The Alexandrian

On the Slaying of Spherical Cows

February 17th, 2011

A couple years ago I talked about the way in which “modern” encounter design had crippled itself by fetishizing balance, resulting in encounters which were less flexible, less dynamic, and less interesting. This trend in encounter design has, unfortunately, only accelerated. More recently, I’ve started referring to it as My Precious Encounter(TM) design — a design in which every encounter is lovingly crafted, carefully balanced, painstakingly pre-constructed, and utterly indispensable (since you’ve spent so much time “perfecting” it).

Around that same time, I was also talking about the Death of the Wandering Monster: The disconnect between what I was seeing at the game table and the growing perception on the internet that wizards were the “win button” of D&D. Even a casual analysis indicates that the “win button” wizard only worked if you played the game in a very specific and very limited fashion. Given all the other possible ways you could play the game, why were people obsessing over a method of substandard play that was trivially avoided? And, in fact, obsessing over it to such a degree that they were willing (even desperate) to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to fix it?

The root problem which links both of these discussions together are the Armchair Theorists and CharOp Fanatics.

Now, let me be clear: Good game design is rooted in effective theory and strong mathematical analysis. Any decent game designer will tell you that. But what any good game designer will also tell you is that at some point your theory and analysis have to be tested at the actual gaming table. That’s why solid, effective playtesting is an important part of the game design process.

The problem with Armchair Theorists is that their theories aren’t being meaningfully informed or tested by actual play experiences. And the problem with CharOp Fanatics is that, in general, they’re pursuing an artificial goal that is only one small part of the actual experience of playing an RPG.

Among the favorite games of the Armchair Theorists is the Extremely Implausible Hypothetical Scenario. The most common form is, “If we analyze one encounter in isolation from the context of the game and hypothesize that the wizard always has the perfect set of spells prepared for that encounter, then we can demonstrate that the wizard is totally busted.”

Let’s call it the Spherical Cow Fallacy: “First, we assume a spherical cow. Next, we conclude that cows will always roll down hills and can never reach the top of them. Finally, we conclude that adventures should never include hills.”

Ever seen the guys claiming that wizards render rogues obsolete because knock replaces the Open Locks skill? That’s a spherical cow. (In a real game it would be completely foolish to waste limited resources in order to accomplish something that the rogue can do without expending any resources at all. It’s as if you decided to open your wallet and start burning $10 bills as kindling when there’s a box of twigs sitting right next to the fireplace.)

Another common error is to implicitly treat RPGs as if they were skirmish combat games. Ever notice how much time is spent on CharOp forums pursuing builds which feature the highest DPS (sic)? Nothing wrong with that, of course. But when you slide from “this is a fun little exercise” to believing that a class is “br0ken” if it doesn’t deliver enough DPS, then you’re assuming that D&D is nothing more than a combat skirmish game.

Another variant is Irrational Spotlight Jealousy. A common form of this is, “The rogue disables the trap while everyone sits around and watches him do it.” (In a real game, traps are either (a) more complicated than that and everyone gets involved or (b) take 15 seconds to resolve with a simple skill check. The idea that a game grinds to a halt because we took 15 seconds to resolve an action without everybody contributing is absurd.)

Then there’s the Guideline as God, which becomes particularly absurd when it becomes the TL;DR Guideline as God. This is the bizarre intellectual perversion of the CR/EL system I described in Revisiting Encounter Design in which the memetic echo chamber of the internet transformed some fairly rational guidelines for encounter design into an absolute mandate that “EL = EPL”. (For a non-D&D example, consider a recent thread on Dumpshock which featured a poster who considered the statement “when a corporation or other needs someone to do dirty work, they look to the shadowrunners” to be some sort of absolute statement and was outraged when a scenario included a corporation performing a black op without using shadowrunners.)

And when these fallacies begin feeding on each other, things get cancerous. Particularly if they become self-confirming when designers use their faulty conclusions as the basis for their playtests. Playtests, of course, would ideally be the place where faulty conclusions would be caught and re-analyzed. But playtests are like scientific experiments: They only work if they’ve been set-up properly.

For example, 4th Edition suffers as a roleplaying game because so much of the game was built to support the flawed My Precious Encounters(TM) method of adventure design. Proper playtesting might have warned the designers that they were treating 4th Edition too much like a skirmish combat game. But unlike the playtesting for 3rd Edition (in which playtesters were given full copies of the rules and told to “go play it”), the reports I’ve read about 4th Edition playtesting suggest that the majority of playtesters were given only sections of the rules accompanied by specific combat encounters to playtest. Such a playtest was designed to not only confirm the bias of the design, but to worsen it.

(Not a problem, of course, if you believe that D&D should be primarily a skirmish combat game.)

Personally, I think it’s time for a slaughtering of these spherical cows. Neither our games nor our gaming tables are well-served by them.

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24 Responses to “On the Slaying of Spherical Cows”

  1. -C says:

    This post summarizes 80% of modern gaming forum content brilliantly.

    Thank you. I think I’m going to write a post about your post, because the word must be spread.

  2. Nueanda says:

    Amen and hallelujah!

    Combat took a step forward with 4e, while everything else was left behind wondering where every one went.

  3. Andy P says:

    > Personally, I think it’s time for a slaughtering of these spherical cows. Neither our games nor our gaming tables are well-served by them.

    Then let go of D&D.

    Seriously.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by your analyses of D&D, not to mention your more general words of wisdom on GMing and RPing (the megadungeon stuff lately was gold dust). But I do wonder why you spend so much time analysing the flaws in something which surely you must have concluded by now is inherently flawed? It’s your own time of course, and I find your discussions and conclusions enlightening, but there must be some hint of masochism in there to keep doing it.

    As it happens I don’t play D&D but do play other systems (far more often wargames than RPGs but a little roleplay every now and then never hurt anybody); I’ve been able to adapt some of your D&D-focussed ideas for other systems, but I’d be interested to see you applying the same level of analysis to WFRP (though I gather the new edition is even more a skirmish combat game than D&D; it holds no interest for me; but the previous edition does) or 40KRPG or many of the other systems out there.

    Ultimately:

    > (Not a problem, of course, if you believe that D&D should be primarily a skirmish combat game.)

    Evidently, the D&D designers do. That’s the fundamental truth here.

  4. Star says:

    @Andy: …Did you ever consider that Mr. Alexander, you know, LIKES DND? I dunno about anyone else here but if I write about something, it means I care about it enough TO write about it. People who say “Then just stop playing” when a person complains about one aspect completely ignore the fact that the person complaining… usually likes the rest of it. Otherwise, you know, they WOULD leave it behind (as many people have with Fourth Ed). It’s like saying someone should throw away their TV because one channel doesn’t get reception.

  5. Neonchameleon says:

    > Ever seen the guys claiming that wizards render rogues obsolete because knock replaces the Open Locks skill? That’s a spherical cow. (In a real game it would be completely foolish to waste limited resources in order to accomplish something that the rogue can do without expending any resources at all.

    And you miss the argument (it’s not one I entirely share). The argument isn’t that the wizard should be preparing knock. It’s that three scrolls of knock at 150gp each are a good cheap replacement for the rogue. Knock isn’t worth preparing precisely because you won’t often need it. Which makes it perfect to cast from a scroll. And 150GP is trivial resources past a certain level, and certainly a lot smaller than the rogue’s share of the treasure would be.

    >The problem with Armchair Theorists is that their theories aren’t being meaningfully informed or tested by actual play experiences.

    Does that mean that you are an armchair theorist? Because I’ve seen (and comitted) many of the commonly listed problems in 3e. They happen. They are real. Some, like Pun-Pun simply aren’t and aren’t intended to be. And others can be given workrounds like reintroducing wandering monsters into 3e (something that forces your game to be combat intensive – it’s when you take the casters away from combat they blow the game apart). Also while the 3e DMG might say what you say it does, when the Roper was the last time they put a monster like that in a module of course it didn’t take.

    Sitting down claiming that problems don’t exist is a pointless excercise when they have been demonstrated to exist in actual play. And claiming that there are workrounds which means that the problem is one of spherical cows is disingenuous when the workrounds are not actually a part of the rules.

    TL;DR: When cows start rolling down the street, objecting that people are modelling using spherical cows is not a credible objection.

  6. jdh417 says:

    4e really seems to have been designed for gamers of a different era, namely World of Warcraft, clickies miniature combat, and Magic the Gathering. It’s not wrong, as long as the people playing are having a good time. It’s just different. 4e isn’t an RPG with other forms of gaming grafted to it; it’s the other way around. WOTC added the face-to-face, tabletop, role-playing element to a game that combined the other forms of gaming.

    In short, it’s pointless to compare 4e to the versions of the game that proceeded it or try to improve it as a traditional RPG. Perhaps it would be better to focus on new ways of making Old School and 3e games better and more enjoyable.

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    Neonchameleon: “And you miss the argument (it’s not one I entirely share). The argument isn’t that the wizard should be preparing knock. It’s that three scrolls of knock at 150gp each are a good cheap replacement for the rogue. Knock isn’t worth preparing precisely because you won’t often need it. Which makes it perfect to cast from a scroll. And 150GP is trivial resources past a certain level, and certainly a lot smaller than the rogue’s share of the treasure would be.

    You’re just spinning the spherical cow here. Consider the assumptions you’ve made: (1) You won’t encounter more than 3 locks in a single scenario. (I have more locks than that in my house.) (2) The rogue does nothing except open locks. (Patently false.) (3) Trivial or not, there’s not something better that those scrolls could be purposed for than knock spells.

    Neonchameleon: “And others can be given workrounds like reintroducing wandering monsters into 3e (something that forces your game to be combat intensive…

    When the metaphor is spelled out in the essay itself, there’s not really much excuse for not understanding that it’s a metaphor (and one option among many).

    Neonchameleon: “…when the Roper was the last time they put a monster like that in a module of course it didn’t take.

    So because WotC screwed up we all have to march along in lockstep and keep screwing up, too? No thanks. I’ll pass.

  8. Neonchameleon says:

    > So because WotC screwed up we all have to march along in lockstep and keep screwing up, too? No thanks. I’ll pass.

    Of course you don’t. You can play your game however you want – and I have no doubt that your game is better than the 3e published modules by WoTC just as my 4e game is. However your essay above talks about “armchair theorists” and “spherical cows”, which both imply that these issues don’t actually happen in the real world. They do, as you yourself acknowledge. And the views of the people you blithely dismiss as armchair theorists are informed by actual play experiences.

    Which means that the problem is neither spherical cows nor armchair theorists but people doing things wrong. It’s a set of actual problems found in the real world by many people in 3e, but that can be worked round and past. And your blog is interesting because it shows ways of working past those issues.

    As for the knock spells replacing the rogue, it’s not one I hold. But:
    > (1) You won’t encounter more than 3 locks in a single scenario.

    You mean three *good* locks (or three time critical locks). A dex of 14, one cross class rank in open locks, and masterwork thieves tools will open any average or poor lock if you take 20. Also you mean three locks that can’t be bypassed by e.g. brute strength to lever the treasure chest open.

    > 2) The rogue does nothing except open locks. (Patently false.)

    Agreed. The rogue also disarms traps better than anyone – which isn’t often useful outside the dugeon. He’s also a melee damage monkey. The other two facets of the rogues class are overlapped hard by the bard; the bard’s better at social skills and about as good at stealth and recon (the rogue gets the incredibly useful spot skill but the bard has spellcasting).

    > (3) Trivial or not, there’s not something better that those scrolls could be purposed for than knock spells.

    That depends whether you have someone with open lock in the party.

  9. Piccamo says:

    To add my own input to the useless rogue idea, overpowered clerics, and so on, I remember encountering those same problems well before I started reading about them on forums.

    My very first game, I played a fighter and a friend played a cleric. I didn’t have much of an idea about what to do and neither did my friends. With spells, I was generally outclassed by the cleric when it came to fighting and, while my character was the nephew of the patriarch of a powerful merchant family and could call in favors as such, the cleric had an equally strong background with the backing of his church. I contributed about as much in combat compared to the cleric, he had better out of combat utility, especially after we started getting scrolls and wands, and when it came to contacts and favors I was at least equaled. I eventually switched tracks and replaced my fighter with a ranger simply because I didn’t feel particularly useful.

    A couple of years later, I was DMing a game with a friend who was a rogue and one who was a psion. Their characters had met while working for a thieves’ guild in some city or another and had been contracted to recover an item that had been pillaged by a warlord. The group really didn’t need extra damage from the rogue and they had some overlapping skills with a ranger (who had become useful by helping track down the warlord faster than they could have found a guide to their encampment). The rogue was happy to help out of combat, especially with locks and traps. They were attacking the fortress by sneaking in through a passage they had found by scouting the area. There was a small, locked door inside and before the rogue could unlock it, the Psion had Psionic Knocked the door. He didn’t even consider that he was stepping on the rogue’s toes, but he was. The rogue player eventually switched to a paladin because he wasn’t feeling like he was contributing anything.

    Spellcasters largely obsolete their more mundane counterparts both in and out of combat. It’s not some magical spell-list where they have to have the right spell for the job. Thanks to wands and scrolls and the assumptions made in the DMG about player wealth, spellcasters can always have plenty of utility spells, can always contribute in combat, and can contribute to social situations about as well as anyone else. It’s not as though you need some special class to apply to any particular background. Some classes are simply better in every single way.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    And here we see the bottomless pit of the spherical cow: When you point out the absurdly specific nature of the hypothetical scenario, the debate simply shifts to haggling over the details of the absurdly specific scenario. And the spherical cow spins faster.

    Sorry, I don’t accept your premise that the rogue’s usefulness in the game is determined solely by the number of locks in a given scenario. Debating the exact number of locks or the DC of those locks is only spinning the spherical cow.

    @Piccamo: In an example where the rogue’s melee damage was rendered irrelevant by one guy, his skill selection being duplicated by another guy, and a psion once unlocked a door… I’m not clear why it’s the psion that made the rogue irrelevant.

    I’ve certainly seen situations where two characters are competing for the same niche and one of the characters lose. Sometimes it’s a metagame issue (Bill and Sue are both equally good at disabling traps, but somehow Bill’s character got pegged as “the guy who disables traps” so Sue becomes irrelevant 90%+ of the time). Somtimes it’s a mechanical issue. (Last year, for example, I had a player who made some mistakes in their fighter build and ended up being out-performed at all the things they wanted to do by the party’s barbarian. We had to sit down and rebuild their fighter.)

    But IME it’s rarely the spellcasters causing the mechanical niche issues. Partly because it’s ineffective play. (Expending resources on something you can do for free.) Partly because they can’t keep it up. (Without expending even more resources to do something that can be done for free.)

    It’s like replacing your refrigerator with a vending machine and then complaining that you’re paying twice for your groceries (once to buy ’em, once to get ’em out of the vending machine). The problem here is not with the concept of a vending machine.

  11. fliprushman says:

    I agree with Justin here. This is why I stress the importance that the players need to build their characters together and think about their party composition. In addition, I also tell them building something more general or too specific will result in their character being useless in many occasions mainly because of how the DC’s work in the game and how encounters are supposed to work (there is a nifty little chart in the DMG).

  12. rorschachhamster says:

    The rogue disarms a trap and everybody watches? In my games, it always came to this: The rogue is disarming the trap and everybody else seeks cover and reasserts the rogue of his friendship and good will… as if it would be the last chance to talk to him… And this is the rogue shining? Yeah, thought so. 😉

    @fliprushman: Even though I agree with Justin as well, I don’t think the characters should even bother too much about the mechanical bits.
    Of course, even though one character is better than the other at something, under normal circumstances there are enough possibilities, that both characters are needed. How about a door with two keyholes, like in some safes? That’s the place for a well timed Knockspell, to help the rogue out.
    There are no full spellcasters in my 3.5 campaign and it works out for them. they have enough fightingpower to use that to their advantage. Yes, maybe it would be easier with a mage or cleric. But it still is fun, so what? There is no thing that is defeatable by spells alone. And then, there are NPCs they(not the dm) can fall back to if something’s needed the group can not provide.
    It work’s, even at levels 12-13…

  13. Neonchameleon says:

    > Sorry, I don’t accept your premise that the rogue’s usefulness in the game is determined solely by the number of locks in a given scenario.

    Try re-reading my comment. I point blank agree with you there. In part because when I play a rogue, lockpicking is the least of what they do. It’s the stealth, the sneaking, and the subtlety. But as I pointed out, rogues have strong rivals in these fields if you aren’t actually worried about lock picking or trap disarming. (Or have an artificer along).

    And as I have pointed out repeatedly, a spherical cow is an example used to show how absurd assumptions are. What you call spherical cows ACTUALLY HAPPEN. Simply because they don’t happen at your table doesn’t make them spherical cows. It makes them at best kangaroos or other weird fauna. You yourself have pointed out that you pressurise spellcasters by using things like wandering monsters. Yet somehow you claim that on one side and that the problem is simply theoretical on the other.

  14. Sashas says:

    Re Neonchameleon:

    “And as I have pointed out repeatedly, a spherical cow is an example used to show how absurd assumptions are. What you call spherical cows ACTUALLY HAPPEN. Simply because they don’t happen at your table doesn’t make them spherical cows. It makes them at best kangaroos or other weird fauna. You yourself have pointed out that you pressurise spellcasters by using things like wandering monsters. Yet somehow you claim that on one side and that the problem is simply theoretical on the other.”

    You’re absolutely right. These “spherical cows” do occur at the gaming table. What we’re running up against here is the Purpose of having a set gaming system like D&D. I propose that these systems exist at a fundamental level to make it easier for us to enjoy our games. (I’m not sure if we can make it more basic than that.) In general, they do this by streamlining the experience, allowing us to immerse ourselves in what our characters are doing.

    The way this streamlining is managed, however, relies on the assumptions made by the system designers. For example, all editions of D&D assume that there will be a group of players in the general viscinity of 4-6. All editions of D&D assume further that each player will run a single character, or one character and a few pets.

    When you deviate from these assumptions, OF COURSE THE BALANCE GOES TO HELL. I can’t emphasize that enough. This is not a problem with the system! This is, also, NOT a problem with the play style or that particular group. All it means is that the group in question must adjust the balance themselves to meet their different assumptions. Or, y’know, they could just accept the imbalance.

    Case in point: D&D3.5 assumes that characters will adventure for more than one encounter per day. This assumption, it turns out, does not jive with the way many groups play. Arguably, this is a problem for the system. With 3.5 as it is, to maintain balance a GM must find some way to impose urgency on the PCs, do some rebalancing, or accept the status quo.

    How does this relate to Spherical Cows? You’re making assumptions about how the game is played. Those assumptions do not match how the game is designed to be played. Consider this Jenga variant, in which you and your opponent have two separate towers of unequal size. Unfair? Absolutely. Unbalanced? Absolutely. Does this have ANY bearing whatsoever on the game Jenga? No! That’s simply not how the game was designed to be played.

  15. -C says:

    Hm. It appears that the 80% of modern forum content was magically duplicated in the comments section of this article.

    odd.

    On topic, the only time I’ve ever seen these things actually exist are in situations that don’t resemble a real game – just a series of combat encounters. I think that’s why they might not exist.

  16. Andy P says:

    @Star: from Mr Alexander’s newest post:

    > So count me down pretty firmly in the camp of “I like the format, I don’t like the rules”.

    I’m not sure if he’s stated it explicitly before, but I’ve picked up that vibe in, well, pretty much every post he’s made about 4th Ed D&D. That’s why I wonder why he doesn’t apply his same analyses and good writing skills to talking about other games sometimes.

  17. Xavin says:

    @Andy P: I think there may be aconversation occurring at cross-purposes here.

    Justin doesn’t like *4th Ed* D&D. That is, as you say, clear.

    He _does_ appear to like other editions of D&D, and applies his analyses and writing skills to those as well as 4th Ed.

    The term “D&D” doesn’t only apply to 4th Ed – which is why your original suggestion that he should “let go of D&D” struck such an odd note. If you meant he should stop going about the flaws in 4th Ed then that would make more sense.

    I’d still disagree with you, mind – I enjoy reading that stuff at least as much as his other writing.

  18. Andy P says:

    @Xavin: fair point, well made. Yes, I should have been more specific – it is clearly 4th Ed that Justin has the problem with (and for good reason afaict).

    I suppose it’s partly force of habit that leads me to assume most people tend to play the latest version of whatever game they play: I’m a Warhammer player and decidedly not keen on the new 8th Edition, but unfortunately my gaming group want to play with the new rules, so I can’t stick to 7th Ed. Perhaps I’m assuming that Mr Alexander is playing (and not enjoying) D&D 4th Ed, when in fact he may be playing an earlier edition, and merely critiquing 4th Ed. (Though that would appear contrary to his position on armchair critics?)

    Still, I’ve not played D&D – at all – since 2nd Ed, about 18 years ago, but I do find the analyses of how the game has changed, and whom it is supposed to appeal to now, fascinating. I assumed that in order to be able to analyse it to this depth, Justin must be playing it, and apparently not enjoying it very much! My assumption may very well be untrue.

  19. voodoochile says:

    I love your posts, but don’t agree with this one so much.

    For me the most insulting thing in the game is that wizards, who already have top-tier in combat and out of combat utility with their spells, also end up getting a crazy number of skill points because they are the only class with INT as their sole attribute. At level 1 they are only a few skill points short of a rogue, and after some stat increases into INT they begin to surpass them.

    Fighters on the other hand, get 2 skill points and can’t really afford an INT bonus. It is very hard for them to contribute to the out-of-combat roleplaying using the rules as written.

    TL;DR version: skill point disparity for roleplaying opportunities really gets my goad.

  20. Marc says:

    voodoochile wrote:

    “For me the most insulting thing in the game is that wizards, who already have top-tier in combat and out of combat utility with their spells …”

    10 years of playing 3e, as player and DM and wizards were generally the weakest and most likely to get killed.

    3.5e Wiz has a plethora of weaknesses: Low AC, Low HP, Subpar saves, vulnerabilities (loss of spellbook, loss of familiar, silence, being grappled, loss of components, feeblemind spell -4 save, damaged while casting, etc)

    Further, spells that look great on paper are often ineffective: immunities, SR, Energy Res, made saving throws, etc

    Wiz spells can indeed seem powerful, espec when cast by some monster that shares none of the Wiz-class’s balancing weaknesses (e.g. a vampire), and that’s where I think the perception of Wiz=win has it’s roots.

    Caveat: we largely played levels 2-12, DMs rarely allowed 15-min workdays.

  21. acabaca says:

    A quick reminder: the rogue and his lockpicking skills don’t come free – he represents the opportunity cost of some player picking Rogue instead of some other class, preferably a spellcaster.

  22. John Kerpan says:

    The thing that makes this difficult to discuss is that after a generation or two of players have read the discussion on forums that Alex is called shperical-cowness, that becomes how the game is played. Similarly, as theory-crafters post their builds, and people use them, the game does change.

    The main problem seems to be that the expectations of a player playing a wizard, and a player playing a rogue are completely different. I wizard can only cast so many spells a day. They can only buy so many scrolls. They can only charm so many other chumps to do their dirty work. Rogues can pick lock and detect traps until the cows come home. A wizard will not want to be in a scenario where they have to carefully pick 20 locks in order to get something. In fact, they might try blowing other spells, maybe teleports, fireballs, summons, knocks, etc. to get to the goal without going through the 20 locks.

    Then they will be out of spells, and they will take the loot and hide until they are replenished. If the GM forces them to fight after burning their spells, it will seem to be punishment (which it is), and unfair to the player. A wizard without spells, as someone once put it, is a commoner in funny clothes. Similarly, attacking the wizard as he flees, attacking the wizard as he tries to rest, stealing spell books from the wizard, using anti-magic… All these potential game balancing options that exist solely to make magic a resource that should be used sparingly are being complained about on forums, where everyone believes that the wizard is the best, and that it is their right to never be incovenienced.

    Meanwhile the rogue has calmly picked, disassembled, reassembled, and relocked every lock in the dungeon.

  23. Razia says:

    Hi could u do a free spell for me cos I’m desperate

  24. Zrog says:

    As a preface to my comments: I completely agree that 4e is a different game, designed with different “play assumptions”, and probably intended to cater to a different market/demographic, if only because the new developers are PART of that demographic, and they thought that D&D would be so much more awesome if it was “improved in this direction”.

    My main comment is that in addition to the particulars of an RPG system, the game master (GM) faces SO many variables with regard to the PLAYERS themselves (as I’m currently experiencing while running a new group of players), that the role of “fun referee” (that is, trying to create in each session something that all the players would consider “fun”), seems to be way more encompassing than the rules could ever allow for.

    In some ways, I equate D&D rules to a religion – a lot of people use the pieces that make sense to them and use them to better their (gaming) life, but don’t necessarily agree with the whole package of dogma, and a lot of it doesn’t help them in daily situations anyway. In D&D-land, there are so many damn expansions and optional rules that you could run a completely different “rule set” than the GM at the next table. Combine that with made-up “house rules”, and I don’t even know how GMs can complain that they don’t have the tools to get themselves out of any fix the players happen to put them in, no matter what it is.

    A massive amount of the “balance” of D&D involves the challenges presented, in what order and frequency, and whether the players choose the most optimal use of their resources (many don’t, either because of forgetfulness or because they can actually stay in character and stop meta-gaming). Heck, a lot of it even has to do with when the GM decides that a die roll is required (or not) and what difficulty he’s going to apply!

    That is why I agree with the Spherical Cow argument. In a nutshell: too many variables, too many assumptions, too many available solutions, and GMs trying to be too damn perfect all the time. Yes, players will break your creation once in awhile (and it might have been your screw-up, not theirs), but nothing prevents you from having a conversation about it and using one of the many tools at your disposal to get back on track, regardless of the game system.

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