Monday, April 26, 2021

D&D's Original Twenty+ Character Stats (versus GURPS)

Players of role-playing adventure games love simple game rules these days. I think that's a good thing, and it's likely to make the hobby easier to enter for newcomers.

But what counts as simple?

B/X D&D and other early varieties of D&D, and their many, many clones, are often praised for the simplicity of the stats and character features if we compare with later editions of D&D.

Yet if we just consider the player-facing matter of the character sheet and the numbers that players need to track, there are a lot of numbers, and the use of those numbers is often opaque. What do you roll for this stat or that stat, if at all, and which die?

Some stats are "primary," in the sense that you roll for them or they are determined without reference to other numbers.

Some of them are "secondary," in the sense that they are derived from primary numbers by a formula or by consulting a chart.

After trying to introduce a few novices to B/X D&D, I realized that these "simple" D&D stats were not so simple as I had claimed.

Here's a list of things that a new B/X D&D player needs to track. I call all of these "stats," including the ones that are not numerical (like Alignment).

I put an *asterisk by the secondary stats.

  1. Class (descriptive but essential stat)
  2. Level
  3. Alignment
  4. Experience Points
  5. STR
  6. damage bonus*
  7. DEX
  8. AC and missile adjustment*
  9. CON
  10. HP adjustment*
  11. INT
  12. Languages known*
  13. WIS
  14. Save vs magic bonus*
  15. CHA
  16. Retainers one can have*
  17. Loyalty adjustment*
  18. Experience bonus for prime requisites*
  19. Hit Points
  20. Armor Class
  21. THAC0 (or attack bonus)
  22. vs Death Ray/Poison*
  23. vs Wands*
  24. vs "Stone"*
  25. vs Dragon Breath*
  26. vs Staves & Spells*
  27. Damage done (per weapon)

Then there are modular stats according to character class, such as "Spells/Levels of spells," a chart of numbers for Turning Undead, and a chart of numbers for Thief abilities.

A starting D&D character has well over twenty stats.

D&D characters are also highly uniform in these stats. Everybody has the same ones. The main variation comes in restrictions on weapons and armor, hit dice, and class abilities.

New players also have to figure out d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d100. As a player who started in 1981, I find these distinctions as obvious to me as my native language. But I have recently seen new players stall at the table, unable to recognize which die's shape is which on the spur of the moment, and others have to select dice for them to roll. It's not fun at the table to feel you can't spot which die to roll.

A comparison with GURPS

Let's compare the unnoticed complexity of D&D with another game that has a reputation for complexity: GURPS.

If a player wants to custom-design a character in GURPS, it can take a very long time without the presence of someone who has encyclopedic familiarity with the rules. Still, take a look at the stat system.

  1. ST
  2. DX
  3. IQ
  4. HT
  5. Willpower*
  6. Basic Speed*
  7. Move*
  8. Thrust damage*
  9. Swing damage *
  10. Passive Defense*
  11. Active Defense*
  12. Skills, MODULAR
  13. OTHER POSSIBLE MODULAR TRAITS (advantages, disadvantages, quirks)

The GURPS character-facing rules are actually really simple. The resolution system is also very easy. The game uses d6 only. It's 3d6, roll equal-to-or-under. (Only reaction rolls and damage rolls work differently.)

What makes GURPS seem complex is its modularity. That is, you just use the rules for character features that you have. After decades of GURPS supplements, there are modular features for characters for practically any genre. It's vast.

Still, the core GURPS rules are far simpler and more streamlined than those for D&D. In GURPS, there are no useless stats. There are no numbers that sit there most of the time without being used (like D&D stats, which often play zero role in actual play).

If you wanted to use GURPS Lite (which is free!), you get an easy and universal resolution system without much fuss.

The drawbacks in GURPS for "rules-lite" game fans are basically just two, both related to character generation.

(1) It has a point-buy system, and there is such a big menu of things you can buy, that it can be overwhelming. Character generation for a new player can last hours, as prospective players leaf through a catalogue of items that might fit a new character.

(2) There has definitely been a huge "point creep" in GURPS gaming culture. When the system first game out, characters were ideally based on 100 points. It was a nice round number for low-power fantasy games. Now they are more typically 250 points, meaning that there's just a lot more shopping and counting to do in character generation. Even when character templates are used to simplify things for beginners, a 250-point template is a lot of data and fidgety numbers.

I think that point bloat is the single biggest reason there aren't more players of GURPS games.

GURPS would probably win new players if it could lower this hurdle considerably. Here are some ideas:

1.  Back to basics: 100-point characters, with correspondingly lower stats, so that one point of a core stat makes a difference, as it used to be in the late '80s.

2. Random characters (not point-buy!). Make a table of character features used in your setting, and let players roll for them. Never mind that PCs will have different point values! Players accept that some will roll better than others.

4. Alternatively, have simple lists of advantages and disadvantages of the same point value, with a list of acceptable swaps. Players pick from lists. "Pick one advantage from Box A. You can take an advantage from Box B, but then you have to take one disadvantage from Box C." "If you want to raise your Magery by 1, lower ST or HT by one." That kind of thing will be more legible to players than adding up points.

5. Combine low-point templates with random rolls for modular features.

6. Institute a slot-based encumbrance system instead of counting pounds or kilograms. (Slots = ST. New Advantage: bonus item slots, 4 pts/level up to a limit set by the GM.)

I could see a low-hurdle, easy-character-generation version of GURPS being quite successful.

Steve Jackson Games has published its Dungeon Fantasy rules, which seems to emulate later editions of D&D more, with higher power levels and templates in place of character classes. That's where they invested to tap into the OSR scence (that, and the republished deluxe edition of The Fantasy Trip).

But I'd like see GURPS Basic Fantasy instead, with a system for making characters randomly that didn't require any knowledge of the point-system. The points would be at a smaller scale and can be kept entirely "under the hood" except when used for XP.

Starting templates could be printed on cards. To make a character in GURPS, draw a card from the stack for your template, then roll some d66s to get a few advantages and disadvantages. Then just play without counting any points at all during character generation.

The point value of characters could just be something the GM tracks behind the screen--if that's even necessary.

People who play video games don't need to know the code underlying it. The same goes for GURPS character points. You can play without them.

There's one more thing. Steve Jackson Games just has to start not using such bad art in every single book. I'd rather have no art than the stuff they use most of the time. (This goes especially for art that depicts images of Kickstarter patrons as adventurers, nearly ruining some products for me.) I don't like the role that art plays in the success and failure of games, but there's no denying it: new players are sparked by cool art.


Okay, this post has turned out to be a lot more about GURPS than I had intended, but I think the initial point is still true:

D&D characters have a lot of stats!

There's a lot to keep track of for a brand-new D&D player, with confusing and nearly useless stuff all over the character sheet, and it's not nearly as simple as fans of the good old days sometimes think.

Sure, early D&D rules are much simpler than a lot of later systems, but, then again, complexity in a character sheet is of two kinds.

(1) There's mandatory complexity, the stuff every single player has to keep track of.

(2) Then there's modular complexity, the stuff that only matters to the players who have those modular features in their characters.

D&D is more complex than GURPS when it comes to mandatory complexity: numbers for odd things that every player must track. (A separate number for "Save versus Wands"?) GURPS is more complex than old editions of D&D when it comes to modular complexity: things that players track only to distinguish their individual character.

Players have their strong preferences, but I bet I could explain a simple GURPS character sheet and basic GURPS mechanics to a new player more simply than I could explain how a B/X D&D character sheet works.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Alternative Spell Rules for Knave

Knave is a light rules toolkit by Ben Milton compatible with old versions of D&D and their clones. It was released in 2018 (before I got back into adventure games).

Only recently did I get around to looking at it closely. I think it's pretty neat.

One of its best features is the open invitation to modify the rules.

One kind of fantasy adventure game rule that I dislike generally is "spells per day" and the related "Vancian magic." The rules of Knave require a PC to have a spellbook and to read it out to cast a spell, but spells work only once per day. Why?

I found a lot of alternative rules for Knave on the internet, but none that addressed this issue.

I prefer spell rules that make casting spells a risk to resources used at will rather than a built-in power that works X times per day.

So, I thought of some alternative spell rules for Knave that suit my preferences. They also give PCs a new use for their INT score.

With this rule alternative, PCs can even learn spells when they gain a level, and subsequently can take the risk to cast a spell without wielding an associated spell book. That said, they will never have the degree of magical power that a real wizard possesses. True wizards remain powerful and mysterious NPCs, as they are in many works of fantasy fiction. 

Another thing about Knave's spell rules that confused me was the need to carry a whole spellbook to use a spell that a PC can read out in one round of action. I understand the design motive to turn a spell-slot mechanic into an item that has encumbrance value and taxes a PC's resources. My alternative rules sheet suggests a rationale for why spellbooks are this way in Knave. (In fact, I prefer to use a variety of spell-bestowing objects--scrolls, wands, runestones, and other objects, rather than whole books--but spellbooks are iconic and cool, and they have their place.)

If you try these alternative rules, let me know how they work for you.

Here they are!

Friday, April 2, 2021

From consecutive dice to 2x1d6 grid to d66

In the last post, I was probing for the earliest use of d66 (where the first die counts as the tens place and the second counts as the ones, but numerals go only from 1 to 6). With help from friendly visitors, I was sent looking for the first edition of Traveller, from 1977.

They were right! Traveller, Book 3, used a primitive version of d66.

There I found this chart, shown below, which may be the earliest use of d66 in the rules of a role-playing game. The book puts it not as Toon's rules did in 1984, as "tens-and-ones," nor did either call it "d66." Traveller says instead, "Throw two dice consecutively, and index the result to the table." (Book 3, p. 19; table on p. 21) The blank space on the table means no encounter if you roll a 6 for the first die. Notice how the table is (oddly, to me) filled out with blank space for all "first die = 6" results.


On the next page (p. 22), though, we find a table of patron encounters, in which the use of two consecutive six-sided dice is presented as a grid rather than as consecutive numerals.


My hunch is that this second format is the earlier one, conceptually. The bigger chart above resorted to listing the two dice as digits in order (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, etc.) because each result was keyed to too much information, requiring too many columns, to be fit into a 6x6 grid (really 7x7 if we take into account the heads of column and rows). When the chart became too big, another format was called for, which we see in the Random Person table: consecutive dice digits.

This suggests that the d66 format arose in d6-only games as a convenience of presentation, or, in other words, to facilitate typesetting, layout, and ease of use. It was only a matter of time before somebody (like Toon's author, Costikyan) would suggest reading the two numerals as tens-place and ones-place digits, reading the results as "eleven, twelve," etc. That opened the way for the conventional name "d66" to be coined on the analogy of d100.

Common solutions to shared problems

When I first began to typeset my own home rules, I used consecutive d6s in the pattern that is now called d66 (without knowing it) to lay out random charts for character generation. Because my rules were inspired by Fighting Fantasy, another FF-derived set of rules, Troika!, was additionally inspirational here when it came to character generation, which uses d66 for random generation of character templates. (The use of character templates in the original Talislanta RPG of 1987, and the character professions of the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay of 1986, were just as much in my mind here.)

I immediately encountered the problem of presentation on the page, so I started to lay out my fuller charts with consecutive dice results (though I use dice with pips and not numerals). At that point, I remembered the "tens-and-ones" of Toon. Soon afterwards I found that lots of new indie games were using d66 or variants of it, from Ben Milton's Maze Rats to Idle Doodler's Off-White Cube to the splashy Mörk Borg (and you should check them all out). Turns out that for one of the few times in my life, I was doing something currently popular, but I didn't know it. More power to the D6!

On reflection, though, it's not surprising that the "d66" would be invented several times over independently. The "d66" solution is an almost obvious creative response to three impulses that constrain each other: (1) the wish to randomize character or world set-up with dice, combined with (2) insistence on d6 only, combined with (3) the necessity of clear, simple layout on a finite page.

Because I missed Traveller in my early days of gaming, I had no idea that the same problem (layout on the page) had led to the same solution. I'm willing to bet that most of the game designers who resorted to d66 didn't know it, either.

Here below is a snip from my own fantasy game home rules. My grid was not based consciously on anybody else's (though I must have seen such tables). It was an outcome of design decisions. It looks uncannily like Traveller's random patron table from 1977, doesn't it? That's not so strange. It's just 6 by 6 with headers for columns and rows, in this case divided into two registers because it grew too long horizontally. The numerical parameters come from my choices to use six-sided dice only and to randomize this aspect of character generation.


Or take for example this chart from my home rules, used optionally to generate characterizations, which, if used, can be more game-mechanical (like rules-light versions of disadvantages in GURPS) or merely rule-less descriptors, as the Referee decides.

The point here, at the end, is that role-playing gamers continually reinvent the same solutions to common problems based on constraints adopted in common. And that's not a bad thing. It's partly why we can so easily shift from one set of game rules to another and it's pretty much the same hobby. But this realization shows that in-hobby interest in the earliest games potentially has more to teach us about game design and table-top RPG play styles. Why reinvent solutions when we can excavate them? Both are fun. As I have remarked many times, there was a lot of variety from the start of role-playing games, no distinct, original way of doing things.