One of the more interesting things that has emerged, IMHO, from the recent D&D-Next playtests are the opinions about DM power—that is, the amount of “say” a DM has over the game and the players’ actions.
I’ve been playing D&D in one form or another for a long time, since 1977 in fact, so it’d be foolish to think that my experience with older editions hasn’t had an effect. It has. Some things in the recent playtest, like getting back all hit points after an overnight rest, seem ridiculous to me because I was “raised” on a system in which you got back one hit point per day (which now strikes me as equally ridiculous). But I digress. (More comments about ‘Next to come soon, perhaps after the next playtest packet later this summer.)
The complaints of a return to “Mother, may I?” are a frequent one. The attitude seems to be: I don’t want much unknown. I want to know how fast I can run, how far I can jump, whether I can leap from the balcony and grab that chandelier before I do it. I want to have a good sense of the odds.
These folks also seem to be of the opinion that the DM is there strictly as an atmosphere provider and bad-guy die roller, but little else. The DM is not only neutral, but his job is to be the road the players drag race on. Not much more.
I agree in spirit at least with the idea that a character should have some idea of their own capabilities and the odds. In real life, even if I’ve never jumped from the rooftop of one city building to another, Walking Dead style—and I certainly haven’t—I could probably stand near the edge and have a decent sense of whether attempting the jump was crazy or a decent risk. I know roughly how far I can jump. In RPGs the referee is describing the scene, a scene the players can rarely see first-hand unless illustrations are provided. And the players are playing characters that are probably a departure from their real life form, and guessing the ability of an imaginary person can be hard. This would seem to make a good argument for a DM objectively calling the shots, yet shouldn’t those players, if they are expected to play their characters well, know what the characters themselves would know? The character would have a good sense of their ability, just as I do standing near the edge of that rooftop, so a good player should share in that character’s knowledge.
This is a solid argument. But like many points of view, I fear it is often presented simply as a means to an end. If a DM is consistent with their DC or skill-type rulings, assigning similar levels of success for similar actions, the players swiftly learn the capabilities of their characters. No, I fear many players are using this as a means to an end, the end being overpowerful characters that fail at little.
I don’t blame newer players for this, because game editions have moved in this direction. Characters now have more hit points, they have more abilities (especially at-will type abilities), and they heal much faster than in earlier editions. In addition, dying is much harder. In 1e, a failed save versus poison meant you were dead, kaput, pushing up daisies. Whereas in 4e a PC with 50 hp might actually have to be reduced to negative 25 just to drop. The advent of monster CRs in 3e also led to more balanced encounters, and the idea of characters running from an encounter to save their hides is more a rarity these days. It’s a big difference from games of old, and it leads to a different player mindset.
I don’t want to wield the wide brush and say newer/younger players are all videogame-influenced, but I think that is also a factor. A proliferation of RPG-style and FPS videogames has led to many players being used to a gaming experience that often involves running and shooting things with impunity (at least until you discover online multiplayer for the first time and are swiftly humbled) and quick resets when things go wrong. Many RPG players are also videogamers, so it’s foolish to disregard the influence one style of play might have over the other. This isn’t denigrating the player, merely acknowledging the way they were “raised.” If you grow up in a 40-room mansion, a Cape Cod style house will feel small, whereas if you’re raised in a one-room shack the reverse will no doubt be felt.
For me, much of the fun and fantasy aspect comes from the unknown. This can certainly be taken too far, as in DMs or games that throw a constant stream of “weirdies” or needlessly modified monsters at the PCs for sake or surprise alone, ruining any chance to establish a more natural, known setting. But some unknown is absolutely needed. If the players can beat everything and know everything, where is the challenge? Whether most players realize it or not, the pleasure comes from those difficult challenges. It’s fun to mow down lackeys with your +5 sword, but that gets old faster than you’d think. The memorable encounters are when you take risks with your characters and manage to beat difficult enemies by the narrowest of margins. Those are the times my players remember years later, always.