Tag Archives: Runequest

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