Tag Archives: Runequest

10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

Related: How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.

When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?

Wisdom makes you alert

Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.

Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.

Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.

The advantages of Search and Spot

D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:

  • Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.

  • The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.

On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?

By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.

9 popular things in D&D that I fail to appreciate

I love Dungeons & Dragons enough to spend money to write a blog about it, but I dislike some elements of fantasy role playing. Perhaps “dislike” is too strong. I don’t want to squash your fun. This is not a rant; this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 9 aspects of our hobby.

Real world cultures with different names. In the 1930s, authors helped readers swallow the fantasy of places like Hyboria and Middle Earth by setting them in ages lost to history. We’ve now grown so accustomed to fantasy versions of Europe that we can take them without the sugar of a lost age. But I, for one, can only stomach one analogue culture at a time. In the 1980s, every TSR staffer who read a book on the Aztecs or Mongols felt compelled to write a campaign box. Now, every corner of Faerûn and Greyhawk offers more cheap knock offs than the guy selling Rollex and Guccee at the flea market. My problem comes from my compulsion to invent explanations for some cultural farrago, a problem I share with the authors of Banestorm. (Young persons: If “farrago” appears on your SAT, you’re welcome. Gary did the same for me.)

Puzzles that depend on English letters, words, and spelling. Nobody who dwells in the Forgotten Realms speaks English, except Ed Greenwood under an assumed name. When the adventurers stop at the Old Inn, we just imagine its name is translated from “Ye Olde Inne” or something. I accept this, but when a D&D puzzle depends on English spelling, I feel like ye olde innkeeper just offered me a Bud Lite. The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb feels a lot less bizarre and menacing after [Spoilers!] you enter by keying “WELCOME” at the door. Don’t forget to wipe your feet. (Note: Despite my peeve, I liked the puzzles in the 2013 D&D Championship, so I’m not unreasonable.)

Underwater adventures. At some point, every dungeon master desperate for a new idea hits upon the underwater adventure. Many are so hard up for material that the concept seems promising. Don’t feel bad; in 1977 similar desperation reached the professionals in the Happy Days writers’ room. Soon, players are fighting seafood and creatures in seashell bras. Resist this impulse.

Underwater adventures can go two ways:

  • You treat the sea with a measure of respect, and you wind up with guys in flooded armor swallowing “air pills” or something, but still unable to speak and thrashing as uselessly as fish in a boat. Even the chainmail bikinis rust.
  • You use magic and hand waving to simplify the environment to the Spongebob version of underwater. Spongebob is the guy who lives under the sea, lights fires, and has a bathtub.

I can tell you what underwater adventures would really be like. You would drown.

Mounts. I get that your warhorse has intelligence 6, uses the litterbox, and takes sugar with his tea, but must you insist on riding it underground? Do you know how tall a warhorse and rider is? How will you fit the damn thing through the doors? Whenever I DM for a guy with a mount, he insists I decide between (a) making the dungeon into the equestrian version of handicap accessible with 15-foot-tall doors and ramps between levels or (b) being TOTALLY UNREASONABLE and NERFING HIS ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT. I know that some specialized D&D campaigns offer plenty of opportunities for Silver to join the fun, but folks who want to bring their horse in the house should probably be playing Bella Sera.

Druids. Let’s see. I can select a class that can turn invisible and throw fireballs, or I can play a druid and cast Warp Wood and Shillelagh. I’ll stick with spells I can pronounce and that also damage more than the woodwork. To make things worse, druids become ineffectual underground—in a game with a name that starts with Dungeons. Do druids sound good to you anyway? In original D&D, you had to battle other druids to reach high levels—as if there were a shortage of trees to hug. Oh, and all the other players have to put up with all your tiresome tree hugging.

Pets. Young people love having imaginary pets that fight for them. This accounts for Anne McCaffry’s bestsellers and the Pokémon millions lining the pockets of ground-floor Wizards of the Coast shareholders. Young person, I appreciate that 4E makes your woodland friends playable as familiar spirit animal companions. I only make two requests:

  1. Limit your retinue to one pal. I have literally run tables where the pets outnumbered the characters. If I had attempted to realistically role play the scene where the zoo enters the tavern, the campaign never would have reached scene 1 with the patron at the bar.
  2. Know the rules for your creature. If rule (2) where actually enforced, no one in the history of D&D would have ever played a character with a pet.

Bards This. Enough said? I played a bard once in a 3E game. My character stood in the background and I had to imagine that my lute strumming helped the party. To be clear, “lute strumming” is not a euphemism, but if it were, my contribution would have been just as useful. No one remembered to apply the bonuses coming from my musical inspiration. Fourth edition improved matters by making bards into musical spell weavers who pretty much operate like every other PC in 4E. I once played with a guy who re-skinned all his bard powers with the titles of Metallica songs. At least I think that’s what he did. In 4E, (a) no one understands what the hell anyone else is doing on their turn and (b) in 4E most power names already overlap with the titles of metal songs.

Stupid word play from game authors. (Note: Stupid word play from players is a-okay.) The MOST SERIOUS FANTASY GAME EVER, Chivalry & Sorcery, suggests this dungeon trap: “The Case of Nerves, a box which falls on the hapless intruder, inside of which are—‘nerves.’ [The intruder] immediately checks morale -20%, and failure sends him screaming down the hall.” Get it? A case of ‘nerves!’ I want game authors to save their comedy riffs for their HBO specials. I am not alone. Everyone knows the first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Ken St. Andre created the second RPG, Tunnels & Trolls. T&T featured concise and understandable rules, which, unlike original D&D, didn’t have to be deciphered by word of mouth and then held together by spit and house rules. In an alternate universe, T&T was a smash and D&D is a curiosity like the Landlord’s Game. In that universe, Ken St. Andre did not fill his smash hit with spell names like Rock-a-Bye, Whammy, and Take That, You Fiend! Meanwhile, in our world, T&T just thrived for solo play because alone, you never had to say aloud, “I cast Yassa-Massa.”

Apple Lane for Runequest

Apple Lane for Runequest

Furry races. Exhibit A: Spelljammer. This setting includes anthropomorphic hippos and space hamsters.  Jeff Grubb writes, “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs. The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddlewheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster. So I’m not taking the fall for that one by myself.” Exhibit B: Runequest. This game featured the most sober, serious world building this side of Empire of the Petal Throne. I love Runequest and would probably be writing a Runequest blog now except that the setting included anthropomorphic ducks like Donald and Howard. Ducks! Sorry. Deal breaker. I like to dress in character, so according to THE MAN, I need to choose a character wearing pants.

From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

An elegant role-playing game gains maximum play value out of a concise set of simple rules.

Elegant rules…

  • apply broadly so fewer rules can cover whatever happens in the game.
  • play quickly with minimal math and little need to reference or memorize.
  • can be easily explained and understood.
  • produce outcomes that match what players expect in the game world.
  • enable players to anticipate how their characters’ actions will be resolved and the likely outcomes, something I call resolution transparency.

Rules-light role-playing games maximize economy by applying just a few rules across the entire game, but they sacrifice resolution transparency.

Dungeons & Dragons has never qualified as a rules-light system, but the game has grown more elegant by eliminating rules and applying the rules that remain more broadly. In “Design Finesse,” D&D patriarch Mike Mearls writes, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.”

Elegant role-playing games start with economical rules, yet they still invite players into their characters, give them plenty of freedom to make interesting choices, and provide easy ways to resolve the actions so the outcomes make sense in the game world.

D&D started as an inelegant game: a bunch of mechanics that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax dreamed up as they refereed, which Gary then wrote in his stream-of-consciousness style. In “A Brief History of Roleplaying,” Shannon Appelcline writes, “In various early versions of D&D and AD&D, you had one system to model Strength (a range of 3-17, then 18/01 to 18/00), one to model all the other characteristics (3-18), one to model armor class (10 to -10), one to model thief ability (0-100%), one to model skill in combat (a to-hit number from 20 to 1), one to model clerical spells (7 levels of magic), one to model magic-user spells (9 levels of magic), etc.”

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax

Why so many systems? No one knew anything about RPG design, because none existed. Also, during D&D’s formative years, Gary was an incorrigible collaborator, always willing to add a friend’s new rule to the mix. Each of Gary’s brown-book D&D releases features the work of a different collaborator. Even in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary couldn’t say no to additions like weapon speeds and psionics—additions he regretted.

In 1977 and 1978, role-playing game design took two huge steps: Traveller introduced a skill system. Runequest united all action resolution around a core mechanic. These two games charted a course for elegant RPG design, and virtually all games to follow built on their innovations.

Player's Handbook (2nd edition)

Player’s Handbook (2nd edition)

Second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons cut some rules that no one ever used, but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, designer Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

When 2E appeared in 1989, game publishers still limited new editions to corrections and tweaks. If a publisher wanted to create an incompatible new version of a game, they coined a new name, such as Megatraveller and Runequest: Slayers. Of second edition AD&D, Steve Winter says, “The [TSR] executives where terrified of the idea of upsetting the whole customer base and driving away customers, coupled with the idea that if we put out a new book, what happens to all the old books? We have stores with all these books. we won’t sell any new players handbooks for a year while we’re making the new edition because people will know what’s coming.” How different from the modern market, where people accuse publishers of issuing new editions just to spur sales?

It took the sale of TSR, and a new edition from Wizards of the Coast, to give D&D twenty-year-old innovations such as skills and a core mechanic. Third edition simplified by consolidating a myriad of different rules into the d20 check that gave the core system its name. On the whole, 3E isn’t simpler than AD&D, but it took the complexity budget earned through simplification, and used it to add depth to tactical combat and to character options.

Emboldened by the acclaim for the big changes in 3E, the 4E designers felt willing to outdo the changes. The designers attacked some complexities that the third-edition designers had kept as sacred cows. For instance, fourth edition eliminated traditional saving throws by consolidating their function with attack rolls.

Fourth edition tried for a simpler game by focusing on exception-based design. This principle makes trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering playable despite the tens of thousands of cards in print. The 4E designers built a system on a concise set of core rules, and then added depth by adding abilities and powers that make exceptions to the rules.

Even with 4E’s concise core, the thousands of powers and thousands of exceptions produced more rules than any prior edition. Still, no RPG delivers more resolution transparency than 4E. In sacrifice, the edition often fails to model the game world, creating a world with square fireballs, where you can be on fire and freezing at the same time, where snakes get knocked prone, and where you can garrote an ooze.

Among all the simplifications in 4E, only the use of standard conditions appear to remain in D&D Next.

Both 3E and 4E used more elegant rules to produce simpler core systems, but both editions grew as complicated as ever.  In “D&D Next Goals, Part One,” Mearls writes, “New editions have added more rules, more options, and more detail. Even if one area of the game became simpler, another area became far more difficult to grasp.” The D&D Next designers aim to deliver a simpler, more elegant core game, and then to add options that players can ignore if they wish. “We need to make a game that has a simple, robust core that is easy to expand in a variety of directions. The core must remain unchanged as you add more rules. If we achieve that, we can give new players a complete game and then add additional layers of options and complexity to cater to more experienced gamers.”

Next:  How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.

What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?

Dave ArnesonWhen Dave Arneson set out to create the combat system that would become a pillar of Dungeons & Dragons, he did not aim to create a realistic simulation.  In a 2004 interview, he describes the system’s genesis from Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules.

Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it…or it killed you. It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have. The initial Chainmail rules was a matrix. That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.

I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.

So the D&D rules for hit points and armor class stem from rules for ironclad ships trading cannon blasts, hardly the basis for an accurate simulation of hand-to-hand battles.

Soon after I began playing D&D, the unrealistic combat rules began to gnaw at me. In the real world, armor reduces the damage from blows rather than making you harder to hit. Shouldn’t it work the same way in the game? And how could a fighter, no matter how heroic, survive a dozen arrow hits, each dealing enough damage to kill an ordinary man? In reality, a skilled fighter would stand a better chance of evading blows, but no better chance of surviving a single hit.

Quest for realism

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a sword in the Society of Creative Anachronism cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Runequest (1978) stands as the greatest early success. Characters’ hit points remained constant, but they became more able to dodge and block blows. Hit locations transformed characters from blobs of hit points into flesh and bone. Armor reduced damage by deflecting and cushioning blows. Arms Law and Claw Law

If you enjoyed the AD&D Weapon Armor Class Adjustment table, but felt it needed to go much, much further, the Rolemaster Arm’s Law (1980) system offered more than 30 tables matching weapons versus armor.

In this era, everyone formulated a critical hit table, because nothing adds fun to a system like skewered eyes, fountaining stumps, and sucking chest wounds. (Follow this blog for my upcoming list of supposedly fun, but not fun, things we did in the early days of role playing.)

I sought realism as much as anyone, first with Runequest, and then with GURPS. I quickly learned that making combat more realistically deadly made D&D-style, combat-intensive play impractical. Forget dungeon crawls; even skilled characters would eventually perish to a lucky blow. As I described in Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map, early D&D combat lacked excitement anyway, so I hardly missed all the fights.

But I would come to realize that my dismissal of the D&D combat system was completely wrong.

Next: The brilliance of unrealistic hit points