Rules vs. Imagination

Commenter kensan-oni made the following comment in response to my previous post on x.p. budgets. I thought it was an important enough point that I wanted to make my own response to him as a post unto itself.

I think one of the things that should be noted is that while I agree with you on a level, the “Encounter to be Avoided” is something that doesn’t work if you stay by rules as written, ever since 2nd edition. The movement speeds are codified, the halfling’s hide in plain sight ability negated, and a lot of monsters are just plain faster than PC’s. Since Move Silently has been a real proficiency and the default sneaking ability, you just can’t sneak past that Giant anymore. Oh, you can turn away, and maybe, if you have horses or a teleport, get away, but the Giant moves faster than you do, and typically has attacks with great reach. 

The only thing that lets the party not be detected by monsters is DM Fiat. Which is something which you may do, but players will know that it’s because you choose not to notice them that they got away with sneaking or moving past a unbalanced encounter. 

Running away has been something that has not worked for decades now, under the AD&D system. While I *like* the idea of an encounter one shouldn’t fight, actually getting out of an encounter if you accidentally stumble upon it is just not likely. 

I realize it’s a playstyle issue, but by the mechanics, I’ve given up trying to run away or sneak a whole party by something long ago. 

While I can pull off what you are searching for with other systems, or 1E, I can’t so that with any version of D&D post Proficiencies.

First off, I take issue with the idea that “avoiding the encounter” begins and ends with “sneaking past” something.

Avoiding the encounter is just that– seeing a danger and then moving around it or not encountering it in the first place. This is why thieves are there, sneaking and hiding in front of the party. Or why magic-users have spells like clairaudience, clairvoyance, and wizard eye, and magic items like crystal balls. Or rings (or spells) of invisibility. You don’t have to sneak past the trolls if you just back away quietly before they know you’re there.

If your group is just going around busting in every door they see, then perhaps you have a point (but even so, see below). But if so, then they’re doing it wrong from an old school POV. It’s all about taking stuff, not necessarily killing monsters.

But that doesn’t even address the issue of dealing with encounters in a non-combat way.

What ever happened to *talking* your way past an encounter? Trying to convince the ogres that you’re really envoys of the necromancer, here to inspect their guards?

What ever happened to distracting enemies? If you really, absolutely, must get past something, then perhaps you should consider luring them out of where they are. That’s why there are spells like ventriloquism and dancing lights. Draw out the ogres (or even just some of them) and deal with the rest.

What ever happened to running away? You say that some monsters are faster, by the book, than characters. Well, maybe those characters who are weighted down with loot might just have to drop that bag of coins to speed themselves up. Or maybe you could use caltrops, or oil, or illusions, or spells like wall of fog, ice, or iron… If you think running away is only about speeds written in the Monster Manual, you’re just not using your imagination.

And therein, I think, lies the real crux of the issue. When someone says “the rules don’t let me do X”, I say either:

  1. the rules aren’t a straightjacket; use your imagination, or 
  2. use your imagination; the rules aren’t a straightjacket.

RPG rules should allow and encourage creative thinking by the players (and the DM). Kensan-oni’s comment exemplifies why I don’t like the all-encompassing approach of 4E (or, for that matter, 3.x). He says it’s a play style issue, but then in the same sentence complains that the rules don’t let you do something.

Let me challenge you thus; my play style says I can do things the rules don’t explicitly say I can. It says that if the rules throw up a roadblock, I can use my imagination to try to overcome that roadblock. Will I succeed? Who knows? But I’m going to try.

That’s the sort of culture I want rules to encourage. DnD Next started off strong in that score, but seems to have backed off lately as they move to appease the 4E players. I hope that trend doesn’t continue.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

10 thoughts on “Rules vs. Imagination

  1. I think the problem really is perspective, and having the luck to playing with both the best and the worst DM's ever in the history of Southern California.

    I have been playing this game since the first Red Box was released. The reason I've taken up this perspective on the rules is mainly that D&D consists of many places where Play Reality and Game Reality do not match up. Try doing a street chase where someone is on a rooftop and is chasing someone on the street, and you'll see what I mean.

    I admit, I really like 4E. I like it because there is a lot of what I see as roleplaying freedom in the game, and yes, some of the codification gets in the way, but given the power inbalance between classes I've experienced over the years, it really was refreshing how easy it was to approach and design for, and how flexible the class system let you do concepts that were impossible under earlier editions, and have all the players be effective over the course of a campaign. Not that it did everything I wanted it to from earlier editions, mind you, but for me, it was good enough.

    Also, my preferred roleplaying system is the Old World of Darkness (Particularly Mage, Changling, and Werewolf), which is a lot more flexible in what it allows you to do with your imagination than D&D ever has.

    I do love D&D to bits, mind you, but I've played long enough to know it's flaws, and a lot of it is rules related.

    You go on about talking to an encounter, or distracting to get past an encounter, which I will remind you isn't avoiding an encounter. It's interacting with an encounter, and either one can go bad and wrong, and until 3rd edition, didn't actually gain you full experience.

    Dropping Loot doesn't actually improve your speeds past 12, and taking a turn to set up caltrops, or even casting a Wall of X (Or Illusion? Really?) doesn't help you get away unless you had quite a lead to begin with. Assuming, of course, you are not dealing with a Tactical Gamemaster, who might have cut off your escape route with reinforcements.

    Precursor of knowledge only goes so far, from magic scrying (Which may not work), to scouting (Of whom may be caught), to distant observation. It is quite possible to underestimate threats, even when you have done your homework.

    We are of course, are assuming we are saying once an unavoidable encounter is engaged, it is hard to disengage from it. However, we also have the category of encounters where you do engage, and you have no way of not knowing you shouldn't have engaged. The High Priest with his escort of leveled NPC's can be such a case, as well as that room with the Idol in it. Guarded by whatever isn't immediately obvious. Traps, Spells, Vamperic Trappers… For sure, the players should not engage the Encounter. However, that doesn't mean they won't and that doesn't mean they could have known better.

    (Continues in response)

  2. In order to avoid a bad encounter, the player has to a) be reasonable, and b) must have the DM allow their trick to work. In your case, I get the feeling you are a generally compassionate and fair gamemaster who likes to use Puzzles as the core of their gameplay. I have played the full spectrum of gamemasters, from cruel and sadistic, to completely story driven games. The amount of imagination used, is a indication of playstyle, not rules. Rules and Imagination tend to come in conflict, and the way you choose to handle them sets a pattern for your players.

    The Players, in general, trust that you are going to uphold the rules, and be fair about them. Even back in the 70's. There was a lot more leeway in the rules back then, because a lot of things were not well defined, if at all. Could a Halfling actually hide undetected? The PHB says they can. There are no rules for it, beyond a simple statement in the PHB. Even though Thieves have completely different rules. How do you handle that? If they are a Halfling Thief, how does that work?

    The trust in DM's has changed as rules have become more codified. Imagination still counts for a heck of a lot, but only if your DM allows for it, and only if the rules can bend for it.

    Can you skip an encounter? Convince the Gamemaster. Can you outrun someone? That's up to the gamemaster. The rules tell me, no. A character can't outrun a threat. In a tight dungeon/temple/unfamilar city enviroment, I'm going to stick to that, because natives are going to know better about their land than the character will. If I never intended the players to fight whatever? I'll let em go after putting some scare in them.

    However, the choice of "This is an encounter you should avoid" is not in the DM's hands, even if that is their intent. It's in the players, and when the TPK happens, and it does, you can go "You were a fool to do that, and here's why", or you can decide that the fault was your own.

    TPK's happen. When they happen, they tell something about both the game, and the players playing it. You are saying players who engage unbeatable encounters are not using their imaginations. I'm saying even if they use their imaginations, it isn't always enough, and it doesn't always end well.

    The rules depth of D&D after first edition tell us what a party can expect out of a situation if they try to withdraw. If you have a DM that isn't a stickler for the rules, then great. If you do have one that is a stickler, however, then you are out of luck. Imagination only goes as far as the DM allows it.

    Always hope that you have, and you can be, that compassionate gamemaster. Not everyone can and wants to be.

  3. As to the rules straight-jacket, using imagination point, I think that (almost) every RPG rule book i own has a paragraph – if not more – somewhere near the front that offers up the rules to be changed if they don't work for you kid of game style.

    That doesn't mean every rule that gets in the way should go, but that if you're going to tweak something to allow for a storytelling device that the rules would make impossible, it has to be applied to the entire game, PCs and NPCs alike. Of course, your play style could hard and fast to the rules.

    If you know the system well enough and are strict in enforcement in every aspect of them, then by all means keep them the same. It's not my style, but everyone has their own way of playing.

  4. Kensan-Oni, you don't havr to out run the monster with the high movement rate, you have to beat the memebr of your party with the lowest movement rate.

    Reaction rolls, surprise checks, morale check, bluffing, and planning ahead all offer options.

  5. Ah, the sacrifice the fighter/cleric so everyone else can live, how noble of you, JD Davis. 🙂

    While you are correct, and assuming your version of D&D you using has them, they do tend to help players on occasion, but we are talking about situations where the NPC's are the superior force (The encounter to be avoided, correct?). Moral checks tend to be pretty big in some of these encounters.

    The Cleric example? Assuming Elite Guards (5th level according to most Battlesystem Modules) Starting Moral of men reasonably could be 90% and the Cleric (Assuming Name Level) is running the same. Moral failure is unlikely on encounters such as these. In the encounters that should not be encountered, I am sure the numbers should be about the same.

  6. I converted TOEE to Pathfinder which my players wanted to use as the system of choice. Avoiding encounters, and using flair and imagination was as essential post conversion as it was with 1E…. and guess what, the system managed it perfectly well, with some GM and player imagination.

    I plan to run the Giants and Drow series in the future, again modified for Pathfinder. I will not be 'balancing' encounters, and the players would be disappointed if I did. The know it will be difficult, and require some real thought and strategy. I do not expect Pathfinder to make this impossible – or come to that, for any system run by an experienced DM to make it impossible. That said, I have never run 4th ed, but I would expect players to still think and act their way around clearly suicidal situations, and agree whole-heartedly with some of the examples given our host here.

  7. Kensan, you mentioned that a number of encounters could be stumbled upon which were clearly deadly for the party, but for which they could not have anticipation.

    In reply I would have to argue two things. Firstly this would partially be a design failure if an adventure were designed with situations which actually enticed or even railroaded the party into such an attack without giving them some inkling. A little preparation and caution should always enable wise choices to be made. Bad luck, however, cannot be anticipated.

    The second would be the failure in DMing. Sure nobody wants to feel 'let off the hook', but I have to say that my style tends towards enabling the players to feel the sense of danger, and the rewards of successfully defying the odds. They are there for enjoyment, and that takes sensitivity on the part of the DM. It does not mean 'fudging' die rolls, or rewarding stupidity, rather it entails giving the party a break, and if they have a good idea to avoid, interact successfully, or escape from a disaster, then let the rules accommodate that. So the halfling can't out run the giant? The player decides to charge at it and run through his legs, causing it confusion, and the possibility of tripping over an obstacle behind it as it turns… why not? The possibilities are endless for a group with flair and common sense, and I cannot see why this is incompatible with systems up to and including Pathfinder (I do not exclude 4th for any reason other than lack of knowledge).

    Regardless of how the system says encounters should be run, I do not intend to run to a formula any time soon!

  8. A halfling cannot outrun a giant? Nonsense. All he needs is a small space to _crawl_ into and through and he's done it. Or he could just hide and be done with it. Just like this old world we live in, getting out of sight is good enough to utterly confuse a pursuer.

    Evasion and pursuit are codified with special rules in the D&D Cyclopedia because this is a major part of the game.

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