At the risk of having to turn in my man card, I have a confession to make: I hate the Three Stooges. It’s not just that I don’t grok the humor, they are actively anti-fun for me. It’s the same with America’s Funniest Home Videos. Every time I see a man take a shot to the junk, I cringe and ask myself why I’m not doing anything else. I have learned that I am simply not a dick and fart joke kind of guy. While I may make the occasional snide remark about the sort of people who enjoy that kind of humor, I’m pretty much willing to let those people be. That philosophy extends to my perspective on roleplaying and it’s why I can wear that “Edition War Nonparticipation” badge with pride.
This weekend saw a bit of a kerfuffle over some unfortunate comments Mike Shea made about his experiences running D&DNext at DDX. I say unfortunate because, while I don’t think Shea threw an edition bomb, he did end up throwing a style bomb.
“Two of the groups I had both went into the Caves of Chaos with very typical 4e empowerment.”
“Both groups went out as 4e PCs the first time and old-school PCs the second.”
As you can imagine, the internets went apeshit. It was made all the worse by the fact that those of us outside the friends and family playtest can really only speak to the PR, much of which hasn’t been aimed at pleasing the 4e audience. The thread over at rpg.net was occasionally testy, so much so that Shea felt a need to issue a clarification. While I think the accusation that he’s “edition warring” or “pixel bitching” are way off base, there’s an interesting discussion to be had here. It starts with this quote:
How many great battles have you ran where the players were severely outmatched and had to run?
If Shea had asked me directly, my answer would be none. I’ve written – at length – about my concerns with that style of encounter design and that type of GM/player dynamic. The important takeaway, however, is that those are my ideas about what makes for a good or bad game. My position all along has been that the best games come about when the players and the GM establish the kind of relationship that allows them to change the game to suit them. How often the characters should be “severely outmatched” is one of those things that has to be established over the long haul.
I do think 4e players, myself included, have expectations for the game such as balanced combat, the right skills or powers to defeat any challenge we might face, and a constant progression of magic items. I think the game’s math is built that way.
Shea fumbles here because he does not discuss whether or not this is a reasonable expectation and how this expectation came to be. I think that’s the real conversation we should be having. Yes, this comes down to the timeless argument about the values of simulationism versus gamism (I don’t hold with GNS Theory because I think it tries too hard to place a singular, exclusive label on a person or action rather than examining relative urgency). In simplest terms, simulationism is the idea that roleplaying is generally more fun when it is realistic and logical. A simulationist views the paladin having to spend a week recuperating from foolishly charging the stirges as a natural consequence of his behavior. The paladin should have had a more realistic appreciation for the situation, his abilities and his place in the world. That is, he should have accepted the natural limits of what he can do.
Simulationism tends to fall apart when it crosses the line where having the right tool stops being a benefit and starts being a requirement. In the “dagger to jam the door closed” snafu in mentioned in the thread, Shea does exactly what a good GM is supposed to do; he drills down to what the player wants to accomplish and helps him find a solution that fits the level of simulationism that Shea intends for the game. If Shea had simply said, “you don’t have a dagger” and left it at that, then all the complaints would have been justified. The worst we can say is that – potentially – Shea did a poor job of communicating the style of game he runs. Having run a large number of convention modules, I will say that players have a bad tendency not to hear you when you give them the expectations speech.
The gamist counters that roleplaying is a hobby, not a research project. Roleplaying is generally more fun when the characters are more cinematic. Characters hold a special place in the world and can do things that others cannot. Gamists generally dislike bookkeeping. Gamism tends to fall apart when it crosses the line into an adult version of Cowboys and Indians, also known as “just making shit up.”
If Next is going to thrive, it needs to address the needs of both factions. Do you think there is a middle ground and, if so, what is it?