Monday, August 20, 2012

Writing Rules in Blackmoor

For this post, I'd like to continue the discussion started here ... but first, I need to make a statement regarding readers who may disagree with my assessment of the Blackmoor supplement.

It was clear from the first post that personal opinions about the material were going to take precedence over intellectual opinions.  Players tend to reflect upon the material with deep sentimentality, gained from having first encountered the material at a tender age.  Thus, every word I say is like stomping on a 9 year old's heart.

Coldly, I don't care.  Nor do I wish to degrade any discussion on this blog to the level of childhood memories.  Therefore, be informed that defense of the material from what is plainly an infantile perspective isn't welcome here.  Yes, I understand some readers may "love" it.  Yes, I understand some readers cannot help but rush to its defense, ascribing intentions to the authors, rewriting the material to fit supposed interpretations and so on.  Any blind fool can see the reason for this ... but it has no place in a rational discussion.

I won't be publishing such comments.  This is not censorship; the writer has the whole internet to express their opinion on such things.  The writer's opinion isn't stifled.  But the writer will not be allowed to take advantage of this blog to express propaganda.  Talk about the material, disagree with me on the principles of the material, and I welcome your disagreement ... but fabricate your nonsense elsewhere.

Let's return to the discussion of the first 13 pages of Blackmoor, about classes and combat.  Allow me to say that the material is fairly good, though disappointingly brief, disorganized and not fully examined.  The beginning material is primarily written to introduce the monk and the assassin, and it lays effectively the groundwork for these classes.  Here we see the invention of the 'quivering palm,' limitations on what magic some classes are entitled to use, the introduction of the grandmaster and some very base ideas for poison.

On one hand, its possible to view these things as a stroke of genius - and they are - but sadly each element carries with it a limitation in long-reaching thought that the game has struggled with ever since.  Because most of these were designed for a combat game, their application to a role-playing game has always been difficult.

Should a monk really be able to kill with a touch at will?  If this is not a magical ability, why should the monk be limited in his or her ability to use the ability?  Are not all such limitions ad hoc, and if so, why shouldn't a 12th level monk be able to use some limited form of the quivering palm?  No thought was given to these questions, or others, because it was never supposed by the authors that so many people would be playing the game today, and questioning the reason between such inventions.

What I'm saying is that within the rules as written, if a DM follows the rule as written (since so little is written upon the sense and purpose behind each rule), there's no room to move except to ignore the rule.  The scattering of dictates and limitations imposed (only this magic, only these weapons) guaranteed that future players would futz, fix and fustigate with them into perpetuity.

It meant one more hurdle to encouraging new players to play.  An attempt to fix the mass of problems created here was attempted with AD&D - the so-called straight-jacketing of the game.  Unfortunately, AD&D did not stick to just addressing the matters Arneson introduced with Blackmoor.  Unfortunately, the game of D&D having such scope, AD&D went ahead and created hundreds more half-written rules, such as the ones written in Blackmoor.  Half-written rules required that the other half be written by the players themselves, no two of which wrote the other half the same way.

Accepted, D&D is a personalized game.  Adding to that, D&D is dependent almost wholly upon the skill of the Dungeon Master.  From personal experience, however, the rules as first designed in Blackmoor - and further obfuscated and redesigned dozens of times since - means that I am better off introducing someone to the game who has never actually played before.

Having introduced hundreds of people to the game, it has been my experience over the years that 'experienced' players are a major pain in the ass.  Not all of them.  Some have played in enough different games that they roll with the rules, whatever the rules are.  Most, however, have played only one or two campaigns, and as such don't like it if the rules don't fit their previous DM's style of play.

A former player who has never had a chance to participate in a long-term campaign tends to make a good addition to one of my campaigns.  A player who has NEVER played before tends to make a good addition also.  But a player who has consistently, for years, played in someone else's campaign is usually too corrupted to play in mine.

I think this says something about the rules of this game.  I also think the reason for this is the scattered, irrational reasoning of rules systems that are written as Arneson wrote them.  And while Gygax sought to shape this problem by saying that the game rules had to be a "guideline," the game rules have NEVER been written as though they were a guidelike.  Like Arneson, the rules are always written as the word of god ... with as little logic as god gave the subject of pregnancy.


rainswept said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JDJarvis said...

Blackmoor is an odd duck a lot of it isn't Blackmoor. Arneson wasn't responsible for the whole book. Most of the underwater stuff comes from elsewhere. The adventure itself is interesting as an example of what other folks dungeons could be like in the day. The hit location rules do not work with D&D scale hp. Monks and Assassins are neat but just don't fit in every campaign; they are part of the kitchen sink approach that will serve to make D&D "difficult" for many to tolerate.

Butch said...

You know how in Monopoly, some people play with Free Parking being what the rules say it is (nothing), and others play where you get $500, or $500 + taxes collected, or some other house rule? And then some people play where you get double the "Passing Go" $200 if you actually land on Go. Or you can't collect rent while you're in jail. And so on.

All of us had the rules we grew up with and those were the "right" rules, yet when you went to another kid's house and played by HIS rules, there wasn't the consternation that sometimes accompanies house rules in AD&D. Why is that?

One part, I think, is because people love AD&D and don't give a shit really about Monopoly. But I think there's more to it than that.

With Monopoly house rules, there's a finite number of them; maybe you do one or two things differently. You can lay them out ahead of time so everyone knows what they're getting into. And let's face it, if there's some absolutely bizarre house rule, what have you really invested -- 5 minutes to set up the board and an hour or two of your time?

But with AD&D, with hundreds of pages of rules, it's impossible to lay out ahead of time all the different modifications and interpretations. By the time you determine the DM has some rule that absolutely drives you bonkers, you've already created a character, one you may feel pretty attached to and have invested some time into. And then that character is killed or otherwise adversely affected by a rule change or interpretation that you a) didn't know about ahead of time and b) don't agree with... yeah, that's going to piss you off.

I do think exposure to multiple DMs, and maybe even various RPGs, helps. But in the end, there's only one to handle it: My way or the highway.

Anonymous said...

I was going to comment what Butch said, but he said it first. Except that last paragraph: I have no idea what he's saying there.

As for some kind of solution, I think playing in multiple RPGs and under multiple DMs helps in the way any variety in experience helps. Think of a woodcarver who has worked in balsa for 40 years and then encounters oak. Frustration ensues.

From my perspective the problem is that the player coming in assumes "we are playing X game, so the rules will be pretty standard except where otherwise noted". As you said, many rules need to be houseruled and there may be two or three legitimate ways to interpret it. If incomplete, there may be a half dozen ways to complete it that follow the pattern of other rules in the game.

The frustration of the experienced player under a new DM is that DMs always change everything. There's always a "better" way to do something, whether that means faster at the table, easier to understand, more compatible with other rules, similar to other rules, more complex, simpler, greater verisimilitude, closer to a fantasy trope. The DM rarely goes by the book for the entirety of the campaign, even in cases where the rule is clear and reasonable!

Part of this is the fun of investigating another DM's campaign. But part of it can be frustrating when the rule changes seem frequent and meaningless. From the perspective of the DM, it seems reasonable to say the player isn't adjusting well and he's a "problem player" but it's equally true that the DM can't leave well enough alone and should just run the campaign using his own fantasy heartbreaker. Stop calling it 1E D&D if it isn't, basically.

That said, it's a fine line and people don't communicate well about it. On one hand the player would really like to know that the 2d6-damage Oil in this campaign is just the 6 CP lamp oil instead of some 10 GP greek fire, and that's why the kobolds all use it. On the other hand, the player should really ask about that stuff.

I personally think any changes to the material in the Player's Guide should be offered as a supplemental packet for the campaign. If it's a change to the Monster Manual, DMG, or whatever then you shouldn't take that for granted anyway! In 1E AD&D, for example, there are complex rules for Initiative. It's not in the PHB even though players use Initiative all the time. Using this scheme, the DM wouldn't have to tell the players anything about Init until it came time to roll.

HOWEVER the PHB has Reaction Adjustment under DEX. Which means if the Reaction Adjustment doesn't do anything in this DM's game, he should mention that in his packet under DEX.

Does this seem like a lot of trouble to the DM? Sure. But if he can handle keeping all these house rules straight in his head then it should be no problem at all to type them up and print out a copy. If the supplement is as long as the rule book, just rewrite the player guide to suit.

If a DM has a lot of house rules and says "oh that's too much trouble, I don't want to do that effort"
and/or "players shouldn't know my house rules"
and/or "I don't want players pointing at my house rules and assuming that's how the rule works"
then he invites confusion and frustration.

So in the end, players need to be more openminded, but both players and DMs need to communicate better.