The Absurdity of “The Tyranny of Fun”

There’s a recent argument regarding the perceived absurdity of certain 4e rules.  The focus of this argument is “The Tyranny of Fun,” as one of its proponents put it — a phrase that seems to be propagating a bit.  The original argument spawned from this RPGSite thread, whose original subject was the use of game jargon by players during combat, as opposed to narrative description.  In other words, a player might say “I want to shift and then attack the orc” rather than “I leap across the table, my blade darting toward the orc’s throat.”

The following quote by James Wyatt was brought up:  In past editions, we’d describe things like cave slime as if the DC of the Acrobatics check to avoid slipping in it were an objective, scientific measurement of its physical properties. “How slippery is cave slime? It’s DC 30 slippery.”  Bur setting a fixed number like that limits its usefulness — cave slime would be too challenging for low-level characters and irrelevant for high-level characters. In 4th Edition, we tell you to set the DC to avoid slipping based on the level of the characters, using the Difficulty Class and Damage by Level table. So when 5th-level characters encounter cave slime, they’ll be making a check against DC 22, but 25th-level characters have to make a DC 33 check.”

A poster by the handle Jackalope, in reply, wrote:  “This is the most absolutely idiotic thing I’ve ever read. So basically, no matter how good a character gets, everything should remain an identical challenge? Nobody gets better, the numbers just get bigger. I just don’t get it.” (Note, this poster has not read the 4e rules, nor played the game — he’s going by the description, which is fair enough.)

To which a third poster replied, in part (the full post can be read on his blog or on the previously-linked thread), “Jackalope, its based on the absurd and utterly idiotic idea that the PCs have to be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME at all times or else the world ends. […] FUN MUST BE HAD AT ALL TIMES! […] They’re idiots. […] the domination of Jargon in 4e is part of a conscious attempt to try to destroy (exterminate, if you will) the very possibility of experiencing “immersion” in D&D.” This poster later used the “Tyranny of Fun” phrase to refer to this… idea.

So that’s the background.

I’d initially come across it, shrugged, and moved on.  But then I came across it again, while reading The Chatty DM’s rant on the subject.

Needless to say, I broadly agree with Chatty on the matter.  I’m reproducing below my comments in response to his blog post:

I find the argument boils down to two things, really:

1. “Change is bad.” These are the arguments that are recycled from previous edition changes. (Seriously, I remember reading some of these posts almost word for word when 3e came out… and when 2e came out.) This is, arguably, the biggest change to the game yet, but these arguments still boil down to liking the old system better.

There’s nothing stopping anyone from playing the old system. True, there won’t be any first-party support, and probably there’ll be a lot less third-party support. That never stopped the die-hard 1e players, though. If the desire’s still there, the rulebooks (and modules, and whatever else) are still there.

2. “I wanted a different style of game.” Over the years, the focus has changed. 1e was really a low-fantasy, swords-and-sorcery style game, until you got to high levels. There was a real chance that a character wouldn’t have so much as a +1 weapon at level 6, or maybe even at level 9. At the higher levels, this broke down some, and if you got into some third-party stuff (like Primal elements), it could be as epic-high-fantasy as anything in 4e, but the root game was more pulp-style. And it was designed with the expectation that very few would reach those high levels, anyway — in fact, most PC races simply couldn’t, if you applied the rules as written. Half-elf cleric? Level 5 maximum, thanks.

2e was much the same, though it relaxed level restrictions, and allowed for a bit more flexibility on the part of the players. Thief skills, for instance, were no longer set quantities.

3e shifted more toward the high-fantasy aspect, with ‘expected wealth.’ Wizards were still broken, at even earlier levels. Noncasters were still increasingly useless at higher levels, but now “higher levels” started as early as level 7 or so. But one thing 3e did, even more so than earlier editions, was to simulate a world.

4e is high fantasy, unabashedly. It’s not as wizard-slanted as earlier editions, and the overall power level is a bit lower because of it, but the game’s slanted toward providing an epic-fantasy feel. And it doesn’t simulate a world. PCs aren’t the same as NPCs, even in theory. PCs are different and special.

Some people don’t like that. Some people just want lower fantasy, which is reasonable. Some just don’t like PCs being special, which I don’t get. But fair enough.

But 4e doesn’t cater to them.

In a nutshell, 1e would be a comfortable setting for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. 3e would be a comfortable setting for Elric or Conan in his more over-the-top appearances. 4e would be a comfortable setting for the more mystical Arthurian tales, like Gawain and the Green Knight or the more fantastic Merlin stories, and for epics along the lines of most Lord of the Rings imitators. (As for the Rings themselves, I’m not so sure… that’s hard to classify.)

4e does that sort of game very well, mind you.

What I can’t understand are the people complaining about the “loss” of such mechanics as save-or-die and level draining. Just goes to show you, I guess.

But now it’s been on my mind, and I feel the need to go further into the matter.  Because it really is an absurd argument, from where I stand.

Now, I’ll want to be clear on this:  Reasonable people can enjoy different styles of game.  Some people like a game where they’re average joes bootstrapping themselves and (assuming they survive the whims of fate) becoming great heroes.  Some people like a game where they’re hapless saps caught up in a word beyond their control, where every day is a struggle to survive, and where there’s little glory to be won and victory means living to fight some more tomorrow.  I’ve enjoyed games like that.

Fourth edition is not that game.  That’s not the kind of world it assumes.  This is not a design flaw, it’s a conscious design decision.  Even the “Tyranny of Fun” bandwagon seems to mostly acknowledge that; they just feel that it was the wrong decision and it’s not true to the history of the game.  Additionally, many feel that it’d responsible for the erosion of roleplay.  One or two seem to feel it’s responsible for the decline of Western civilization, but they’re not representative.

Thing is, they’re wrong, on just about every count.

On the original poster’s comment, and as noted by many other replies in the thread:  4e doesn’t cause the use of jargon.  I’ve been in games in 3e, 2e, 1e, and OD&D where mechanics intervened to the detriment of narrative, too.  No shifts, of course, but plenty of “I make a full attack” in 3e or “I start casting my spell.  It’ll go off on segment 6” in 1e.  Narrative is entirely the responsibility of the players and GM.  Insofar as 4e is a “crunchy,” rules-emphasizing system, it does encourage the use of some jargon, whereas a diceless game such as Amber or Nobilis doesn’t — but even in those systems, there are times when the mechanics intervene.  (“I spend 2 miracle points on a Lesser Creation of Strength.”)

On to immersion, then.  To a small extent, they’re correct here:  3e was more simulationist in nature; it modeled a fantasy world with more verisimilitude.  DC 30 cave slime is “realistic” in that it’s always slippery to a certain extent.  4e is more narrativist in nature; it models a fantasy epic, where the story matters more than the “realism” of the world.  Cave slime is more slippery at higher levels in order to pose an appropriate challenge, because if it wasn’t more slippery, then it might as well no longer be there at high levels.

Does it break immersion more to have higher-level characters encounter slime that’s more slippery, or to effectively no longer encounter it at all?

But leaving that aside… another comment was that you’re supposed to work up to the dragon.  This is based on a misunderstanding of 4e:  not every monster will automatically be an appropriate challenge.  The DMG doesn’t even come close to suggesting such a thing.  If your first-level characters go dragon hunting, you won’t run into a first-level dragon.

Furthermore, an interesting comparison:  In 4e, the weakest dragon is the white wyrmling (a level 3 Solo monster).  In 3e, the white wyrmling was… 3 HD.  In the D&D basic set, the white dragon was 6 HD, and a note in the dragon description suggested that younger dragons might have about 3 fewer HD, which would make a white wyrmling… you guessed it, 3 HD.  That’s not a lot to “work up to.”  Bigger dragons?  Well, the ancient red in 4e is a level 30 Solo monster… maximum level seems like some “working up” might be involved.

And third, there’s the implication that previous editions encouraged immersion, where 4e does not.  This is untrue on both counts.  For the latter, the 4e DMG does talk a good deal about encouraging immersion — because it’s part of the fun.  It simply recognizes that there are times when game jargon should be used for clarity.  For the former, in any D&D game I’ve ever played, in any edition, there were times when the rules and mechanics simply killed immersion.  Why, exactly, can’t half-elves reach level 6, or level 60, as a cleric?  The DM could come up with a reason, but the real reason was:  The rules said so.

(Of course, like most groups I’ve ever heard of, mine house-ruled away the level restrictions.  We also allowed humans to multiclass.)

And for that matter, “cave slime is DC 30 slippery” doesn’t sound very immersive to me, either.  I prefer “the blue-tinged slime that coats the rocks underfoot makes every step potentially treacherous as you face down the illithid band.”  Who cares if my party is level 29?  The slime makes every step potentially treacherous.  Because that leads to a more interesting combat than “Slime?  That won’t bother anyone above level 5.  We’ll just treat it as a level, dry floor.”

PCs have to be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME at all times?  Damn straight, I say.  And their opponents should be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME too.  Maybe not at all times — the walk-over or the “way out of our league” keeps things fun and varied too (and the rules encourage this, explicitly — another thing the Tyranny crowd seems to have overlooked in its complaining about balance).  But in 4e, yes, each and every fight should have the PCs doing awesome things, and most of them should have the NPCs doing awesome things right back.  They should largely take place in awesome settings, with awesome scene elements making for a more awesome fight.

I can’t see this as a bad thing.

Finally, the Tyranny crowd is wrong to equate “4e should be fun” with “the players always get whatever it is they want without effort.”  The effort’s fun, too.  Hell, losing can be fun — just as long as it’s not arbitrary.  And that’s right there in the rules, too.


12 Responses to The Absurdity of “The Tyranny of Fun”

  1. donny says:

    A well thought out, and honest assessment. Problem is, as pretty as it is, it still smells funny…

    As a DM, having the RAW explicily state that at level 20+ EVERY mundane encounter should be suitably epic reeks of silliness. God forbid the party have a lower level cohort or hireling, the EPIC CAVE SLIME would get them.

    To be fair, both sides of this stupid argument are splitting hairs, but you both have valid points. If the game was stellar, everyone would play it, it really IS that simple. As it stands, a number of people, most more intelligent and worldly than myself, take issue with a number of different things. Is immersion more difficult? I thought it was. Repeating one silly catchphrased power after another round after round was boring.

    My personal beef was the removal of a decent multiclass/PrC mechanic. It has been castrated…The replacement sucks. IT is limiting, and once again, hurts immersion.

    Just my opinion. Thanks for taking the time to write the excellent post though, it was an excellent read.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Regarding the slime example:

    It just seems off to me to give the slime a constantly changing difficulty when it’s still, as far as we can tell, the same slime. Wouldn’t it be more consistent with clean suspension of disbelief to add an ad hoc penalty to running on slime when fighting against characters who know how to deal with it, without having to go back to “Oh, yeah, I’ve been adventuring for ten years, but I still tend to slip and fall on this stuff despite all my practice in dealing with it” as an overall issue? I don’t think that would get rid of the Awesome any, and it’d still allow it to pose a threat in your fights, but outside of the circumstances where you need an equivalent to Epic Slime the slime could still be a challenge that the group can be proud of having learned to overcome.

  3. Dave T. Game says:

    There are actually two things with the Cave Slime example when you look at it:
    -This cave slime we’ve encountered before gives us a 50% change of slipping and
    -This cave slime that we’ve never encountered before gives us the same 50% slipping on it as it would have had if we had encountered it 20 levels ago.

    I don’t think the first situation is really what the rules talk about at all (and is a “DM’s best friend” situation) whereas the second is the designers saying that cave slime is always slippery, no matter what level you are, which some like and some don’t like.

  4. Scott says:

    Donny: Fair enough, mileage varies. I’ve had poorly-run sessions in 4e where combats boiled down to stating a power every round, but I’ve had poorly-run sessions in other editions where combats boiled down to “I attack with my sword again”, “I cast “, “Can I backstab?” — enough to tell me it’s not the fault of the system when and if that happens.

    I agree with you about the multiclassing, though. D&D multiclassing has always been broken in one way or another, and I had hopes that 4e might fix that. It didn’t. I don’t think it’s completely awful, but I can’t say it’s well executed. The initial multiclassing feat was a good idea, and mostly pretty solid, but anything beyond that gets pretty expensive for the benefit it gives, and “paragon multiclassing” gives you (almost) nothing for something, which is bad.

    I’m still trying to work out a way to better allow multiclassing in my own games.

    Ravyn: That’s the thing, though; I don’t think it is the same slime, any more than the ancient red dragon you’re fighting at level 30 is the same dragon as the white wyrmling you encountered at level 3. I think Wyatt’s quote was badly worded, but that the intent was to say “Make the slime as slippery as it needs to be in order to be a challenge. Don’t worry about ‘realism’ when it would interfere with the game.” That’s what I got out of it, at least.

    Dave: Right — and that’s the simulation aspect. People who want to model a consistent fantasy world are correct that 4e doesn’t really do that. 4e is more cinematic than earlier editions, even 3e.

    And I can understand people wanting to play a certain type of game. And being disappointed that 4e doesn’t cater to that type of game as well as earlier editions did.

    But I can’t get from there to “it’s meant to destroy immersion.” It’s easy to become immersed in a 4e game, in my experience. The system mostly gets out of the way of the characters and the story. Roleplaying’s no harder than it’s ever been. Creativity’s no less encouraged — just the opposite, as far as I’m concerned: the lack of defined noncombat subsystems, in favor of the greater guidelines for improvisation and the “rule of yes”, seem to emphasize flexibility.

    “It doesn’t provide the sort of game I like” is a valid complaint. “It destroys immersion” really is not.

  5. […] shared his take on the subject here which amounts to ‘you don’t have to impose your version of fun on me man’ and […]

  6. donny says:

    @scott – good points. Wish we had a better example than an easy to ignore “optional” table. It’s mainly the attempt to build scaling into the system, as opposed to giving richer options for each tier. You know, cave slime @ tier 1, Fire slime @ Tier2, Green slime @ tier 3, etc. That would help a bit.

    I wonder if a choose your class @ level up mechanic has been tried? I will have to playtest it. If each class is well balanced against the others, they should dovetail nicely right? I need to do some more reading on this….after the weekend move.

    My paradigm has shifted rather dramatically lately. After spending some time with it, there does appear to be a decent set of core rules under all the other stuff I dislike. so you’ll have to forgive the jeckyl and hyde style posts here and there. There are a few things that I verey much dislike, but my kids enjoying it really helped out. Time to fall back to the tried and true defense of many a DM in the face of silly arbitrariness (assuming of course, that’s even a word)…HOUSERULES!

  7. Scott says:

    Donny: People are allowed to change their opinions. It’s not as though you’re a politician, or something. ^_-

    I don’t think there’s any reason you can’t have different options at a given tier. The table of DCs is only meant for “challenging terrain,” after all — terrain you need a skill check to cross. If the slime is on fire instead of slippery, it’s another terrain type, hindering terrain in this case. (If it’s both, it’s both challenging and hindering terrain. And slippery, flaming slime is a pretty cool encounter element to deal with.)

    The big obstacle I see to picking a class at level-up is that the character will lack certain class features. A fighter picking up a level of warlock wouldn’t have a curse or a pact, for instance. (Keeping the basic multiclass feat goes some way toward addressing this, though.) Giving all of the class’s class features, on the other hand, will probably overpower the character.

  8. […] of Fun – et indlæg om emnets absurditet (og lidt i relation til […]

  9. Tom says:

    As someone who dislikes 4th edition with a passion, I have to say that I actually agree with a lot of what you said. I dislike 4th Edition. It doesn’t mean that it’s horrible or WOTC is trying to screw people over or anything else. I just don’t like the way they set the system up. I don’t like roles, how generic the powers are, a lot of things. That said, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad system…it’s just not one that interests me.

    To many of my brethren need to just accept that they don’t like the new system for whatever reason (for me, I don’t like the way the game feels) and move on!

  10. Ravyn says:

    I think the reason why they don’t move on can be summed up by something that was said here. In essence, the problem is that “everyone” considers it an either-or situation. This offends the living daylights out of many 3.x players, as they find themselves stuck being left out of conversations–heck, I have a friend who apparently was explicitly told by people that he should switch up when trying to start a play-by-post in 3.5. The thing is, they’re different games. If the absurd number of systems that are out there can coexist with each other, even being played by the same group during the same session, there is no reason why 3.5 and 4E cannot coexist. If we can establish that, I think people will back off from this silly edition war, but as long as it is generally considered an either-or proposition, there will be edition wars.

  11. Scott says:

    I think it’ll happen eventually. Those who prefer 3.5e will stop shouting so loudly about the inadequacies (perceived or real, doesn’t matter) of 4e, and those who prefer 4e will stop shouting so loudly about the inadequacies (perceived or real) of 3.5e.

    That’s exactly what happened with 1e->2e and 2e->3e. And there’re plenty of people who still play 1e or 2e.

    Probably it’ll take at least a year, though.

  12. […] shared his take on the subject here which amounts to ‘you don’t have to impose your version of fun on me man’ and […]

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