As I’ve stated many time before, the mechanics used to run a roleplaying game do matter, but what matters most is the context that those rules provide. Or, alternately, the context you provide to the rules. It’s a matter of when the rules matter, and how they matter. In preparing to run a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game, I’ve been thinking about why I would have chosen other games over 4th Edition, and what perceived advantages they would give me. I’ve also been reading many, many blog posts about “Old School” D&D. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I carry a philosophy on how games should be run that transcends mechanics, and that this philosophy is decidedly Old School. Below are some random thoughts about Mechanics, Game Mastering, and 4th Edition.
1. D&D Does Do One Thing Well
That’s the mantra of indie gamers, right – a game should do one thing well. 4th Edition does the exact same thing that 3rd Edition did very well: it has a simple and versatile core mechanic. Roll a d20. Add modifiers. Beat a target number. There are a lot of trappings and window dressing, and the “flair” of the system is different between 3rd and 4th Editions, but with that alone you can do virtually anything. I know, this is out of the context of whether it’s Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist and doing one of those things well, but I’ll expand on this as I hit other points below.
2. Don’t Tell Me What You’re Rolling, Describe What You’re Doing
The best gamemasters I know, regardless of the system they’re running, do this. “I want to make a blah blah blah check, I have a plus blah blah blah”, says the player. The gamemaster responds “Well what is it you’re doing, exactly?”. Then the GM has the player roll dice. It’s roleplaying. Based on your description, the gamemaster will assign bonuses and a target number. This means that if you’ve got a great attack bonus and say “I swing my sword”, you’re going to get some basic modifiers and a by-the-book target number. Pretty Gamist, right, and it works well for folks who play that way. But the player with a crappy attack bonus who describes a wicked move he’s going to try might get some situational modifiers to help, and possibly a reduced target number, to support his efforts and creativity. Pretty Narrativist, huh?
3. Your Character Sheet is Not Your Character
How you play your character matters. If you come up with some wicked-swell move that you do all the time, I might give you a bonus, or a lower target number, because that’s how you play the character. I’ll take the character’s goals, dreams, and personality into account. I’ll take his upbringing and past history into account. Even if that stuff isn’t reflected on the character sheet. I’ll use that core mechanic in a Narrativist way. It won’t require me to change the rules, just to make rulings.
4. Rule Are Optional, As Are Die Rolls
If it makes perfect sense that a character could do something, based on the difficulty of the task and the character’s ability level, why roll? This is a very broad interpretation of the “Take 10″ rule, admittedly. Focus on the chance of failure when it can lead to something interesting happening, and don’t bog down the story just for the sake of rolling dice. If a character wants to do something and you’re not sure how, just fall back on the core mechanic and wing it. Look up the real rules later. Just keep the action moving.
5. Game Balance Comes from the Gamemaster, Not the Rules
I am a believer in what has been termed “Gygaxian Naturalism“. Monsters are what they are. If there is a horrible creature down that dark, dark hole that will serve a group of 3rd level characters their own behinds on a plate, then it’s probably a bad idea for 3rd level characters to go down that hole. My job as the gamemaster is not to “scale” the monster to make it defeatable by them. My job is to provide the players with opportunities to make their own decisions. I can give them all the warning in the world that going down there is a bad idea. I can make information available on what gear they need to fight the monster. I can balance the setting not only by giving them encounters they can handle, but by showing them a world that’s filled with things they can’t handle. This isn’t to be mean. This is to make them think creatively. This is to make them roleplay, and not just read numbers off a sheet and roll dice. You can’t fight that and win; find another solution.
Scaling adventures is like giving trophies to all the kids on a school sports team regardless of whether they win or lose or how well they play. It makes everyone feel good, but no one’s really earned anything. It also devalues genuine accomplishments. I’m really not trying to go all John Galt here, but there’s a great feeling that goes along with accomplishing something with skill, brains and luck. One of my greatest experiences as a player was in 2nd Edition when my 2nd level ranger killed a black dragon by himself. All I was doing was laying down longbow fire so the party could run away in the face of an enemy we could not defeat. I told he gamemaster I was firing at its face, specifically at its eyes. Then I rolled 3 natural 20′s in a row. If I had just said I was shooting at the dragon, I would have done more damage and hurt it, but it would have kept going. Because I stated specifically what I was doing, the gamemaster interpreted the rolls I made and declared that I pierced its eye and penetrated its brain, killing it. If the adventure had been scaled down to give us a better chance of defeating it, that would not have been nearly as thrilling.
Hopefully, all of these random thoughts taken together will give you an idea of how I approach running a game. If you notice, all of this can apply to any system.