Monday, October 17, 2016

Nothing Remains Interesting If Anything Can Happen

In 1902 H.G. Wells gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine. In part, he said this:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.

I agree with Wells here, and I think that this is a very fine expression of one of the several disagreements I have with conventional D&D criticism, to wit, that appealing to "realism" has no place in our assessments. Almost surely we've all heard several arguments like this: "You want a mechanic for realistic [weapons/bows/armor/movement/mounts/encumbrance/rations/falling/swimming/boating]? But there is no place for realism in a game with wizards and fire-breathing dragons!"

As Wells points out, not everything can be fantastical and surprising and wahoo, because then the whole work collapses into indistinguishable, unapproachable mush. In our case of the fantasy D&D campaign, of course, we are certainly able to support somewhat more of an eclectic combination of elements than Wells could in the course of a single story. That's fine. But our players need some guidelines and parameters for how things work -- they can't make any valuable strategic choices if the DM is prone to springing crazy nonsense about everything, all the time.

And particularly for the new player (who is, in fact, most people), an excellent methodology is this: Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there. This provides a very rich set of shared expectations and intuitions quickly, without reading tomes of background text to get into the milieu. Play can start immediately, and their instincts for how a sword, water, door, rope, horse, torch, mirror, spike, or tree work admirably, assuming a reasonable DM who is attentive, observant, and fair about things like that.

In old-school D&D we can give the new player a low-level fighter, who is mundane in practically all ways, maybe skip telling them anything about the rules at all, and just ask them to role-play honestly with the physical equipment with which they start. It works out perfectly fine and much of the time that player will be more creative than the person accustomed to working with lists of skills and feats. Notice that their tools principally come from the standard equipment list, which in Original D&D had no explanatory text of any kind associated with them (players were expected to be generally aware of the world around them and medieval-level technology).

Of course, realism can't be everything; as per the golden rule, it's balanced against playability of the game. But personally I see no reason why not to "dial in" the ground state rules of things like mundane combat, movement, archery, encumbrance, foodstuffs, riding, swimming, falling, etc., and I wholeheartedly support "realism" as a legitimate point of discussion in that part of the game design. In fact, frequently it serves to discover the most elegant rule. If someone says "it doesn't matter", then having a correct rule shouldn't trouble them any more than having an incorrect rule. Whereas if someone were to argue that a more-mangled base reality is always better in a fantastical game ("because dragons"), then it runs up against Wells' observation here: Then nothing remains interesting, and nothing is coherent to the part-time player.


(Hat tip for the quote: B.J. Johnson).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dictionary of the Canting Crew

BE, Gent. "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew." its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. With an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all Sorts of People (especially Foreigners) to Secure their Money and Preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New. London, c. 1698.


(Hat tip: BJ Johnson.)


Monday, October 3, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 3

Continuing our look at the intimate connection between the rules of Outdoor Survival and Original D&D:

Movement

Here is the page-sized movement chart for Outdoor Survival:

Outdoor Survival Movement Chart

As you can see, the fundamental mechanic is, in entering a particular hex, to charge a particular cost against the person's daily move rate (cost being between 1 and 4 hexes). The terrain penalties in OD&D are assessed in almost an identical fashion: Gygax actually asserts that they are the same, but then inserts just a few edits along the way (Vol-3, p. 17):
Terrain Penalties: All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, mountains and swamps cost three movement per hex, crossing rivers at non-ford hexes also costs three, and woods or deserts cost two. Tracks through mountainous terrain cost two factors per hex moved, and tracks through woods or swamps incur no movement penalty.

The only changes here are that swamp hexes cost 3 movement units (instead of 4), and that tracks through mountains cost 2 move units (instead of 1 in Outdoor Survival). When I run D&D wilderness games, I ignore these minor changes, and actually just display this same movement chart from Outdoor Survival for my players' benefit.

I consider this hex-based mechanic to be far more elegant for gameplay purposes than the more abstract system that was presented in say, AD&D, where only daily miles traveled were presented -- ignoring the fact that different types of terrain could be encountered within a single day, or that odd remainders of movement between hexes might need consideration. Having moves purely in terms of whole-number hexes neatly solves a whole number of problems during play.


Encounters

Outdoor Survival has a "Sequence of Play" that looks like this: (1) Select scenario and set players at full food, water, and health; (2) Determine order by random dice; (3) Roll for Direction ability and move counter; (4) Consult Necessities chart to see if food/water ration has been met for the day; (5) Mark any losses and reduced movement for the next turn. Repeat most of these steps until the game concludes.

However, there is an interesting "Optional" step included in the list, namely Step 6:

Outdoor Survival optional step 6: encounters

As you can see, this step triggers Wilderness Encounters, specified in a chart on the flip side of each Scenario card, wherein the player would, by default, pick one of 3 columns on which to roll for the exact type of encounter. The encounter charts vary by Scenario in the usual way (wickedly brutal at low levels; more easily manageable at higher levels); here are the encounters for Scenario 4 as one example:

Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounters: Scenario 4

Note that among the options are remaining stationary (effectively: lose a turn), gaining or losing food or water, and possibly outright losing a life level (only one outcome for that, however). Lower-level charts include losing multiple turns and food/water units at once. Here is a bit more description of that optional rule:

Outdoor Survival encounters rules

From a top-level design perspective, this idea of how to run wilderness adventures was ported directly into OD&D; the two daily rolls there are, indeed, one for being lost (direction ability) and one for possible monsters (wilderness encounters). Concepts that were stripped out were: rolls or assessment of possible loss of food/water, loss of mobility for reduced life levels, and encounters of types other than creatures. Outdoor Survival included the presence of inclement weather ("Natural Hazards"), alongside creature encounters, but that was left our for D&D.

The other thing I want to point out is that Outdoor Survival, as simple as it is, includes an example of a non-uniform core mechanic; if you look at the Direction Ability charts (see last week), then on that d6 roll the player is penalized for rolling low, whereas for encounters here the player is penalized for rolling high (encounters only occur on 5-6 as above). I have found this prone to confuse players, so I penciled in a note to flip this latter roll around in play (see margin note above).

However, that was not an adjustment that was made in D&D Vol-3. Gygax ported in this exact same mechanic, with the exact same sense of the two 6-sided dice; low roll for loss of direction ability, and high roll for monsters encounters. Ranges vary for different terrain types, but otherwise the idea is completely the same (Vol-3, p. 18):

OD&D Vol-3 Wilderness Chart

When I first saw this chart, the contrasting sense of the dice-results made me wonder that possibly only a single 6-sided die was being rolled (with either a lost or monster result, never both together). But I think that reading the prior page carefully clarifies that two separate dice are rolled (technically: one is at the start of the day, the other at the end of the day). The fact that the mechanic is so transparently borrowed from Outdoor Survival makes that even more clear, I'm sure.

And this same basic idea was also used in the dungeon setting, of course, for one of the most important but often controversial D&D mechanics: "A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared." (Vol-3, p. 10). Again: High roll indicates encounter (disjoint from, say, the fact that low roll indicates surprise).

But the idea of a "core mechanic" where all high rolls are uniformly desirable was something that was not on the radar of either Outdoor Survival or Dungeons & Dragons at that point in time. And that makes the shared DNA even more obvious in this rather telling case.