Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fluff, Crunch, and Bullshit

First off, I hate the term "fluff" to refer to any aspect of a game which is not mechanically significant. I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of the game is the exploration of the setting. If I have to wade through three dozen new prestige classes or five new weapon tables, please give me something my imagination can chew on and not just mechanical minutiae. one of the things I find particularly maddening about the game I'm playing now is the total disconnect between descriptive and mechanical text. It is what it is, unless it isn't. Yeah, makes sense to me.

For an example of what I'm talking about: Fighters in the New Edition have a power that does damage and knocks an opponent prone. The power is described as a mighty sweeping blow. Ok, great. Now, one of my players wanted to use it on a gelatinous cube.
Ok, so how do you trip a gelatinous cube? It's a 10'10'10' cube of protoplasm with no appendages; it slides across the ground. Even if you were somehow able to knock it over, you'd just be changing which identical, symmetrical face of the thing is on the floor. However, because Simon Didn't Say (by which I mean, nowhere does it say specifically that gelatinous cubes are immune to being tripped or being prone), you can trip a gelatinous cube, and it suffers all the normal effects of being prone. Yes, the gelatinous cube must "get up", the same way as if you had tripped an orc or a dwarf- oh, wait, dwarves have a 55% chance to just not be tripped, because Simon Said. Ok, orcs or shadar-kai or ochre jellies. Yes, you can also trip the amorphous ochre jelly. You can also trip a wraith, which is both incorporeal and is usually depicted as hovering off the ground. (Depiction also means jack shit, apparently)
Enthusiasts of this version of the game tell me that the fighter has "disrupted" the cube or the ooze, which has to spend an action getting its shit together before it resumes combat. The justification for the wraith is that the fighter's impressive weapon display actually causes the wraith to hesitate instead of being tripped; to hesitate in a way that is also mechanically identical to being knocked on the ground. So...this ability is described as an attack that basically sweeps the opponent’s feet out from under them, but this technique also includes disrupting gooey monsters and scaring ghosts by waving around a weapon that passes right through them. That must be some bad ass waving. (Like from the Weapon Mastery rules)

I have several other examples of powers used in our game that have caused even the most rules lawyerish of us to stop and say "Now, wait just a damn minute..." However, I think the above example illustrates what I am getting at. We have a strict dichotomy between what is described and what is happening. The game mechanic, what is happening, is now the most important thing, and the description must follow suit.

The reason I don't jive with this school of philosophy or this style of play is because I always grew up thinking that the game was one of imagination supported by the mechanics. Now it seems that the mechanics dictate what must be imagined. This attack knocks shit over, unless said shit is specifically stated as being immune to being knocked over. It's up to you to explain how this happens, but that's that.

Incidentally, even the player who wanted to trip the cube ended up not doing so because he felt that it was just plain wrong.

...and dang, don't even get me started on the discussion about ongoing fire damage not being avoided by diving into the water because the stat block says that a saving throw ends the damage but water is not mentioned.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go drill a hole in my head to let the evil spirits out.


  1. I shudder to think of a gaming world in which the dungeon master feels so restricted by the rules. The spirit of D&D is to use the rules that are good for your game, to make up your own, and to judge each situation on a case by case basis. It's impossible for any collection of rules to cover every scenario, and an edition that attempts to do so will fail more often than not.

    Does it specifically say somewhere in the new edition that the DM CANNOT change the rules, or use logic and sound judgement to run his game? If not, it surely means he or she CAN do so, so everything is therefore open to interpretation and can be changed to suit his games.

  2. Although the DM is still in the driver's seat regarding his game, the new DMG discourages any interpretation of the players' powers; the mechanics are focused on everything being balanced. The idea (which I have also encountered among enthusiasts of 4e) is that the DM interpreting monsters as being immune to trip attacks (just to use the example above)unbalances the monsters by giving them something "extra" and weakens the trip attack by making it applicable in fewer situations. Powers are treated as being pretty sacred; the DM is discouraged from limiting them. (I'd try to find a quote but I'm not at home right now and don't have the book with me)

    One thing that is most definitely discouraged is the idea of judging on a case-by-case basis, as you mentioned. The rules of 4e are designed to be pretty consistent and one size fit all. In fact, one of the core tenants of the game is that the rules are consistent unless an exception is noted. (So, back to the same example, no monster is immune to being tripped unless it specifically mentions that they are immune)

    I do feel pretty constrained by 4th, which is why I'm looking to wind my campaign down and probably take a break from fantasy as our game of choice and run something else for awhile. When I do return, I plan to use an older, simpler version of the rules...probably OD&D (Cyclopedic) or AD&D1.

  3. When I've remarked on such absurdities, the response was "It's not 'Dungeons and Physics'!" Even when the disconnection is clear, the problem with it apparently is not.

    I just don't take the putative representations at all at face value -- any more than I worry over what a clothes iron is doing in jail in Monopoly (much less try to "roleplay" a household appliance).

    The problems with the game as an RPG are too pervasive, I think, to make adaptation to the purpose worthwhile.

  4. The problems with the game as an RPG are too pervasive, I think, to make adaptation to the purpose worthwhile.

    Yes. There are many other games that give me what I want out of an rpg without having to do much, if any, work.

    I gave it a fair shot(six months+), but the way it plays and runs just doesn't jive with what I expect from D&D or really any pen and paper game. On the other hand, I've said before that it's a very fun, well done miniatures combat game, and I wouldn't be opposed to playing it in that respect once in a while.