Games and toys
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 April 2013, 3:25 am
What is the difference between a game and a toy? The dictionary definition will tell you something about a game being "structured playing", but basically it comes down to there being rules and win conditions. You can "beat" a game, there is a challenge to overcome; but to achieve that you have to live with the downside that there are rules that limit what you can do. Roleplaying games are very much an attempt to achieve the best of both worlds, having both game elements and unlimited freedom. But that can never work 100%: If you have unlimited freedom, you end up with a toy, not a game, and you lose the advantages of games, there being a challenge and a win.

When you read discussions about pen & paper roleplaying, this fundamental conflict pops up everywhere. The D&D edition wars are very much about the fact that 4th edition is more solidly on the game side than previous or next editions. People fight about the use of battle maps with grids on them, and miniatures, because some find those "too game-y". And there are endless discussions on the subject in how far a DM should fudge dice rolls to achieve a desirable outcome instead of a random one.

My personal observation on this is that games work better for a group of people than toys do. In a game, or a game-y roleplaying session, the rules are agreed upon in advance, and the players can rely on them. When you move towards "there are no rules, DM decides all" systems, the balance of power shifts towards the DM. And like all tyrannies that is more likely than not to end badly. Players lose motivation, attendance drops, campaigns crumble to dust.

On the one side the DM is always the ultimate power, the least replaceable person at the table, the one doing most of the work, and the referee. On the other side the role-playing game is only a part of the social relationship between the group of players, and if viewed as a group of friends there is a clear social need for a more egalitarian structure. Having the DM visibly bound by the same rules and the same randomness of dice rolls as the players are create a feeling for fairness, which is necessary for this social construct to work. If whether the enemy is in range of your attack is clearly visible on the table, there is no argument; but if the DM has to decide that question the suspicion can sneak up that the DM treats one or the other player unfairly, and that creates a tension which is bad.

The same egalitarian considerations of fairness make me prefer rules systems which are more balanced over rule systems in which certain classes are clearly better than others. This is why I play 4th edition, the only edition of Dungeons & Dragons where there is a reasonable balance of power between high-level wizards and high-level fighters.

In the heated discussions on the subject of how much power a DM should have, or how much balance a rules system needs, I observe that those shouting most loudly for imbalanced systems are those who then want the position with the most power. It isn't the players who demand that the DM is bound less by rules, nor is it the fighters who demand more power for the wizards. I find that somewhat short-sighted. In the long run the best system is the one which maximizes fun for everybody. If you disadvantage part of the people at the table, the table might well end up empty in the long run. Fairness and balance is more important to the long-term health of a pen & paper campaign than the power trip of some individuals.
Tobold's Blog

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