Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Art of Imperfection?

Earlier this month over at theRPGsite we had a thread about OD&D. As is often the case, the old complaint about non-variable weapon damage resurfaced. In case this is new to you, allow me to sum up: Before the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk all weapons did d6 damage. This annoys a lot of people used to each weapon getting its own damage range based upon how kill-rific it is supposed to be. "Why would you ever wield a two-handed sword if it was just as deadly as a dagger?" is the inevitable question. Any OD&D ref using the weapon-versus-armor chart and weapon speed rules in Chainmail can handily answer that question, but it appears to me that the games that actually used Chainmail with OD&D have always been in the minority. Here's how I fielded the issue on the thread in question.
For my next OD&D outing I plan on using the following scheme for damage:

Fighter Types

Light weapons (club, dagger): roll 1d6
Most weapons: roll 2d6, take better roll
Two-handed weapons, lance: roll 3d6, take best roll

Clerics, Normal Men, and most Humanoids

Light Weapons: roll 2d6, take lower roll
Most weapons: roll 1d6
Two-handed weapons, lance: roll 2d6, take better roll

Magic-Users, Kobolds, and other wimps

Most Weapons: roll 2d6, take lower roll
Two-handed weapons: roll 1d6

The basic goal here is to keep damage ranges in the 1 to 6 zone of the original rules, but to allow for variation based upon both weapon employed and relative bloodthirstiness of the wielder.

The OD&D ref community spins out things like this all the time. I can't really claim this schema as my own. I'm basically riffing off Philotomy's awesome house rules combined with an idea from a dude over at Knights & Knaves and leavened with a bit from an old thread in the Dragonsfoot Classic D&D subforum, all of which came to a bubble over at the Original D&D Discussion Forum, or as I like to call it Odd74.

Indie dude Levi Kornelsen has been talking this sort of thing over at his livejournal, particularly here and here. He observes two features that can make an RPG system really juicy: having something cool to do between sessions (fiddling with houserules, making new monsters, laying out subsectors, tweaking your PC build) and having a game that's imperfect and incomplete in inspiring ways. The combo of fun things to do plus either critical gaps or unnecessary elaboration is why I keep plugging away at games like Encounter Critical and the older, crappier versions of D&D.

In my opinion 2nd edition AD&D was mechanically superior to 1st edition in many ways. Stripping out the succubi and half-orc assassins made the game a lot less cool, but the system ran pretty dang smoothly. Similarly, the Rules Cyclopedia is probably the single best incarnation of the game ever published. But I rarely open my copy of the RC, much less play it. And I don't even own all the 2nd edition corebooks. Why? I'm starting to think it's because those games are literally too good for me.

Clearly no one needs a mechanically perfect game to have fun playing RPGs, or we'd have all quit a long time ago. But thinking about why I like the games I like, especially in light of Levi's comments, and now I'm wondering if maybe I don't want a mechancally perfect game. The tinkerer in me is better served by an engine that isn't already purring like a kitten. And at the table a broken game only encourages me to operate more by the seat of my pants, which is when my GMing is at its best.

I'm not arguing that More Broken equals Better, by any means. Game designers, please keep working and playtesting and all that stuff! I'm just offering a counterpoint here to the "System Does Matter" and "Design is Law" types out there. Yes, your game system is important, but sometimes maybe the hardcore of the hobby fetishize the perfect system when a lot of that energy can go towards just making up some shit and running with it.

Am I making any sense here? I feel like I'm kinda all over the map in this post. To start the posty by showing off my shiny new OD&D houserule and to end it with arguing that system matters less seems pretty dang stupid.


  1. Anonymous11:08 AM

    Makes perfect sense.

    Some people like going out and buying a shiny new car. They drive it around for a few years and then trade it in for new latest and greatest.

    Other people like picking up a junker and putting in the work to restore it, customize it, really make it their own.

    Both kinds of people enjoy cars, just in different ways.

    To take the analogy another step- new cars have so much controlled by the onboard computer that it makes it very difficult for the guy at home to tinker with it. Similarly, there are some rpgs that are designed in such a way to discourage GM tinkering with the rules as written.

    In terms of RPGs you like to be in the garage getting diry under the hood.

  2. I'm in the camp that thinks that D&D got it right the first time when it comes to weapon damage, and I think it's worthwhile to remember that the basic 1d6 rule survived well into the 3rd Revised Edition of D&D (that's the Larry Elmore covers, for those who lose track of the slippery numbering scheme).

    And when I run D&D, I still use that rule. I haven't (as a DM) used variable weapon-damage in D&D ... ever.

    No joke. No lie. Ever.

    I used it in AD&D, of course, because in AD&D that's the way things are. And I've got nothing against variable weapon damage (E.C. uses it because I think it's the kind of thing Hank would crusade for).

    The original rule lived on past D&D, though, too ... Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the original, not the recent reboot) skipped the variable weapon damage, and offered a nice and sensible explanation as to why.

    Modern games often use an equivalent of it, too; we just phrase it differently. We say combat effectiveness is based on the character's skill instead of his chosen fashion in hardware ... this is the fundamental assumption of Risus, Pokethulhu, Fly From Evil and my extensively-tested but-now unlikely-to-be-published Russian FRPG (from my own stable) and as I understand it they use that line of thinking in the current WoD game and other RPGs floating around, too.

    Despite D&D's own best efforts to squelch it, even THAT legacy of D&D lives on ;)

  3. ... And yeah, I danced around your actual topic, Jeff, because ... well, for starters I'm _in_ it, and that makes me self-conscious and for finishers I'm pretty sure you know where I stand on it ;)

  4. (and in case anyone is baffled by my assertion that a version of the 1d6 rule survived into D&D3R, I am referring to p.60 of the [Basic] Player's Manual, where Variable Weapon Damage is introduced and described as an "advanced damage system.")

  5. Anonymous12:06 PM

    Put me down as interested in the clasified Russian FRPG.

  6. It's not classified; it's just in sad limbo. It was a collaboration of sorts with Ed Simbalist jr (Chivalry & Sorcery, Space Opera, et al) who passed away some time ago now ... leaving me confused as to what I can or should do about the project.

    Ed originally hired me to write a Russian fantsy setting for one of the reincarnations of C&S. That didn't pan out because those reincarnations faced both money-troubles and company tangles, but in the end Ed still owned the book I wrote for him, so we made a deal that I'd re-develop it with a more folkloric/mythical slant into a standalone Russian FRPG through Cumberland. It was a project we were both jazzed about, and I've enjoyed writing and running it, but ... for reasons of emotional exhaustion more than anything (I'm sure Ed's mother, who is still with us, wouldn't mind if I went forward with it), I just haven't touched those documents in a while, now. I still don't know if I'll ever be comfortable doing so, though I'll probably recycle some of the concepts in other projects, someday.

  7. Some people like going out and buying a shiny new car. They drive it around for a few years and then trade it in for new latest and greatest.

    Other people like picking up a junker and putting in the work to restore it, customize it, really make it their own.

    I like buying a shiny new car, keeping it in good condition, and driving it for decades (literally true -- my car is from 1991). In games, this means that I really like a good, well-thought-out system. I tend to want to tinker setting all over the place, but most of my system "tinkering" entails ignoring big chunks of the game that I don't care about.

    Thus, a game with gaps and stuff that needs fixing just annoys me. Why did I buy it? Alternately, I don't care much for the next big thing, because it's not the shiny that appeals to me.

    I think that I don't need to look for systems with gaps to get that "seat of my pants" GMing experience because I tend to wing so much stuff anyway. For my entire gaming life, I've been confused by people who like having elaborate systems to put together things like monsters and NPCs. I recall people complaining that it was hard to have big combats in games because you had to stat out so many bad guys, and I found myself thinking "How is this hard? You just need to know (1) how hard they are to kill and (2) how good they are at killing." That's stuff I can do on the fly in my head, no problem.

    I value system elegance, because it lets me put my 100% tinker into setting and story.

  8. As I recall, Mike Mornard said that when D&D was first published they were baffled by all the people who would write in requesting rulings and how to handle certain things.

    "Making that stuff up is part of the fun," they thought. "Why would you want us to do anymore of the fun for you?" (Not ACTUAL quotes.)

    (Doesn't the end of the third little booklet say essentially the same thing?)

    Well, of course, for some people that isn't fun. Tho' I don't know that I've ever gamed with those people. (^_^)

    Personally, I asked Gygax such questions--not because I wanted to use his answer--but because I wanted his sage opinion to inform my own answer.

    I've also come to think that often rather than trying to improve the rules, the referee should just be (& feel) free to step in & directly correct any result that the rules give that doesn't feel right. Usually no need to make a house rule to "fix" things. Just fix this specific result.

    Maybe this should even extend to everyone at the table. Like the veto rule in Wushu.

    For the specific case of all weapons doing 1d6 damage, I could give many answers, but this may be the simplest & my favorite:

    Why use a two-handed sword instead of a dagger? Because you WANT to! Isn't it great! Your choice of weapon can now fit your character concept rather than having to fit your character concept into the weapon stats.

  9. Anonymous3:59 PM

    I can go either way on varying weapon damage - it depends on the context of the rules.

    To further something robert fisher said, weapons vary in flavor as well as mechanics. In some simple rules I've used, having appropriate equipment for the job at hand improves success by one level. They can have 3 items if I remember correctly - it's a very simple system. Since all items are very similar mechanically, as a gm, I'm free to say yes to whatever they want. Rocket launcher instead of a pistol? Sure. The effect of both used over the course of the turn is largely the same. But players have free reign to describe their characters as they see them.

  10. Maybe you're right.

    For some reason, just touching those soft-covered "pamphlets" of Moldvay/Cook D&D gets me thinking about homebrews and altered mechanics. And I loved the way we played back then, but a lot of it was based on things the games lacked. Keep on the Borderlands was completely lacking in anything like local flavor, but I loved it for that, since I could put it in ancient Greece, Dark Age Geatland, or Oz. Calling a first-level fighter a "veteran" inspired all sorts of questions: veteran of what war? What army? Was his side victorious or defeated? Where did he fight, and what lands did he see during the campaigns? That sort of thinking inspired a skill system based on past experience, which was pretty darn loosey-goosey. Did it make sense for a guy who grew up on a merchant barge to know how to swim, tie knots, and fish? Sure, so if your character was the son of barge merchants, he got all those skills, and if we needed to roll, we just did an under-the-stat on a d20.

    At the time, we wanted official rules to cover these sorts of things. Of course, at the time, we all thought GURPS was an amazing system, and clearly more "advanced" than D&D. Nowadays, I love those blank spaces that let me have all sorts of crazy fun, and put the emphasis were my players and I prefer it to be.

    - Brian

  11. Or, to be succinct about it, system still matters greatly. But sometimes, what isn't there is more important than what is.

    - Brian

  12. System does, sometimes, matter greatly. Sometimes it matters more than anything else.

    System does, other times, matter very little or even not at all.

    Sometimes it matters a fair bit, but other factors (like group chemistry, setting, genre, the group's ideas _about_ the genre, and so on) matter more. Sometimes they don't.

    With some (rare) groups, system never matters. With some (rare) groups, system is always paramount.

    With most groups, the relative importance of system depends on dozens of other subjective factors, many of which in turn depend on yet more subjective factors.

    And all of the above applies equally to all the other thousands of factors that - on balance - matter exactly as much, and exactly as little, as system.

    Everything matters. And if anyone ever tries to tell you that any particular thing matters more, objectively and consistently, it's okay to just laugh at them. :)

  13. (and trollsmyth, I realized after typing the above that it could be mistaken as a poke at you and your posts, which isn't the case ...)

  14. Anonymous4:43 AM

    I'm musing on the ideas presented here, but can't get over the fact, that most of the "solo play" happens only for the GM.

    The player might "think about how to tweak his character", but the actual tweaking still happens at the table.

    So all a player has is wishful-thinking, while the GM has the real deal.

  15. The solo play need not be only for the DM. Everyone can work on house rules to bring to the table. In some groups the DM may have final say on which house rules actually get used, but in other groups the whole group decides.

    Plus, all my groups have always had multiple DMs. The campaigns in which you aren't DM are the perfect time to be doing the solo play of preparing the next campaign.

    And if someone doesn't want to DM, then they are probably less interested in outside-the-session stuff beyond what they can do as a player.