Rules Dictating Play Style?

In this week’s Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls he writes about Player versus Character. Haven’t read the article yet? Go on. I will wait while you go read it…..

Back? Onwards then!

He starts with describing a familiar scene to D&D players, a statue of a lizard man at the end of a corridor. He then goes into how one might have approached this scenario from a pre D&D 3.x day with more focus on the player investigating things with questions about the object, requests for more detail and such that the DM responds to. Then he provides an example of a post 3.x group doing the same and simply having them roll their search or perception checks to learn more about what secrets the statue might contain.

The theory he puts forth is that in early editions of D&D it was the player being challenged and in post 3.x editions it was the character being challenged. He theorized this is a result of a more rules based game for each situation and breaks some of the immersion of the game that the early days had.

While he makes several good points the picture he paints is one of mutual exclusivity. I do not believe the picture is as clear cut as that. I think it is more of a play style choice and post 3.x rulesets can fully support an immersive environment.

In groups I play with most often we would have approached the statue and started asking questions about it. We would not have fallen to rolling dice right away. We would have asked if there appeared to be any parts that moved, was there anything unusual about the base of the statue and so on. Once these questions were asked the DM might have called for a search or perception check, but now he had much more information to go on as to exactly what we doing. In some cases if we were creative with our searching or detailed enough we would simply be told what we found without need for a dice roll.

In other cases our group has tackled riddles and puzzles that we encounter during an adventure. The post 3.x rules would have provided an option for us to simply make Intelligence checks and move on. But our group wanted the challenge and the experience of working through the puzzle ourselves as players. There is nothing in the post 3.x rules that prevented us from doing that.

On the other side there are times being able to simply make a roll is a good thing. This is what lets us play super intelligent wizards, charming bards and extraordinary dexterous rogues. We aren’t these things in real life and in some situations it makes sense that our character might know more or be better able to accomplish something than the player. The player can still say what they want to do and describe it, but then rely on the roll to determine success. Success their character has a better chance of than the player.

I have not found the rules in post 3.x systems hampering immersion. The DM has the tools at hand to adjudicate situations as needed. The rules provide a framework, but they do not take away player thought unless the gaming group *wants* them to.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Rules Dictating Play Style?

  1. rules will be used if they are there. and the rules in d&d 3rd edition (and even the most basic ones at that) clogged down play while giving too many shortcuts in all the wrong places. so combat got made into a tabletop game (and it was hard to play without markers and miniatures) while all the roleplaying was done by skill rolls so you could get to the next fight.
    so I had to throw out the rules that I did not like, and changed others, and bent others to fit my style of gaming, and in the end I had three rulebooks that looked very awesome and were nearly useless in game.
    then I asked myself: why did I spend a significant amount of money I barely could afford on glorified picture books, if I could have just bought booze and snacks for my players instead?

  2. While rules may be used if they are there, I don’t see that they force one to give up roleplaying. It is a choice to do so. There is still plenty of room for that even if the rules are used.

    I think a lot of this depends on the approach of the DM though. If the DM says there isn’t a rule for that or a rule doesn’t cover it then you can’t do it, then the rules can become a stranglehold. Given the same situation and DM that uses the rules as a guideline then the game continues without being put in a stranglehold.

    Combat in the post 3.x editions has become more tactical. It varies on group or who is DMing as to how much a battlemat is needed. My regular DM manages to run games without a battlemat fairly easily and with good result. I am able to do so in the lower levels, but do tend to break one out at the higher levels. I am certain the success of this would vary greatly from group to group.

    Point taken on the issue of if you house rule the system to such degree that the core rulebooks become near useless it becomes a more frustrating situation.

  3. This is a very old discussion in the D&D world. I’m honestly surprised you haven’t had more (and more extreme) commentary on this issue considering how strongly some feel about it.

    I certainly agree with you that much of the issue does boil down to making a choice, but having rules for everything (comprehensive, encyclopedic rules) can certainly effect a shift in player/GM perception of how a game is Supposed to be played — especially if you are a new person entering the hobby.

    Imagine that some players might not really want to play 20 questions about the statue, that their hyper-vigilant rogue with the ridiculous Perception skill should be able to see things they might never think of… so there is also an element of play style involved (though it is still a choice, not a dictate). And player-expectation may enter into the discussion as well. After all, if I have a hyper-vigilant rogue with a ridiculous perception then I might feel as if that is a clue to the GM about what I expect — my rogue to do the looking “for me,” as it were.

    I think the issue is more complex — by far — than Mearls has made it out to be, and that he’s a little late to the party with his musing about this.

  4. @morrisonmp
    I wonder if that is part of the equation. The group I primarily game with has been gaming for years or at the very least we all started with Basic or 1st Edition D&D. It would seem quite possible that the D&D environment we started in has slanted us to the more immersive experience and not always turning things into simply rolling the dice for skill checks.

    In either case – I am certainly in agreement that the issue is far more complex than the Players vs. Characters blog post makes it out to be.

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