I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Minimalism, Elegance and Multipurpose Mechanics

I once tried to write minimalist RPGs. After a long period of infatuation with detailed, “realistic” games, I got a bit bored and thought I could enjoy something faster, simpler, easier - maybe my own version of Risus, Searchers of the Unknown or Lady Blackbird. At that time, I was very interested in going back to D&D but couldn't stand a few features that have been present in most editions of the game: endless charts, complex XP rules, and long lists of various things (such as spells and equipment), so a naturally gravitated towards things like SotU, Microlite20 and so on.

The problem was that every time I read those games or wrote my own, I couldn't stop adding stuff to them. You see, there are many bits in my favorite RPGs that I find unnecessary and dull, but there are lots of small things that I like and, sincerely, have a hard time leaving out of my game.

It took me a while to realize I wasn't looking for minimalism at all.

Wikipedia has an useful definition that says minimalism “describes movements in various forms of art and design […] where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts.”

The thing is, I rather like many features that one could find non-essential, such as the interaction between weapons and armor, encumbrance, skills, and so on, but I still dislike the rules-bloat that sometimes come with it. What I want is to have a system with all this stuff and some simple rules to go with it.

What I was looking for is elegance.

Elegance is a debated topic, often confounded with minimalism, but to me they aren't the same (although very close to each other). Dictionaries define elegance with words like effectiveness and simplicity. Once again, I found a simple explanation in Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Minimalist cover art - T&T UK 4th edition
In engineering, a solution may be considered elegant if it uses a non-obvious method to produce a solution which is highly effective and simple. An elegant solution may solve multiple problems at once, especially problems not thought to be inter-related.

The difference, for me, is this: while a minimalist game eliminates every detail that is not important or essential, an elegant game uses the same solutions for different things, which means that few rules can be used to cover many situations, whether essential or not.

For example,"3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars" has a minimalist set of traits: Fighting Ability (FA) and Non-Fighting Ability (NFA), and not much else. This is not elegant per se (although the game is very elegant in other aspects), but it is simple and good enough for that particular game. For elegance, I can hardly think of a better example than Delta's house rules, that uses the same Target 20 mechanic for attacks, saving throws and thief skills, without deviating much from Original D&D. It cuts redundancy, not details.

Although the concepts are different, any good minimalist games will have a healthy dose of elegance, or risk becoming uninteresting. “Whenever you try to do anything you must roll 6 on a d6” is hardly a game at all. The aforementioned Risus and Searchers of the Unknown are good example of minimalist games that use elegance in order to maintain simplicity while allowing for a good range of distinct situations.

Another important point to focus in is “inter-related problems”. Using a single mechanic for different things isn't necessarily elegant if those things have little to do with each other. For example, creating “social hit points”, “social attacks” and “social armor” in order to use the same system for combat and interaction in D&D sounds clunky, not clever. Likewise, unified mechanics might be simpler, but not necessarily elegant.

The opposite of elegance, in my opinion, is useless distinction. This is the reason I could never understand versions of D&D where the fighter gets an attack bonus that rises from, say, +1 to +17 during 20 levels, instead of simply getting +1 per level, or why use two different ways to adjudicate thief's skills (say, 50% chance of finding traps and 3 in 6 chances to hear sounds). Of course I could find worse examples, but those are the ones I think most people will be familiar with. Adding such details for no reason makes the game more complex but no more effective which, by definition, makes it less elegant.

When writing my own stuff, I often try to think of multipurpose mechanics, ideas that can be used to expand the game without making it more complicated. Take abilities in OD&D, for example: most of them have few purposes for most characters, and they work fine that way. But if one is creating new stuff for OD&D, he could use the existing abilities for new purposes (roll 3d6 under ability to achieve something is a popular one) instead of coming up with new abilities or new mechanics.

In order to make the games I like simpler, I no longer try to cut all that is not essential. Instead, I try to find the most useful tools I can, and use them for as many situations as possible. That is the philosophy I'll do my best to follow when talking about weapons, abilities, modifiers and similar topics in the coming posts.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rewriting D&D

If you play D&D long enough, you may feel the urge to rewrite it. It is almost inevitable: each edition brings different options, systems, subsystems, interpretations, an so on. Supplements and even erratas will often change whole sections, and after reading so many different versions you will realize that you can combine your favorite bits to make your own ideal game.

Maybe choosing isn't enough for you, and you start to come up with your own house rules. Why not? The earlier the edition you play, the easier it is to find gaps, and the easier it is to fill them up with your own ideas (and I say that on a very general level - 5th edition seems more hackable than 4th, for example). The newer the edition you play, the more history it carries.

There is nothing wrong with choosing one edition and sticking with it, of course. Maybe you play OD&D and think the Thief class has ruined everything,  maybe you play a newer version and don't think that knowing what has come before is that important, or maybe you found your perfect edition somewhere in between. But homebrews and house rules are so common that I would bet a huge part of D&D players have tried it at least once.

I know I have. And I do feel an urge to rewrite D&D to my own tastes.

But why D&D? Why not play a different game if I can't find a perfect edition? Well, I really like D&D. I like having that huge repertoire of options in D&D history (rules, monsters, adventures and so on). I like it not only as a lingua franca but as a great game in itself. I like the OGL. And I like the amazing D&D stuff people have been coming up with in their blogs.

Not enough stuff... Must write my own!
So, what do I want change? And how can I change D&D without turning it into something completely different?

Reflecting upon this question, I had a little epiphany. You see, there are parts of D&D that never change, or change very little: the six abilities, the main classes, roll a d20 to hit a foe (and wish for a high number on the d20), and so on. But there are other things that change constantly from edition to edition: skills, saving throws, weapons and its details, ability mods, feats, numbers, and so on.

And I have realized that what I really like is this “core” D&D, even if the changing parts sometimes annoy me - not because they change frequently, but because if feel they could still be vastly improved (although sometimes I just like old solutions better than the new ones and dislike the changes).

When I write my own house rules for D&D, I like to search for precedent in history, at least as inspiration. I avoid changing things that haven't been changed for a long time - I believe this happens for more reasons than simple tradition - but if something has been changed a lot and I can't find a version I like, I am not too shy about creating my own stuff. After all, if so many people tried to improve it, why can't I? Besides, if I don't come up with my own eccentric ideas, there will be nothing in my blog for other people to criticize!

I am not saying that this is the perfect method for coming up with your own version of D&D, of course. It's just a common one, and one that suits me well.

So, this is what I'll be doing for now. When I create my house rules for D&D, I will try to:

- Respect what hasn't been changed, when possible.
- Question the hows, whens and whys on what has been changed.
- Look for precedent, but come up with new stuff whenever I feel the need.
- … and, ultimately, just adopt the best solution for my own tastes because, after all, it's my own house rules. But even if you don't agree with my conclusions, I hope you have a good time reading (and discussing!) my reasonings.

Image from http://dreamingaboutotherworlds.blogspot.com.br

Thursday, January 22, 2015

D&D as lingua franca

I will be writing about Dungeons & Dragons quite a lot on this blog. This doesn't mean it is the only RPG I play, nor that it is my favorite game (to be honest I would have a hard time choosing a favorite), although it is the one I'm most interested in right now. But that isn't the only reason I like to write about D&D.

One of my favorite aspects of D&D is that is (rightfully) considered by many role-players as a lingua franca, a common language we can all use to communicate with each other, despite being more fluent in other languages (i.e., our particular favorite games). Whether your favorite RPG is Heroquest, GURPS, Fiasco or something else, chances are you have played or read some version of D&D. Even the people who don't play RPGs are often familiar with concepts popularized by D&D, such as levels and hit points, due to videogames and pop culture - and they may even think D&D as synonymous to RPG.

There are lots of people that see D&D as a mother tongue, of course. They have played D&D before other RPGs, and many haven't felt the need to learn new systems. But even amongst the ones who dislike D&D, its jargon is mostly common knowledge. Although this might have many different reasons, the fact that D&D was the first role-playing game around (which also gave it “naming rights” to lots of stuff it hasn't necessarily invented) and the most popular one during nearly all of the existence of the hobby (until today, if you count Pathfinder and other games that are heavily inspired by it) are certainly the main ones.

One of the interesting effects this brings is that almost every new concept you can think of has been tried in “D&D speak“ before. Wounds instead of hit points, character point versus rolling abilities on 3d6 and levelling up, percentages, dice pools, conflict resolution, levels of success, abstractions, playing with multiple characters, etc ad nauseam. All of this has been tested and discussed in the framework of D&D, since the very early days of our hobby.

It is quite difficult learning about a subject if you don't know the particular lingua franca. Even if you dislike D&D, I think you should learn about it if you have any interest in roleplaying games at all, as it will help you to understand other games.

Let me give you an example. When I first read Apocalypse World, a game that has little to do with Dungeons & Dragons, I had a hard time understanding it fully. Although I was very interested in the new ideas it brought to the table, its language made them hard to grasp. But them I read Dungeon World, the adaptation of the Apocalypse World engine to the language of Dungeon and Dragons, and everything became a lot clearer.

By using the familiar language of abilities, spells and hit points, Dungeon World made Apocalypse World easier to understand. By displaying the very core of AW - its most important ideas - in the well-known surroundings of D&D, DW made it stand out - even for some people that have no interest in playing Dungeon World.

You can do this with lots of games. Take Fate Freeport Companion or GURPS Dungeon Fantasy as other examples of gateways to games some people might not “get” at first. This doesn't mean you have to like them, of course (although I personally think all the games mentioned in this post are quite awesome).

D&D is a lingua franca in less metaphorical senses, too. It has been translated in innumerable forms to many languages, for quite a long time, and you could probably have a vague understanding of a D&D character sheet written in a language you don't speak or - who knows - improving your languages skill by playing D&D with people who speak other languages. This happens with other RPGs too - by taking a quick look at the german RPG Degenesis Rebirth, I was able to grasp the basics of the system (or a small part of it...), even without having played other editions of the game, or speaking any German at all.

I can't read any of it, but it certainly looks good!

The trouble with this lingua franca is twofold. The first one is that you can get too comfortable knowing that you can speak a language thats is familiar to almost everyone in the hobby, so you don't need to learn other languages. The second one is that you use the lingua franca as a simplified language, learning the bare minimum to communicate with other people. In both cases, you might be losing the opportunity to have fun and acquire knowledge, even if you want to play anything besides what you are playing now.

To communicate within our hobby, knowing the lingua franca is essential, but having a good vocabulary and learning new languages are also very important.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Isaac Asimov on creativity

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov, so I got very interested when a previously unknown text was published in late 2014. It is a short essay on creativity, thinking out of the box and generating new ideas. According to Asimov, to come up with new ideas with a group, it requires elements such as relaxation, small numbers (no greater than five), a willingness to defy common sense, and even an arbiter.


The essay is very interesting in itself, and I couldn't help but thinking on how well it applies to role-playing games (even more so than to other kinds of games), including the need for joviality, joking around and letting everyone speak, the best place for such events (”meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room”), and the usefulness of having a guide to “ask the right questions” and bring people back to the point.

Of course, his ideas are easily applied to many different fields, and I bet you will find it useful even if it doesn't make you think about your games. Take a look and tell me what you think!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What's this about?

This is a blog about game design, and (specially) role-playing games, as well as lots of related stuff, such as literature, videogames, comic books, and so on. Right now, my interests lie primarily in old-school Dungeons & Dragons and games that are closer (in time or spirit) to it, but this may change with time. Expect a lot of random thoughts, alternate rules, crazy ideas and, hopefully, some method to this madness.