Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tools not Rules

I get it, it's interesting to see what the new standard guidelines for D&D will be, especially because 4e was such an outlier.  But as far as I'm concerned a different set of standardized guidelines for play is not what I need.  And I'm not talking here about having perfectly good older standardized guidelines for D&D.

Are you really concerned that you track ammunition like the DM across town?  Or that your players are leveling at the same pace as everyone else at the game store?  I doubt it. 

I'm guessing the kind of things coming out in the new rule books are the things you are probably very familiar with: classes, xp charts, spell lists.  I think of these as the "What" of D&D: "What armor can a wizard wear?  What can I do to get my hit points back?  What do I need to hit?"  They often lead to binary questions: "Can I climb up the wall and onto the ceiling?"  "Can I use a sword in each hand?"  They are about what is allowed.  They seem to be defensive to prevent player creativity from "taking advantage."

I'm much more interested in the "How" of D&D, doing things new or puzzling to me.  And I think WotC could still make money selling tools that help with these "Hows."  I think a good example is the monster manual.  Instead of worrying so much that goblins are the same from campaign to campaign, give me some tools to make my own creatures.  But maybe a better example of what I mean by "Tool" is to recount a bit of my session fom Friday night.

Friday Night in Ulminster
My players are in a city.  One of them happens to be able to see the future.  How the heck do you handle that?  Well I made a chart.  I let her roll on it each session and we (mostly I) interpret the results.  This time someone beloved would be destroyed by sacrifice.  Interesting, because she has a great grandfather in the city.  How did I know that?  Well, I had her roll on this table earlier.  So, I said" "You see your great grandfather on a table surrounded by people and they are ceremoniously putting something serpentine down his throat, killing him."  So she decided to visit great granpappy.  And now I wonder what he's up to, or what he might have to say to her?  How do I determine that off the top of my head?  We go back to the dramarama table, I have her roll the other three columns, but this time I let her pick the entry rolled or those above or below it (a great technique I learned from ZakS).  We find out he is in love but wants her to kill the women.  Interesting.  Why?  Well, if we tie it back to her vision it would be neat and help me out, so I decided she was involved with a cult that my player saw in the vision.  But how do I "play" great granpappy?  What is his personality?  Oh, I've got a table I made for that.  I roll and find out he is missing teeth and has a great abundance of  . . . talkativeness.  Haha, and thus began a goofy monologue, by me, relaying his love for this woman and how she has to die anyway.

Later in the evening the players were at a bear-baiting.  How do you do something like that?  Cock fights, dog fights?  Well I suppose you could run them like regular combat with initiative and everything, but I came up with a simple method of my own.  Another player just got rich betting on the bear.  And he intends to use that money at an auction of several barges worth or fireworks.  An auction, how do you do that?  Umm, I think I'm going to come up with interested parties, write their goals and money on index cards and let my other players roleplay them in the auction.  But I'm not sure yet.

So that's four tools right there, that I feel I needed to get me through that session and one I need to devise for next time. 

I suppose other DMs might consider improvving these details an expectation of being a DM.  Or maybe other DMs figure you are supposed to prep all that detail on your own ahead of time.  But my guess is that there are a lot of folks out there like me that could use tools to help them run D&D.  And I don't see many people selling that (Vornheim is one I know of, giving you a tool for dealing with  players searching a library, for example).

I suppose the things in the rulebooks might be tools for folks that are having trouble with different things than me.  So, an explanation of skill checks, for example, helps a newer DM know what to do when a player wants to run across a wet log over a stream, or something.  But for those mechanical questions we have stats and dice and you can use the two to figure it out.  It isn't like there's some optimal solution game designers are trying to suss out like the Higgs boson.

I think I realize now that most of the tools I mention are about generating things on the fly.  But not all, auctions, searching libraries, foretelling the future are more prickly problems and not just crutches for DMs with poor improv skills.  Anyway, I wish our hobby and the industry attached to it would spend less time worried about standard rules and more time coming up with cool new tools that help me run my game.


  1. The standard third book in any core rules set should be a book full of ideas and solutions like the ones you have made. Monsters can either go in the referee's guide or in their own fourth volume.

    These kinds of ingenious tools to get you through on the fly are way more important than how many hit points a Thoul has.

  2. I plan to release my own game as a boxed set, and included in it will be three-hole punched sheets for the referee. These cover the type of material you're talking about here. The idea is to continue pumping these out and individual refs can just pick what they want and include them in a binder with their notes and maps

    I do think some standardization's good for improv; it can provide a firm foundation to make rulings you'll be happy with even after a session's over. 3.0 actually did a pretty great job of that, but they also codified quite a few rulings DMs could've handled themselves and made sure to beat you over the head with so much repetition. Sometimes I get the urge to write a slimmer version of 3E that cuts the fat and actually empowers the DM instead of spelling everything out for all the rules lawyers. You wouldn't even need to change the actual game (though I'd be tempted to)

  3. ProfessorOats, you might find Microlite20 interesting. It's 3e chopped down to its barest essentials.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    @Scott: Yeah, I'm not even sure there needs to be a player's handbook as such (maybe little class booklets or something) because it implies there is a ton of stuff you need to know and do to make a character which isn't the case in my games.

    @ProfessorOats: A foundation is good, I agree, and the system can really help a DM know what kinds of things they will need to decide on (like how to handle leveling, or new spells, or hirelings, etc) I also agree that DMs should know that they can edit and tinker with all that to set their own baseline and get ready to make rulings because they are inevitable.

    The three-hole sheets is a great idea because I think modularity is a good approach to this problem. I would looooove to have a simple mini-game to resolve 7 samurai style village sieges, but you wouldn't need that very often.

    Something I realized after posting is that some of the tools I desire aren't because I don't do enough prep or I'm not good enough at improv, but that I value emergent story and I really value player involvement. So I would probably favor a tool that gets my players involved somehow. I think this is related to my thinking about the game evolving as I've grown older. D&D is often treated very much like a war game (just with no win conditions) and I see it more like a collaborative parlour game.

  5. Emergent story is a key element to what I want to get out of the game. Railroad or otherwise, if I as the referee know basically what's going I happen, in going to be bored. "Story" is what happens when you pour the ingredients into the box, crank the handle, and then see what develops.

  6. Yes. I think D&D is actually quite innovative in ways that even some avid players don't seem to grasp. 1) It's collaborative and not competitive 2) It let's you take part in making your own entertainment rather than consuming something pre-made. Both of which require you to have a bit of faith that some cool things will emerge, but they usually do. I have no idea what might happen if my player gets a hold of a whole barge of fireworks in the upcoming auction but I'm sure it will be funny and possibly exciting. :)

    1. Well, I wouldn't say it's not competitive. Gygax's old campaign rules assumed some level of competition between players ("We need to find the treasure before they do!"). Hell, before it became D&D, some players would act as the monsters, which is something I've considered bringing back

    2. There are game rewards and table rewards. Players might be competitive over game rewards, but they are seeking the table rewards together and in common.

  7. Yeah, people can make anything competitive and D&D has had tournament play from way back. But I think that kind of play is really missing the point. This is a game where a group of friends get to play together , helping and working as a team. In fact, if they don't work together the dungeon will probably eat them alive. What other kind of play is like that? Maybe some video games? Maybe a few board games?

    Again, I'm influenced by thinking of it as a parlor game with a small group of friends. If I had 20+ people playing on different days and still had the same limited prep time I imagine the players would by necessity start feuding over resources. Jeff Reint's online Wessex campaign was like that. That's all right I guess. It gives the world an aspect of life where things happen outside of the DM, but I don't think it would be very fun to fight a bunch of wandering monsters, survive, and then find all the loot gone. Which I guess is a long winded way to say, there is probably an upper limit on the number of players that can be in a campaign and still produce the kind of play I like. Or, if I had that many players I might need to guide them to be less muder-hoboish and still work together even when they play on different days.