Agreement, rough edges, and combat as sport vs. war

This post is a round-up of three things that crossed my path and grabbed my attention, all RPG-related.

Gygax on agreement

I found this fascinating 1975 Gary Gygax quote over on The Acaeum:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the “rules” found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don’t believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson’s campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to “survive”. Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them — except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Looking at the last 40-plus years, at all of what’s come after that quote D&D-wise, this quote is mindblowing. So many things that have become commonplace assumptions in many RPGs are gleefully and confidently disregarded in this paragraph. I love it.

1975 was still salad days for D&D — the era of OD&D, and of this quote (also Gygax) from the afterword to The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (emphasis mine):

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?

I love that ethos as a GM and as a player. It’s directly at odds with the existence of supplements (and many other aspects of the RPG industry, including some of the books I publish) and other books I enjoy, though, so I’m also always torn about how it applies in practical terms. But as a foundation and a navigational aid, it’s one of the principles I like most about old-school RPGs and gaming in general.

Maliszewski on rough edges

I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling over this excellent GROGNARDIA post. Back when I first read it, it didn’t sound like what I wanted out of gaming. Nowadays, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it’s not. Most of us, I think, if we’re honest, understand that we like rough edges — we need rough edges. Something that’s too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis.“

Looking back on my best gaming experiences, they often had rough edges — and maybe those were integral to making the overall experience richer. To get the alchemy that makes gaming so exciting, you have to accept that sometimes lead just stays lead, and not everything has to be perfect.

Combat as sport vs. combat as war

I remember seeing this thread about combat in different editions of D&D going around (and around) a while back and never clicking on it. But a year or so ago, when I finally read it, it changed my understanding of D&D. It articulates things I’d previously thought about in a nebulous way, but could never have put into words this clearly.

Here’s a few excerpts from the original post by Daztur:

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game). […]

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

So much of what I enjoy about older editions of D&D and dislike about 3.x and 4e, and what I enjoy about sandboxes, is neatly encapsulated in the sport vs. war analogy. I’ve returned to it many times over the past few months, and I wanted to make sure it was archived here on Yore for future reference.

9 thoughts on “Agreement, rough edges, and combat as sport vs. war”

  1. Randal

    I dunno…I think we’re reaaaaally close to the point when “the majority of players agree on how to play the game.” Right?


    The second post is interesting. In my normal group, which really only comes together blue-moon-style, two sessions ago I just wanted it to be over. No fun was had by me, headache, thinking about the long drive home, blah, thinking I might just give up the ghost, but then a month later, hot damn if that wasn’t one of the best times of my gaming career. Couldn’t even really explain what the difference was, same place, same people, same campaign…but yeah, sometimes you have to deal with the bad to appreciate the good.

  2. Martin Ralya

    I’m not sure what you mean. I think there are plenty of D&D (and other RPG) groups out there playing by the rules as written, and there have been for years. That’s a long way from the world of Gary’s quote in 1975; I find that interesting.

    Good point about the magic sometimes requiring enduring bad sessions, not just accepting that they’ll happen from time to time. That’s a good way to look at it.

  3. Randal

    Mostly that I just find it funny that the very idea of rules consensus could ever happen…heck, one of the current 5E designers just published his own house initiative rules over on the WOTC Unearthed Arcana because he doesn’t like the initiative rules that he himself helped write. My group (and I know we’re not alone in this) argues over grammar in spells…but then again, one of the players is a lawyer and that’s what he lives for…! I agree with Gary…if that ever happens, if there’s never any imagination involved…bleh.

  4. So there’s a design aesthetic these days for designing for the ruling. If you look at the idea of the GM making a move against the players in a powered by the apocalypse game its the game rules saying make a call based on these very vague parameters. It creates for a focused experience to stay within the genre or story you’re creating with a flexibility of rulings and creation by the GM.

    Also, see defy danger as a move. 10+ the player does a thing. 7-9 you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice. 6- the GM makes a move.

    That’s all just interpretation of action based on the randomizer. I’m specifically calling out PbtA games here but they’re not the only place this stuff exists. Any game that has success with a complication is basically saying make a call and interpret based on the situation which means we’re getting a little of agreeing on how to play the game and still making rulings based on that agreement and the situation.

    1. Martin Ralya

      I’d never thought about PbtA’s miss resolution as an example of designing a built-in place for a ruling, but I like that description — it’s useful.

      PbtA games sometimes look worryingly prescriptive to folks who are new to them, but I never find them to be so in actual play. Drawing a line that connects “rulings, not rules” to PbtA-style resolution might be a good way to reassure those folks.

      Thanks for bringing in an interesting perspective, Chris. :-)

  5. Thing I find interesting about the Gygax quote is that if you read the old Dragon Magazines it’s only a short time from that quote to Gygax belittling 3rd party publishers for daring to thing they can improve HIS game and declaring that if you’re not playing exactly RAW, you’re not REALLY playing DnD. Which makes you wonder what exactly happened in those intervening years.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Yeah, Gary’s views seemed to change and evolve over the years. The whole idea of a unified, standardized system — AD&D — to get everyone on the same page is directly at odds with the fiery earlier approach.

  6. Pingback: MMP#270 – Rough Edges – Misdirected Mark Productions

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top