Thursday, March 24, 2022

D&D for Arithmetic Nerds

I was going to say "math nerds," but that would imply too much complexity.

It occurred to me, not quite out of nowhere last night, that there were a few serious limitations in Dungeons & Dragons that were easily fixable. It's a bit late forty years later, but I thought those who had once played the game might be interested. I never involved myself in the discussion of combat limitations. People who had experienced actual combat would shudder at the game's ridiculousness, even allowing for the great difference in weapons.  So also those who had studied Medieval or Ancient combat and tried to fit those realities into a fantasy game.  It always struck me as unsolvable. If a fantasy game gets too far away from reality it becomes simply silly and unbelievable. Yet if it attempts to imitate real life too closely it becomes a boring game - though I suppose an interesting reality. This would occur in Society For Creative Anachronism events as well - the fencing master of Cambridge would routinely be elimiated almost immediately no matter what style of combat was adopted - and modern fencing is not that close to even the highly symbolic medieval combats anyway. Such combat has to be both real and not-real.

But the difficulties that occurred to me were primarily game difficulties, not reality problems. In the basic game, characters choose one of four types of role: fighter, thief, magic-user cleric. Characters are created according to dice rolls, which are conducted in full view.  If the thought is that the entire party should have a clear idea what resources are available right from the outset that makes a sort of sense.  Yet it makes for a rather impossible set of backstories, of people announcing to strangers in a pub that they've got a magical ability or an ability to pick locks, or that they have been given a magical map or whatever.  Campaigns usually compensated by beginning shortly after the real beginning, of players who already knew each other a bit for reasons of varying plausibility.

Yet if one wants to be a thief or especially an assassin, one might not want to tell everyone about it right out of the gate. At early levels, what one is aspiring to be might not be obvious, and we wouldn't actually know the dexterity or intelligence of the others until we had seen them in action a bit. Why not start the story with less information. Let it be puzzling who the thief is when small items go missing.  Let the magic user pretend to figure things out by spinning some tale rather than revealing he has some power of divination. That seems more realistic - which I have already mentioned is probably a false ideal anyway - but it just seems more fun. 

The disguise can be more easily kept up with a little arithmetic. The volumes beyond the introductory models discuss being a mixed character, half thief, half fighter, or categories such as bard or paladin that have mixed requirements by nature.  Why should that be spelled out at the top of your character sheet where all can see? It would be tedious for the manuals to put up charts for all the possible combinations. But for DMs who are comfortable playing with numbers, it is not a big deal to do some extra calculations at the outset for your elf who wants to be 20% thief/20% fighter/60% magic user. You have to make some judgement calls about dice rolls for each, but splitting the difference at the outset and making a private chart known only to player and DM isn't going to be that hard.

Why should the rest of the party know that your dagger is +3? They are going to watch you score a bit more often and/or a bit more damage than expected on a dice roll, but figuring that out would be what would have to happen in a story as well. Hmm. That guy either has a lot more strength or dexterity than he looks, or there's something special about that particular dagger. It's a fun part of the story.  A party flying blind about each other at the outset creates a nightmare to describe in a manual, but no real math beyond arithmetic is needed, and plenty of DMs are also people who like arithmetic. I got given a new introductory set for Christmas - the game has been an addiction for me in the past and I had boxes of notes with designed adventures that were never played, including dozens of characters. A whole city, in one case. Multiple countries with regions and governments.  All gone now.  (I did learn that it is best not to put too much into any of them unless they start getting involved in the adventure somehow, such as a particular innkeeper, blacksmith, or hermit. Just have some loose characteristics lying about in your head or scribbled on paper and attach them to the new NPC as you see fit in the moment.) I looked questioningly at the son who gave me the box, as he was a later player and knows how long the material sat unused. He grinned and tilted his head in the direction of his daughters, 14 and almost 11.

I still haven't opened the box. Maybe soon. I do wonder if they are allowed to keep it secret from each other if all players elect to be a thief.  Could be fun.  The first item will be to hold firm with the cat-obsessed granddaughter that she cannot be even 1% feline in any way.


Grim said...

I hadn't played D&D since the 1980s until about three weeks ago. A young relative invited me. The game has changed quite a bit, but my sense of it is that the best thing is to avoid the mechanics altogether. It's really a storytelling game; and you'll get a lot more out of it if you avoid making 'to hit' rolls as often as you can, and focus on advancing the story in ways the rules don't govern.

Maybe that's my theory of life, too.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I recalled reading about experienced campaigns that got close to that point, just walking through the "make your own adventure" of the DM, who had a variety of ready responses. Our first campaign in the early 80s got close to that sometimes, especially in the "new exploring of a site," and "getting information in the tavern" segments. I could eventually get to "Luven eventually gets the box open, but it takes most of the afternoon and none of you bothered to go get fresh water despite a hint. All of you are grouchy and resentful. Enough that it may impact your decision-making, depending, and I may penalise you, but only a little, depending."

As for die rolls, the very good luck and very bad luck ones are the only ones that become part of legend, so I like to keep the chance of those there. We had a new player pick a fight with a guy in a bar and amazingly roll 20s in his first two combat rounds, enough of an advantage to make the far-superior opponent withdraw. It caused him to become cocky, and eventually reality caught up with him. It created his character and the early dynamics of the party, whether they were going to back him up in his stupid arrogance or not. (Eventually not.) That sort of randomness is necessary. The dice are an enforcement tool of reality for irritating players who want to change reality, also. But it's simpler to just not play with them anymore.

George Weinberg said...

Well, different people have different styles of play, but for D&D as such I think it's pretty common for the players to all agree that they're working together to kill monsters and take treasure. The "role-playing" is generally pretty light, it's more about puzzle solving and combat.
If you really want to get into role-playing, with complicated characters that may have different goals or ideas as to what's acceptable behavior ethically, D&D is probably not your bets choice. But in any case if you want it to make any sense at all for the players to be working together, they ought to have overlapping goals, and a pretty clear sense of what each other bring to the party. It doesn't make a lot of sense for one guy to think "we're both fighters, but I've got plate mail and a two handed sword, and that other guy only wears leather and swings a sort sword and is always sneaking off by himself to do who knows what, but I'll still split all the loot that I know about 50-50 even though I'm doing most of the monster killing and taking most of the damage and he spontaneously sprouts extra bags, and will decline to say where they came from or what's in them.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ George Weinberg - absolutely true. Except when that other character is your wife in real life.

Boxty said...

Please publish some info on your adventures. I think that would be fun to read.

There are two playable cat races in the current version of D&D. Your granddaughter can play an Elven mage with the Disguise Self spell. At some point in the campaign she can drop the spell to reveal to everyone, including you, the DM, that she was a cat person all along...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't think I want to even reveal this possibility to her. But I will consider it.