A Brief Interlude on Rule Systems


Not exactly what I'm talking about

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So, after a discussion with Bryni’s player (GM of many of my favorite gaming moments, and fellow game design enthusiast) as well as working my way all the way through the archives over at Zak S.’s Playing D&D with Pornstars, I’m thinking rather a lot about rules.

When I started out the Fellhold campaign, I was pretty high on the “player skill not character skill” and “rulings, not rules!” rallying cries of the Old School Renaissance, and the accompanying rules light approach that I found appealing.  Now, don’t get me wrong, these are still principles I think are good and valuable, but I’m starting to wonder if my game is suffering from an overly strong attachment to some “pure” vision of those ideas.

From the beginning, I intended to take a similar approach to James Maliszewski in his Dwimmermount campaign and add on rules as they became necessary or desired, but in practice I haven’t really regularized that many rulings or added that many brand new rules.  Even if I were to, Bryni’s player pointed out an interesting analogy in the above mentioned conversation.  He said that OD&D (or retroclones thereof, like our current S&W Whitebox) is an excellent bicycle – spare, efficient, gets you where you’re going.  But when you start adding on all sorts of gewgaws and motors and horns and whatnot, you end up with a crufty bike when maybe you would have been better off with a moped or a motorcycle.

This conversation came up because he is a fan of the crunch.  In addition to the tactical and outside the box thinking of play, he enjoys having a meaty rules system to sink his teeth into and engage with as a game. And I can certainly sympathize – I just tend to get that fix with board games and wargaming more than from RPGs.  When I suggested that we can add more systems and subsystems to the game as we go, he made the analogy above and it got me thinking about what the rules are doing now, what we might want them to do that they’re not, and how best to serve those goals.  Most of all, I don’t want to let some silly sense of pride in playing D&D “like it was” get in the way of playing it in the most awesome and fun way possible for me and my friends.  It’s not like I have any personal attachment to how D&D was played before I was born.

So all that has me thinking about how the rules are contributing (or not) to the awesome in my campaign.  One area I’ve been giving a lot of thought to is rolling for skills and stats.  I’ve shied away from doing it much at all in the hopes of encouraging player creativity and problem solving, rather than using character stats and skills as a crutch.  This post by Zak S. made an excellent distinction about what rolling stats is for in D&D, though, and may be the necessary step to break my otherwise loathe to roll stats mentality.

I’ve been so worried about letting the game slip into “roll vs. whatever stat/skill” in place of engaging with the fiction and actually thinking, that I may have gone the opposite direction and made the only useful character distinction how well you hit in a fight.  We’ve had some really good times with stats being little more than a way to color your impression of characters (and the occasional precious +1 hit point), but I think I’ve closed off whole sections of the game to the delights of the oracular power of dice that I’ve not only discussed before, but named my damn blog after.

What I mean is that when social interactions, or trying to notice things or whatever are entirely based on my rulings on what the players describe, then there is no unexpected content at the decision point. I may be surprised by the player’s actions, but I will have incorporated those actions into my mental model before making my decision, so there is no surprise (to me) from the actual decision. With dice added to the mix, I can shape the probability with modifiers, but the actual result still has the chance to surprise me and even force “unwelcome” outcomes, as Mr. Baker would say, which makes the game more interesting and textured overall.

Embracing this notion, however, starts to point to some of the areas ripe for change in OD&D.  Though I never played D&D 3 or 3.5, the open endedness of ascending AC and difficulty kinda makes a lot of sense, and allows a little more range than roll under a stat.  On the other hand, moving to a totally open ended system like that quickly minimizes the role of the actual D20 that the system is named for.  If you’re adding and subtracting values over 20, then the probabilities get a little weird.  The very strength of having no limit to modifiers starts to become meaningless when they get big enough that the dice roll only matters to check for a critical hit or failure.  Of course, if you want huge amounts of granularity to base stats, skills, and modifiers, all within a reasonable range, you can go to a percentile system, but man, I just kind of hate them for aesthetic reasons that I can’t quite explain (sorry WFRP).

So what to do? I flirted with the idea of a Dungeon World style 2d6 + modifier derived from 3-18 stat with a 2-6 fail, 7-9 mixed success, 10-12 full success model, but again, Bryni’s player pointed out that the basic assumption of such a system is not “does this make sense?” but rather “succeeding while creating problems is the most interesting outcome, so it should happen the most.”  I think making that assumption for some parts of the game but not others is ultimately more problematic than it looks on its face.

What about 3/3.5 style modifies added to a D20 roll against an ascending DC set by me? I feel like this is only slightly different from a straight up decision on my part based on description.  Sure, it’s technically different to set a difficulty, then award a bonus or penalty to the player’s roll, but overall I’d still be largely shaping how a thing goes down based on what sounds right to me, minimizing the surprising effects of the dice.  I’m sure lots of GMs are super good at doing this fairly, but it’s not a skill I’m exactly practiced at right now, and I don’t know how long it would take me to train that skill to the same hard core old school “let the dice fall where they may” approach I’ve been taking so far.

When I started this post, I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it, but I think I’ve figured it out.  Rolling for stats will be a simple roll under affair.  Modifiers will be limited to +1/-1 for both the player and the difficulty, which is consonant with what I’ve been doing for combat rolls (I’ve based this on something I read in either DNDWPS or Grognardia, I can’t remember, which pointed out that the early rules intended a +1/-1 to be a pretty big deal, that was mostly all you got if you got anything).  This means a maximum swing of +/- 10% probability, which still makes the importance of the stat and the D20 roll itself important, which I like.  Plus, it makes my job of judgment a lot easier by making it effectively binary (well, trinary if you count “no effect”): Is this thing unusually hard (-1 to stat) or unusually easy (+1 to stat)? Is your description especially useful (+1 to roll) or especially not (-1 to roll)?.  We’ll see how this works out as time goes on.  So, I guess I’ll cheat a little bit and use the above as my “rules content” for this post:

Fellhold Ability Checks:

When a player cannot or will not expand on an action his character is performing, and the outcome of that action depends to some degree on an inherent trait of the character, then the referee will call for an ability roll.  The player rolls 1D20 and attempts to score the relevant ability or lower. The referee may modify the ability or the roll as follows:

  • If the player’s description significantly improves his chance of success: -1 to the player’s roll

  • If the player’s description significantly detracts from his chance of success: +1 to the player’s roll

  • If the situation is unusually easy: +1 to the character’s relevant ability for the purposes of this roll

  • If the situation is unusually difficult: -1 to the character’s relevant ability for the purposes of this roll

Note that if using the “Good at” and “Bad at” skill rules, these should normally grant a -1 and +1 to the player roll respectively.

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