Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dungeons & Dragons

Somebody emailed me, asking my opinion of original D&D/AD&D. Here's my response:

I think that a role-playing game designer's job is to give players a set of rules to function as the physics of the game world, and to make those rules as simple as possible - but not overly simplistic to the point where stuff happens that just doesn't make sense.

And I don't think the AD&D rules strike that balance very well at all.

Here's one example. Having the amount of armor a character wears make them less likely to be hit, without reducing the damage they take when they get hit, is a simple rule that achieves the desired result of having armored characters take less damage over time. But it also leads to what I call the 'grapple problem': the chance of grabbing a character has nothing at all to do with how much armor they're wearing. Now, you can try to work around this by ignoring worn armor, and that's not too difficult when you know what the target is wearing - you can take that away, leaving just the target's natural ability not to get hit. But what if the target is a monster, whose natural armor and dodging ability are hopelessly jumbled together? Okay, then you can fake it. But the fact that the GM needs to shoehorn these extra steps back in, in order to work around this problem, means that the rules (in my opinion) are TOO simple.

There IS a good answer to the grappling problem, and that's to treat the ability to hit (or grab, or touch) a target and the ability to harm the target after you've hit it as two entirely separate things.

Other major problems with AD&D (in my opinion) are: character classes (which unnecessarily force characters into similar niches), experience levels (instead of a smooth progression of ability over time), and the fact that 'hit points' are treated as such a nebulous concept that you can't exactly say whether they represent injuries, or luck, or fatigue, or what - which makes it problematic to assign damage from falling, for example.

That being said, D&D was the first RPG, and so it gets a ton of special credit. It's also completely understandable that the first RPG would suffer from a lot of problems - they didn't have previous games to look at for ways to improve. I certainly don't say that Gygax and Arneson were incompetent. Nevertheless, later designers HAVE had that advantage, and luckily some of them have even taken advantage of it. That being the case, those are the games I prefer to play.


At 12:11 PM, Blogger Muriel said...

Complete agreement.
You wouldn't happen to know the German RPG The Dark Eye, would you?

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I agree with pretty much everything you mention in this post, though also add that according to the lore of D&D, the skill of the individual does absolutely nothing to reduce the chances of being hit.

Of course, there is the danger of the pendulum swinging the other way. I've been involved in games where the GM had rules covering every eventuality, including the exact percentage chance of a given character falling drunk from his horse (which resulted in a broken neck and death for that character). Needless to say I never gamed with that GM again.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger J Burgoyne said...

I couldn't agree more. I have always said that to my fellow gaming friends. That it simply makes no sense that armour isn't a function of damage reduction instead of difficulty to be hit. Even without the grapple problem, it seems silly. There are other issues as well, like everything combat being a function of strength. Even tripping. It just doesn't make sense to me. Anyway, my post was just to say "thanks for letting me know that I am not the only one who thinks that!"


At 12:37 AM, Blogger Rod Keller said...

I think Classes/Levels do a good job of breaking down complex things into definable categories for players who would otherwise feel overwhelmed by options.

I created a PnP system from D&D 3rd edition removing classes and levels for a gradual point buy system that spanned across all aspects of 3rd ED. People who love to be able to design any type of character, free of restrictions loved it. Most people, however, tried to use this freedom to create a character identical to one of the classes from D&D.

I made the system because I myself love classless/levelness systems that offer choice, but I'm not sure it markets well...

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Muriel: No, I haven't seen "The Dark Eye".

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Daniel: Of course you're right; the other end of the spectrum is no better. What's needed is a set of tools that help the GM to come up with reasonable odds and outcomes on the fly.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

J Burgoyne: I'm glad you brought up "everything combat being a function of strength". Another pet peeve of mine is the notion of "strength-based skills". I don't remember if D&D commits this particular atrocity, but many games do, and it drives me nuts :)

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Rod: I don't share your experience of players having difficulty coming up with a character concept. And I should add that if players choose to re-create standard character types using a construction system, that's fine. What I think ISN'T fine is limiting their choices to ONLY certain standard character types in the first place.

You say that "Classes/Levels do a good job of breaking down complex things into definable categories". This suggests to me that the system you gave them for making characters was a "complex thing".

If a classless, level-less character creation system puts players off because of its complexity, then the problem isn't that it lacks classes and levels. The problem is that it's too complex.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Rod Keller said...

Well, it could be the case, but it wasn't the feedback received. Generally the comments received were either that they loved the system (50%) or that they were bombarded with too many good choices (40%) and didn't know what to do and received and an average opinion of it, and about 10% flat out didn't like it. Maybe about 20 testers.

I converted every feat, spell and required statistic into a single point buy, so the kind of things you could do were endless. I could send it to you, if you'd like to check it out, then you can accurately scrutinize it. =)

I guess I feel what I, or you, may see as design restrictions that are bad, many players disagree with.

On the other hand, what's a good example of a classless/leveless system with a HP system like you describe?

At 7:28 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Rod: When you say the things they could buy were 'endless', I think that kind of makes my point ;-)

Thanks for the offer, but I'm not looking for a point-buy version of D&D, due to the other serious problems inherent in that system.

You asked, "what's a good example of a classless/leveless system with a HP system like you describe?"

My own humble attempt to put the game design principles I've been describing into practice is Pocket Universe:

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Rod Keller said...

My point isn't that I made some be all end all system of greatness. It was a design exercise that I'm not selling. What I'm attempting to do is defend my assertion:

"I think Classes/Levels do a good job of breaking down complex things into definable categories for players who would otherwise feel overwhelmed by options."

What I did was simply reverse engineer D&D 3.5. It had to be a system that incorporated all the original options of D&D 3.5, but without the restrictions of classes and levels.

If my system had too many options, it is because D&D 3.5 had too many options. When D&D 3.5 uses classes and levels as restrictions to those multitude of options, it is easier to include them all and not feel overwhelmed.

So I think when you create a system that doesn't use things like classes and levels, it becomes very difficult to use things like large feat lists or spell lists without imposing some sort of "level-like" restrictions. Generally you must gravitate towards a less specifically qualitative but more generally encompassing system.

With a class/level system, you can be specific and qualitative with more aspects and situations of the game world, but naturally more restrictive and less encompassing to any situation that exists outside of the rules.

What I was trying to say in my original post wasn't that a class/leveless system is bad. (Though I definitely can see how it might be read that way). I was just trying to show how an attempt to keep such design complexity without restriction can garner issue and that a Class and Level system can be used to keep that complexity in check.

I think both systems are good. Both have a place. The same player can enjoy both. I've heard very few players complain about classes and levels being naturally flawed restrictions though.

I was also was unable to find much info on Pocket Universe unfortunately.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger ronwisegamgee said...

As for the grappling problem, D&D really did screw the pooch. Pathfinder, the spiritual successor of D&D 3.X, resolved this (and other special combat maneuvers) with two concepts: Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense.

Combat Maneuver Bonus (CMB) is your attack roll modifier whenever you want to connect with a special combat action that isn't an attack, such as grappling, tripping, disarming, etc. Combat Maneuver Defense (CMD) is the target number you must meet or beat in order to execute a combat maneuver. The traits involved in determining these numbers are your base attack bonus (combat skill), Strength (or Dexterity, if you're smaller than medium-sized), and your size category. Certain feats give bonuses to specific combat maneuvers, such as Improved Grapple and Improved Disarm.

The effect that CMB and CMD has in the game is that it lets you resolve a special combat maneuver in one d20 roll, which was a major hassle in D&D 3.X, thus making the game run smoother while making it more varied than just trading damage-dealing blows, which was the simplest of all combat actions that required very little rules reference.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger By The Sword said...

I came to the same conclusion about D&D many years ago. I have found other games that seem more realistic in their approach to combat, unfortunately no one wanted to play them.

So ultimately, after house-ruling and wrestling new stuff into the D&D mols, I just played D&D and ignored the ridiculous fallacies as much as i could. When newer players would bring up the very things that I discovered long ago, I would just laugh and point out that the player in question, is portraying an Elf, that can FLY and cast explosive balls of fire forth from thin air to defeat the hordes of monsters that were attacking him and his companions, so now might not be the best time to bring up "realism".

At 5:49 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Of course you have every right to continue playing however you like.

But you seem to actually be *proud* of consciously ignoring problems that you're fully aware of. Or am I misreading you?

At 7:08 AM, Blogger By The Sword said...

Did I sound proud? No I was just resigned. Beaten. I was a slave who laughed at others who would be free.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Oh! Sorry, I mistook your meaning, then. Pardon my error.

I've heard similar stories about folks not being able to find players for anything but unmodified 'mainstream' game systems. But it's difficult for me to relate, never having had that problem myself. Perhaps you can find some encouragement in that, and take another shot at introducing improvements? It sounds like you have at least some players who would appreciate it.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger By The Sword said...

Actually I hardly play any games at the tabletop any more. My schedule is such that I am only home 2 weeks out of the month. I am hoping to run a game once a month, if I can find the people.

Now I just need the right system. Got any ideas?

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Heh, thanks for the excuse to hype my own work :)

Pocket Universe is my attempt at not making all the same mistakes that D&D and its derivatives do. And Quicksilver is a complete fantasy RPG using the Pocket Universe system.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Kalel said...

I do love classless, but find "Levels" to be more of a DMs tool to balance encounters than anything the players should deal with.

When you give up Levels many times what you are left with is a deep accounting system (i.e. Gurps, Hero). I enjoy that, but not all my players do.

Jeff - if you don't mind. Is the way that you approached Pocket Universe to keep things 'simple' I notice that most of the Advantages/Disadvantages are worth 1-2 points. This keeps the accounting to a minimum.

Do you think random character generation (V&V) is a thing of the past?

Thanks for any insight.

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

In addition to Advantages and Disadvantages only costing 1 or 2 points, they are usually only selected once - during initial character generation - to define who the character is. They change very little afterward, and that also keeps things simple.

No, I don't think random generation is a thing of the past. The upcoming 3rd edition of V&V will still have it :)

At 4:31 PM, Blogger phill said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger MandalorianWar said...

If you ever decide to revise the rules and create a separate "version" of standard D&D play, you could market it as a different product called D&Dee. I would totally support that. (just not financially)


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