I’m a man with two hearts. The first is the party of me that likes leveling up and getting bigger numbers. The second is the part where I recognize that numbers are meaningless.
All RPGs boil down to complicated games of “DM May I.” The player asks, “DM, may I do X?” and the DM says, “Yes, you can,” or “No, you can’t.” It just so happens that the majority of games have rules codifying the DM’s yes/no. DM, may I slay the dragon? Yes, roll your to-hit against his AC, then roll your weapon’s damage, now the dragon uses a standard action to breathe fire, roll to save or take 10d6 damage. In such an example, the rules are clearly defined and almost entirely numeric. You are a better fighter because you have a higher attack bonus. You are a better wizard because your Intelligence score lets you prepare additional spells per day. You are a better rogue because you’re rolling 1d20 + 87 to sneak up on the commoner and oh look you just sneak attacked his 4 HP and he’s dead.
A lot of nerds (myself included) like this style of game because it gives mechanical weight to our character themes. If I’m a fighter, I want to be able to fight things well, and I want some mechanical advantage to represent that.
However, the rub is when the game depends too much on these numbers. In D&D, for instance, you have your Armor Class, and that determines if you can be hit by an attack. It doesn’t matter if you’re a level 17 paladin wearing full platemail and your opponent is an unarmed drunk, he’s rolling his attack vs. your Armor Class and will inflict 1d4 + Strength damage on a hit. The question rarely asked: should that even require a roll? Should the drunk have a chance of hitting the paladin at all? When separating the game from the mechanics—separating “the fiction” from “the mechanics” as the storygame crowd puts it—requiring a roll is ridiculous. This mighty paladin, slayer of liches and banisher of demons, should be invulnerable to the inebriate’s swing. There should be no roll because the roll is pointless.
On the other hand, people who love that mechanical crunch will argue that the paladin is invulnerable by virtue of the mechanics. Even if the drunk somehow rolls high enough to dent the paladin’s armor, the paladin has a swathe of hit points that protect him from the drunk’s foolish assault. This is necessary for the game to function within the parameters of tactical combat. If the DM really doesn’t think a roll is necessary, then he doesn’t need to roll for the drunk—he needs simply to say that the drunk swings his fists and hammers on the paladin’s armor to no effect.
There are two flaws with this latter thought. As a DM, I am uncomfortable ignoring chunks of rules because of “the story” or “the narrative” or “the fiction” or whatever you wish to call it. Moreover, the majority of DMs (especially newbie DMs) will default to the rules-as-written, which means they will default to turn-based tactical combat in a way that destroys the tension of the scene.
GM: “The drunk staggers toward you. He totters side to side, a stein dangling precariously from loose fingers. Glowering, he heaves forward, swiveling his arm into a long arc aimed somewhere in the direction of your head.”
[Pause scene for dice rolls.]
GM: “Okay, he rolls a 16…”
PLAYER #1: “Don’t I get to roll to stop him?”
GM: “Wait until after he attacks.”
PLAYER #2: “Unless he has Improved Unarmed Strike, his punch provokes an attack of opportunity.”
PLAYER #1: “Fine, I’m going to attack him.”
[Scene continues in the background to dice rolls.]
That’s a terrible way to do things. I’m not pretending my tabletop games are Shakespearean works of theater—nor would I want them to be—but that fictional scene is weighted down by the mechanics (which are reinforced through by-the-book GMing).
To return to the mechanics-vs.-fiction concept: which better represents invulnerability to fire, Danaerys with resist 30 fire and a +5 saving throw vs. fire effects, or Danaerys who emerges from the ashes of the funeral pyre unscathed because she has the trait Dragon-Blooded which makes her immune to flames? I know the more interesting of the two choices, that is for certain, but whether is better mechanically is up for debate. Can alchemist’s fire burn Danaerys, or does that burn so hot that no one is immune to its effects? If she’s not immune, how much damage does it inflict on her?
Questions, questions, none of them suitable for a novel, all of them suited for quibbling on the Internet.
I digress here, but this is pertinent for the main point of this article: “DM May I.” The only way around this is the use of codified rules that point the DM in one direction or another. Generally speaking, the rules in RPGs revolve around giving players bigger numbers so when they ask, “DM, may I?” they receive a “yes, you may” more often. DM, may I slay the dragon? With a THAC0 of 3 and a +3 magical sword, you may.
Ultimately, I suppose this conflict is a product of RPGs’ roots in wargames and the reaction to it. I offer no real solution to it, merely observation, but I suggest one thing: players should always roll the dice. The scene above with the paladin and the inebriate falters because the player lacks agency in the situation. The paladin is forced into quietude as the GM resolves the drunk’s action. While I’m loathe to use such a word as “disempowering,” I think placing the emphasis on the drunkard’s attack as opposed to the paladin’s reaction to the attack is poor form. The game is about the player characters, not the NPCs, so to focus on the drunkard over the paladin misplaces the limelight.