Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Legends and Lore

The Legends and Lore articles started becoming a regular feature a month or so into my little project. There's definitely a logical progression to what they're doing, so I often read the article and reacted with glee that they were discussing the same things I just realized I needed to resolve. This made me feel good at first, like I must be on the right track. Now not so much.

Most annoying is the incredibly generous usage of the concept of "dials." What isn't a dial these days? The most recent article uses the idea of a thermometer to hone in on your preferred balance of concrete rules to just letting the DM adjudicate a rule on the fly. But this dial is utterly impossible to provide. If someone wants to turn the dial up on concrete rules, that means those rules had to have been created. They had to have been written, edited, and printed. If someone wants to turn the dial back, they can't get away from having to flip past those rules, they paid for those rules, they carried those rules to the table, and everyone knows they are there hanging over ever decision the DM adjudicates. Once the option to turn the dial up exists, you cannot truly turn it back.

Moreover, I think we have too generous an ascription of the idea of a dial. It is not like we can click the dial one notch and carve off 5-10 concrete rules, they're going to be lumped into maybe two or three settings for the sheer necessity of organization. A "dial" with two or three settings is probably best described as something other than a dial. We're implying a level of precision that we're incapable of delivering on.

Regardless, I actually think the underlying topic of today's L&L is one of the most important they've touched on so far. The basic trade off between what should we rely on the DM to resolve and what should we develop rules to cover. When I pondered through it I saw it more as a scale with every conceivable event that could arise having to be placed on one side or the other. Each side brings along its own burdens and you have to figure out your preferred balance of rule-ambiguity and rule-precision.

For me, I view the costs of rule-precision to be greater than the costs of rule-ambiguity. If you want a precise rule, you carry that rule with you through all parts of the game. Not only the stuff I talked about above (paying for writing, editing, printing, physically carrying, etc), but it also hangs over ever other rule. If I wanted to push a statue onto a monster in 2e I probably just made an attack roll with strength. It makes sense, I mean, ultimately the statue is just going to do a bunch of damage, so an attack is proximate enough. You could move really far in 2e so we didn't worry about getting over there and climbing up to a point where I had leverage. We just rolled and saw what happens. Then it was someone else's turn.

As the game got more concrete, the existence of rules suggested limitations. We should probably see if I had enough movement to get over there and climb (half speed) up the statue. Since I'm climbing, I should probably make a quick check with a bonus since it is near a wall (chimney). If I didn't have enough move, then I don't have enough actions. I should probably make some sort of a Strength check and maybe a Dex-based melee touch since if the statue hits it'll do the damage I want. In 4e maybe instead it'd be an attack vs. Reflex and we'd consult the table for the limited damage expression. The more concrete editions certainly provide a more tools to resolve the action, but there were now so many little chances to fail that it was no longer worth trying. Attacking normally was easier and, often, more powerful.

[It's a joke]

This isn't rose colored glasses, 2e is objectively my least favorite edition, but that isn't to say that it didn't do certain things better than later editions. In the case of balancing adjudication and rule-precision, 2e gave a handful of broad tools. Each tool had a pretty distinct role so it wasn't hard to figure out when it was the right tool for the job. The result was that the game always gave you a starting place for adjudication that was fair-ish and you just trusted the DM to tweak it a little bit for the unique exigency of whatever it was you were doing. To round back on the hypothetical of the scale, I see 2e as a handful of large, concrete rules on the rule-precision side and a big amorphous blob of whatever unique situations arise on the DM adjudication side. That's a good balance, in my opinion, and I think there's obviously potential to develop much better tools than 2e provided.

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