Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Helmet Rule

OD&D has 5 pieces of armor on the equipment list -- plate, chain, leather, shield, and helmet. An oversight is that the last item has no specified effect on your defensive status. AD&D tried to correct for this by adding an extremely cumbersome rule about the chance-to-hit-someones-head (involving an additional d6 roll for every attack, blech; 1E DMG p. 28), but we'll try to avoid that here.

The Helmet Rule
If no suit of armor is worn, a helmet gives a 1 point bonus to AC (up to AC 7). If a suit of armor is worn, then a helmet is also required or else a 1 point penalty to AC is applied.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Encumbrance

Encumbrance is one of those fiddly bits in D&D that no one really enjoys (and lots of people just ignore once the game is in progress). It's not something that really needs to be "fixed" in OD&D (it's as simple there as in any published ruleset), but nontheless, while falling asleep last night, a somewhat better way of handling things occured to me. In short, you should just use a coarser unit, one which makes the numbers easier to count mentally, and only have to deal with them when it makes a direct difference on gameplay.

Encumbrance
Calculating encumbrance can alternatively be done using the old English unit of the "stone" (that is, 14 pounds). For D&D, let's say that 1 "stone" = 150 coins weight. For example, a grown man weighs about 12 stone. Conversions for gear are as follows:

Plate -- 5 stone
Chain -- 3
Leather -- 2
Shield -- 1
Weapon, heavy -- 1
Weapon, light -- 1 per 3 carried
Misc. Equipment -- 1 (total)

Heavy weapons include the pole arm, halberd, pike, two-handed sword, morning star, flail, and battle axe. Light weapons include the sword, mace, hand axe, and bow -- or items like a helmet, small sack of coins, large chalice, etc. Tiny items are counted only if a character carries a large number of them; such gear as a dagger, potion, scroll, jewelry, etc. can be counted at 1 stone per 6 items, if so desired. Obviously, every 150 coins of treasure adds 1 stone (a backpack or large sack can carry 2 stone worth). Conversions for movement categories follow:

12" Move -- up to 5 stone weight
9" Move -- up to 7
6" Move -- up to 10
3" Move -- up to 20

It should be fairly easy to remember the 5-10-20 stone weight maximum categories (for movement rates of 12", 6", and 3").


Design Notes: Encumbrance
This alternative system feeds off of a particular thesis of mine regarding measurement systems. Sometimes I hear proponents of the Metric system complain about old-style Imperial units with comments like: "They don't make any sense; they're not based on units of 10". I claim that these are two separate considerations. Yes, the Metric system is ideally suited for making simple translations, and excellent for use in the sciences when your scales may need frequent conversions.

But the Imperial units "make sense" to a greater degree in that they're intrinsically scaled to people, and are more intuitive if you need to quickly and roughly estimate things on the fly. For example: a "foot" is about the length your foot. A "hand" is the size of your hand. A "league" is about how far you can walk in an hour. Temperature of 0 degrees fahrenheit is very cold (about where blood can freeze), 50 degrees temperate, 100 degress very hot (about where blood is in a living person). And, one "stone" is about the amount of weight that will get your attention when you try to carry it.

Of course, we have the additional benefit in D&D that Imperial units serve to further conjure the flavor of a medieval and "old-timey" campaign setting. They're very human-scaled and specifically pre-scientific. And most importantly, they highlight that the statistics used in any game should be scaled to the actual play of that game.

(One final note for 3E players -- using the "per stone" encumbrance system, you could simply use the total stone-weight carried as the character's skill Check Penalty, and it comes out just the same as the load categories the d20 System! Now, this is for average-Str PC's; perhaps you can let the Str bonus ignore the first number of stone weight units.)

Magic Number Seven

When we think about games in general, and D&D in particular, a lot of us have the complaint nowadays that "the game is too complicated". But can we agree on how "complicated" something really is? One thing I wish game designers would consider is concrete research from cognitive science about how people process information (and how much they can deal with at once).

Consider the following Wikipedia article, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

In this article, you'll see two related (apparently coincidental) research observations. (1) Working memory capacity for most adults is in the range of 7+/-2 objects (i.e., 5 to 9 objects). That is, people can consider about 7 separate entities at once and make a choice among them at a high level of functionality. (For specific material, the limit may be 7, or 6, or 5). Beyond this limit, mental functioning rapidly drops off. (2) Short-term memory capacity is also 7+/-2 when measured for English speakers memorizing, say, a string of random digits. For example, the book Modern Structured Analysis recommends a 5 to 9 limit on the number of subroutines called from the main block of any computer program (for the convenience of maintenance programmers).

Now, I'm sure that lots of us (possibly reading this) may personally skew on the high side of these numbers. I bet that math- and computer-oriented folks have higher working memory capacities, possibly significantly so. (The guy who inspired the Rain Main character could instantly "chunk", or count, a whole box of toothpicks spilled on the floor, for example; so it varies a great deal by individual.) A lot of caution must be taken in over-expanding the results of research like this, but nontheless, it serves as an excellent starting point for discussions of "how much is too much?".

So, how many options are reasonable for a person to consider at once in a D&D-like game? I would argue for: Seven, plus or minus two. Best would be a number of about 5 or less, which is easily workable by everybody. Slightly less optimal would be a count of 6 or 7, which is parsable by most people. At most 8 or 9 options would be okay, which seems to tax most functioning adults, and feels less like fun and more like work to a lot of us.

Consider this in the context of OD&D and how many choices have to be made when a person creates a new character:
- Abilities: 6 (Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha). Excellent.
- Races: 4 (Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits). Perfect.
- Classes: 4 (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief). Perfect.
- Alignment: 3 (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic). Perfect.
- Armor: 5 (leather, chain, plate, shield, helmet). Perfect.
- Weapons (Melee): 13. Too many to consider at once.
- Weapons (Ranged): 5. Perfect.
- Mounts: 5. Perfect.
- Wizard Spells (1st-level): 8. Acceptable.
- Cleric Spells (1st-level): 6. Excellent.

For all of the key considerations, OD&D just happened to appear "magically" with the perfect number of choices to be interesting and enticing, but not overwhelming to the brand-new player. I particularly find the initial options of 4 races, 4 classes, and 3 alignments to be extremely mentally satisfying. There are just three main categories here, each with a perfectly manageable number of options, but generating 48 different possible starting characters! (Assuming all race-class-alignment combinations are permitted.) That's a lot of variety blooming from a very small and manageable number of choices.

Compare this to the current state of D&D. We've always maintained the 6 core abilities (with a lot of resistance when AD&D tried to insert a 7th for "Comeliness"). In the 3E PHB we have:
- Abilities: 6 (Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha). Excellent.
- Races: 7. Acceptable, but borderline for some people.
- Classes: 11. Too many to consider at once.
- Alignment: 9. Almost too many to remember.
- Skills: 45. Far too many to consider at once.
- Feats: 74. Far too many to consider at once.
- Armor: 21. Too many to remember at once.
- Weapons (Melee): 56. Far too many to consider at once.
- Weapons (Ranged): 14. Too many to consider at once.
- Mounts: 8. Almost too many to remember.
- Wizard Spells (to 1st-level): 58. Far too many to consider at once.
- Cleric Spells (to 1st-level): 38. Far too many to consider at once.

Obviously, expert players have a working knowledge of almost all these options, but it's probably been built up over years or decades of play experience -- and they probably mentally "chunk" this material into certain categories (warrior vs. spellcaster classes, ethical vs. moral alignments, skills by ability, feats for fighters vs. items vs. metamagic, spells by attack/defense/utility or school) that may not be totally explicit in the rules.

OD&D has a score of 9:1 (say, 90%) categories ok:not-ok under this "magic number seven" cognitive rule analysis. Meanwhile, 3E D&D has a score of 4:8 (say, 33%) under the same analysis. OD&D seems to hit the "sweet spot" for working memory considerations in character creation, whereas 3E is clearly far, far more complicated. (Consider also something unrelated to character creation, like the number of giant or dragon types: OD&D with 6 dragon types, 3E D&D with 10.)

I truly wish that the D&D designers had the capacity to focus very specifically on the new-player experience, and think about what the ideal setup would be if we truly honestly wanted to expand the hobby, and make it accessible to everyone (not just old players and math whizzes). If this were the case, the options that lured us all into OD&D in the first place would be an excellent foundation to build on.

Here's some brainstorming in that regard. Let's say 1st level creation is set up to be accessible by any player who's never even heard of D&D or RPG's whatsoever. Provide the 6 abilities, 4 races, and 4 class options from OD&D (as above). Provide limited types of armor, weapons, and spells (again as per OD&D). Give fighters feat-like options, around 5 or so at 1st level (maybe melee/ archer/ mounted/ swashbuckler types); make sure that thief skills are limited to 6 or so to be memorable.

As levels go up, allow more options to be unlocked. More spells at higher levels (again like OD&D), as players get to know their spellcasters better. Feats (such as for fighters) allow access to more feats in a tree-like fashion. Prestige classes may still be digestible in limited numbers. Expert players should be encouraged to start play with heroes of 3rd level or higher, having more of these options on the table to begin with. (Note how the upcoming Star Wars Saga rules start characters at 3 hit dice.)

But at the same time, the branching options can't be so many that statting out high-level NPC's becomes unmanageable for the DM. Allow only a total of 7 or so feats absolute maximum, so that DMs can slot them out mentally when needed. A total of 7 or so spell levels is a good choice (see OD&D: a perfect 6 spell levels vs. 3E D&D: a swollen 10 levels). NPCs shouldn't need more than 7+/-2 magic items at most, nor should any monster have more than 5 to 9 special abilities at most.

Regardless of the actual choices or construction of the game (or even the specific cognitive research studies used to support them), rules-of-thumb like these would be extremely useful for determining when "more is too much", and when new added options serve as repellant to part of the hypothetical new-player base.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Class Combinations

One of the biggest points of confusion in the OD&D is how multiclassing works (otherwise known as the "oh my god, not elves again" problem). Elves are said to switch between Fighting-Men and Magic-Users, "not during the course of a single game", but "gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells" (Vol. 1, p. 8). Other races are "not recommended" for changing classes, but rules are given if so allowed (men require 16 prime requisite: Vol. 1, p. 10). Furthermore, the exact mechanical effects of having two classes are not described anywhere. Here's my best attempt at resolving those issues.

Classes
In my campaign, allowed classes are: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Thief.

The Thief class is taken from Supplement I: Greyhawk, as follows. All thief skills are checked at d20 + level >= 20 for success. Hear Noise is as per book; Climbing fails only on a "1" on d6 through 5th level. Hit dice follow the magic-user progression.

Races
Allowed races are as follows: Human, Dwarf, Elf and Hobbit (halfling). The classes allowed to each are shown below, with level limits in parentheses.

Human: Any class (unlimited).
Dwarf: Fighter (6th), Cleric (7th), Thief (unlimited).
Elf: Fighter (4th), Cleric (6th), Wizard (8th), Thief (unlimited).
Hobbit: Fighter (4th), Thief (unlimited).

Adding Classes
Every character begins with a single class of their choice. Most characters can add a second permitted class of their choosing at the end of any adventure. (Exception: Humans must have an ability score of 16 or more in any class they are adding.) Each adventure's XP must be allocated towards a single class, possibly a new one in order to add to it.

The level limits shown above assume a character with two classes. If a character maintains only a single class, then they can add +2 levels to any limit shown above. For each class added beyond two, -2 levels are deducted from any limits shown.

A character with more than one class can use all of the abilities from any class (weapons, armor, spells, skills, etc.). They use only the best entry for Hit Dice, Attacks, and Saves. Fighter/Wizards may cast spells in leather or chain mail, but not plate. Thief skills are restricted to leather armor only.

Finally, the DM may decide to start a campaign with characters above 1st level. If this is done, a starting XP value should be awarded which can be allocated in units of 1,000 at a time. (For example, a 3rd-level campaign might award 5,000 XP to begin with.)


Design Notes: OD&D
As usual, I've tried to hew as closely to OD&D as possible, using supplements for themed inspiration to fill in the gaps. The level limits for fighters and wizards are as shown in OD&D -- and so is the ability restriction on men. The language about switching classes (but not within one game) has been interpreted as allocating XP to only one class per adventure.

Level limits for clerics and thieves are taken from Supplement I: Greyhawk. The +2 level bonus for keeping a single class is in flavor with the increased level limits shown there (in that case, for having high ability scores). Likewise, the -2 penalty is in line with the reduction in magic-use for elves with three classes in Greyhawk (the only such example).

Using only the maximal values for Hit Dice, Attacks, and Saves is necessary because adding new class levels is so cheap compared to the XP gained by already-advanced characters; that is, there really must be very little mechanical benefit or the XP-cheapness will create a very broken mechanic. As a strategy suggestion, it may be a good idea for characters to start as Fighters to increase survival odds, and then add spellcasting classes later on.

As a side note, I'm very happy with the restriction on humans multiclassing, because it solves the question of "why years of training for your starting wizard, but then a fighter is able to add it whenever he wants?" The high ability score precisely represents the extraordinary aptitude (and possibly prior training) needed for just such an addition.

Design Notes: 3E D&D
At this point, I must also take the time to highly commend the system used by 3E for classes and multiclassing. Trying to iron out the jagged parts of OD&D/AD&D multiclassing has made me appreciate that aspect of 3E even more. It was truly a stroke of genius to collapse the XP table to a single chart, and allow all multiclassing as a purely additive mechanic. I never would have thought of that, and it cleans up the system to a remarkable agree.

With this fine print: As long as we restrict the system to just 4 classes (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief), then the 3E class system is absolutely my favorite and I'd love to use that in my game. However, if there are dozens of classes and prestige classes, and PC constructions start having 7-8 class notations each with 1-3 levels (like a Sws3/Ftr2/Mnk6/Swd3/Rog3/Nin2, from just the first example I could find on the Wizards.com forums), then my eyes glaze over and I want to play a different game. And then additionally with 3E, you're stuck with all the complicated monster statistics and reduced fiddly spell powers, and it's not nearly so much fun to think about anymore.