Friday, March 16, 2012

Effects vs. Meanings

Here you are, with your core rulebooks, your expansion books, and a sheaf of online articles with options for your character. What do you do with them?

If you’re like me, you spend at least some time thinking about the differences between effects and meanings.

On Wednesday, Brendan pointed me to this entry of the Hack & Slash blog, “On the Failure of Tactical Combat.” Don’t let the title fool you; it’s really about associative vs. dissociative game effects. I’ve always examined those concepts under different labels that come from wargaming: design for cause (associative) and design for effect (dissociative). 

To paraphrase that blog (though I recommend you read it for yourself): design for cause says, “I want wizards to be able to throw balls of fire. What effect should a ball of fire have?” Design for effect says, “I want wizards to be able to cause destruction that fills volume X at distance Y, with a flame keyword. What could cause that?” In other words, associative design (for cause) begins with the desired cause and works forward to logical effects. Dissociative design (for effect) begins with the desired effect and works backward to a logical cause. Or, in extreme cases, doesn’t bother with causes at all.

In my experience, neither of these is exclusive; a designer probably favors one approach over the other, but both tend to operate simultaneously in a feedback loop. I’m more of a design-for-cause guy myself, but both are useful tools.

This notion relates to today’s topic: that rules have both effects and meanings. Dissociative designers focus on effects. Associative designers focus on meanings.

Effects usually are obvious. If my 4E mage casts ice storm, the effect is that he’ll inflict 2d8 + Int cold damage, immobilize the target, and create a 5 x 5 zone of difficult terrain.

Meanings are less obvious. What does it mean that my wizard casts ice storm? He might favor ice storm because he’s fascinated by fractal patterns in ice crystals. He might have come from a distant, frozen part of the world. The spell might symbolize his cold, uncaring heart.

Effects arise directly from the game’s rules. Meanings are attached by the players. The flavor text for ice storm provides a colorful description of the spell’s effect but says very little about the wizard who casts it.

Different players have completely different attitudes toward these dual aspects of a rule. Some select a character attribute (feat, power, weapon, even class or race) purely for its effect--they'll play a hunter because they want to have powerful ranged attacks, exert battlefield control, and have access to stances. I sometimes refer to such players as ruleplayers. That’s not derogatory; it’s a perfectly valid approach to the game. I’ve been a ruleplayer myself, when the game being played and the group’s taste lined up along that axis.

Other players are drawn purely to meanings--they'll play a hunter because they imagine themselves draped in earth tones, prowling silently through the forest with bow in hand, sowing confusion and fear through their enemies’ ranks. The fact that playing a hunter gives them access to the aspects of the lone wolf and the lurking spider is just another blossom on the trees. I lean mostly in this direction in RPGs.

What’s especially fascinating to me is the extent to which meanings can override effects. A case in point: my long-lived halfling ranger, Bigelow Smallpenny, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls. When Biggie was ready for an epic destiny, several stood out for the solid boosts they’d give to the character's most important attack modes. None of those, however, matched the story and personality I’d built up for Biggie over two+ years of play.

What did?--dark wanderer, one of the weakest, least tactically useful epic destinies in the game. If you looked at the character as a playing piece on a table, then dark wanderer contributed almost nothing on an encounter-by-encounter basis. If you looked at the character as an unfolding story, then dark wanderer contributed the vital element that completed the tale. Its effect was tiny, but its meaning was immense, and I weighted this decision heavily in favor of meaning.

Some readers may be thinking, “oh boy, here we go with the Stormwind fallacy all over again,” but that’s not the point at all. The point is that RPG rules have these dual faces, whether or not any specific individual personally values both of them. Biggie received plenty of level-ups chosen purely for their effects; both Biggie and I like hitting harder and faster as much as anyone. But when it came to the question of how Biggie would retire, I was ready and willing to toss Effect into the brazier so that the smoke of its burning might please the nostrils of Meaning.  

Biggie was retired from play more than a year ago, but occasionally I still imagine him roaming the countless planes of reality, traveling some existential Route 66 and aiding those in need like a dual ax-wielding Buz Murdock, until the last stars wink out of the sky.

What does any of that have to do with the theme of the week, revisions? Only this--if 4E teaches RPG designers anything, it’s that they need to be mindful of both effects and meanings. I think that 4E went overboard in focusing on effects at the expense of meanings.

Game rules in general don’t cause anything; they describe effects. You can’t predict the course of a chess game no matter how much you analyze the rules, and you can’t predict the life course of a D&D ranger no matter how much you optimize the builds.

But RPG players want to attach meanings to the rules. Few chess players will decline to capture the opponent’s queen with a rook when it would be so much more satisfying to capture her with the knight who is seeking revenge for the murder of his brother knight at her hands. That’s exactly what roleplayers do, however; it’s why they choose to play D&D instead of chess.

I don’t for a moment think that 4E somehow “removed the roleplaying” from D&D. Roleplaying is rooted in meanings, not effects, and players derive meanings for themselves. I do think that 4E’s rulebooks placed such heavy emphasis on effects that too many people lost focus on meanings. There was an assumption that players would naturally, instinctively bring their own meanings to the table without frequent reminders both subtle and blatant to do so.

The effects in 4E are legitimately fascinating in their own right. I get a huge thrill out of 4E’s tactical combat. It’s a richly satisfying Chuck Norris ballet of whoop-ass. But unless players inject meaning into the picture, it's just another tactical game.

There’s no denying that 4E contains as many meaning cues as previous editions; each power and spell has flavor text to trigger a mental image of the action. Yet somehow, the player’s urge to find meaning got washed away in the flood of effects. That’s an important lesson for any RPG rules writer.  


  1. You can roleplay with anything as a base, a game of chess, the phonebook, an episode of 'Charlie's Angels', so I would agree that 4e didn't remove roleplaying, but it gave it a damn good try.

    This is nothing new. If you look at 2e and the advent of the character kits a good deal of the roleplay was removed from the game at that time. Instead of a fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief, etc... with personality, players were offered cookie-cutter character types with a sugar frosting of special abilities.

    2e, 3e, 4e and now whatever is next just seems like the natural effect of entropy and a system in decline as far as a game which introduced the concept of roleplaying to most of the world is concerned.

    If you want players to find meaning I think that the important lesson is that the rules need to be secondary to the imagination. Create interesting characters, stirring adventures, provocative settings. Find ways to inspire DM's (artwork and maps are big things for me since I am amazingly bad at both), but rules systems are simply a tool, don't mistake them for the actual game.

    1. W-what? 2e was all about pushing the roleplay aspect. In fact, most kits I've seen were meant to add a little flavor to your character. I hear late-2e era kits threw this out the window, though, and in considering Skills and Powers I can believe it. But I haven't seen a version of D&D that pushed playing a character rather than stats more than early 2e.

  2. Designing for cause is the only thing that makes sense to me. 4th Edition assumed right in my case: I have found vast meaning in the rules, even contradictory meanings in some cases. But they could have spent much more time talking about how players can make races, classes, powers, monsters and items their own.

    I wonder if it's a problem with the business model: if you show people how to reflavor to their hearts' content, how much less interested will they be in a new book that offers them options they've already figured out on their own? There's no pirate class, or cutlass in D&D, but I can easily create them, and probably more to my liking than WotC can, so I have that much less incentive to by a pirate themed book or magazine article. The Witch class is easily created in a variety of different ways; do I care how it was accomplished in Heroes of the Feywild?

    1. There were plenty of books for OD&D and basic D&D that contained extra classes and other such things. Even Supplement 1 Greyhawk could be considered such a product. I think people bought those products, even if they did end up cancelling the basic line in favor of AD&D and its lineage.

      I think there will always be an appetite for the visions of others. Even within the OSR, think about the excitement around products like Carcosa, the ACKS Player's Companion, and the Dwimmermount Codex. Seriously, I think anyone reading this blog could come up with a goblin version of the halfling class, but we still buy supplements because we want to be exposed to the full creativity of others, and often in a way that we are unable to do ourselves. Most of us, for example, do not have an art budget for our homebrew classes and settings.

      There's no need for other people to do our imagining for us, but there is value in seeing other people's imaginings. Even OD&D went this route, borrowing liberally from Vance, Burroughs, Tolkien, mythology, etc.

    2. True enough. I'm just trying to think of a business reason why designers might not want to tout the power of reflavoring.

    3. There was a big difference between the first releases and the more recent ones. The flavor in Martial Power 2 is barely present, while it is fantastic in Heroes of the Feywild. My understanding is that this comes from the recognition that how we write up rules matters, and that inundating a book with rules items does not actually make for a superior product.

    4. @alphastream
      Depends whose hands it winds up in, I guess. Having rules that didn't decide a lot of the details for me was an eye opener. I really think that what they need more than lame little bits of flavor text are broad guidelines about how to reimagine effects.

    5. I think it came about for very different reasons: the designers really have no creative talent. In fact I suspect the rules were thrown together by computer for 4E, which would explain the somewhat random and bizarrely mechanical focus on powers and effects. The only time that people got involved, in my opinion, was to name the resulting things, e.g. this one can be an Orc, that one looks like a Berserker. I think they just threw all the mechanical effects into a big pot (the computer) and just said, randomise. Then they printed out the results, got the writers involved and thought, this is fantastic, its cost about 10p to make and we've got most of the system done already.

    6. Recursion: That might be your impression, but I can vouch that it's not how 4E happened. The designers, who are a very talented and creative crew, instigated and developed each and every aspect of the game. No Stanislaw Lem-style thinking machine was involved.

  3. My only quibble with your point would be that 4e is inextricably linked to the battlemat style of play and all powers are defined in those terms. This itself is disassociative/effect-based, and my major beef with the meta/wargamey feel of the game ... not to mention the rather black and white distinction between combat spells and non-combat spells (aka rituals), where there was no such distinction in prior editions of the game.

    Frankly, I don't see how a combat power could be designed in 4e in an associative manner. Game effects have trumped meaning. Yes, it can be houseruled or improvised (if, say, I want my fireball to be able to set the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief ablaze, for instance).

    For me, the extra effects jammed into 4e don't pass my personal cost/benefit analysis; the time invested in a 4e combat as well as all the rulesy/wargamey gameplay make *me* disassociate during gameplay. 4e is non-immersive for me, particularly during combat.

    Thanks for the analysis and design theory, though. I am fascinated by the design process and appreciate your sharing with the rest of us. :)

    1. The lack of distinction between combat and non-combat effects led to problems. For one things, if you simply took a lot of damage dealing spells, then anything that could be solved by breaking something could be covered by the same spells used to fight battles. For another thing, non-combat spells could be argued to have very powerful effects by the "logic" of how they should work. Light was always a poor-man's Blind spell. Maybe that's creative (I found it tiresome) but it took even the semblance of balance meant for spellcasting classes and trashed it.

      Houserules and improvisation from the baseline are the only way to make the game work for everyone, without a comprehensively realistic description of each spell. One person wants to set a structure ablaze. Another wants to use the concussive blast of the fireball to move a ship off a collision course. Another wants to flash vaporize a pool of acid. I don't think a game can include each of those elements in one spell even though they're all plausible, and even if they did there would be people who didn't think they applied and would ALSO be right since it's a magical spell and not conventional combustion. Those who want more effect from the spell can rule it in (and back out, as appropriate) and those who just want a damaging effect can also have that.

      It's really no different than it has ever been, except now one doesn't get to solve everything simply by being a sufficiently advanced spellcaster. For good or ill, on CAN still solve everything by being a sufficiently clever or persuasive player.

    2. Light as blind is not creative, it's in the spell text:

      The light may be cast at a creature's eyes. The creature may make a saving throw vs. Spells, but if it fails, the victim will be blinded for the duration of the spell. In D&D BASIC rules, a blinded creature may not attack.

      -- Moldvay Basic 1980 page B16

    3. Ok, cool. Such was not the case with other versions of the game, yet I repeatedly saw the tactic tried. Or Mage Hand a needle into someone's eye, or Shrink Object someone's helmet, etc.

    4. An ideal D&D Next won't have powers.

    5. @Danny: That's a strawman. Chris clearly isn't talking about removing spells and class features from the game. He's talking about not having endless lists of similar combat-only powers.

      For shame.

    6. I don't see why. I believe some games are designed around that premise, with players picking very generic options with similar effects (say, damage, or a forced movement) and describing them in different ways. A spell, psionics, technology, etc. Maybe D&D should become even more free-form that way. Want a guy who just swings a sword or blasts energy? Put all your points into that. Want a variety of maneuvers and effects? They'll be weaker, but perhaps more versatile.

  4. While I completely understand what you mean, it is important to note that for a great many, starting with 4E has been fantastic. 4E removed many barriers to entry - while experienced players loved spells and their esoteric and lore-filled qualities, these were really hard on new players. I had been playing for almost 20 years when 3E came out, and I still held back on DMing Living Greyhawk for a year because I had so many blind spots when it came to spells. A single cleric stat block could mean I had to stop and thumb through the PHB, because you can't make up what a spell does in that kind of a game.

    I judge and play all over the country and I see tons of players that are brand new absolutely loving the game - including kids. This is the most kid-friendly edition yet, at a time when we need kids playing.

    Yes, absolutely the game has lost flavor and story and depth in becoming so balanced and transparent. But it has gained things in return. Isn't that why D&D Next has set out to pull from all of these editions?

  5. Well, Chris, the next edition very well might have something along the lines of powers but, fortunately for the people who found powers challenging, they'll probably be optional.

    For me powers we primarily a way to balance the game. I understand them and like the mechanics, and can come up with ways to imagine them, but as long as the game I play is balanced I don't much care what the next edition does.

  6. This article made me think of Champions. The thing I really liked about it was that I could come up with a character concept first, then go buy powers and abilities to make that concept come alive. I always got the character I wanted. Maybe not as powerful as I might like, but always with the right flavor. Granted it could take hours to make that character...

  7. 4E is both great and terrible for newcomers to roleplaying. It's great because it shows people immediately that all sorts of tactics are possible beyond "I swing at the monster." Newcomers often are more inclined to stretch and expand power descriptions than experienced players are. It's terrible because even the streamlined Essentials characters come with pages and pages of rules; they're streamlined only in comparison to characters built with the full range of hardcover options.

    The ideal might be characters that begin with only the absolute bare-bones basics--say, one of two possible at-will attacks. Such a character could be created in 5-10 minutes. But the character hits 2nd level with just 200 XP, and then gets to make a small step up. This is a videogame model--tiny improvements that come rapidly. D&D tells players, "here's a sword; I know you've never even seen a monster, but you can kill one by chopping, slashing, leaping-and-slashing, or spinning like a cyclone, dropping to one knee, and stabbing upward through its jaw." Most video RPGs tell players, "here's a sword--go stab one monster to death with it, and in 10 minutes we'll show you how to slash." The second approach smooths the learning curve and speeds the beginning of the game dramatically. Of course, taking even positive feeds from videogames will lead to renewed howls that D&D is being turned into WoW.

  8. Yes, absolutely. 100% agree. Introduce the complexity slowly. The problem is not with complexity as such (spells can get pretty complicated in TSR D&D too), but with pre-game build complexity.

    People who want more powerful and complex characters to begin with can start at fifth (or whatever) level and do all the optimizing they want, and the game remains playable by both camps of players.

    Incidentally, 2E had a proto-version of this with the original version of Dark Sun where everyone started out at third level (IIRC).

  9. My recent experience with newbie players and 4e has been catastrophic. Too much stuff, all at the same time (and with the 4e Basic set.) And all the concepts the game rules foster are mostly about tactical combat, which clearly is NOT what D&D is supposed to be. Given a menu of options, the eye (and brain) will go to the list to try things out.
    Context switch, I introduce them to Red Box D&D (Mentzer edited.) Character creation is a snap. Well-defined classes (when the term class really means Class as in "class of adventurer") and the rules fade into the background. They don't look on their character sheets when they have to do something. They THINK about something, in-character, and I adjudicate the results. And not everything has to happen on a grid to have Meaning (like the examples above have shown.) That's a HUGE paradigm shift, despite what 4e fanboys say.

  10. Besides, I want to be able to sit down and play (including explaining the basics of the rules and character creation) in less than 30 minutes. Why shouldn't D&D offer such an experience? Or rather, why the newer versions of D&D must be so complex to get into?
    Classic D&D actually DOES offer this kind of framework, and even w.r.t. supposedly more complex classes (cleric, magic-user and elf) the lists of spells are small, and most importantly, the names are DESCRIPTIVE of what the spells do. A slightly more complex experience might be offered by AD&D1e, but the spell lists are still small enough to allow even starting players to make meaningful choices.
    But already with 2e, navigating through all the options is quite complex; a cleric has many spells, organised by spheres; wizards also have quite huge spell lists (whereas in 1e the DMG reported a limited list to choose from.) Obviously things got even worse with 3e and 4e.

    So in short, I believe that one aim of D&D Next should be to bring this kind of impromptu game play to the fore, both for new players, and for expert players which don't have time to lose in pointless option navigation when the time to play they have is very limited (and I am in the last category.)