Friday, March 12, 2010

Houserules and Dice Fudging - at what point are you no longer playing D&D?

In the comments to my last post many people made the point that D&D is never played RAW, and each group will come to a consensus together on how the game should be played.  My post was about PC mortality, and Rob Barret even went so far as to state,

"In all the years we played Moldvay, Mentzer, and AD&D, I don't think we ever had a character die.  Ever.  Same for 2nd edition and 3rd edition for that matter."

To me, that suggests either some serious houseruling to reduce the lethality of these games or some serious dice fudging or both.  Houseruling I totally understand, being a big proponent of this myself.  The urge to tinker with the rules runs strong within me, and sometimes I have to consciously hold myself back from making unnecessary changes just because a particular mechanic seems a little wonky to me.  Lately, I have been satisfying this urge by just writing my own rulesets, and that has been a ton of fun.

Dice fudging is a little more alien to me, on either side of the screen.  As a DM, if I am not comfortable with the idea of PCs dying, what am I doing running a game that has an abstract combat system like D&D where the falling dice determine success or failure with very little room for player skill to influence the outcome?  I think a lot of DMs roll their dice behind the screen, so no one would ever be the wiser anyway.  As a player, sure I can understand the desire to roll well, but half the fun to me is when you get that awesome critical hit in after a long string of pathetic rolls.  Still, I guess a lot of people out there do practice dice fudging.  Heck, I was reading a thread on the other day about how one of the top sellers on an online RPG store were the loaded d20's!

I would hazard a guess that both houseruling D&D to decrease lethality and fudging dice rolls are a product of the desire to make D&D more of a storytelling game.  Them may be fightin' words in some circles, but I feel that the desire to play out a storyline involving the PCs as the Heroes of the story precludes the PCs dying from being a very real possibility.  Many people don't want to play a game of D&D that involves their characters dying.

More power to 'em, I say.  People should play the game they want to play.  I guess what has been bugging me when I think about this is the nagging feeling that this isn't really D&D.  I keep going back and forth about this; the rational side of me knows that houserules have been mentioned and encouraged in every edition of the game (as Kevin reminded me in the comments to my last post), but my gut reaction just keeps being that a game with no chance of death just isn't the game that I call D&D.  It may be as simple as that - there is no monolothic D&D, and what each person thinks of as D&D is really a unique creation of how she interprets the rules and how she has bent them to her own ends.

But let me conduct a little thought experiment: surely there must be some point past which you cannot push D&D and still have it be recognized as D&D.  Let us imagine a hypothetical gaming group.  This group has decided that they like D&D, they like the races and classes and character creation, but they don't like the way combat is resolved, they don't like the non-combat skill system and they don't like the magic system.  So they make a houserule - each player simply narrates what her character does, and the DM narrates what the NPCs do.  If there is a conflict between these narratives, the group as a whole must come to a consensus as to what happened before play can continue.

Is that still D&D?  Or is it a group storytelling session with some elements of D&D thrown in?

Where would you draw the line?  Give me some examples of what, in your opinion, would push a game beyond "D&D" into the territory of something else entirely.


  1. I personally wouldn't call your thought experiment D&D really, I don't think.

    On the topic of what is and what isn't D&D I've recently been reading very early copies of Dragon Magazine, in which Gygax is quite draconian about any deviation from the RAW in one article, where he says something along the lines of that if you weren't doing exactly his way then you weren't playing D&D.

    I'll see if I can find it again.

  2. Aye, there's the rub. I am typically not a huge fan of houserules. I use them extremely sparingly, mostly in the sense of clarifying the odd vague spot in the RAW. A lot of design work went into the making of those rules, and there's typically a very good reason for why they are the way they are (at least in Fourth Edition).

    One reason I dislike houserules is that it leads to powergaming, which is the thing I dislike most in gaming. If you want to fantasize about being super-macho, you can do that at home. I don't see why you'd have to do it at a table with five other people, unless everyone present has an equally small ego-presence they'd like to share.

    Another is that houserules instantly change the game into something else. I am of the opinion that the moment houserules enter the picture, one isn't playing D&D anymore. That's fine if one wants to do that. But D&D is a specific ruleset. Any tweaking, changing, or fudging means that everyone is not playing the same game. If I look something up in a rulebook, that should be the rule at the table. The DM, or "ref", should not be able to then say "that's not how we do it here", because now we're playing two different games.

    Imagine if basketball were handled the same way. If each stadium had its own set of houserules, there would be no league. No one would want to watch it on TV, as every game would require memorizing an entirely different ruleset. It may be as simple as allowing two steps before requiring the ball to be dribbled, or it may be removing the foul rules altogether, but either way, those rules are not basketball.

    I realize that houseruling is encouraged by the D&D published material. I happen to disagree. House rules, in my game, are meant for clarifications/interpretations of vaguely written rules and for "what to do" in specific circumstances (like if a die lands canted up against something). I realize that I may be coming off a bit harsh. In no way am I trying to tell you how to play your game, but I do not want to play in a game in which I cannot know the rules beforehand.

  3. @eabod --- BULLSH!T!!! Even the Great Gygax didn't use the RAW at his own table.

    Every campaign world released by TSR had homegrown houserules from their authors in it, from Greyhawk (1st ed), Dragonlance (1ed), Forgotten Realms (1ed or 2n ed), Darksun, Ravenloft or Birthright. All of these campaigns by your reasoning are now "not D&D" (including the creator's).

    Secondly, your point about house-ruling automatically leading to power-gaming is a logical fallacy. Let's say I make one house-rule. Oh, let's saw it's Mentzer's D&D and I allow two handed swords and pole-arms to roll 2d10 for damage and take the best of the two rolls. I reason this is fair since the loss of using a shield is not compensated by a paltry two point possible gain from rolling a d10 vs. a d8 with a longsword, but I feel a d12 is too much. Especially since their are a lot more magical shields out there than magical great-swords. All of a sudden now this is "not D&D" and I am engaging in power-gaming that will surely result in game-crushing munkinism?? Bullsh!t!!

    Thirdly, there are many variants to D&D, like it or not. None of them are more "pure D&D" than another. Your sports analogy is completely out-to-lunch. People do not normally play D&D as a competition on a track or field, they play it for fun and challenge around a table with friends. A better analogy would be poker. There are many forms of poker. There is no "official" poker. There is 5-card draw poker, there is no-limit hold'em poker. And Omaha. And Razz. And Lo-ball, and many, many more variants. AND THEY ARE ALL POKER!

    Further, any DM worth his salt is always going to tell you or print these house-rules for you. You may want to even ask beforehand. I know that's a stretch, but if you keep an open-mind, you might even find enjoyment in these so-called "NOT D&D" games.

  4. Actually, no house rules messing with HP were ever used in the groups I played with from 1980 on. I do think the 3.0 characters got max HP at first level, but I also seem to recall that this was the new official ruling.

    I myself never fudged when DMing. Whether the other DMs did or not, I cannot say. I'm sure it must have happened on occasion.

    The biggest factors in the non-lethality of my D&D experience seem to be the following:

    1. We surrendered a lot. This avoided the usual RPG "death before dishonor and loss of character control" TPK.

    2. Playstyle was a factor. Due to DM preference, we never fought level-drainers (I don't think I've ever played with anyone who liked wights and wraiths and the like and was willing to use them in a game). Foes were usually humanoids (and thus could be negotiated with).

    3. No magic-users. I don't think anyone in any group I've played in ever ran a straight-up magic user. Multi-classed, sure. Elves in BECMI, definitely. But no 1d4 HP first-level wizards ever. Again, a playstyle preference: I've never played with anyone who liked Vancian magic, but rather than houserule it away, we just didn't play magic-users.

    In the end, the first TPK I was ever a part of was my first 4E game. :)

  5. Another thing I forgot to add: I've never played through any of the famous AD&D dungeon deathtraps. In fact, with the exception of the excellent U1 (Secret of Saltmarsh), I don't think I've ever played a single AD&D module. The modules we used were BECMI adventures, and my sense is that those were much more forgiving and conducive to character longevity.

  6. Ob topic . . . given that you're using D&D characters (i.e., have gone through the chargen process), I'd say you're still playing D&D . . . just. After all, many players report sessions in which not a single roll of the dice was made, and we still call those sessions D&D sessions. Your hypothetical D&D is just a campaign of such sessions. It's about as far as you can go and still say "D&D" (you are making use of some rules), but I would not deny you the right to label that sort of campaign as such.

  7. Well, by your thought experiment, would I consider it D&D if we were just using classes and races, but narrative storytelling of combat, non-combat, and magic? No way.

    To me a houserule a more simpler concept of saying a great sword only crits on a 20 instead of 19-20 or ruling that your character dies at -15 hp instead of -10 or something like that. But when houserules begin to replace or change entire subsystems, then I think the game ceases to be what it's called simply because the reliance on the ruleset is no longer valid.

    However, I wouldn't argue any of the other posters above as to what their definition of the game is to them, because I think ultimately it's a matter of asthetic taste. If D&D to one person is just sitting around the campfire and trading narrative tales of fantasy and other is some guy who plays with no houserules, uses all the books and supplements, it's all good.

  8. I think this general topic has really driven home to me how varied different people's ideas of what D&D really is can be. @ Rob - thanks for clarifying how no one ever died. Hope you weren't offended by my assumptions about your party and playstyle - but I have one further question. Did you guys roll for HP at first level or start with max? I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around NO deaths EVER if you played the RAW.

    Thanks for playing along with my thought experiment, everyone - interesting to read responses ranging from "any houserules = not D&D" to "your experiment is still D&D".

    Makes me wonder what, if any, the sacred cows of D&D are, the elements that everyone could agree must be present for it to still be D&D. This question gets even murkier with all the different editions of the game, which have progressively less in common with each other as the game has progressed through time.

  9. Oh, never mind Rob - I see that you specifically state that you did NOT do max HP at first level (3e did make that an official rule). Wow, I am impressed and might have to rethink my position on the whole playstyle vs. mechanics in terms of character death.

  10. My D&D experience is a genuine outlier. I remember being stunned to discover that Knights of the Dinner Table wasn't just exaggeration and satire; I had literally never gamed with people for whom lethality was either a feature or a common occurrence. I guess if you have enough people rolling enough polyhedrals, someone is going to have the monsters coming up with worse rolls than the heroes on a regular basis.

    Ob topic: I am a strong Wittgensteinian when it comes to questions of genres. It's all "family resemblances": your hypothetical D&D is definitely on the outskirts of the family, but some distinctive features are nonetheless present. I might even go so far as to suggest that someone completely freeforming a dungeon crawl might still just barely be in the D&D family--if they were using the tropes of the typical D&D narrative (a D&D racial spread, typical D&D monsters, resource management, exploration thematics). But I agree that such games are definitely on the fringe.

  11. I'm not a big fan of character death. I think there are a lot more interesting ways to inconvenience and PC than through death.

  12. Hey, I got flamed by an anonymous poster! I really feel like I belong on the internet now.

    That said, play how you want. I don't give a rat's patootie how you want to play. But variations aren't D&D to me and they don't have any place at my table.

    And I'll probably have to relax my stance once I get playing with these newbs I've got coming. Hopefully, I can limit it to omissions only.

    Moreover, I dig reading other peoples' views on the subject. I guess, technically, we're all playing D&D because we think we are. Other than that, it's all opinions.

  13. An interesting discussion. I have a question, however. Let's say that, just for a moment, we all agree that the given example is "not D&D." What does that imply about the gaming experience? In other words, why does it matter if it's called D&D or not?

  14. @ Kevin - I personally think, especially if we are agreeing to agree that the example is "not D&D", that the reason would be because there was no random factor. There were no dice rolling on the table. While those who stated above that the example WAS D&D obviously might not agree with what I am about to say, let me say it any way: one of the very few sacred cows of D&D is rolling dice to determine success or failure of an action, especially in combat. To me, there are two main differences between D&D and telling stories: one is assigning numerical values to express attributes of characters and monsters in the "story", and two is the use of dice as a random mechanic to resolve actions that have a chance of failure.

    Rob more or less stated that because my thought experiment included the first sacred cow, the numerical attributes created in character generation and conforming to D&D tropes, that he thought the example was still D&D. I personally believe that both factors have to be present, and that is getting at the heart of why I think groups that have more or less done away with the chance of character death are not playing D&D (through houserules or dicefudging or even an unspoken agreement that no character can die without the player's approval) - character death is the ultimate expression of the random nature of D&D. Handing over control of the universe to the falling dice is a scary proposition - you can alter the probabilities by wearing better armor, or avoiding most combats, or careful strategy - but if the dice fall the wrong way, you can die. To me, that is part and parcel of the random mechanic, and the random mechanic is part and parcel of D&D.

  15. well, sure, by one interpretation, the randomness is of utmost importance. however, my question was: why does it matter what we call it? if a group of gamers are all playing a storytelling game using dice to arbitrate certain aspects of it, and they are using D&D core rule books, but they fudge the dice sometimes, who cares if anyone calls it D&D? do we play this game so that we can claim that what we play is the "most pure" D&D? or do we play for fun? why rage so hard about what "real D&D" is?

  16. Oh, I totally agree that it makes no difference if someone out there agrees or disagrees if you are playing D&D. Obviously, the point of the game is to have fun.

    I got started on this tangent by Faustusnotes claiming that system/edition had nothing to do with PC mortality - in that context, houserules and dice fudging are VERY important to the discussion. If one person is talking about system as the RAW, and another is talking about a houseruled game with no dice rolling, they are talking past each other. I think that in any comparison across editions, you have to compare the RAW or you are not actually comparing anything but how individual groups played. Which may be interesting in and of itself, but it certainly doesn't lend itself to making broad declarations like "playstyle determines PC mortality, not edition of the game".

    Likewise, agreeing what is meant by "playstyle" is also important: I don't group houserules into playstyle. Houserules modify what game you are playing (they modify the ruleset) while playstyle is *how* the group approaches the game; playstyle is (IMO) the sort of activities the group is likely to engage in during gameplay, Playstyle also encompasses things like: is the gameplay humorous or serious? Sexual content or not? Graphic descriptions of violence or not?
    Playstyle is largely system independent (edition warrior's beliefs not-withstanding).

    Houserules by nature are very system dependent; a houserule giving dwarves an extra bonus to Fortitude after they use their racial ability to not be pushed or pulled would be completely impossible to apply in OD&D, but makes perfect sense in the context of 4e.

  17. I keep sidetracking myself. To answer your question more simply: the logical, rational side of me says that people are playing D&D if they think they are playing D&D.

    That doesn't stop my gut reaction to tales of D&D that don't involve character death from being, "That isn't D&D". Not that a character has to die in every campaign - I just feel on a very basic level that without death being a real possibility, there is really no point in undertaking all the other ways that D&D inserts random mechanics into a game. Ultimately, if you can't die, why roll dice in combat? Why have stats at all? If the point is to have a hero that makes it to the end of the story, what good do all of the other trappings of D&D do to further this goal?

    Like I said, there is no real reason for this besides an emotional and instinctual reaction.

  18. This seems like a strange question to me, simply one of semantics. Like "if your aunt was a man she'd be your uncle". Obviously if D&D had rules like Traveller it wouldn't be D&D.

    I've only ever played in one campaign where character death was not a possibility, and my players all seemed to enjoy it fine. They also were very very scared of dying. I think in that campaign they had a specific task that they had to achieve (taking over a city before a deadline) and failure was defined not as their deaths, but as the slaughter of the 30000 or so exiled soldiers they had to get safely behind the walls of that city by the deadline. There are other ways of defining failure in a campaign than death.

    I think PC death (or at least the realistic threat thereof) is an important part of most role-playing games, but I don't see it as a necessary or sufficient condition for a game to be called D&D. I would have thought the mechanics - abstract combat, separate hit and damage rolls, a particular relationship between level gain and achievement - and the given spells, classes and abilities make it D&D.


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