Friday, April 29, 2011

RPG vs DND Part 3: Autocalculation vs Leniency, Cheating, and the Magic of the Dice

One of the banes of the D&D player’s existence is the constant flipping through the rule books.  Action cards in 4th edition have limited this a little, but the infinitely complex and little understood grappling rules have gained a status of infamy in the world of Dungeons and Dragons.  Perhaps that is why Bioware wisely decided to leave grappling out of the NWN games.

In a VRPG, there is no need to check the rules in general.  Finding out what a particular item or spell does can be done with the click of a button, and everything else is done automatically.  Combat, attacks of opportunity, sneak attacks.... Neverwinter Nights never forgets a modifier.  It’s somewhat glorious.  Also, math is no longer needed, adding modifiers to modifiers to dice rolls.  It’s all done for you, and you can watch the math happening at the bottom of the screen (other games don’t allow this I believe, but the process is still happening).  One combat encounter takes about 30 seconds in NWN.  In D&D that 30 seconds would have stretched out for at least 20 minutes as people rolled initiative, made decisions, and flipped through stacks of books to find out exactly what kind of save would be required against Burning Hands.

Why, when everything takes exponentially longer (completing NWN: 10 hours.  Completing a D&D campaign of a similar scale: 1 year), would you choose rulebooks over computers?  Three words: leniency, cheating, and dice.

When you can’t quite find that rule or the DM just doesn’t want to worry about it, you don’t have to find it.  The rules are always there to help you, never to hinder you.  People tend to forget that.  If it’s too complicated, ignore it.  Grapple checks can be done with one or two dice rolls, not with 6 pages of rules.  The DM is free to modify things however he wants to.  Also, the DM understands the one argument that NWN cannot: “But it’ll be so COOL!”  You can get away with things if it looks like it will be an epic moment, even if it would not normally be possible.  In fact, I think Exalted is supposed to be based on this idea.  The DM has the power to bend the rules and be lenient to help the players enjoy the game, which VRPGs cannot do.

Also, a smaller point: cheating.  If the DM isn’t looking you can reroll that dice.  If it falls off the table, it’s essentially a free reroll.  The DM doesn’t know ALL of your stats.  How is s/he supposed to know if you added an extra modifier in there, or if that shield you described having crafted had one extra tiny ability?  I never cheat of course *cough*, but it’s possible, and it prevents those inevitable times when every roll you make is below a 3.

Finally, the dice.  They are magical.  There are loads of superstitions and traditions regarding dice, passed on from one gamer to the next.  Cover your dice when someone attempts a grapple.  When you get a new dice, make sure to roll the 1s out of it.  It’s fantastic.  There’s a whole culture just surrounding those numbered polyhedrons, and I don’t think an RPG is really complete without it.

Basically, my point here is that while the VRPG is very well ordered and structured, the tabletop game has so much more variety, flexibility, and hilarity in it that I don’t think should be ignored.

Oh and of course, save points are very, very useful.


  1. I don't think it falls under leniency, but one other reason -- breadth of choice / options. You can go off the rails in tabletop RPGs. You can choose to negotiate, or build a makeshift trap, or some other option and the DM can adapt (sometimes well, sometimes not) to resolve matters plausibly in game.

  2. Yeah, that's kind of part of what I was driving at in Part 2 of this set of posts. The number of times things go in directions which totally throw the DM is fantastic, although frustrating if you actually ARE the DM :P Choice makes D&D what it is.

    I managed to derail the entire campaign a month or two ago of a game I'm in because I spotted something the DM never saw coming. Annoyed him no end... almost as much as when the party managed to craftily one-shot the boss I'd spent hours crafting in a different game. Genius.