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.