01 July 2009

Sage Advice

From Grognardia’s interview with Skip Williams:

6. For many years, you acted as “the Sage,” providing official answers to questions about the rules of D&D in the pages of Dragon, a role you continue to assume for Kobold Quarterly. I remember Gary once complaining that, in the early days, fans of D&D would call him at his home to ask him rules questions and he was baffled as to why anyone needed him to come up with answers, a feeling many early TSR staffers apparently shared. Do you see any contradiction between the desire of many fans for official answers to their questions and the belief of many early designers that players should come up with their own answers?

It’s a huge contradiction. The early designers were wrong. It comes down to this: If you want to be in control of your character, you have to have some idea how anything you might try is going to come out. and you can’t know that unless you have some idea of how the rules are going to handle the situation. If the GM is making capricious decisions about what happens in the game, you’re always shooting in the dark and you have no real control over your character at all. Think of how hard it would be to, say, learn to ride a bicycle if the laws of physics were constantly in flux. The game just works better if the DM and players have similar expectations about how the rules handle things.

To know how anything you might try is going to come out, you need to talk to the GM. The thing that sets role-playing games apart is that they have a living judge instead of lots of carefully worded rules. That’s why early D&D had such a minimal set of rules. That’s why the most interesting systems being created today have a minimal set of rules. That’s why Gary was so surprised by people calling him for answers.

(Yes, I realize that this is my own point-of-view. TINWWTP. YMMV.)

For every capricious GM, there’s (at least one) player who gets upset because they made too many assumptions and didn’t bother to actually communicate with the GM or the rest of the group. Instead of trying to fix the “problem GM” or “problem player” problems, we should just concentrate on fixing the “problem me” problem.

Having said all of that, though, I loved the “Sage Advice” column. (And in recent years I asked a number of questions of Gary too.) Firstly, If I buy a role-playing game, I want to understand what I read in it. One-way communication is almost guaranteed to have errors. Two-way communication allows for error detection and correction. Secondly, when I have a question about something, I often like to get other people’s opinion. Even better if I can get the opinion of someone more knowledgeable or experienced in the subject than I. Whether I end up deciding against the author’s original intention or the sage’s advice, it’s still valuable.


Don the NE DM said...

I'm with you on this, talk to the GM. And then listen to the GM, that is why the GM is there. Make the case, the abide by the GM's call.

Of course, the GM has to be willing to talk about the situation. Of course, if something happens and the player asks "Why was that able to happen, when I tried that it didn't work." They may have to deal with the answer of "You'll see" if it is a hidden ability or something along those lines. This happens a lot in Marvel.

Robert Fisher said...

Yeah. When I look back on conflicts in gaming, I don’t see anything that couldn’t have been solved by a good attitude, communication, and maturity. I’m fairly sure that no rule would have solved the bad attitudes, lack of communication, or immaturity.

I like what Mike Mearls wrote: “I'm sympathetic to the idea, but human society has existed for thousands of years and has yet to find a solution for jerks. I don't think RPG rules are going to solve that.”

By the way, only twice did I write to the Sage. The first time was about some ambiguous wording in 1e that was left unchanged in 2e. I got no response.

The second time, the Sage told me that a lit torch should do the same damage as a club plus 1d6 fire damage, making it possibly the best weapon in 3e.

But, like I said, I always liked the Sage Advice column and thought it served a purpose—just not the one that Skip put forth.

Matthew James Stanham said...

One interesting thing about Sage Advice is that it sometimes purported to have answers for questions not even considered until asked or otherwise were best left up to the game master. In effect, part of the problem may have been that TSR was not secure enough to simply admit that there were no rules to govern X, Y or Z.

Robert Fisher said...

Yeah. Especially that early Q&A in The Strategic Review that sketched wholly new mechanics as if everyone should understand them. (^_^)

“What I think isn’t important. It is what your DM decides that is.” —Gary Gygax