Bones and Indians

A short while ago I started a new tag: “Theory” which basically covers posts that are my long-winded meanderings about wargaming or roleplaying games.  Lately I’ve been working out my problems with D&D Fourth Edition, a game I continue to run but whose days may be numbered.  In trying to put my finger on the problem, I stumbled across a bit of a analogous situation when I was at the library…

A friend of mine recommended that if I liked the TV show Bones I should reach the series they are based on by Kathy Reichs.  So I hopped across the street from my office and picked up the first “Bones” novel, Deja Dead.  Now I like “science” cop shows like CSI and Bones and NCIS because they are clever and usually feature a good ensemble cast.  Bones has David Boreanz and a woman who isn’t “classically” good looking but appears to perhaps have a hobbit in her woodpile.

Deja Dead, on the other hand, was awful.  First and foremost, it wasn’t a mystery, it was a crime novel.  There’s a difference.  In a mystery, you can determine based on the clues who the murderer is before the show reveals it by ascertaining the clues as they are revealed and putting them together.  A crime novel is about process, in this case graphically depicted in detail with a generous helping of male chauvinism on the side.  In Deja Dead there is really no way to foresee the outcome of the book, because they haven’t done the process yet to reveal the individual who has never appeared in the novel to this point.  That’s the difference between it and the television show: usually the person who is responsible has appeared at some point in the past like the old man by the side of the road in a Scooby Doo episode.

The completely unsympathetic main character and anvil-dropping obviousness of the plot aside.

Totally unsatisfied by my experience, I decide to go back to the classics (theme, anyone?) and picked up one of the best mystery novels ever written, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (sometimes titled Ten Little Indians).  The plot of the novel has been copied so much that it has become a trope unto itself: ten people, stranded on an island, with one being the murderer slowly picking off the rest of them in unique ways until finally the last few get to the climax.  It’s gripping stuff, and with the absense of forensic science, the focus is more on opportunity and motive, which means you follow the plot and the characters very closely.

Following that up, I read Cards on the Table, again a fairly straightforward plot.  An obnoxious wiseguy invites four “sleuths” to dinner with four people he believes have gotten away with murder.  During the evening’s festivities, the host is killed by one of the four suspected murderers.  It’s a classic “locked room” mystery, one that could’ve easily been solved with DNA evidence or even fingerprinting (which appears not to have been available in 1939) so Poirot must rely entirely upon psychology and old-fashioned gumshoeing.  Again, a good mystery, and one that I really only predicted based on the “who’d be the shocking swerve” answer.

In the middle of this, I ran a session of D&D4E in which the PC’s are called upon to defend a giant spider farm from goblin raiders (based loosely upon the adventure “The Spider Farm” by Stuart Marshall which can be found on Dragonsfoot)  The adventure basically broke into 1) the story set-up, 2) the PC’s fortifying the farm like they are the A-Team, 3) the goblins raid the farm, 4) the PC’s tail the goblins back to their hideout and then launch an ambush.  The final ambush was pretty brutal for the PC’s, since they basically went with the “sack the quarterback” tactic while still holding off way too many opponents.  I should’ve punished them harder.

In reflecting on the game, I realized that in many ways, Fourth Edition is a lot like Deja Dead, in that the focus is largely on process.  By that I mean that 4E’s rule mechanics heavily favor the how of combat, but largely gloss over the roleplaying dimension, even delegating it to a die roll.  So gameplay involves decided when to use your “once per encounter” power, and the tactical dimension of moving a miniature around on a board.  Combat is richly, even minutely detailed much in the way the lab-work of Temperance Brennan is.

Now imagine how that might extrapolate if you were to play the D&D version of Cards on the Table, where the focus becomes about character.  I’m not talking about heady, “storytelling style” LARPing, but rather when a GM turns to a player and asks “what is your character doing?” the player has to actually invent the action, rather than consider which of the powers he is going to employ now.  The player is rewarded for characterization, creativity, and cleverness, not tactics.

Let me sum it up with one simple example: the search.  This example is described in detail as one of the “Zen Moments of Old School Gaming” here, but here’s the short version:

The PC’s enter a room of a dungeon which contains a chair, a table, and a moose head mounted on the wall.  The GM asks the player(s) “what are you doing?” and the player responds “I’m searching the room,” what happens next?

In later editions of the game, the GM or players rolls a Search [DC15 or CL5] roll.

In the earlier edition, the GM would ask “how are you searching the room?” and play goes from there.

Or to put it another way: in earlier editions, combat was abstract and noncombat detailed.  In later editions, combat is detailed and noncombat abstract.

So the final question becomes: which gratifies the players more?  Rolling enough damage to finally kill an opponent, or being creative and clever and developing a character?

And that–that–is what my problem seems to be about.


  1. Im running into the same problem with 4e’s design philosophy in my campaign (that and appalling luck on the players side). If I wanted to play detailed tabletop combat games I have games like Battletech Id much rather play, RPGs are for telling cool stories not focusing on what square the goblin is sitting in.

  2. Great insight. The why of my dislike for 4e is multifaceted and hard to pin down, and this puts words to another part of it. I love the kind of play exemplified by the search Zen moment and 4e just doesn’t do it. 3e doesn’t do it very well either, but the overall philosophy of the game isn’t hostile to it at least. I’ve pretty much given up on WotC D&D because of insights like this.

  3. “Or to put it another way: in earlier editions, combat was abstract and noncombat detailed. In later editions, combat is detailed and noncombat abstract.”

    That is frankly untrue. In old editions of D&D, combat was focused upon and noncombat was largely ignored. The reason that the GM had to ask the players how they were doing stuff was that there was no system for it. Without mechanics, it just became freeform storytelling where what happens is based far more upon tha player’s intelligence and ideas than how their character would approach it.

    4E’s DMG has the best roleplaying advice of a DMG of any edition of D&D. The mechanics are focused on combat because D&D rules have always been focused on combat, with minor considerations for what you do outside of it.

    I’m not saying 4E is inherently better than any other edition of D&D, but if you think that it has less ‘roleplaying’ aspects than previous editions then you’re just romanticizing the past.

  4. If you were to actually read my quote, you’d notice I didn’t use the term “focussed” or even raise the question of what ends up in actual gameplay (if you think I have romanticized experience of halcyon roleplaying as a youth with D&D, you’re sadly mistaken). My question was what elements of gaming are can be contrasted in terms of abstraction and detail between editions. I’m sure, as you suggest, that the lack of social-skill based rules are probably a matter of D&D’s ancestry with wargaming, not a deliberate attempt to create a free-form system.

    And while 4E may have some good “advice” for roleplaying, they also have an admittedly option but frankly in my mind abhorrent system for just dicing social encounters that moves the game pretty much out of roleplaying and into small-unit skirmish wargaming.

    Now to reiterate the point of my essay. The presence or paucity of rules has an impact on gameplay, just as much as the GM’s or player’s style. Yes, D&D is largely action/combat based, just like most RPG’s out there, because active, visceral conflict is easy to orchestrate when it comes to telling a story. And yes, I’m sure that a good GM could run a perfectly fine, richly detailed, and compelling D&D 4E session with loads of roleplaying. But the rules do not, DO NOT favor this, and in fact the abundance of highly detailed combat rules I believe serve as a distraction for players, if you want to run that kind of session. Moreover those 20+ pages per character class which consist of nothing other than combat- or utility-related powers represent for me, the GM, a corpus of rules that I’d rather not bother digesting and incorporating to my memory when I sit down at a table.

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