Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A New Kind of Game

First, let us be clear, I play D&D. That is not to say I passively play D&D, but rather, I am one of those you may consider to be obsessed with the game. I have been playing D&D since I was 5 years old. I began playing with the original White Box when I was about 5 years old. I migrated with the times though 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and have recently settled on Pathfinder for most of my home games. When 3rd Edition came out I worked as a demonstrator on the release tour. I've playtested new products, read perhaps every product ever released for the games many editions, spent 40-50 hours a week planning a single game session, and even dropped out of college for a time to be able to dedicate more time to DMing.

That said, I have recently begun trying to piece together what, exactly about the game I like. More importantly, having had my first child just 5 months ago, I have begun wondering what form of the game I should introduce him to (that I will introduce him to role-playing is not a question).

Should I start at the beginning? Start him off with OD&D and let him work up through the system chronologically?

Should I start with a simpler version of the game? Perhaps 4th edition or "Basic"?

These are the questions that have plagued me since he was born.

In trying to sort out exactly what about the game I like (and thus what edition is best), I started a "D&D Mechanics" CoP (Community of Practice) at my workplace. This group has given me the opportunity (under the premise of researching the underlying game mechanics to see how they might be applied to the software we are developing) to revisit the older versions of the game which I played when I was younger and consider what pieces of them really stand out...and, perhaps more importantly, play them all side by side and see how they compare.

Here are my thoughts:

Original: Was clearly an initial pass and lacked refinement. A few things are nice (and/or thought provoking) though:
  1. Quick character generation (roll stats, pick class, grab a weapon, hit the dungeon!). Everyone playing liked this aspect -- Only 3 classes (slightly more with the expansions but even 4-6 is not overwhelming), no skills or proficiencies to sort through, no feats, no sub-classes. Simplicity is good.
  2. Lack of specific skills: This was up for debate among the 11 people we had playing in the "CoP". Some claimed that it wasted time not having a cheat-sheet of what they could do, others liked the "My character can try anything" and open rulings approach. In general I lean towards rulings over rules, but for younger players the "cheat sheet" of having actual skills might be helpful.
  3. The Relative Rule on page 13 of Men and Magic caught a lot of people's attention: "The referee may allow players to designate one relative of his character to inherit his possessions if for any reason the participant unexpectedly disappears, with or without "death" being positively established, for a period of one game month, let us say. At this time the relative would inherit the estate of the character, paying a 10% tax on all goods and monies. The relative must start at the lowest level of the class he opts for, but he will have the advantage of the inheritance..." The implication that replacement characters always start at lowest level, but get the gear (magic items, fortress, hirelings, etc.) of your dead character makes for a cool kind of continuity and balance at the same time.
  4. Doors... "They're dicks", "They're trying to kill you too", "They're out to get you". Everyone was appalled and frighted by the idea that any PC had only a 33% chance (1-2 on a d6) of opening a door, which would then automatically close behind them, whereas the doors would "automatically open for monsters". This rule created the idea that the dungeon was somehow aware that the PCs were interlopers and was working against them and just heightened the general creepiness of OD&D sessions.
  5. d6 for everything. Like the d20 system, OD&D had you pick up very few dice. You used a d20 for attacks and saves, and a d6 for everything else. Having unified damaged for all weapons and monsters, and simple d6 rolls for surprise, opening doors, and everything else that called for a random event made game play very simple and easy to manage, with no questioning what dice to pull out or how many to roll.

Advanced: Showed a lot of refinement, but maybe went a little too far (psionics in the core rulebook?)
  1. The Bard as the first "Prestige Class". I must say this is a cool idea (and I'm glad 3rd edition did more with it. I very much like the intentional (and inescapable) celtic flavor of the 1st Edition Bard.
  2. The DMG is beautiful. Even if I don't play 1E with my kids, I will probably use the "Introduction" section as part of their homeschool curricula, as it has a great introduction to probability (describing bell curves, linear regression, and the intervals for all the dice they will be using. Likewise the random tables for everything have come in handy for games I have run throughout my career. This is a staple.
  3. Gygax's rant about "Monsters as PCs" and the game being "unquestionably humanocentric" on page 21 of the DMG raised a lot of eyebrows among the CoP members (most of whom are veterans of more modern game systems and campaign worlds that may not even have humans as an option). I may have to make another post about that later...
2nd Edition: I really like 2nd edition, it may be my favorite. However, the THAC0 system, arbitrary saves, and random use of percentile dice in inexplicable places make for a system that still doesn't feel as well crafted as the d20 system (and perhaps harder for younger players to grasp). It made me glad I was taught on OD&D (horray for that d6). Still some things I do really like:
  1. Kits: Having a simple, templateable way to apply cultural or archetypal modifiers to your character without having to pick out the right combination of 3 or more "feats" or "traits" was very nice. Also, the idea that a "Barbarian" is just a Fighter from a different culture or a "Knight" is just a Fighter with a horse makes sense. Likewise, everyone liked that they could build a party of "Barbarians" while everyone could still have different classes (Barbarian-Cleric, Barbarian-Thief, Barbarian-Fighter, etc.)
  2. Ability Checks/Proficiency Checks: As a DM the "roll under your ability score" rule makes it very easy to handle arbitrary rulings situations without much math. As a player it makes the "higher scores are better" mechanic very clear without doing any math to figure out bonuses or penalties on rolls. Some veteran d20-system players did complain that "low rolls are good" was counterintuitive. Still, this made game-play a lot faster with players not asking "What's the DC" and stopping to calculate modifiers all the time.
  3. Need X Weapon to Harm a Creature: This really sped up combat rather than the 3rd Edition concept of having Damage Reduction that could be overcome by just dealing more damage. If the party didn't have magic weapons they dealt 0 damage and had to run away to think up a clever plan or find the right weapon...rather than wasting an hour on a fight dealing 1-2 points of damage per hit.
3rd Edition/d20 System: If we assume that "3.5" is included in here, then this is a very well crafted game system. The biggest complaint is that combat encounters take far too long and detract from the "more interesting" aspects of the game, and character creation (while giving a lot of flexibility) can overwhelm new players with too many options and takes a very long time (even for experienced players who know exactly what they want to play). A few things that stand out as really exceptional or useful though:
  1. 1 die to rule them all. Like the d6 in OD&D, but better. The d20 system got this right. Unless the player is rolling for damage or hit points, he never needs any dice but his trusty d20.
  2. Unified saves: This is one of those things that made me really happy when this version came out, and still does. Having only three save types that directly map to how the character is being attacked really simplifies both the character sheet and the mental abstraction.
  3. Positive attack modifiers / AC. While really this is just an inversion of the old "THAC0" rules, it's certainly more intuitive (even for players who grew up with 1E and 2E).
4th Edition: Honestly I strongly dislike 4E, mostly because I dislike miniatures and games that require them. The overly-tactical nature of the mechanics bother me. Still, you don't have to play it on a board and there are certainly some things you can learn from it.
  1. All Defense is Passive: Having things like "fortitude defense" scores and making all the rolls be on the attacker's side is another way to make the game simpler/faster (less rolling to be done when it's not your turn). In addition it makes spellcasting more exciting. Even in my 3E and 2E games I end up with players asking if they need to roll "to hit" when they cast a fireball or lightning bolt (because all the fighters are constantly rolling attack rolls), there is clearly something boring about knowing that the rolls are on the defender side when you are throwing your big artillery around.
  2. "Powers" rather than "Spells". For younger players this definitely seems easier to manage. Having the Cleric or Wizard have a clear set of pre-defined abilities that can be used "per encounter" or "per session" rather than having to pick from a huge list of spells to be used per arbitrary "in-game day" is much easier and (even for experienced players) saves a lot of time at the table spent pouring over spell lists. The same lessons in strategy and resource management can be learned by having to make do with what you are given without adding the additional element of choice that can be so boggling (sp. in 3rd edition with all of it's splat books).
Pathfinder: My current game of choice for running with experienced players. This is basically 3rd Edition, but one rule change of note stands out:
  1. Combat Maneuver Checks/Combat Maneuver Defense: This mechanic has two huge advantages. First it simplifies all the cool tricks a character might want to do (from tripping to disarming to grappling) into a single roll. This makes arbitrary rulings (remember "rulings over rules") very easy to do on the fly for any strange thing the player may come up with in the midst of a battle: shove the bad-guy off a ledge...CMC, swing on a rope and kick the bad-guy...CMC, cut the rope holding a chandelier and cause it to fall on the bad-guy...CMC. In addition, it makes use of the Passive Defense principle, with the attacker rolling against a static defensive stat, so one roll resolves the maneuver without any fiddling on the part of the defender.

So, with all of these ideas in mind, I think it's clear that no one edition of D&D stands out over another. They all have their good points (and bad points).

So, what do I do about gaming with my kid?

Well...it seems that I have roughly 4 and a half years to take all of the above (and my years worth of other gaming considerations) and make a new game. One that will be easy to learn, easy to play, and hopefully be a faithful gateway to more traditional Dungeons and Dragons.