Thursday, February 04, 2010

Making More From Less

OD&D keeps characters simple. They don't have loads of spells, abilities, or magic items. The monsters are built in a similar way. An orc swings its sword or fires its bow at you, and that's about it. Critters like beholders and dragons are a little more complex, but they're the exception, not the norm. There are no skills to roll, just descriptions of what a character tries to do.

When you pull those things back, you're left with only one option for making a dungeon or adventure interesting: Compelling locations, mysteries, puzzles, weird phenomena, *stuff* that the PCs can poke, prod, and inspect. These are all the things that make D&D compelling. They show off the spontaneity, immersion, and creativity that arise in the exchange among players and DM.


Read the whole thing.

17 comments:

dave said...

Mearls is totally right about all the advantages of doing so. The question then remains, "Why would you then play it in a cumbersome system not designed for that kind of fun?"

Dr-Rotwang said...

One day, I was talking to my wife about D&D and I said something like this: "You know, if you make a character out of the Rules Cyclopedia, your character's pretty bare-bones, but...nothing on that little character sheets says that you're NOT royalty, or a bounty hunter, or....

"...holy cow."

And thus was I enlightened.

Oddysey said...

I hope he makes sure more about that kind of gaming gets put in the next DMG. It took me so long to figure out how to do that, partly because of the way dungeon delving is presented in the 3e DMG. (Roll for traps! Monster! Roll for more traps!)

James V said...

"Why would you then play it in a cumbersome system not designed for that kind of fun?

That's the bajillion dollar question, in my mind.

Now there is a valid argument that it's just a handy method. When you want to build something complex, sometimes you start simple and build up from there.

On the other hand, I have to let my OS flag fly and say there's something far more satisfying with keeping those barebones to myself, and letting simple rules give me and the players the means to handle it in more ways than just the rules allow.

Ryan said...

: "You know, if you make a character out of the Rules Cyclopedia, your character's pretty bare-bones, but...nothing on that little character sheets says that you're NOT royalty, or a bounty hunter, or....

Love it.

E.G.Palmer said...

Like everybody else, when I read that, I thought, "Why not just play 1e or OD&D then?"

Oddysey said...

I guess for some folks tactical combat and exploration-based-play are like peanut butter and chocolate.

Other people are like me, and hate peanut butter. ;)

Greg Christopher said...

I dont know that I agree with the reasoning here, or the Neo-Classical ideas. I think this is merely a reaction to lack of innovation in the market.

I think there is a substantial group of people who feel like D&D simply stopped progressing, there are no alternatives that they like asthetically (ex. White Wolf is too Gothy for them). So the reaction is to roll back the clock and look for a better solution.

The indie games on the market generally dont fit this niche, because they are rules-light, pass-the-stick games that just dont appeal to this crowd. So without options to move forward, they move back.

I think the solution is actually developing an innovative new game. Hey, thats what I am doing!?! How ironic :)

Christian said...

I think a lot of people simply like having options - players and DMs alike. I think that 4e is doing well partly because of this. We can debate "well" until the end of time, but the fact remains a lot of people like it. I think they like it because they have more options that playing a poor slob with 5 hit points who soon gets slaughtered by a kobold with a pointed stick.

There's nothing wrong with being able to play a bad ass right out the gate.

Greg Christopher said...

@Christian, your comment reminds me of the Andy Borowitz joke yesterday that Toyota announces they have really awesome cupholders. http://www.borowitzreport.com

While it may be true that some people like starting out with more options than in 3e, is that really the draw of 4e? Is that what people like about 4e? Because you can just houserule that into 3e by starting at level 3. No problems with that solution and lots of people did it before 4e.

But like Toyota's cupholders, I am sure there are some things to find about the 4e system that are actually good. Do they distract from the glaring problems of the system? Uh.... no.

Oddysey said...

I think they like it because they have more options that playing a poor slob with 5 hit points who soon gets slaughtered by a kobold with a pointed stick.

And there's a lot more to old school play than that kind of game. For one thing, "options" and "character power" are two different things. For another, for some people and some styles of play, mechanical options are really just distractions. A smart player with a few henchmen can keep that 5-hit point guy alive for a while--but all by doing things that don't come pre-packaged in 4e or 3e D&D.

But that gives you a game without a whole lot of fights, and with most fights being simple and fast if the players have any control over how they go down at all. It scratches a different itch from 4e, eh?

But then, that's what makes Mike Mearls comment so interesting, come to think of it. I associate the "messing with dungeon features" exploratory play with strategic dungeon delving, but those two don't necessarily need to be linked.

Erin Palette said...

I'm going to come down in favor of "more complication" a la D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, but let me explain why.

I don't know about you guys, but I have had more than my fair share of literal DMs who basically go "If it's not in the rules, you can't do it." Having a more complicated rules set, with more detailed character generation, actually SAVES ME from that ridiculous obstacle by effectively giving me the power to say, "Yes, I CAN TOO do that, it's in the fucking book, here and here and here, and it's on my goddamn character sheet."

Yes, the easy answer is "Get a better DM." But I think we all know how hard it is to find ANY kind of DM, let alone a good one, and sometimes you just have to choose between a sucky game and not gaming at all.

If it helps, think of these rules as training wheels that help a newbie DM until such point he realizes he can pick and choose which rules to ignore.

Oddysey said...

I don't know about you guys, but I have had more than my fair share of literal DMs who basically go "If it's not in the rules, you can't do it."

On the one hand, totally valid argument. Idiots are out there, sometimes you have to deal with them if you want to game, rules systems like this help.

On the other, though... I can't help wondering if, on a larger scale, these kinds of rulesets contribute to that problem. If you're playing a game that lays out a mechanical justification for everything you can possibly do, wouldn't you naturally tend to assume that do anything requires a mechanical justification? Particularly if that's the attitude of the larger hobby as a whole.

Plus, well, even in a game like 4e or 3e, if the DM doesn't want you to do something, you're not going to be able to do it. In my view, the ruleset is fundamentally a fig leaf on the ultimate reality of DM omnipotence. Better to go straight to the source. How to do that, I'm not entirely sure, but pretending you've solved the problem with numbers and dice doesn't do a whole lot for me.

(Then again, I'm the kind of person who responds to DM-frustration by running my own game, converting my non-gaming friends to the ways of D&D if I have to. So that may color my approach to the issue.)

Erin Palette said...

I can't help wondering if, on a larger scale, these kinds of rulesets contribute to that problem. If you're playing a game that lays out a mechanical justification for everything you can possibly do, wouldn't you naturally tend to assume that do anything requires a mechanical justification? Particularly if that's the attitude of the larger hobby as a whole.

Contributes, sure, but not as much as I think you're arguing. I ran into this problem in the early 80s when I was just a wee grognard and playing Basic (blue box) D&D.

Rules should exist to make the game easier and more fun, not harder and less fun.

But!

The thing is, we need rules, because otherwise you aren't playing a game, the DM is narrating a story wherein maybe you can make suggestions about what your character does. Taken to its logical conclusion, you don't need to roll to-hit and damage, do you? I mean, the DM can decide if you hit or not, and how much damage you do...

But speaking as a DM, that's way too much work, and I'm lazy. I'm busy running the plot and the NPCs and everything else... I really don't want to have decide the physics of the game as well.

Again, this is not an argument. Play what you love, I don't judge. I'm just pointing out why I, both as DM and player, prefer more rules than the OSR recommends.

(That said, there are some games which are TOO crunchy. Take Champions, for example. Sure, you can emulate any comic book with the rules... but you practically need a graphing calculator to do it. I want a game, not an algebra class.)

Oddysey said...

The thing is, we need rules, because otherwise you aren't playing a game, the DM is narrating a story wherein maybe you can make suggestions about what your character does.

Okay, just to make sure I'm not mis-understanding you -- by your use of the word "suggestion," do you mean to say that a player in a purely freeform game doesn't have as much control over their character's behavior as they would if their character were more strongly mechanically defined? Because the way you've phrased that makes it sound like the DM in a rules light or freeform game has the ability to over-ride player control over their character.

Erin Palette said...

Not so much over-ride, but... well, let me give you an example.

I want to climb a wall. I have a climb skill of 10. How well I can climb is precisely defined, so really all we need to worry about is how difficult the wall is to climb, plus some random chance.

In a freeform game, you don't have precise enumation of how you do anything. At best you get an adjective regarding how good you are, and as an English major you know perfectly well that language is subjective and not objective. So unless it's been established that my character is the best climber in the world, anything that happens is purely up to DM whimsy.

It doesn't matter how strenuously I feel that my character is an excellent climber if a freeform DM decides that, no, it's more interesting if I fail.

And to be clear, it's not that object to failing, it's that I object to a DM having that degree of control over how I define my character.

Essentially, I prefer my character's abilities to be hard-coded, as long as I can set those codes myself.

Yes, I am a control freak.

Oddysey said...

Ah... and here we come to the crux of the issue.

See, 'cause my response to that is, "But the DM has total control over how hard that wall is to climb anyway -- he wants you to fail, he'll set the difficulty outside of the range your character can realistically achieve." Or he'll put something at the top of the wall that keeps you from getting across it even if you do climb it. Or..."

But that's because I'm looking at the issue from an utterly different perspective. It's really kind of irrelevant to whether a character's abilities are objectively defined. As far as I'm concerned a big list of things my character can do is really just an even bigger list of things she can't. But I can kind of tilt my head to the side and see a playstyle where that would be a useful thing.