Friday, November 27, 2009

Old School Games

I spent my Thanksgiving holiday looking over a stack of roleplaying games, creating a mental survey of what's out there. I asked myself "what various game mechanics are out there?" and "how do various game systems handle them?" One of the central features of "old school" games is their use of multiple sub-systems that work in congress. So it would be helpful, I figured, to break down roleplaying games to their constituent parts, to deconstruct the roleplaying game, as it were.

A caveat, first. I know what elements make up a roleplaying game. There's a combat mechanic, a skill mechanic, magic systems, etc. Each game handles these differently, however, and sometimes it can be hard to keep them all straight. Not every game uses saving throws, for example, but has some other mechanic that works the same way.

During my research, I noticed one central difference between games from the early days and those being produced today.

In "old school" games, the central mechanic for resolving things is a part of the character itself. The number you are rolling against is integral to the character. For example, if a thief has a 30 percent chance to find a trap, then the player has to beat that number; it makes no difference how well-hidden that trap is (though the referee could modify this number based on the nefariousness of the trap). A fighter has to roll his saving throw, which comes from class/level, to escape the dragon's firy breath; it makes no difference if the dragon is a great, old wyrm, or if the fighter is only five feet away. Those numbers are part of the character. A thief with Find Traps 30 percent always finds a trap if he rolls under his percentage; a fighter with a save 19 always survives the dragon's breath if he makes his roll.

I believe this stems from the hobby's origins -- miniatures gaming. Each figure has a list of stats which determines its success or failure. In Warhammer, for example, an individual figure has a Weapon Skill, which is used to determine whether or not it hits a defender. So it makes sense that this philosophy was carried over to other aspeects of a character.

It wasn't until later that the central mechanic was separated from the character. The numbers that define a character plug into a core mechanic. This allowed for designers to model difficulty. In a sense, the player was no longer rolling against his character, but against outside circumstances. For example, a thief with Find Trap +4 adds that number to a random die roll, with the result being compared to a target number. That target number accounts for how well hidden the trap is, for example. A fighter dodging a dragon's breath has to account for the potency of the fire, how close he is to the dragon, and so on; his saving throw plugs into another algorhytm, often as a modifier to this roll. It's more realistic, and allows for more shades of gray, but it also puts more work on the referee (who has to come up with these target numbers).

This, to me, is one of the central differences between roleplaying games from the Golden Age and how we design today. In the old days, the target number was a function of the character. Today, the target number is the perview of the referee.

Am I making sense?


  1. Some interesting nuancing there, Ross.

    I think this also plays into resolution complexity trade-offs (many sub-systems vs. a core/central system): the former is easier on an in situ basis, perhaps (roll the save vs. BW, make that morale check, roll that crit check, etc.), while the latter resolution method may be simpler in the long-run due to aligment and carryover from one task type/system to another), but I think that it also fosters an aggregation of complexity in the game(which situations/modifiers apply to this particular resolution task, do all bonus types apply here and do they all stack, etc.).

    Being able to balance a core mechanic with distinct sub-systems that align to it, while still retaining whatever flavor you want to have for managing magic, morale, etc. is probably that sweet spot you're hunting for.

    I think ;)


    PS: I'm not sure that I agree that the functional difference is in the character vs. the referee. The referee portion feels off there, but I can't quite explain why yet.

    This isn't what I really want to be saying, but it's as close as I can get so far:

    === not quite "right" stuff follows ===

    I see it more as a function task definition, I think: the character rolls the save vs. X based on what type of save is required (the character reacts to the environment with a simple check/mechanic); while the target number does originate with the referee, it's not just that the referee pulls a target number out the air, it requires a lot more definition and complexity to rank different kinds of tasks, group them by difficulty, define standard and situational modifiers for the different classes of tasks and the specific task instances, work through bonuses that do/don't apply (and do they stack), etc.

    I guess it sounds more "off the cuff" when you say that the referee sets the target number than I think that it is, given the vast amount of additional rules material that has to go into defining that target number decision.

    Feh. Still not quite right, but perhaps you'll be able to figure out what I'm trying to say, even though I can't ;->

  2. I certainly agree with what you're saying. It makes sense to me. This is precisely why I want to try to avoid the whole target number issue. They make matters more complex. The referee has to sort out all kinds of modifiers and create a relative scale of complexity. This is something OD&D avoided by tying the TN to the character.

    What I'm trying to get across is, for example, your save vs. spell is 19. That's on your character sheet; it's a function of class/level. When you have to save vs. spell, you have to roll over a 19. It doesn't how close the wizard is to you, what the difference in level may be, or the type of spell effect (all typical modifiers in a TN-based system). You are, in effect, rolling against yourself, not some number cooked up by your referee.

    It's a simpler mechanic.

    You're also absolutely right about the sweet spot I'm aiming for. =)