I prefer to keep an open mind about most things, not the least of which is gaming. That, coupled with my willingness to play devil’s advocate, occasionally finds me arguing for a position I don’t completely agree with. I experienced one such situation just last week, when talking to my old friend Kanati about his burning hatred of D&D 4th Edition. I’ll be honest – I still prefer 3rd Edition, but I have great fun with all this newfangled stuff. And so, in order to chip away at my friend’s resolve never to play 4e, I tried to reason with him. He didn’t like how everything is a little too balanced and suggested story was no longer WotC’s focus. I politely questioned his sanity, and he politely questioned my parentage in turn.
After we dueled with pistols, we continued our conversation and started talking about combat – specifically, how he didn’t like a battlemat being integral to 4e’s combat system. This shocked me, as the man has been into historical wargames and minatures combat for as long as I’ve known him. I was stunned for 4 rounds. Once I regained my senses, I asked him to explain himself. I thought he would appreciate the improved accuracy of combat. You never have questions in 4e like “Can my arrow reach that guy?” or “Did my fireball roast all seven lizardmen?”. It’s measurable. You can definitively state how much lizardman BBQ the party can take home. It takes out a lot of the ambiguity that I’ve seen cause fights at the gaming table. That’s a good thing, right?
The answer he gave me stunned me for another 6 rounds.
GRIDFUDGE! The Musical
“On a battle grid, I can’t finesse the game anymore.”
He went on to describe a combat scenario in which a battlegrid isn’t ideal. An enemy tries to flee the room to summon help. He’s just at the edge of the closest PC’s attack range. The DM has decided to advance the story somehow by what happens when the enemy successfully brings reinforcements.
With a battlegrid, it’s clear whether the PC could attack this enemy. If it’s a minion and the player uses a power that causes half damage on a miss, it’s an automatic kill. (EDIT: Several of you have pointed out that minions do not take damage on a miss. This is incorrect. They actually take quadruple damage.)
Without a battlegrid, the DM has much more power to handwave and say the enemy was too far away and managed to make it out, summoning the half-beholder tarrasquolich and thereby furthering the plot. “The battlegrid”, my partner-in-argument said, “is just another facet of players nowadays wanting die rolls to handle the game instead of actually roleplaying and letting story drive the game”.
At this point, it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about battlemats anymore. We were talking about DM fiat.
I Choose For You To Disbelieve
Earlier this year, I experienced the equivalent of finding out there was no Dungeon Mastery Santa Claus when I realized that DM’s cheat. All the time.
Since then, I have tried to avoid fudging the numbers whenever possible in combat. I want my players to feel like their actions do mean something, and not that I just artificially extended combat in order to create a Dramatically Appropriate Moment to introduce some other plot element. I wish I could just leave it at that, but my brain has to go and keep thinking about things and generally ruining everything. Should I take away tools that can be used responsibly to further an exciting story? Is keeping things real really doing the players a favor if what happens is boring or stupid?
I really don’t have a good answer for these questions, but it does strike me that a lot of this depends on what role the DM plays in the game. Am I just an arbiter of rules? Am I there simply to test the players, either by combat or puzzle? Am I just planting the seeds of a story and watching what sprouts forth, or do I take an active role in what happens?
I’m not sure that there is necessarily a deliberate trend to try to take control away from the DM in 4th edition, but I do think things are different now than they’ve been in years past. Searching a room used to mean telling the DM about everything you were searching. Now it’s a die roll. Admittedly, a good DM will assign bonuses or assist the player’s attempt if the roleplay was good, but some things traditionally associated with roleplay have been assigned game mechanics. I don’t see this as a bad thing. It helps separate the character’s abilities from the player’s, which especially helps if the player is not as smart or sharp-eyed as his character (or if the DM is lousy at giving clues). I suppose having roleplaying elements assigned game mechanics doesn’t completely eliminate the DM’s ability to arbitrarily decide what’s happening in the game, but it’s certainly a lot more obvious. That, too, was one of my friend’s complaints: “finessing” the game works better if nobody’s the wiser, and 4e combat makes it a lot more obvious when you fudge. Fights over rules when things are murky are already bad. If the player knows their position is Rules Correct, the DM just winds up looking like a jerk. That is not generally fun for any party, in several contexts.
Many times, I feel as if the DM’s job is that of an entertainer. I could execute the most efficient and well-balanced combats in the history of the game, and if my players didn’t have fun, then I still didn’t do my job right. I want everybody to go home excited and happy. I want to do this by making a story everybody can participate in. Is it bad if that goal was achieved but the player experience was shaped somewhat? Where’s the line where it goes from being OK to betraying the trust of my players?
I suspect the answer lies in the middle somewhere, and is not quantifiable in any way. Which, I suppose, means it’s not suitable for use with a battlemat or 4th Edition. I bet my friend loves it. We never finished the argument, by the way. I think one of us mentioned the new Thundercats series, and our attention quickly drifted elsewhere.
Cheetara beats battlemats beats Battlestar Galactica.