Saturday, July 7, 2007

Preferred Ruleset

I keep thinking about starting a few new D&D games from scratch, and I go back and forth about which ruleset to use. Frankly, I have a complete block on the issue, and I totally can't settle on being happy with any one ruleset anymore. It's kind of like a torture. :) Here's what it seems to boil down to -- consider the classic D&D division into material for Players, Judges, and Monsters (i.e., PHB, DMG, MM; or in OD&D, original Volumes 1, 2, and 3):

3E is Best for Players. I think the designers of 3E really took a huge leap forward with the mechanics for player-character creation. Frankly, I love the system and feel totally spoiled by it. I really like having a clean and unified chart for ability scores. I love the unified XP chart and simple, open, additive multiclassing (personally, I would reduce things down to the four core classes, and let multiclassing take care of all the combinative options). I love the feat system to death (although I think there are generally too many feats to manage in play -- I'd reduce it to class bonus feats only to make it manageable, very easily done).

3E has all kinds of potential for game-mastery, being reducible to a very small number of races and classes, with multitudes of combinations available via the feat and multiclassing options. One thing I don't like is the fiddly skill-point system (I'd cut it out or use UA's simplified variant). As an aside, I'm coming to the opinion that any point-based character system feels fussy and broken to me (such as for abilities, skills, spell resorvoirs, psionics, magic item creation, etc.)

OD&D is Best for Judges & Monsters. But that said, trying to actually run a game of 3E is a huge complicated mess for me. Resolving everyone's individual initiative order, laying out battlemaps for every fight, all the combat options and action types and AOOs and complex spells, opposed skill checks for everything, etc., is a big crushing time sink. I would so much rather use OD&D's simple system for surprise, initiative, searching, and combat.

The first thing I'm coming around to is that the worst mistake the 3E designers may have made is to make the monster mechanics fully an extended superset of the PC mechanics. If the players just have one PC each, but the DM preps and runs scores of monsters per session, it really makes sense to have different resolution fidelity (think level-of-detail) to make things easier for the DM. All prior versions of D&D did that, but 3E booted the idea as insufficient. Monster statistics now run a full page each in official adventures; many DMs personally find they can fudge details, but there's no agreed-upon standard for what goes and what stays. There's really no advantage to tracking all the skills, feats, languages, ability scores, hit point adjustments, damage bonuses, save modifiers, etc. for every single monster (how often would players truly notice any difference?) The worst case-study is when the designers decided that the rules implied that independent grapple scores had to be tracked for every single monster and inserted them as yet another new line in the 3.5 MM (an alternative would be to create a simple system based solely on Hit Dice, or just match primary attack scores, etc.).

My preference for monsters would be a version like OD&D where everything has a integral number of Hit Dice, attacks, and damage dice (i.e., no bother distinguishing between different damage die types, ranges, or plus-modifiers; just 1 or 2 or 3 dice of damage, the end).

A side note is how much better the treasure system is in OD&D/AD&D. In 3E, every monster has a standard treasure amount commensurate with its Challenge Rating. That's a huge mistake narratively, because it makes treasure-finding predictable and flat in each encounter. The OD&D/AD&D system has a fairly low "% in lair" chance that must be rolled for each monster (one of just 5 key statistics for each monster type), and if successful, then it's likely that a large amount of treasure appears. While commonly overlooked in AD&D, what that means is that treasure troves occur more rarely, but are larger, and hence a much bigger exciting event when they are discovered. A comparison can be made to a sport like football or soccer (or any casino game), where the scores happen but rarely, and the fans go absolutely wild when they actually do occur. 3E totally overlooked that aspect of the game when the designers normalized treasure appearance.

And the final thing is that even though I like regularized attack bonuses and getting rid of attack and saving throw tables -- I think the actual core mechanic of the d20 System isn't good enough for me. If I look at OD&D/AD&D, what it's very close to is a "Target 20" system as I call it, where a d20 is rolled, bonuses added, and success is any result of 20 or above. I think it's simpler and faster to adjudicate.

Example #1, D&D "d20 System": 10th-level fighter attacks a red dragon. He rolls a 19, adds 15 for his attack bonus (total 34), then compares to the dragon's AC of 32 (technically a subtraction operation), indicating a hit.

Example #2, OD&D, "Target 20" Mechanic: 10th-level fighter attacks a red dragon. He rolls a 12, adds 10 for his level, plus 2 for the dragon's AC. The result is clearly over 20, so a hit is scored.

Notice how in the second case the numbers involved are all lower, and the operation is purely additive. Having ACs look like 5 or 2 is much easier to deal with than 15 or 18 or 32 or up (carries happen less often). Performing saving throws the same way means no DCs ever need to be recorded (special attacks didn't generally scale up in OD&D/AD&D vs. saving throws; in special cases you might note a bonus or penalty to the save, but that's a definite minority of cases). When the 3E designers created the roll-vs-DC system, they instantly doubled the number of statistics that had to be tracked by the DM, because every single spell and special attack then needed a DC target recorded for it.

I could say the same about effects like poison and energy draining. Previously they were simple, straightforward, and very dangerous (yes, save-or-die). In 3E they're fiddly, fussy, complicated, and kind of forgettable (the effect of most poison types is so minimal you wonder why anyone goes to the trouble of procuring them in-game).

So there you have it. I'm completely torn between the fantastic developmental leap between 3E's excellent system for a Players, and OD&D/AD&D's much more streamlined system for Judges and Monsters to run the actual action. The pain is in realizing that the 3E designers had one-third of a complete genius-level epiphany, and kind of dropped the ball on the remaining two-thirds. Every time I feel myself leaning towards one system, I find myself totally unable to let go of the advantages of the other system. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to resolve this dilemma at this point. I guess my fantasy would be if 4E D&D came out, it was OGC, based on 3E's Player system with four core classes, and an immensely reduced resolution fidelity for its Judges and Monsters behind the screen. I can't conceivably imagine that there's any hope for that, however.


  1. I hear ya, delta. As I've often said, and I say it here for the record, I miss the days even in 2nd. ed where I could keep track of monsters with just 4 stats: HP, Dmg, AC, and THAC0.

    I do think that equalizing player/monster stats helped in the area of stuff like ability draining spells and the like. (I remember having difficulty with stuff that would hit players in the stats but the monsters in the HD. Maybe others would see that as a feature and not a bug.)

  2. Good to see you back Delta!

    While it's not a perfect solution to what you want, Castles & Crusades has a lot going for it, especially in regards to your complaints about monsters. It's my preferred system these days, and it is MUCH easier to add a few things here and there and tweak the rules than standard D&D/d20.

    The monster situation you describe in D&D is the very reason I gave up running 3E, save for very small groups (like, two players) who will only ever encounter a handful of creatures, usually other humans of low level. With C&C, I can have all sorts of creatures attacking and not worry about keeping track of a bazillion different scores.

    In C&C for example, the monster's hit dice are also its to hit bonus and the bonus rolled for a saving throw. If I have a 6 HD troll, for example, he has 6d8 hit points, rolls +6 to hit when attacking, and rolls +6 on his saving throws.

    Skills are reduced to the simplest thing, too. The six attributes are either Primary or Secondary; if an attribute is a Primary, when rolling for any kind of check, including saving throws, your target number is 12. If it is secondary, it is 18. A Fighter always has Strength as primary, a Rogue always has Dexterity as primary, and so forth. Humans get three primes, other races only two (a really good reason to be a human).

    When rolling for something that is either a listed skill (such as Hide or Move Silently for a Rogue) or an "assumed class skill," such as to try to intimidate someone when you are a Fighter, you add your attribute bonus and your class level. When it is something that is not in your class range, such as a Fighter trying to Hide, you only add your attribute bonus.

    Example: 5th level Rogue (Dex Prime, +2 Dex bonus) and Fighter (Dex Secondary, +1 Dex bonus) are trying to hide from a passing goblin patrol. The Rogue adds a total of +7 to his roll, and is trying to beat a 12. The Fighter adds only a +1 to his roll, and is trying to beat an 18. If the Fighter had chosen Dexterity as a Prime, he'd only have to beat a 12...

    If you like feats, you can add them, but they are not a part of the core rules.

    Altogether, IMO, C&C is the best edition of D&D since the Rules Cyclopedia (which is second to Moldvay in my book)...

  3. OD&D is the best, for sure. It has its flaws, though - you just have to be willing to tweak and fiddle.

  4. This might be too little too late but I ran across the blog post via Philotomy's site and saw James' post regarding Castles and Crusades. I just had to toss in my $0.02.

    I suppose I ought to briefly preface this with a small explanation of how I came to be where I am. I was running a 3.5 conversion of Return to the Temple of Elemental evil and it slowly dawned on me that the encounters were the slow portion of the game. Players read rule books, sat and chatted when it wasn't their turn, got up and got drinks or snacks, etc. You get the picture. But when we had NPC or role playing interaction it was much much better. I scratched my head and thought to myself "I don't remember this being the case with older editions of Dungeons and Dragons...".

    Well the announcement of the release of D&D 4e caused me to take a closer look at how role playing meshes with our group's style. What is it that we like? Roll playing? Yes, we like fighting things and the challenges that it brings about. Role playing? Yes, the interaction between players, and between NPCs and PCs is at the heart of the game experience.

    So why is roll playing such a drag then? Delta hit the nail on the head. It just took me some time to realize it for myself.

    Granted, I'm an older gamer. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons since the Holmes Basic rules way back the 70's. I've been loyal...Maybe blindly so.

    After hearing that all of my 3.0 and 3.5 books were going to be made obsolete with the new release of 4e I lamented and started looking around for an alternative.

    And THAT'S how I came to find Castles and Crusades.

    I've only played a few games and I'm still getting used to the rule set, but so far, it is much more conducive to faster resolutions during combat and it lays the storytelling aspect of the game squarely in the DM's lap. AND all that material from classic D&D, AD&D and with a little work, even 3.x, can be easily ported to the Castles and Crusades system.

    All I can say so far is that Castles and Crusades seems to be the rule set that Dungeons and Dragons should have evolved into. It's NOT perfect. But it's basic enough to allow an enormous amount of tweaking. It's a solid contender in my estimation for a true Swords and Sorcery fan's role playing rule set of choice.

    -nuff said

  5. And those previous posters thought they were "late" to the game ;).

    I'm catching up on every single post since the blog started, as I find this to be the best blog that follows my own tastes, struggles, and frustrations. I find myself in the same spot you were in 10 years ago. As a fellow software developer (not in games though), I find my mind working in similar veins to yours, well, that's a big assumption, but I'll stick to it for now.

    I wanted to point out something, though, or at least comment about your the d20 system vs target 20. The example where your compare 34 to 32 and you mention that it's, fundamentally, a subtraction operation.

    I disagree that this is more difficult than the target 20 system. The comparison operation is binary, and works in a very "binary" way in the mind of an individual. When you ask yourself if 34 is greater than 32, there's no calculation. It's an immediate yes/no answer.

    By contrast, the target 20 system requires the same amount of addition plus the knowledge by the person performing the addition of the monster's AC. If the player knows then it is about as equally easy to do the addition as it is to think "is my 18 greater than 17", as such is a binary question and no subtraction is needed.

    If the DM is the only one that knows, then not only does the player have to calculate, but so does the DM. The player calculates total roll + modifiers, then tells the DM, who must then add in the AC. This isn't easier than a simple comparison in the DM's mind, though an argument could be made that the two are equally simple for most.

    I might try, in my upcoming games, to tell the players the monster's AC and have them do all the calculations then announce if they are over 20. It may prove me wrong, and I'm not against the players knowing AC.

    1. For what it's worth, I don't tell players the monster AC. They roll the d20 and add the modifier on their sheet; then I as DM look at the AC, add that mentally, and report whether they hit or not. That seems to go fast, it seems equitable, and I wouldn't want to ask my players (some very casual/non-hardcore) to do more than one step of arithmetic. Almost all the time those are single-digit additions for OD&D. Of course, if the player roll + add itself works out to anything over 20, then the player usually knows that they hit and we can generally abbreviate the process (i.e., if they say "twenty-something" I don't even listen to the latter part).

    2. Admittedly there are times when I invert the process via subtraction; for example, if there's a rain of arrows on the PCs I subtract their AC from 20, roll a whole fistful of d20's, and scan visually for the needed to-hit. But doing it this way allows me to use classic D&D stats without modification, the AC records are usually still only a single digit, and it's not something I would ask of anyone but the DM (both for system familiarity, and the use-case of rolling lots of attacks at once).