Saturday, July 18, 2009

Who's Afraid of Percentile Dice?

I rather expected my recent post on morale to raise some eyebrows because it's percentile-based rather than based on, say, 1D20 or 2D6. I have in the past expressed some unhappiness with percentiles in OD&D and many of my most recent house rules and other designs have purposefully avoided using them. I did this in an attempt to keep things "simple," on the assumption that using not just two dice but two new-fangled dice would somehow ruin my experiment in playing OD&D as the Ancients played it. I've discovered, though, that, much as I discovered through my use of only D6 and D20 -- another part of my experiment -- I miss the use of all the polyhedrals.

Again, I expect this may raise some eyebrows, but it shouldn't. The Dwimmermount campaign has from the start been partly an exercise in "ludographic archeology," which is to say, an attempt to understand early gaming by sticking as closely to its conventions as I could, right down to the types of dice I used. It's been absolutely wonderful in that regard, helping me to understand quite a number of things that I would not have if I'd just approached OD&D purely on a theoretical level. That's why I've always advocated that more people actually sit down and play these games we're all talking about. It's only through play that certain things truly become clear and clear in ways that are utterly impossible to predict.

A case in point is dice. Rolling dice is fun and rolling lots of different kinds of dice is even more fun. In the case of weapon damage, for example, I discovered that weapon choice seems more meaningful when different dice types are attached to different weapons. This is a small thing and, mechanically, it is. The difference between rolling 1D4 for a dart and rolling 2D6 take the lowest (as I had been doing for small and/or improvised weapons) isn't all that great, but it feels different and in ways that contribute greatly to player enjoyment of the game, at least at my table. The same goes for a myriad of little rules, sub-systems, and practices, changing any one of which, if I were to present it outside the context of play, might seem insignificant but that, in play, had an impact. A good example of this is the saving throw mechanic, something that I think feels better in its original form than in any of its revised versions.

That's the biggest insight that my months-long Dwimmermount campaign has given me thus far: what rules "work" and which ones don't often have very little to do with how "simple" or "efficient" or "intuitive" they are and everything to do with what they inspire and encourage in the players who use them. My Dwimmermount campaign's rules have evolved over the course of the fourteen sessions we've got under our belts. It's no longer a "pure" version of any rules set, but its "impurities" are the result of actual play, not out-of-game theorizing about what rules are "clearly better," to borrow a phrase. Many of the supposed flaws in OD&D -- or indeed most old school games -- are only flaws if you're looking at them in an overly intellectualized fashion divorced from actual and regular play.

That's why many things I'd originally thought just didn't "work" or were "impurities" have slowly crept back into my campaign and other things I saw as improvements are being jettisoned. I think I now have a better sense of how and why many things changed in OD&D from the initial release in 1974 until the publication of its last supplement two years later. I'm seeing many of the same changes in my own game and, rather than resist them, I'm embracing them. That's another thing I've learned: sometimes the game takes on a life of its own -- and that's a good thing. Indeed, that's what we all ought to be striving for.

And when that happens, when a campaign takes off to such an extent that it pulls you along with it, that's no time to be thinking in the abstract about whether something works or not. That's when you just pick up the dice -- even percentile ones -- and roll.


  1. I don't think the specific dice involved matter as much as whatever probability distribution you're using. For instance, I couldn't care less whether d00 is used instead of d20 when we're dealing with increments of 5%, because the difference between the two is only cosmetic. When you have 2d6 or 3d6 though, just as an example, you have a different probability curve. So as long as you're making that probability work for you and make sense to whatever you're rolling, then I think that's great.

  2. What I find interesting is that some nostalgia pastimes can be revisited, while others can't. I came to RPGs from tabletop wargames, and -- really -- I'm at a point where I can't "go home again" with the cardboard-chit-WWII gaming; computers give me all of what I like about the wargame experience and none of the heartaches. But tabletop RPGs still spark something in me that other possibilities don't, so they remain viable to me.

  3. I think you do a pretty good job with the analysis,'ve take a very scientific approach without being clinical (i.e. your keeping the love there without allowing it to color...too much!...your judgements).

    Nothing to be too surprised at...just enjoying your exploration, frankly.

    Password: "crownde"

    All hail to the Old School King!

  4. I think as an exercise in historical play (for lack of a better description) what you've done is quite interesting to read and certainly must include lessons learned.

    I don't think I would have been as patient with some of the original rules and style as you have been. My games need to use all the dice, half the fun is throwing around those interesting shapes. To limit to a d6 and d20, IMHO, doesn't inspire much (as you noted).

    So, if you are finding yourself considering the possibilities of proto-AD&D, like your recent post suggested, what's the grand plan. Where do you plan to go from here? :)

  5. Except that d12:

    What did I roll? Can someone pick that up for me?

  6. @Marsh: What computer games give you the feel of chit based gaming? Everything seems to be RTS these days which I hate.

  7. Why not just roll your old-school d20s (numbered 0-9 twice)?

    Personally growing up on the Moldvay set and then mixing in 1st ed AD&D into our hybrid, I always thought the d10 was just part of the gang. It wasn't until later that I learned the solids lesson.

    Still, I usually throw a d10 when a 1-10 is required, only occasionally rolling out the 0-9 twice old-timers. I do tend to feel the more sides, the better for rolling, but these young turks around my parts just stare at the 0-9 twice boys like they belong in a museum. I guess they sorta do...ha!

    One thing on the percentile rolls using d10s: I still can't get myself to dig the 10-00 sided d10s. When I roll d10s for a percentile roll, I still like to roll 2 d10s, both numbered just 1-0(10), stating/knowing which die represents which digit in the percentile. Ya dig? Dunno, just something about those 10-00 d10s that don't sit right with me.

    I guess it all goes back to what you grew up on, and my first dice set only came with one d10, numbered 1-0(10).

    So when should we expect your post on introducing the d100 die into your campaign. Look out, here comes the eternally-rolling Zocchihedron!

    BTW, great insight into your gaming, per usual, James. Your site is an everyday stop for me, sometimes several times a day.

  8. I love rolling percentile dice, and I love using two 20-siders (numbered 0-9 twice) when doing so.

    Down with non-Platonic solids!

  9. So when was a percentile roll mechanic first used in D&D rules?

  10. Percentile rolls were used all the way back in the 1974 boxed set. (For example, in the rules for constitution on p. 11 of Men & Magic.

  11. And all the random treasure tables. And whether dragons know magic or are found sleeping.

  12. Yes James! As I read of your house rules and game method rediscoveries, I see you returning to the open, steel-sheathed arms of Advanced! Come brother! Return to the fold and we shall drive all before us with fire and sword!

  13. In the early days of RPGs they seem to have liked to use percentages, but the percentages were usually dividable by 5 and so could have been done with a d20.

    I remember reading (can't remember where, but it was a 3rd-party product) that "attributes can easily be turned into percentages by multiplying by 5", even though rolling on a d20 would've given the same result with one less step.

  14. Kenzer & Co. seem to appreciate the sensibility very well! Whether one finds Aces & Eights or the new Hackmaster to one's taste, the games seem to me clearly to express some aspects of what might be called an "old school" ethos. I would say that it comes down to really designing games rather than simply constructing abstract "systems".

    Considering percentile rolls in particular, there is some plain utility -- as employed for instance in Chaosium's RuneQuest, one of my all-time favorites.

    I am not terribly "math challenged", but for whatever reason I am not a big fan of the "+x" and "-y" that seems all the rage in some quarters. Letting dice "do the math" is often an elegant approach to my mind. A caveat is that, as Gygax observed of dice in the DMG, one must "learn to use them properly".

  15. “...what rules ‘work’ and which ones don’t often have very little to do with how ‘simple’ or ‘efficient’ or ‘intuitive’ they are and everything to do with what they inspire and encourage in the players who use them.

    Yes. That rings true for me.

    As for Mr. Marsh’s comment: I’ve always felt the same way about the sorts of board wargames that I’ve played. Most of them would be better computerized because they had well defined rules that work well computerized. Those games were to some extent held back by the need to keep the rules and gameplay from becoming too tedious. The computer could even help them become better by removing that limit.

    As Jeffrey said, I haven’t seen a lot of such games, but those I have, I have enjoyed.

    Role-playing games—to me—are all about not having many, well-defined rules. They are about a human judge taking the place of a rule-book. So, I’ve never felt that a computer role-playing game would be more than an echo of table-top role-playing games. Which has also been born out in my experience.

  16. Where do you plan to go from here? :)

    I'll be talking about that over the next few weeks. There's not a "plan," as such, but I do have some ideas of what I'll be doing in order to bring the game's rules closer to where I'd like them to be.

  17. Kenzer & Co. seem to appreciate the sensibility very well! Whether one finds Aces & Eights or the new Hackmaster to one's taste, the games seem to me clearly to express some aspects of what might be called an "old school" ethos. I would say that it comes down to really designing games rather than simply constructing abstract "systems".

    Fully agreed. I'm actually a big fan of Kenzer, but, much like Paizo, they largely produce gaming materials that just don't suit my personal tastes, even if I do admire them (from a safe distance). Kenzer especially really understands, as you say, that they're designing games rather than game systems and that understanding makes what they produce much more in line with the old school than just about any modern company I can think of.

  18. I saw a reference to Rolemaster today, and I immediately thought of this post again. I’ve seen so many gamers dismiss the Arms Law tables on sight. Similar has been the reaction to the Hârnmaster combat tables. My group that played both games, however, found neither of them to be a problem in actual play.

    In fact, I’ve seen a lot of attempts at doing what Arms Law actually does that aren’t nearly as easy in play as Arms Law is. Because those tables bring a lot of value from a simple two-axis look-up.

    (By the way, I like Mr. Tweet’s musings on the Fantasy Combat Matrix from Chainmail, which I think speaks to some of the reasons I like Arms Law.)