... now with 35% more arrogance!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Can You Do Without?

I have something I'm thinking about along the lines of trap types. But in the meantime, I wanted to open a discussion inspired by a Dragonsfoot thread. What is really essential in D&D? It was inspired by some Mike Mearls post, but I'm not going to track down the link to that, since I want to focus on something else instead.

Stormcrow posted something I pretty much agree with: that the essentials of D&D are really the stripped-down elements of character description and a few concepts linked to those elements. Most of what we think of as "D&D" could be ignored by the player and supplied by the GM -- and house-ruled in some pretty extreme ways. For example, the combat system, including armor class, is not important, since it can be completely replaced (and has, with ascending vs. descending AC, Chainmail combat, "alternative system" combat, people substituting Metagaming's Melée combat system...) Everything other than a few basics can be ruled by the GM as necessary.

We agree that these components are essential:
  • The six abilities (although honestly, I think only the idea of the abilities is necessary; the actual abilities can change.)
  • Class, and some kind of advancement system.
  • Some way of telling how long you are likely to survive combat ("hits".)
  • Gold Pieces, and stuff that can be bought with them.
We disagree on a couple things. I agree that Alignment is somewhat iconic, but I don't think it's essential. We disagree on whether the essentials of combat survivability are hit points or hit dice, because he sees hit dice (and also levels) as merely a function of experience points, whereas I think experience points are merely one of several ways the GM could house-rule gaining hit dice. Also, I think you can do away with experience entirely, saying instead "you need to spend X gold pieces in retrieved treasure to gain a hit die; defeating monsters is equivalent to spending small amounts of treasure (100 GP per hit die.)"

What do you think could be completely replaced in the game, but still leave the game as essentially D&D?


  1. I think everyone's experience of D&D is different, my first exposure to to D&D was very off the cuff. My kid brother introduced me to it. He was home for a school vacation or something; we had no dice, no rules, no nothing. But we played anyway. We improvised with a rubix cube and a magic 8-ball, and it was the most fun I ever had playing D&D. I later bought the 1e rule books and tried to "do it right," but never captured that first feeling of "making it up as we went along." This is probably why I think the rules are too complex and I mostly streamline it down to it's barest essentials.
    But it's basically this:
    "You are in a room. There is a (person, thing, whatever) there. what do you do?"
    Do you talk to it? Hit it with your sword? run away? It's the characters interacting with the environment. The stats, the combat system, the levels and whatnot are all props, and are only there to support the activities of the characters. Having said that, I think for me the OSR is more about capturing a feeling than it is about which rule-set is closer to what people think D&D is supposed to be. I think it's supposed to be fun. If the rules you are using allow you to have fun, then that's all that matters. I am still an incurable rules-tinkerer, but it's because I've experienced the game both ways - with the full force of AD&D's massive collection of rules and stuff, and with almost no rules and stuff at all.
    E. Gary Gygax didn't create AD&D 1st edition to "fix" something that was wrong with the original boxed sets, he did it to MAKE MONEY. 2nd Edition didn't "fix" problems with 1st edition, it was to SELL MORE BOOKS AND MAKE MONEY. Wizards of the Coast doesn't give a rats patootie about the history of D&D, the want to SELL BOOKS AND MAKE MONEY!
    There are so many great systems out there for free, you needn't buy another book, ever again!!!
    My two cents, anyway.

  2. Really I think the indispensible core is human interaction around an imaginary situation: every one of the mechanics you list could be dispensed with. But that equates D&D with roleplaying (which, y'know...).

    My serious point: you pitch this as a problem of finding the essence of D&D; I don't think that's possible - players somewhere have broken every rule and still recognise what they do as D&D. If the problem is recognition then I think there's a constellation of factors that together make rhe game D&D, out of which any single factor is dispensible. I can imagine a game without attributes, classes, levels or money which still involves rooting ancient threats out of their holes in the ground, and which could still feel like D&D.

    I'd really like to play a campaign with no money. All the important cheese in D&D is already (usually) non-capitalized (you can't buy monsters, plot points, spellbooks, vorpal swords etc)

  3. You could strip it down to nothing and have a lot of fun, like an interactive ghost story. Could you call that D&D? Sure. not really. who cares? but at the level that I think you are looking for every version of D&D ever has had Spells and Monsters. The DM can make monsters out of hand wavium easy enough, but your list of essentials as you point out is a list of simple handles for the players to grab onto and effect the game world, so I would include some kind of magic system. Playing a M-U in a game with no magic system might be fun, but I wouldn't call it D&D.

    Thanks by the way, good blog.

  4. ...OK, now I've read the link I see what you're saying, which is not what I answered. Sorry.

    The character sheet needs to say enough to make the player comfortable and to provide a shared idea between player & DM of what they can do. And that's social/situational. Maybe all you need is a name tag, if that name is "Ali Baba" or "viking" or "wood nymph," and a slider for how hurt or tired they are - their in-game history & status - if your group's good with that. Historically I think many groups have wanted more definition, leading to a game we see now where character gardening is the main activity.

    That said, I played systemless for a couple of years - the only extant bit of the game system was chargen, and that was designed to make players ask questions - to give them puzzles rather than answers - and over time I felt I was shortchanging my players. There was a sense in which they couldn't "win" that was important. We went on fun journeys together, but I think there was less sense of "ownership." Of the characters. Of the world.

  5. I think D&D is more of a mind set and way of playing than just the mechanics. That's one of the reasons playing 4E no longer appeals, because the play experience is different... although that is due to the mechanics, so maybe I've just countered my own argument.

    Hit Points, Armour Class, Class and Level are intrinsic to D&D games, but to be honest I think the main thing is the abstract nature of the (older) rules, which leaves plenty of scope for personal touches.

    Or something like that. It's early and my brain's not fully working.

  6. I actually think the ability scores can be wrapped up into the class and/or race. Given that older editions don't give a whole lot of weight to ability scores (other than as a Prime Requisite) I think it is quite possible to tie what few advantages they do have into the classes and races themselves.For example, fighting men could have a choice or roll for bonuses to hit and/or to HD, etc. rather than representing these things through ability scores.