It’s The Circle Of Protection 10′ Radius, And It Moves Us All

2008 July 27
by Vanir

I recently met a fellow at work who was just getting into tabletop D&D and was asking me for some advice. This guy is one of our interns, I think he’s about 18, and he’d played lots of videogame RPGs but apparently never tried the tabletop version before. After some discussion as to whether he should play 3.5e or 4e and talking a lot about the usefulness of various skills, he started telling me about a friend of his that was modifying a lot of the 3.5e rules to make the game “better and more streamlined”.

At this point, a red flag raised in my mind because I’ve seen some really odd things come out of people remaking D&D to their liking. This particular guy’s modifications were a lot like I’d seen some friends do back in college: he felt D&D just wasn’t hardcore enough. So all his rules revolved around things like harsher penalties for spell failure, and lowering the number of hitpoints given per level to make things more realistic.

I don’t know if it’s all gamers or just the ones I grew up with, but it seems to me there’s several stages of life gamers go through. Perhaps not all of these, or in this order, but it’s a trend I’ve seen throughout the groups I’ve played with over the years:

  • Introduction
    The player is learning the rules and is overwhelmed at first, but eventually gets the hang of things
  • Monty Haul
    The DM of the group decides the lower character levels are boring and decides to make everybody roll up 20th level characters. Also, every PC gets a pick from the unique artifacts in the DMG, and no weapons under +18 are allowed.
  • Hardcore
    Eventually growing sick of the over the top everything of the Monty Haul stage, the DM of the group decides gritty realism is what this group needs to reinvigorate it. Rules are changed to hamper the player and monster stats are buffed to make every encounter incredibly challenging to make the PCs feel a real sense of accomplishment when (if) they are victorious. Players leave practically every night with dead PC’s and a new four-letter word to describe the DM.
  • Realistic
    Hardcore’s younger, scrawnier brother. Some gamers skip Hardcore completely and go right here, while others still want realism but not so much the soul-crushing frustration. Here you’ll find the sticklers about marching order and endless discussions about who takes what watch when to maximize the amount of spells you get each day (thank you 4e, for ending this nightmare). Here you’ll also find people who think Resurrection spells make it impossible for PCs to really fear anything in the game and diminish from the excitement of a true victory (see, Hardcore isn’t totally gone!).
  • Oh Yeah, It’s A Game
    Most people finally get here, maybe only in part, but here nonetheless. The gamer finally realizes it’s not about the rules, the power, the loot, or the realism, and finally clues into the fact that they get together with their friends every week to share exciting adventures and fun.

When I was writing this, I was thinking that a lot of teenage players decide they can do it better and write their own strange rules, but upon further thought I know just as many 40 year olds who do it too. I think it’s a product of how a lot of gamers are — very sharp analytical minds and enough perfectionism to want to fix things we perceive as flawed. Unfortunately, I think we’re a lot better at finding things we want to fix than fixing them in a lot of cases. Although I’d be willing to bet a lot of game designers out there enter Hardcore or Realistic and manage to get it right somehow. (You know, factoring crazy stuff like “playability”, “balance”, and “fun” in there.)

All that said, I can’t honestly say I haven’t had a lot of fun with some seriously broken do-it-yourself rules over the years. And as long as we had fun, who cares? It’s just a game, right?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Porter Woodward permalink
    July 28, 2008

    There definitely is an evolution to game play. Although to be fair there's also some sub-genres at work in RPGs.

    Currently D&D (and especially 4E) are pursuing the "high fantasy" approach to things. It's less gritty, less "low fantasy". Such as it is, D&D usually works best in that mode (high fantasy) and you're usually better off using a different game system to pursue a gritty, low fantasy feel. Warhammer FRP comes to mind for that.

    I think in some ways the most interesting progression of gaming in D&D is the eventual realization that overcoming obstacles, and completing goals doesn't necessarily mean you must kill every monster you see. Although more often than not that is representative of a gaming group achieving a happy medium between high/low fantasy settings.

  2. Vanir permalink
    July 28, 2008

    You know, it hadn’t really clicked with me until right now what “high fantasy” actually meant. I thought that meant “lots of action and adventure and fantastical creatures and magic and stuff”, but now I see it means “pretend a lot and gloss over a lot of the nitty gritty details so we can get to the aforementioned good stuff”. Good insight! Vanir learn!!!!

  3. Donny_the_Dm permalink
    July 28, 2008

    Excellent article, got me thinking and writing about another angle on it, the legacy we, as DM’s, leave behind in terms of what our players keep. There was also some reminiscing and stuff, but you’ll have to pay a visit to hear about that!

    Keep up the excellent work!


  4. SirGeekelot permalink
    July 28, 2008

    I still think resurrection makes things less harsh then they should be. Have a murder mystery? Get the person rez’d. Sad over the death of a loved one, get them rez’d. The king has been slain, get him rez’d.

    A gold dragon has fallen by you to for plot purposes. Rez him, crap!

  5. Vanir permalink
    July 28, 2008

    Thanks, Donny!

    Here’s a link to Donny’s article in case anybody else wants to check it out.

  6. Ravyn permalink
    July 29, 2008

    Thought I’d get in on the Circle’ing as well. Would’ve told you sooner, only… well, don’t get me started on the internet fiasco last night. Wasn’t pretty.

    Anyway, my take on the Circle:

    Excellent post, and thanks for the inspiration!

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