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Player vs. Character
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

I magine the following scenario. You're playing D&D and your character comes across a weird statue of a lizard man at the end of a corridor. The statue stands atop a stone block. At this point, what should happen next?

If you're playing one of the earlier versions of D&D, you might ask the DM for more details about the statue. Are there scrapes on the stone floor around it? Does its base sound hollow? Do any of its limbs look like they can move?

If you're playing 3E or a later version of D&D, you might instead make a Search or Perception check to inspect the statue. With a good roll, the DM might describe the worn section of floor next to the statue. The DM might even just say that it looks like the statue can be slid to the side.

In the first example, the game relies on your abilities as a D&D player to find the hollow space hidden beneath the statue. Perhaps you've played a lot of D&D and learned to poke around to find hidden objects. You might make a lucky guess, or perhaps you read the DM's body language or tone when she described the statue. Some cue she gave told you to pay extra attention to it.

In the second example, the game challenges your character's abilities. Maybe you spent plenty of ranks and chose feats that improved your Search or Perception check. You might also just make a lucky roll, allowing a character not otherwise focused on finding hidden objects to spot the statue's secret. Decisions you made before play, those involving your character's abilities, play a bigger role in determining your success.

The difference between challenging a character and challenging a player marks the biggest divides between D&D's early days and its more recent incarnations. A big part of the early game was learning how to permanently injure a troll, deducing the most likely spots for secret doors, and coming up with creative solutions to problems that couldn't be solved with the roll of the dice. In order to become a better D&D player, you played lots of D&D and learned the ropes. In 1st Edition, the players didn't even have access to the combat rules. They were expected to approach the game from their character's point of view, not the view provided by the rules.

Over time, the emphasis changed to focus more on character abilities. Black-and-white rules, rather than ad hoc DM rulings, carried the day. On one hand, this change makes some sense. The game is more predictable, and thus more consistent, regardless of the DM's personal style or choices. Players had more options for building unique, detailed characters beyond simply choosing a class and race. The player who dreamed of being a suave, charming rogue could become that character by spending the right combination of feats and skills. The 18 Intelligence wizard truly was a master of lore, thanks to a high check modifier and the right set of training.

On the other hand, this change takes away the DM's ability to manipulate the rules and make pure judgment calls. If there is no system for making Search checks, the DM decides to reveal clues or hidden objects when she judges that the players have done what it takes to find them. The game is intrinsically less immersive because the players look to their character sheets, rather than the environment as described by the DM, to determine what to do.

If there was a clear, obvious right answer for which path is the right one, my job would be a lot easier. Comprehensive rules are great, but they can undermine immersion and run counter to the idea of DM as rules arbiter, world creator, and final decision making authority. Why both reading how the Search skill works if the DM doesn't use those rules?

On the other hand, a more immersive experience can prove very frustrating. The players might end up asking exhaustive, detailed questions about a statue or other feature of the environment. Some DMs might be happy to give clues based on general player descriptions. If you say, "I want to inspect the statue," the DM tells you that you spot a hidden switch behind it. However, some DMs might require much more detail. The player didn't specifically say that he was checking out the spot on the floor directly behind the statue's base, so the characters don't find the hidden switch. In this sort of gameplay, exploration can turn into a tedious game of infinite questions.

I'll admit that I prefer a light mechanical touch in these areas. I like an immersive approach to D&D, whether an adventure is heavy on roleplaying, exploration, or combat. That's how D&D worked when I first got into the game, and sometimes I worry that D&D in the post-3E world has lost some of what makes an RPG great in the quest to regulate everything and produce comprehensive mechanics. However, I fully realize that my personal preferences are not necessarily universal. At the end of the day, D&D should work the way you want it to.

With that in mind, let's have a poll!

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 08/23/2011

Is last week's proposal a good or bad idea?
Good 688 54.6%
Bad 221 17.6%
Neither 350 27.8%
Total 1259 100.0%

Poll Time

 When you're exploring the environment in a D&D game, which of these methods do you prefer?  
Rolling a Search check or Perception check.
Describing to the DM what your character does, and letting the DM make a judgment call.
A combination of the two approaches, with players describing their actions and the DM rolling dice as appropriate.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.

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