Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Give Abilities Their Due

I had a look at the much vaunted 4e D&D books that were released this month, and I’ll just make a quick review. First and foremost, I’ll start with two words: white space.

Lots of it. The books appear to be printed in 12-point font, with an inch-wide border around the outside…so while they are pretty hefty tomes, big and bold with more than 200 pages each, they aren’t very dense.

Another word? Try “pabulum.” As in, not for the serious player. The first 35 pages of the DMs Guide is apparently an effort to explain a game that I haven’t needed to be explained to me in three decades. Which—I believe—everyone who would vaguely consider buying the books probably don’t need either. Glancing through the Players Handbook and the DMG, mostly what I find is simple-Simon text for the addle-pated. But there are many, many pages…it will take time to squeeze out of them anything actually useful.

I’ve no doubt given the impression that my interest in 1st Edition has left me blind to later books. Not true. While I don’t pay full price for them (I’ve found most of my copies at junk sales), I do read them and try to use whatever I can find to augment the game I play.

The rules I follow defining the D&D characters my players play are recognizable as 1st edition, but hardly limited to it. I’ve tried new rules, sometimes keeping them or tossing them, depending on their satisfactory addition to the overall concept. I’m open to new ideas. I would like it if they were good ideas.

The d20 concept was, obviously, a very BAD idea. The adoption of any method that would seriously randomize the likely results was certain to reward weak-thinking players and punish smart-thinking players—and it would bring everyone into the middle ground (which was, no doubt, the idea the developers had…especially since 4e appears bent on going that further).

The game has NEVER been about the die roll. It is about the possible vs. the impossible. The DM judges, reasonably, what is possible as opposed to what is not; that judgment should NOT be made by a dice roll.

Okay, there are occasions when the dice applies: for instance, a thief climbing a wall. But if that thief should decide to jump the five foot gap between the wall and the building, there should not be any need to calculate the likelihood. Shit, at eight I could make a five-foot leap. Reducing every part of a character’s action to its % chance was sheer lunacy.

Another example? A fourth level bard enters a village of 500 people and begins to play. D20 rules tell me that I’m supposed to calculate some number which says the bard will impress the town…and then have the bard roll a 20-sided die to see if he achieves that level by the modified number shown.

A little demographic analysis, please. I estimate that, on average, about 2-3% of the population of my world has leveled status; this is higher than others have given (1% is pretty standard), but let’s use my number.

Out of every hundred leveled persons, I estimate about 1-2% are bards, depending on the cultural level of the region. France, obviously, would have more bards per leveled humanoids than sub-Saharan Africa.

Furthermore, let’s admit that it’s harder to be 4th level than it is to be 1st. Let’s be generous and call the ratio 4:1…though obviously 8:1 is more likely.

That means that there is a 4th level bard for every 10,667 residents of the kingdom. Um, impress a village of five hundred people? Are you fucking kidding me?

Understanding the characters people play begins with understanding that the skills the classes employ are not chance representations of ability. Plumbers do not “statistically” succeed in fixing toilets. Architects do not “statistically” construct ordinary houses. When I was 15, I successfully shot a set of rapids in a canoe, after three days of canoe experience—I was never in any physical danger, it was just very exciting. No doubt my inexperienced half-elven cleric would have had to “roll a die.”

The earlier example of a thief climbing a wall should involve a die roll only if there is some mitigating factor which would make that wall difficult to climb—being 300 feet high, for example; or being sheer with few handholds; or someone firing arrows at the thief while he or she climbs. I would not have the thief roll to climb an ordinary two-story building—that would be idiocy.

And yet there are DMs out there who insist everything is a die roll. Which baffles me, at best.

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