A Final, Angry Word

February 25, 2011

An Open Letter About Tearing 4E a New One

Because I can never leave well-enough alone, an open letter:

Dear People Who Read the Shit I Write:

Can someone tell me what the hell happened here? Because I’m confused.

Imagine that you are giving a lecture for an anatomy class. You walk up to the podium and you say “today, we’re going to talk about the spleen. We’re going to look at what it does, where it is, why it’s important, and what sort of problems it’s prone to.” Then, you give your lecture about the spleen. At the end, you even try to add an interesting fun fact like “because the spleen is basically a big water balloon filled with your blood, it is very delicate. If you fall from a great height, it can easily rupture and you will bleed to death very quickly. In fact, this is one of the reasons why a fall can kill you.” And then you ask if anyone has any questions. Someone raises their hand and you call on them. They ask for a clarification about the spleen. Then someone else raises their hand and says “you also have a heart. It pumps blood.” “Okay,” you say, confused. “Thank you for that. A little off topic though.” And then someone else speaks up, “you know, if you fall out of an airplane, you can wear a parachute. So, maybe you shouldn’t blame the spleen.” And you say “well, yes you could. But again… we’re kind of talking about the spleen so…,” And then someone else says “why did you ignore the heart? It’s very important! You could die without it!” ¬†And someone else says “but what if you forget to wear a parachute? Then, the spleen kills you!”

That’s how I feel right now: like I just fell out of an airplane without a parachute and landed on something crazy.

I started with a very simple premise. “Today,” I said, “I’m going to look at just one piece of 4E. I’m going to look at why it’s there, what it’s doing, if it’s doing what it’s supposed to, and if its having any unforeseen side effects. I think that will be interesting.” I then talked about the encounter resource mechanic. What is it? Why is it there (based on some logic and what the designers had said)? What is it doing right? And is it doing anything else? Anything we don’t want it doing. And I analyzed the hell out of that tiny piece of rules. What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Aren’t you supposed to be doing something else? Hey, aren’t you kind of getting in the way of this? Wait, what are you doing there? Weren’t you supposed to fix that?

And, in the end, I concluded that the poor little mechanic was actually trying to encourage the very problem it was supposed to fix. The problem it was specifically added to fix. And I concluded that was pretty screwed up.

Imagine you have a headache. And you take a new pill specifically advertised to cure headaches. And then you look at the ingredients and you see that it contains migranium – a chemical that causes headaches that I just made up. That’s a pretty poorly made pill, isn’t it?

It doesn’t matter that you can also take aspirin, or vitamin C, or breathe deep, or get some caffeine. It doesn’t even matter if your headache goes away on its own or you go lie down and sleep it off. There’s still something wrong with that pill.

And I was kind of clear on things. I said flat out exactly what I was doing – examining one mechanic and asking it specifically what it was doing for the game, good and/or bad. And I even went on to say that it was no fair bringing DM skill or player choice or anything else into this. Because we’re just looking at one little thingy to see what influences it has on the game; stick it under the microscope, prod its bits, and see what’s what.

At the end, I said very plainly that the game wasn’t broken or unplayable, even though the mechanic itself was flawed. I said DMs could work around it, players could ignore it, and the world would keep spinning. I said that it was also doing some good in the game and that its bad effects as compared to the good were a matter of opinion (page 5, first two paragraphs) and even said that I wanted the designers to keep trying new things because innovation is good. And finally, finally, I said that if you found you couldn’t live with it, or you wanted to experiment with it, I had some ideas that I thought might finagle it.

Except insofar as I accused a specific mechanic of having more negative impacts than positive, I never said the game was broken, unplayable, or bad. In fact, I said the opposite. I never said DMs and players can’t ignore the issue. In fact, I said they can. I never said they can’t work around it. Again, opposite. I never told people they had to change their games or promised a guaranteed fix. I was pretty clear that I was throwing out a thought experiment. If you want to fiddle, give this a try. Let me know what happens. I never said DMs should never fiddle with their games (though I did come back and say that you can’t excuse an actual flaw in design by saying the DM can work around it because I think that attitude, taken to extremes, is dangerous – which, by the way, is not the same as saying that DMs shouldn’t season their games to taste – nor is it the same as saying there is no skill involved in DMing that needs to be learned and practiced). Nor did I say the rules are more important than anything else or that rules fixes are better than DM or narrative fixes (even though I do personally think they usually are, but there is a balance to be struck, as always). I stayed well away of the debate over how much player/DM skill should be required by the game. Why didn’t I weigh in on these things? Because they are very personal matters of tastes and my tastes aren’t everybody’s tastes. Moreover, when it comes to personal tastes and opinions, it’s hard for anyone (particularly on the internet) to leave their emotions out of it. Basically, I was trying to keep all of that out of it and just say “hey, what’s this piece of the game doing and why?”

In the end, all I did was put one mechanic under and make it answer a few questions about itself. I then concluded it was kind of screwy. It was a gear that was turning in the wrong direction and that it was kind of working against the system. That is the only question I set out to answer and the only question I rendered an opinion on.

This is my final word on the issue. I’ve said all that really needs to be said and I’m ready to move on. To those who think I’ve been a dick for refusing to expand the scope of the question, I’m sorry. I was trying to sidestep the minefield of personal tastes, expectations, and biases that everyone brings to the game. To anyone who drew my ire by trying to take the debate farther than I wanted to and seemed to get blown off, I’m sorry. You got drowned out by a sea of questions about parachutes and unrelated bodily parts. I didn’t intend to insult anyone by trying to stay narrowly on topic. To those reading more into this than there is, I would suggest you brush up on your reading comprehension. I’ll still try to respond to comments that remain within the scope of the original article and I will still edit the ones that go beyond the bounds of civility too far or create trouble, but anywhere else, in any other forum, I will give a polite but firm brush off (unless certain podcast folks still want to have a discussion because, with this clarification, I think there is a lot to be gained from a civil dialogue).

But I haven’t learned my lesson. I’m going to do this again. I have other ideas. I think it’s very good to critically analyze bits of the system and see what each piece is doing and what incentives the different bits create. Partly because critical analysis of rules systems is very important for DMs, especially if they want to start making changes. Partly because I find the analysis interesting. And partly because I like being surprised when I discover that unrelated system X is actually influencing system Y in a weird way. And partly because I like criticizing things. Mostly because I like criticizing things.

If you like that sort of crap, keep reading. But understand what you’re reading and don’t read any more into it. I understand that in the grand scheme of things, the game is the sum of many influences and players and DMs will change those. But I also understand that people ultimately respond to incentives, even when they don’t realize it, and that every piece of the system is tugging your behavior one way or another. I want to know which pieces are tugging on what.

Angry out.






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