Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Is This Game?

My general feeling about games is--play whatever system, and hack the hell out of it to fit your--and your players'--taste.

However, when you ask someone if they want to play D&D with you, they kind of expect certain things, and if you change those things, you should tell them first. Also, when and if you complain about D&D, you really can only complain about certain things, since the rest are easy to change.

Here's my list of core things that define the game* for my players and/or are complicated to change:

1-Characters have races and classes (or race-as-class)
2-The classes include (at least) fighters/warriors, magic-users/wizards, thieves/rogues, and clerics/priests. Fighters can use any weapon or armor and are good at it, wizards use magic, clerics use magic and can fight ok, thieves have sneaking abilities.
3-Characters get experience points and go up in levels
4-PCs have 6 ability scores (Dex, Str, etc.) and they're mostly on a scale from three to eighteen
5-There's a list of spells and, when the PCs use them, they generally do what it says in the book--especially the ones low-level players get (like magic missile)
6-It's set in a version of medieval europe and the player races are derived from european folklore and include--at least--the major races in the Lord of the Rings books.
7-Characters and monsters have an "armor class" that combines size, armor, and dexterity
8-Physical damage is recorded as hit points
9-In order to attack, you make a "to hit" roll on a d20 versus ac (including dex, str, and other bonuses)
10-Going up in levels increases your hit points

These are the parts of the bike that, if you change them, it'll make people start thinking it's not the same bike. Change more than half, and it's not D&D any more. Which is fine, but you might want to ask your players if they mind. These are merely the assumed defaults.

(I should stress that although I think this list is pretty exhaustive for my players your mileage may vary--some people you know may squeak if they find out you're playing fast and loose with, say, alignment.

If you feel there are any "core" things that would have to be added to this list to describe your players' idea of the game, let me know in the comments.)

(Looking at the comment below from Carl, I guess I should also stress that nobody I know particularly cares if we suddenly aren't playing D&D anymore. They just like to be told first.)

Pretty much anything else about the game other than those 10 I know I can hack and my players either won't care or won't notice or will not bat an eye when I tell them I'm changing it.

So, a list of things that are not-the-core of D&D would include: what you get xp awards for, magic items (effects and distribution), alignment, deities, fire damage, trap disarmament procedures, time scale, encumbrance, which weapons do what damage, how hard it is to perform noncombat operations, what happens when you get to 0 h.p., running, jumping, climbing, spotting, hearing noise, initiative prcedures, character movement speed, how wizards learn spells, what exactly you can see with infravision, monsters used, whether you are actually ever in a "dungeon", system shock survival, rules for henchmen, assasination, character interaction, light sources, diseases, tracking rules, the precise ranges and durations of monsters' spells and spell-like abilities, how long it takes to cast a spell, rules for grappling or grabbing or unarmed combat, whether there are planes of existence, and everything else in the DMG or players handbook or anywhere else in the published game.

So: D&D as a mental construct in player's heads consists largely of a combat system, a (partial) spell list, a character generation & advancement system, and a vaguely-defined setting. The rest gets regularly hacked all the time, often by DMs who don't even know they're hacking it.

If anyone complains about D&D and is complaining about anything other than one of these 10 concepts, then you'd just ask "Well why not just house-rule it?"

"The casting time rules are confusing!" Well change them, waterhead, glue-sniffing 8th graders have been figuring out how to do it since 1979. The same goes for the retroclones.

Some things I notice when I make this list:

>I--like many gamers, and nearly all game designers in history--am often sorely tempted to hack items 7-10 (over a third of what makes D&D truly D&D), and I don't because I know it'd confuse and consternate my players since they're all pretty casual gamers and it's not really worth it in the end since we all have lots of fun with 7-10 the way they are so whatever.

This guy would--very reasonably--ask "Well why play D&D instead of some other system?". For pretty much the same reasons international diplomats use English. Given the extant state of the universe, it's just the easiest. If, instead of a bunch of thoroughly distracted strippers, porn stars and artists--some of who are just now getting the hang of simple things like writing down on their character sheet how much damage their own weapons do--my players were all hardcore RPG-bloggers, we'd probably all be playing Rolemaster. (Which I would totally be into.) Like I said, until we stop having fun, I'm not fucking with it.

>2, 5, and 6 are often expanded far beyond the limits of the original game design, and it usually works just fine. That is, new classes, spells and setting elements can be bolted on at will and there's very little problem with that. Only taking away stuff that's in these rules will confuse or upset players or have a ripple effect that screws up the rest of the system.

>Hardly anybody ever expresses a desire to change 3 or 4 unless they're making a whole new game. They're fairly robust concepts and pretty much work well enough, even intelligence and wisdom being two different stats. Charisma gets a bad rap and in one version there was Charisma AND Comeliness, but eventually it got changed back. I personally like Charisma alone since it says, in effect: "17 Charisma? Maybe your character is charming, maybe your character is hot, maybe a little of both--defining which is up to you, the point is this character has this much ability to influence others. Envisioning the character is the player's prerogative, defining his or her effectiveness is the dice's prerogative."

>None of these core, defining rules are incompatible with bolting on mechanics that encourage role-playing or storytelling if that's the game you want, with the occasional and very very narrow exception of rules 8, 9, and 10 since they sort of abstract what happens in combat and so make saying, for example, "he lost an eye at the Battle of Scuffleheim" difficult.

(In my own games, I throw in a hit-location system, but I warn everybody.)

Semi-Related Stuff:

If you go here and listen to "meta-episodes" 1, 2, 3 and (more recently posted) 4 of this podcast you'll hear a really interesting discussion about combining D&D mechanics with the mechanics of new school games. I should note here that these people play their game in a way I probably never would--waaaay too emohippiegamey for me and my players (plus it's 4e)--but I feel like it is one of the most intelligent and least condescending discussions of what D&D can and can't do by storygame-friendly gamers. I don't agree with everything they say, but I do appreciate the fact that they discuss the issue without the "D&D is primitive and now we're beyond that" mindset that some storygamers seem to have.

(In general, I like that podcast--I have no desire to run that adventure or play the way they do, but I like hearing how other people can play vastly different games than I do and still have fun, plus it's extremely professional and well-put-together--plus when they get drunk it seems like all their "planned character development" goes out the window and they're just trying to kill things and have fun.)

For a different--equally interesting, if shorter--point of view and one with which, I largely happen to agree, see this. The same example (coincedentally?) comes up in both podcasts--the example of "role-playing a game of Clue"

*Obviously this list leaves out philosophically "outside the box" defining features like "in the game, you pretend to be a person that is not yourself and you pretend to exist in another world yet you do not actvely believe this or imagine anyone else to believe this". I'm just talking about things that define D&D against other pen & paper RPGs.


  1. I love the Kamikaze Hughes link. I remember that guy from, .misc and .advocacy.

    Now I feel all old and sad. I miss Usenet. :(

  2. "6-It's set in a version of medieval europe and the player races are derived from european folklore and include--at least--the major races in the Lord of the Rings books."

    Wow, that one blew my mind. It honestly has never even occurred to me that anyone would feel that way about the pseudo-medieval Europe default to the point that removing it would make the game no longer D&D. I have rarely ever played in such a setting, but I am quite sure I have been playing D&D for all these years! I personally feel like limiting yourself to a (I don't want to say cliche but that is close to how I feel) single setting is a severe restriction on your gaming experience. Hey, if it is what you and your players like best, that is great. But don't you ever get an itch to play a pseudo-oriental campaign, or get all hot and sandy in a desert, or just go balls out and create an entirely original setting out of whole cloth that is nothing at all like any thing we have seen on this Earth?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. You've misunderstood my post:

    I am not describing "What I (or my players) like and play"

    I am describing "What my players assume the game will be like if you tell them you are going to play D&D."

    Like, i am probably going to play a asian-style d&d in november, but the guy running it didn't say "hey you wanna play d&d?" he said "hey, I think next time I play I wanna do Oriental Advnetures, whadda you think?"

    If he hadn't, I would've showed up with my level 2 wizard ready to roll and then realized we wwere in Japan or Kara Tur and would've said: "Oh, you should've told me, I would've been a ninja."

    In other words, these are the assumed defaults.

  5. Oh ok, on re-reading it I see what you were saying. I still wouldn't assume that D&D meant #5, but that could be because in my experience it normally hasn't. I would always check with the DM to see what kind of campaign setting he was running before I made a character.

  6. Oops I meant #6 in the comment above

  7. Hmmmmm,

    #2 Saddens me the most. The classes are so limiting. And the "solutions"; a bazillion classes, kits, prestige whatever all suck. But not quite as hard as build point systems.

    I don't mind the concepts fighter, magic guy, holy dude and skill / expert. It's the rule bits, can only use daggers, can't draw blood, this guy runs around in the woods and fights with two weapons. Fuck that, I want to wield two battle axes and the only tracking going on will be the trail of bloody footprints I leave behind.

    Oh, and when you move to Austin, TX we'll play us some RoleMaster.

  8. Norman:
    "It's the rule bits, can only use daggers, can't draw blood, this guy runs around in the woods and fights with two weapons. Fuck that, I want to wield two battle axes and the only tracking going on will be the trail of bloody footprints I leave behind."

    See, the way I see it, none of that stuff's int he core 10. You tell the cleric s/he can use a dagger, none of my players are gonna squeak/

  9. And thanks for the invite, Norman--is Conan's still open?

  10. "2-The classes include (at least) fighters/warriors, magic-users/wizards, thieves/rogues, and clerics/priests."

    "5-There's a list of spells and, when the PCs use them, they generally do what it says in the book--especially the ones low-level players get (like magic missile)"

    "8-Physical damage is recorded as hit points"

    "9-In order to attack, you make a "to hit" roll on a d20 versus ac (including dex, str, and other bonuses)"

    So, playing OD&D is making people question whether you're playing D&D? It didn't have thieves/rogues, after all!
    And the hit points weren't meant to be physical damage.
    And of course, there was the original combat resolution system. The d20 was suggested as replacement to it.

    That's not a critic to your list. Yes, most people associate these things with D&D! But it's not necessarily true. The 5th number on the list is different in "Type IV" D&D as you call it, since the powers can be something other than spells.
    So, it's not necessarily true even when you're playing a by-the-book D&D game.

    1. Jesus Christ it's like you didn't even read it:

      I said if you change these things _you probably wanna tell your players_ first not that it isn't really D&D anymore

  11. Which is to say, what people think D&D is, has little to no bearing to what D&D actually is. Of course, the same goes for most systems, settings, and any concept more complicated than eating a hamburger or listening to pop-music.
    The game, however, is defined by what the people play, not by lists.