I have been role playing solidly 3-5 games a week for the past two years running my game store. The past two or three months it has been getting harder to make it interesting. My store has not been a failure but it also was not a massive success either. That could contribute to this feeling I have been having. But then today while seated at work and scrolling G+ (which is a luxury these days) I found an interview with Matt Jackson by Matt Finch. Matt Jackson is one of my all time favorite RPG map makers and game designers. He is also pretty rare to catch on film. Lots of posts, a blog, a Patreon but I think this may be only the second time I had seen him on video. Matt Finch I was (now ashamedly) completely unaware of. I hit the play button and watched the entirety of the video and it hit home precisely what I have been suffering from.
I am known by a lot of people as the “Pathfinder” Guy. I have been asked by a lot of people recently what I thought of Starfinder because I love space games and I love Pathfinder. In truth, I never really cared for the idea of Starfinder. I know now why too. You see, Pathfinder and third edition D&D really hemmed in the Games Master role. There are a whole lot of rules that were put there to try and constrain the GM. I have not realized this recently but it is that fact that has really begun to wear at me. It has made the game far less interesting to me. Be it Pathfinder or 5th Edition there are a lot of situations that now require the GM to go by the rules that were not really a thing in the games of my youth.
Matt Jackson and Matt Finch hit this nail right on the head in the interview. They talk about this. Matt talks about his stress over making Count Strahd the bad-ass he should be because of character options and constraints in a game. He talks about having to get help on running one of the sessions because he was worried that Strahd would not measure up to some lucky or skillful D&D builds by his players.
My Black Dragon Incident
Similarly, I have been running a free form 5th edition game of D&D in which a Black Dragon (Ledger Erisdar) had taken over the players initial town. The players had to collect an item for it to appease the dragon (an adult black dragon). They were 4th level at best when they approached the dragon to hand over the item when the sorcerer instead decided to hit it in the face with a spell. A critical hit was achieved, and because of special builds and the like the damage to the dragon was well over half its hit points. This was absolute idiocy. I was stunned by the result and instead of having the dragon enter combat (as they had a barbarian that could of finished it in two or three rounds) it caused them to fall into a ruined temple and sealed the entrance off with collapsed stonework. This would never have happened in earlier editions. The players for a start would never have even attacked in an earlier edition.
Games like the first two editions of D&D, Traveller and early on in the hobby all just gave GM’s a lot of freedom. Many games these days ignore that. They want the player to win so they reduce the power of the GM, tell the GM to be on the players side and then give the players fantastic power. This makes the game more predictable and far less interesting. There is little to no threat in games as written these days. All of these games talk about balancing encounters and making sure the players have fun and though many do not say it outright, try not to kill any of the characters.
In my youth, to survive your character needed to play intelligently. The werewolf that turns up and wants the ring that entombs the wizards soul may be the same level as you. He may just have ten levels on you. He may be feeble. But what he is to you is unknown. Unknown is bad, and you do not mess with it unless you want to end up dead. Also, if your character hears how the hero of the coliseum who had been fighting for ten years went into the swamp near town to solve the mystery that plagued the villages disappeared it means STAY OUT OF THE SWAMP! Though these things inspire the game and make these things very interesting as a player. Something to work toward…
Make it interesting
In a good game the GM can prepare for a thousand hours and still not see the path the players will take. That path can destroy an event in a moment if it is surrounded with constraining rules. In a good system there is leverage for the GM to be able to take that ingenuity or ability and alter it. Perhaps this encounter gives the players the clues they need for the next bit. If they aren’t slowed here then it will need to be placed somewhere less thematically appropriate. The GM waves their hand, gives the players an advantage because of good play and changes the outcome a little. Just a nudge to make it interesting.
Am I a hypocrite?
Possibly, I suppose. One half screams at me that the player should be patted on the shoulder and the black dragon should die. But in reality I know that what is behind this turn of events is the increase in player power and the constraints on the GM. In Pathfinder the game has had to put in creatures of CR 30+ because 20th level characters do not have average encounters against CR 20. They have too much power. this is something common across the more mainstream systems.
There are a lot of systems out there that are a reaction to this. Most of them fall under the term Old School Revival. I think that I need to join this growing movement just to get enjoyment back in game. Or maybe I just need a break? One way or another I felt that the discussion the two Matt’s had surrounding the editions of D&D talked directly to me and I will probably be acting on that wisdom. I have embedded the video of this interview below and recommend you take the time to watch it. Keep rolling!