove magic without breaking the game.

    So there are two arguments here:

    1) Is the design-space such that one cannot develop ones own content? To which I say a resounding NO. Is the design space such that it is hard to change core rules? Yes, most definitely, because the rules are much more integrated and systematic, and I would argue well thought out.

    2) optics – is the presentation of the Dungeon Master’s Guide an incitement to bad behaviour on the part of players? Firstly I would argue that players have no business reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide if they are not DMs. Remember the audience. The DMG is for DMs – it is not meant as a tool for players to beat up the DM with! Secondly it is the spirit of “always say yes” that should be observed. Players want to play to act out their fantasies, not yours.

    The spirit of the game is to provide the opportunity for heroic fantasies in the setting. It is not a miniatures wargame. If a player says “I want to have a flying character”, you can say a qualified “yes – just not much at first level”. Such a character can have occasional (say, once per encounter) flight as a racial ability without breaking the game. If that person wanted it for the flavour, they will probably be content (at least more so than if you just said NO). If they wanted it to kite above the battlefield and destroy enemies with no risk to themselves, they have a long wait ahead – and they will probably be unhappy. However, short of a superheroes game that player would have been unhappy with any modern fantasy RPG.

  11. I can’t stand Classes & Levels myself, but I’ve heard good things about “Heroes Against Darkness”

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