Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Maxims of Mechanical Minimalism

I am discerning three recursive maxims that drive my D&D minimalism and define my approach to "rules-lite." Here they are:

  1. Always resolve through role-play anything that can be resolved through role-play
  2. Keep all mechanics as abstract as possible, as concrete as necessary
  3. Use abstract mechanics as openings to, rather than shut-downs of role-play
Notice how the three form a neat recursive circle. The first prioritizes role-play over mechanics. The second limits the nature and use of mechanics. The third reminds us to use mechanics to support, rather than shut-down, role play, thus leading us back to the first maxim. I must say I find this quite satisfying.

Always resolve through role-play anything that can be resolved through role-play

What I mean here by "role-play" is wargame-style playing of a particular tactical role defined by character class, race, level, etc., much like infantry, cavalry, artillery, with light, medium or heavy armor define rolls to play in napoleonic wargames. I do not mean amateur improvisational theatre. That said, just as with Diplomacy, there are good times to "ham it up" for the sake of "sealing the deal" in a tough diplomatic negotiation.

I remember running a game of original edition using my Perilous Realms house rules for some players who were familiar with later editions. One first-time-to-original player asked "do all weapons just deal 1d6 damage?" "Yes," I answered. "So why not just buy a cudgel and leave it at that? Why spend the money for a halberd or a sword?" "Cudgels can't cut anything," I replied, "halberds have a long reach. Swords cut and thrust." He could not understand what I was driving at because he had been living under the oppression of over-mechanization! I had to explain, "the different weapons allow different role-playing possibilities. You can do things with a spear you can't do with a sword, and vice versa. Does that make sense?" He was doubtful. But when the mummy came and they lowered the portcullis just in time, skewered it on a spear to keep it from retreating, hit it with oil and torched it, they then started seeing the strategic nature of the game -- something that has more to do with role-play than mechanics. A bunch of first level characters survived a random mummy encounter. I could only congratulate them.

Point of the maxim in this case: there is no need for variable damage mechanics in order to "describe" the usefulness of different weapons. The weapons themselves, used "in-world," do that for us, through good role-play.

Keep all mechanics as abstract as possible, as concrete as necessary

Mechanics serve as a kind of "oracle" that gives the game-world the feeling of independent reality. The more mechanics are used to dive into describing concrete minutiae, the more they become a straight jacket upon either referee or player decision-making. Like all oracles, they should be abstract and open to interpretation by the diviner -- in this case, the referee. The more concrete the mechanic -- like research into the exact force of the weight of a blow from a halberd on plate armor generating a complex chart of bell-curves, yada yada -- the more the game gets stuck in the morass of endless non-interpretive dice rolling -- what folks call "roll playing," rather than role-playing.

Let's take the common complaint that the original edition doesn't have a "universal mechanic." I will not dispute that here but I will point out that it has a near universal exploration mechanic:
1d6 : the lower the more beneficial, the higher the more detrimental to playing-characters
Key examples: Locate secret passage: 1-2, elves 1-4; elves sense secret door on passing by 1-2; force door: 1-2; spike slips: 5-6; traps spring: 1-2 (I suppose this means deliberately looking with a ten foot pole, otherwise it should have been 5-6, but inconsistency is one of the glories of the original edition!); listen at door, hear something: 1, elves 1-2; wandering monster per turn: 6; surprise: 1-2 (again, should have been for monster, 5-6 for party!); wilderness exploration has similar mechanics.

A pattern emerges: Roll 1d6:

  • Unlikely to benefit PCs: 1
  • Possible to benefit PCs: 1-2
  • Toss up: call high or low
  • Likely to benefit PCs: 1-4
  • Unlikely to be detrimental to PCs: 6
These represent chances of 1/6, ⅓, and ⅔, respectively (except for "toss up," which I only use when both the players and I are "meh" about the outcome of something. I never write "toss ups" into my house rules).

I only consult these exploration mechanics when I need something more than my own knowledge of the setting and the player's careful description of their actions to make a ruling about the results of their behavior. That means I don't use mechanics very often. If they describe something pretty well and their characters are pretty high level or possess talents and possibilities, then they succeed. The more beautiful, interesting and fun their plan of action and description, the more inclined I am to grant them success. It is a game. The point is fun. The point is to reward, not punish, good, fun role-play.

I learned this the hard way but I am the better for it. I had some high-powered PCs surprised by finding a high-powered ancient vampire waiting for them in a closet they opened up. He shot out about 50 bats in their faces (awesome!). When they got their wits about them, the wizard decided he would turn rock to mud, opening a whole in the ceiling of the temple right above the vampire, thus turning him to dust with sunlight. I was still stuck in the old mechanics-heavy framework. I said,  "okay, high it works, low he escapes from the light." I rolled low. I ruled he escaped from the in-coming light just in time. One of my players, a long time referee in his own right, noticed that I was disappointed in this outcome. He said to me, "are you disappointed it didn't work?" "Well, yes, " I replied. "Well hell then, man, rule that it worked, you're the ref! Let's have fun!" It was like scales falling from my eyes. We were all supposed to have fun, even me. I liked their plan. It contributed to fun -- even my own fun as the referee -- after all, although I was "playing" the vampire, I was not "on his side"! So I reversed the ruling and we all cheered. I learned something important that day. I only need mechanics when I really am unsure of the outcome of player actions. If it makes sense, or just seems fun to me, it works!

In most situations where I do use the "universal exploration mechanic," I reason it out with the players. I low-ball them. They high-ball me, and we comprise and I roll the dice in front of them. "I think you have about 1 chance on a d6 to pull that off." "No way, man, at least a toss up!" "Okay, 1 or 2, fair enough?" "Fair enough." "I rolled a 4 so it didn't work as you'd hoped, sorry guys." "That's cool. It was worth a try." "But you do manage to get about half way there." "Cool!" Etc. I do, of course, roll secretly for "listen at door," the triggering of traps, etc.

Point of the maxim in this case: abstraction allows for oracular interpretation, and that only when the referee feels the need.

Use abstract mechanics as openings to, rather than shut-downs of role-play

We keep mechanics as abstract as possible in order to encourage role-play. Keeping mechanics abstract allows room for interpretation and creative description. But sometimes we turn the abstraction into a chance to make things as boring and free of detail as possible. And that is our mistake, as players and as referees.

[NOTE with regards to the following example: I mean no severe critique of the referee or his rules. I am trying to make one small point about a use of mechanics that bugs me. I've learned so much from this referee and he is awesome. Okay, now, moving on to the example:]

I've played in a game where the referee allows magic-users to have up to two shield-bearers. These shield-bearers serve as kind of body guards. The referee describes the results of hiring such help purely in mechanical terms. He says each shield-bearer, so long as they are defending the magic-user, has his armor class increased by one, while lowering the armor class of the protected magic-user. So a magic-user would effectively have an armor class of, say, 7 while these shield-bearers would have an armor class (in plate) of 3 each. This seems reasonable. But I find it affects play in an adverse way. It takes away a chance to role-play strategically and reduces it to numbers and probabilities.

I remember explaining this clever mechanic to some trusted folks on an online forum and someone replied "why turn this into mechanics? Just role-play it. The shield-bearers protect the magic-user until the opponent can break their defense." Oh. It suddenly made perfect sense to me and I saw how mechanics could steal role-playing opportunities. So it breaks my first maxim. But it also, in play, winds up becoming an example of why I need the third maxim.

We were playing with these mechanics when we were attacked by poisonous hypnotic frog-men. The referee randomly rolled that they attacked the magic-user rather than either body-guard. He rolled an attack against armor class 7 and hit. My thought was, this mechanic forced us to assume that these were the most inept two shield-bearers ever hired. I suppose the frog men could have leaped over the shield bearers and landed on the magic-user's head. But why weren't the shield-bearers knocking the creature off their patron? It just didn't make sense to me the way that the abstraction of the mechanic then forced an interpretation of the game world rather than the other way round.

Why not allow the player and referee to role-play the shield-bearers? If the random roll shows the magic-user is under attack, imagine what the shield-bearers are trying to do to prevent it. Ask the player, "what instructions or agreements has the magic-user made with his bodyguard?" Imagine what you would do if you were the body guard. Then make up something creative -- mechanics be darned!

This extends to many other aspects of combat. We've all been subject to the unbelievable boredom of:
  • roll d20 fail to hit
  • roll d20 hit
  • roll d6 damage: 1
  • you are now hit: 6 damage
  • next round, roll initiative
  • yada yada, yawn
Now, I am not saying that strategic role-play should necessarily grant mechanical benefit. I am not saying that if a player says, "I swing down on them from the chandelier," that your response as a referee should be "+1 to hit!" I think quite the opposite. It should open up role-play, strategic role-play, possibilities. What to the goblins think of this acrobatic act? Perhaps roll for reaction. Do they cower at the bravado, laugh at the stupidity, or leap to bite the feet? Keep rolling the d20s and the d6s but describe what is going on.

I've "trained" players by having my NPCs do strategic stuff with objects nearby. As the players see that the NPCs can turn a situation around by grabbing a chair, throwing over a table as a shield for their archers, etc., they start doing the same thing. That way, the attack and damage rolls become oracles for interpretation within a combat scenario that is role-played with strategy, rather than abstracted to the state of absolute boredom.

Point of the maxim in this case: mechanics are supposed to be abstract in order to free the players and the referee to describe the concrete actions of the characters.

Okay, that's all I've got for now. I hope my little mini-essay was helpful, or at least interesting, and I welcome comments.

Fight on!