The Death of the Gygax: Why Rules Exist

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Harsh truth time: just because you create a thing, that doesn’t make you an expert in that thing.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon, there was this sci-fi author. Let’s call him I. Asimov. No. Let’s call him Isaac A. Whatever. Anyway, Isaac is at a convention or in a classroom or something. And someone is going on and on about a sci-fi story and what the story means and what it’s really about. You know: imagery, allegories, and all that crap. Isaac listens to this bulls$&% for a while, but he doesn’t buy it. Because the story that the professor is talking about? Isaac wrote that story. And he knows it isn’t about any of that crap. It’s just a story Isaac wrote because he was bored or wanted to make money or something. Finally, Isaac stands up and says something like, “look, dude, the story is just a story: it isn’t ABOUT anything.” And the professor says, “man, I’m an English professor, and I’ve been teaching this s$&% for 20 years and I know literary analysis. What makes YOU more of an expert than ME?” And Isaac is all like, “check the cover the book, dude. Isaac A. is me. I wrote the story.” And the professor smirks and says, “so what? Look, just because you wrote this doesn’t mean you know anything about it.”

That is basically the heart of a theory called the death of the author. And it comes from an essay called The Death of the Author by this French dude. And the title is a totally funny play on a very famous book called The Death of Arthur, about King Arthur. In French, it’s even funnier. La Mort de l’Auteur vs. Le Morte d’Arthur. Get it? The essay was written in 1967 by this critic Roland Barthes. And he was trying to make a point about how critics get totally wrapped up in trying to figure out what the author MEANT to say. They dig into the author’s past, read biographies, and treat the author’s purposeful intent like some kind of goddamned enigma. He basically wanted nothing to do with any of that crap. He said you need to consider the work on its own merits. If you find parallels between a work of art and some stuff in the real world and can make a solid case and it makes you think about things, that’s valuable. In fact, it’s more valuable what some stupid author might have purposely meant.

Now, that might sound silly, but the Death of the Author idea has some merit. First of all, because people have biases and preconceived notions and subconscious ideas. Those aren’t intentional, but they can find their way into creative works all the same. If you worry only about what the author purposely meant to say, you might ignore the weird and wonderful (or terrible) unconscious bits of their brain even they weren’t aware of. Beyond that, though, the death of the author concept is just about the only way any piece of art can endure. See, the world keeps changing. People change, situations change, and things evolve. But art stays the same once it’s done. And yet, lots of classic art manages to remain relevant, to feel timeless. And that’s because we interpret it through the lens of our modern experiences. If the authorial intent was all that mattered, the relevancy of any piece of art would be limited to basically the decade the author wrote it in. If even that long. And, of course, the idea of only caring about authorial intent removes the reader completely from the equation. Or the listener. Or the viewer. Whatever. And that’s absurd. Any work of art is an act of communication between the creator and the consumer.

Now, I’m not saying that the author’s intent never matters. Honestly, good literary analysis should consider both what the author seemed to be trying to say and what can be gleaned from the work in-and-of-itself. What I am saying is that when a creator comes in and tries to analyze their own work, you should treat them with the same degree of skepticism as you treat anyone else. Because whatever YOU found in the work might be far more useful and valuable than what some dumb author thinks they did or did not hide there.

As one of my literature professors – yes, I took some literature courses. And not crappy basic ones either. Good ones, like “sin and sexuality as literary themes” and s$&% like that. I took lots of different courses in lots of different things. Do you want to make something of it?

Anyway, as one of my literature professors said constantly: “trust the tale, not the teller.”

And that’s why I can say that Gary Gygax doesn’t know jack s$&% about RPGs anymore.

Gygax is Dead, Long Live Gygax

Okay, let me start of by saying this: I have nothing but respect for Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for kickstarting this hobby of ours by evolving small unit, skirmish gameplay in constrained environments from mass combat wargames and then giving the soldiers names. Because, yeah, that’s how all this crap started. It was basically just “what if you could only play one soldier at a time?” And then everything else was just solving the problem of how that could actually work. For example, dungeons as play environments appeared specifically to constrain the game and limit the amount of information groups of players had to work with at any one time.

But here’s the thing. That was 40 years ago. And once they got the initial ideas on paper, a lot of other people started to get involved. And things evolved. And honestly, RPGs evolved from other games. I mean, you can say that Gygax invented the idea of classes, except all he did was put a name to the concept. Units in wargames had different types like infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc. And each class was basically just an outgrowth of that. Honestly, that crap goes all the way back to chess.

We tend to like to think of people as inventing things. There wasn’t this thing and then, one day, this person came along and suddenly, through the magic of their brain, there was this thing. But what actually happens is more like this: there’s this whole soup of stuff and suddenly someone comes along and recognizes how to combine all of those elements and does so and they crystalize a new thing. But then, that new thing is out there and people tinker and change and evolve and reinterpret that thing. And other people build new things out of that thing. And here we are, 40 years later, with a much better understanding of role-playing games and game design than Gygax ever had in the 1970s.

Let me give you an example: Tomb of Horrors is a terrible adventure. And I’m not just saying that because it’s really difficult and kills lots of PCs. There is nothing about challenge and difficulty that makes a thing bad. It’s just that it’s poorly written with a crappy story and it challenges players in all the wrong ways. Now, we can forgive poorly written and crappy story because the idea of complex stories in RPGs wasn’t something that appeared until the mid-to-late eighties. Fine. But that wrong way to challenge thing? That was just poor game design from the beginning.

My point is: I love Gary. He’s the reason I get to spend my days writing this s$&%. But it’s time to stop pretending that he knew anything about modern RPGs. He crystalized the idea, but we’ve been refining and tinkering and building for 40 years. Hell, even he was refining and tinkering and building right up until he retired. And even beyond then, probably, until he passed away. But his ideas and words are no more useful or right than any other gamer or game designer or expert or interested layperson.

And that is why, when @WorldGeekStuff issued this Tweet last week quoting Gary Gygax:

My response was this:

Now, here’s the thing: that quote and one other (“A GM only rolls dice because he enjoys the noise they make”) are often repeated. But no one seems to know when Gygax actually said either of them and why. And that is always HIGHLY suspicious. I mean, Yogi Berra also supposedly SAID a lot of things, but as he once said, “I didn’t say half those things I said.” Which he never said. So who the hell knows? But let’s pretend he probably did say those things. I think he did. I just can’t prove it.

The problem is, there’s a lot of pretentious storyteller GMs out there who actually believe that crap about how the rules are unnecessary. Those GMs who view the rules as an inconvenience they have to deal with, but who break them with abandon for the sake of a “better game” or a “better story.” There are lots of GMs who will tell you that the first time you run a game, it’s not important to worry about getting the rules right. The rules actually serve an important function. Several, actually. Well, one function. But they serve it in several ways. And that’s what I’m getting at: why do the rules exist and what do they do? And what shouldn’t rules do?

The Role of the Rules

Let’s get down to the very basics. A role-playing game is a game of making decisions and dealing with the consequences. Each player assumes the role of a character. The character has goals and motivations. Usually, those goals and motivations are defined by the game. Rescue the princess, kill the dragon, conquer the kingdom, recover the treasure, whatever. It doesn’t matter. All the goals work the same. When the game starts, the players are presented with a situation. They make decisions about how to deal with the situation based on their characters’ goals and motivations. And then there’s an outcome and some consequences. And the outcome and the consequences create a new situation. And the players react with new decisions. And so it continues until all the characters dead. Or until they accomplish their goals. But usually, the characters just end up dead. At least the way I run games.

Now, you might notice that, so far, there’s nothing up there that requires any rules. Honestly, any given player COULD sit there and say “I do this thing and this is the result” and then some other player could take that result and say “okay, now I do this thing and here is the new result” and the players could just make that s$&% up. Hell, one player could do it alone. We call that: WRITING A GODDAMNED NOVEL. If multiple people are working together, we call that: WRITING A S$&%Y NOVEL.

Now, many of you read that last paragraph and instantly balked. “Why would you want to do that terrible thing,” your brain said. You KNOW that’s a crappy way to have a role-playing game. But I’ll bet lots of you can’t say precisely WHY that’s a crappy way to have a role-playing game. If you tried to explain what’s wrong with that, you’d be all vague and “umm” and “uh” a lot and not be entirely sure what you were trying to say.

Here’s the problem: there’s no tension or uncertainty in just deciding the action, the outcome, and the consequences. Nothing unexpected or surprising happens. And unless you specifically want it to, nothing bad happens. Unless you want them to, the characters can’t lose or die or fail.

What makes a game a game is a level of uncertainty. The outcome isn’t clear from the beginning. You have to play it out to see what happens. And sometimes unexpected and bad things happen. And that makes it exciting. And challenging. And engaging.

And so, we add some randomness to the mix. Imagine if you played the “game” above. But whenever you picked an action, you also had to choose a “good outcome” and a “bad outcome.” And then you had to flip a coin to determine which outcome would happen. Better, right? At least that’s kind of a game. But there’s problems with that approach. First of all, there’s nothing that prevents you from specifying amazingly great good outcomes and mildly inconvenient bad outcomes. And since you’re picking both outcomes, there’s still nothing that can happen that you don’t want to happen. So the level of tension is pretty small. And there is still nothing unexpected.

But there’s another problem. The outcomes themselves – that is, whether you get the good outcome or the bad outcome – it’s totally arbitrary. There’s always a straight 50-50 chance. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem is that there’s nothing that the players can do to influence the outcome. Let’s assume that the player chooses a pair of fair and balanced outcomes, one good and one bad. When we play games – and for that matter, when we make decisions in real life – we can almost always exert some control over the outcome. We can be careful or reckless, we can play to our strengths, we can employ strategies, and our skill and cleverness often come into play. And that’s important. Because, by itself, randomness kind of sucks. There’s a reason why we don’t play “coin toss” on family game night. The outcome is totally arbitrary. In order for a game to feel fair, we need to feel like we have some influence over the outcome.

And THAT is the paradox of a game. In order for the game to feel exciting, we need a sense of tension and we need the risk of the unexpected, but in order for it to feel fair, we need a sense that we have some influence over the outcome. It’s a constant push and pull between those two forces.

Now, the more complicated the game, the more of both we need. And role-playing games are complicated by the fact that they offer more freedom than any other ten games combined. You can literally – as a player – do anything you can imagine doing. Or try to. So, there’s a lot of possible outcomes, and a lot of unexpected things can pop up. But every choice we make should have an impact on the expected outcome.

And so, RPGs have a unique rule: another human brain, a non-player, will arbitrate the game. When actions happen, the human brain will determine all of the possible outcomes and determine which one actually happens. Sounds great, right? For the players, that provides tension and surprise, but it also provides the players for ways to influence the outcome. Perfect.

So I guess Gary was right. The GM – because that’s the human brain I was talking about in case you somehow missed that – the GM doesn’t really need rules. The GM is the rule. The only necessary rule. Right?

Except that, however good the GM’s decision making skills may be, however good he might be at predicting the perfect outcome for any situation, no one could tell the difference between that GM and one who is behaving completely arbitrarily. Because no one sees the possibilities that don’t happen. Because everything happens inside the GM’s head, the players have no idea how to assess their chances or the possible outcomes. And that assumes the GM can communicate things perfectly.

Here’s a for example. Imagine the player wants to try to climb down a cliff. The GM describes the cliff as a rough, rocky, sheer drop of 50 feet to the icy water and sharp rocks below. The player figures that the rough, rocky cliff has lots of hand and foot holds. And the player figures his character is a very skilled climber. He figures he’s probably got an 80% chance of success. And he takes those odds. But the GM has a different assessment. The GM sees the cliff as a rough, rocky sea cliff. Slick, irregular, hard to get a grip on. And the GM doesn’t think the character is as skilled at all. He assumes there’s only a 40% chance of success. And if they player knew that, he’d never have taken that chance.

Worse yet, once the GM assesses the chance at 40%, he presumes failure and tells the player that the character loses his grip, falls, breaks his spine on the sharp rocks, and then the ocean carries his lifeless body away. And while that might be a fair conclusion, the player is going to feel a little shafted. After all, the player had no idea what the chances actually were. And he can’t figure out what criteria the GM used to determine, based on those chances, whether the outcome was success or failure. The game might be tense and unpredictable and consequences might follow from actions logically, but there’s no sense of fairness because everything feels arbitrary.

In that environment, players can’t make good decisions. In real life – which a role-playing game DOES try to emulate, despite what some morons want to claim – in real life, when we make decisions, we weigh lots of factors. We imagine the likely outcomes, the consequences of those outcomes, and we assess the likelihood of those outcomes based on our skills and based on our understanding of the task. That’s how humans make decisions. But hiding all the actions in the GM’s head in a role-playing game, that decision making process gets short-circuited. The players can’t make good, rational decisions in that environment.

And so, that is why RPGs have a GM AND rules. The rules exist as a transparent tool that the GM can use as the basis for determining the outcomes of the players actions. And because the players can understand the rules, they can assess the likely outcomes and consequences.

Well, actually, that’s one of the three things the rules do in an RPG. The most important thing. And I like to call the rules that serve as a tool for determining the outcome of actions…

Rules of Resolution

Rules of Resolution are the most important rules in any RPG. They are the tool the GM uses to determine what happens whenever a character attempts an action. But that’s only half the reason they exist. As noted above, they also help players make rational decisions about what actions to take.

Rules of Resolution exist to simulate a reality. I know that’s not a thing that some idiot GMs want to hear. But those are the idiot GMs who talk about the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist break like that’s an actual thing that exists instead of semantical bulls$&% that does no one any good. Rules of Reoslution are the framework for cause and effect inside the game. They tell the players and the GM basically how the universe works. When you do X, the likely outcome is Y. They keep GMs and players on the same page.

Now, that doesn’t mean everything is purely deterministic. Just like in real life, players are making imperfect assessments based on incomplete information. And that comes up in two different ways. First, there’s the random factor. Rules of Resolution involve randomness to simulate the fact that no one’s understanding a situation is perfect: what I think might be an easy climb turns out to be harder than I guessed or I overestimated my skill or whatever. And THAT is why I love fighting with shrieking idiots saying that “telling your players the DC of a check is metagaming because no actual person could perfectly assess both their level of skill and the challenge so perfectly.” Well, no s$&% dumba$&. That’s why the outcome is based on a random die roll instead of a perfectly deterministic physics engine. The random die roll makes up for the completeness of the information.

Second, there’s the fact that the consequences of an action – how the action shapes the ongoing story – ARE hidden in the GM’s head. Or the GM’s notes. Or whatever. Trying to bully the guard might have a 80% chance of success and that means you’re either going to get into the castle or you’re going to get into a fight. But what you can’t foresee – as a player – is that the guard is going to tell his guard buddies about you, whatever the outcome, and suddenly all the guards in town are going to be harassing you.

Rules of Resolution also provide a way of describing the world to limit the potential misunderstandings between players and GMs. I – the GM – and my player might have a completely different assessment of what “skilled climber” means. But if we both agree that the character has a +5 to climb checks, then that’s the end of the discussion. Likewise, we might disagree on the description of a cliff face, but a DC 15 is a DC 15, no matter what flowery words we attach to it.

Ultimately, Rules of Resolution, therefore, are there to simulate the reality that the characters inhabit and to describe it in concrete terms so that both the players and the GM have the same basic understanding of reality. They are there to translate the rules of cause and effect that we understand in the real world into the game world.

But Rules of Resolution aren’t the only rules in the game. Because sometimes, translating one reality into another isn’t enough.

Rules of the Impossible

Underlying the Rules of Resolution is this assumption that the world that the characters inhabit is pretty much the same as the real world. It works the same way. The laws of physics are basically the same. The laws of human interactions are basically the same. People are a mixture of logic and emotion just like they are in the real world. And so on. And, frankly, if that weren’t the case, the Rules of Resolution would have to be a LOT longer. Imagine if water didn’t work in Dungeons & Dragons the way it worked in the real world? You’d need a whole goddamned chapter on the differences.

That said, there are some things that work differently in D&D than in the real world. For example, magic. There’s just no real-world analogue for D&D magic.

Rules of the Impossible exist to describe things in the imaginary world that don’t have analogues in the real world OR to provide a basis for things that do have an analogue in the real world but, for whatever reason, that can’t be translated reliably. For example, astronauts in the real world have zero-gravity training. They train in swimming pools and in free-falling airplanes. And after they’ve been into space a few times, they understand how to function in a zero-gravity environment. But most players and GMs don’t have that experience. So, even though zero-gravity is something that does exist in the real world, science-fiction role-playing games usually have a pile of rules to handle it.

See, Rules of the Impossible exist to tell the players what ELSE is possible. We know what people are capable of in normal and even some extraordinary circumstances. And that’s based on our day to day experiences as real-world human beings. But role-playing games offer all sorts of other possibilities: from exotic, unusual scenarios to outright impossible possibilities. In order to even consider those things as possibilities, players need to understand how they work and GMs need to be able to resolve them.

Rules of the Impossible are very similar to Rules of Resolution, but they tend to be more detailed because they can’t rely on a real world understanding of things. See, I don’t need to explain what breaking down a door is. People understand that because we understand what doors are what it means to break things. But when it comes to a knock spell, there’s a lot more that needs to be said. Like what the hell is a spell anyway? What is magic? How does it function? What are the limits of a knock spell? And so on.

Together, Rules of Resolution and Rules of the Impossible create a complete simulation of a fictional world and provide a language for describing that world. They allow the players and the GM to understand the world they inhabit. And, if your goal is JUST to simulate reality, those are all the rules you need. But they aren’t. And that brings us to the final ruleset.

Rules of Structure

Rules of Structure exist because an RPG isn’t just an attempt to simulate an imaginary reality. That’s because there’s a ‘G’ after the ‘R’ and the ‘P.’ An RPG is also trying to be a fun, challenging, engaging, satisfying, rewarding GAME. And, unfortunately, reality makes a pretty s$&% game. Even if you add neat impossible things like magical powers and warp engines and dragons.

Rules of Structure are the rules necessary to make the game a fun, rewarding, fair, satisfying experience. They don’t simulate reality. They don’t even try. In fact, most of the Rules of Structure make no f$&%ing sense if you try to imagine them as part of the world. For example, think about taking turns in combat. In a real battle, a lot of s$&% pretty much just happens at once. It isn’t neat and orderly. But to create a challenging, fun, and manageable gameplay experience, most RPGs turn battle situations into orderly, turn-based, tactical affairs.

Oh, speaking of battle? You know all those rules about how to create fair and balanced encounters for a group of five 3rd-level characters? The ones that people are always complaining are dumb because “the real world doesn’t level up with the characters and the idiot players should be just as likely to encounter some giant rats as to encounter an ancient volcano dragon when they go exploring random caves?” You know why those exist? Because ending up dead because you randomly tripped over a combat encounter that you don’t have a Smurf’s chance in a blender of surviving isn’t actually fun. Rules of Structure.

Rules of Structure exist because, in the end, a role-playing game is a game. And it should be a satisfying experience. They make the game approachable by adding useful abstractions. In most RPGs, for example, hit points are more about a Rule of Structure than a Rule of Resolution. They gloss over a whole bunch of overly complicated crap about injuries and also make it possible to take six or seven hits during a battle without being critically injured or killed. They have no basis in reality. They just make the game fun.

Well, in theory. See, it IS possible to go a little overboard. For example, a lot of people – like me – felt that D&D 4E had a little TOO MUCH abstraction. It replaced too many Rules of Resolution with Rules of Structure. And while that is arguable – except I’m right because I’m always right so don’t argue with me – while you can argue whether 4E really was TOO abstract, the fact that the argument existed shows an important truth: Rules of Structure and Rules of Resolution work at cross purposes. Rules of Resolution exist to translate reality into the fictional game world. Rules of Structure exist to translate the fictional game world into a fun game. And that is why some people refer to Rules of Structure as “Acceptable Breaks from Reality.”

Erring on the Side of Reality

Ultimately, there’s always a balancing act between simulating a reality that makes sense using Rules of Resolution and creating a satisfying gameplay experience using Rules of Structure. You can almost never have it both ways. The trouble is, every player has a different preference for where the balance point should be. And every player has different limits as to how far off the balance point IN EITHER DIRECTION a game can be before it becomes unplayable. But the thing is, role-playing gamers, especially players – as opposed to GMs – the players of role-playing games will tend to want things balanced more toward creating an understandable and consistent reality.

If you think about board games, for a moment, some of them can get very abstract. And no one cares. No one complains that Settlers of Catan is not really an accurate simulation of settling a foreign land. Not at all. It’s mostly a set of rules that RESEMBLES the idea of building, settling, and claiming land, but the game could equally be about bread mold competing with other mold colonies to eat the most bread. Same difference. That’s because board games are mainly about being satisfying game experiences.

But role-playing games are trying to present a story about a fictional world and a group of imaginary characters that behave as if it were all real. Thus, the world needs to be consistent and comprehensible. It needs to fit inside the human imagination wthout breaking. And it needs to work well enough that six completely different imaginations can make informed and rational decisions about the goings-on of that imaginary world and arrive at pretty much the same conclusions. And that means the world has to work, to some extent, as a world.

Thus, as much as role-players like to tout their great imaginations and the absolute freedom of their medium, too much abstraction breaks the whole medium. And this, role-playing gamers will always prefer to err on the side of a reality. Even when they claim they don’t. And I’ve seen lots of players and GMs CLAIM they are okay with abstraction in service of the “narrative” (whatever the f$&% that actually means) and then find themselves complaining that their game has become too arbitrarily reliant on the whims of the GM and a pile of nonsensical rules with no basis in a reality. Well, no s$&%.

But the larger point is to understand WHY the rules exist and to understand why Gygax was being an utter dumba$& when he said that the rules are unnecessary. Moreover, all of this crap will also help you understand what you’re f$&%ing with when you ignore, change, rewrite, or enhance the rules. Or design your own rules. And then you can be smarter than Gygax too. Just like me.

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82 thoughts on “The Death of the Gygax: Why Rules Exist

  1. Amazing article; we need more stuff like this on the Internet, especially because the higher the chance some new GM finds this, the better.

    As someone who started playing RPGs with the idea of “the rules are not important, think about the story and about ‘engaging your players’ (also, nobody bothered to tell me how to ACTUALLY do that part, just that you should always do it, and good luck) and use rules only when needed”, I can tell you, if you learn this stuff right at the beginning, you can skip at least a few bad and annoying sessions while you learn all you need. I annoyed my players quite a lot with arbitrary and random decisions, and the only rason they kept playing was because they were just starting too.

    • I’m going to start GMing after limited play experience relative to my players and I sort of assumed all of this was common knowledge. Although, in conjunction with other Angry posts, I’ll probably clarify at the outset that as GM I reserve the right to make bad calls and fully reverse their effects post game so as to maintain flow. Lol

  2. I’m only saying this here because it’s the latest article: I wish your site was around when I was a teenager running games, maybe I wouldn’t have quit.

    As for the article itself, I’m amazed that sometimes the same people saying “Rules aren’t important” are the ones to proclaim “D&D is bad for roleplaying”(And I’m don’t even play D&D). I mean, either the rules aren’t important OR they are screwing your game, you can’t have it both ways. Then it’s the thing about saying that and buying 200+ pages books of rules. Sure, they aren’t important at all…

    I’ve tried playing in one of those “no rules, pure GM fiat” campaigns. It was impossible, it’s basically encouraging silver-tongued players to convince the GM why their action will succeed, because that’s what the game is about, instead of rolling dice you have to argue with the GM or try to figure out what the rules of the games actually are. Like you said, without at least a framework for players to make decisions, it becomes impossible to handle your options. It’s like being inside those awful Choose your Own Death books.

    Well done sir.

  3. This topic reminds me of the final episode of Neon Genisis Evangelion. When Shinji is in that weird existential space deciding the fate of the world, he at first believes he wants complete freedom and to never be alone. But he is briefly given that wish, which leaves him a single entity (with everyone else a part of him) in a featureless empty space with the freedom to go anywhere, but this is of course uninteresting. So, then the voice draws in the ground which lets him walk around, but this has of course restricted a degree of freedom. Eventually he realizes the truth, that getting what he thought he wanted would only leave him even more unsatisfied, and that the restriction of freedom and separation from others is where all the interesting bits of life come from.

  4. I usually enjoy Angry’s rambling introductions, and this was one of my favorites. One of my professors liked to say that a text has three intentions: the intention of the author, the intention brought by the reader, and the intention of the text itself.

  5. Top Tip; Only read every OTHER page of any published adventure. It prevents the author from influencing too much how you run the game.

  6. BTW, sorry for nitpicking but shouldn’t at the bottom of the page say ‘copyright 2010-2017’ now? Just sayin. 🙂

  7. Is part of this article saying to pretty much always declare the actual DC to the players before they are making a check, or did I miss most of the point.?.?

    • Sortof? In that it was a tiny, tiny footnote in this article. I believe Angry has done that rant previously, however.

      It’s more complicated than that though. You should always declare the actual DC to the players if the challenge is something that the characters can perceive and gauge the difficulty of. So generally for physical tasks. If, I dunno, you’re rolling a Research roll to find a bit of esoterica in a library, or something, you might not give them that information, because it’s not necessarily something the character can guess at.

      Anyway, this was another Angry article that cloaks some good advice in some bad prejudices. I’m starting to think it’s a bit of a shame we’re stuff with the whole “angry GM” persona.

      Also, I feel like not all games emulate reality, as evidenced by genre emulation. You’re still technically “emulating” reality, but you’re doing it at one (or more) removes.

      I feel like there was something missing from the discussion of Rules of Structure as well; I think there’s more nuance here than just “This is the stuff you have to keep the game together and abstract necessary stuff.” – withness games like Fiasco, which basically dispense with Rules of Resolution almost entirely

      • About games like Fiasco:
        But that is exactly the point. Games like Fiasco or Aye Dark Overlord or Play Pretend aren’t the same genre as DnD or other “typical” RPGs. They are both about playing a role kind of, but then again not really. We would need better names to distinguish such “story games” from “action RPGs”. You dont roll dice in Fiasco, but you also cant win and you arent expe ted to either. And that is important, becaue then you neednt worry with fairness. That might look like a minor point, unless you consider it all in light of this article and what it takes to bring a semblan e of fair challenge to the game.

        • I don’t “win” and am not expected to in MOST RPGs. D&D is in fact the anomaly here as far as I am concerned. Most RPGs are not about challenge – certainly not in the sense of “level appropriate encounters”.

          So maybe we should come up with a special term to describe “challenge based RPGs” to distinguish them. Or we can just use the words we have, and stop saying “RPGs” when we mean some subset of them.

          • So you’re suggesting that role-playing games in which the characters have some kind of goal and try to accomplish that goal as part of the story are an anomaly? Because I think you’re very wrong.

            Challenge is not only represented in terms of “beating a combat.” Challenge arises from having a goal and having obstacles and antagonists between you and your goal that you have to overcome somehow. To put it more generally, challenge is about overcoming a conflict. Social, physical, spiritual, moral, whatever. And that conflict can be against other living beings, against other forces, within the party, or against the world.

            I do have a term for RPGs that aren’t about conflict and the overcoming of said conflict as a means to provide some actually direction to the story. It’s called a “Dicking Around Game.” That’s where the players just dick around doing stuff for no reason other than to dick around and see what happens. Feel free to use that.

          • well, there are challenges TO THE PLAYER and challenges TO THE CHARACTERS.

            you can have a functional rpg without the former, but you cannot have one without the latter (i think).

            this is an important distinction. rpgs tha present challenges to the player are effectively a subset of rpgs.

    • That’s exactly what it said. I was skeptical of this when I first read it in another article, but I started doing this and it doesn’t break the game at all. It gives the players the same information that their characters have. If a player says he wants to just climb a wall, I let them roll. But if they study the wall first, they’ll get the DC (though it takes time in-game, so they might not take the time to study the wall if they’re being pursued). Similarly, I give them the AC of a creature minus that creature’s DEX bonus if they are able to see the creature, and with the DEX bonus if they have time to watch the creature.

      • Fascinating idea to give your players the AC without the Dex bonus, as it feels to me like you’re effectively telling them what kind of armour they can see.
        “That guy’s clearly wearing full Plate Mail, he has 18 AC”
        “She’s in Studded Leather with a Shield, that makes her AC [14 + Dex], but you don’t know her Dex”

        • But can’t the players also see the enemy’s agility, training, thick hide, etc? They are trained combatants, after all. They should know within a few moments of fighting how hard it is to hit someone.

          • Good point.

            I suppose it might depend on the circumstances?
            Perhaps you might give the Base Armour just from seeing someone, but withhold the Full AC until combat starts, thus making it even more surprising when the inconspicuous old man turns out to be a badass Monk.

            But at that point we’ve already strayed far outside the simplified design philosophy that 5e seems to thrive by.

            Making complicated rule subsystems just to justify giving your players a temporarily less specific AC does seem a bit pointless.

            (On a related note, regarding 5e purposely not going into that much detail with AC, I recently noticed that when an Ooze corrodes your armour, it gets destroyed when you reach 10 AC, regardless of your Dex.
            Also that it only corrodes your armour on a hit, which means that it doesn’t corrode your armour if your armour protects you from the hit.)

    • In my games, I don’t immediately tell my players the DCs for everything (partly for brevity, partly for laziness), but if they ask how difficult something is then I will usually tell them.

      I still haven’t decided whether I prefer to express that difficulty numerically, or narratively using the Typical DC table:

      If a player is new to the game or otherwise unsatisfied with the narrative description, then I would just tell them the DC, since that is more a translation issue than a roleplaying issue.

      • There’s nothing wrong with both. I like to use both narrative descriptions and numbers “That looks like a difficult climb; even an expert would take it carefully. DC 20.”

        • I like to set up a “one-room DC.” My players also really love it. Nobody has to keep track of a thousand different numbers- oh, this guy’s a 14 to hit, that guys a 15, jumping up on this ledge is a 12, etc.

          I just plop down a d20 with the appropriate number and we continue on. There’s always this moment when the room is revealed where my players are like “oh shit oh shit what’s the DC…. F&%K it’s 18??? The last room was 14!!”

          Sure it’s kinda metagamey but it makes the game more fun (for us) and everyone always knows what they’re trying to beat just by looking at the dice- no need to spend play-time doing arbitrary checks against a variety of random numbers.

  8. I agree with dropping Gygax as an unquestionable idol. Yeah, he was a cool guy, and we’re indebted for his contribution to the RPG genre, but he wasn’t a god.

    I recall reading some early D&D monsters that seemed to exist just to screw over players. Haven’t played Tomb of Horrors, but to me, it sounds a lot like my experiences with some Roguelikes. That can work for a video game, where the appeal is surviving a particularly dangerous dungeon crawl by being resourceful and managing risk.

    But that’s not the only reason people play RPGs like D&D. I don’t get “in character” for Roguelikes because I’m more focused on survival, and could die quickly from small mistakes. That makes it harder to invest in a character as more than a bunch of numbers.

    • Agreed. The thing about Tomb of Horrors isn’t so much a “challenge” but as a means for the DM to prove to characters unfamiliar with PC’s dying that character death is very real. And even saying that is a stretch. I can see tomb of horrors fun for only two instances: at a live demonstration, like a convention or something. Or for a party of nothing but min-maxers at the appropriate level. And even then….

      I run a group of four, one of which has played since 1st edition (the rest of use are in our mid 20s and early 30s). The veteran brought up tomb of horrors. I told him I’d only run it as a side-campaign, using different characters, so as not to destroy the current campaign for everyone. He reviewed the original material and decided “no thanks” to running it period.

      In a video games, you get your constant reset or do-over, basically immediately within dying.

      • Yeah. Tomb of Horror was just Gygax saying “Oh, I see, you think your character is unstoppable and unkillable! Well try this then…”

        • Yeah, I always viewed Tomb of Horrors more as something to exist rather than something to be played.

          It helps define the spectrum of how deadly an adventure can be.
          It provides the 100% mark that other adventures measure themselves by.

          I can’t imagine anyone wanting a game that deadly (except maybe as a one-shot just for luls), but other games are better defined by having something that deadly to measure against.

          Having said that, I did know someone who once ran a variant of Tomb of Horrors where the characters were caught in a time-loop and got to restart every time they died, so it was more video-gamey in the sense of retrying until you succeed, and I heard that it went quite well.

          This is also reminiscent of how Paranoia works, where death is super common, but you effectively have “extra lives” in the form of clones, and you can purchase more with the credits you get from successful missions, so it’s not so much about staying alive, but about not dying too often.

          Come to think of it, since there is so little of value to spend gold on in 5e, I suppose you can treat gold itself as the currency of extra lives, as you can just pay a cleric to cast raise dead.

          In fact, one of my games only has two players, so death could come swiftly at one wrong move, but I still wanted that game to have a heroic fantasy feel without them having to be overly cautious of accidental death.
          To this end, I plan for the cleric to find a custom magic amulet that you can cast revivify into, and when the wearer dies it will revivify them.
          That way accidental death only costs 300gp, but you pay in advance and don’t have to worry about it.

          Wow, that comment really went off on a series of tangents there. 😛

  9. I find it difficult to believe the claim that Gygax said rules aren’t necessary. In my experience with him–many lengthy email discussions, some personal interactions, (and I edited one of his games)–he never said any such thing. He did make statements that he thought rules entirely necessary, even if they could be overruled (!) at times.

    Anyway, some useful stuff in the post.

    • If he did say it, it was in the context of “They don’t need to buy MY rules.” Gamemasters are creative enough to come up with their own.

      Which puts the lie to this whole article.

      • No it doesn’t. Holy crap, don’t you people recognize the cold open as rhetorical device? I mean, does it matter if Gygax did or didn’t say that or what he actually meant? It was just a way to start a discussion on why rules exist and the different types of rules so that GMs could make better choices about the rules and budding game designers could better assess rule systems. I mean, really, none of that has any value because YOU think the quote from Gary that has floated around for years might be wrong or misinterpreted or whatever?

        I mean, goddamn it, I even STARTED with why it doesn’t matter what people say they said and what people they think they mean as long as it spurs useful conversation. You get a F. An F Minus. F Minus Minus!

        • does it really matter? people still quote him on this for the meanings implyed in the article. and doesn’t the article itself use this statement as “a way to start a discussion on why rules exist and the different types of rules so that GMs could make better choices about the rules and budding game designers could better assess rule systems”?

        • I feel like the reply you responded to could’ve started with “Wow bro…”

          In fact I think many of the replies to you going after the fact you mentioned a quote Gygax may or may not have said could’ve started with “Wow bro…”

          This really offers nothing constructive to the conversation, I was just making an observation and I needed a way to plug in a THANK YOU for all of your writing.

          So thank you for your rants and ideas. I may ( I HAVE HEEEEEHEEEEE ) or may not have utilized them, but they have certainly offered a different point of view to situations I find myself in when DMing… or GMing.. whatever the preferred term is these days.

  10. There are some rare moments in RPG when a player is so clever in describing an action that you, the GM, want that action to succeed. I made a set of rules to manage that called “Rules of Cool”:

    -The action have to be so clever that players at table have goosebumps,
    -It has to be elegant and short in description
    -it must be unique and can’t be repeated

    • I agree on that: sometimes you get those amazing moments that are the highlights of your game night, and those should be rewarded as often as possible, as long as the action is not flat-out impossible.

      That part should be a VERY rare exception, though; otherwise, you end up with the Exalted “Stunt mechanic”, where players get extra dice to roll if the action they describe is cool. The problem is the execution: there are level 1, 2 and 3 Stunts; while level 3 is reserved to the kind of scenarios you described, you also have level 1 and 2, which are quite common, with the game even going as far as saying that “Any action more elaborated than ‘hit dude with weapon’ should get a level 1 stunt from the GM”.
      The result of that is that people who like to describe their actions are more engaged, but everyone else can either painfully make up some random throwaway description, slowing down the action, or suck it up and be less effective for the entire game.

      When you managed to make anime-style flashy combat SLOWER by adding descriptions of amazing over-the-top actions, you know you screwed up.

    • OR… you could use the Fanmail mechanic from Primetime Adventures (2nd ed., please :D)

      does the same thing, much more elegant.

  11. I’m not at all convinced that these three rule categories are the only three categories essential to RPGs. Not that I have any particularly potent others to suggest at the moment. What makes you think these categories are more important than any other categories I could make up — like “Rules of Karma” where I could describe alignment and cosmic karma as being fundamental to fulfilling roleplaying games, or “Rules of Change” where I describe an elaborate system for making concessions to a player’s attempts to influence the world. Even if I could role out some hefty justifications, they might be nowhere near as important the ones you outline — but who says!

    I sometimes like to pause and give a stab at didactic questions or dares. Like “Now, you might notice that, so far, there’s nothing up there that requires any rules. … But I’ll bet lots of you can’t say precisely WHY that’s a crappy way to have a role-playing game.” Here’s my answser: what do rules add? Narrative.

    Once I sat a group of 15 people or so down in a circle, and started a storytelling game in which one person starts a story and each person in the circle continues it. Here’s a recreation of how that went:

    “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young princess living in a tower. She lived in a land of plenty and bliss, but at the kingdom’s edge there was a dark forest haunted by the spectre of a dragon.”

    “In that kingdom lived Sir JediKnight. He slayed dragons for a living. He had slain many dragons, and set out to slay the dragon of the forest.”

    “On the other side of the kingdom there was a land full of waterslides. Billy Joel loved to go watersliding.”

    “But there was a tyrannasaurus rex in the waterpark one day, and it ate Billy Joel.”

    “But then Billy Joel wasn’t actually eaten and the tyrannasaurus got sick and died.”

    A single story thread would get at most two, sometimes three steps. I never tried that exercise again.

    Now, I also played D&D with some of the people in this circle. What was different? Their ability to arbitrarily revoke each other’s actions and shift scenes. But I bet with the right carefully curated group of genii, circle storytelling would be a blast.

    Anyway it’s a definitively subjective thing — and that is alluded to numerous times, in guises of “balance” and “player preference”. I think this division between “abstractions” and “realism” explains why your regular ordinary non-RPGamer, in my experience, tends towards hack-n-slash. Most games are heavily abstracted, even computer games like Civilization. Sometimes intuition is useful in explaining or reinforcing various mechanics (population growth), but only as a stepping stone to grokking the mechanic itself.
    1reaks from Reality.”

    • Err, something happened to my comment. I typed it and pasted it in this box, and the end of it got messed up. Here’s the rest:

      Which makes me wonder about the statement about RPG players preferring “realism” to “abstractions”. I suppose that’s fair — because those who don’t prefer realism to abstractions gravitate towards other games; and we draw a line in the sand and say “these are RPGs!”. I’ve had to explain an annoying number of times that cRPGs/MMORPGs are not proper “RPGs”. Or that Warhammer/Imperial Assault are not proper “RPGs”. People bring their backgrounds with them, I do believe.

      It seems to me the most important items on the agenda required of a GM are Trust and Expectation, followed by the ability for participants to exert motive force. Regardless of what it is we want to get out of the GM, rules don’t have to be the way we get it. They might be the most broadly accessible, or the objectively fairest, or the best selling, or the most easily critiqueable or whaetever medium; but not necessarily the true solution. Not that I advocate a “no rules” approach, but I think the “rules are necessary” is objectively wrong.

      +1 thanks for “… Rules of Structure and Rules of Resolution work at cross purposes. Rules of Resolution exist to translate reality into the fictional game world. Rules of Structure exist to translate the fictional game world into a fun game. And that is why some people refer to Rules of Structure as “Acceptable Breaks from Reality.”

    • A Rule of Karma would be a Rule of the Impossible. It models a cosmic force of justice that sets things right and visits just punishments on the terrible. It is a part of modeling the physics of an imaginary world that is different from the real world. A Rule of Change is a Rule of Structure, an attempt to ignore the physics of the real world in return for creating a fun gameplay experience. In this case, allowing the players to act creatively according to their whims even when that doesn’t make sense for the world.

      You’re describing specific instances, specific mechanics, but they still fit into the classifications of “translating the real world,” “creating an impossible but consistent world,” and “ignoring any semblance of a world in return for a fun game.”

    • “I’m not at all convinced that these three rule categories are the only three categories essential to RPGs. Not that I have any particularly potent others to suggest at the moment. What makes you think these categories are more important than any other categories I could make up — like “Rules of Karma” where I could describe alignment and cosmic karma as being fundamental to fulfilling roleplaying games, or “Rules of Change” where I describe an elaborate system for making concessions to a player’s attempts to influence the world. ”

      well, try NOT FRAMING thes rules as not belonging to any of those categories, and see if you can.

  12. “Oh, speaking of battle? You know all those rules about how to create fair and balanced encounters for a group of five 3rd-level characters? The ones that people are always complaining are dumb because “the real world doesn’t level up with the characters and the idiot players should be just as likely to encounter some giant rats as to encounter an ancient volcano dragon when they go exploring random caves?” You know why those exist? Because ending up dead because you randomly tripped over a combat encounter that you don’t have a Smurf’s chance in a blender of surviving isn’t actually fun. Rules of Structure.”

    You see the problem with this sentence is combat encounter. My problem with modern d&d is that its all about combat but we are forgetting all the other things that you can do, like run away or talk to the monster or get clever, sneak around it, use the environment.

    My favorite bits are clever solving of obstacles and sometimes the obstacle will be how the feck do we not get noticed by the volcano dragon, or how do we deal with it without our asses getting killed. Oh I don’t know like Smaug in the hobbit, I’m totally sure A dragon was the right CR for Bilbo in that movie.

    • That’s a problem he tackled in previous articles, and was already quite solved a while ago, but that was beside the point. We are talking about rules. In this case, the rule is there and works, more or less, but people call out that rule as “unrealistic”. That’s the issue here, not encounters.

      People who put Ancient Red Dragons in level 3 caves don’t need to hear that “you should focus on out-of-combat resolutions”; first they need to hear “if you put an overpowered impossible challenge just for realism sake, then that realism is in the way of the game and your game is shittier now, stop it”.

      • Is it impossible though? Yes in a fight but that’s why you don’t fight it. You deal with it, I’m sure an ancient red dragon doesn’t really give a crap about 3rd level adventures because they can crush them like a bug if they wish. If you try to steal its treasure it will crush you. If you parley with it, it might be amused if you run away from it you don’t have to deal with it now.

        • Once again, older articles on this website are entirely dedicated to that; go read those, if you haven’t already. Meanwhile, THIS article is dedicated to rules and their purpose instead. And a rule that lets you face appropriate challenges is really useful, who cares if you could technically face a much stronger foe and solve the problem in another way, that rule is still the point here.

          If you don’t want a combat encounter, you can ignore that rule; the point of that sentence is, if you do, you have to consider the rule and not dismiss it as “unrealistic”.

          And honestly, a GM who puts a 3rd level party against a Red Dragon, with no plan other than “let’s see if they can do something to avoid a combat”, is just asking for trouble.

          Just like you don’t put an important NPC in an adventure if you have no clue about his idea or possible actions, you don’t throw an overpowered monster at the players without knowing the same about it, unless you are fine with “oh, actually, no you can’t avoid combat apparently… well, it’s a TPK everybody, it’s not my fault if YOU couldn’t make up a reason why MY character would let you go!”

    • It’s not that there don’t exist combat encounters. It’s that it’s not a useful way to look at scenes and encounters (which are also scenes).

      If a Cornugon Devil (“among the most lethal, merciless, and obedient warriors in the multiverse”) is ordered to kill a level 3 party, then you 99% have a combat encounter. There’s just no other way for that to go down realistically.

      You still need to make sure you’re playing everyone’s motivations properly, because that’s the way to view things. But it’s still gonna be combat in that situation.

  13. Great article.
    If I didn’t miss it in between those 6000 words, I’d like to add that rules are not only for the player to make decisions and get to have fun, but also for the GM to be intruiged (and have fun). As a GM, it would feel meaningless to me if I just chose the outcome of actions. It would just feel like making up stories. We need a measure of risk, an imprtial judge of the universe. If the character is trying to sneak past the vicious bandits, the dice make it suspenseful and exciting to me, the GM; as well. I also get to worry about the character not making it. And the character DO make it, the player get to feel that the character achieved it on her own merits, rather than GM handwaving it.
    Furthermore I feel that dice-roll represents an absolute hook from whence to continue the story; it sets a framework to proceed from. And as somebody once said, creativity works best within constraints.

  14. Thanks for the article, great food-thought as always and you elegantly pointed out some things that have been bothering my “let’s break everything apart and see how it works” schtick for some time.

    However, in ‘The Role of the Rules’, specifically in the fourth and fifth paragraph, you are wrong. Collaborative storytelling has plenty of tension. The random input is the other people involved, because you can never know what they will think up. And its in no way less of a game then throwing dice. We have plenty of games – even really old ones – based solely on personal interaction, and there’s quite lot of people who prefer them. And we can argue about whether RPGs based around this instead of the gygaxian template should be called RPGs or come up with their own name, but that doesn’t ultimately change the fact that they are out there and that they are actually quite successful.

    It would be interesting to apply this analysis on them, too – because however often they claim to be rules-light, I believe they actually have at least as much rules as D&D, although they are structures we don’t usually think about as such. For example, you need to have rather solid framework of shared understanding of what the genre is supposed to be, what notions should the emerging story evoke, (this is why it works so much easier for lovecraftian horror then for classical D&D sword & sorcery sandbox), what is the expected structure of interaction that will take place (this is what usually actually needs to be spelled out in the rulebook) and what are good manners of human interaction (which you of course need for classical RPGs too, but here, it’s even more important because the game is much more “fragile”).

    • What you say here is pretty much the same reason why I long struggled with “DramaSystem” by Robin D. Laws. Laws was experimenting with the basic structure of the game and, as far as I’m concerned, didn’t notice that he left the category “RPG”. He wrote an improv theatre game. And he and his friends enjoyed it. And a lot of roleplayers gave it a try and some did not and some did.

      Now, if you have a fun group of people who work well within improv, you can have a fun improv experience. But one could argue that you’ve left the RPG game category. What you described about what the player has to know beforehand is what I would personally guess anybody wanting to do good improv theatre should be – genre-savvy. If that’s preferred kettle of fish, more power to you.

      Where it gets tricky is when you try to declare that your personal favorite brand of fantasy improv theatre is a role-playing game – because that’s not just a collection of words anymore, that’s four decades of history associated with the term. It would be like saying any movie is a fantasy movie because the events in there are fictional and from someone’s fantasy. You would be redefining an established term.

      Where your original argument completely breaks down is precisely your main point: “The random input is the other people involved, because you can never know what they will think up.” Yes, it’s random. It entirely relies on everyone agreeing that everyone else is sensible and has a good gauge of general reality and commonsense. Such a game is unplayable with most players I play with because of precisely their lack thereof. And if they could simply disagree with me all the time and _that_ is the nature of the game, there would be no game. Some people behave so random and have such a random understanding of reality, you _need_ the rules to actually make them accept a fairly common situation. If every game situation in the game was like that all the time – that I have to rely on everybody’s broken understanding of how physics and reality work to have a game, then I wouldn’t play it. I’d rather have somebody complain about the arbitrariness of the rules than having a fundamental argument with them of what they did not learn in school or life.

      Beyond that, so many players I play with are either not quite capable to deal with bad consequences of their choices or just so-and-so capable of doing so, there’s enough cases where I’d rather let the rules and dice do it instead of listening to their stories why things happen always their way. RGPs require only a very basic degree of maturity to get into, that’s why we could play them as teenagers or even children. What you propose is a different kettle of fish, as I said before, and I’m sure I would personally also enjoy it with the right kind of people. But until then I’ll prefer playing an actual RPG and just enjoy that because most of the time that’s pretty enjoyable with most crowds.

      • The thing is your definition of RPG is not the only one. There are people – actually quite a lot of people over here in Europe – who “play RPGs” without even hearing about D&D. Yes, the game they are playing are basically a different form of fun. Yes, as I said, we could argue that it would be better to have separate terms for those two categories. However, as of now, you (well, we) don’t have any more authority to usurp the term then they do.

        • Except that words have meanings. So, when two people make claims about what words mean, we consult a dictionary to see who is right.

        • No, mine is just the correct one. Because it incorporates the definition of “role-playing” and “game.” Those are actual things. Also, this is my website, I have whatever authority I want.

          Arguing the definition of words, by the way, is intellectually useless. If you want to discuss my actual ideas, I’m all ears. But if you just want to say “dictionary says you used a word wrong so your entire article is useless” is a waste of a comment.

          I also love the fact that when I analyze role-playing games, even when I say “MOST role-playing games” and not “D&D,” people LOVE to say “there are games other than D&D.” I KNOW. I play a f$&%ton of them. That’s how I know so much about how they work. Unlike you apparently. But let’s also keep in mind that D&D and Pathfinder are the MOST played RPGs worldwide. By a HUGE F$&%ING MARGIN. And considering D&D INVENTED the genre, even if I don’t have the authority to talk about definitions, D&D sure as hell has more than you and all the other Europeans you claim to speak for.

  15. Slightly off topic, and meant more as a general question as Dr. Angry doesn’t have a forum page, are there other sites/web-forums that talk about RPG theory in similar depth? The DnD subreddit is mostly “HEY GUYZ LOOK AT MY COOL DRAWLING.” Which is fine, I guess, if you like looking at pictures. I think i’ve read every article on this site but have yet to find anyone who discusses RPG theory like this elsewhere on the world wide Internets.

  16. Thanks. As always, your insights are helpful, principled, and fun to read.

    I’m wondering how this looks when the rubber hits the road of designing your own rules. How do I know how much transparency is needed to make the players feel like they can make a rational decision?

    For example, if I were using your overland travel rules, I wonder how much information I would share with the players about what’s happening. I imagine I would let them know the Resource and Navigation DC’s. Would I also tell them the Danger and Discovery numbers for each path, or just suggest those levels descriptively? Should they even know that these numbers exist? I’m interested in your answers to these questions because I’m planning to use those rules soon, but more interested in understanding your rationale for deciding one way or the other.

    Thanks again for the great article!

    • Actually, I believe that this is something that you have to find out yourself.

      Some players like to know exactly what they need to hit, others like descriptions, while most prefer a middle of the road approach. At least in my experience.

      Phrasing is key. Instead of saying, “Hey look, the danger number is 5, because hell.” We can say “None who have ever returned from the depths of the inferno have been sane, shouting about undead monstrosities and…” etc etc. Now, this isn’t to say the numbers are bad, but I would make it known to your players that all they need to do is ask for the numbers if they want them.

      Just be open to your players preferences, I guess. So long as they aren’t idiots about it.

  17. Angry i have a question, in the cliff example saying it needs 3 success to safely past the obstacle it’s in the domain of resolution or structure?

    • That would be in the domain of structure. It’s an abstraction, a game mechanic to allow dramatic failure to enter into the equation. If there was only one roll at DC 15, and your character rolled DC 14, then that character fails and suffers the consequences of that failure. By allowing for more than one roll (essentially skill challenges) you allow for dramatic slips and scrapes, but not for full, 100 percent failures on a bad roll.

      • Actually, it could go either way, but it would depend heavily on how the 3 successes were modeled. For example, if you could only climb at a certain speed and the cliff were high enough to require 3 successes to model the length of the climb, that would be a Rule of Resolution. It is now modeling a reality. Alternatively, as presented in, say 4th Edition, skill challenges were extremely arbitrary. If it were just “X successes before Y failures to win,” yeah, that’s a Structural Rule. And a failed one.

  18. “Harsh truth time: just because you create a thing, that doesn’t make you an expert in that thing.”

    I was going to come on here to write a less than enchanted review of the article and it’s occasional inane commentary. But you did so for me in your first line, so, thank you for that. You could have saved us all time and arrived at your point sooner if you skipped the flaunt of literary trope knowledge and started this whole ‘article’ with “[A]s one of my literature professors said constantly, “trust the tale, not the teller.” And that’s why I can say, Gary Gygax doesn’t know jack s$&% about RPGs anymore.”

    You have a well-to-do Patreon; an editor would be a good investment.

    • I would hire a proofreader, not an editor, for precisely this reason. See, over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve interacted with my audience, I’ve discovered I write in a style most of them want to read. In the past, I’ve floated the idea of ditching the Long, Rambling IntroTM and always gotten far more dissension than support for the idea. There are actually some people in the world who still actually like to take their time through a three course verbal meal instead of gorging their brains on mental fast food.

      Anyway, thanks for the input. The Long, Rambling IntroTM stays.

      Oh, you mentioned my successful Patreon. Logic would dictate that, if my fans are willing to support me to that degree, I know what I’m doing better than you do. But that’s just me flaunting my knowledge again.

  19. Great article. I’ve been preaching the same for years and there are still people who do not see it. Thanks por puttting it on “paper”

  20. “except I’m right because I’m always right so don’t argue with me”

    This is the attitude that makes it tempting. 🙂 Especially when you combine it with so many individual bullshit statements. But what’s amazing is despite all of those, the overall thrust of your articles usually ARE right.

    By the way, one thing you share with Gygax is being very sure you are always right. That’s why he was such a belligerent, but fairly clever, asshole.

  21. Not sure if it was a typos but someone said earlier that you don’t roll dice in Fiasco. You do and it does determine your fate. As others point out that you can’t ‘win’ Fiasco is hardly unique in an RPG. You aren’t really intended to win CoC either.

    • Whose “intent” would it be to never let the pcs win? Intent and purpose come from the participants of a game. And in that regard you can very much win a CoC scenario.

      • Due to high lethality and sanity loss the best one can expect for a CoC PC is to retire as a shaow of their former self. Often to win one must use magic but magic will lead to even more sanity loss. The system of CoC is intended to be horrifying and even tragic. One can play against that system for more of a pulp adventure but that is clearly not what the system is made for.

  22. Hello Angry GM, I enjoyed reading this article. In fact, I absolutely agree with it. So much so that I would like to translate it truthfully (with full credits given) and re-post it on my blog “In The Shadow Of A Die” in German. Let me know if I you agree and let me know if you don’t. Thanks.

  23. What makes the Tomb of Horrors so problematic for me is the manner in which it achieves its deadly reputation.

    By arbitrarily suspending core rules, without notice.

    Tomb of Horrors isn’t just an adventure. It’s a survival-horror house-variant of D&D with significantly altered game mechanics. And the players aren’t explicitly told about these alterations.

    ToH doesn’t instruct the DM to level with the players. “Before play begins, tell the players that they will routinely be denied the option of making a Saving Throw to avoid a death effect. Tell them that many of the core rules that they rely upon to survive tough encounters will be suspended routinely and unilaterally by the DM. Discourage them from bringing into play those player-characters to which they may have become strongly attached.”

    Instead, the players go into the adventure blind, thinking they’re playing D&D.

    There is a form of poker called Razz. In Razz, the low hand wins and the high hand loses. And the players must know that before the cards are dealt. The Tomb of Horrors is like playing a hand of Seven Card Stud, and then the players find out at the showdown that they’re really playing Razz.

    But, because the Bishop of Lake Geneva published a bull (and an illuminated bull at that) on how to properly kill an entire party, the Total Player Kill went from the Total Dick Move it always was to a canonically supported option which belonged in any self-respecting DM’s toolbox. If Gygax himself designed a Total Player Kill adventure, then it must be okay on some level, right?

    Wrong. It’s a gross violation of the social contract between the GM and the players. And an entirely avoidable one.

  24. Awesome article! Really love how you explain the importance of suspense and surprise that comes out of the rules and the dice.

    I am one of those people who also plays rules-free RPGs in addition to D&D (the “shitty novel” you mentioned above!) and that is fun too, however, the rules-and-dice based system of D&D is also really fun because it’s all about trying to come up with plans and hilariously failing to accomplish them. In rules-free RPGs, people tend to either plan to succeed or fail at what they are attempting, or generally participate in non hostile / non dangerous activities. The uncertainty comes from other players having plans you don’t know about. The beauty of those is that you have no clue what people will do next.

    In D&D, even with me as DM 100%, the beauty is in wizards and dwarves trying to steal treasure and fight monsters and failing hilariously and running away.


    Totally unrelated question.

    I’ve been trying to figure out when to give my players the special +1 and +2 weapons. All I know is that, in the video games “Baldur’s Gate” and “Neverwinter Nights”, people would get the +1d6 Fire Damage weapons at about level 10-15. Have you written something about Magic Weapons that I can read?

    • That’s actually a damned good question, one that should be expanded:

      When gifting magic, what are some good guidelines on what, when, and why? Along with that, how much should I adjust encounters based upon their magic items?

      Something I find very interesting is limited-use items: items that can only be used once per day/rest/whatever and items that have a limited number of uses overall. What if your +1d6 Fire Damage sword only worked at night, and was limited to 3 uses per night? Nerfed in this manner, I’d have no problem giving this to a lower-level party because it’s impact is minimal and it forces players to make decisions on whether to or not to use it in given situations.

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