Monday, June 08, 2009

The Case For World Mastery

I'm having fun running Is This Foul? I've got a good handle on my notes and prep, the players are contributing, and there's plenty at-the-table banter so the actual sessions are always a good time. I don't want to create the impression that I'm not having fun.

But like most things do, it's gotten me thinking. See, 3e D&D, and Arcana Evolved after its example, has a big emphasis on rules mastery. Pretty much everyone who's played it knows that: there's a lot of options, and some of them are better than others. It's an intentional part of the game's design. So I shouldn't be surprised when it takes over five hours to build two characters. Nor should I be surprised when the first thing most of the players do, when presented with a problem, is to start going through the book.

It's not that these things are bad. Mastery is fun. Learning a system, figuring out how to exploit it and the optimal solutions, are things I enjoy, too. More importantly, getting better at something is all kinds of fun. I get that.

But these days, this isn't the only D&D I know. I'm also playing in a (hacked) game of Labyrinth Lord, and I've been running a bit of Swords & Wizardry here and there, when the opportunity strikes.

Those games have mastery, too. A different kind of mastery, but there's still a lot to learn and get better at, and a lot that players can do to improve and expand their control over the game world. (Because that's fundamentally what "rules mastery" rewards you with: the ability to alter the game world more significantly and determine outcomes more efficiently.) A big part of what makes that ever-present threat of death satisfying, rather than frustrating, is it's something I can learn how to deal with. I may not be great at it now, but every time I deal with (or fail to deal with) a challenge, I learn something.

I've been growing to prefer world mastery to rules mastery. (Or perhaps inductive mastery to deductive mastery? One involves introducing fundamentally novel ideas to a pre-defined (but malleable) system, the other requires searching for pre-existing but undiscovered solutions within a rigorously defined (and perhaps, but not always, malleable) system.) For one thing, exercising rules mastery requires breaking immersion, and immersion is, I'm discovering, kind of a big deal for me. I'd much rather base my decisions on purely in-world data, when at all possible; the conditions of the environment, my character's personality, the effect an action might have on various NPCs, and other such factors are much more interesting to me than which feats I've got.

Likewise, as a Dungeon Master, I'd rather have my players pay attention to me than the rules. A bit selfish, but true: part of why the "pause to look up something in the book" response bugs me is simple jealousy. But I also prefer to reward the kinds of behavior involved in world mastery over the behavior required for rules mastery. I largely don't care how much time a player spends outside of game reading the rulebooks and thinking up new builds, but it very much matters to me how involved they are with the world.

Most importantly, world mastery, and games that emphasize it, are much easier for the new players I've introduced to roleplaying to get the hang of. The few people I've tried to introduce 3.5 D&D to since high school have hated it; there's a definite sense that you'll make the wrong choices, and it's hard to figure out just what the right choices are without a fairly good grasp of the system. (Especially in feats. Skills and classes are fairly descriptive, but feats suffer from excessive proliferation and a certain arcaneness in their effects and phrasing.) By contrast, they love Swords & Wizardry, and it didn't take them long to realize that equipment list is there to facilitate MacGuyver-like shenanigans.


  1. You've articulated many things I've been feeling (breaking immersion, DM/game attention over rules attention, newbie friendlyness).

    I love both kinds of mastery. But, I'm realizing I want them separate. Rules mastery in war / strategy games and my RPGs to be world mastery.

  2. Yeah. Part of what got me here was realizing that 4e is interesting to me only as a skirmish combat system. What's great as a game by itself is a bunch of crap I don't want to deal with in an RPG.

  3. ...I'd rather have my players pay attention to me than the rules. A bit selfish, but true...

    I don't find that selfish in the least, to put it mildly. Rules look-ups are sometimes necessary, but if I wanted to solve every problem with furious page-flipping I'd play miniatures games. Which I do. Just don't mix the two, kthx.

  4. There are, as you point out, plenty of other reasons for that preference -- too much attention to the rules dilutes the fundamental attraction of an RPG -- but I also just like being the center of attention. ;)

  5. You totally pointed out my main difficulty with 3.5. I've been playing it on and off since middle school with you guys, but the rules don't really interest me, the role playing does, and all the technical stuff and powergaming just gets me frustrated. I much prefer talkitytalkMAGYVER! sessions.