Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tweet is okay by me

Over on my favorite cranky RPG message board there's this thread devoted to flipping out over 3E/Ars Magica author Jonathan Tweet's recent encounter with Swords & Wizardry, the extremely awesome OD&D retro-clone. Jamie Mal has also weighed in on the topic, with the usual wailing and gnashing in the comments. How such a nice guy draws such flamery to his blog continues to amaze me. Obviously, I'm not trying hard enough.

This "OMG! J. Tweet hates OD&D/us!" topic has been done to death, so I'm just going to hit a couple of brief bullet points, aimed particularly at Tweet's list of "bad stuff" from earlier iterations of D&D. Here's the relevant Tweet quote:
For the record, the "bad stuff" I'm referring to is stuff like: too much arithmetic (5 % XP bonus, copper pieces, etc.), wonky XP progression per class, too-random character creation, and poor class balance. It also has the problem that didn't get fixed until 4e: all spells are daily, which makes spellcasters play too differently from the fighters.
Let's take a closer look at these in turn.

1) Too much arithmetic: 5% XP bonus

I continue to be amazed that people with ordinary educations can't do 5% in their head. Can you halve a number in your head? Can you move the decimal point to figure one tenth of a number? Do both of those operations in whichever order suits you. Ta-da. I'm no math wizard and I can do it.

But let's recognize that not everyone wants to deal with that hassle, so when I run games that use XP bonuses for stats I usually announce XP awards like this "That's 220xp each, 242 if you get a 10% bonus and 231 if you get 5%" Compared to tallying XP for multiple awards and dividing by multiple characters and henchmen (who I count as half a PC each), the 5% bonus is one of the easier steps for me.

On the other hand, we need to admit that the XP bonus system is a vestigal mechanic from pre-Supplement OD&D. In the original game the only mechanical goodie you got from a high Strength, Intelligence or Wisdom was the XP bonus you got if the high stat matched up with your class prerequisite. Once you add in the bonuses from Supplement I: Greyhawk, the XP rules become a form of double dipping. A fighter with a high Str gets both more XP earned and more successes in combat (which equals more XP earned). So while I think the XP bonus system works just fine for pre-Supp OD&D and its retroclone, Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, I also think it's an unnecessary redundancy for most later iterations of the game. So from my point of view Tweet is right about this rule for the wrong reasons.

2) Too much arithmetic: Copper Pieces

I'm not entirely sure what the complaint is here. Nothing in the game requires any PC to collect or use copper pieces. I've known plenty of players who simply round up to the nearest 1 sp. I know a few who only work with gold pieces and better currency. And nothing requires the DM to use cp.

However, that doesn't mean that copper pieces should be cut from the game. In the world of dungeons as logistical challenge, a big pile of copper pieces is basically the DM handing you a length of rope to hang yourself with. It's a variation of the classic "Throne Cut from a Single Ruby" or "6' Tall Solid Gold Statue". Yeah, the treasure is worth a lot, but is it really worth dragging it up six dungeon levels and across 100 miles of wilderness? The DM is hoping you are stupid enough to answer 'yes'.

3) Wonky XP progression per class

I will readily admit that the XP charts are wonky as hell. But the 'improvement' to a unified XP chart supported in Tweet's version of D&D (as well as MERP, Rolemaster, and the new HackMaster Basic) has two basic problems: it demands that the designer meticulously balance all the classes so that a level 7 piglicker is functionally equivalent to a level 7 cogpolisher. And that's assuming the designer knows exactly how the players are going to use the classes. The other problem is that unified XP charts are dull as dirt.

4) Too-random character generation

Someone will have to explain to me where the line between "random" and "too random" is, because I'd totally be down with a set of rules that randomly assigned my class, race, alignment, spells and starting equipment. I'd then gladly start in a random hex of the campaign world.

5) Poor class balance

Complaining about both Wonky XP Progressions and Poor Class Balance is hardly playing fair. If you've done your wonky XP homework then class balance isn't really an issue. And exactly why are we so concerned with balancing classes anyway? Should a wizard level X be balanced against a fighter level X, and if so why did Tweet write Ars Magica, where wizards clearly aren't balanced against anyone else in the party?

Random chargen enters into this issue as well. If you roll dice to determine your stats and a character needs a 17 Charisma to be a Paladin, what does it matter if the class is better than the fighter with its 9 Str minimum? I'd go so far as to argue that the player of the Paladin would be getting the short end of the stick if their PC wasn't clearly cooler than the fighters in the party.

6) All spells are daily

The funny thing is that I totally agree with Tweet on this one, but I totally disagree with the 4e solution. Spells shouldn't be faster, they need to be slower. Give me weekly, monthly, annual and once-in-a-lifetime spells of real ultimate power, please!

7) spellcasters play too differently from the fighters

I continue to maintain that this line of thinking is pure crazy talk. I've known players who enjoyed wizards as written. And I've known players who steer clear of wizards and enjoy the straightforward mechanics of fighterdom. Forcing fighters and wizards to use the same mechanics strikes me as a surefire way to dis-serve at least one of those groups, possibly both. When I get run a PC sometimes I want to play a sword-swinging maniac and sometimes I want to play a wizard with world-bending invocations. I just don't understand how it helps me to reduce those two nifty experiences into one.

One final note: Tweet wrote this tribute to Arduin. He can't be all bad.


  1. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Good stuff. Especially points 4 and 6.

  2. Yeah, I disagreed with some of Tweet's points too, but the man is hardly the devil. I tend to like stuff he's worked on, and he's got a lot of good ideas on his website.

  3. I'm a big fan of Tweet's work (and think that WotC laying him off was a huge mistake) but I thought he was pretty flip about his reactions there. It seems like he should have at least explained himself a bit more instead of just saying "bad stuff" then listing some bullet points.

    Captcha: "woodism"

  4. I totally agree with everything in this post.

    I would say one thing about XP bonuses: I’ve never seen a player turn them down either due to the need for math or due to their obsolescent nature. Even the most math-impaired player is going to break out a calculator rather than turn down XP. I’ve never seen a player turn them down for any reason. Whether they are “good” design or not just doesn’t matter.

  5. Jeff, everyone knows that cogpolishers are broken. Hopefully the designers will redress this injustice in The Complete Piglicker, due out any day now...

    But in all seriousness, this argument has come up in my campaign already. The barbarian doesn't like that the thief will be level 4 just as he reaches level 2... of course, he has a d12 hit dice, automatic healing, climbing, hiding, tracking, jumping, etc, etc. etc. To me, "wonky" experience charts were the game balance before the whole game became Pimp My Build. (A term I can't take credit for, but can't remember whose blog I scraped it off.)

    Point of fact: There usually comes a time in my campaigns where the PCs just start ignoring copper pieces entirely.

  6. On point 5:

    Class balance in an adventure-based RPG like D&D is entirely different than "class" balance in a longitudinal, location-rooted RPG like ArM.

    There are certain basic assumptions in an adventure RPG (characters will travel together, get in fights, get in the same fights, participate in roughly the same number of adventures/encounters, be rewarded for those adventures/encounters) that are completely different than the basic assumptions of ArM (where the characters re rewarded equally based on how much in-game time passes, with no regard to how much each character does in that time period: the wizard who sits in his lab and writes a great book earns just as many XP as the warrior companion who explores the gnome cave and fights the dragon).

    The "argument from class balance" goes like this:

    In adventure RPGs, each player character should be as much fun to play as each other character; that is to say that if you could quantify "fun", each player would have as much as each other, based on their choices.

    This argument is not refuted by saying "each player will pick the class that most appeals to their play style, thus maximizing their own fun". While this is true, it is still possible (and likely) that certain classes will provide less fun even to the players whose play style those classes appeal to. So if Albert likes playing wizards and Betty likes fighters, Betty might still be having more fun. Albert might be having more fun with his wizard than he would with a fighter, but still less fun than Betty is having. I'm sure everyone has been in a game with someone who was having less-fun than everyone else at the table, and knows how much of a drag that can be.

    I could go on, but I'll spare you all ;)

    On point 6: I agree with you here. In fact, I have a game I'm writing now wherein magic is widespread, but ONLY huge. In fact, one of the main reasons to "adventure" will be to collect the required arcane elements and arrive at the right locations to cast some of these overwhelming spells.

  7. 3 & 5 are non-issues in a classless system-version.

  8. Well, classless systems just have their own set of issues in trade. Often, they have the same issues as classed systems, just at a finer granularity. (The same can be said of level vs. levelless systems.)

  9. deadlytoque, obviously the solution is, if one person at the table is having more fun than everyone else, you should make them have less fun to even it out.

  10. I really don't get objection 7. Of course wizards play different than fighters. In today's world, professional basketball athletes display their skills once every few days at most [in the NBA, 82 games/year; in the MLB 160-odd; in the Premier Leauge only about 40 games/year). School-teachers face the challenges of teaching about 5 days a week. Many army positions are 24/7 jobs.

    If we were playing an RPG set at modern times would he complain that the football player and the police detective don't play the same?

  11. OK. all of which makes me wonder what Jeff's perfect system would be. I mean, sure, old school, but surely there must be SOME innovations over the years that are worthy.

    Because, you know, I would like to play the Jeff RPG.

  12. Copper is useless and annoying in stock D&D. I have long used a more historical/literary silver standard for non-weapon/armor prices, which makes copper and silver useful as common currency (pay for meals, inns, hirelings, etc.), and makes gold SPECIAL (pay for weapons, armor, magic, etc.)

    I like variable XP per class. One problem in Tunnels & Trolls is that Warriors and Rogues are equally-balanced, but Wizards are more powerful, and Warrior-Wizards are obscene, yet they all use the same XP table. So I drop an XP penalty on Wizards and don't use Warrior-Wizards…

    And of course spellcasters should play different from fighters. The primary reason I find D&D 4E boring is that the classes all play the same.

    I used to play a LOT of Champions 3E, and of course everyone uses the same power mechanics (much like D&D 4E). However, each group of powers and gameplay styles works differently, so a handful of distinct pseudo-classes with their own rules subsets emerged: Bricks, Energy Projectors, Martial Artists, etc. The tactical variations occur with the D&D 4E Defenders, Leaders, etc., but there's no mechanical variations.

  13. GameDaddy7:44 PM

    Tweet is ok by me as well, Never did understand the fuss about his vision of D&D.

  14. Thinking about a designer of 3E, of all systems, criticizing ANY other system, much less simple ol' S&W, for being heavy on arithmetic... STILL makes me do a spit-take.

  15. You've separated out the "all spells are daily" from Tweet's point that that makes casters play too differently, so I'm not sure it's an area where you agree with Tweet.

    However I totally agree with you... The way everything is dailies in older D&D is actually not special enough. Playing a wizard should actually be more exotic than it is.

  16. Sorry to triple-post .. but Tweet's points strike me as off-the-cuff shallow riffs on "game design best practices" -- except the last point which is only best practice for lazy designers making boring games.

    They don't strike me as very serious or well thought out.

    The elephant in the room is that every other RPG is in some sense a document detailing the ways in which the designer thought OD&D was insufficient to their purposes. Tweet's most serious musings on the design problems of older D&D are writ large in those ugly-ass 3E books you've got on your shelves.

  17. I want to talk 4e for a second since it's mentionedby Mr. Tweet as an example of good design.

    Now one of things that struck me about 4e, a game that I have played a great deal in the last year, is that it plays in many ways like a video game. Certainly characters are (intended to be) balanced but the cost here is homoginization, all classes have x powers at level y, and they can all use these powers at the same rate.

    This creates an experience that is fundamentally the same for all characters, variations in class role don't change things enough to make you feel as if you're playing a truly different class.

    The worst offender for this is wizards, who have gone from being a difficult and rewarding class with a multitude of tricks into a bland artillery piece. For me this is not what a wizard should be.

    In short whilst 4e might make Fighters and Wizards more 'equal' it does so at the cost of a unique and interesting experience.

  18. Interestingly, Labyrinth Lord suggests that mages can replenish their spells once every five turns, its in the bit about movement within a labyrinth. I assume though that it means that they cannot change their spell selection without rest, however.

  19. Eh...never keen when this particular can of worms is opened, but one part of the post caught my eye.

    In Dark Heresy, the Warhammer 40k RPG, you can build you character or you have the option to roll everything completely random. Class, homeworld, build, hair, eye, and skin colors (including dyed hair and skin,)name, etc..

    Fantasy Flight did good by chargen.

  20. Recursion King: Since I'm away from my books and working on my wife's computer, I just downloaded a fresh copy of LL. The section on required rests in the dungeon refers you to Section 3 (the magic chapter) for rules on spellcasting and rest. Section 3 clearly states you need 8 hours to recover spells. That being said, I am intrigued by your reading of the rules.

  21. Yes I noticed it only the other day when my hardback version arrived from lulu and we played using that interpretation on sunday. It certainly made the wizard come alive in combat. The bit that got me thinking was this:

    "Exploring labyrinths is strenuous work, and all characters must
    rest. Characters can explore, fight, or otherwise remain active
    for 5 turns before needing to rest for 1 turn. If the characters
    press on without resting, they all suffer a penalty of -1 to hit
    and damage rolls until they have rested for 1 turn. Further,
    resting is useful for elves, magic-users, and clerics to recover
    spells. This is discussed in Section 3."

    It's probably just the wording but the text can be read to say that a ten minute rest can be used to recover used spells. I'm not sure that was the intent but it sure made a fun game session at any rate :-)

  22. The last point (7) seems a very strange one to make from the guy who helped bring us Ars Magica, my all-time favorite medieval fantasy game.

    Wizard play too differently from Fighters? Yes please. If you're going to have classes but every class plays the same, classes are meaningless to me.

    I would add that this should be apparent to those that created 4E. In the MMOs they so wish to emulate, each class functions differently. In some cases you have Mana that is spent to cast spells (yes, even WoW knows you don't necessarily need at-will spells to have fun, where as the fighter and rogue types often build up power through hits and combos. Very different in both feel and tactics.

    Bleh, I'll still with Ars Magica and Japanese TRPGs when it comes to fantasy.

    Barking Alien

  23. Shrug...Say what you will about 3e, the man had some good ideas. I'm not so misty-eyed over my D&D that I don't remember how non-magical 1st-level wizards felt sometimes. 0-level spells were the best thing that could've happened to the poor guy - Without breaking the MU into out-damaging the fighter, they gave him some cool and magicky things to do once he'd used his sleep spell. I just wish there had been more of them.

    What I gathered from that whole shenanigan was that Tweet's issues with the classes was mostly about the effect spellcasters have on adventure pacing - Which, frankly, is a fair criticism. I see it almost every time I play an older game: Unless there's a strong time constraint, the fighters will always kinda want to press on, and the casters will always REALLY want to turn back and regain spells.

    I think he's wrong, though, that 4e fixed the problem. What it boils down to - has always boiled down to - is that there is a very strong advantage to returning to town and resting and not often any real advantage to pressing on. Mega-dungeons are an exception, because the smart DM restocks some rooms after the characters leave - There's a real disadvantage to turning back when you are doing well. So are adventures with organized groups of smart creatures, because they can prepare a welcoming party for your return. But when leaving and returning doesn't mean trudging through horrible snares and deathtraps or a dozen restocked rooms, there just isn't much pressure to forge ahead.

    One of these days, I'll have to try offering a cumulative percentage bonus to XP the longer the PCs go without resting.

    Captcha: mogneefo

  24. Anonymous10:40 AM

    I’m 100% in agreement with Rob, there. This, IME, is also part of why DMs in the 80s and later moved on to more more story and plot-driven adventures. If you have a time constraint in the game, it forces the players to move on and not just rest every time they expend spells.

    In response to JP’s points, I think the biggest disappointment for me so far in 4th, is that the Ritual Magic section, which has such great potential for non-combat problem solving, is seen by so many players as an afterthought; secondary to all their cool combat powers. I think this is partially just because of the book layout. It takes up a slim section at the back of the book, and seems to get a proportionally (or even smaller) share of attention and use.

  25. demands that the designer meticulously balance all the classes so that a level 7 piglicker is functionally equivalent to a level 7 cogpolisher.

    First, you're assuming that you WANT to "meticulously balance" two characters with the same XP total. That may not be the case.

    But if you DO want to "meticulously balance" those characters, then whether or not they're the same level is irrelevant.

    In AD&D a fighter with 36,000 XP is 6th level; a magic-user with 36,000 XP is 5th level. Even though these characters are different levels, they still need to be balanced.

    In 3rd Edition, both characters would be 9th level. And they still need to be balanced. The only difference is that the standardization makes it easier to make sure they're balanced and remain balanced.

    OTOH, if you don't want to "meticulously balance" characters with the same XP total, then there's no reason to have variable XP totals for the different classes.

    Other than that, I agree with you. Tweet totally failed Design 101 in that blog post. Which is even more shocking to me than Mearls failing Design 101 after being hired by WotC.