Friday, August 12, 2011

No-Stat Game Materials

Okay, so I've noticed lately that there's been an increasing trend for D&D-esque game materials with practically no game mechanic stats whatsoever. Like, The Dungeon Alphabet would be one example of this. I must say that I don't get much traction with game writing of that nature.

Personally, I feel that good, really top-notch game design must be a marriage of both creative ideas & compelling mechanics, in a way that each supports the other. (Best of all: If it seems like this fantasy idea & this game mechanic could not possibly have functioned without the other one in place to prop it up.) Perhaps you might say "flavor & crunch" working together; or "medium & message". Poetry I expect to have both good meter & meaning (in fact, hopefully the metrical restrictions have forcibly squeezed out some heretofore undiscovered, meaningful phrases). Graphic design should have both clarity & interest, etc. Having just one side is relatively easy; having both is harder.

A few short D&D examples: It's been said (I forget where) that the most difficult and highest achievement in RPG writing is a really compelling, cohesive adventure setting. One of my favorite examples is the metaphor of D&D wizards poring through dusty spellbooks for their spell formulae, reflected at the game table by the players of wizards flipping through lengthy books to find their spell descriptions. I prefer the trap tables in AD&D 1E DMG Appendix A (Table VII, which has game stats) over those in Appendix G (no stats, inspirational only).

Speculation -- Is it just me, or have these kinds of no-stat materials emerged in the aftermath of the 4E D&D game, which so radically broke the mechanical continuity with what came before? (As far as the interpretation & scale of levels, hit points, damage, attacks, etc.) Is it basically the 4E game which requires materials to be entirely no-stat if they seek to be "usable with any fantasy RPG"?

If I'm going to use some material for the D&D game, then I would hope for, at an absolute minimum, the basic stuff present in OD&D Vol-2 -- AC, Move, Hit Dice, Treasure. And preferably Number of Attacks, and Damage Dice (just a number of d6's will suffice, in my "half-of-Greyhawk-supplement" mode of thinking). I kind of barely feel like you're writing about D&D without giving some thought to those mechanical stats, and how they fit into the context of the rest of the D&D ecosystem, at a bare minimum.

Anyone else feel the same way?

14 comments:

  1. Maybe less to do with 4th edition and more to do with the fact that there are 2 big players in the D&D space. Of which 4th edition is one. So publishers are trying to split the difference.
    The problem for me is that I between my brain and the internet I have no shortage of great ideas, maps, etc. I lack time to worry about stats, etc. That is what I am willing to pay for.

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  2. I've generally interpreted this as a result of the OSR. Of course, that's most of the kinds of products I read and write. The slight stat differences between, for example, Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC means sometimes (not always) it's easier to leave the metaphorical orc's stats out and just say "There are four orcs." The GM can easily insert the relevant information from his preferred system and/or house rules.

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  3. Stat blocks are so much wasted space to me...the chances that I'm running the game that it's intended for are slim, even before you start worry about edition and whether AC is ascending or descending. An interesting concept is far more valuable than knowing whether something does 1d6, 1d8, or 1d10-1 damage...

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  4. I tend to run games like Pathfinder, GURPS and WoD, so stat blocks are critical. They take up a fair amount of my prep time, so their inclusion in a supplement is very important as they allow me to focus more on crafting scenes, storyline, etc. .

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  5. Though stats aren't always important, I feel like there needs to be enough stats that in the game--as intended--the lack of stats wouldn't slow the GM down if they were trying to run that page.

    So, like, if I say "attacks as an otyugh" then that means you gotta go look up an otyugh and that sucks, so put some stats.

    Putting the important stats for od&D thru 3.5 takes 3 seconds (AC 12/8 HD 4 Damage 2d4 HolyFUck I'm Done!!!!).

    In Vornheim at the end we threw in Save and Stats As (thief/fighter/wizard of level equal to monster's HD) for 3.5 rules lawyers and a page of 4e converted stats at the end. It took a page. It wasn't hard and may have made some 4e guys lives easier.

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  6. I actually quite agree with the desire for a marriage between mechanics and content. For example, I loved the original Deadlands -- the unique playing card mechanic for Hucksters (gambler/magicians) and the use of poker chips and cards for other stuff was fantastic. Comparatively it felt to me that the generic Savage Worlds system and its Deadlands Reloaded setting book was just missing something.

    That said, I don't think the idea of system-less content books is such a new idea. Check out the old Mayfair Role Aids stuff for example. Granted it was a thin dodge around content clearly written for D&D, still flipping through my copy of Dark Folk I see precious little actual stats.

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  7. I think of what you're talking about wanting as creative consumables: products that you could make yourself but you're paying someone else to save you time. In that case, it should have the hit points for every orc in the dungeon, their exact treasure and every stat for every npc.

    Personally, I more interested in something with no stats but ideas that I would have never thought of myself. Those ideas could be rules mechanics or systems (would love some trading rules), but I'm perfectly capable of extrapolating the stats of a dire wolf from a wolf, etc.

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  8. Following up on what Paul said, I'd point out that Flying Buffalo published a lot of no-stat (or almost no-stat) material in the 80s: the Grimtooth's Traps series and the Citybook series, for example.

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  9. Depends on what it is. Dungeon Alphabet is fine without stats, but a wandering monster table with weird creatures with no stats would be kinda lame.

    I've seen a few things lately about giving players unique items with no mechanics tied to them, and I think the idea behind that is to get players using their brains instead of their dice, shich I think is a good thing sometimes.

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  10. I can see arguments for both. I'm personally a little more interested in having stats, because that's one of the things that takes up way too much prep time. However, I buy adventures because I'm looking for ideas and inspiration.

    I don't think that there is an ideal solution that fits everyone's needs precisely. The best that can be done, I suspect, is a moderate amount of stats - people have mentioned Role Aids, which I think hit a sweet spot, with enough crunch to make it worthwhile, but not so much as to limit the products to one iteration of D&D.

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  11. When I was younger (in the 1980s) you could pick up non-TSR published books that provided "inspirational" fantasy material...basically ideas to use in your D&D or RoleMaster or RuneQuest game just by "plugging in stats."

    I always hated that shit.

    And it's still irritating. Give me the f'ing stats...at least AC and hit points so I'm not having to look it up. I'll do the conversions myself if needed.

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  12. Good thoughts everyone, thanks for the comments. Some late replies:

    bighara -- I'm not thinking of the stats for "orcs" as for new monsters, traps, and magic.

    Paul -- Just flipping through my copy of Role Aids Dark Folk here, and it looks like any time a monster appears you get square brackets with [AC, HTK, Damage]. And text with specific numbers for treasure, bonuses, spell slots. Wasn't thinking of that originally, but it's a great example of the bare minimum which seems right to me.

    John Harper Brinegar -- Now Grimtooth's is an example that is actually stat-free. And that's part of the reason I didn't have much interest in it for my games back in the day.

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  13. A proliferation of statless supps as a result of the OSR? And as a new thing?
    I really think this whole interpretation is sketchy, for several reasons.
    Not the least of them:
    I have a number of "universal" supplements that I picked up here and there, or Fantasy RPG products, which are effectively statless. Among them are "The Compleat Alchemist", Adventurer's Gazetteers, and "The Fantasy Gamer's Compendium", a collection
    of Gamescience articles from '80-'82.
    All are effectively statless, and include instructions for the >general< adaptation of the fluff text to rules. None of these books was published after 1985.

    There's a level of perceived incompatibility between even some of the closest of cousins in the RPG world - think back on, say, Runequest or the like - that throws up a mental block against using its materials in a lot of gamers.

    By not including stats, even though it makes it more difficult to adapt to your house campaign, a developer avoids the stigmata of being pushed into a single system.
    I'll agree that the number of statless supplements has gone up, compared to most times in the hobby's history. But I feel that's influenced much more by:
    1) The resurgence of small-time developers (who want to sell to as many different bases as they can) and
    2) The terms of the OGL. They physically CAN'T claim compatibility with most systems.

    It's a correlation, certainly, but the OSR isn't exactly the cause - it's merely another thing from our youth popping up because the same soil is fertile again..

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  14. Schottenjaeger said: "A proliferation of statless supps as a result of the OSR?"

    Not at all. Quoting myself: "Is it basically the 4E game which requires materials to be entirely no-stat if they seek to be 'usable with any fantasy RPG'?"

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