Do you want to play a system that feels you (the player or gamemaster) needs to be “protected?”
This is an odd, and possibly controversial thought. It has been running through my head for a while now and I’m still not certain I can articulate it as well as I’d like, but I’m going to give it a shot. Consider this a concept post — maybe with comments from readers I can refine the thought a little more.
It all started with a conversation I was having during my “I’m really angry with 4E D&D phase.” I realized that part of what really bothered me about the rhetoric surrounding 4E was that it seemed to me as if everything about the system and the thought processes going into it were set up to protect players from “bad” Dungeon Masters. I realize that for many people the advice in the DMG and from the game’s writers may have been perceived as food-for-thought, but I felt like what I was hearing was, “We, the writers, grew up with shitty DMs, so we’re building a system to tell you that your DM, if he doesn’t do exactly what you want, is a bad DM.”
One area where this is evident is the “always say Yes” bit of sage DM advice. While I realize that an innocent and well-intentioned idea exists inside the advice, it comes off as disingenuous to me. It comes across as, “this is the good way. Oh, yeah, your way is bad…” Another place where this shows up in 4E is that the game seems to hold the concept of no-such-thing-as-failure. Look at skill challenges for an example. I’ve been playing/running 4E since release and I have yet to see a skill challenge that was either run well or worth the time it took to do it. But the most important idea is, skill challenges really have no actual consequences. Failure really only equals partial success. Again, it feels to me as if the game is protecting players from wicked DMs who are out to get them, by actually closing doors.
Lest I spend all my time on D&D 4E, I’ll move away by saying that it is not the worst offender in this regard for me. For me the worst offenders are the “shared narrative” games. First of all, let me say that I never realized we needed mechanics for a shared narrative. I thought that was the whole point of playing this style of game in the first place. I never needed a Fate point or a Style point in any game I’ve ever been a part of — on either side of the screen — to “add something” or “exert player control.” In point of fact (which is amusing since I’m expressing an opinion) — I feel that all these mechanics to create shared narrative control are actually counter-productive by “rules’ing up” something that needs no rules. What’s wrong with a player inventing something on the fly? This should always be part of the negotiation between player and GM.
Example: I was running a D&D 3.5 game years ago. The players were all in a big city where most of the game’s action was taking place. One of the characters is an elven rogue. She’s lived in this city her whole life, except a short stint in the country with her mentor. She’s heavily weighted toward Charisma as her prime stat and her player intentionally made her combat options kind of plain-vanilla because the character was really supposed to be about charm and “getting by.” At one point in the game she was in trouble and on the run (literally, she’s being chased), isolated from the rest of the party and as she leads her pursuers through the streets she says, “hey, I’m gonna lead these guys to the dump (the city had a dump in its slums). Can I get a little bit of a lead on them?” We played a little, she got the lead and then told me that she was going to approach the two dwarven brothers who ran the dump — and sometimes dealt with problems for the Guild — and ask them to waylay the guys following her. Yeah, we’d never discussed that before. We’d never even mentioned dwarven shovel-buddies (what she called them) — and certainly not that she had a relationship with them. But it sounded good, it solved the problem, and she had plausible reasons in her background why this was worth being a time to “Say Yes.” So I did. And the dwarven shovel-buddies did the job, she got away and they asked her for favors later too. Win-win. No mechanics were attached to this, just player creativity and DM excitement. If that player had been thinking about “invoking aspects” or using “Fate points” I’m not sure the situation would have been as creative… I could be wrong, but I hate legislating creativity that way.
I’ve played with some bad GMs. I’ve had some awful players. I dealt with it. I either quit the bad games or avoided them to begin with. I asked bad players to leave (by bad I mean disruptive, angry or really difficult) — even if they were friends outside the game. I don’t need my game system to legislate my fun and protect me from the other people at the table. And I feel like the other consequence of these games is that by breaking down the GMs role into that of “just another player” that it actually undermines the basic idea of the GM, to help build a story with the players by the very virtue of having a different role. And one of the GM hats should be referee. And when absolutely necessary, enforcer. That’s part of the social contract we make with a group when we game together.
I don’t know. I’m still not sure I articulated this thought well enough. Maybe I have? What do you think about this topic? Discuss please.