Predictability and Opacity in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
I came across this series of Tweets today from @rdonoghue and it got me thinking about game design.
“Random aside: One design ethic that i do not particularly enjoy in D&D is what i would describe as the "Gygaxian No" - that is, the players have legitimately earned certain abilities and spells, and adventure designers explicitly negate them for simplicity or effect
Two most common examples being higher level adventures that take away mobility effects (like flight), and effects which explicitly pierce immunities.
100% understand *why* adventures remove mobility, I just find it lazy and sloppy in almost every situation, especially because it's almost never "This is harder", but rather "This is FORBIDDEN”
And I just find the immunity thing a jerk move. Player immunities are reasonably rare in D&D, and are often against rarely-encountered things like disease, and the result is often the only time disease shows up is when it ignores immunity, and that's just crappy.”
What I find fascinating is the idea that having abilities restricted could be seen as a case of flawed game design. And it is certainly seen that way here, it is not “just different”, it is lazy, sloppy and a “jerk move”. There was pretty much universal agreement about it in the comments as well. That surprised me, what is “jerky” about restricting PC abilities in certain cases?
So let’s take an example of one of these cases of bad game design, it’s always better with an example. Here is one from Descent into the Depths of the Earth, one of those high level AD&D modules referred to, and one that restricts movement, something mentioned in the Tweets.
So note a few things. First off, it tells the DM not to penalize the players if they plan ahead for the difficult travel. And it then says to neither help nor harm them. I think this is an important point to bring up the trope of Gygaxian D&D being “unfair” or “punitive”, the DM’s job isn’t to be unfair and screw over the PCs, but to neither help them too much or harm them too much.
But on to the “Gygaxian no”. It forbids teleportation. Not all teleportation, but teleportation beyond a half mile. It does not forbid flight, or even spells like Dimension Door, which have a reach of much less than a half mile anyway. PCs have a lot of ways to fly, and to move across on the ground but faster or more easily. The pre-gen characters provided have two ways to fly (an ebony fly and a potion of flying) and two ways to move across the ground faster (boots of striding and springing and boots of speed). They also have access to a stone of controlling earth elementals, which can have all sorts of interesting effects on travel.
I don’t see how this lies under either of the assumed reasons for “nerfing” things, e.g. “simplicity or effect”. Nerfing teleportation doesn’t simplify the module, it makes it more involved, as the party can’t skip the land based travel. Neither does it produce much of an effect. It nerfs one particular spell, possessed by one of the pregens. That’s it.
Indeed, the very presence of pregenerated characters in the module suggest it was designed for use either in someone’s campaign or as a one shot adventure. So to suggest that it is unfair to players who have ‘earned’ their abilities, is a bit odd. For many this will be a tournament game or one shot adventure, so they haven’t “earned” anything. But even if it is for a long term game, nerfing a power in a limited way like this is not bad game design.
The player is not reduced to that ability or spell power, certainly in a AD&D game where the PCs were high level (as they are in this case) they would have many more arrows in their quiver. Here, for example, are the spell lists and some of the magic items:
Also, the ability to teleport is removed, but so too is it removed for the locals. Given the environment (underdark, drow, kua-toa, etc.) one might be thankful at this restriction.
The real issue here is not nerfing an ability, it’s the frequency of nerfing an ability. The baseline here is not “once I get an ability/spell it will always give me an advantage” it’s “once I get an ability/spell it will give me an advantage most of the time”. This is an important difference, as the latter implies some opacity in the tactical aspects of the game.
I think the concern about nerfing in this case also lacks context, or perhaps is mired in the wrong context. Gygax designed the game to challenge the players, not the characters. So this meant putting them in challenging situations where they would have to be creative to overcome, not just applying abilities in a rote way.
So why do these things happen so often, why does Gygax put so many nerfs in his modules? I don’t know if this is actually the case. I know there are modules where particular abilities are “nerfed”, but I don’t know if it was more common for Gygax to do it, and to what degree it is the case, for example, that disease immunities most often come up in modules where they are nerfed, as was claimed in the same thread.
If it is the case that immunity exceptions are common, then this is where I agree, choosing to do this sometimes is good game design, choosing to do this a lot is not. But I don't recall Gygax suggesting to do this a lot, he does discuss some specific examples, e.g. invisibilty, but there is no blanket call to nerf powers regularly or to ensure that players abilities are commonly nerfed. It's always contextual.
This is a fine line to walk from a design perspective, because it straddles two issues, predictability and opacity.
Some degree of predictability is needed for a game, as otherwise the players can’t make informed decisions, and you rob them of agency in the game. However, some degree of opacity is also needed, otherwise the game becomes a rote exercise and the players get bored.
You can get this opacity in a few ways, one is to randomize things, so you can’t know if any given instance of using an ability or spell will work, just the odds over time. Another way is to use counters, like the restriction in Descent, but forget the case of teleport, let’s try a low level spell.
For example, there are spells like shield that counters magic missile, how often you give enemy magic-users this spell thus matters if one of the party members has magic missile. If shield is a common spell, then magic missile will be nerfed in many cases. But of course it makes sense that a spell like shield exists, when a low level spell like magic missile exists that is so efficient, a counter to it would likely be made.
So again, it isn’t the counter to the ability or spell that matters, it is the frequency. But even that is contextual. In the case of shield and magic-missile, since the DMG method for choosing spells has a 1 in 10 chance of getting either spell, 2 in 10 if you want the spell as one option is to pick. So shield will come up often as the game is designed, and it is relatively common, and BTB, for enemy spell casters to have good odds of having shield, a spell that nerfs magic missile. There are other examples in spells, magic items and monsters. Contextual nerfs are all over the place in AD&D.
People assume these things are lazy, unimaginative and punitive as they don’t see their purpose in the game, and they don't understand the evolution of D&D from war games. A nerf is a tactical tool, it is no different than manouvering an enemy force into a place where they have some disadvantage, e.g. attackikng your enemy in a forest where there bows are less useful. Contextual nerfs are a big part of war games.
The purpose of counters like this is threefold, particularly in a long-playing game. They keep things from being too predictable, they give the players tactical/resource management choices, and they keep the challenge and the threat of lethality in the game.
Playing AD&D (the game in question as Gygax was being criticised for this) long term means balancing predictability and opacity, both to preserve lethality and challenge in the game, to give the players interesting choices, and to keep the game from becoming boring. These are just as important goals as “allowing the players to enjoy their ability/spell” in a long term game.
If there are counters to your abilities and spells then you can't assume that they will be sufficient for victory, and you will play differently. You can assume they won't be there all the time, so your abilites are still useful, but they might be there in certain cases. This means the game stays challenging, and carries the threat of lethality. I hear people all the time talk about how flight or some particular spell "breaks the game", but if you can't guarantee that the advantages will always apply, you will end up using things differently.
That’s another thing I don’t get about the critique. This is a problem for long term games as the PCs have earned their abilities over the campaign. But if it is long term, then any particular “nerf” is for one adventure or encounter, and since the PC will be on many adventures, it isn’t that big of a deal. The example of Descent is a good one to show this. The "nerf" on teleport in this module, if you were to apply it to a group using the pregens for a party, applies to one of the spells from one of the pregen characters of nine. That character's spells and magic items, just for reference:
So taking away teleport is a bummer, for sure, but its not like the PC is now dead in the water and unintersting to play.
All of this is fascinating to me, given the historical discourse about D&D. So many people complain about the fact that PCs can become too powerful, but balk at situations when their immunities or powers don’t work. They also complain about the oversimplified ‘pass fail’ mechanics of the game, but balk when exceptions to a rule appear.
They also assume playstyles, in a game where the primary goal is to challenge the players, removing situational bonuses/immunities on occasion in a case by case way is good game design. Not all the time of course, or it would get frustrating. But a quick look at a classic case from the big bad Gary Gygax shows that the nerf was very contextual, very narrow, and he encouraged the DM to allow the players to plan and get around the problems with ingenuity, to be fair, not help or unduly restrict them. It isn’t a “nerf a ton of abilities to crush the players” idea, it isn’t oversimplification or for “effect”, it’s designed to challenge the players.
In a game where the focus is on expressing and playing the character, removing situational bonuses/immunities seems unfair. That’s fine, if the goal is to maximize the player’s ability to play the character, to express them, to use their various abilities, then it would seem unfair to remove them. When your model is “give everyone a chance to shine” then taking away an ability would be taking the shine off.
What I object to is the idea that what Gygax is doing is lazy, or boring, or jerk behaviour, e.g., bad design. When I read things like this I just think that it’s seeing things without their context in a mean spirited way.
This difference in stance, between challenging the players and expressing the characters is starting to look like one of the major differences in playstyle in the hobby today. The important point is that neither approach is “lazy, sloppy or jerky”, they are simply different ways to approach the game and enjoy it.