Thursday, 28 August 2008

Whoops I did it again...

....I read a 4e thread on and ended up in a pointless internet debate. I was doing so well at sticking my head in the sand, but it looks like I've fallen off the wagon. Now there's a mixed metaphor for you if ever there was one.

I just don't get it. I feel like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes. Are these people seeing the same thing that I'm seeing? How could it be that our perceptions are so different?

The argument in question is to do with the Rust Monster. I like Rust Monsters; they're one of the very few D&D creatures who can actually generate genuine fear and excitement in players - the others usually being level-draining undead. But there is no Rust Monster anymore: it was decided that destroying armour and weapons wasn't fun and should therefore be cut from the game. (Apparently genuine fear and excitement aren't enjoyable in the brave new world - crazy times.) It constitutes 'screwing players over', you see, because DMs can't be trusted to use Rust Monsters fairly or sensibly, and little Johnny the player will cry because the nasty Rust Monster took away his ickle Vorpal Sword, and he'll run off home and tell mumsy, and that won't be fun, and it will ruin D&D as we know it, or something. That's broadly the argument, as far as I can tell. I'm a little rough on the details - I'm not sure there actually are details. Mike Mearls was ranting about it a while back.

I think what it boils down to is good and bad experiences. I used to game, and have only ever gamed (outside of PBEMs), with genuine friends. Friends do mean and spiteful things to each other sometimes, because it's fun. They also laugh at each other when things go wrong - like if you roll a dice and get a 1, and it means the treasured magic item that you've earned over six months of play has just been destroyed. And you laugh along with them, because it's only a game, and you're enjoying yourself, and you're possibly a little drunk. In our games, 'screwing over the players' was the purpose of the DM - provided of course that he was always fair with it (anyone with any experience of the game can tell immediately, I feel, whether a DM is or isn't being fair). His role was to create the adversity that the players had to overcome - by power, guile, or luck. He had to walk a fine line between too much and too little adversity, but that was the challenge of good DMing.

So that's my perspective - Rust Monsters and other 'screw the players over' monsters add to the fun you can have with your friends. They make the game actually scary, and they have endless potential for point-and-snigger moments. Everyone's a winner.

The only way I can reconcile the anti-Rust Monster view with my very conception of reality, is by reasoning that the people who make it must have had bad experiences in their formative gaming years. Maybe they didn't have friends to game with and had to go to some unfriendly local gaming club, run by capricious bullies who would use every opportunity to make them feel small. Maybe they don't really understand the social rules by which the majority of the human race lives (God knows there are a lot of people like that in D&D-playing circles) and therefore misinterpret good-natured ribbing as genuine nastiness. Maybe they prefer "story games" ("Narrativist play" as I believe the kids are calling it) and think randomly dangerous Rust Monsters mess with the pre-arranged plot too much. Maybe they once had a character who they were really attached to killed by an unlucky dice roll, and they are of the kind of sensitive disposition that takes such things to heart. Maybe they are deeply insecure, and can't stand to lose. Maybe they've only ever played with truly wretched DMs. Maybe they're just wretched players. I have to come up with these summations, because the alternative is just too weird to contemplate: we are actually percieving different things - the Rust Monster and, more broadly, the D&D and the role playing that I see, is not the same, in some strange and fundamental way, to that which they do.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Hey, I think it's GREAT they got rid of Rust Monsters" then please don't interpret my ranting as a personal attack. Some of the 'Maybes' I cited above are perfectly good reasons for not liking such creatures. All I'm saying is: from my standpoint, I don't get it one teeny little bit.

Beautiful, ain't he?


  1. Dr Rotwang has a mantra for you to recite.

    The loathing of the rust monster a bit over the top, really. There are so many damn ways to conquer the beast, which as memory serves isn't much on offense other than the rust attack. Ditto the disenchanter. These foes are only unfun if you expect that a) every foe will challenge every PC equally, and/or b) every encounter is a test of combat tactics.

    Now if you really must continue taunting the anti-rust-monster contingent mention the rust monsters in the old Dragon Mag adventure "Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut," what wore the warp wood collars. Mean in all the right ways.

  2. What blows my mind about these debates that crop up and got all hot under the collar is the blinders people put on. The "No the must go" crowd fail to realize they can take em out and not use them in their games. The "OMG wtf, where are rust monsters?" crowd can just as easily roll their own version. Both sides have no leg to stand on as far as I can tell.

  3. There's a little more to it than people not liking to lose their stuff, at least on the design/development side. 3rd and 4th edition both assume, in their encounter difficulty/XP systems, that the PCs are going to have a certain amount of equipment at each level. Bugs like the rust monster throws a lot of wrenches into those assumptions.

    For the record, I'm not sure that those assumptions are good ones, and not just because I like rust monsters better than consistent wealth by level.

  4. I love the rust monster. Shocking, I know.

    Nice post.

  5. Max: These foes are only unfun if you expect that a) every foe will challenge every PC equally, and/or b) every encounter is a test of combat tactics.

    Well, I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Dave: Well, you're right, but still I can't resist the temptation to get involved, sometimes.

    Odyssey: Did people actually use those things in games? I didn't play a whole lot of 3.x D&D, but I always assumed things like CRs and the XP system were just pie-in-the-sky idealism. Way too fiddly to be justifiable.

    Jonathon: I would sign, but I think that would give the impression that I really care about what happens in 4th edition! ;)

    James: Surprise, surprise.

  6. To me, it seems like the main reason the Rust Monster, as well as other gear-destroying stuff, was taken out of 4e is because of the new 'balanced' loot system. A DM, playing 'by the book', is going to end up giving the players exactly or possibly sligtly above what they need to continue being effective at each level. Each item of treasure is parceled out in advance and spread evenly over the levels. A rust monster, or some king of Disjunction Golem, or what-have-you isn't so much not-fun, but it does screw up the loot progression. WotC seems to have decided that DMs can't give treasure, balance encounters, or do much of anything else by themselves, and should instead act as computers that have some bare spark of creativity required to put dungeons together and parse language.

    That being said, Rust monsters and their ilk never really showed up in any campaigns I've played. Sure, critical failures happened, and I recall a half-orc barbarian of mine that broke his battle axe on a tree, but rust monsters never happened.

    Great post though. Fun reading.

  7. @david
    Not all DMs can balance encounters, or are interested in doing so. I'm certainly happy to let the system do it for me. I don't know that "creativity" factors into my disinclination to crunch numbers for every encounter. And if I wasn't running 3.5 or 4e, I probably wouldn't care so much about "balance" anyway.

    I used the CR system. It's a bit of a pain, but it mostly gets the job done. I'm not sure I'm usual, though -- one guy I know doesn't even use monster stats, just makes things up along as he goes and has the monsters die when the PCs look fairly hurt.

    The 4e XP system is much better. Easier to use, and the monster creation system was built around it rather than sort of shoe-horned into it.

    I put effort into balance for my 4e and 3.5 games, and at least with 4e I'll continue to do that because that's the expectation. But I beyond that . . . WotC presents it as the only way to play, and while it's a fun way to play, I think their obsession with it is kind of unhealthy.

  8. "The only way I can reconcile the anti-Rust Monster view with my very conception of reality, is by reasoning that the people who make it must have had bad experiences in their formative gaming years."

    I started reading this blog because you seemed to be interested in continuing keeping interest in earlier editions of D&D. But comments like this, and the ones you made on, where you essentially got into a pissing contest over whose idea of what fun is is right isn't admirable at all. That some people don't like serious ramifications for their PC's come down to a single die roll is just a matter of gaming preferences, not that they had some sort of gaming trauma while you are the healthy norm. All that does is make your argument seem puerile.

  9. Strangvistas: But comments like this, and the ones you made on, where you essentially got into a pissing contest over whose idea of what fun is is right isn't admirable at all.

    See, this is why I tried to stop reading the 4e threads - because whatever I say seems to get misinterpreted that way. The pattern usually goes:

    Dozens of 4e fans: Isn't it great they got rid of Sacred Cow X?

    Me: But I like Sacred Cow X...

    Dozens of 4e fans: That Sacred Cow is ridiculous and unfair!

    Me: I like it for x reason.

    Dozens of 4e fans: Stop being such an arrogant elitist old schooler, telling us your version of fun is superior!

    It's like a very very very poor man's Kafka novel.

    That some people don't like serious ramifications for their PC's come down to a single die roll is just a matter of gaming preferences, not that they had some sort of gaming trauma while you are the healthy norm.

    That wasn't what I was saying. I was trying to elucidate just how incomprehensible that world view is to me.

    I'm trying to think of another example to illustrate. The best thing I can think of is this: I love cricket. It's my favourite sport. I would watch it every day if I could. My wife on the other hand hates it. The only way I can explain this to myself is that she was born in a country where cricket isn't popular, so how can she like it? And then everything makes sense. That might not be the real reason - it could just be a matter of taste - but the idea that somebody somewhere might not like cricket on its merits is just too weird for me to contemplate.

    It's the same way with Rust Monsters. I have to think up reasons why people might not like them, for the universe to make sense to me.

    I wasn't just talking about childhood traumas by the way - I cited other reasons too for why people might dislike the creature (preferring narrativist play, for example).

  10. Well, I think the "rant" gave an okay justification.

    In many ways, development assumes that an individual DM is like a computer who heartlessly applies the rules. This approach allows neophytes to trust the rules and experienced DMs to bend, fold, and mutilate them from the foundation of a workable, stable system.

    A different package of rules can be more or less likely to fall victim to many of perfectly plausible pitfalls you describe. Books can leave players more or less equipped to avoid hurt feelings, bad games, etc etc. So why not direct your design work towards a safest common denominator, and let the maximum number of people be able to play with the maximum number of other people, whether close friends or not, whether thick- or thin-skinned, and most especially of concern, whether skilled/experienced with the game or not? After all, the people more comfortable with one another and the rules can always take the gloves off when they know it's what's right for them (this is also pointed out in by Mr Mearls in the linked article).

    But the thing that really struck me was that you find the disagreement so strange. Is it so unsettling to establish that different people enjoy different things? Because it seems completely pedestrian and normal to me. Some people like hanging upside-down, and others don't. Some people like salt on their fries and some like malt vinegar. It's just preference: it's universal, commonplace, things-as-normal, just-what-you'd-expect.

    And after you said that you have trouble understanding people with different preferences than you, I was really shocked when you later wondered whether those differently-focused people might be that way because of a failure of their empathy or social function. That seems like poor form, though of course, some of these folks are just as guilty or more of denying you a right to have fun your way. "Enjoy rust monster encounters? FLATLY IMPOSSIBLE! Excuse me while I recover and replace my monocle."

    (As far as cricket, this reminds me of an occasional discussion I have with people about baseball. "It sucks," I say. "You're wrong," they counter. "Tell me more," I say. "Going to games is fun," they explain. "Yes," I sigh, "sitting with your good friends, drinking beer, and eating hot dogs can be enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, and I do. Being part of a big crowd, participating in it's behaviors, whether cheering or booing or laughing, that also, is fun. But why baseball?" And then we are in agreement.)

    I think that if folks tried to avoid discussing our "likes" and "dislikes" for as long as we could (also keeping an eye out for referring to them by different names like "genuine" or or "unfair), both sides of the conflict could agree on a broad range of points. Things like:

    - Rust monsters destroy your gear when they hit you or are hit.
    - Fighters need gear to be effective in combat.
    - Fighter effectiveness includes giving and taking hits.
    - Therefore, level-appropriate encounters with rust monsters have a high chance of resulting in the fighter's effectiveness being greatly reduced.
    - All other things being equal, less effective characters are more likely to die.
    - When a character dies, the game ends for that character's player.

    Then, if everyone remained detached (shya right) and looked at player reports, we might further be able to agree:

    - Some people have had fun play involving rust monsters, meaning they are not inherently abusive.
    - Some people have had their play slowed or stopped by rust monsters, meaning they are more of a risk to fun than many other monsters.

    And then finally we would diverge on personal preference.

    - I will put rust monsters in my game because...
    -- They cause genuine fear, which I value.
    -- They provoke lateral thinking, which I value.
    -- They are hilarious, cute, etc.


    I will not put rust monsters in my game because...
    - They slow or stop play, which I value.
    - They are perceived as unfair at my table, and are liable to cause a huff, muddle or even kerfluffle.

    Oh, and one final note: People who like narrativist games usually end up defending the random and/or evolving nature of their game stories against people who claim that stories are things that are planned before they're told made. I mean, they'd love a rust monster. "Oh no! If try to save my true love from the beast menacing her, then I'll forever lose this greatsword, the only memento I have of my father! Quick, roll to find out what I do!!" ;)

  11. Nick: You seem willing to explain everything away as just 'personal preference', but aren't you interested in the reasons for those preferences? Because there must be reasons - whether genetic or social - for all the preferences we hold. I gave a reason as to why I like Rust Monsters: their introduction adds a level of excitement to a game. It doesn't seem satisfactory to then say "Other people don't like them, but that's just a matter of personal preference." Why let them off the hook, so to speak, by not thinking about it anymore, if I can give a good reason for my own preferences?

    The difference between Rust Monsters and, say, salt and vinegar on chips, is that taste (as in the sense of taste) is almost certainly determined by purely biological factors. You might as well explain why your eyes are blue, as to try to explain why you like vinegar on your chips. That isn't the case with Rust Monsters, because there are rational (and irrational, but explainable) reasons to like and dislike them.

  12. Rust monsters and level-draining undead* are such a controversial issue because they break one of the unspoken rules of D&D, which is that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. This is what makes them disproportionately scary.

    I think the preference really comes down to simplicity (4th ed, 3rd ed) vs. complexity (2nd, etc.) Does it make things more interesting for every rule to have an exception? It seemed to be a big part of the identity of the earlier editions to me.

    *also maybe other things I have forgotten.

  13. Anonymous, I'm sorry, but 3e is anything but "simplicity", and 4e is packed full of exception-based design.

    That's not to say that your core argument doesn't have merit, mind.

  14. Anonymous: You're right that breaking said unspoken rule makes Rust Monsters scary - and that's why I like them! ;) Scary is good.

    I don't think the issue is complexity. As Kelvin said, 3rd and 4th edition are exponentially more complicated than 2nd or 1st. Also, Mike Mearls has explicitly said that he's going back to exception-based design with 4th edition.

  15. Nick, if the problem is that when a character dies it ends the game for that player (as an old-school D&Der from back in the white box days I laughed out loud at that) then Mearls is solving the wrong design problem with his Rust Monster. There are thousands of ways for a character to die, and there's only one Rust Monster, which DMs don't even have to use and they can certainly avoid putting on Random Encounter charts.
    Obviously what they should do is just make it impossible for characters to die. The rule could be that if you are ever reduced to 0 or less HP, you get a desperate surge of strength and calling upon every last fiber of your being, you reach out and destroy the creature that dealt the blow to you by snapping its neck/hurling your sword through its heart/blasting it with your eldritch energies or whatever is appropriate. Then you are restored to full HP. It's very cinematic and completely solves the problem of level appropriateness of encounters, wealth guidelines per level, etc, etc.

    Now, some people might think that such a rule would reduce the challenge of the game and thus the feeling of success when your characters prevailed, but I submit that since their sense of fair challenge is already so narrow that the possibility of emerging from an encounter below par in combat effectiveness and wealth for their level is regarded as a design flaw, the game can only be improved by making the implicit game contract explicit. Designers and DMs will have a lot easier time of it creating cool encounters and neat loot if they don't have to pretend that significant setbacks are a live option.

    I'm serious here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an RPG where PC death is nigh impossible and any loss in power is guaranteed to be temporary--just ask anyone who's played Champions. But it's a serious waste of everybody's time to try to design a system to pretend that's not the case, but the die rolls, monster abilities and placement just always happen to work out that way.

  16. That's an interesting thought, James. I'm a great believer in the phrase "shit or get off the pot." Either make it possible to die, or explicitly eliminate death, but don't fudge the issue.

  17. In my book D&D has gone two completely different directions. Classic (I'd say everything up to the early parts of AD&D 2nd ed) was Swords and Sorcery, you played some 1st level schlub who was probably going to die, which meant that when you didn't it was actually an accomplishment.

    the latter half of 2nd edition and everything WoTC is D&D Supers, its about powerful characters who can't die easily fighting the hordes of evil/chaos/whatever. I know people say its more story driven, I don't really agree, but it is a style of play which stresses the individual character over the overall game.

    I don't think there is a right or a wrong, all I know is I prefer to write my characters down on lined paper because I'm happy to tear them up at a moments notice, and I'm never dumb enough not to bring a few extra spears and a staff.

    The one thing I don't get about the new editions is that if your character can reasonably assume that gear/power/money ganking mosters have been removed from their dungeons, why are they ever poor enough to crawl down a portal to hell?

  18. rpgnet link broken

  19. I always felt Rust Monsters worked more as a trick/trap than a monster. You don't straight up fight them with your usual tactics, you use the dagger, or 10' pole or distract them with food while the thief in his leather moves in to attack.

    Anyway they are back in 5e so all good.