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D&D General Rules, Rules, Rules: Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of D&D


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He's conflicted on this. In some places he says what you note above, in others he exhorts that only the rules as written be used and that they should not be deviated from.
And it often depends on what period of time he was writing and how much pressure he was under to protect TSR IP and increase profits. He started out as a prolific, amateur war-game writer and organizer. His very broad collaboration, willingness to try new games, and his networking tilled the soil so that when the right idea was brought to him by Arneson, it could take root and thrive. But the demands of running a growing company, having to answer to other stakeholders, and the inflation of his own ego led to a lot of his more cringeworthy, pompous and pedantic writing, which ranged from scolding or even belittling. After the trauma of being booted from TSR he seemed to mellow out a lot a return more to his roots.
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That's not D&D. D&D has always been, for both better and worse, a system that isn't defined by its ruleset.

Not content with spinning out one long essay from a single sentence in your post, I'd like to talk about and expand on this one.

D&D is not a system or a game that was ever defined by its ruleset because D&D is not a system that is defined by the sort of game it is trying to be. Again, this goes back to Jon Peterson's observation that the creators of D&D weren't merely trying to create a game that simulated something, but in their mind they were creating a game that simulated everything - they were "Playing at the World". D&D as a game was defined by its limitless horizons, and the belief - right or wrong - that you could do anything and everything within the imagined game space.

You can see that not only in the language the game uses to describe itself, or the rambling and expansive topics that Gygax covers in the 1e DMG or that would eventually be covered in the collected BECMI rules, but in the early issues of Dragon and its equally esoteric treatment of what rules you might possibly need for the game of D&D. The answer really is, "All the rules". The assumption is that this is game where the players might mine ore and mint currency, start up the fantasy equivalent of the East India trading company, lay siege to castles and be besieged themselves, run a thief's guild, journey to the old west, explore the crashed remains of the Star Ship enterprise, interact with any number of figures from history and myth, and on and on.

And you can also see that in the rule responses to the game by other designers. Some designers like Steve Jackson responded by saying with some justification, "Wait a minute. If you really want to do the generic game of everything, you need to start from a more generic foundation and not make so many assumptions in the core game." And so, you get game systems like BRP and GURPS, which themselves aren't really defined by their ruleset either but by what the GM did with them - how they thought about the game - the first rules engines if you would. And on the other hand, you got games like Chivalry & Sorcery where the designers responded by seeing the rules as being too generic and too abstract and too unrealistic and too little tied to a specific setting to actually simulate anything well, and so added in what they thought was missing or altered what they thought was wrong to create a narrowly focused game experience.

But despite the fact that you wouldn't be wrong in saying that D&D isn't a generic rules system, it wasn't in fact created to be the rules for a specific sort of game. It was an organically created tool kit of codified rulings for things that had come up in the play with the assumption that that tool kit of rulings would be infinitely extensible to cover whatever was coming up in your play. What defined D&D was not just that it had classes or hit points or quasi-Vancian magic offered up as solutions to problems of play, but also that it didn't realize it had any barriers doing anything and everything well and was trying to simulate everything. (What really did it have initially to compare itself to?) Again, how you think about playing the game is as important as the rules of the game.


Victoria Rules
There are no existing rules for covering an ally with a shield as it is, so you would already be in improvisational territory to begin with.
Which might be a hole in the rules, as it's something that IME is fairly common.
Why would you do this in combat? Outside of combat, there is no need, and in combat, I genuinely don't see the benefit.
See response to later post.
This would be a form of mass combat, no? Two people do not a shield wall make,
In (is it PF? 3.5e?) there's the Shield-Master class/feat/ability, which allows that character to form a shield wall with as few as one other shield-wielding person. There's no good reason why an informal version of the same thing can't be attempted in 5e, or any other edition.
and the phalanx-or-larger types of combat are simply not within the remit of standard D&D combat rules; it would be mind-numbingly tedious to play through every single soldier in a unit (most likely a century, hence centurion) using the usual combat rules designed to give life to each individual character.
I'm not talking about mass combat, just typical party-scale stuff.
You may as well just come out and say it: Initiative is and was always an artificial, unrealistic tool designed to make things play smoothly even though it (by definition) prevents IRL physically-possible behaviors. Much like having a single value for AC for the entire body, or using a binary hit/miss structure for determining damage dealt. Your problem is not that the rule exists; it is that you know that the abstraction is (necessarily) incomplete. But, again, I don't see how these edge cases are actually that meaningful for most groups in most cases.

None of the above is new. Unless I'm very much mistaken, this problem with initiative has been present for as long as there has been a game called D&D.

Indeed, the AD&D initiative rules (and possibly those if OD&D as well) were so baroque, specifically in an effort to make them comprehensive and having (as the kids say) "a rule for everything," that they actually were pretty much playable even for the man who designed them.
1e's initiative system, as written, is calculus-level close to unplayable; and I say this as a 1e supporter.

But there's ways to fix it and make it work, if not perfectly then at least considerably closer than 1e has it - and also considerably closer than 3e-4e-5e have it.
Initiative is, was, and always will be an abstraction with benefits (simplicity, ease of use, reliability) and detriments (failure to account for edge cases, woefully bad performance for large groups treated as individuals, vulnerability to being cheesed.) Games are a lossy compression method.

Edit: Further, I reject your previous assertion that more rules without qualifications causes bad DMing. More poorly-made rules, yes, absolutely. More unexplained rules, certainly. More rules made without utility, no question.

But rules which serve a clearly-defined and useful purpose, which are rigorously tested to ensure they perform their intended function, and which are clearly and concisely explained? I don't see how those could ever support bad DMing other than intentional bad-faith actors. The "eliminate all rules and just play Let's Pretend" crowd has been up to this point so insistent that we ignore or discount bad-faith DMs when it comes to abusing the absence of rules, something I and others have consistently been willing to grant. Surely, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
I'm not advocating for the elimination of all rules. I'm advocating for rules that best reflect the fiction; that allow characters to do what they would do and in manners and timings that make in-fiction sense.


Victoria Rules
No, you misunderstand my meaning.

In combat, you have the limit of initiative, which does not have the capacity to handle truly simultaneous actions.
Which is an unacceptable flaw in the initiative rules.
Out of combat, you have no reason to use initiative in most cases, so there is no problem.

The issue only arises in combat, and that specific situation (running during combat while trying to stay close in a space so dark you can't see 10 feet in front of you?) reads as so contrived I don't really take it seriously as a relevant concern.
It was this very situation that led me to the bigger conclusion, that 3e (and 4e, and 5e)turn-based initiative is borked.

Situation: a rolling combat over an open-ish field, with magical fog (about 2-foot visibility) covering part of the area and battles happening in it and on both sides of it. My PC and another wanted to use our action for a round to run through the fog hand in hand so as not to get separated (I had better direction sense and wanted to lead him through), and join the combat on the other side - which wasn't going so well for us judging by the yells we were hearing.

I delayed my init to match his. DM ruled we couldn't act on the same initiative and thus couldn't move together, because that's what the rules said. An hour-long (and rather heated) argument later, we moved separately - and of course lost track of each other in the fog; I got through but he didn't.

A classic case of rules trumping common sense.

But the bigger question even then is why, if two or more participants in a combat roll, say, 15 for their initiative, can't they act at the same time? What is so wrong with my archer shooting an arrow at that Goblin at exactly the same time the wizard resolves a magic missile into the same Goblin, meanwhile simuntaneously a different Goblin swings at the Cleric?

Why can't I do the Big Damn Hero thing and deliver the death stroke to the BBEG just as the BBEG kills me in return?


Victoria Rules
IF you were using side-based initiative. 2e had an option for individual initiative a lot of tables used.
Even then, though, those individual initiatives could be tied.

We use a homebrew init system, individual by action (e.g. an archer taking two shots in a round rolls separate init for each), but as it's on a d6 ties are a constant thing.
But ultimately the issue of adjudicating a simultaneous action is something DMs have always been able to do if it made sense and even WotC editions had ways to make it easier. 3e allowed players to delay so they could go at the same point in the initiative list.
Not quite. By RAW you could delay such as to slot your turnbetween two other participants' turns, but could not act simultaneously with another: your turn was still the only time you could act, and (other than reactions) no-one else could act on your turn.
And though 5e doesn't include delay as an option, holding your action to do things when another player's turn comes up is in the rules.
As a reaction, sure, but as your full action? Not sure about that.
And, let's be honest, in both of those cases, it would be some pretty big DM asshattery to rigidly require the players to do things in a sequentially segmented way.
Maybe, but as long as the DM has the rules to back him up the players have no real argument.

Thomas Shey

Maybe, but as long as the DM has the rules to back him up the players have no real argument.

Of course they do. "That's pretty dumb." Its not an argument that the rules don't say that, but an argument that in that particular area, its a bad rule--but its still an argument and not an illegitimate one.


Victoria Rules
Of course they do. "That's pretty dumb." Its not an argument that the rules don't say that, but an argument that in that particular area, its a bad rule--but its still an argument and not an illegitimate one.
Indeed, but a DM is well within rights to say "Dumb or not, that's the rule. You wanna change it? Talk to WotC."

It's a hazard when playing with a Lawful Neutral DM. :)


But for it to be a "game," the player needs to be able to make informed decisions, learn from them, and apply that learning going forward (whether "do better" after doing poorly, or "keep it up" after doing well.) Inconsistency is one of several ways that you prevent that from being possible. When the rules are inconsistent--when the rules change without the player's knowledge, so the player can't reason from past experience to future events (within the limits of probability, of course)--you aren't actually playing a game anymore.
So, I'm coming to believe that engaging with TTRPGs as games, in the sense you're using the word here, is not, even in the context of classic wargaming norms, a given. Bear with me on a lengthy tangent to illustrate my point:

I've just gotten the kickstarter for Stefan Feld's reprinted city game series delivered and I'm looking forward to trying out Amsterdam and Hamburg later this week. The essential loop of Feld's designs in getting handed a pool of largely random resources each turn, and then allocating them to various different actions on a board, some of which provide immediate returns in victory points, some of which position the player to receive more resources in later turns, and some of which build engines to increase the efficiency of taking other actions. Player actions change the game (slightly, Feld doesn't make particularly interactive games) between turns, such that the emergent board state needs to be evaluated after each decision, to try and best optimize the outcome. Feld is a very classic German designer, so the goal of the games is to get as many victory points as possible.

So, the activity I'll be doing when I play those games is trying to make the best possible decision to acquire the most points, balancing the tactical concerns about the current board state, predictions about what my opponents will do and weighing the benefits of laying groundwork and building an enginge for future turns. The number of actions I can take is fairly small and I understand going in the approximate value of those actions (i.e. zoo cards in Hamburg offer no bonus resources, but have a better return on costs/point, or the building action costs generally 3-5 marks to perform), but what I don't know is precisely what the best choice to make each turn is in advance. Both because I don't have a perfect evaluation of value (how many marks can I expect to have around turn 3?), and because the board state is dynamic and will be different round to round. What I do have is perfect information about the resolution of each action (i.e. the build action's costs are laid out in the manual ahead of time, so I could in theory plan to have the cards/money I need to create a specific building at a specific point).

The whole point of this experience, the value I will draw from playing Hamburg, is that I will make a series of decisions and through the course of the game, get feedback on how effectively those decisions achieved the game's goal, acquiring the most points, and be delighted in watching my choices unfold, both as an act of personal expression in how I approached the game, a challenging optimization problem to solve, and a little bit of gambling joy in the uncertainty (albeit quite limited in such a eurogame). I will, after completing the game, look back at my decisions and note points that I should have chosen otherwise, and likely have some sort of post-mortem discussion with my friends, where we'll conclude that taking a zoo card before turn 4 isn't worth it or that one of us really had the right idea by playing to the cleric tokens or whatever we conclude. That series of decisions is what we're talking about here as gameplay.

TTRPGs as games (setting aside their storytelling/improvisational aspects, which have their own separate merits) can engage with exactly that same sense of "game" and the same attendant joy. In fact, they offer one further degree of freedom that can make it even more appealing: instead of the fixed goal "acquire the most victory points" I am given the opportunity to set my own goal, usually determined by the narrative/storytelling functions from earlier. Even better, these games are unbounded so that I can set subsequent goals or continue playing them after failing to achieve one.

D&D's gameplay (again, in the very specific sense I'm deploying the term here) is, generally speaking, not very good. Decision making is often trivial, in that the optimization case for any given decision is so clear that the decision isn't particularly interesting. Other times, decision making is too opaque, because the results/mechanisms of resolution for any given decision aren't known, such that the player cannot choose well. Even worse than that, in some cases (particularly situations where spells can't be brought to bear) the game produces no decision making at all, and characters are essentially just rolling reactive skill checks to events as they unfold.

However, I'm coming to believe this loop, is not actually desirable to a chunk of people playing D&D. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's significantly less important than the improvisational/narrative elements, or, that it is less interesting to them than engagement witht he fiction itself. If your primary engagement has nothing to do with making interesting decisions (in again, the specific gameplay sense) but rather in the narrative outcomes of those decisions, then it doesn't really matter how the rules to resolve the situation work. Or, it might not be a question of gameplay at all, the "play the world, not the rules" concept in action, or the sorts of tables where players are generally discouraged from knowing the broader resolution mechanics. The players are not encouraged to do gameplay in the sense I used it above, but to make decisions without information, striving to emulate how people actually do this in real life all the time (albeit in a more risk-free environment).

The thing is, it's not a strict hierarchy between those three things I mentioned above. I actually care quite a bit about the "narrative" elements I just talked about stripping away and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how rules can use that gameplay loop to harmonize the decision making of a person in a world and a player playing a game, something I think is generally desirable in TTRPG mechanics. The point remains though, that if you want gameplay as a thing, with the attendent benefits of learning, crunchy choices to chew on and mull over, lines of play that can be considered in retrospect and analyzed for alternatives, then you need rules everyone can agree on. Otherwise, the line of play you analyze after the fact will always be "what could I have said to make the DM do something differently," or, as Ezekiel said, you're not playing a game, and there's actually nothing you as a player could have done to do better.


Indeed, but a DM is well within rights to say "Dumb or not, that's the rule. You wanna change it? Talk to WotC."

It's a hazard when playing with a Lawful Neutral DM. :)

Agreed, but only with a certain sort of Lawful Neutral DM.

I don't use rules to dictate what happens. I use rules to adjudicate propositions. If players propose to me something that isn't covered by the rules, I'm not going to say, "The rules don't cover that so you can't do that." I'm going to say, "Let me try to find a solution within the framework provided by the rules that adjudicates what you just proposed."

I believe your Lawful Neutral DM perhaps wasn't adhering to the RAW as much as he thought. He was hidebound to a process of play not actually mandated by the rules.

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