The Failure of Choice

With the Great D&D Module play through coming to an end before the end of the year, I talked to the group about what we should do next. When I put forward The World’s Largest Dungeon as an option, it was an instant winner. So, while the module playing runs down, players started talking about what they might like to play in the next campaign, and that’s where things started going sideways.

After debating on whether to use The World’s Largest Dungeon in it’s native D&D 3.5e or converting to Classic D&D, I recommended we go with 3.5e so the module can be enjoyed as intended. However, 3.5e isn’t a few books, but an entire library of books, and the options for characters started to really get out of hand. What follows is a severely truncated version of events and a few warnings about how too much choice can be crippling to the art of Role Play.

Many choices do not make for a better game

Since Wizards of the Coast took over AD&D, they have run it exactly the way you would expect a corporate entity to use an IP, they started producing content like an assembly line pops out grommets. In no time at all 3.0 had a massive book count which rolled over into 3.5e and kept growing. In addition, a trove of new books started to come out under the open gaming license.

Don’t get me wrong, I think having an open license is really cool and having a range of quality books can really be a bonus. However, what happens when you try to use all the books? What kind of a game will you have then? Then there’s the copious amounts of home brew stuff sprawled over the net, what happens when you include all of that?

The Death of Role-play

The answer is actually really sad. Players want a character that can contribute to the party as much as the next character, so they begin to load up on as many choices as they can. Eventually, they begin to forget about making a good character for role-play, and focus instead on the right combination of rules to make an effective character. In effect, role-play begins to take a back seat to game mechanics.

Rather than trying to craft characters with special stories, they begin to craft by special rules. In Classic D&D, all classes basically did the same things, and individualisation was done partly by the skills and weapons chosen. However, the largest part of creating a story that shapes how a character will be played happens outside game mechanics.

The last Classic D&D campaign has a Fighter who is daughter to a Glantri noble but who ran from her heritage out of a fear of magic steming from a life changing accident. There’s a wizard from Minothad who adventures for the capital to create a merchant fleet, thus restoring what his family lost to a past event. Every one of the characters had deep stories, and it was fun seeing how each character interacted, often butting head with each other. It was all about personality, not stats.

The value of a good GM

It is the role of the DM/GM to arbitrate between the players and the game world in order to make sure everything has a place. If a player has a really good character concept, then a good GM will try to sculpt that character’s story into the game world, so long as that story is reasonable of course. If the GM has nothing more than character stats for a character, then how do they work with that to make a good story?

There was no way I was going to start The World’s Largest Dungeon unless things all made sense. As the party thinks everything was going to be taking place underground, they decided on having a party entirely with Darkvision. That sounded pretty cool but it wasn’t long until dwarves gave way to Drow, Teiflings and Assimar. Some players wanted evil characters, which I would normally be against but this adventure wasn’t like others, so I kept my options open.

Eventually the majority of players had evil characters, except two. How were we going to mesh a Chaotic Evil Half-Drow Cleric of Lolth with a Lawful Good Assimar Cleric of Horus-Re? First thing I did was talk to players to see what they were happy with.

The final negotiated arrangement is that the two lawful characters were escorting the evil ones to another town as prisoners of the temple of Horus-Re when ‘stuff’ happened and they ended up in the dungeon together. The ‘evil’ character have all been quested with the command “Never allow harm to come to the servants of Horus-Re”. This ambiguous statement is not entirely within rules and it has some holes, but by negotiating the players they have agreed that this means the party is bound to not harm the ‘good’ guys, but to try to stop others from doing harm. In return the Quest doesn’t empower the servant of Horus-Re to command the others.

Over the course of the adventure there will come a time when the people will gain the power to shed this Quest, but it is hoped that in that time the shared trials and tribulations will have forged a mutual bond between everyone. Either they work together, or they all die. So by talking to players ahead of time, and negotiating aspects of the story, no-one feels ripped off and everyone gets to play the character they want to play.

Cutting it Back

One of the key ways we managed to get the characters sorted was to simply draw lines in the sand about which books were in play. The biggest progress came by saying The World’s Largest Dungeon is set in the Forgotten Realms. This means the all things from the Forgotten Realms can be used to potentially make a character.

Lines like this are important because while you can still colour outside the lines here and there, everybody has a solid idea what their options are. This helped all but one of my players to sort out what to play, and the last option I ran by the players to see if they had any objections to was an Air Goblin.

By taking some books out of play, it leaves a lot less choice so the material players have to play with is finite. In addition, there will always be players who have access to more books than others. All players should have access to the same material to avoid ill-feelings towards characters that appear to have an edge over others.

So when deciding what books to allow, make sure that every players clearly knows what’s in play. It will also greatly enhance you own story telling to know what the limits of the world are.

Loss of Balance

It might be comforting to think that everything in the printed material has all been fairly balanced. Sadly I can assure you this is not the case, especially the further you stray from core books. Deadlines can force some things to be rushed, while differing DMing style might make something seem balanced in one campaign but which might break another campaign.

The more content, the greater the number of options which will stray from a balanced path. Home-Brew is especially bad as it might be entirely theory-craft, or has seen testing only in one campaign with one DM. The closer you can stick with Core products, the easier it is to evaluate the balance of something outside the Core.

The Collector’s buzz

I’m a collector, and when I like a game I have to own it all. I won’t boast about some my collections, but for those systems I like I have all I could need. I liked D&D3e when it first came out, only to have it quickly become 3.5e. I purchased the Core books, the main Forgotten Realms books and stopped there. Why? Because it was obvious from the outset that this wasn’t a product line which I can collect my my limited budget.

So I understand the little buzz you get as a collector when you have the final book. I know the elation when that RPG might have been rare a few decades ago but you finally have the last book in hand. However, it’s important to know that RPGs are changing, and now there is no longer a last book, there is always another one around the corner.

I really just want to warn people about collection addiction, and suggest that you only collect those you reasonably can. If a system is good, then it should always remain just as good with just the core rules. For this reason I have maybe 2-4 books from various RPGs simply because I liked the system and/or the setting and I wanted that, but I knew I’d never get all the books.

So happy collecting, but just beware that more choice won’t make your games more immersive, and will likely have the exact opposite effect. So choose wisely, and always put the game before consumerism. If you need new books to make yourself a better GM, then focus on honing your core GMing skills instead. As always, listen to your players and have fun!