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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

GURPS D&D, part I: some quick thoughts on the matter (and attributes)

As you probably know, there is a kickstarter  for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy going on. For all I know, it should be great. And I should know a little about the subject, since I've been playing GURPS fantasy for more than 20 years until switching to old school D&D, a few years ago.

Reading about new GURPS stuff fills me with nostalgia. It is an awesome game and I should probably write more stuff about it.

So, why did I stop playing? Well, I think GURPS can do a lot MORE than D&D with fewer rules. For all the "complexity" fame that GURPS has, I am constantly reminding people that I played GURPS because I though D&D was too complicated and made little sense - of course, had I know B/X before, my experience might have been different.

Still, I switched to old-school D&D because I think there are quite a few things that D&D can do a lot BETTER than GURPS.

First, GURPS combat got boring after a while, for reasons I will explain later. But this might be contentious; a better example is old D&D adventures and OSR stuff - GURPS has nothing quite like it (on the other hand, it has great sourcebooks on everything, and you can use most of those for any RPG). And those Monster Manuals! GURPS has a few good ones, but nothing compared to D&D.

Much of this is OGL's fault. Anyone can do D&D nowadays, and, although there is lots of trash, there are also more hidden gems than I can count. On the other hand, only SJG can do GURPS. The upside is that I used to buy EVERY. SINGLE BOOK. that SJG published because I already knew that they would be good (more than I can say about WotC, to be honest).

In my last years of GURPS, I spent lots of times trying to convert D&D stuff to GURPS. Eventually, I didn't see the point anymore. GURPS is quite simple, despite what people might say; but there is just TOO MUCH stuff (too many skills, advantages and disadvantadges, for one).

So I probably won't back the kickstarter, for lots of reasons - mostly, time and money, but if you have those available, I think you should. I can guarantee GURPS has useful stuff for pretty much everyone.

In any case, there is still a place in my heart for GURPS stuff. There is so much I learned from it, and I reckon some people that never played GURPS can find something useful in it. There is so much I would change too - that is why I play D&D.

And I think Ic an explain GURPS in D&D-speak, which might be relevant to some readers.

If there is enough interest, this might become a long series of posts; if not, maybe I will go back to writing about D&D sooner (who knows, I love when people read and comment on my blog, but I'm doing this for fun).

This probably beats most D&D settings, Seriously.
So, how would my version of GURPS D&D be like? Let us start with attributes.

First, if you've never played GURPS, it has "attributes" instead of abilities. Strength [ST], Dexterity [DX], Health [HT] and Intelligence [IQ].

All attributes start at 10. You can roll 3d6 in order, if you want, or use point-buy, which is quite central in GURPS. Most skills are based on DX and IQ, so they cost 20 points to raise (from 10 to 11, 11 to 12, etc). ST and HT cost 10.

All combat skills are based on DX, unlike D&D, and although ST is what causes damage, a good DX can make up for it, by targeting the throat, etc. This made lot of sense to me back in the day. For combat, DX is probably the main stat.

IQ is another important stat. It is Wisdom and Intelligence rolled up in one, as it includes magic, many skills, perception and will power (and you thought D&D was silly to use Wisdom for the last two!). It also includes Charisma stuff - fast talk, diplomacy, etc. I am not the first person to suggest this is just too much stuff for a single attribute; there are lots of house rules that address this in one form or another.

There is no easy way to elegantly fix that that I can think of without making it too complicated.

One could just use D&D abilities, and it would actually IMPROVE the game in lots of ways. Everything should cost 10 points per level - this is actually very close to how GURPS does things (see Sean Punch /Kromm about charisma cost here).

DEX and INT are too powerful in GURPS terms, since it is a skill-based game and most skills are based in DEX and INT, but INT can be easily fixed if you move some of the skills around.

DEX, on the other hand, is harder. Not only is the one you use to attack, but is also useful for dodging, no matter your armor. And, of course, most "thief skills" are also DEX-based. This is one thing you could change - maybe lock-picking and sneaking require more attention than agility - but then you've got a lot of wise thieves walking around... Not a good idea when you are trying to create archetypal characters.

You might just keep the cost at 20 points per level, if you want the six abilities or think the ability to dodge a punch is akin to the ability of picking as lock. In my own game, I just use two "Dexterity" and "Agility" instead, but adding a new ability kinda ruins my whole "GURPS D&D" theme. To stay true to my D&D house rules, I could rule there is NO combat attribute, and you must rely on classes/skills instead, like in OD&D. This seems quite natural to me in D&D, but feels very strange in GURPS, which has no other skills without attributes that I can think of.

In short, to make this compatible with both GURPS and D&D in some way, I guess I would prefer to have six abilities with DEX defining all attack rolls but having twice the cost of other abilities.

GURPS' way still makes a lot of sense to me, but this whole exercise always makes me reflect on how elegant and effective the six D&D abilities are for this kind of fantasy. There are plenty of reasons to like D&D, but some good ones' for playing GURPS too - which we will cover on future posts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

One mechanic per (archetypal) trait

When I started playing GURPS, I was instantly hooked by the idea that I could create ANY CHARACTER I WANTED. And I still like the idea. Unfortunately, I eventually realized that in practice this meant character creation took two to three hours, as the players browsed the books with innumerable traits and skill and got decision paralysis (also, combat had some boring bits, and the sheet got to complicated, etc., but I don't think you came here looking for my GURPS house rules anyway).

By comparison, D&D started looking a bit boring - I could no longer accept Magic-Users being unable to use swords, for example. Eventually, I "got" lots of aspects and started ignoring the ones I dislike, and I fell in love with D&D again.

This whole thing color my preferences to this day. Even after D&D reclaimed its spot as my favorite RPG and I fully embraced levels and classes, I still like the option of customizing characters.  Here is how I do it in B/X, for example.

The dilema is: how can I have a game with a maximum number of options without adding complexity or decision paralysis?

And my answer is: by taking away every mechanic that means nothing.

Well, there is another answer I should explain first. I realized that, as much as I like GURPS, I don't really need rules for an albino psychic with a bad back. What I DO need is some way of creating an albino sorcerer who can hold a sword, like Elric, or a strong warrior that can fight without armor or even kill an opponent with a chair, like Conan, because those characters are important in the Appendix N. And nowadays I do need paladins and clerics and "beastmaster" rangers, because they have become important D&D archetypes.

In short, I need at least one way to create every relevant archetype for the campaign I'm playing.

by ChrisQuilliams - Source.
Now, the current version of D&D pretty much covers every archetype I would like to use in my game. A few things might be missing - a non-magical ranger, a 4e-style warlord - but my problem with 5e is actually the opposite: there is just too much stuff. I would prefer something simpler.

Well, old school D&D is simple enough and has enough methods of character creation, including multi-classing, dual-classing and so on (and even elves that can use swords and magics, so, Elric). Still, I feel this is still needlessly complicated.

The reason is that there are too many rules that mean nothing.

Take the "wizards cannot use swords" example; in old school D&D, there was a reason for that - the magic item charts. But if you're not using it, the rule accomplishes nothing, and creates lots of obstacles - now, for every new class, you must describe which weapons it allows, and so on. Last year, this caused me to write a whole series of articles about doing away with those limitations, starting here. It is amazing to think that, to this day, D&D still has rules concerning "wizards cannot use swords" (well, they can, but get no proficiency bonus, or they do, but they need a feat for that... why not just ignore this stuff and make everything simpler? A wizard with a sword is more likely to be hacked to pieces than to break the balance of the game).

But these limitations are not the only problem. There are whole concepts that could be thrown away without great loss. I know a lot of people will disagree here, but do we really need saving throw charts? What do they represent that cannot be better portrayed by a single saving throw (S&W style), or ability-based saving throws?

Basing this stuff on abilities, you can ditch saving throws and even different hit dice for different classes (check this, for example). Of course, you can go the other way and just ignore abilities altogether; everything is based on class instead (maybe like this?).

But having a lot of different mechanics (for example, a fighter with d8 HD, constitution bonus to HP, and good petrifaction saving throws) for a single archetypal trait ("Fighters are tough" or "dwarves are even tougher") seems like needlessly complex to me.

So here is my new design goal: one mechanic per archetypal trait.

Need an absent-minded genius? Intelligence is separated from perception (Wisdom) - that is why I have a hard time dealing with RPGs where wizards are necessarily charismatic. A fighter that can cast spells? We need some multi-classing or specific class for that too. A charismatic coward? Well, I guess will saving trows cannot use "the best of Charisma or Wisdom", then. A valiant, if inept, warrior? Then using Wisdom as the only option for courage will not do either. Characters that are better with swords than spears? Yeah, I probably need some form of proficiency or feats after all. And so on.

On the other hand, I really DON'T need a handful of different mechanics that all mean "deal more damage" (more attacks, more "crit range", re-roll 1s and 2s, minimum damage, is all pretty much the same to me) or "your skill or ability actually works", like some mechanics in Fifth Edition and other games. In this case, a single mechanic ("bigger strength", "better skill bonus") will do just fine for me.

I hope this allows me to have a game with almost as many character archetypes as 5e, but with half the page count - it would fit my preferences very well, and, maybe, would please other people too.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Intimidation: should it be a skill? (also, Diplomacy)

A few weeks ago I said torture, as a game mechanic, is a tool of intimidation, so both things should share the same skills, abilities, checks, etc. But do we need an intimidation skill?

Of course, I'm assuming you are o.k. with skills (and, worse, social skills) in the first place; else, the discussion has no meaning. I like skills, although I take a pretty minimalist approach, using the bare minimum of skills I need to portray the archetypes I want in my games (big post on that coming soon, unless I found out it was already written by someone else).

Intimidation is a recurring skill in WotC D&D, and (IIRC) was a proficiency even before that. Its existence makes some sense, as far as archetypes go: you can easily think of character types that are intimidating despite having no other social skills (for example, ASOIF's The Mountain) - hence, the need for a specific skill.

One problem with this skill is that it is commonly based on Charisma (or a similar stat), making characters that are suave, diplomatic or empathetic good at intimidation (and vice-versa - being the nest at intimidation requires a charismatic type), which is pretty much the opposite of many RPG archetypes; the brute, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the unrelenting fanatic, can all be very intimidating without having any social graces.

One common solution is basing it on Strength, so the character with mighty thews is the most intimidating foe. Again, it seems to make sense, but is he really? Is the dumb brute, by definition, more intimidating than the skilled martial artist or, say, the guy with a gun? Will he be able to intimidate the king with 10 bodyguards between them?

Anyone writing about the subject can tell you intimidation needs something to intimidate with; if you're severely outnumbered or outgunned in one form or another, being intimidated is not that different from plain common sense.

In many cases, intimidation is nothing more that an extreme and violent form of negotiation: "Give me your purse, or I will cut your throat", "surrender and I'll spare your troops", etc. There needn't be a skill roll involved, just a decision about the costs and risks one is willing to take. Charisma and Strength may play a part, sure, but reputation, status, martial skill, and specially the circumstances will be more important than the specific ability of intimidating people.

Having "intimidation" as a skill may encourage players to look at the character sheet instead of focusing on this negotiation (perhaps the same can be said of all social skills, but I don't think so; read on).

What about empty threats? There should certainly be a skill to allow you to intimidate people when you have no real leverage?

Well, there is - it is called "deception", "bluff", or something similar. The sweet-talking character archetype can paint itself as your friend and your foe at the same time, intimidating and seducing at the same time.

Basically, intimidation is about getting leverage, or faking it. The first is probably better handled through role-playing and common sense, the second makes more sense as a skill (since "lying convincingly" is probably a skill in real life too). Different archetypes, such as the brute and the sweet-talker, can achieve the same result through different means, which is why using a single skill might be a bad idea.

Still, I can see some cool uses to intimidation, specially if you want it to play a part in combat; but maybe intimidating a foe during combat to force him to make a mistake is a part of combat skill (or a fighting technique, akin to taunting, etc), not a separate thing that the sweet-talker does better than the seasoned fighter; and in any case I will probably take morale rules and common sense over this.

By the way, e same reasoning can apply to diplomacy: most diplomacy will be some form of etiquette, and thus be covered by "lore", "history" or familiarity with the culture you're dealing it; or be some kind of negotiation, involving common sense (reputation, circumstances, etc) or deception.

In any case, Courtney Campbell was written about the subject herehis whole skill deconstruction series (including one on intimidation) is a big inspiration and well worth a read.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Inverted Skill Roll (and Static DCs): fixing randomness (where none should be)

Although this post isn't about Basic D&D, specifically (it might be useful for ANY role-playing game), I want to begin with a side note: I'm reading BD&D for the hundredth time, and Moldvay never ceases to amaze me in how concise and to the point the book is. I wish more RPGs were like that.

Look at page B8:

Open Locks may only be tried once per lock. The thief may not "try again" on a difficult lock until he or she has gained another level of experience.

Pick pockets is even better. In a short paragraph, it explains that the DM makes the roll, the thief has a change of being caught, and that the victim will react in accordance to GM's decision and the reaction table.


One of the downsides of the "d20 skill roll" that modern D&D (including 5e) uses is that it doesn't work (see my reasoning here; and also here). Alas, 5e makes it even worse with bounded accuracy.

Basically, that situation where the hulking fighter fails to break down a door only to see the wizard roll well and succeed happens too often. It also makes "trying again" a very tempting and effective solution, since the difference between two subsequent rolls are very often 10 or more (the key here is "very often", which doesn't happen with 3d6, for example).

But this isn't a problem of them d20 roll only: it can obviously happen with a d6, 2d6, 3d6 or any other variation, albeit less often.

In fact, the problem might be conceptual, in many cases: in what circumstances can a weak character succeed in a feat of strength that was unattainable to a stronger one? In what circumstances can the same character try again after a failure?

This should be determined by the GM in a case by case basis, of course; but some cases are so common that clear rules become, if not a necessity, at least incredibly useful.

Such is the case with picking locks and forcing doors.

So, for a quick solution that - dare I say it? - may even better than Basic D&D (depending on your tastes, of course), try this inverted skill roll: for stationary objects, the GM rolls the dice, and the results never change (because the object doesn't move).

For example, if a regular person has 2-in-6 chance of forcing a door open, and the GM rolls a 2, anyone without a Strength penalty can open it. If the GM rolls a 5, you would need a +3 bonus to open it instead. There is no rolling again; if you lack the required Strength, you are simply not strong enough (you might get a +1 bonus with a crowbar, etc).

Alternatively, roll 3d6-2 to find out the door's Strength; if you roll 11, any character with Strength 11 or more can open it.

The same applies to lock-picking; if you want to use a d100 roll, like Basic does, and the GM rolls a 53, the thief will be unable to open it until level 7.

The DM doesn't have to roll for every object; ha can just pick a number when building the adventure. "This is a Strength 14 door, this is a quality 37 lock, this is a Intelligence 15 information", etc.

This doesn't apply to contested rolls against other creatures such as hiding or picking pockets. It might apply for such contests where no risk or randomness is involved: the Strength 15 girl IS stronger than the Strength 6 guy, all the time, and will ALWAYS win in an arm-wrestling contested unless duped, cheated, etc. A combat is a different matter; the Strength 6 guy may be quicker, more experienced, better armored, etc.

However, this DOES apply to knowledge checks, if you use them. The smart wizard will ALWAYS know that bears live in forests and caves (which is not the case for most characters in 4e, as you might remember), and the merchant will ALWAYS know the approximate price of a common item (again, not necessarily the case if you use 3e's rules).

As an alternate solution for modern D&D, I offer you the Static DC (or sDC): When you are testing a skill that doesn't rely on luck (which is often the case against an stationary object), you do not roll; the result of the d20 is always considered to be 10 ("take 10"). So if a challenge has sDC 15, it means that the DC is 15 and you cannot roll against it; you take 10 and automatically succeed if you have a +5 or greater bonus, automatically fail if you don't.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that someone had that idea a long while ago. Oh well...