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GAME AESTHETICS: THEME VS. MECHANICS

Theme [theem] (Noun)

  1. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

Mechanics [muhkan-iks] (Noun)

  1. the technical aspect or working part; mechanism; structure.

I chose these definitions carefully, to delineate the difference between the overarching aesthetic experience versus the underlying game engine that makes gameplay possible. Normally, theme and mechanics work together to provide a complete gameplay experience, especially where licensed properties, like Firefly or Doctor Who, are concerned. But this is not strictly the case in every instance.

There are, for example, games in which the accurate depiction of the theme is the main source of interest for the player, and the mechanics are really only there as a means to reinforce the theme rather than provide ludic interest. The purest form of this (Theme 4, if you will) would be a game of ‘pretend’ like the childhood games of Cops & Robbers or Doctor’s & Daleks, where there are no mechanical underpinnings to the games at all, and play proceeds based upon whatever the group agrees will reinforce the illusion of being a masked bandit, or genocidal cyborg with a plunger and egg whisk for arms.

Too. Darned. Cute…

 

On the other hand, there are games in which the interesting interplay of game mechanics, and the skill at handling those mechanics determines the ‘fun’ level of the game. In some cases, the mechanics define the gameplay experience so thoroughly that any theme laid over them is only so much window dressing. The pure form of this (again, off the end of our scale at Mechanics 4), would be building a car. Unless the mechanics function in perfect alignment, car no go! And the joy of driving is entirely predicated on the mechanical quality of the car and the driver interaction with it.

A Chevy Nova. It literally “No Go…”

Let’s look at a few examples, one that exemplifies Theme over Mechanics, one at the opposite end of that scale, and one that represents a good balance between the two.

THEME 3: THE TIME LORD RPG (1991)

Back in the very early nineties, two years after the original series had bowed out, Ian Marsh and Virgin Publishing released a Doctor Who role-playing game: Time Lord – Create Your Own Adventures in Time and Space.

This was the second such attempt at an RPG based upon the series, and it couldn’t have been more different from its predecessor in design. Whereas the first RPG was simply a restatement of the generic set of RPG rules used in FASA’s previous game, Star Trek, with a Doctor Who make-over, Time Lord was built from the ground up to mechanically reflect the realities of the Doctor Who television series.

Almost every rule reinforced the theme, with little care as to how things worked outside of television reality. Genre Tropes of the series were given mechanical life, like the Screaming special ability, which allowed a companion to cry out for help (and be heard) across any distance, through miles of tunnels and labyrinths, or even across the gulfs of space (someone luckily left a communicator open, or something), so that the Doctor could come to their aid. It could even be used as a weapon, in some cases (as it was in the episode Fury from the Deep). Silly? Possibly, but very in character for the television series.

Another good example existed within the combat system. As long as a character is moving or behind cover, it is exceedingly hard to hit them with gunfire. Even when they are one area away! Again, silly? Not if you take into account the fact that, due to the restrictive size of the studio spaces the production team had to work with, almost all the firefights on the show took place within scant yards of each other, but few people got hit (unless a group of enemies concentrated their fire on a single target, like an extra or tragic supporting character, which is also covered in the rules).

Add extensive rules for scientific research (including an in-game time segment known as the Research Turn), cutting through doors and walls (a common way to create tension in the series), and creating MacGuffins (pseudoscientific devices or solutions that resolve the story), and you can see that Time Lord is an excellent example of a game that can easily be rated Theme 3.

T♎M: FIREFLY – THE BOARDGAME

Like a lot of folks, Firefly really pressed all the right aesthetic buttons for me, and I was a might irritated when it was cancelled due to corporate shenanigans at Fox. So when Gale Force 9 released a licensed board game, I was right in line to get a copy.

The issue with licensed properties, from my perspective, is trying to strike that balance between theme and mechanics. I want the game to reflect the goings on in that particular fictional universe, but at the same time, I don’t want Candyland with Browncoats and images from the show instead of gingerbread men and candy themed aesthetics (“Damn! I’m stuck in the Reaver Swamps of Miranda again!”)

The Firefly Board Game, however, manages to hit both sides of the equation pretty equally. The objectives and overall aesthetics do a great job of capturing the theme of the series (“Get a ship, get a crew, keep flying”), but also presents a variety of interesting mechanical twists that keep the game interesting and challenging from a ludic perspective.

One of the key ways I think you can judge the balance of a game like this is to consider how well the mechanics function with a stylistically similar theme. For example, the Firefly mechanics could also, with very few tweaks, be suitable for a game of 18th century piracy on the high seas, or maybe even a mob family type game. They are too linked to the thematic essence of small time transport/smuggling missions and operations to be useful for, say, a global conquest or economics game (not without a great deal of modification, at any rate), but within that limited thematic scheme, you could reskin the game fairly easily.

MECHANICS 3: MONOPOLY

Monopoly is the board game boogeyman for many folks, and for certain ludologists, it is the perfect example of how not to design a game. I tend to find this opinion over-exaggerated, especially since very few people have ever actually played the game according to its actual rules, relying instead on the oral tradition passed down for generations: the erroneous Free Parking rule alone can be said to account for much of its reputation as an extremely long and frustrating game. And yet, even with that reputation, it is still one of the best selling and most well known board games in the world, having spawned hundreds, if not thousands of variations.

But, just how different, mechanically speaking, are those variations?

For the most part, that answer is: not at all. No matter what version of Monopoly you are playing, whether it’s Star Wars Monopoly, Harry Potter-opoly, or Dallas Cowboys-opoly, you still roll two dice, move your pawn in a clockwise direction around a board separated into exactly the same number of squares, buy, rent or sell property, or draw cards. It doesn’t matter whether the game’s currency is in dollars, Galleons, or Imperial Galactic Credits, you still get 200 of them when you pass “Go,” and the most expensive property on the board, whether it be Hogwarts, the Death Star, or Dallas Cowboy Stadium (which, funnily enough, many of us here in Texas also call the Death Star), is still to the right of that space.

So as you can see, the theme of the game is pretty much inconsequential to the gameplay, itself. There might be minor mechanical variations to an individual version of the game (like Doctor Who’s 60 minute speed play variation), but it is extremely rare for those to make enough of a difference to change the basic play of the game, which is recognizably Monopoly, and is of little mechanical use for anything else. Aesthetically speaking, you don’t ‘feel’ like a wizard/jedi/Dallas Cowboy when playing, and nothing about the buying and selling of property to try and bankrupt your opponents fits particularly well with any of the above, thematically speaking. This makes Monopoly an iconic example of Mechanics 3.

COMING NEXT…

If you have any comments or suggestions on the material covered here, feel free to sound off in the comments section. I’m always open to new points of view on what is, after all, a very complex subject. I’ve already had one commentator on Facebook provide me with some insight that actually changed my perspective on the subject of the next post: Simplicity vs. Complexity, which is actually a much more complex and deep subject than you might imagine…

GAME AESTHETICS: INTRODUCTION…

So, school is out for the summer, and my attention is now (partially) freed up to work on some of my extant projects. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the second draft of my Donjons & Dragoons RPG experiment, getting prepared to iron out Defensive schemes for my (soon to be done done) Quarterback Blitz boardgame, and am finally ready to continue regular blog updates, starting with this one, the first part of a series on my ever evolving theory of Game Aesthetics.

WHY?

Well, that is the real question, isn’t it? Aesthetics is all about understanding the principles behind taste and the perception of beauty, and to do that we have to ask ‘why?’ Why do I like this? Why do I hate that? Why do I feel meh about the other?

Why should you care about this? Because understanding the ‘why’ of your aesthetics helps you to make more rational decisions about how you allocate your time and resources. And when it comes to the finer (i.e. more expensive) things in life, this is an invaluable skill.

But to be able to intelligently ask that question, one not only has to understand themselves, but the qualities of the thing that they are passing aesthetic judgement on. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is a valid argument only in so much as it defines what turns you off and on, but does nothing to help you understand how one type of artifact is perfectly acceptable to you but another, seemingly similar one, is not. Furthermore, when you lack understanding of the subject, it hampers your ability when it comes to creating a similar artifact of your own, and tailoring it for specific demographics.

DUDE, WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH GAMES?

Games, like paintings, or sculpture, or music, or wine, or any other art form, have measurable qualities. Now, the measure of these qualities is subjective, to be sure, and what is slightly nasty to one person might be extremely nasty to another, and heaven on earth to yet another.

However, within some set variation, we can create a basis from which we can more easily estimate whether or not a game might appeal more to player A or player B, and target our design towards one or both.

So, in the end, applying the study of aesthetics towards games is not only good for helping you to become a more informed consumer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could save), it can also make you a better, and more focused, designer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could earn).

BUT FIRST…

One of the big questions that almost every academic in game theory seems obsessed with is the definition of what, exactly, a game is. Seriously, the pursuit for the Ultimate Answer™ to this question seems to spark more unnecessary debate than Gamergate, and several folks are pursuing it as though finding the answer will somehow enlighten humanity as to the true meaning of life, the universe, and everything (or, at least, prove how much smarter they are than everyone else).

And I couldn’t care less.

For the record, the only qualifier for the title ‘game’ that seems to hold up to any kind of prolonged scrutiny or argument is that it needs to be ‘interactive,’ in the sense that you ‘play’ it. Everything else just seems like excessive harping over lingual minutia and general philosophical twaddle. Folks can argue that point all they want, but for me, the pursuit of this Holy Grail of a definition seems to be about the most boring (and ultimately pointless) thing in game theory.

So what I prefer to do is move the conversation away from that and onto the more interesting question of why we play games, and to facilitate that discussion, I’m just going to assume that we all know what a ‘game’ is, in the broadest sense.

STRUCTURE

When I first started thinking about game aesthetics and trying to isolate some common qualities that could be universally understood as aesthetic in relation to gameplay, it quickly became apparent that many of these qualities existed in opposition to each other. For example, a game can give a player many options for how to proceed during play (agency), but if many of those options are ‘false choices,’ obvious decisions between something obviously good and something glaringly stupid, and/or the results of all of those choices leads you to only a one or two possible endgames/outcomes, isn’t the game actually very linear, with only the illusion of true agency?

This led to my construction of dyadic sets of aesthetics, based on a sliding scale of 1-3 towards one side or the other, with a ♎ indicating both aspects were in balance (I originally used a 0, but that was often misinterpreted as meaning neither quality existed!). This scale presumes that there is one more step beyond each end, that represents some non-game variation on the quality. For example, in an Agency vs. Linearity measurement, Agency 4 would represent endless choices, factors of influence, and endgames beyond the ability of modern game mechanics to properly represent. Linearity 4, however, would represent the total lack of ability to affect the outcome, as one would find in a standard novel.

And again, these ratings are all very subjective: subject to personal opinion, the possible permutations of complex gameplay mechanics, and so on, but that is actually a strength. A game like Rising Sun might be designed with only a few true randomized elements, but the complexity of the system interactions, and the chaos unleashed across the board by certain moves or events, can often make it seem highly indeterminate and hostile to long-term strategy, which might make it extremely unpopular with the Eurogame crowd (and elicit laughter when people try to relate it to Diplomacy). But, despite this skewing of perception by personal experience, there is an average opinion that can be extrapolated from all of this, which can serve as some sort of clue as to how a game ‘feels,’ and that information can be very useful.

THE DYADS

I have identified six aesthetic dyads that seem to hold true for most games (or at least all the ones I have every played). They are:

Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player Skill vs. Mechanical Skill

I’ll discuss the first one in my next post on the subject…

OLD SCHOOL IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL (PART 3)…

When I was 12, I was living in a children’s home in Waco. One of the security guys at the place, Warren, was working there part time as he attended college. Warren took an interest in me and taught me how to play my guitar, made sure I got to play at Church on Sunday, and generally took the role of a ‘big brother’ in my life at a time when my birth mother had all but abandoned me.

One day, when at a flea market somewhere in that area, I had found a copy of the Expert set, still shrink-wrapped, for $2.50. I was fascinated by the game, having heard about it in the past from people who played it, and having seen numerous ads for it in Omni, Games, and other magazines at the time. I had even managed to procure the little pocket electronic game, the one where you had to find a magic arrow and then use the process of elimination to find the dragon and shoot the arrow into its room to kill it. So I was primed, and the cover artwork dragged me in as surely as the grapple in that tiny electronic game.

Of course, it was the Expert set, so I couldn’t make heads or tales of the basic play. Didn’t matter: I was fascinated, and even made a number of dungeons (which were more funhouse sites than anything that made coherent sense), despite not having the full rules to run them. Warren noticed the set one day, and told me that he was a D&D player, and would run a game for me and a few of the boys at the home…

Unfortunately, the administrators caught wind of the game and, having been advised by people from the American Psychiatric Association that D&D could lead to Very Bad Things™, cancelled the game (yes, for those of you who constantly seem to want to drag out and beat Pat Pulling’s corpse on a yearly basis, you can also blame the psychiatrists, who were against it before they were for it).

The point of all of that is to relate my experience, as a middle-schooler back in the early eighties, to that of modern middle schoolers, in particular, the ones I ran the game for, and compare the two.

WHERE TO START?

I admit, I’m a nostalgic old bastard, and I like to stick to the basics. So for a kid’s first game of D&D, I like to start them off with a basic module from the early days of the game. There are a lot of reasons:

  1. They are tried and true. After almost 4 decades, I know them, and can run a game with them at the drop of a hat.
  2. The best examples are not written with any particular ‘story’ in mind, but are, instead, little sandboxes that provide the DM and players with a lot of agency. Many of them, like B2, pack more potential in 32 pages than many modern ‘story’ adventures do in 128. As I told someone recently, it’s all about reading between the lines and being ready to react and roll with whatever the dice and the players’ actions stir up.
  3. I enjoy seeing someone else experience the environment that so enthralled me as a beginner, and then see them put their own spin on it. It’s like seeing it through new eyes, again and again. This is especially relevant when running the game for the modern middle schooler: can I recreate the wonder I experienced for kids who grew up as digital citizens?

Normally, I would go with B2: The Keep on the Borderlands for this, but not knowing how the modern middle schooler would handle the wide open agency of B2, I decided to go with a slightly more linear Mega-Dungeon, or at least, the closest thing B/X offered at the time, B4: The Lost City, to get them familiarized with the basic game tropes and way of doing things.

B4 is, of course, another classic, and a great way to really force the players into the survival mindset that so typifies the 1st through 3rd level experience of B/X. There is no safe haven for them to return to, there is only the desert and the dungeon, and their survival depends on their thoroughly exploring the latter and making alliances with some of the other parties within. That last bit is very important: you can’t just run through the pyramid putting the smack down on everything you meet! You need the Cynidiceans to help you stay alive, and that means learning about their culture and helping them with their problems, which generates at least 6 levels worth of adventures all on its own (if the DM expands the dungeon as suggested).

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS…

The initial party was 8 kids strong, with a smattering of every class represented at least once. I carefully explained how gameplay worked, and how to question me about their environment before they made decisions. As with any group of teenagers, there are those who naturally take the lead and those who must be prompted, but after an initial warm-up period in the desert to get everyone making decisions on their own, they found the lost city, and began exploring the top of the pyramid.

The first thing that struck me, was how easily many of them slipped into the investigative mode of dungeon exploration. They took the descriptions I gave them and really started to dissect their environment. Some were curious about the statues at the top of the structure. Others examined the perimeter of its base and discovered the secret door. They then asked about a dozen questions about the hobgoblin corpse (including the inevitable “Is there anything valuable on it”).

You really saw how seriously some of them took this facet of play when you watched the lone thief scout out the way forward. He checked every corner, came up with creative ways to open the door into the inner chamber, and checked the handles of every one of the brass cylinders before finally choosing to turn the handle on one. You would think that, after he missed the pit trap in the floor and plummeted to his doom, he would have soured on playing thieves, but no. His next character, another caravan traveller who wandered in from the desert a bit later, was a thief. This kid truly grokked the spirit of the game.

The second thing that struck me about this batch of kids, is how little they understood the power of teamwork in the game. The gas trap, for example, set them scampering left and right, every man for themselves, in panic mode. Because of of this, at least two more characters died, one from trying to figure out and stop the gas by himself (he didn’t and the gas would plague a number of other unfortunates who came into the room later), the other from going unconscious and being unceremoniously dropped down a ladder without anyone to catch him below.

The battle against the fire beetles below fared little better, but at least half of them made it into the machinery room alive after several flasks of lantern oil were sacrificed to set the little beggars alight.

Now, I have to say at this point that this is almost exactly the same problem we had back in the day. As middle schoolers, our overactive hormones, mixed with our sense of excitement over this new type of game, led to many similar catastrophes. My very first character, a Halfling Thief (Warren used a mix of B/X and AD&D) died at least twice, and only survived due to the generous ‘inheritance’ of 1 healing potion that each of our characters received at the beginning of the game. Why did I keep dying? Because, in my excitement I kept rushing in to bad situations. And there was also that whole ‘Bree Yark!’ thing (and if you’ve played B2, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Thus ended their first session, with 4 dead party members, and their first true taste of old school gaming. They took to it with enthusiasm and were chomping at the bit for the next session.

THE HALLWAY…

After some time exploring the forge area, the party was joined by another group of travelers from the caravan (basically, at this point, I allowed character replacements to come in from the desert in staggered groups) and the exploration continued. They chose the NW door and made their way up and around to the northern hallway, which contained a number of interesting doors for them to explore. They rested in a room full of old crates, and the thief, scouting ahead, discovered the room with green slime (I switch rooms 5 & 8, so they found that one first). He managed to avoid the slime through careful examination before entering the room, guessing that the green goo was not good to walk through, and seeing nothing else of value, closed the door.

It was then that they ran into their first wandering monster party: a band of goblins coming around the bend caught the thief by surprise as he closed the door to the green slime room. To my surprise, the first thing he did was try to negotiate with the critters, offering food in exchange for friendship. Unfortunately, the wee beasties decided (due to a really bad roll on the reaction table) that whatever he had to offer could be had more easily and cheaply off of his dead body. They, of course, didn’t know that he had several comrades around the corner, so when the thief chose the better part of valor and ran, they gave pursuit.

A rare showing of coordination between the members of the party soon put the goblins down, with archers shooting from the rear, and an elf with a 2-handed sword making great account of himself. The kids basked in their victory and looted the bodies, which I actually chose to use a higher treasure type for, as this was their first real wandering encounter and they handled it so well. this gave them some gold and, miraculously enough, a magic item: a crystal ball! Maybe I was a bit too generous, but they never even tried the crystal, and they wouldn’t get nearly so nice a haul off of future goblins, so no harm done. A good end to their second session.

… OF ENDLESS DOOM.

They never got out of that hall.

For some reason, they just couldn’t decide what to do in the next session and, after opening a door that revealed a room with pixies, they argued for a time on what to do. One player was heavily offended that the pixies didn’t like him and spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to ‘get’ them. They flew into a tiny vent at the top of one of the corners of the room and he spent a good deal of effort stuffing ancient fireworks into the hole to try and smoke them out.

Another group decided to smash everything in the room, including the jars in the hall outside it. This of course, prompted several wandering monster checks and, sure enough, another troupe of goblins came around the corner to investigate. But this time, the cooperation was almost non-existent. The kids went into panic mode, again, all looking to claim the glory, or save their skins, as their personalities dictated, but few coordinated their attacks. The elf with the two-handed sword, emboldened by his previous success, threw himself right into the middle of the goblins and, despite his dexterity and armor, was brought low by a sneaky stab from behind.

That, followed by the felling of the party dwarf, brought them back to their senses, and after a loss of yet one more party member, they managed to finish the little blighters off. They were mighty disappointed at the meager change earned off the goblin corpses, and gained far more by stripping their dead comrades. Damaged and spent, they closed the door to the fireworks room and prepared to rest for the night.

Their lookout, an elf who busied himself with searching for secret doors while the others slept, managed to hear some scuttling noises and whispering outside the door. For whatever reason, he decided to draw his weapon, but didn’t wake the rest of the party up. And as he party had done nothing to keep the door shut, no spiking, no barring, not even moving some boxes in the way, the goblins burst in en masse and started to attack the group.

Like the goblins that attacked them, it was brutish, ugly and short.

LESSONS LEARNED?

The kids learned some valuable lessons about teamwork and general dungeoneering practices (always spike those doors shut!), and had a great time doing it. The view that “kids these days wouldn’t have the patience or imagination for the old school manner of play,” is clearly not borne out by my experience. It might explain why 4E, a more video-gamey experience, didn’t fare so well, and 5E is a (partial) call back to the previous of doing things, with a lot of old school ethos behind its design.

I had a lot of fun sharing my experience with them, and watching them puzzle it out on their own with un-jaded eyes. There are a few things that really stand out about dealing with kids this age, though:

  1. Short sessions are a must. One thing I can say about the modern kid is their attention spans for this sort of thing are much shorter. About an hour in they start to get ‘punchy’ and wound up beyond the ability to play rationally, and an hour and a half is about the limit.
  2. I never understood the wisdom of the ‘Caller’ position before, and I don’t personally know anyone who ever considered using it. After the last three sessions, however, it is clear that this is the only way to go with the modern middle schooler. Take the bickering and shouting back and forth of yesteryear, multiply it by about 5, and add a mental image of me rubbing my eyes with exhaustion (something Warren never did), and you get the picture. Putting the power of the Caller in the hands of the most ‘mature’ player, and giving them a time limit that ends in a wandering monster check, definitely helps to speed the game along.
  3. The design decisions to make D&D characters more survivable, by tripling their HP at first level, healing surges, or what-not to keep the modern gamer interested in the game? Needless. These kids all rolled their starting hit points. Some had 1 to start with. They littered that pyramid with their characters bodies… and they loved it. If anything, the video game generation is quite used to the concept of a character meatgrinder, and took the rolling of a new character as a fun mini-game. I also explained before the game the whole concept of the ‘Greek Gods & Heroes’ paradigm of looking at their characters, the nature of legend (for every Conan, there are 999 failed adventurers whose skeletons serve as the set dressing for the dungeons the PCs are exploring), and how gratifying it is to have that first character reach level 2, not by artificial inflation of stats, HP or XP, but by sheer player cunning (player skill over mechanical skill) and a little bit of luck.

WHAT’S NEXT?

After the TPK, the kids wanted to continue on, but as the school year is about over, I decided to put D&D away (for now) and introduce them to some other old school games. And as Infinity War was around the corner, I chose out TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG. They are loving it. At this early stage, during character introductions, they are spending more time fighting each other than the bad guys, but they’ve just stumbled onto a pawn shop robbery and are starting to focus their attention on the three thieves, Lawrence, Maurice and Curly, and wondering how those knuckleheads managed to get their hands on advanced weaponry.

Next year, I’m planning on splitting up the Game Club into two clubs: the regular board-game club, and The Adventurers Guild: a roleplaying club with a standing Mega-Dungeon in the Gygaxian/Arnesonian paradigm, that anyone can explore on a weekly basis. That should be a lot of fun…

OLD SCHOOL IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL (PART 2)…

Wizard

As mentioned previously, I am both a middle school CTE teacher, and adjunct professor, so I’ve been pretty busy, lately, especially as I am also responsible for the school yearbook, which is finally done, hallelujah! So the game club has had another couple of sessions since my last post, and provided me with some interesting perspectives on what it must have been like for my first game master, a college guy named Warren, who worked at the Waco children’s home I lived in, way back in the day.

But before I get in to that, I’ll finish up on the house rules discussion started in part 1.

MAGIC & MIRACLES

While INT and WIS bonuses do have a purpose, I’ve always found it odd that they didn’t have an impact on spell casting in B/X. So, while I stick to the rules for most things magical in the game, I allow Wizards a bonus spell and spell slot based on their intelligence bonus. A small boon, but one that makes being an intelligent wizard a bit more advantageous than extra languages and XP bonuses.

Clerics get the same, but only after they pick up their first spell at level 2. I like the idea of an Acolyte not having access to Miracles (what I call cleric spells) at first, especially as they have the combat skills and weaponry to make up for it.

I also use a ‘cantrip’ type rule based on something I once read on Philotomy’s OD&D Musings blog (which is, sadly, no longer online). Basically, while holding a stored spell, the Magic-User may manifest small ‘special effects’ related to it, by making an Intelligence test (see below). For example, if holding fire based spell, a MU might use some of that stored energy to light his pipe with his finger. A person holding a Charm spell could get a +1 to their rolls on personal interaction, and a person with a sleep spell could use a small smidgen of that energy to make a nearby orc guard drowsy and easier to surprise.

Finally, I allow Magic-Users to make scrolls at 1st Level. A simple little rules change that allows them to: a. get more bang for their buck out of their limited spell repertoire; b. make them spend those hard earned coins; and c. gives them a reason to use weird spells, like Ventriloquism, which they would normally ignore due to limited spell slots.

ATTRIBUTE/SKILL ROLLS

I’m not a big fan of tacking skills systems onto D&D. I like to keep my games fast and loose, without a lot of extra information to keep track of, especially for the players. In addition to that, I find that a lot of mechanical cruft tends to make the players think, well, mechanically. During the 3E and later editions, it drove me to nuts watching players spend more time staring at their character sheets looking for mechanical answers to problems, than trying to imagine the situations their characters were actually involved in and come up with solutions based on that.

It is much simpler, and flavorful, in my mind, to assume that most characters can use their basic attributes to accomplish most basic tasks. For specialized tasks I defer to the class system. A fighter, for example, would be the one to call on to analyze a tactical situation, while a wizard would be versed in legends and lore, and the cleric would be your go-to guy for ecumenical questions. Basically, if the player can justify it, I let them roll for it.

In addition, I allow the players to have a ‘background’ profession, that represents their life before taking up their adventuring career. Anything from blacksmith, to banker, to beggar, to simple farmer. But, to save time and present a sense of mystery, they don’t define that at character creation. They basically come up with it on the fly, as the game goes on, developing the character’s past as they go, and grow. So if they come upon an ancient forge in the depths of a cave, one of the players might say “this reminds me of my youth as a blacksmith’s apprentice.” At that point, they have justified the ability to make skill rolls for that background and better defined their character’s in the process.

Of course, this is all down to DM fiat, and I will quickly nix any attempt to combine backgrounds for every occasion in a random hodgepodge of ‘memories.’ You say you were a glass-blower’s apprentice? Don’t think so, you already said you were a blacksmith’s apprentice.

I do encourage memories to build on each other, however. For example, you say as a blacksmith’s apprentice you worked in a village near a dwarven enclave, so you could recognize basic dwarven runes? That fits, you can roll to see if you can read that runic inscription carved in the wall. You say you had a real problem with Ankeghs in your area when you were a farmer? Well, I’ll give you a roll to remember best how to fight them

As for how the skill rolls work? Simple. I’ve already mentioned how I like bell curves, and attributes are generated using 3D6, so that is what I use for skill rolls. Roll 3D6, add your attribute, and try to score 21+. Again, I an easily make this roll easier or harder, depending on the situation, by adding or subtracting dice from the roll, just like thief skills.

COMBAT

B/X covers weapon & shield, and two-handed weapons already, but what about two-weapon fighting? Again drawing from Philotomy’s well, I like to allow characters with a 13+ Dexterity to gain a +1 to hit when using a weapon in each hand.

STONES

Encumbrance is burdensome to most adults, much less middle schoolers, so I’m going with the Stones System. Smaller numbers. Nice medieval flavor. What’s not to like?

[SARCASM] THAT’S ALL? [/SARCASM]

Yeah, it took two posts to lay out the changes, but these are minor and few in number, relatively speaking. There are folks who make a lot more extensive changes to the RAW, and with farther reaching consequences. The Attribute/Skill rolls aren’t even discussed in B/X, left as something that DM’s had to figure out on their own.

Next post will be about the kids and their games so far, with a little reflection on how things compare with my middle school games…

OLD SCHOOL IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL (Part 1)…

I design games, but that’s not my day job. These days, my mild mannered, not-so secret identity is that of a Middle School Technology and Game Design teacher. I also run the after school Tabletop Game Club, initiating young’uns into the mysteries of games that don’t require a tablet, phone or computer (and, yes, that logo is a modified version of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop logo, that I made for the club).

Recently, I was asked by some of my club kids to run D&D for them. A couple had heard of it, and one had played an abortive game of 5E, but they were really curious about the old B/X set that I have sitting on the bookshelf behind my desk, and really interested in knowing how it was done ‘back in the day.’

Now, at first I was hesitant. I had already gotten the ‘Parent Concerned over D&D’ letter earlier in the year, for teaching my game design students about the historical context of the game. We didn’t play the game in class, I simply taught them how it not only influenced modern game design, but (along with Star Wars) moved fantasy and science fiction from the backwater kingdom of the nerd and into the mass media arena of popular entertainment. I did use it to teach them how procedural generation worked, why we use it, and where it originated, using the random dungeon, wilderness and encounter tables, but having them generate content is a far cry from having them play the game.

Still, class is class, and game club is game club, so I told them I’d run it for a little while, until they got the hang of it, and then let them take over.

WHICH VERSION TO USE?

There are dozens of versions of D&D out there when you count the originals, retro-clones, neo-clones, restatements, etc., but one thing was certain: no matter which version I used, we were going back to my old school (no Steely Dan reference intended): descriptive based play, with minimal rolling, and a healthy dose of DM fiat (or ‘Rulings not Rules,’ as the kids are calling it these days). In the end, though, I went with my favorite version: B/X.

Now, to get the full effect of the rules differences, I initially planned to run it RAW, but that was quickly abandoned as an absurd idea, since that really isn’t how the game was played. Ever, as far as I can tell. The beauty of the Basic series over the Advanced series was that it wasn’t locked into Gary’s vision of an FRPG Rosetta Stone that was to be strictly adhered to. It was a crazy DIY toolbox in the spirit of the original 1974 version, which is probably why, even though we added bits from the Advanced rules into it here and there, we stuck to the boxed sets as our primary rules source.

That being said, I didn’t want to go overboard until what we were playing was an unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster of a game (even though the kids would never know, as they don’t have to know thing one about the rules to play). So I stuck with the few house rules I consistently insist on, to cover the few warts the game presents for me.

THIEVES & THEIR SKILLS

I have a real dislike for percentile rolls. I understand that it is the best way to represent chance in the most direct fashion, but the thing that bothers me about it is the ‘ones’ die. If there were ever a perfect analog example of video game ‘Pixel Bitching,’ that is it. You already have the pass/fail of the Tens die (50% chance, did I roll over or under a 5?), but that isn’t the end of it, as you have to now pass a second die roll (I have a 55% chance, I passed the tens roll, now I have to roll under/above a 5 on the ones die). I don’t find missing my roll by a percentage point to be particularly dramatic. In fact, I find it highly annoying.

And B/X D&D makes it worst by starting off thieves with a ridiculously low probability for passing their rolls (except for Climb). So to remove traps, I have to roll a 1 on one die, and a 0 on the next. And even at level 3, when characters are finally hardy enough to actually have a better than average chance of surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the poor thief still has to roll a 2 or less on one die, and a 5 or less on the other. And in exactly that order.

Never have the ‘wages of sin’ been more clearly demonstrated then by the B/X thief, who is usually the first to die in the performance of his ‘profession.’ A perfect example of this can be found on page B59, as Black Dougal fails to find a poisoned needle trap, fails his save, dies, and has his body unceremoniously looted by his former party members, all in quick order.

BECMI is even worse in this regard, as it takes the 14 level stretch from 10% to 99% and extends it over 36 levels! Thieves show almost no improvement for level gain as a result. I hated playing thieves in BECMI.

I prefer a single roll, with simple numbers. Multiple dice are okay, so long as they are summed in some way, to create a nice bell curve. I like bell curves, because I like the idea that there is a middle level of ability where the apprentice goes from failing most of the time, to succeeding on average, and then becoming even more capable as they rise in level, as opposed to straight increments of success, as given by a single D20, or the grinding progression of the percentile rating. So I converted the probabilities for Thieves skills to 2D6 (with the exception of Hear, which remains 1D6).

This progression, which is loosely based on the original percentile progression, solves my problem and allows for a couple of other considerations, which help to make the thief more interesting for the player, and the DM.

First, the new progression provides the proper range to allow thieves to apply Ability Bonuses to their rolls. A Level 1 thief with a Dexterity bonus of +2, would need to roll an 8+ to succeed, for example. And I can determine which ability applies on the fly. So if they are picking a lock, and I determine that bypassing this particular lock is more about brute strength, they apply their Strength bonus instead.

I can also make the task easier or harder by adding or subtracting D6s to the roll instead of messing about with +/- modifiers (especially fiddly percentile ones). A particularly fiendish lock, made by a master gnomish locksmith for a special door, might reduce the number of dice rolled to 1, requiring a level 5-9 thief (depending on Dex bonus) to open! Or, if a thief is trying to hide in large, dark cave, with lots of nooks, stalagmites, and other cover, I might allow them to roll 3 dice, so the average roll becomes 11, giving even a 1st Level thief an average chance of success.

Besides changing the progression system, I also treat most Thief skills as a kind of ‘Bonus Saving Throw.’ Because I expect thief players to use their descriptive skills to find things, we rely on that first and foremost. I even allow them to find things that normal folks would miss, without need to roll. For example, if the thief player says, ‘I’m checking the underside of the door handle,’ I would reveal any visible things, like needles, and even some things others wouldn’t notice, like a dark resin like substance (contact poison) on the underside.

If they fail to check for a trap, say walking over a pit without knowing it, they get to roll their Find/Remove Traps skill to ‘notice’ it at the last moment. If they fail that, normal saves apply. This takes some of the weight off of the descriptive play, by allowing the thief to walk around without checking every square foot of floor in fear. Very useful, especially for new players, who are just getting the hang of things, or old hands who are comfortable relying on their character’s ‘intuition,’ especially at higher levels.

Is that Magneto’s helmet, in that chest? What kind of crazy campaign is this DM running?

NEXT…

The post is getting long, but in the next one, I’ll detail a couple of other, shorter, changes to the system, and relate how my Middle School group handled their first foray into The Lost City…