Every time I think that Mike Mearls has hit a new low with his musings about D&D, along comes another turd:
“With that in mind, I think you could approach the game from a slightly new perspective, one that other RPGs have used to varying degrees. Just as a player might be able to opt into complexity by choosing a core fighter or opting into different layers of options, a DM could either create a specific type of campaign or opt into complexity by adding more elements to the body of proscribed, descriptive rules.”
[Insert sound of me screaming]
See, the thing is, Mearls starts the post by talking about the infamous “Rule Zero”:
“Rule 0: The unwritten rule in tabletop role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons) which grants the game master the right to suspend or override the published game rules whenever s/he deems necessary.”
1st and 2nd edition had a giant problem with this, because the culture was one of antagonism. It’s built right into the rules. Those game worlds were supposed to simulate “reality” by being random and capricious. Those Lair Assaults that are being added to the D&D Encounters rotation? Those were the rule, not the exception. Old-school design theory was never intended to be fair. Instead, it was based on a variant of the notion that “I’m picking on you to make you stronger for the real world.” It was always crap, it was just that there wasn’t anything better.
“A. Devil Face: (ILLUSTRATION #6.) About 24′ above the floor is a mosaic of a green devil which appears to be exactly the same as that first encountered in the enhance hall to the Tomb. Any creature coming within 3′ of its gaping jaw will be sucked in and instantly teleported to be «spat out» nude from location 6, while all non-living matter with the character goes to location 33.”
The real benefit of 3/3.5 was that it transferred a great deal of power to the player and it established that there were certain guidelines for balanced and reasonable. Yes, the GM could still do anything, but the players were given tools that allowed them to speak up for themselves in a way that had been actively discouraged in the OD&D paradigm. When I talk about the GM being the “alpha and omega of their table”, I’m saying that the GM has the absolute authority to throw out (or make up) the rules as long as doing so increases fun and, to a certain degree, they have an obligation to do so. This sort of dynamic GMing is what distinguishes the exceptional GMs.
3/3.5 did more than just establish a partial firewall against power-tripping GMs, however. It affirmed the idea that rules and uniformity (within reason) are good. If everything works the way it should, the D&D I play in my kitchen is the largely same D&D that is being played at GenCon, in your living room or wherever else D&D is played. It also means that what worked last week, still works. The key here is expectation. While roleplaying is a dynamic, free form endeavor, without some sort of foundation things just fall apart. There’s a reason why kids stop playing Cowboys and Indians.
What Mearls is suggesting, however, is a hyper-distilled foundation that contains as few rules as possible (mapless combat, for example) and a series of “modules” that expand from there. It would look something like this:
Whereas a more traditionally designed game would pick a place on the following spectrum that was most likely to please the intended audience. GMs and players would then adjust from there. It’s important to remember that no place on this spectrum is “better” than any other. Systems like Amber Diceless are just as valid as Stalking the Night Fantastic.
The first problem with Mearls’ design theory is that it would damage consistency between games. When you joined a new 3.5 table, your major concerns were how hit points and ability scores were determined and which “non-core” books were allowed. The latter was bad enough, as there was tremendous pressure for GMs to permit everything (or at least everything WoTC). At least this was mostly limited to races, classes, powers and feats. Those are all discrete items. A fully modular game would require me to learn (and remember) which fundamental rules systems were in use. The moment I have to ask, “does this table use facing?” is the moment I start looking for another game.
Another problem with this theory is that the players who like complexity or rules stability will always be pushing for all the modules to be used. One of the elegant things about 4e is that I, as GM, get to decide how much abstraction in non-mechanical aspects of play is good for my table. I don’t have a giant “social combat” chart lurking over my shoulder. Imagine a situation where I don’t want the characters to have flying mounts because that means that they’ll never have another random encounter on the ground (outside of camps). The moment that there’s a published rules system that covers how characters obtain flying mounts, someone will ask why I’m not using those rules and there will be tension at my table. I don’t like that.
I guess I’m simply frustrated that Mearls continues to push for D&D to be all things to all players. I know that his corporate overlords would like this to be the case, as they believe it would increase sales.