Letters to the Editor

Sympathy for the Devil


In response to “Out of the D&D Closet” from The Escapist Forums: Give me a break. You sat in on one session and just watched another, and suddenly you’ve got the whole thing and all of its infinite possibilities figured?

Look, I love video games as much as anybody, but I don’t think you could ever rightly call any of them true RPGs. Tabletop games offer a level of real free will that video games likely will never be able to replicate until real AI is invented in a form that can duplicate the imagination of a human DM.

As to the matter of coercing players into doing the “right” thing or the party having to fulfill a specific quest being a necessary evil in tabletop world, actually, it is not, and thus the game is not limited as the author has put forth. As a DM/GM of going on thirty years’ experience, I can’t tell you how many times I have allowed the party to split, and either took turns gaming both groups, cutting back-and-forth as in a movie, or simply scheduled two individual sessions until they got back together again.

The limitation here comes from various sources: the rigidity of what is essentially tournament play (which really is a much rarer form of gaming and should not be used to represent the whole); or the limitations of the GM’s imagination, which I submit may actually come from that GM’s overexposure to the way video games work. In other words, while it’s possible the GM was simply a stubborn guy or not good at thinking on his feet, it’s much more likely that his determination to coerse the difficult player into playing along had more to do with his using video games as a model for adventure planning.

Nearly every group I’ve ever been involved with (and certainly the ones I GM) value free will and will either prepare for a rogue character wandering off, or will improvise something to accomodate her.


Rowan Kaiser:
As for those of you who say that they’ve had DMs created totally open and free worlds, I’d have to see this to agree with you. I really don’t understand how that could be played as a game with rules.

As a GM I try to create an open world for my players.

In reality, I’m well aware that I don’t – not fully. Your instinctive thoughts that it’s damn near impossible to create a totally open world for people to play in is pretty accurate.

And to a degree, you normally don’t want to give your players complete freedom, because it makes it difficult for the game to progress (complete freedom being “Here’s the world, there’s your character. What do you do?”) – your players need at least a bit of direction from you as GM.

I just try to create a world where I know roughly what’s going on away from and around the players, I have some detailed NPCs for them to meet (so that when they interact with them, it doesn’t matter how they interact, I can work with it) and basic outline for a plot (some of it built on the backstory of the PCs).

I can usually prepare a fair bit of detailed stuff in advance by guessing what they’re going to. And in every single session, they do something I haven’t prepared for, and I have to wing it (sometimes with more success than others). Most of the roleplaying is therefore the players interacting with things and dealing with the consequences.

I think the real goal with roleplaying is to give your players as much freedom of choice as they (and you) can manage.

Soylent Dave


In response to “On the Origin of Games” from The Escapist Forums: I have to say, as a biologist myself, I absolutely loved the analogy to evolution. Though if we’re going to go the biology route, should we consider video games and tabletop games as separate species? After all, they were able to produce viable offspring (Baldur’s Gate) which could produce their own offspring (Baldur’s Gate II). In the classic species concept, this makes both the same species. Or am I overthinking this?


Great use of the tools developed for thinking about evolution to think about gaming! I think this analogy might also be powerful for talking about how games change over time in a way that acknowledges that change happens in an adaptive fashion without falling into the “newer = reflects more progress = better” fallacy.

Since we’re all academics here, allow me to quibble about 1988 as the date for the first passable D&D videogame. Over at the OD&D boards I was surprised to see how far back the replies to “what are the most old school D&D rules you know of in a Roguelike or other computer game?” go; TUTOR programming on the dnd game seems to have begun the same year D&D was first published! I haven’t played dnd, but I know that back in the early ’80s the original Wizardry struck me as a more than passable representation of the part of D&D I cared about most at the time, as did Moria when I discovered it in ’88.



In response to “Imagine Your Perfect Arcade Game” from The Escapist Forums: The weakness of the old Red Box was the mechanics – the strength was how open it was to modification.

Some classes were all but un-playable unless you had open-ended role-playing. What’s the point of a thief if you’re being forced to grind through a combat-heavy dungeon? But open up the world to the possibility of strategic engagement, and suddenly the thief or combat-useless spells become a ticket to a completely different approach.

Sadly this put all too much pressure on the DM to handle all these possibilities, and that’s the single point of failure of table-top D&D (and why computerized games are more successful): everyone wants to play and nobody wants to be the DM.


I started playing D&D (now known as Basic D&D or Original D&D back in ’77 when I was 10 years old, in daily summer camp. The first time I played, I was enthralled. The second time, I asked to borrow the DM’s book and read it around the pool (and read it for so long I sunburned my back!). Later that summer, for my birthday, I got the original Blue Box Edition.

Ah, for the days when “Elf” and “Dwarf” were classes as well as races, and clerics started receiving spells only at 2nd level! I can still tell you all about my first character, Zenobia, and how she got her two party mates killed at Keep on the Borderlands (they wanted to enter and sack it, my character was lawful, offered to take the last watch guardpost, and after they were in reverie, she ran to the Keep and warned them. When the elves woke, they decided my character had been killed and dragged off in the night. When they got to the keep and claimed to be “friend” when asked “Friend or Foe?”, they got told “You lie!” and ballista bolted for their trouble.)

D&D brings back many wonderful memories for me, and I still have most of my early D&D stuff, from B2, Keep on the Borderlands, to B1, In Search of the Unknown. And who can forget the Tomb of Horrors, the module that led to hundreds of TPKs (Total Party Kills)?



In response to “Red Box Renaissance” from The Escapist Forums: My friends & I were avid 3 & 3.5 edition players who tried 4th edition for over a year before we gave up on it, and what killed us were the balance and the emphasis on melee combat. Everything was perfectly balanced, which sounds good on paper but is boring as hell in actual play.

Fighting a boss? You KNOW he has 600 hp (for example) and your attacks all do 30-60 points – there are no one-hit kills. None. Ever. So every fight is a grind. The idea – get rid of the endless parade of one-hit kills at high-level play – was good, but in practice it’s really boring. Set the perfect ambush and instantly assassinate someone? Impossible.

Tied into that is the emphasis on melee combat. Ranges for bows, spells, everything is a joke. If you can shoot them they can reach you for melee within a round or two… and the handful of flying archer monsters are horrifyingly powerful. “Real” ranged combatants – archers who can pin you down across a battlefield, snipers, etc. – are nonexistent.

There’s other stuff, but these two things are symptomatic of the general problem: LESS options than any previous version. You have a list of carefully balanced cards and… that’s it. You can do other stuff, sure, but the effects are all relatively limited to keep it in balance with everything else. Disarm an opponent? Not unless you have the disarm special ability (which comes at fairly high level powers). Shatter a rapier? Never. Insta-kill with a headshot or lethal poison? Nope. Run through the same short list of powers again, and again, and again? There ya go!

So yeah, we play other stuff.


Thank you for the interview. It was a much appreciated read.

I just received the Red Box today, and, as a lapsed WotC D&D gamer who has been very critical of the current edition of the game, I have to say that my first impressions are positive. I am cautiously optimistic, and will start to read through the set tonight as if I had never read the 4e core books before. I’m willing to re-start from scratch and see where that leads me.

I hope Essentials represents a genuine adjustment of the way WotC’s R&D department is looking at the game, and not just a temporary marketing move for the next few months.

On RPGnet, Mike Mearls was pointing out that “When you’re dealing with beginning players, mechanics that clearly model what’s happening in the game world are really, really helpful. They make it that much easier to understand how the game works and make informed decisions.” (link provided at the end of my post)

To quote my answer to him on that thread, thing is, I don’t think it’s just beginners who are like this, but a sizeable subset of the player base as a whole, veterans, beginners and everyone in between. Some people, like myself, need mechanics to represent something in the game world, and are increasingly bothered with the rules of the game the more removed from the game world, or abstract, they become.

This makes them think more and more in terms of rules first, and game world second. This can even drive a wedge between these two aspects of the game for them. And there, you have it: people getting really upset with the game because “it doesn’t let them role play with it”. I’m guessing that’s what they really mean when they write things like this (there’s a thread on these boards titled with a variation of this), and that’s really something that D&D R&D needs to understand and catter to for the game to become inclusive again for them.

I am cautiously optimistic.

Link to the RPGnet thread:


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