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Why Do Bishops Move Diagonally And Other Stupid Questions

by Jesse Burneko


Consider the following conversation between two chess players:

"You can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Bishops can only move diagonally."


"What do you mean, 'why?' That's the rule."

"That's ridiculous. Bishops are religious men. If they're going to be restricted in their movement it should be to the straight and narrow!"

"It's just the rule."

"Fine. I'll move my pawn instead."

"You can't do that."

"What? Why not?"

"Pawns can only move one square at a time."

"That's ridiculous."

"It's just the rules."

"My rook can move faster than that and it's supposed to be a castle. Let's see you move a castle across an entire kingdom that fast! It should take five of my pawns to move one of my rooks. And what's with these pawns only being able to attack diagonally? Are they too stupid to see an enemy right in front of them? Anyway, you let me move my pawn two squares on my first move."

"That's because it was your first move."

"Oh, so pawns somehow have this magical thrust on their first move but once spent it's gone?"



"It's Stamina, okay! They start out all rested and for one turn they can run but then get all tired out. Happy?"

"Well in that case I should be able to move two squares if that pawn has rested for five turns."

"Uh, never mind! Look, why don't you just move your knight."

"But it's behind all these other pieces."

"That's okay; it's on a horse. It can jump over the other pieces."

"Finally! A rule in this game that makes sense! Hmph, and people call this a war game."

I sincerely hope this conversation looks utterly silly to you. If it doesn't, you can stop reading right now because what I'm about to say won't make any difference to you. If this does look silly to you then I want you to stop and think for a minute and realize that it is these types of questions that are shaping the future of the role-playing game. In particular I believe it is this kind of conversation that has driven the design of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Many people seem to think that the 3rd Edition caters to power gamers. They argue that by taking away level limits, allowing humans to multi-class and standardizing the experience point table that players are now indestructible forces or that some classes become favored over others. I'm writing this to point out that you have no one to blame but yourself. The 3rd Edition is nothing more than a product of a series of over intellectualized questions about a well-balanced game.

Let's start with the classic example of Swords OR Sorcery. In the First Edition, Wizards could not wield swords. Period. This of course prompted the question, "Why? If I'm under attack and the only thing I have available to me is a sword, I'm damn well going to swing it." Okay, this seems reasonable. So in the second edition came weapon proficiencies. A Wizard could swing a sword if he needed to but he could never become proficient in it and therefore would always have penalties to his roll.

The second reply to this was, "Well, why can't a wizard become proficient in a sword?" And this is where the intellectualizing begins. The first answer is, "Well, wizards spend their time studying magic and so don't have the time to learn proper swordplay." And the reply to this becomes, "Yes, that may be true in general and it may even be true for 99% of all wizards but what's stopping MY wizard from learning to use a sword." And the answer to this has come in the 3rd Edition.

In the 3rd Edition we have the concept of feats. You gain one feat every three levels. One of these feats is wielding a sword for characters that don't start out knowing how to do so. But these feats also include things like building magic potions and scrolls. So yes, a wizard could spend his time learning to wield a sword by sacrificing the time he would be spending learning to build potions.

3rd Edition is built around this kind of reasoning. As I've read through the books I've noticed that anything that states clearly that X is like Y or Z can only do W is followed by a paragraph citing either the real world explanation and rational of why this is so or a description of under what conditions there might be exceptions. Unfortunately, the 3rd Edition won't stop the questioning and it is my belief that no system will ever stop the questioning.

The next logical question in the Swords OR Sorcery dialog is, "Well, why doesn't intelligence factor into the gaining of feats? Why does a character with an intelligence of 3 gain the same number of feats as one with an intelligence of 18?" If you think this is a bit extreme then consider this argument I read on a Dungeons and Dragons forum.

First and Second Edition had level limits for non-humans. People of course thought these were unrealistic. Again, even if it were true for 99% of any racial population there was no good answer as to why any one individual character couldn't be an exception. So, 3rd Edition has got rid of level limits. So now what are people saying? Without level limits, elves should rule the world. The argument being that elves live so much longer than every other race that they would ultimately obtain the greatest amount of power.

To these next generation questions I have only one answer. It is an answer that would have fit the first edition questions. It even answers the questions, "Why do Bishops only move diagonally?" My answer is, "It's a game. Those are the rules."

By asking all these "why" questions you are really asking, "Why does this rule exist?" And again my answer applies 100% of the time. My answer is, "The rule exists for purposes of balance." Designers are always trying to make the game balanced. In the First Edition a wizard could not wield a sword so that a fighter and a wizard could be equally powerful in two disjoint mediums. In the second edition a wizard was allowed to use a sword in a pinch but was given a penalty so that he would never out shadow the fighter. And in the third edition the wizard is simply trading one power for another so as to maintain balance. It's all about balance.

Contrary to what many seem to think, role-playing games are not real world simulators. They are games and games have rules. Sure, there are exceptional situations where the rules don't make sense or a rule doesn't even exist, but that's what a GM is for. But for situations where there IS a rule, I say, why argue? Why not trust that the designers knew what they were doing when they wrote the rule and keep things simple. After all, the bad guys are held to the same restrictions you are.

The 3rd Edition is not about power gaming. It's about trying to keep a balanced game while answering all of your questions. And if you feel that by answering your questions and complaints that balance has been tipped you have no one to blame but yourself. The next time you find yourself questioning a rule in a role-playing game remember this simple answer: Bishops move diagonally and wizards don't wield swords!

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