Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is D&D: Old Mechanics v. New Mechanics

This could end up being a short post, as I am waiting for the Gencon housing to open, which should be in about an hour. So come 1am China time I am done with my post.

So the other day, I ranted, for I cannot really call what I wrote an intellectually serious discussion, but it was fun to write, about the numerous versions of the rules. Today I want to step back and ask the question, can mechanics improve over time? This is a bit different than are the rules getting better over time, which was my rant earlier, but should we even try to make better mechanics. I believe the answer is yes, mechanics can get better, but not all rule sets are better.

It is probably worth while to note that one person’s improvement is another person’s garbage dump. I have seen folks on message boards go back and forth on a particular mechanic attacking and defending, with vigor and passion, a particular rule for pages at a time. To be honest, I have a really short attention span, so after about a page or two, I am ready for the next thread. That is probably a terrible trait, but that’s where I am. I am reminded of Harry Callahan’s quote even as I write this ( I know my own limitations).

I will hit on a couple of mechanics to illustrate the point further. In early editions of D&D, the armor classes descend. I believe that this originally came from the Chainmail mass combat rules. In third edition, armor classes changed to an ascending mechanic. In my opinion, I think the ascending armor class is actually a better mechanic than the descending armor classes in the role playing context. I think it is better as it is more intuitive and it saves time by not having to reference a “To Hit” chart. Basically I am saying that it creates smoother play, and does not disrupt the spirit of the game. One of the things that I appreciate with the S&W rule set is that it includes both ascending and descending armor classes. Now I appreciate that some grognards out there like the descending armor class system, but again, I think the ascending armor classes results in smoother play due to the intuitive nature of the roll a d20 and beat the monster’s AC.

The weapon AC adjustment table is another example. The table was there in first edition, and it was dropped in the subsequent editions because no one ever used them. I have talked to a number of folks, and I have played with a number of different groups, and I have not seen this chart used. Recently I have seen some bloggers talk about it, and they may in fact decide to use it, but for the most part this was a mechanic that was dropped as the majority of the players did not use it.

Let me hit on ability scores. In my opinion, this was one of the quirky things about 1st edition. Strength went to 18, and then there were percentile dice that were used to give additional bonuses up through 18-00. None of the other ability scores had his mechanic built in. In third edition, the scores were standardized, and this makes more sense to me. Of course, I am all about standardization. I also understand if some of the old timers like the quirkiness of 1st ed.

For thieving skills, first edition used percentage dice. In third edition, skill checks are done with d20’s. I like d20’s, as it feels aligned to the d20 mechanic that the system is build around. First edition felt like a half and half system between the d20 and percentile dice. Mark me in the camp of moving to d20’s. Again, this standardization on the mechanic does not take away from the spirit of the game.

Now let me show a couple of examples where the mechanics have been made worse and did not improve overall play. I have blogged about the weapon damage inflation and the monster hit point inflation, and I clearly think this is too much. With each edition, the values keep going up. With 4th edition, I think it is a bit overboard. The first 4th edition module had a villain that came in over 100 hit point. In my mind, this should have been a red flag. It is too bad that this sort of inflation does not come crashing down to reset like oil prices of last year did. We could use a bit of deflation, as I liked the old system better.

With this in mind, I am not completely in favor of the current skill set system. In old school play, we would just role play the encounter rather than roll dice. I think we need to move back to that. I think this aspect of the skill system does take away from the spirit of the game, and I wish we would go backwards on this. If a dice roll is required, I like rolling the d20, but I think we should be pushing the role play element first, before rolling the dice.

I probably could go on and list out a bunch of other mechanics and show where improvements have been made, and where we have made it worse. I have heard some say that mechanics cannot be improved, and that the best version was the original. I see their point, but I am not necessarily aligned to this point of view. I think both sides of the debate can point out strengths and weaknesses of past and present systems. The spirit of the rules is the important point, and to me that is the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. If we throw out the meat in favor of tofu, that is where I have to draw the line and say this does not work for me.

PS…I have my hotel reservations, but I did not get my first choice. Blah!


Unknown said...

Nope, in Chainmail armour class was ascending, and nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why it suddenly became descending in Dungeons & Dragons. As it goes, I do not care at all whether armour class goes up or down, it is equally simple to me (though I realise not to everyone).

Weapon versus armour modifiers actually got simplified in second edition, but were still present in the core books as an optional rule, not that I ever used them if I could help it.

Thief abilities I am not fussed about, I like using different dice, bu think of it as "pretty much all the same" [i.e. probability].

Attribute scores on the other hand, I am with you on, and the general idea of "standardisation" as well.

Mr Baron said...

Thanks for the clarification on Chainmail. That is a bit whacky that it changed from Chainmail to OD&D. It's a relatively minor thing, but any time we can create a mechanic that does not rely on a chart creates smoother game play. But clearly in either case, it does not change the spirit of the game. The players are still rolling d20's.

I am still trying to find someone that actually used the weapon v. armor chart in the first edition rules. I heard a rumor that even Gary did not use it. I would like to get confirmation on that.

As a gross generalization, any time a game system can standardize game mechanics, it makes for a better rule set. There is probably an exception or two out there, but I think creating consistency with mechanics helps GM's rule on situations that come us during game play that are not covered by the rules.

Jack Badelaire said...

Great post, made doubly great by a Dirty Harry reference.

From a game design point of view, and as someone who has taken an amateur hand to RPG design in his time, I feel a standardized core mechanic for a system is always a smart move. If you want to have a couple of other mechanics floating around the periphery because they add flavor to the rules and the game, that is fine, but it is always good, in my opinion, to have one basic tenant to give new players: "Roll these dice and add your skill" or "Roll this die and get under 4" or somesuch. For many years, D&D lacked this - attacks rolled d20 high, saves low, thieves used percentiles, various add-on rules used d6's or 8's or 10's, etc. etc., and it always struck me as awkward (and I played Basic before Advanced), even though I had fun - and game design is never a barrier to fun - but I find a straight "d20" core mechanic much smoother.

This is one of the reasons I've fallen in with Castles & Crusades in the last two years. It uses "good rules design", but still maintains a lot of what I fell in love with about D&D in the first place.

Thanks again for a great post.

Mr Baron said...

In general I like Castles and Crusades. I probably need to blog a bit about the system and the Troll Lord guys. I just wish they would publish the CKG, but that is another story.

If ever I find one of my posts going nowhere, I will probably start throwing in some Dirty Harry, just to get things back on track. That's my policy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqhdgkGaGdo

Brooser Bear said...

I use weapon versus AC table. It makes a big difference and adds variety and goes towards developing fighting styles. I haven't come up with the pricing yet to make Plate Armor and horses out of range of starting chracters. As far as skill systems go, I like the Runequest system, but I like the proficiency concept from AD&D, where you only roll if the success or failure in the skill will make a critical difference. The problem with RQ skillset and with the D&D 4Ed skills is that you have to roll for the everyday tasks and I despise the difficulty check system. AD&D got it right, where they essentially rolled a unique set of rules for each Proficiency to adjudicate specific situations. Universal rule mechanic is goot for table top combat miniatures, but for playing adventures, where ANY situation can arise, AD&D approach is better, I think. DMG was meant to be a reference book for the DM to adjudicate various gaming situations that might arise. Also, on the subject of rolling, Say the character starts looking for the trap and describes exactly the place and the actions where the trap is, then I will roll, but the character will succeed. If the charater starts searching a sixty foot section of the corridor looking for traps in general, then rolls are made.

Mr Baron said...

Brooze thanks for the comments. I am glad to find someone that does use the charts. To me it slows down play, but it is good to find someone that has a different perspective.

I agree with your last point on DM discretion on how rolls are made. That was a good example.

Dwayanu said...

A new model of Geo Metro might be a more fuel-efficient compact commuter car. That would NOT make it a "new and improved Shelby Cobra!"

For some, it might "save time" to need always to do arithmetic, but others will not find it so. Donald Featherstone's sets of cross-indexed matrices are just another of many other classic examples of what many have found simpler than lists of modifiers.

Moreover, the notion that the mechanics ought to be informative -- much less "intuitive" -- to the players (as opposed to convenient for the referee) reflects rather a different set of priorities than in OD&D. That shift in what the game was "about" led us ultimately to the focus on number-crunching in "4E."

Quite a few folks IME have used the weapon vs. armor factors, and it's much simpler to ignore that one page than to ignore the many pages of "essential to balance" rules in later games!

To make combat go as quickly in "4E" as in old D&D would be pretty much to remove the point of the game -- or of claiming to play "4E" (as much as "4E" makes the claim of playing "D&D" so arbitrary as to be meaningless). Skill challenges, on the other hand, strike me as simply absurd and atrociously boring.

NO, you do NOT "have to roll for everyday tasks" when playing RuneQuest! -- unless that's some stipulation in the new Mongoose game using the RQ trademark (a la certain "D&D" products).

I happen to find RQ's use of % notation very convenient. Whether it's "better" than producing basically the same probability in a more convoluted way depends in part on how that affects the "flavor" of the game.

Some people find Traveller's 2d6 curves more pleasing because of the difference from "those fantasy games with funny dice" (which polyhedrons may also be scarcer). Some people like d20 (or something else) because of how it works with other ranges of numbers they like. Some people just have an affection for the shape of the twelve-sider.

Standardization is "good, except when it's not." A thoroughly abstract game (e.g., "4E," or even more so Risus or The Pool) can get away with "one size fits all." To my mind, a good RPG needs some amount of verisimilitude that is likely to require sometimes that the mathematical model conform to the imagined world rather than vice-versa. The % scores for strength factors rarer than 1 in 216 are an example.

For thief abilities, it doesn't matter -- unless it does matter. Where do you find other than 5% increments? They were put in for a reason. Otherwise, it makes no difference whether you roll a 25% chance in D&D on d100, d20, d12, d8 or d4. It makes a difference in RQ because of the probabilities of special results.

Dwayanu said...

Do people who stop using the 1st ed. AD&D combat tables also drop the "frontier" of six repeated "20s" therein? That's one thing I think I might find hard to remember, but don't have to because it's right there on the chart. Obviously, it makes a difference in the chances to hit you end up with at that extreme.

Mr Baron said...


Good comments. I think the general comment that mechanics can be improved, but not all new mechanics are better holds true. One can clearly debate a given mechanic, and folks do have their favorites. No question there. Where mechanics change the flavor is where we get into trouble. To me, I like the ascending AC's better than descending AC's. This is one example, and I am sure folks with argue with me. I think to throw out a statement that mechanics can not be improved invites a considerable amount of debate.

To me, it will always come back to the flavor of the game. If a mechanic can smooth out play and keep the flavor of the game, that is an improvement. If a change of mechanic disrupts the flavor of the game, it is not better.

I agree with you on skill checks. In general it moves us away from role playing. There was another role playing game where we had to roll for everything. This is clearly not better.