Monday, May 30, 2011

4E meets AD&D (pt 2), or, What is Old-School?

Levels vs Point-Buy

The biggest hurdle with my D&D CCG project is the fact that is it basically a point-buy char-gen system. You spend your accumulated experience points to buy skills and feats to add to your character. Of course, this is completely opposite of the level-based system that has always been core to the D&D experience. When I was a kid, our fantasy gaming system of choice was "Dragonquest", which is a point-buy d100 system. I really loved that system, for a lot of reasons, even though at times it could be kind of clunky.

So really, it doesn't make sense to try to shoe-horn D&D's level progression into a point-buy system. It will only further encourage min-maxing, which is something I want to avoid. Granted, there is still a place for the different cards for characters, but not in the CCG-type of way I had been toying with originally.

What is Old-School, Anyway?

So just what is "Old-School Gaming", anyways? Honestly, that's a question that has been tossed around and debated for a while now. There are a whole shit-load of blogs dedicated to the topic, and I have been reading a lot of them, but from what I can gather, every one of those bloggers seems to have their own particular brand of old-school gaming, be it their retro-clone or heavily house-ruled originally D&D system, the only thing Old School Games seem to have in common is a reliance on a ten-foot pole.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. But there is a grain of truth in there. One of the most commonly referenced documents is Matthew Finch's Old-School Gaming Primer, which I have read a few times and I think is generally pretty spot on (though I have my own issues with it). But these are the basics.

1) Rulings, not Rules. I go back and forth on this one. A good DM should have a firm enough grasp on the rules of the system that he can make consistently fair rulings. Wasting time looking up rules is not a good thing at all and needs to be avoided, but when you're just learning the game, it's unavoidable. However, 4E is actually incredibly versatile with regard to letting players try anything. Understanding how to apply the rules to different situations is key here. You cannot make a fair ruling without an understanding of the rules in the first place. 4E has plenty of rules that apply to combat, and once you know how they work, you can make fair, consistent rulings. This is how any role-playing game ought to work.

2) Player Skill, not Character Abilities. Yes. Relying on a dice roll to solve a puzzle is boring and is not what the game should be reduced to. But, giving a player a hint because they made a good dice roll on their "spot check" or what-have-you shouldn't be considered out-of-bounds.

3) Heroic, not Superheroic. Again, yes. Honestly, I'm not all that interested in epic-level 4th Edition gaming. Overthrow the evil king? Good. Save the world: well, maybe. Killing gods? A bit over the top, I think.

4) Forget "Game Balance": And again, yes. The "balanced" encounter is boring and predictable and not at all within the realms of verisimilitude. There is no reason for anyone to expect that every encounter they run into will be tailor made for their skill level. (At the same time, any DM who unleashes a Tarrasque on a group of 1st-level adventurers because a random chart told him to is just an asshole).

5) Resource Management. Players keeping track of the resources they have and making decisions based on that is a big part of the game. Do we have enough food/lantern oil/hit points to go further into the dungeon? Do we waste money staying in the Inn again?

These things are all pretty well accepted as the "Way" of the OSR, and generally consistent within the AD&D ruleset. For the rest of the week, I'll be looking at how to implement these things in your Old-School Style 4th Edition D&D game.

1 comment:

  1. "any DM who unleashes a Tarrasque on a group of 1st-level adventurers because a random chart told him to is just an asshole"
    -That's only true if it's 1. unexpected, 2. unavoidable, and (thus) forces a TPK.

    1. If the PCs know that the Tarrasque sleeps in the Hills of Diescreaming, and they go there anyway, and the table produces the Tarrasque, and they die screaming, they can't really complain. They played Russian Roulette and lost.

    2. If they PCs hear the Tarrasque coming (which... how could they not?) and the DM denies them any chance of hiding, fleeing, sating its hunger by leading it to a herd of elephants, or otherwise avoiding their deaths, *then* the DM is doing it wrong. If the PCs are stupid and only know how to charge, they get what they asked for.

    But I want to add another element of Oldschoolness that you forgot to mention... one so fundamental that most people don't even think about it: verisimilitude.

    I'm not talking about hp, which are necessarily abstracted. I'm not even talking about dungeon ecologies and "Gygaxian naturalism," which not all D&D products got right. I'm talking about the basic assumption that actions the PCs take are based what they would think of as real-world considerations, rather than on the rules of a tactical combat game.

    Example 1: consider an "encounter power." The mage can only shoot fire out of his ears once per "encounter." Outside of combat, is he limited? Or does the absence of waving swords somehow give him unlimited magical power? Let's say then that he can only use the power once every five minutes.

    So what do you do with a protracted encounter that lasts longer than five minutes? Can the character actually use the power again? Technically, no. If you allow it, you're house-ruling the system.

    Example 2: a magical character in 4E puts a magical "mark" on an enemy, so that fighting any of the PC's allies causes the monster to be burned by heavenly flames. Then a Warlord challenges the monster. "Hey, duel me," she says. And just like that, the heavenly flames are canceled. Why? Well, because if you allow marks to be stacked, you've created a system ripe for abuse where a team gangs up on one enemy and absolutely paralyzes them with marks. Not for any in-world reason; it's purely for "balance."

    In short, the rules of 4E cause things to happen that make no sense to the characters. 4E sacrifices verisimilitude in the name of balance. It's systemic and when when you actually pay attention and see it at work, it's sad. OD&D, whatever its flaws, strives for verisimilitude... and achieves it ways that 4E, by design, never could.