I’ve come to believe that a roleplaying game that codifies too many of its rules actually limits the creativity of players and GMs. I’m not commenting on the idea of complicated vs simple rules. 3E or Pathfinder aren’t necessarily any simpler than AD&D, which is full of elaborate and sometimes clunky rules systems. What I’m talking about here is the deliberate codifying of game design and character design into the rules in a way that’s meant to reward so-called hardcore players.
In 3E, this kind of rule takes place mostly off-stage (i.e. outside of the actual play experience). You don’t select feats during game play, you take them between sessions. Once the game begins you’re stuck with what you’ve got. It’s during your down time that you plan out your character’s next level, decide the best multiclassing route, figure out how to gain the most synergy bonuses to your skills, etc. The GM, on the other hand, has ready-made rules to help guide his creative process. An experienced GM doesn’t just create an evil order of assassins to hunt the PCs. He designs a specific prestige class to emulate all of the assassins’ abilities. A GM inspired by a cool combat scene from a popular movie must develop new feats if he wants his characters to emulate the actor’s stunts. The problem with the above is that it doesn’t just reward a deep knowledge of the rules, it requires it.
Take monster design for example. In 3E and Pathfinder there are entire subsections on building monsters the “proper way.” Note that this has little to do with helping the GM make sure the creature is fun or easy to use or whatever. No, most of it is there to make sure that all of the world’s plants or goblinoids have the same amount of skill points as other plant or goblinoid monsters. The premise is game balance, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most of these specific formulas for proper hit dice or number of feats are just arbitrary. 3E includes a number of monsters that have a natural armor bonus that is actually “wrong” according to the monster design guidelines. A quick look at the AD&D Monstrous Manual shows where these numbers came from; they exist to adjust the given monster’s AC so that it’s the same as it was in 2E. In other words, there are several pages of rules that allow you to achieve similar results to those you could have gotten by looking at an existing monster and then just making stuff up. Similar results, way more time and effort invested.
What did players do before all this “system mastery” stuff was written into the rules? Did they get a less fulfilling play experience? Do older versions of D&D offer less reward for players because they weren’t deliberately designed to account for “mastery”? I believe that the answer is no. The desire to tweak D&D with houserules and homebrewed campaigns has always been a part of D&D. In fact, one could argue that the original version of the game required house rules in order to even be playable. Instead of spending their time out of game trying to build their characters, players were forced to accomplish the same things through play. It is one thing to take a prestige class called “Dread Pirate.” It’s another thing entirely to steal a pirate ship and begin raiding the king’s treasure ships as they head for port. I understand the desire to give a character a bonus to sailing if he does either of the above, but I think that most of these kind of rules could be handled by the GM and some simple roleplay. Isn’t being a feared pirate in the campaign a reward in itself? Do you really need a special class all your own as well?