The Clash of the Expectations/Reading the Game

One reason I often find myself unfairly frustrated with D&D, Pathfinder, and other “fantasy” games is that I tend to view them as toolboxes more than complete games unto themselves. That is to say – even though I like to use their rules – I want to be able to map those rules to any setting, particularly my own homebrew settings. And there’s the rub. D&D, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy 2nd Edition… They are not toolboxes.

I’ve been gaming for almost 30 years, playing some version of D&D that whole time, and it took me until I was sitting down reading the Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide to actually have this epiphany. The Advanced Race Guide makes very clear that Paizo is creating a set of built-in expectations right alongside the “numbers” of their races. When the book discusses how Kitsune, for example, are part of the game there is also a built-in explanation/expectation that they fit-in a certain way, have a certain amount of rarity, and their mechanical build is not based on what I might think about Kitsune, or what Japanese mythology might tell us about Kitsune, but about what Kitsune ARE in the context of Paizo’s game and implied setting. The fluff informs the mechanics.

Now, of course, one may always house-rule and home-brew to their heart’s content. That’s no big deal – we do it all the time. And in the Advanced Race Guide, Paizo gives Pathfinder GMs at least two different ways built right into the mechanics of the book to change races to match their vision (alternate racial traits and the race building system). But it seemed important to me (all of the sudden) to realize that much of my frustration with “the way things work” stems from my dissociation of designers’ expectations from my own expectations when I view these books as toolboxes rather than games with built-in “stuff.”

Warhammer Fantasy is a great example of this. I love the mechanics of the 2nd Edition of the game. It’s a wonderful mixture of almost everything I love in a fantasy game with very little that I don’t. But character building has always frustrated the heck out of me. And in order for character creation in that system to make sense, it has to be contextualized to the world of Warhammer Fantasy – not my own homebrew fantasy world. And in order to make changes – I have to battle not only the mechanics, but how those mechanics interact with the fluff they rest on.

It’s an interesting realization for an old tinkerer. I mean, when I play Aberrant, I don’t expect it to model DC Universe style superheroes. When I play Houses of the Blooded, I don’t expect it to easily map to generic fantasy. And for games with very explicit settings/metastories this makes sense. But even when I look back at old school D&D (and modern products like DCC) I see that even then, when I was building my own perceptions of fantasy games, there were built-in expectations (racial animosity tables?) that just were often glossed over when we played instead of informing the play experience.

Maybe this sounds silly to some of the old hands out there. I feel a little silly writing it – I do generally think of myself as intelligent and perceptive – but I think in many cases I was blinded by my own expectations and desires. I guess I’m just saying – the next time something in a game frustrates you, think it through, situate it in the context of the game/implied setting, THEN decide if you are really frustrated or not.

Anyway – thanks for stopping by.


4 responses

  1. […] The Clash of the Expectations/Reading the Game from The Rhetorical Gamer ( […]

  2. What about Savage Worlds? The core book has suggestions on how to make races without overt themes like many fantasy/setting books. Sure each of the SW setting books has different races and how they are done, but the SWDX has suggestions, but largely it’s a blank slate.

    The thing to remember about the D&D and Pathfinder books and races is that they are built on an assumption. They choose themes that are known to us- Elves are magical and arrogant and aloof, Dwarves are raging alcoholics that like bling, Halflings are annoying, and Half Orcs want to ragequit life by killing everyone else, etc. This is that familiarity that allows you to say, (especially to new players) “You’ve seen the Hobbit right? Good. That’s basically a halfling… That’s an orc..” Blah…

    I get that it can be annoying and stifling (creatively) to have to use their stats/descriptions/modifiers or to sit there and have to house rule and change them… but as you said, D&D/Pathfinder isn’t a generic system/toolkit..

    One thing I’ve done with the hack I’m currently using ( is get rid of modifiers for each race so that A) there is no more munchinking for stat bonuses and B) just give them one ability that makes their race unique. With it only being 1 line I can change it to fit what I want really easily…

  3. Well, that’s sorta my point. I mean, I’m agreeing with you, but yeah, D&D/PF are not blank slates — but I often think that many gamers believe they are. That PF is more toolkit than fluff-driven. And it’s an assumption that I encourage, because people should tinker and hack and homebrew. Absolutely. It’s just that it’s a different animal.

    I’ve used GURPS, Savage Worlds, HERO, the generic D6 system. It’s a trade off. When you have a “generic” system you lose other parts of the equation — due to the balancing act of making Everything work with the same rules. Sometimes though, the baked-in assumptions of D&D/PF are a little more transparent — until you run up against something that clashes.

    I mean – that’s why I play a lot of diceless games and why I create my own. Seems like you feel the same. (I’m a big fan of the hack).

  4. […] The Clash of the Expectations/Reading the Game at Rhetorical Gamer: Exploring rules systems vs. the implied setting embedded in those systems, and realizing that D&D and Pathfinder aren’t true toolbox rules systems. […]

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