The response to my last article D&D: Breaking (is) Bad was astonishing in both volume and depth of thought. I received more emails than ever before from people wanting to talk to me directly about my thoughts. And I appreciate everyone who added constructively to the continuing conversation online. Since a topic of such complexity contains many different views and ancillary topics, I wanted to take the time to evaluate some of those tangential points in the scope of my original thoughts.
What’s Your Point?
The risk inherent in mentioning optimization, rules complexity, and story vs. rules in a discussion is great. People may fall back into entrenched positions on all sides. So I want to quickly clarify some points that will also frame my discussion going forward.
I do not think optimization is badwrongfun. I personally enjoy figuring out how to make highly effective characters. As a DM, I love using the rules to create encounters that are ridiculous. I just (usually) never write them into a published adventure. When I say that “breaking the rules” of a game (as in finding combinations that are way overpowered) is bad for the game, I am not doing so to excuse game developers for making poorly constructed rules. Rules should be clear and precise and developed with an eye toward compatibility with other rules. However, there are issues with this that warrant a completely separate article.
I do not hate complex rules, or simple rules, or balanced rules, or unbalanced rules. I do not think there is a strict dichotomy between roleplaying and combat, or between story and rules. I do not think “powergamers” are by default bad “roleplayers.”
The point I was trying to make in my previous article was that D&D is a social game, played by people who often bring different sets of expectations to the table. Often the game is played with a group of friends, and those expectations are explicit before the first die is cast, even as they may also be unspoken. If expectations are not met, discussion generally happens quickly (and loudly) to get play back on track.
Sometimes, however, the game is played in a public setting, and maybe with a table of strangers. In those cases, those expectations may diverge wildly. In order for the game as a whole to succeed in those instances, players need to be aware of how their actions interact with the expectations of others. The DM is certainly on the hook for most of that responsibility, but some rests firmly in the laps of individual players.
Growing the Game
I do not have market research data on what RPG players prefer. I wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to read it even if I did. What I do have scads of experience putting my butt in the DM seat at conventions and game stores and game days around the United States, running games for literally hundreds of total strangers over the past 15 years. By helping administer several Organized Play campaigns, I have received direct feedback from players and DMs, hearing their concerns and problems and dislikes (and every so often, their joys and triumphs).
When these diverse people have told me their preferences, or when I have seen their preferences directly at the table, it is overwhelmingly this: they want to interact with the story like they cannot in any other medium. They want to be part of the story. They want roleplaying, and they want combat, and they want to contribute in all aspects of the game. When they leave the table having contributed in a meaningful way to all parts of the game, they leave happy and wanting to play more—wanting to share their stories, and more importantly the game as a whole, with others.
When they lose 20 minutes of the game to the DM and a player sorting through a convoluted rules exploit, they might take an interest. But generally, that 20 minutes is time they would rather spend kicking down doors, joining factions, killing orcs, and stealing pies. When some player breaks the game and presses the auto-win button, most people do not look on in admiration. They do not wish they could do that. They fervently hope not to sit down with that player again. Or they just never come back.
Please Use as Directed
When I was a kid, my brothers and I received a dartboard for Christmas. By New Year’s Day, simply throwing darts at a board was boring. So we invented a new game. It had no name, but it could have been called “Hit Your Brother With the Darts Because BLOOD!” We were potential future Darwin Award winners.
Now if a stranger had never played darts before, and came up to us and asked us what we were playing, and we said, “Darts!” that person would probably swear off darts forever. And so it goes with D&D, minus the several scars from puncture wounds.
D&D is in a strange position, even in the RPG world, because the designers have to recognize that different elements of the game attract different people, and sometimes those play styles and play expectations are seemingly at odds. They wouldn’t always have to be at odds if players acknowledged and accommodated those with play styles different from their own.
The DM Cures All, Until the DM Can’t
What makes RPGs so unique in relation to other game types and activities is the GM. The DM in D&D has the flexibility (and quite literally, the mandate) to make the sure the game runs smoothly. If something is going awry at a table, the DM is responsible for smoothing things over. Sometimes this takes the form of a compromise between two conflicting desires or interpretations. Other times it takes the form of blue bolts of lightning or rocks falling from the sky. Either way, that is the DMs prerogative.
However, the DM cannot always solve such problems with brute force. A player who is ruining the fun of others by using a combination of a spell, magic item, and class feature as an auto-win button in every situation might decide on his or her own to self-censor. If that doesn’t happen, the DM can simply ban one or all of the offensive game elements, therefore returning the fun to everyone, right? Unfortunately not.
This is one of the joys and shames of Organized Play (OP). I could (and probably have) written a dozen articles about the challenges of OP. But I do know that without OP, I (and countless professional RPG designers) would not have been able to break into the RPG industry at all, and my mother would be the only one reading this article. (Hi Mom. Sorry about the whole dart thing. Shane started it.)
Organized Play, in my opinion, is an essential tool in growing the game. It introduces new people to a game, providing DMs where there might not be any otherwise, providing other players where there might not be any otherwise. Essentially, providing the game. In some OP environments, the DMs are restricted in what they can do. They cannot simply ban items. Rocks cannot fall from the sky.
And the games, whether home games or Organized Play games, run on the backs of the DMs. We need new DMs or there will no more games. As my good friend Teos Abadia points out sagely, getting gamers to make the jump from player to DM can be difficult. DMing is both an art and a craft, and even people who would be great at it are often hesitant to try. Throwing these new DMs into a maelstrom of broken combinations is a quick way to dry up the DM pool quickly.
RPG Bingo: Balanced, Unbalanced, Simple, Complex
Much can be said about the world of RPGs and the differences between balanced and unbalanced systems, between simple and complex rules systems. Getting into this tends to retread the same edition-war nonsense that 99.9% of sapient creatures on Earth are sick of hearing.
Honestly, in the discussion of how breaking the game breaks a game, those differences are largely irrelevant. D&D is going to be a game—regardless of balance or simplicity or scope—where some people will find a way to break something. It might be easier to break a game with a more complex, unbalanced system, sure. But it will be done with any version of D&D because D&D, even at its simplest and most balanced, is going to contain options and elements that allow for breakage. It might be winning every combat in a single turn. It might be getting a Diplomacy check so high that you could convince the giant god Thyrm to join you for a steam. (Look it up.)
The truth is, anyone with opposable thumbs and an Internet connection can break a game. In AD&D and 2e you had to do it yourself, and with 3e and 4e all you needed was the right URL. If I had a nickel for each time this one player in my home game arrived with a character co-opted directly from some CharOp (Character Optimization) forums, I would at least have the GDP of a small central European nation. I am hoping that with 5e he at least learns how the different parts of the optimized character actually work.
Wrapping It Up
D&D is a social game with complex rules (relative to other activities a person could pursue). You can absolutely play the game, enjoy the game, and find others who enjoy the game focusing almost entirely on the rules. There can even be a lot of story involved in such a game. I’ve run and enjoyed many such games.
Even as we play characters that straddle the line between merely highly optimized and totally broken, we should never lose track of who else is at the table. We don’t want the DM to hate playing. We should always make sure the other players were having fun, even when we are players ourselves.
Because even those who totally break the game in their own ways love the game. We should all want everyone to love the game as well, longing to come back to the table. And to do that, we need to make sure that everyone feels like their characters are the heroes that the game wants them to be.