More Polls

I know I resolved not to do this, but I went back and visited Mike Mearls’ site to read his follow up to last week’s article.  Suffice it to say that it seems to me that he just went even further off the deep-end on this one.  My opinion at this point is that from an Old School vantage, he basically misses the point.

It seems to me that what these questions really show is a very player-biased view.  I guess this isn’t surprising from a commercial vantage.  If you want more sales, then of course you’d focus on players rather than DMs.  Players out-number DMs anywhere from 4:1 to 10:1, depending on the DM.  The problem is that by focusing on the player, you’ve got to assume that only that which is codified will be present in a game.  For a cohesive player experience, all games must play the same, thus the DM must not be allowed to improvise.

Of course, this is utterly contrary to my preferences in D&D.  I want the DM to have ultimate power to improvise, whether I’m DMing or playing.  Mearls asks his audience if the lack of feats, skills, powers, etc. would make a player feel “bored doing the same thing over and over again.”  But the only real reason to do the same thing over and over again is because you can’t do anything outside the rules and expect the DM to improvise the outcome.

Rather than dwell on the direction Mearls goes and how much I disagree with it, let’s spin this another way.  Let’s assume that like me, you agree that repetitive action is countered by player creativity in doing things outside the rules.  Given this assumption, then any DM worth his salt had better be prepared to improvise outcomes in a way that is enjoyable for the players.  How do we do that?  Well, we can’t really answer the question from the DM’s perspective, that’s pretty contrary to the nature of improvisation.  How about from the players’ perspective?  What is most enjoyable for the players?

Do they want a DM to completely encapsulate what he’s doing, quickly coming up with chances, rolling the dice, and narrating an outcome?  This is certainly the fastest and most narrative appearing system, allowing the game to take on a more story-telling like feel.  The flow of the game would glide effortlessly from a player’s description of his actions to the DM’s description of the outcome.

On the other hand, this method could also give the appearance of an arbitrary DM, especially if the player and DM have different opinions on the probability of success.  If a player thinks his action warrants a 75% success rate and the DM rates it at just 10%, then the player might get upset when everything he tries keeps failing.  In that case, perhaps it’s better that after the player describes his action the DM states the probability and the likely result from failure.  Then the player can weigh the ruling and decide if it’s really worth going through with his plan.  This perhaps breaks the flow of the game a bit, but gives the player a bit more power of his own fate.

What do you think?  Let’s take Mearls’ own methods and end this with a poll:

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6 Comments

  1. I went with the “DM should tell you…” option, but what I’d really like to see is something like:

    “DM should determine the type of roll that needs to be made (attack, skill check, save vs. whatever, etc.), and then tell you what modifiers should be applied (+1, -2, etc.). Then the player makes the roll.”

    Rolling dice is one of the most visceral parts of roleplaying, and if my character is doing something, I want to make the roll.

    Related to this, I also prefer DMs and/or rules systems where creativity is encouraged, not stifled. In 3rd edition D&D, with heavily codified rules, anything creative typically resulted in negative modifiers to your action:

    Player: “I want to jump from the balcony, swing from the chandelier, land behind the orc, and push him into the acid pit.”
    DM: “Ok, you’ll need a Jump check, followed by an Acrobatics check, followed by an attack roll, all at -4 for multiple partial actions.”

    I’d rather see the player get bonuses for awesomeness, and encourage everyone at the table to start thinking outside the box.

  2. @Joe:
    …with heavily codified rules, anything creative typically resulted in negative modifiers to your action

    Totally agree with that Joe, yet another reason to dislike skill systems. That’s a good example too. If you don’t mind, here are three ways I could imagine it playing out at a typical old school game. Note that all three of these examples use exactly the calls by the DM and the same rolls and results. All that’s different is how much info is available to the player. I’m curious which you’d prefer:

    Choice 1
    Player: I want to jump from the balcony, swing from the chandelier, land behind the orc, and push him into the acid pit.
    DM: OK, make a standard attack roll.
    Player: I got a 3.
    DM: You swing from the chandelier, slip a bit, and land next to the orc instead of behind him. You flail your arms wildly trying to hold your balance. Save vs. Paralysis or you’ll fall into the acid pit yourself.
    Player: Groan…

    Choice 2
    Player: I want to jump from the balcony, swing from the chandelier, land behind the orc, and push him into the acid pit.
    DM: OK, you’ll just have to make a standard attack roll to accomplish it, but if you fail, there’s a chance you’ll fall into the acid pit yourself.
    Player: Totally worth it. Aw man, I got a 3.
    DM: You let go of the chandelier too early and land just at the edge of the pit. Save vs. Paralysis to avoid falling in.
    Player: Groan…

    Choice 3
    Player: I want to jump from the balcony, swing from the chandelier, land behind the orc, and push him into the acid pit.
    DM: If you hit with a standard attack, you’ll do the usual unarmed damage plus the orc will tumble into the pit and take more damage from the acid. If you miss, you’ll have to Save vs. Paralysis or you fall into the pit instead. Still want to do it?
    Player: Yeah, I’m going to try it. Aw man, I got a 3.
    DM: You attempt at acrobatics is a miserable failure, and you go sprawling towards the pit. Make your save.
    Player: Groan…

  3. Choice 2 or 3 sounds good to me. No real preference. It’s obvious that the move comes with some risk, but it also comes with greater reward if it works.

  4. Re: Your poll, I voted for “DM just rolls the dice”, but truthfully I want something in between. I’m pretty sure (IIRC) that, to keep things moving briskly, my tendency is to give short feedback like, “that sounds pretty tough, are you sure?”, or “sounds doable”, or “that should be easy”. Once the action is chosen then I start adjudicating on specific numbers. (Rarely I double-check with the table consensus: “Anyone strongly disagree with that?”) I don’t think I want specific numbers/types of rolls in the narrative discussion.

    On the broader point of WOTC’s publishing strategy, this is exactly the hole they’ve put themselves in the last decade (to expand on my “shrinking niche” thesis). The “focus on players” is short-term profitable, long-term market shrinking, i.e., “eating your corn seed”. While there are more players, it’s the DM who tends to introduce new people to the game, acts as a host and director, shapes the game, and is the catalyst (at least) for any creative spark that might happen. So this is the catch-22 they have of wanting to demote the DM and at the same time scrambling for ambassadors to get new players excited.

    In short: Catering products to player purchases gets you x4 profits in the short term, but it turns off the DMs who host games & introduce new players in the long-term.

  5. I think I agree with you Delta in wanting a more middle of the road approach. In my response to Joe I gave three options, and I think my default reaction would be to take the 2nd choice: “you can try that, but there’s a chance you’ll fall into the pit yourself”. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly how I’ve handled the old problem of shooting into melee: “You can do that, but if you miss there’s a chance you’ll hit your friend.” No specifics on the chances, just a warning of the potential repercussions for failure.

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