“If the DM has to make a lot of judgment calls, the game is more difficult to learn. However, it’s my belief that it’s also more satisfying.”
That’s a statement attributed to Monte Cook, who, as you of course know, was one of the lead designers of D&D’s 3rd edition and one of the most influential RPG designers of the past decade. Through it, Monte grapples with a design issue unique to RPGs: the intersection of rules precision, which is desirable, and rules ambiguity—which is also desirable.
Games, in general, benefit from clear and well-defined rules. But while increased rules clarity and definition strictly improves most categories of games, in RPGs the benefit comes with a price. The more stringent the rules, the less the game relies on the judgement of the GM. And since the GM’s judgement is a necessary and unavoidable part of the adjudication of RPG rules (and one of the elements that sets the activity above similar forms of entertainment, such as MMOs), rules that are too precise can begin to undermine the satisfaction one gets from the game.
As Monte says. In far fewer words than I did.
Take the grid, for example. One of the complaints one sometimes hears about D&D (in its most recent editions) is that it’s become too boardgame-like. The use of miniatures on a grid causes people to play—and think—in terms of board game tactics. As opposed to playing an RPG in its truest form: conjuring a scene in your imagination, and acting upon that scene in a open-ended manner.
So I’m going to use the grid to address the rules/ambiguity intersection. (Pretty clever, huh. Cause grids, you know, are full of intersections.)
Personally, I love playing with miniatures. I love using minis and terrain and doo-dads and nifty Dwarven Forge dungeon sets and so on to illustrate the scenes I’m creating. I played for years without minis, but I was converted to their use by my GM running a—of all things—Vampire: the Masquerade campaign. He had minis for all the PCs and main NPCs, and even when things weren’t tactical, he always put the minis of any characters engaged in a scene out on the table. I liked how it created a visual focus and served to remind everyone which characters were and were not present at any given time. And we sometimes even used them for combat. I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back.
And I’m OK with the grid. It solves a lot of problems and facilitates clarity in a lot of rules. But it also puts players in that board-game-tactics frame of mind. It takes them out of the RPG experience and into a more strictly game-like experience. A less satisfying experience, I feel.
So here’s what I do about the grid: I use it, and I ignore it.
What do I mean by that? Well, imagine a game with no grid. (Like Deadlands or Vampire or Millennium’s End or D&D before 3E or, frankly, the vast majority of published RPGs.) A character may have a defined movement allowance—say, like D&D, 30 feet per turn. Without the grid, the player might say “I want to run up behind that tree over there—can I make it?” And the GM would consider it and say yes or no or you’ll have to use a double-move or whatever, and the player would act accordingly.
Nothing says you can’t play the same way even if there are lines printed on the playing surface. And that’s what I do: I ignore the lines. I put the minis where I imagine they should be, based on the features of the map and the scene in my head. When it’s time to move or check a range or something, I look at the distance and decide whether it can be done. It’s easy, since my entire play surface basically has a grid of rulers printed right on it.
(Frankly, I’ve made that sound a bit more free-form than it actually is. I still count squares. I still mark out effect areas. I still draw my walls along the gridlines, for the most part. I’m just not slavish about using the lines to define stuff like starting and ending positions.)
So I ignore all those grid-based rules defining line of sight and cover and this and that. Right? Actually, wrong. Here’s the key point of this essay: I still use them—they provide guidance for adjudicating all of those topics. But those are the key words: guidance and adjudication. I look at where the mini sits, and maybe I make a ruling based on the square the mini is closest to sitting in. Or I count from the center of a square instead of a corner. Or I just wing it, based on the intent of the rule.
But wait, you’re saying. That means things are being decided based on my imagination instead of the hard-and-fast rules. Yep. That’s the beauty—that’s always been the beauty—of roleplaying games. The players need to trust my judgement—and I need to be open to their vision of things. But that’s always the case in a successful RPG group.
We’re all familiar with Rule Zero, which can be paraphrased (in case we aren’t all, actually, familiar with it) as “The GM can always ignore a rule and make his own call.” In that context, what I’m saying here is hardly revolutionary. What makes it noteworthy is that I’m not saying you should ignore the rule. I’m saying to use the rule to support your judgement, not define your judgement.
In my experience, like Monte’s, this leads to a more satisfying game. And in the case of the grid, an experience that’s a little less boardgamey.
What do ya think? Better this way, or better just to stick with the rules?