Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Don't Give In!

Over at Sham's Grog n' Blog, in a recent post about ability scores, things started to go sideways right at about this point in the comments. I want to draw your particular attention to this comment, as it's the one I'll be focusing on here.

Read it yet? Good.

I want to point specifically, however, to two statements:

"Was this my fault? Possibly. Sure, I could have told the guy that the spells didn't work that way. He would promptly state that they were listed that way in the book. The only response is some heavy-handed "Well screw you, I don't want you to use them that way" sort of response."
and more importantly:

Now, granted, with such a player, any system is breakable if the DM doesn't want to just arbitrarily tell them that all their research and math was useless and that he is deciding to not allow something that should be possible in the ruleset for the universe that it was created in. The player, for his part, had the creativity to find the loopholes and combination of effects to allow some insane abilities; isn't creativity a fairly core component of the hobby?
Now, let me start off with a nice fat smackdown statement:

The GM might not always be "right", but the GM is the final arbitrator in all things related to the game he or she is running, period, end of discussion, and if you don't like it, go game somewhere else.

To rewind a bit; I have a secret hatred for game publishing companies. In order to keep money flowing, they like to write rules supplements that you'll want to buy. In order to make you buy them, the company stuffs them chock full of cool-ass stuff that players and GMs will look at and think "this is SO cool - I just gotta have it!".

And then we have it - system bloat. Code bloat, rules bloat, supplement bloat - whatever you want to call it. You player shows up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to your next session with a $30 hardcover rules supplement and babbles at you about how freakin' sweet this new prestige class or spell or expanded rules set is, and to make them happy (cuz hey, it's all about making your players happy, right?) you allow it. Where's the harm, right? It's a published supplement, I'm sure it's been thoroughly playtested and examined for loopholes and game balance and there won't be any harm in including this, right? Right?



Do Not Give In.

Gaming is a collaborative effort between the players and the GM. However, without some balance and structure, all you will have is chaos. Players are sneaky, crafty devils. Even if they don't want to admit it to themselves, they secretly crave "Awesomeness". No one really wants to play a "lame" character. Even if you're playing a librarian, you want your librarian to be an "Awesome" librarian - whatever that might mean (heck, Giles from Buffy was an "Awesome" librarian, after all...). If a player finds a rule or an item or a spell or skill or feat or power or anything "official" (or even unofficial but plausible) that will grant them more Awesomeness, they will at least be tempted to try to get you to include it in the game.

Do Not Give In.

I too have played with the rules lawyers, the engineers, the math geeks - those player types who will naturally "crunch out" whatever will give them maximum Awesomeness, and try to get you to use it "because it's in the rules - it's official, right?". Wrong. The only material that is official for your campaign is the material you allow to be official. There is no Dana, only Zool.

This is not an arbitrary "screw you" attitude. It is an attitude of "my campaign and my campaign setting are a carefully controlled environment". You allow what you want to allow because otherwise, it's not your campaign anymore - it's theirs. As soon as you cave and let your players polymorph themselves into Dragon Gods just because they found published material that allows it, you are no longer the GM - you're a chump who sits behind the screen and narrates wish-fulfillment fantasies to your players. Some GMs are fine with this, but hey - some husbands get off on being cuckolds, too. Once you give up that control and authority for no other reason than to "make them happy", you will never, ever, get it back.

So does this mean I'm a control freak bastard of a GM who never gives a player what they want? No. But, it does mean that when a player brings some New Shiny Toy of a rule/spell/etc. to me, I do not just roll over and play nice. I give it a hard, hard look and try my best to decide two things:

1. Will (insert new stuff here) have a big (and possibly negative) effect on this campaign as it is currently being envisioned by myself and the other players? Will it change the balance of power unexpectedly and significantly alter the flavor of the campaign that currently exists? Expanded rules for unarmed combat can be very cool, but if they turn every PC in your party into Unstoppable Masters of the Jade Dragon Fist Clan overnight, your gritty, peril-laden horror-noir game (where PCs before regularly feared for their lives in every combat) just went out the window like a lead brick.

2. Is (insert new stuff here) appropriate for my campaign as it now stands and into the forseeable future? Does it fit seamlessly with the flavor of the game, or does it throw things out of whack? After all, just because a jive-talking broadsword that throws lightning bolts is freakin' sweet, that doesn't mean it fits within your carefully structured Arthurian-analogue campaign setting.

If I don't like the answers to 1 & 2, I say no to (insert new stuff here), plain and simple. Every teacher likes class participation, but they don't want you to recreate the battle of Crecy in the middle of history class. Every employer wants their employees to find creative solutions to problems, but they don't want you taking hits of peyote in your cubicle and asking the Coyote God for answers.

All right, the air is thin up here on my soapbox - I'll get down now. Comments? Insults?


Ben Overmyer said...

No substantive comments, just a general and vague affirmation from me.

The GM is the Game *Master* for a reason.

Badelaire said...


The one danger here, is of course, the Asshat GM syndrome, where your Ego inflates and you become the jerk from those D&D Mp3 skits "I'm The Dungeon Master - I create whole universes! Every potion you drink, I mix, every creature you fight, I put it there!!!" (not an exact quote, but you get the picture).

It's all a balance. Too controlling and you're an over-authoritative jerk. Too submissive and you'll just get steamrolled by any player who's got a spine.

Sham aka Dave said...

Good points, and a great topic. It's another reason I prefer to use the 'rules-light' editions as a foundation, and build up/home brew from there (just a personal preference, mind you). I've heard others claim that savvy players would 'eat OD&D up', or other claims to that effect...if used properly, fewer rules equates to fewer possibilities for hare-brained powergamer schemes. The three volume LBB is a perfect anti-munchkin set!

That said, I'm sure I could DM with 3.5 or 4th, and maintain a good mix of fun, balance and control, I just might have to slow the game down more often to clarify how the rules work in my world.

thanuir said...

In my experience players want to play the characters they envision; given a system that does not have limited currency for character generation (that is, people can just say how good their character is and that is that, no point-buying or levels), most players create very sensible characters.

Having limited currency gives the urge to optimise the usage of that currency, at least for me (I am a mathematician-to-be, though).

I have for more than few games let people play the characters they want, and it has not caused any problems with the power levels of characters. This may not work as well with a game that is constructed around facing challenges, as D&D is, though.

Leo Knight said...

Hi. Long time reader, first time commenter.

I must agree. In our group, this has come up numerous times. An "official" magic item gets found, a new power is available, and it completely blows the campaign away. IIRC, the 1st ed. AD&D Rope of Entanglement was so vague that it could do anything, as was the Rod of Command. After a few minutes of hilarity as we imagined all the ways it could be abused, the players and DM said, "No, seriously", and ruled it away.

One time our regular DMs brother polymorphed or shape changed himself into a Death Slaad, well nigh invincible. After letting him romp for the night, we all said, "That's way too gonzo!" and ruled it away. Fortunately, we've been friends for such a long time we can do that. We're comfortable with retcon, because we've all sweated in the DM's seat, said, "Oh, crap!" as we realized the implications of a spot ruling. Of course, such misfortune soon becomes a running joke: "I polymorph into a Death Slaad!"

The folks we started gaming with always said, "They're not rules, they're guidelines" Words to the wise.

David said...

Being the poor schmuck that started this thing, I do apologize as I appear to have struck a nerve in Badelaire. Also, I'll go ahead with the true and also vaguely obligatory comment that I've read all over T&B and have been a reader for a while.

Anyway, I was the moron DM that allowed my players to all have stats equal to exactly:
47 STR, 10 DEX, 33 CON, and +40 Natural Armor. This is because my wizard found a combo of spells in PHB and PHB2 for 3.5ed D&D that allowed him to polymorph, keeping those stats, into Great Wyrm (maybe ancient, it's been a while) Gold Dragons, and then alter self (I think) back into humanoid form.

I agree that the DM has the right to overrule the rulebooks, particularly splatbooks or books he doesn't personally own, in order to maintain order in his world. Yes, I got kinda run over by this player. As an aside, he wrecked the later half of the campaign by being the only PC that had any power, in a relative sense.

That said, coming down hard and outright banning things is a harsh sort of reaction. I don't have a solution that would have kept things good, but banning spells from the PHB for the purposes of blocking an effect seems a bit dodgy, since it becomes a slippery slope towards a DM banning anything mildly inconvenient. Also,I'm not going to see the effects of these combinations until after they are used. At that point, the character is probably somewhat invested in his cheesy nonsense. If the cheese is outright banned, then he's got a character geared towards nothing, and his guy won't stack up with his compatriots, whose plans have worked. His fun is all ruined. Like it was said in this article: Gaming is collaborative between the GM and the players. It's not the GM's place to kill a player's fun any more than it's a player's place to kill the GM's fun.

So I dunno. I agree the GM should be able to override player wishes. However, I don't see a way that this can be done that doesn't feel like ruining the game for someone.

Anyway, this post aside, I think I'll drop it. I dunno, this post in T&B, and the comments in Sham's blog, seem way to vitriolic. I don't want to make a lot of people angry. I respect you and your blog, and I didn't intend as much offense as I've apparently created here.

Badelaire said...


Plase, no offense intended. I tend to be a bit on the aggressive side with my comments - don't take it personally.

This sort of thing happens to all of us at one time or another. I recently had a C&C player who constantly complained about how he wanted more "stuff" - basically he wanted a constant influx of bling and cool powers/spells/etc. (nursed on 3.5, he was). I relented and started providing more treasure, allowing PCs to buy magical items for what I thought was pretty steep prices...eventually I found myself with a PC who had an AC of 24 at 7th level, swinging a demonic +3 battle axe that had several spell-like abilities.

The point is, we all want to keep our players happy. It's just that sometimes, they don't really know what they want that'll make them happy - they just see Shiny New Rules Stuff and cling to it. Taking it away from them makes them cry foul, and now you've got conflict.

So again, sorry if it feels like I've been smacking you personally with all my comments - it's just one of those issues that I see cropping up a lot. Don't take it as an attack on you or a belittlement of your gaming. As they say, it happens to all of us at one time or another...

Darkwing said...

I have to agree with Badelaire on this one. Obviously during a gaming session, you aren't going to get in a shouting match with the player and "lay down the law" as it were. You can have a calm discussion and explain that while said rule might be really cool, it just doesn't fit into your campaign setting. Most reasonable players will accept this.

I've only GMed using one system and every rulebook sold for it had the disclaimer "It is up to the GM to decide what rules will be used, modified or ignored so as to better run his game within the game setting he envisions" or something like that. From day one I took that to heart.

Now if a player demands the use of some power or ability that makes them nigh invincible, I can imagine a couple of ways to respond to it (assuming they do no accept your ruling not to include said invincible rule):
1. Congratulate them (try not to sarcastic) and say that they won the campaign. Game over. Since they achieved their near invincible status, the rest of the campaign should be a cakewalk, so they've won the game. No more reason to play.
2. If your players can loophole their way into becoming invincible demi-gods, can't your villain NPCs do the same thing? Just level the playing field again. Some players like a high powered game like this, while other don't, and will realize the futility of the arms race. As a GM, you can fight invincible players with invincible monsters.

But the point of RPGs is for the GM and the players to work cooperatively, not competitively, to create a gaming experience fun for everyone. If the attitude of the player is to find loopholes to dominate the game, simply explain to them that it's not fair to everyone else. Explain the intent of your game--to provide challenges for your players to overcome during the gaming sessions. If your players have more fun finding loopholes between gaming sessions, when they show up, congratulate them on their ingenuity, but stick to your game as envisioned.

David said...

If your players can loophole their way into becoming invincible demi-gods, can't your villain NPCs do the same thing?

Yep. They can and did. They didn't use the same polymorphing tricks, but the more powerful the PCs got, the more insane the enemies they fought. The campaign (with some nudging from a cursed item the party used) changed from a medieval vassalage/wartime sort of vibe into a massive, cross-planar crisis that threatened to destroy all life in all planes, caused by the approaching apotheosis of a new god.

In the end, funny you mention it, the PCs became gods themselves. I'm vaguely considering working that campaign's history into my next campaign, just to amuse myself.

njharman said...

I agree.

"but the GM is the final arbitrator in all things related to the game he or she is running, period, end of discussion, and if you don't like it, go game somewhere else."

"Gaming is a collaborative effort between the players and the GM."

I find contradiction in those two views. It's difficult to be a benevolent dictator and promote collaboration.

Also the #1 difference I see between versions of D&D is the amount of control/trust DM that is assumed. Because 1) they want to be the source of rules (sales) 2) they want larger market and there just aren't enough good DM's they try to box the DM in so a bad one can't do too much damage.

esp in 3/4 DM's aren't suppose to change the rules, make rulings etc. I know that is bullshit but it's easy to be swayed by all the propaganda and players who want to "win" and see reduction in DM's power as advantage for them rather than a reduction in fun potential.

The default expectation today is of ever increasing uberness and that the DM can't / shouldn't be able to stop you. It's hard for me at least to find players who will believe any other style could be fun.

Badelaire said...

"I find contradiction in those two views. It's difficult to be a benevolent dictator and promote collaboration."

Not necessarily. Even a film director with Final Cut privileges will solicit input from his actors and other creative crew members. The Editor-In-Chief of a periodical has final say as to what goes into each issue, but he collaborates with his writers and designers (who actually create the content). There are many examples of people in positions of ultimate decision-making authority who still need to or will solicit collaborative input.

As for the rest of your comments though, I think you make a good point. Even many very mechanics-heavy older games (such as Rolemaster - the system Darkwing is talking about) were open about the idea of "It's your game, do what you want with it". That such an attitude is missing in some newer games is disheartening - I guess it's up to more seasoned players and GMs to pass along this mantra.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog, and this post interests me greatly because...yes, someone wore their asshat recently in my husband's game. My husband is a really good DM, (I don't just say that becuase he's my hubby, either.) and he was trying to learn 3.5 just to run things for the same asshat that started being a PitA. Long story short, after ONE ROUND of what should have been fairly easy combat took an hour and a half because this person kept arguing, my husband said "Forget this," and stopped the game.
This sucks really hard as this was the first time in over a YEAR that we had gamed.
Basically, he really doesn't care for 3.5 and we both think 4 (we looked over some books the other day in a store) looks like it sucks. He's old school, and thinks it should take no more than 15 minutes to roll up a character and start playing.
I know there's a PLETHORA of gaming systems that are a lot like 1st Edition, which is his favorite.
Can someone please, please, please, help a jonesing gamer here and recommend a system for him to learn that is at least reasonably like 1st Edition and reasonably priced?
I don't know why no one else wants to play 1st or 2nd anymore, but we can't seem to find anyone; I'm thinking if we throw a system with a different name on them at the other players they might actually enjoy it before they figure out it's like 1st Edition. (Scheming little Grey Jedi, she is...)
I can be reached at badgerangyl *at* gmail *dot* com, and you will have my very, very great admiration and thanks.
I'm sorry I stole your blog. I didn't break it. Here, have it back...