Sunday, 17 January 2010

What do you do for money, honey?

One of my favourite quotes is by Richard Condon, and it goes something like this: It's no use kidding ourselves that [politicians] are ordinary people just like us, because they're not. For all the similarities, they might as well be from another planet. Probably are.

I'd like to replace the word "politicians" in the above quote with the word "game designers". Specifically, Wizards of the Coast game designers. I mean, what other conclusion are we to draw from this?

You may think me a little harsh. I suppose at first glace it might seem I am being a trifle melodramatic. Let me elaborate. What Condon was getting at was this: ordinary people by definition do not want to become politicians - because as an ordinary person why in hell would you be so lustful for power? I mean, who reading this blog would be so utterly crazy as to want the responsibility of being the leader of your country, of taking it to war or keeping it out of one, of managing its budget, of steering its policy, and who would want the sleepless nights that go with that? You would have to be mentally ill, or a sociopath, to begin with. Or so strongly motivated by a given topic that it drove you to mental illness, perhaps. (And the original motivation could be perfectly valid, of course.)

Similarly, ordinary gamers by definition do not want to become game designers, because they're having fun playing the games they're playing. It takes a special kind of person to want to become a designer, and that is somebody who is, crucially, so unsatisfied with the games that they are playing that they not only want to change them, but to change them as their calling in life.

This can be an unmitigated good impulse, a fair one, or a bad one:

The Unmitigated Good: A given person might be so unsatisfied that there is no game about managing casinos in Macao that he goes ahead and makes one. Brilliant - now there's a cool new game about managing casinos in Macao.

The Fair: A given person might be so unsatisfied with an existing game that he decides it needs changing, and strives to make those changes. This sometimes makes for a better game and sometimes doesn't. It might result in HARP, but it also might result in the third iteration of Cyberpunk.

The Bad: A given person is unsatisfied with a game for reasons that have nothing to do with anything intrinsic to that game, but rather having something to do with external factors mostly to do with Gaming with Dickheads. He then makes changes to that perfectly fine game in order to solve a problem that really doesn't exist, with lamentable results.

It seems the latter has occurred with the designers of D&D 4e and game balance, which is their overriding obsession.

See, the thing is, if you obey my cardinal rule of Not Gaming with Dickheads, you don't need such a thing as game balance. Reasonable, friendly, sociable people have fun with each other, support or take the piss out of each other depending on context, don't hog limelight, don't try to compete with one another if in the noncompetitive context of a roleplaying game, and generally contribute towards an atmosphere in which everybody enjoys themselves, gets drunk, eats lots of unhealthy food, and stays up late. Who cares if one character class happens to be a bit objectively "better" than another in that context?

The only time when balance becomes an issue in an RPG is when people start breaking social contracts and being dickheads. Viz:

"Mages can do anything any other class can do by using magic, after about 9th level, and it's just so unfair!" (Not an issue if the guy playing the mage doesn't use his magic to do everything every other class can do, in a spirit of not being a dickhead.)

"Everybody should have an equal amount of time in combat!" (Not an issue if everybody behaves like a sensible adult and doesn't hog the limelight, in a spirit of not being a dickhead.)

"If a game isn't balanced it leaves everything up to GM whim, and that means the most popular players get all the decisions in their favour!" (Not an issue if the GM... well, you get the picture.)

So I think we can only draw two conclusions from the prevalence of the cult of Game Balance at WotC. Either:

1. The designers were traumatised by gaming with dickheads in their formative years, and it motivated them to try to Change the World of D&D in a bad way;


2. Gamers who were traumatised by gaming with dickheads in their formative years became such a vocal and whiny minority that the designers had no choice but to try to pander to them.

Now, please understand me: I'm not saying 4e isn't a fun game, equally as valid as any other RPG, blah blah blah. And it doesn't impact in any way on how I interface with the hobby at large; to all intents and purposes D&D ended at 2nd edition as far as I'm concerned. But I find it, frankly, melancholic, sad, perhaps even tragic that so much effort has gone into such a Quixotic goal as "Balancing the Game" when all that really needed to be done was to slap a sticker on every 2nd edition AD&D rulebook sold saying: "Remember, kids, Don't Game with Dickheads, and Don't Be Dickheads Yourselves."


  1. The war on dickheads via the medium of game design goes at least as far back as the over-elaborate systemisation of AD&D (which was partly designed for use as a tournament ruleset IIRC). WOTC's current stance is just the end result of following that particular evolutionary path.

    Parallels between over-prescriptive rulesets and the culture of political bansturbation ("If one person doesn't play nice, then no-one gets to play!") in the contemporary UK and US write themselves...

    'They' really don't think like sane and sensible humans, do they?

  2. It's probably (2). Little Jimmy gets upset because his GM makes decisions on the fly, or because his mage isn't as tough as Little Johnny's fighter at first level, so he throws his toys out of the pram. Dad doesn't buy any more D&D stuff, and the franchise drifts further from the mainstream. So WotC fix this by making it so that every class is the same at every level, and that the GM has little room to make stuff up without breaking the game, and everyone's happy.

    Something like that, anyway. The naysayers say it's the influence of video games, but it looks more to me like the Games Workshop-ising of D&D.

  3. I applaud you sir. I have read plenty of intelligent posts on this subject but I believe you have hit the porverbial nail on the head.
    The worst crime that I believe Wizards is guilty of is turning formerly good players into power-mad metagamers, I cannot recall one time during my 2e gaming days when I heard a player say "This sucks. I can't wait until I'm XX level when I can do XX."
    Thanks again.

  4. The beauty of belonging to a wargames club is that you spot the dickheads very quickly. The number of shitty wargames that have been transformed from a living tedious, hell to highly enjoyable games (and vice versa) by a change of personnel never ceases to amaze me. I even enjoy WH40K these days because of the non-dickhead crowd that play it locally.

  5. This process has been happening with D&D since it was released. 4e just took more drastic steps than ever before, which freaked a lot of people out. That's my take on it, at least.

  6. I disagree.

    I imagine the interaction most game designers have with the game is like the one i have with porn. They like to do something and are glad to get paid to do it, and will follow whatever instructions are passed down from above in order to stay in that position.

    I also think, if you assume the above, Mearls post makes a lot of sense.

    He acknowledges that lots of (smart) people don't care about balance, but he says "Hey, some people do, and in order to keep my job at WoTC, I have to cater to these people. I feel I can cater to them AND eveyrone else simultaneously, so what;s the harm?" He may be wrong, but that;s the reasoning on display.

  7. I'd love to meet some of these non-dickheads of yours. Bar none every single person I ever played 3.5 with fit this mold.
    Bar NONE.
    I'd still rather play 4th with them because it's substantially lighter ruleswise, but that's a different issue altogether.
    And I furthermore agree with Blizack and Zak.

  8. There are so many alien assumptions underlying the design decisions made by the WOTC game designers, that I can't even speak their language.
    They just talk past me. It seems that words don't have the same meanings to them and we don't share common definitions.

  9. I find if the game is more balanced from the outset, it allows the game master to work on the game. A dick head is a dick head regardless of the game balance. A guy who likes to maximize his characters isn't necessarily a dick head. A guy who doesn't read the rule books because he's just there for the socialization, isn't necessarily a dick head.

    Both can bring different sets of problems to the game. This is very true if you start looking at 'open' games like Exalted, GURPS or Hero where poor and excellent decesions have vast consequences without the bounds of levels to reign them in a bit.

    Mike has earned a lot of hats off from numerous old school fans who played 3.0/3.5 for Iron Heroes if nothing else and those who've followed his work realize that he is not a foe of 'old school' gaming as he's one of the contributors to ye old Green Dragon blog.

  10. Noisims, did you see this discussion of the same post at Uhlucht'c Awakens?

    A more civil and insightful commentary than at the RPGsite. There is way too much pointless crapflinging there for me.

  11. Zak: Well, I think that just means the reality falls under my category number 2. Mike Mearls is a man with a job, a vocal minority of D&D fans like the whine about game balance, so he has to please them, or is told to please them by the powers that be.

    Rach: Dickheadish tends to recede with age. Or maybe as you get older you just get a better dickhead avoidance mechanism.

    JoeGKushner: I don't dislike Mike Mearls and I wouldn't question his "old school" credentials - I'm not so much interested in "old school" as I am in what I like.

    It's true that people who want to maximise and people who don't read the rules are not necessarily dick heads. And if they aren't the problems they bring to the table dissipate, because they'll be playing with decent socially aware people who can work around any potential difficulties. At least, that's how I think of it.

    E. G. Palmer: The pointless crapflinging is what makes it fun!

  12. Can someone recap what the specific problem is? I can't follow the link in the post explaining the reason WotC game designers need to be cruxified, so I figured I'd ask if someone can point out the specifics of what I'm missing.

    I'm assuming it's the standard struggle between the folks who believe that "the system is everything" and the others who say "the group is everything". While I'm pretty close to the "group is everything" camp, IMO, designing with game balance in mind isn't necessarily a bad thing. For example, I'd feel sorry for a new RIFTS player if he chose to play a scavenger with an SDC rifle and everyone else chose to play glitterboys. On the flip side, artifically levelling the playing field so everyone's powers are absolutely equal and balanced is as fun as eating plain yogurt. I guess I'm in the camp that believes that the group is the most important factor in gaming, but it doesn't mean that my group couldn't use any help with the systems we use. So long as my players shape their characters and not the endless quest to game the system (must take this feat so I qualify for that feat in three levels...), we're all happy.

  13. As for the post where someone said, "I cannot recall one time during my 2e gaming days when I heard a player say "This sucks. I can't wait until I'm XX level when I can do XX."

    I have to say, I hated kits in 2e.