Underlying The Rules Part V – Questions And Answers

And now that I have a few minutes to start catching up on comments again, this particular comment from KrakoThunder brings up some interesting points about the d20 system and what happened to it. Admittedly, that’s starting to drift away from generic social expectations applicable to all gaming – but the difference in perception comes up quite a lot.

  • Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE.
  • Part Two – Adjusting The Spotlight – can be found HERE.
  • Part Three – Making A Group Effort – can be found HERE.
  • Part Four – Setting Over Rules (The part that this comment was addressed to) – can be found HERE.

…Personally I feel that Setting, at least in 3.5 or pathfinder, isn’t actually that relevant…

That’s an excellent illustration of a fairly subtle point – a division in social expectations between people who are used to d20 style games and most other systems that goes back to an old marketing decision. Wizards of the Coast wanted to sell as many copies of each book as possible – and so they did something fairly innovative.

They had a reasonably universal system and so they quietly decoupled their mechanics-laden sourcebooks from specific settings and included hints in the books and online on how to squeeze the new material from each such sourcebook into their existing settings.

That was subtle, but big. There had been plenty of semi-universal systems before, but no one had ever really tried that. Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing covered a lot of things – but they never tried to make the stuff they published for Runequest fit into Nephilim or Nephilim stuff fit into Superworld. Similarly, a Hero System “Galactic Guardians” sourcebook was never meant to be compatible with a Justice Inc. game – and there was no attempt to make it so. GURPS put out world sourcebooks with no intent that their Lensman sourcebook would ever be coupled with one of their WWII sourcebooks.

Other games were less successful at it. For example, the One Roll Engine system was used for Godlike – a WWII game featuring superheroes with relatively minor powers who didn’t have too big an effect on history. But, while the setting was quite good… the One Roll Engine mechanics didn’t actually support the “relatively minor powers” or “not too big an effect on history” part. It wasn’t at all hard to build characters who broke the game, often even if you didn’t mean to do so. There are several such characters on the blog here simply because I found it amusing to make them.

Quite a lot of games weren’t that ambitious. They wrote tight systems that were deeply integrated with specific settings. Games like World Tree or Army Ants or Bunnies and Burrows could be very, VERY, good games – but you weren’t going to be able to use their systems to run a Starship Troopers game or a cold war espionage game.

But that limited sales – and so Wizards Of The Coast quietly de-emphasized “Setting”, suggesting that it was essentially unfair of game masters to disallow the use of whatever nifty new sourcebook a player had purchased and become enamored of.

This, however, turned something that had previously been a very minor problem into a major one. Sourcebooks aren’t written by an omniscient collective, and editors really can’t keep complete track of thousands of pages of rules. So if a “Voodoo Pirates” sourcebook included a “Loa Bound” ability which let each character bind with a single Loa to gain a package of distinctive magical pirate powers that they could use all they wished… well, that worked just fine in a Voodoo Pirates game. Everyone got one highly distinctive power package.

But if a player took “Loa Bound” and then (say) pulled a “Celestial Radiance” ability from some other sourcebook – perhaps a “High Gods” book of religious powers – which let a character convert innate magical effects into shields and blasts of light and combined it with a “Surging Birthright” ability from a “Mystic Talents” sourcebook that boosted innate magical powers (and was meant to be used with the relatively minor powers from that book), then suddenly the game master found himself or herself dealing with the equivalent of Marvel’s Dark Phoenix running around blasting things in his secret supernatural psychic detectives setting.

That’s an exploit. Things that were never meant to be used that way being used to break the game. Now those particular books don’t actually exist (although books along those lines with staff that breaks the game if used elsewhere certainly do) – but the pattern should be recognizable to any d20 gamer. The fact that no one can agree on just where the line between “good character design” and “abusive exploits” lies just complicates the problem.

Exploits hadn’t been a big problem before. There had been a lot of games – Brave New World, World of Synnibar, and too many more to count – who’s rules just didn’t work properly. There were plenty of games where the rules were a poor match for the intended setting too – but sourcebooks intended for particular settings had always tended to be light on mechanics, heavy on setting information, and had a much more limited range of other sourcebooks to interact with. They also were usually written by individuals or small, cooperative, groups, came out far less often, and had groups of playtesters who played in that particular setting and so were familiar with all the information for it. Most exploits got edited out well before such books were published. Most of what got through were typos or stuff that was simply ambiguously phrased if you didn’t already know what it was supposed to mean.

That meant that, up until this point, most exploits had been of individual rules that were poorly written. For example, early editions of Champions / Hero System had “Endurance Batteries” which, when combined with other flaws such as “increased endurance cost”, could make powers free to use and much cheaper at the same time. That kind of thing was easily errataed though. Endurance batteries were changed into the Endurance Reserve power, and how they worked was modified – and the exploit went away.

But changing how “Loa Bound” worked would mean rewriting the entire Voodoo Pirates sourcebook. The same might go for the Celestial Radiance from the High Gods sourcebook, while removing Surging Birthright from the “Mystic Talents” book would make half of the rest of the book useless.

And so many “optimized” d20 characters wind up taking one level each in a bunch of different prestige classes, and combining stuff from half a dozen different sourcebooks that their authors never meant to be used together no matter what the marketing department said. Unfortunately, confessing that the books were incompatible would undermine the marketing strategy and reduce profits. That was out of the question. Ergo exploits were sometimes dealt with with special rules or online errata, but were mostly left to individual game masters to deal with. This led to the era of “Handbooks”, “Optimization Boards”, and Pun-Pun. Sure, you can find some optimization advice for GURPS and such – but it tends to be fairly general and minor, or rely on specific tricks that no game master in their right mind will allow, rather than on combining stuff from fifteen different sourcebooks in a detailed twenty-level build. For d20 there are massive works covering optimization for pretty much every character class.

The problem carried over into Pathfinder as well – and Pathfinder has become even more of a “throw in anything and everything” system than 3.5 was, simply because it picked up where 3.5 left off. Ultimately however… this path is a dead end. Gaming is a social activity, and focusing on the mechanics may fill your time when you’ve got no one to play with, but trying to actually use exploits eventually reaches the point where it’s disrupting the actual game – and that really doesn’t get you much of any extra fun.

That’s one reason why Eclipse includes a checklist for deciding what abilities will fit into your setting, advice on handling over-optimized characters, systems for character personalities and motives, and no setting at all. It’s also why it hasn’t really got any “expansion” books beyond a free web supplement that covers a few items that could not legally be included in Eclipse under the intial d20 license and a few typo corrections. Eclipse II includes one additional note (that you only get half “value” for negative attribute modifiers) and a lot of “how to use Eclipse to build what you want” segments. That’s to avoid the partially-compatible sourcebooks problem, to make sure that everyone has the same list of stuff to choose from to “optimize” their characters, and to limit the time and expense of running the game.

A strong setting is needed for serious roleplaying, to hold down on rules exploits, and to give a campaign it’s own identity. A really GOOD d20 campaign… is usually much more narrowly focused than the “you can use everything!” approach allows.

…Want a spaceship? Mind Flayers had spaceships, so spaceships obviously are a thing, and given infinite universes that are all connected via Far Realm, there’s a good chance somewhere there’ll be someone who fits the criteria. You probably can’t refuel it and you won’t find much out there, but you can have it….

Well, even if Mind Flayers exist in a given d20 setting (not being OGL material they often don’t) they may or may not have spaceships or bear any resemblance to “standard” Mind Flayers. As for the example of the “Predator” character and his spaceship and support staff and why he would not work in The Forgotten Realms… we’ll have to go into some history and look at the implications of allowing such a thing.

The Forgotten Realms existed as a literary setting long before Dungeons and Dragons came along – whereupon it became the setting for a personal campaign. Other gamers got little glimpses into that setting starting in Dragon #30 in 1979 – and then TSR produced the first edition set, wherein most of the space went to description and background, rather than first editions (rather slim) mechanics. We also got Kara-Tur, Moonshae, Waterdeep, an assortment of novels, and more – but, unlike Greyhawk, there really weren’t any major sci-fi elements.

Second edition stuff for the Forgotten Realms came along in 1990 – and brought us the quasi-mesoamerican Maztica subsetting as a bonus.

The Far Realms were introduced in 1996, in The Gates Of Firestorm Peak – (written for use with the Players Option series and nothing to do with the Forgotten Realms) – and didn’t really get tacked on to most of Wizards of the Coasts other settings until 3.0 (2000) and 3.5, when the idea that “every source should be potentially usable in any game” set in.

Now, as noted, the “predator” character was proposed not long after “Predator” first came out in 1987 – years before second edition came along, almost a decade before the Far Realms were introduced, and even longer before the option to use The Far Realms was shoehorned into The Forgotten Realms. That was back in first edition days, when the Forgotten Realms were pretty much pure sword-and-sorcery on an alternate earth.

Secondarily, as also noted, “Ri’al The Huntsman” came with a starship and a support staff. That isn’t like acquiring a flying carpet. That means access to a competent starship crew – to engineers with a through understanding of power systems and weaponry up through fusion devices and starship drives, to an armory, to multiple suits of powered battle armor, to planetary survey equipment, to radio communications, to an electronic library, to scientific specialists, and (of course) to an interstellar civilization to come from. All of which had to work. That’s kind of built in to playing a predator-type; if their technology doesn’t work all you have is a funny looking fighter with an attitude.

A functioning spacecraft doesn’t just mean “access to a lot of vacuum”. It means access to enormous amounts of technology, information, and possibly weaponry.

Of course, if that stuff worked… why hadn’t the gods of artifice and world-jumpers introduced it? The Forgotten Realms don’t support slow-and-steady scientific progress. It’s a world of superhuman intellects, skills far beyond what any human has ever had, divination, dimensional travel, and gods for every topic. If it’s not being used… it probably will not work.

…How unlikely is it for heroes to be the first one to find an exploit REALLY? I mean, someone simply has to be the first. The History of Humanity has always included the very same elements that make up the computer I’m typing this on (as refined etc. as they are)… And yet, computers sure didn’t exist at the dawn of humanity…

How unlikely is it for the player characters to be the first ones to find an exploit?

  • Does the setting include entities (whether Gods, Elder Races, Dimensional Travelers, Experienced Elder Characters) who know more, or have better sources of information than the player characters do? Why have all of them missed whatever-it-is?
  • Does the setting have a long history or is it very large? (For example, in many sci-fi games… quadrillions of Galaxies, each with many races which may be billions of years old?). Even just a few thousand years generally means that a LOT of similar characters have existed before.
  • Does it have a established list of developed spells, abilities, and technologies beyond what the characters have already mastered or longer than the characters contributions and developments? Then other characters have done more research and development than they have.
  • Have there been elder civilizations or races that reached peaks beyond the current state of the art?
  • Are the Player Characters devoting their time to adventuring rather than to doing research and development? The PLAYER reading about something on an optimization board or paging through the rulebook won’t help the CHARACTER come up with it.

If ANY of those apply… then it is vanishingly unlikely that the player characters will stumble across even a single major breakthrough or “exploit” that has been missed up until now.

Someone does indeed need to be first. For computers – which are not, by the way, “exploits” (those tend to be unexpected interactions, editing failures, misreadings, and game master errors) – there were many centuries of development by tens of thousands of people making incremental advancements. I really doubt that anyone wants to play out that process. Now if they wish to be fantasy innovaters… that’s what a “Founders” campaign is about. Otherwise… making even one original discovery is kind of unlikely. More than that becomes increasingly implausible.

I do tend to make exceptions for those players and characters who possess exceptional intelligence, knowledge, skill, and power and who then use them to attempt some experiment so insanely reckless that no one in their right mind would try it in a million years – but in that case I’m assuming that the few NPC’s who achieved the power to attempt such insanity knew better than to do it. If the character survives the resulting risk of death and (un-)healthy dose of catastrophe… well, they’ve earned some new knowledge. Still, that’s just me keeping the game exciting and rewarding in-character effort and player thought about the setting – not rewarding a player who’s been poring over the rulebooks and looking on the internet.

…Eh, I can get behind most of that… At least as long as the DM allows character rerolls. There is killing off a character you don’t like (which already sucks) and then there is making a player stick with a character that sucks because you made him magically out-of-nowhere suck…

Well, we are sort of before picking a particular system in these articles; that’s why the examples are from many different games. For that matter… while there are some settings – like the aforementioned World Tree – that are tied to their rules systems so tightly that they’d be quite hard to run otherwise – the Forgotten Realms really isn’t one of them. You could use the Forgotten Realms setting just fine without using AD&D or d20. You could use Baba Yaga, or GURPS, or ACE, or any of dozens of other systems since the setting itself doesn’t really rely on a specific set of rules.

As far as “allowing character rerolls” goes. I’m assuming that you mean making a new character if you’re not happy with the old one.

Really, as I’ve already noted, the players generally have more power over the game than the game master does. If you’re not having fun with the game, why play? The game master cannot make you play at all, much less make you play a character you’re not happy with. I’ve walked out of quite a few games that were boring or nonsensical when the game master refused to address those problems. On more than onc occasion the rest of the players have followed me. For an example of that… I was one of a group of players who concluded that one game masters current extra-dimensional adventure was neither interesting, coherent, or enjoyable – and the game master was refusing to reconsider any part of it or offer any alternative. Ergo the player group announced that our characters were now having a drink at the bar in their home town, talking about how lucky they’d been to find a handy gate out of that trap-dimension, and looking for another adventure to go on – and would be doing so regardless of what the game master said was happening until an adventure that we were interested in came up.

Some game masters will accept that no one is interested and go on to something else. Others will not. In this case… that particular game master stormed out. We simply took the existing characters, picked a new game master, and started another game.

He came back a few weeks later and joined the new game as a player.

No one can game master without players – but the players can always find or pick a new game master, rotate the task, or even play without one for quite some time.

…I feel like a lot of it is a nonissue unless someone is entirely uncooperative…

Very true. Unfortunately, however, a LOT of players can be entirely uncooperative on occasion – especially if they’ve got some idea in mind.

and finally:

…(btw, are you sure he didn’t mean Top Cow from Image Comics?).

Presumably this is in reference to Ballistic (from back in 2004, 4’th edition Hero System). Since I never did actually see any of the player’s source materials I really couldn’t say.

Of course, the major problem was that Ballistic apparently came from a fairly grim-and-gritty world, where powers were rare, people might spend months in agony in hospital burn wards, thousands of people could easily be murdered and disappear without a trace, and so on. Unfortunately, she was being imported into the Emergence setting, which stated that college degrees in magic were quite normal and most professionals used at least small spells (classical hedge magic and commercially available talismans ran up to ten active points, characters with talent or professional training could hit twenty, and rituals or those with magical ancestry could go even higher), that ghosts were common and could testify in court, and so on.

This meant that pretty much any injury or normal disease could be healed in a few minutes (It did take a ritual and a few hours to restore missing limbs and such), that the ghosts of murder victims commonly went to the police to complain about their deaths, that many kids could fly, that the weak and elderly often used telekinesis spells to handle tasks, that high-rise construction workers usually carried safe-fall charms, that long-term care (and hospitals) were pretty much nonexistent, and so on. The setting simply was not grim and gritty.

The player insisted on Ballistic being pursued by an evil corporation that was secretly murdering thousands of people and successfully covering it up in pursuit of researching things that had been commonly available via magic for centuries, on having enemies who were hunting his character because he’d put them in the hospital in agony for months (despite the lack of hospitals and long-term injuries once you reached an EMT or competent tribal shaman), and on lots of other details that simply were not consistent with the setting. He never did accept the fact that the setting simply did not match up with the setting of the comic book that he wanted to emulate or that – as a consequence – many of his characters “enemies” and most of her “history” didn’t actually exist.

That, of course, was what made the player and Ballistic a good bad example. He played… but he never really caught on to the fact that the rest of the characters considered his character an occasionally-useful madwoman.

And, for those who have gotten this far… hopefully that’s been at least thought-provoking!


2 Responses

  1. The setting of 3.5, at least according to the Fiendish Codex II, answers the idea of “why haven’t the gods done X/Y/Z” in the simplest way possible: They are probably the laziest thing out there. The only reason why Evil even became a thing according to that book was because the gods wanted people to follow their rules and worship them without providing a good reason to. So they outsourced it… With rather large consequences. I’d say they’d learn eventually, but that’s another thing: To learn, you need to level up. In Pathfinder, assuming no unknown capacities, even a deity of knowledge cannot actually tell you how a robot works unless it has the technology feat… Something which didn’t even exist when most deities came out. So the deity has to, somehow, accumulate enough XP to get another level and hope it works out.
    This goes for most other high-level races too. A Mind Flayer, for example, is ECL 15, meaning that if it were to go up against beings that even grant it XP, advancement would be very slow, not to mention that most possible “benefits” would be rather insignificant unless they somehow manage to get specific Prestige Classes (luckily, in this case, it’s one of the better classes, called “Illithid Savant”).
    I’ll admit that chances are they’ll encounter knew knowledge more easily, but what use is that if they cannot learn it?
    Assuming someone wants to play a Reserves of Strenght Thay Human Wizard, he’d have to first be from Thay, then walk all across via whatever allowed him to towards Dragonlance while specifically being a Wizard.
    We’d also need to know if such intellects even have the same desire to reveal the unknown. For most humanoids, curiosity is mandatory and rewarding: It’s easier to level up (or rather, not be satisfied with the little power you have) and if you can’t outsmart your stronger enemies (which is basically everything), you wouldn’t have survived. For dragons, outsiders and a lot of other things, that’s a nonissue. Very few dragons will ever go the path of the Dragon Ascendant, even if it promises literally godlike powers, because it’s hard to achieve, requires them to actually go out of their way to do things except being lazy and nothing much of regular wildlife can beat a dragon that’s got a few years on itself anyway. The fact that there aren’t millions of individual dragon deities out there seems to be a useful proof of that.
    These civilizations actually bothering to do research might not kill the idea of a character capable of learning new things either, simply due to the difference in priorities. Psionic races will not necessarily develop spells and might miss something that an inherently magical race would consider obvious. For another example, the entire species of “dogs”, in 3.5, is as smart as the entire species of “apes” in the same system, and yet they have very different approaches on the same topic.

    The problem with saying “you cannot invent something, because there are and have been lots of people like you who didn’t” would cause a problem, because the very same thing would be true for every other person down the line, meaning the no-one could invent anything. It also begs the question of “what do most modern day academies do if not research”?
    Does it sound so strange that, due to a recent breakthrough made this year in some sort of magical field would open up new possibilities? And that, upon reexamining previous statements in the light of new evidence, new possibilities begin to form?

    The thing I do agree with is the idea that no one can actually just do it out of intuition (even if that same heightened intellect could maybe make it possible), but a character setting off with an idea (“I heard about people conserving magical power reserves and release them in short bursts and of a group of people that seem to be able to increase them, and I have this new conversion theory…”) might just be a person that finds the exploit either way.

    On the topic of computers… I’d consider an “exploit” an unforeseen interaction that grants a significant advantage to those that use it. Since there is no one to foresee anything in this universe (no DM) and computers indeed grant significant advantages, I’d say they qualify.

    On another note, I find the idea of a delusional character can work quite well. False memories and all that. As a matter of fact, I’d even say such a character waking up in a world where all of these worries became nonexistant might have on of the most amusing character arcs of all, now having a breakdown due to the gap of standards in the new society and the one he knows.

    • On another note, this also conflicts with a lot of other sources, such as the creation of Mythal (by elves), the Karsus’s Avatar spell (which, by all right, the Aboleth should have unconvered well before him) and the Ioun Stones (named after Congenio Ioun, their human inventor).
      I can believe that Gods or Aboleth or Outsiders wouldn’t have invented Ioulaum’s Longlevity, as it doesn’t matter to them, but again, the same could be said for most other abilities.
      Even if we said the Aboleth didn’t uncover anything, the Sarrukh had more than incentive to. So if we really were to say you have to be the first intelligent race to uncover something, all of the above (Mythals, the high-level spells made by humanoids and the Ioun Stones) could not logically exist.

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