Role Playing Is Not An Equation (Why Math Sucks)


I was talking to my business partner the other day.  We were discussing the release of the new 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide and I began to notice something about my arguments.  My stance on what I think role playing games are can be summed up thusly, “Role playing is not an equation. Neither is adventure design or even RPG combat.”

What we were discussing was, what Bob saw as, a disturbing trend in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to cryptically or (in his view) incompletely describe things like Challenge Rating, treasure distribution, and race and class creation.  His argument was that these things all need to be concretely described mathematically.  My sense was just the opposite.  Role playing, Dungeon Mastering, adventure creation and, in fact, everything about role playing is more art than science.  Something I thought at the time, and keep coming back to time and again is this thought; if anything about role playing were about the math anyone could write great adventures…anyone could be a fantastic Dungeon Master…anyone would be an accomplished role player by solving an equation.  But many people are none of those things.

Dungeon Masters Guide 1e
Dungeon Masters Guide

I kept thinking back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (either edition) and wondered, how did we ever write adventures for those editions?  Nothing was defined as concretely as in 3rd, 4th or 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but we wrote compelling stories and for the most part, the characters got through them none the worse for the wear.  No one needed to tell me that although orcs and drow had the same number of Hit Dice, a group of orcs were an appropriate challenge for a party of 1st level characters and a like sized group of drow would likely wipe out the same party.  I knew that special abilities and defenses meant the monster was tougher than others without those things.

Likewise I didn’t have to have Gary Gygax tell me that a girdle of giant strength was an inappropriate treasure for a low level party.  Just a quick read of the item description told me that such a treasure would imbalance a party so much that I would be a fool to hand one out too early if at all.

So why all this worry around the Interwebz about the math behind the game?  Why is Bob so obsessed with it?  Well even for someone who doesn’t particularly like math (I’m just not very good at it) there is a certain comfort knowing that if you can figure out what the variables mean X+Y will always equal Z.

The problem with this, in my eyes, is that when a game becomes that much about the math, it ceases to be a game.  People tend to focus more on solving the equation than figuring out how their character feels about the fact that a dragon just bit the head off of their best friend.  Players fall back on fantasy stereotypes rather than push the boundaries.  And worst of all, in my humble opinion, players do something that I personally think is the cardinal sin of role playing.  They plan their character’s career out to whatever the highest possible level is in the game being played.  They pick a build.

Seconds before a rage quit!
Seconds before a rage quit!

Why do I feel this is such a heinous act?  Because I always proceed (even when not DMing) with the assumption that the player characters written up at 1st level may not, in fact, be the heroes of the tale about to be told.  Choosing a character build and progressing it out to level 20 (or 30) makes the opposite assumption.  This character is the protagonist of the story.  It also assumes several other things, like the character cannot permanently be killed, or the character cannot be mistreated by significantly powerful NPCs, or that the character cannot be made to look a fool.

Another thing that math (and indeed many of the examples I have given so far) can do is limit the Dungeon Master.  If X+Y=Z every time, what happens when the PCs fail in spectacular fashion?  It leaves very little wiggle room for the Dungeon Master if he is constrained by a very specifically worded rule for Z.  Oh sure, he can always resort to Rule 0 (usually), but until very recently the trend in RPGs has been to limit or even remove Rule 0 from the game.  It certainly makes things harder, not easier on the Dungeon Master.  And in my honest opinion DMs need all the help they can get to make their job easier.

None of this is to say that there doesn’t need to be math in the game.  My opinion is only that it should remain a tool in the toolbox, to be pulled out when needed, and disregarded when it would hinder play.

I think what triggered this particular rant is that my regular group is way out of balance.  Of five (sometimes six) players, two are hardcore math obsessives.  One of them does it because he finds it fun to “take apart the watch to see what makes it tick.”  He rarely uses what he finds in game, but occasionally he does, and when he does he can’t lose (in whatever context).  The other likes to break the game, and unfortunately often does “in game.”  I find this behavior intolerable, but I am outnumbered when it comes to addressing it as you will soon see.  The third player is a math obsessive “wannabe.”  He likes to think he is as good as the other two at taking apart the game, but in practice he is not.  The problem his focus on math presents is that he tries to make uber-powerful characters using builds and power synergies, but often times fails at what he hopes to accomplish.  The end result of this is a dissatisfaction with the character, which ultimately is often expressed in campaign sabotage (attempts to end the campaign so another character can be created).  Player number four is more of a pure “actor” and not really interested in the math, but his obsession is so far into playing the mundane everyday minutia of a character’s life, that I think he is a large part of why my own attempts at drawing the group into more free-form play are unsuccessful.  Our sometimes player is the brother of math obsessive number one.  He himself is somewhat math obsessed, but not nearly as good at build creation as the other two.  Still his focus is so bent on damage output (rarely plays anything but the fighter), that if anyone in the party does more damage than him, he slowly builds to a rage quit.

I like to think I’m a little more balanced in my approach.  I think math is okay, and builds are okay, and power synergies are okay as long as they don’t take away from anyone else’s fun.

Math?! What math?!
Math?! What math?!

Pick a build for your character if you must, but be prepared to change it if you don’t get that special item you need, or gods forbid, the character dies.  Don’t force the DM to give you what you need.  Don’t make a character who can’t fail.  Failure is what creates drama in my opinion.  Don’t be better at something you character class isn’t designed to do, than someone of a class for which that something is a prime feature (also known as stealing the limelight).  Play the game like a game, act out your role.  Don’t always be trying to best the odds.  Sometimes those odds are purposefully stacked against you and you are not supposed to win.  In those cases, throw math out the window and run like hell!

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Omens and Portents




Omens and Portents

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