The stuff right in front of you
by , 05-12-2011 at 07:57 PM (4619 Views)
When the answer is simply staring at you
When it comes to game rules, I'm an incorrigible tinkerer. I like to figure out why some game rule might have been designed in a particular way and how modifying it, or eliminating it can make my game play better. By better I mean more in tune with what I like in a game.
I've been going at this for a while which is good. It makes me aware of my biases and preferences. I like games that promote a certain level of heroic action, the kind you see in action movies. I also prefer fantasy rather than modern or futuristic games. Though I have a soft spot for those that combine both fantasy and futuristic elements. As a DM/GM, I like not being constrained when I'm trying to create something cool. I kind of like that freedom too, as a player. Basically, I want the game rules to give me what I absolutely need and then get out of the way. I also like playing in games that are popular because they let me have a built-in audience that I can more easily tap into. So it was with great excitement that I plunged into 4e when it came out.
I almost immediately saw gains in each and everyone of those preferences, from both the DM and Player side of the screen. However I started to notice a weird side effect of the game play at the table. I was doing gonzo stuff all over the place both as a DM and a Player and I was totally loving it. What I started to notice was that other players around the table where much more "reserved." Each player had a character with abilities, powers and feats with equivalent "power level" to mine, so it was not a balance issue that I was seeing. The DMG had a really "nifty" table (page 42) to adjudicate those things that the game did not explicitly handle, and it was fantastically liberating. It just didn't seem to liberate everyone equally.
There were some "issues" with it. First of all a DM had to be willing to use it. It doesn't make any sense to come up with this fantastic idea of what your character is going to do, if the DM's stock response to your idea is always NO. So a DM had to be willing to say YES. A point that is very well exposed in the DMG. Then he had to take the time to define how he could make it work. For me sometimes the effects were awesome, at times they were just satisfying, but they always felt like the things that I wanted to do. Then, almost like a flying cow or a brick falling from the sky, it hit me. I was thinking of that particular table mostly because I DM, a lot. A player that has never experienced the "openness" of a role-playing system might be looking at his character sheet and wondering where does that stuff appear?
So what I hit upon was that some players looked at the stuff on their character sheets as the ONLY thing they could do. They never looked outside the stuff that was right in front of them. If something was not spelled out then it couldn't be done. I had noticed a similar phenomenon in the previous edition where some played with the idea that if there was not a "rule" for something it could not be done. I know that is not the way it was supposed to be but it was what I had encountered on several occasions.
I had a problem with that entire "concept" but I didn't have a simple solution to fix it. At first I would go through inordinate amounts of effort to let players know that they were not constrained to the character sheet. This seemed to work for a short period but if it was not reinforced it eventually fell by the wayside. All of a sudden the game that I had found so liberating was starting to "feel" stifling.
It finally occurred to me that I was going about it the wrong way. Instead of fighting the phenomenon it was best to adapt to it. The current edition relied heavily on powers that are best displayed as cards. So, I started to experiment with how to break the reliance on the "stuff right in front of you" by giving the players something to have right in front of them. Having something in front of them was the best way to remind players to "break" the mold. The power cards became a "simpler" way of expressing the "rules" than having to keep telling players that they could do something different.
After several iterations I settled on two cards that could fit in almost every situation. They are Do Something Cool, and Do Something Cooler. I ended up play-testing these at DDXP this past January in my 4e adaptation of I6-Ravenloft. I knew I had finally hit the right balance between rules and fun when the Eladrin Wizard used his Do Something Cool as a minor action to break the top of his staff and his Do Something Cooler to chuck it at Count Strahd. When he rolled a natural 20 and impaled the vampire, there was a cheer that thundered from the players at the table. After a very tough fight the players had earned a well deserved break and were able to finally defeat Strahd in the crypts below the castle. It was one of those moments of triumph that will probably stay in the players' memories forever.
I had mentioned the idea of the two cards to Greg Bilsland and Chris Perkins at the DDXP - Expert DM Seminar (download here from The Tome Show - thread starts at 47:14) they both nodded sagely and said, "that is a really cool idea." If that is not an awesome endorsement I don't know what is.
So there you have it. Don't fight the system, embrace it. Give the players something to do besides using At-Will, Encounter, and Daily Attack powers and they might totally surprise you with their incredible creativity. Put it right in front of them and you can't go wrong, they will not forget to use them for totally awesome heroic action.
Grab the cards here. Use at your own peril.