Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Honest Truth

I was thinking the other day about a lot of the rules-related fault lines of D&D and I realized that, if I'm honest, I don't really care (all that much) about arguing in favor of, for example, descending armor class vs. ascending armor class or demihuman level limits. In truth, my defense of these things stems to a great degree from a sense that they need to be defended in the face of a lot of disinformation and occasional dishonesty about them. That is, while I personally prefer descending AC over ascending, I don't think one's preferences matters all that much, but I do think it matters whether the respective vices and virtues of each system are being exaggerated.

I readily admit that I'm both a traditionalist and a contrarian -- the two personality traits often feed off one another, especially when confronted with neophiliac iconoclasm, of which there is much in our hobby (and always has been, lest anyone foolishly think I'm singling out "kids today" as the source of this trend). So, it raises my hackles to hear someone suggest that level limits "make no sense" or alignment is "stupid" or ascending AC is "easier to use" or any one of dozens of other claims about the supposed superiority of later edition rules mechanics of D&D over those of the past. I won't for a second deny that, for some gamers, such things may be true, but I do deny -- vociferously so -- that it's true for all gamers, because I did and do use most of these "bad" rules in my campaigns and somehow manage to have a great deal of fun.

Want to drop alignment from your campaign? Go for it. Find that you need some kind of skill system to differentiate two 5th-level fighters from one another? More power to you. Think 1-minute combat rounds are too abstract for your tastes? Gotcha. You don't need anyone's permission to make these changes, least of all mine, and I don't necessarily think any particular change to D&D's original rules takes one outside the bounds of "old school" -- and, even if I do, so what? Grab a copy of The Arduin Grimoire and you'll probably find that Dave Hargrave disagreed with me, just as Gary Gygax disagreed with him. Believe it or not, I'm cool with that.

Just, please, don't make the mistake of implying that your preference for some later mechanical innovation is anything more than that -- a preference. Many of the rules you deride as "bad," "broken," "wrong," "stupid," "embarrassing" or any number of other unpleasant adjectives aren't so in any objective sense and neither an appeal to "I've always thought so and I've been playing since 1978" nor the tendentious metaphor of game mechanics as technology will make them otherwise. And, again, that's just fine. Speaking only for myself, if I felt more people actually got this, I'd probably be a lot less defensive about many of the traditional rules of D&D than I typically am (though you're still never going to get me to say much nice about Dragolance).

Since this is clearly a rant, in accordance with the Joesky Protocol -- and my own addendum to it -- I offer the following. The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Dwimmersmite: Named both for its purpose and its place of origin, this sword +1, +2 versus spellcasters is a sapient weapon, Lawful in alignment and having INT 12 and Psyche 12. Dwimmersmite can speak and it understands both Common and Elvish, in addition to its alignment tongue and being able to read magic. The sword's motivation is to destroy magic-users and elves, which grants it the ability to paralyze such foes with a successful hit (save vs. spells to resist). In addition, Dwimmersmite can detect evil (20' range), invisible or hidden objects and creatures (20' range), and secret doors (10' range, usable thrice per day). The sword also grants its wielder clairvoyance, as per the magic-user spell of the same name, usable three times per day.

Given its high intelligence and psyche, Dwimmersmite is a very willful weapon, often overpowering its wielder, which it then uses as its "body" to achieve its singular goal of eliminating elves and magic-users from the world. Once, the sword distinguished between Chaotic and other types of spellcasters, but, in the centuries since its forging, it has been hardened in its views and no longer makes such distinctions. In Dwimmersmite's mind, all elves and magic-users are suspect and thus its foes -- the consequences be damned. Needless to say, the weapon frequently gets its wielder into much trouble and it has been many years since it was last seen in the hands of anyone in civilized lands.


  1. Ha, I think I've just read the same thread. It's the dislike of sub-systems that I always find weird. Especially when coupled with the argument that they're too complex. It's almost as if some people don't enjoy rollin lots of funny shaped die. Weird.

  2. "Ouch!"

    I like playin' spellcasters and elves.

    Nasty Sword, Bad Blade .... stop it!

  3. Heresy! There is but one true way, and those who follow the dark path of Stuff We Don't Like are condemned of a dungeon WHERE THERE ARE NO DICE!!

    Or something. :)

    Actually, I couldn't agree more. I think I burned out on the "my game is better than your game" argument way back in the original (A)D&D vs. Runequest battles. Like computer systems and spice, it's all a matter of taste.

    Nice sword, btw, but I thought intelligent swords had "Ego" ratings. Is Psyche a term you made up because "Ego" is not open content?

  4. Neophiliac iconoclasm has just been added to my personal lexicon. Fantastic!

  5. Just, please, don't make the mistake of implying that your preference for some later mechanical innovation is anything more than that -- a preference.
    But my way is much better than yours.

    Because, this one time, there was this paladin named Barrack in my campaign and I gave him a quest to find his birth certificate while his player was reading the last page of Twilight backwards, and then Barrack fell from grace because he didn't find his certificate and my cat died. And that's why alignments are stupid.

  6. I think it's just part of human nature to always defend what you like as "better" then what other people like.

    It happens with music all the time. I know for myself I use very hyperbolic statements to tell my friend that some of the music he likes "sucks." I don't do it as a preference. I tell him that his music sucks as though there were some kind of actual objective scale (no pun intended) on which you could measure it, and his came out on the "suck" end.

    He denies it totally, of course, usually by answering with a calm "Well, it doesn't suck, because if it did, then I wouldn't like it."

    Obviously, I know that it's a matter of opinion, but usually when people talk about things they're passionate about, subjectivity goes out the window in favor of more colorful, argumentative, and sometimes, dare I say, "fun" pronouncements intended to work up the other person's ire and get them to play along and state why they like the very thing in question.

    As a gamer, I tend to prefer Ascending AC, skill systems combined with Class-and-Level systems, and gray-area alignments. I think they're better for me. I had plenty of fun with the other systems growing up, and still enjoy them from time to time. But my preference is for what I stated.

    I know that it's not better objectively, but (outside of the blogosphere, where it's not cool to make hyperbolic statements), my friends and I have very heated arguments about which forms "suck" even though deep down we know where's no One True Way.

  7. Is that in opposition to the dishonest truth?

  8. Neophiliac iconoclasm is rampant.

    So we need to call out baseless labels for what they are. But there are a few things that are - if not universal needs - worthwhile goals, and I'm glad the new kids get excited about them.

    I'm talking about things like "easy to learn" or "quick for pick-up play" or "makes us think about X" or "helps the GM and players do Y". There are some worthwhile design goals, and - for certain types of gaming - certain systems can help achieve that better than others. That's what D&D hacking is all about, too.

    So, from your article, I'd assume that you really, really want to do the things that old-school D&D does - both the filled in stuff like how hit points tell you when you're dead, and the gaps that encourage the GM to make rulings. Right?

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. If by 'Neophiliac Iconoclasm' you mean attempted Constuctive Destuctionism which fails miserably, then, I get it.

    I mean the gleeful embrace of the new as at least partly a way to mock the old and distance oneself from it.

  11. Is Psyche a term you made up because "Ego" is not open content?

    "Psyche" is the term used in Labyrinth Lord rather than "Ego." I'm pretty sure that "Ego" is OGC, since it was used in 3e, but, for matters of artistic presentation (I believe), "Psyche" was adopted instead in LL.

  12. If by 'Neophiliac Iconoclasm' you mean attempted Constuctive Deconstruction which fails miserably, then, I get it.

    A bit of a oxymoron isn't it?

  13. Mine boosted, by yours being busted! ;0)

    PS : sorry about the repost ... over thunk it.

  14. Interesting post as usual. Through ignorance of my own, I don't fully understand all your terminology, but I appreciate you trying to bring what appears to be a mediating attitude into what may be a largely "grognardian" pool of listeners. I also agree with Martin regarding the subjectivity of system attributes we love (e.g., ascending/descending AC).

    At first I thought formal logic might help. Later, I realized we're way too subjective in our preferences for a variety of reasons to agree on a common line of reasoning (though I kind of like what Zak S. did in laying out his rules for discussion in his recent online gender and sexuality "debate"). Maybe it couldn't be any other way and still be a "hobby". ???

  15. I agree with the main point of the post. But ascending AC is objectively easier to grasp than descending AC.

    Imagine having to explain descending AC to a neophyte:

    "AC is a number that shows how hard it is to hit something. Lower numbers are good. The more armor, agility and magical protection you have, the lower your AC, and the harder it is to hit you. When you know your opponent's AC, you can cross-reference it with your level on the appropriate combat matrix for your class to figure out what you need to hit your opponent. Or, if you know your THAC0, you can always find what you need to hit by adding the inverse of the target's AC to your THAC0."

    If they don't know what an inverse is, the explanation would take even longer.

    By contrast, here's how you might explain ascending AC to a neophyte:

    "AC is the number you need to roll to hit something. Higher numbers are better. Armor, agility and magical protections will increase your AC and make you harder to hit."

  16. Speaking of Open Game Content... world's worst acronym! If you don't know what I mean, tilt your head to the left, and what does OGC look like?

    Somewhat appropriate given the types of debate that this post is referring to :-) (Mass debate I suppose!)

  17. Brian MacKenzie: "AC ranks the effectiveness of your protection. Lower ranks are better (like 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and so on) and affect the ability of opponents to reduce your hit points. Either compare your level/HD to AC on a chart or subtract the target's AC from your target number for AC 0, both give the same result*."

    It is not objective to prefer one method over the other.

    *depending on the specific game, of course.

  18. I can't help thinking that Psyche is a really inappropriate descriptor for a weapon (apart, from possibly a set of bloody golden arrows). <grin>

    [The perils of a classical education...]

  19. What IS the obsession with OGL? What was/is the point of declaring little snippets of stuff like this OGL? WotC have no claim at all over these bits of material you produce, so why do you insist on giving them some and, by extension, giving them control over any one else's material that uses the less jokey stuff you produce?

    Slapping "this is OGL" on your output means other people can not legally use it without granting special rights to WotC/Hasbro. Why would anyone want to do that? Just make it "public domain" or GPL or something.


  20. @faoladh,

    I know how descending AC and THAC0 work, and I found your explanation confusing. Once an explanation requires a chart lookup, it just stopped being newbie-friendly - Earthdawn pretty much sums up my own experience with that problem. "Ranks of effectiveness" makes sense, more or less, until we're talking about negative AC values, because I'm pretty sure no one has ever won negative-second place.

  21. What IS the obsession with OGL?

    I include it because every clone does, most especially Labyrinth Lord, which is the clone whose text I most often reference in my own writing. A lot of D&D's terminology and mechanics could be referenced legally without the use of the OGL, but some could not -- most notably some iconic spells, monsters, and magic items -- so using the OGL is the price of admission to do so. I'm OK with that, as are all the old school publishers with which I have any familiarity. I'm pretty hard pressed to think of any who don't use the OGL.

  22. it just stopped being newbie-friendly

    Perhaps but "newbie-friendliness" is only one criterion by which to judge the utility of a game mechanic, so, while I might -- might -- concede that ascending AC is easier to explain to someone unfamiliar with D&D, I don't think that has any bearing on whether or not it's a "good" mechanic in any objective sense.

  23. I think alot of those systems were adopted merely because of the huge amount of magazine articles in both Dragon and White Dwarf (back when they were good) explaining a particular person's dislike of them. For the most part, massive loopholes, strangeness that didn't map to a particular easy-to-use algorithm and "just for the sake of balance" items became unpopular with the gaming fans who ushered in the Silver Age.

    I find the less I have to rely on tables, and the less I have to rely on exceptions, the easier my game is. Which, of course, takes 3E right out of the running for me.

    But, like I always say, like you just posted above, YMMV.

  24. Okay, I grant that there might be additional criteria that could influence judgment as to whether descending or ascending is objectively better. I'm curious to hear what you think some of those other criteria might be.

  25. I always disliked many of the rule systems associated with old D&D. Despite my distaste, I could make that system do whatever I wanted: The rules worked well to bring a fun, adventurous experience to my players. It was a bit frustrating at the time, like having an ugly, awkward toolbox that happened to hold just the tools needed to get a job done.

  26. I like your ranks explanation, faoladh, though as Whitehaven wrote, it does break down when you hit negative numbers (and zero, for that matter).

    Similarly, faoladh's mathematical explanation is better, except when you're dealing with negative AC. For most people, subtracting a negative numbers isn't any easier than adding an inverse.

  27. Each armor type has an associated armor class. Lower ACs are harder to hit. There are modifications to the die roll based on agility, magic, skill etc. Skill + AC + Die roll + mod >= 20 is a hit.

    Not sure why that is so hard. I’m sure I could concoct an overly convoluted explanation of the ascending armor class system too.

  28. Clear as mud! Am I correct in assuming that you're not a teacher, Michael?

  29. Brian MacKenzie: If someone can't subtract negative numbers, then it might be a good idea for them to learn how, don't you think? One of the arguments we always used in favor of RPGs (back in the days when people were trying to claim that we were all some sort of caricature of "devil worshiper" that they learned from people who didn't play any RPGs) was that they were good at helping us to learn history, math, and other useful subjects.

    Michael's system is also very good, though I would formulate it as die roll plus target's AC (plus modifiers, if you want to get that complicated) to beat a target number determined by attacker's Skill.

  30. Anyway, my point is simply (still) that there's no way to objectively determine whether a particular number is better increasing or decreasing. It's all subjective preference. Now, there might be more people who prefer one direction than another, but that's a marketing decision, not an objective one.

  31. 2e PHB, on THAC0: "Subtract the Armor Class of the target from the attacker's THAC0. (...) The character has to roll the resulting number, or higher, on 1d20 to hit the target."

    It's a minor leap to tell a DM what AC you hit from that formula. For a child.

    If drink sozzled wharfies can calculate which double they need to end on in a game of 501 then what on Earth is the deal with book nerds getting tripped up on THAC0?

  32. “Each armor type has an associated armor class. “ I attempted to explain where AC comes from, is this the part you found unclear?
    “Lower ACs are harder to hit. “, you said “Higher numbers are better”. Mine is close to your wording; the word Lower in place of Higher. I replaced “ACs” for “numbers” so it was clear what numbers we are talking about and “are harder to hit” for “are better” so it is clear for who it is better and how it is better. Is this part you found unclear?
    “There are modifications to the die roll based on agility, magic, skill etc. Skill + AC + Die roll + mod >= 20 is a hit.” Is this the part you found unclear? There are other modifications to the die roll, you just add all the numbers together.
    Let me ask you this, if the system was roll 2d6 and if it is less than or equal to the armor class, you hit. Would you still find descending armor classes more confusing? Is it the whole system or the descending armor class part?

  33. I don't find descending AC the least bit confusing. If I were designing a game from scratch, I'd go with ascending AC. But my main group and I have been playing 1e AD&D for 30 years, and we still use descending AC.

    However, I've also taught the game to various people over the last 30 years, and I know that neophytes tend to struggle with descending AC. I have a little experience with 4e and have taught people that system, too, and I know that they grasp ascending AC quickly and easily.

    Yes, Michael, the "Skill + AC + Die roll + mod >= 20 is a hit" was the part that I knew would be confusing to someone new to the game.

    We don't really sell a game as fun when something as simple as determining the number you need to roll to hit something demands the solution of a math sentence that is an inequality involving as many as five terms.

    As a professional educator, I agree emphatically with faoladh regarding the pedagogical potential and utility of RPGs. That doesn't mean we should go out of our way to make the games unnecessarily complicated.

    Nor should our preference for descending AC lead us to deny the objective reality that ascending AC is clearly less complicated.

  34. Brian MacKenzie: I still disagree that ascending AC is "objectively" less complex. It's all simple arithmetic. In any case, if one wants a system that makes intuitive sense (which may be more of what you are meaning, it occurs to me), then armor should reduce damage, as it does in many systems other than D&D. However, D&D's abstract and quick combat system doesn't work well with that concept.

  35. Ascending AC involves less arithmetic. The AC is the number you need to roll to hit, plus or minus mods.

    Descending AC requires a table lookup or a THAC0 calculation to determine the number to hit, plus or minus mods. When you're dealing with negative ACs, the arithmetic ceases to be simple for many people.

    Once you're fluent with either system, it doesn't matter that much. One system happens to be easier for newcomers to master.

    Whether armor should reduce damage is an entirely different issue.

  36. The amount of arithmetic involved with ascending or descending AC depends on the exact method used to determine a hit. Some DMs tell the players the target AC some do not, some have a table lookup some do not.

    You said it involves subtraction, it does not; d20 + attack Bonus + AC + mods >=20 is a hit. No subtractions, unless some of the modifiers are negative (cover etc.), but that would be true with an ascending AC. No THAC0, No to hit tables. With this system it’s adding 3 numbers (plus mods if any) and comparing to 20. In the 3.x ascending system, you add 2 numbers (plus mods), about the same. In the 3.x system the totals are generally higher. When you routinely have to do “carries” in your head the arithmetic ceases to be simple for many people.

    You said someone must prefer a descending AC to think it’s as easy as ascending. I don’t prefer descending AC; I would use ascending AC if I was keeping the AC secret from the players, since I recently decided it was a waste of time (IMHO) I now find Descending easier.

    When I was keeping AC secret it really did not matter whether AC was ascending or descending. The players rolled the dice, modified them and gave me the total; I told them if it was a hit.

    In my 30+ years of gaming, I have never seen more confusion about AC going down as armor got better than a shrug of the shoulders.

  37. I can't tell you how many times my gaming group had these discussions in the 2E era. I never minded descending AC (and still don't), but they all despised it. I could care less either way. Whichever way it works in whichever system I am playing is fine by me, tables or no tables.