13
Jan
12

D&D’s associative mechanics

Just a quick one.

A million years ago, Justin Alexander wrote a thing about dissociative mechanics in modern editions of Dungeons & Dragons.  Justin’s a smart guy, and he says it better than I could, but the basic thought is that certain parts of the modern game feel very “game like” without a lot of fictional justification.  Here’s your “daily power card,” and you play it.  And it’s glossed a little bit with a fictional description that doesn’t really explain why you can’t do that more than once a day.  In other words, what’s going on at the mechanical level doesn’t really have any pointers to or from the fiction.

(Vincent Baker had a whole bunch of things to say about the interaction of dice and fiction in 2009, collected here.  Not necessary to the discussion, but there are some connections to the OSR along that line of thinking.)

Anyway, I kind of think Justin’s a little wrong about some of this.  The Thief rolling d100’s to disarm a trap isn’t particularly associative; it’s one of the reasons people dislike the Thief class so much.  But the Fighter is the Thief of fighting.  Even the early days are full of sub-systems that don’t do much to immerse you.

Anyhow: this is what I like about early D&D class design, because looked at in broad strategic patterns, the classes are very strongly associative, even if the particular mechanics are not.

The Magic-User can only survive by anticipating the situations she will likely face, and then carefully selecting the right load-out for the mission.  This is a difficult intellectual exercise, often resulting in trying to puzzle out how to make the best of a poorly-chosen spell.  To do well, you’ve gotta play really smart.

The Thief is so hopelessly screwed, even in the things that he’s supposed to be good at, that in order to prosper you’ve got to play a super-cautious, extremely attentive, sneaky little bastard alert to seize every unfair advantage or momentary opportunity.

The Cleric fights well, has some great spells, dominates a whole class of monsters, has a terrific XP curve, and at the end of the game gets a castle at half-price.  I don’t know if there’s a God, but certainly the rules of D&D are looking out for this guy.

The Fighter isn’t situational.  She doesn’t need forethought, devious schemes, or the favor of the gods.  She shows up; she’s tough; she can go all day without loss of effectiveness.  Maybe she doesn’t go “nova” like the others, but she’s got the defenses and hit points to confidently slog through whatever the dungeon throws at her.

There are a lot of times when I think, “Geez, this game is a kludge of crazy ad hoc rules that nobody really thought through.”  But when I look at this, I come away thinking that the foundation of the game was laid exceedingly well.

joesky tax

I’ll post the scenario I’m running at Recess in a few days

 


7 Responses to “D&D’s associative mechanics”


  1. 1 rorschachhamster
    January 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Quite the observations there for just a quick one… wow. Food for thought, and maybe a lesson for aspiring game designers.

  2. January 13, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I think it’s really hard to say how much of that is intentional, and how much of it is pure chance or retrospective rationalization…

    But I agree, the early rules were surprisingly focused and wonderfully emergent in places (like the gp=xp thing that got lost later on).

  3. January 13, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Vincent’s article made me want to create a table lookup grid of ‘things player’s can say they do in combat’ that have various mechanical effects to bypass the ‘i hit/i miss’ dialog.

    Unlike most forge theory, that linked article finally makes an accurate statement about a thing.

    Also, your post contains excellent analysis.

  4. January 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    @James “I come away thinking that the foundation of the game was laid exceedingly well”:

    4e was rushed to market after only one year of development and playtesting and is as a result believed by people who worked on both to be a less good game than 3e, which had a full two year cycle.

    The original gangsters got three years – from the first Blackmoor in 1971 to OD&D’s publication in 1974 – and wesn’t handicapped by having to deal with legacy issues or how to market the rules or how to compete with other kinds of RPGs or fantasy games.

    If Arneson had gotten his way, the development time would have been even longer. Whether this would be good or not is the same as asking “did the hideous Velvet Underground dissonance / baffling and paradoxical OD&D text that was rushed to market cause them to launch a thousand imitators precisely because you had to work hard to find the beauty?”

  5. 5 John
    January 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    @nexusphere IIRC 2E did just that, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. You end up with the 4E situation of the players choosing their actions from a list, rather than doing literally anything.

  6. 6 Deliverator
    January 22, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    >>The Magic-User can only survive by anticipating the situations she will likely face, and then carefully selecting the right load-out for the mission. This is a difficult intellectual exercise, often resulting in trying to puzzle out how to make the best of a poorly-chosen spell. To do well, you’ve gotta play really smart.<<

    This is the idea behind my "you're all Specialist Wizards!" game. I ran it as a one-shot at Recess and it went great; am now looking to turn it into a campaign. Although unfortunately I had to choose the spell lists for the pregens, the players still did a nice job of creatively applying their spells.

    I like 3.5 (or PF, which is what I'll probably end up using) better than older games simply because the basic math actually works well, but the asymmetries inherent in a party of all wizards still force careful thinking and resource management.


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