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, September 29, 2018

SHOCKING! D&D is, indeed, a role-playing game!

Captain obvious comes to the rescue!

Silliness aside, it is a (somewhat) interesting topic that resurfaces from time to time. "D&D is not a role-playing game", some say, "because you are not role-playing when you're rolling dice". Or something to that effect. Maybe I can't make the best "iron man" version of this argument, but I'll try - and you're welcome to improve the argument in the comments.

It goes more or less like this:

There are two things you do when you play RPGs:

A) playing the mechanics* (using your character sheet, dice etc.);
B) "actual" role-playing - in-character conversation, making decisions as your PC, etc. (without using you dice, token, character sheets, etc);

* Mechanics aren't limited to dice - automatic successes, fate points, jenga towers and even "the DM decides how many HPs the monster has" are mechanics. 

The argument of ten focuses on the distinctions between the two, as if they were two separate things. Something like "D&D is not an RPG because if focuses on A, not B". Maybe "true" RPGs is something like improvisational theater which requires no written rules or even arbiters.

D&D without any mechanics - "I kill the dragon with one blow".
However, the special thing about role-playing games is not "A" or "B", but the LINK between the two. This is one reason why RPGs include both "role-playing" AND "games"; RPGs must necessarily include both. This is what makes RPGs special when compared to the other hobbies discussed here.

For example, you could have a situation such as this:

> The goblin says "get out of my way".
> Player says: "I flex my muscles and tell him that in Cimmeria we eat goblins for breakfast".

No dice rolled, no looking at the sheet - BUT the player is ROLE-PLAYING a strong barbarian warrior, in a way he COULDN'T do if his sheet says "Str 8 wizard". So, the mechanics are IMPLIED even if not being used at the time.

If you have ONLY mechanics, it would make sense to say you aren't playing a RPG. A good example would be HeroQuest (the board game, not the RPG): it has a lot more in common with chess than with D&D.

Great game, BTW
You can make lots of choices in HeroQuest, but ALL these choices you make AS A PLAYER, not as character. You can't leave the dungeon to fight another day, for example, or just go look for a different dungeon to loot.

In RPGs you must make most of your decisions AS A CHARACTER. Here is one common example of this confusion, which I mentioned recently:

GM: You enter the room... there is a strange altar on the middle of it.
Player: Can I roll Arcana?
GM: No. Describe what you're trying to do instead. 

In this example, the player is obviously taking a choice from the player POV, not the character's. What we do is something like:

GM: You enter the room... there is a strange altar on the middle of it.
Player: Do I know if this altar was used for magic?
GM: Probably, there are mystic runes carved in it... (and then maybe roll arcana to identify them, etc.).

But this is not black and white. RPGs will always be a bit of an "hybrid" between "A" and "B". Sometimes, you might use the mechanics without regards for the role-playing ("I use inspiration to make a re-roll"), and sometimes you will "role-play" without any reference to the mechanics ("I ask the friendly vendor how much the cabbage costs"*).

* Notice that if you wanna haggle or lie to the vendor, mechanics might come into play. And this isn't a new-school thing - in OD&D, your charisma score (a mechanic) could determine if a witch would keep you as a lover or killed you.

And this, my friends, in why D&D is, indeed, a role-playing game.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Knave, old school hacks, and minimalist D&D (not a review)

Usually, I'm not the greatest a fan of minimalism in role-playing games. However, Knave (affiliate link*), the latest game by Ben Milton - of the awesome Maze Rats - piqued my interest with an intriguing concept: D&D without classes or special powers, with characters defined by their abilities and items.

Anyway, he posted the whole thing (only 6 pages or so) on youtube. A review would be a bit useless: the book is awesome and incredibly clever; go check it out.

But it got me thinking on how I would do a minimalist, equipment-based version of D&D.


3d6 in order. Modifiers are new-school style (+1 for 12/13, +2 for 14/15, etc.), but, to make things simpler, no negative modifiers.

Since abilities are so central, everything would be roll-under (roll 1d20 under you ability score to succeed), like Moldvay suggests. This would include saves, attacks and spells.

An ability of 3 would be very hindering regardless of the +0 modifier.

Natural 1 is a critical hit. Probably double damage. No need for "fumbles".

Here is how I'd use abilities to keep things nice and symmetric:

Encumbrance and armor

Encumbrance is central in such an equipment-focused game, and I obviously like the idea of encumbrance slots.

I'd be tempted to go one step further in the direction of videogames and give body, legs, chest, arms and head "slots" for armor, each with a +1 AC bonus. So a naked warrior with helmet and shield would get +2. A well-armored fighter would have greaves, bracers, body armor (chain?), breastplate and helmet, for a total of +5 or maybe +6. Shield would also count as secondary weapon.

However... just listing different types of armors with different weights, each giving a +1 point of AC per "slots" would be simpler.

Dexterity would give you an armor bonus... provided you have enough EMPTY slots as suggested in the link above.

Attacks are opposed rolls: if the attacker hits, the defender gets to roll "dodge", which will only be successful if lower than AC but higher than the attacker's roll.

Or just get rid of armor AC and do damage reduction instead. Seems fitting.

Weapons and abilities

Since the game is about abilities and inventory, I would make them interact a bit more: maybe limit weapon damage to you Strength score, so carrying a 1d8 blade would be less useful if you have Strength 5, add "finesse" weapons that use Dexterity instead of Strength, and so on.


Roll under Intelligence to cast a spell. Any spell.

One interesting thing about knave is that, to use spells, you need to carry spell-books. So "spell slots" are actually... encumbrance slots! Nice! However, you can only use each book once a day. Your grimoires get "bricked" after one use. Not ideal, IMO. How about magic points, to mirror hit points? Each use costs one magic point per spell level. Fail and lose twice that much. Less than 0 means terrifying death, or worse. Or maybe let the spell turn against the caster in that case - better have high Charisma then!

Magic points need SOME use for non-magicians. So maybe they are some kind of "luck points" or "willpower", and can be used for re-rolls, etc.

Charisma protects you from magic. Seems fitting with roguish heroes. "Physical" magic might allow you to roll DEX instead.

Tools instead of skills

Since there are no skills, 5e's concept of tools would fit perfectly here. A medicine kit instead of a healing skill, and so on.

No levels?

Since we got rid of classes, why not go further and get rid of levels? Every significant "goal" achieved (a couple of short adventures, etc.) allows everyone in the group to augment one ability by one (maximum 20, although rolling a 20 is automatic failure anyway), and the person with the least ability score sum to augment two abilities.

For epic monsters, additional Strength (say, Strength 28 for an ancient dragon) could cause it to crit on an 8 or less.

No hit points?

Maximum HP is equal to constitution. Maximum MP is equal to Wisdom. HOWEVER, you ability modifier serves as damage resistance. If you have 16 (+3) Constitution, you only have 16 HP but can ignore 3 points of damage from any source. If you have 16 (+3) Wisdom, you can cast third-level spells without spending any magic points!

Numbers would be lower across the board. A dragon causing, say, 1d6+9 damage would be scary for everyone. And with 24 (+6) Constitution, would ignore all attacks that cause six point of damage or less.

Spells would have to be nerfed as well; maybe 1d6+spell level damage would be enough, provided you can hit lots of targets with a fireball. A magic wand or staff could allow you to cast 0-level "missiles" doing 1d6 damage.

What's the point?

This is admittedly half-baked, but I was inspired to write down some random ideas for minimalist D&D and this is what I've got so far.

Would I use it?

My ideal level of complexity is around 50 pages, like my Dark Fantasy Basic; however, the whole idea of Knave sounds so cool that I would be happy to try it for a few games.

*By purchasing stuff through affiliate links you're helping to support this blog.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mike Mearls on mechanics versus "identity", 3e/4e versus 5e, etc

So Mearls tweeted this:

He touches on lots of interesting points there: rulings versus rules, "narrative", options (and maybe the paradox of choice)  and mechanics versus "identity".

I am a bit curious about this bit:

With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.

Starts out alright but... Do they really expect the DM to turn to the book for an answer? Not during the game, I hope! As you can see in the link, I view the book as guidelines, not something I am expected to follow at all times.

On one ahnd, I agree that the GM is the only one to turn to for mechanical answers. However, in a game as complex as 5e, IF I were to follow the rules strictly (which I don't), I would ask THE PLAYERS to know their own rules (as pertaining to their PCs) since I'm incapable of keeping track of the (literally) dozens of features and powers that a party of four 5th level characters have.

There is also "who you are is more important than what you do". Sounds like something anathema to old school play, where what you DO during the game is more important than what you character is, since your character isn't special.

However, in this context, it seems that Mearls is advocating for something like one mechanic per (archetypal) trait, something I obviously agree with. I'm doubtful if 5e achieved that - it has enough mechanics that seem to indicate nothing within the fictional word - but it is certainly an improvement over 3e and 4e in this aspect.

There is also this last part:

I like the fact that Mearls wants to do away with the insanity of 3e purposefully (?) adding bad feats to the game*, but TBH I wished that "mechanical expertise" was kept to a minimum instead of simply being "balanced" (which doesn't mean much).

[*to be fair, there are lots of people saying that this isn't what Cook meant. I still think toughness is a stupid feat that shouldn't exist, but Justin Alexander makes a good point]

Playing D&D - or being good at playing D&D - should be about being creative, fun, and using the fictional world in awesome ways, not knowing your ways around the rules (we have a GM for that) or looking for loopholes and combos to make your character more powerful. Loopholes in the fiction can be awesome ("So he cannot be killed by a mortal man? Good thing I'm a woman!"), loopholes in the mechanics are a lot less so.

The "mechanical expertise" part is also a bit discouraging to newbies, specially if they feel that they must be experts on 400 pages of mechanics to enjoy D&D. This is not the case at all.

All in all, I'm happy that Mearls and Crawford have taken 5e to a more straightforward and, in many ways, old school approach.

As always, I'm not sure that it actually beats Basic D&D, since many WotC-ism that I dislike were kept in the game. For me, its back to "playing 5e the old school way" or just going with Dark Fantasy Basic, my 5e+B/X mashup.

But hey  - that's just us! Individual groups have different experiences and all...