I was asked, a while ago, what I liked about 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. My answer then really continues on into 4th Edition: earlier editions said no a lot to players. These editions say yes.
Let me give a bit of an example of what I mean. You younger gamers who haven’t done your history homework may not realize it, but there was a time when you wouldn’t have been able to play your dwarf paladin…or your half-orc paladin…or an elf fighter above 4th level, for that matter. In the name of game balance, a lot of race-class combinations weren’t strictly speaking legal, and some races were limited to certain levels of advancement in various classes. Your elf may have been 300 years old and taught his martial skills by the finest warriors in the land, but he’d never be better than 4th level as a fighter. With its 3rd edition, D&D started saying yes a lot more to its players. Suddenly, any race could be any class and get to any level of advancement. Yes was in.
D&D 4th edition streamlined saying yes further, making a quick and easy series of DCs and formulae for resolving what could have been a back-and-forth argument in earlier editions. You want to kick a brazier of coals into the ogre’s face? Okay, how about a Dexterity-based attack vs. the ogre’s Reflex defense. I’ll have him grant Combat Advantage if you succeed, because he’ll be startled, and he’ll take 1d6 fire damage. Some 4E players have told me they feel hamstrung by the Powers of the game, but I find them intensely liberating. Strip the flavor text off and repurpose them. Does your fighter want to describe his Cleave as a slash to one foe and a shield-bash to the other? Knock yourself out. Does your wizard want to flavor burning hands as a storm of lightning because of his storm theme? Why not?
Even saying yes in small ways can reap surprising benefits. I recently ran a game for an old high school friend, her son, and a bunch of their friends, young and old. One of the players (one of the adults, oddly) decided she wanted to use a Playmobil figure that was at the table as her miniature. Now, I’d brought about twenty minis with me for people to choose from. I opened my mouth to say that she should really choose one of the to-scale figs. The Playmobil figure was unbalanced, huge, and blocked line of sight. But I didn’t say that. I said yes. What was the consequence? Did the figure get knocked over a lot? Sure. But it was a bunch of kids…they found it hilarious when we referred to the giant cleric, or when I talked about the cleric knocking her head on the cave ceiling. It turned something that my inner control freak could have made an issue of into something we could all laugh at.
Fleshy-Headed Mutant, Are You Friendly?
Just before sitting down to write this article, I ran my first session of the new Gamma World RPG. I have an abiding love of this genre and game. After D&D, Gamma World was the second ever RPG I played, and it looms large in the legend of my childhood. I loved the inherent wackiness of the original edition, with its mutant chickens controlling a food factory, mutant badgers worshipping a college football icon, and flying lion-insect-bats with a fetish for textiles. I’m happy to say that this edition is rife with that level of insanity, and I feel like I’ve come home again.
No intervening edition of the game captured the feel of those insane first games. The tone got more and more serious, and I have a theory about this. The original Gamma World came out when the specter of Nuclear War was looming. I remember being honestly sure, as a teen, that a nuclear war was going to happen. I was so sure of it that I sometimes wondered if it might happen that night, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about my math test the next day. In a climate like that, it felt good to make the Apocalypse wacky. As the Cold War cooled off, it wasn’t necessary to laugh in the face of certain death, so the Apocalypse became dryer and duller. Nowadays, we have threats like global climate change and nuclear-armed terrorists, as well as constant media barrages of people concerned about the Rapture and prophecies of the world ending in 2012 (on my wedding anniversary I might note…maybe gay marriage really is the end of the world!) With so much concern and uncertainty, maybe the time was right for the Apocalypse to get wacky again!
With a game as random as Gamma World is, zaniness is really a part of it right from character creation. Some of our players embraced it immediately. When my friend Jay rolled a Doppelganger Radioactive, he wondered if he might play a lab chimp who’d been exposed directly to the Hadron Collider accident that caused the Big Mistake. I said yes in a heartbeat. Did it matter to me that there was no logical reason for his character to be a simian, or that he didn’t have the Simian origin from the Famine in Fargo expansion? Not at all. He jokingly asked if he could name his character Chimps Ahoy, and I said sure, but how about Chimp Savoy. This caused Jay to immediately envision Chimp Savoy, who would be dressed in a dapper fashion and trying to be civil, but occasionally flying into rages and blasting foes with his radioactive eyes. If I hadn’t said yes, this delightful character might not have been part of my game.
As characters were created, I kept saying yes to my players. The Giant Plant, Mossback George, carries a streetlamp in one hand and wears a stop sign for a shield. Li’l Balls o’ Fire, a Pyrokinetic Rat Swam, (actually an adorable group of mice wearing kilts who fight with needles and blowguns with tiny darts…and who set things on fire gleefully) doesn’t speak. At the player’s request, the swarm turns into shapes and symbols, like the school of fish from “Finding Nemo”. Vi, a Felinoid Plant, is a sentient chia pet. How does that work? I don’t know, but the players love her. And then there’s the Gravity Controlling Mindbreaker, Vw (pronounced Voo) who named himself for the letters on the shield he carries (actually a Volkswagen bug’s hood). I said yes to all of these, and I don’t regret it one bit.
Tilting the Sandbox
Just because I’m saying yes a lot to my players, that doesn’t mean that I’ve totally let go of all control. Oh no, dear readers, no. To illustrate my point, I will give you my framework for my 4E D&D game, Seven Kingdoms: Seowyn’s Crossing, which I’ve charmingly named Sandbox with Benefits. I explained this model in a different article, so I’ll just sum up here. I’m giving my players freedom to roam where they will and pursue whatever goals they take it into their heads to pursue. Because I have a story I want to tell, however, I slip story elements in at a pre-determined pace. If the dragon Flamefang is going to be an important villain later on, then I might decide that there’ll be evidence of the dragon in the 1st adventure, someone talking about the dragon in the 2nd adventure, and a minion of the dragon in the 3rd adventure, no matter which adventures those turn out to be.
Note to my players: I know you read my articles here. I don’t have any plans to introduce a dragon named Flamefang. Ever. This is just an example.
Now, I’ve asked my players to be proactive. I want them to come up with their own goals, and, in general, they are doing that. We’ve barely started, and already there are missing family members to be found, a fey castle that touched one adventurer’s youth, a village to avenge, an orphan in search of his heritage, poachers to be punished, and a character who’s virtually a blank slate with no certain sense of his destiny. I have said yes to all of these backgrounds, and I will use my SWB model to introduce hints of these personal adventures, as well as my own storylines. Then it will be up to my players to decide which stories are most important to pursue, and I will follow, hoping to tell my own stories along with theirs. All in all, it should be one heck of a ride.
Your Turn: Say Yes
I’m advocating any game-master who reads this article to say yes to your players more. I’m not suggesting you should give over the running of the asylum to the inmates. Just try to be more open and accepting of the crazy stuff your players suggest. This doesn’t have to be anything too big. Something as trivial as the Playmobil “miniature” mentioned above could mean more to your player than you recognize.
Happy players keep coming back for more and telling tales of how awesome your games are. As GMs, what more do we need?
How About You?
Do you have a story about a time when you said “yes” to a player and had it result in something you didn’t expect?