Monday, April 20, 2015

On OD&D, Skills, & Attributes

Cross-Posted from RPGnet

Our ideas of what the game should be like are informed by our preferred fantasy fiction.

The D&D rules are loose enough that you can "superimpose," for lack of a better word, a lot of different paradigms on top of them. I'm a much bigger fan of books like The Demon Princes* and The Name of the Wind than I am of, frex, The Wheel of Time or the earlier Dragonlance novels. Not every PC is going to be as big of a badass as Kirth Gersen, but he's somewhat illustrative of what I think a high-level PC should be like. And, essentially, that's what I like my D&D characters to be like. Even if it turns out that there's something I don't think they're likely to succeed at, they aren't at a loss.

If anybody happens to have a copy of the Chronicles of Amber around, bust that open and read the first few pages. You know what you'll notice? The protagonist wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. He's got a busted leg or arm, I forget which. Doesn't know his name or where he is. But he decides he doesn't like the cut of their gibberish, and he's stolen a gun, car, and money before you hit page ten. He doesn't fuck around. His GM isn't making him roll to see if he can use his Law and Intimidate skills in concert.

Anyway, it makes sense to use different approaches depending on what kind of campaign you want to run. If you want to run a game about peasant kids finding their place in the world and learning important lessons about friendship, absolutely, use 5E-style background packages and make them come up the hard way. If you are like me and you want PCs who have been around the block, then assume broad competence and only question it if what they want to do is very specialized. 

Also, I really hate it if things happen like the following: The PCs are in a position to steal a ship and go become pirates. This sounds like a great idea to the GM. But then people start looking at their sheets, and nobody has the Command or Navigation or Seafaring skill, and it all shuts down. See, that's crap. Conan would have just stolen the ship and gone reaving.

What Attributes Mean

In later editions of D&D, it is very clear that attributes are supposed to have a great deal of correlation with what's going on in the game world. Like, it seems to be the intent that you could take the bell curve for Intelligence scores, correlate it with the real-world bell curve for IQ scores, and that they're intended to mean kind of the same thing. If you have a high Int, you have a high IQ. Similarly, if you look at your Strength score, you can probably figure it means something like what "being really strong" means in the real world. Someone with an 18 strength is assumed to be, like, an Olympic powerlifter or whatever. So on and so forth.

I'm not actually convinced that this was the intent in OD&D. Old Geezer, of course, is welcome to tell me that I've got this wrong.

There are actually two different kinds of ability score in OD&D, before you add in the expansions. I first started thinking about this when I read Lars Dangly's Platemail 27th Edition, where he said that PCs were much more like "toys" than the modern conception of "characters." Their actual game statistics were pretty vague and generic, and then you had to layer imaginative elements on top of that. It got me thinking.

For the sake of applying a label to them, let's call them Aptitude Attributes and Customization Attributes.

Aptitude Attributes are Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom. Note that in OD&D, they're listed in that order. Those three come first. The only thing they do, mechanically, ismodify your XP gain if you are a member of that class. If you are a fighter, then your Strength modifies how fast you advance. Intelligence and Wisdom scores do essentially nothing. The reverse holds true if you play a Cleric or Magic User. If you play an MU, your strength is irrelevant. There's no damage or hit bonus or penalty. There's no modification to your encumbrance capacity. The Aptitude attributes are just that: they determine your attribute for various classes, and give you an incentive to try this class or that class at random.

The Customization Attributes are listed last. Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. These three will actually give you mechanical modifiers regardless of class. They modify AC & Missile Weapons, HP, and Reaction Rolls/Henchmen/Morale, respectively. These can be important for any character. 

How might this look in practice?

If you carried this idea farther than I ever did, you might do something like the following:

1. Roll your six attributes in order, 3d6. 

2. Note any modifiers from your Customization Attributes. Once you've done this, erase the name and the attribute score. So, now you've got maybe a modifier to your AC or your reaction rolls, but you don't actually have anything called Dex, Con, or Cha on your sheet.

3. Pick a class. Write down the XP modifier for the relevant Aptitude Attribute. 

4. Erase all those attributes and their values, too.

5. Yes, dead serious. Now you've got maybe an XP modifier, maybe a couple other mods, nothing else. If you rolled, for example, straight tens and elevens and wanted to play a Fighting Man, you might have a sheet that looked like this:

Berthold the Grim
Level 1 Lawful Fighting Man
XP: 0/2000

Background: Berthold wandered out of the wastelands with a broadsword and a bad attitude. He has a cool scar on his face and wears his hair in dreadlocks.

HP: 6
AC: 4
Movement Rate: 9"

*Death Ray or Poison: 12
*Wands: 13
*Stone: 14
*Dragon Breath: 15
*Spells: 16

Equipment: (total encumbrance goes here, I don't feel like calculating it)
Chain Mail
1 week rations & Waterskin
6 torches
Belt Pouch with 10GP

Now, if I were to steal somewhat from Lars Dangly, and you were interested in what OG has to say about level being determinative of competency, here is what I would do for a skill system.

1. If a character wants to do an adventurer-ey thing, you either let them succeed, rule that it requires specialized skills they don't have, or make them roll.

2. If they have to roll, just have them roll D6 equal to their level. If they roll any 5s or 6s, they succeed. If it matters how well they succeed, count them up. 3 or more dice coming up successes is very good. If they're opposed by another character or creature with hit dice, make an opposed roll. You guys have done this kind of shit before in tons of other games, you can figure it out.

3. For things requiring special skills, just put a space on their sheet called "Skills." Whenever they do something for a substantial length of game time, they can gain that as a skill. If they are on a sailing vessel crossing the sea, they can say they help sail it. If they do that, just write down Sailing. If they buy a bunch of books on alchemy and read them over the winter, write down Alchemy. Don't make them jump through a bunch of hoops or anything, just keep track of what they've done. Keep things moving and fun.

4. All PCs are assumed to gain leadership ability in proportion to their level and other skills. If they know how to fight, they can lead fighting men. If they know academics, they can function as the dean of a university. 

*This is some of the best sci-fi I've ever read. I recommend reading them at your earliest convenience, if you haven't read them before.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The following is something I initially posted to the RPGnet usergroup on Facebook. Not everyone can see that, so I'm cross-posting here. I'm way too sleep-deprived (which will be obvious when you read this) to add in rich-text formatting, which FB doesn't allow, and so it's crazy and littered with all-caps and shit. So it goes!


[User Redacted]: I think you have just invited me to make an enormous post that I've been mulling over for a while. After this, any time I say "you" it is a general you and not you specifically.

CAVEATS: This is just my personal opinion (although some of you might reasonably infer that I have some insight), if it was official stuff it would be in Trouble Tickets. It's going to be super fucking long, probably inappropriate for an FB post. I don't have access to rich text on FB, so I'm going to compensate by abusing the fuck out of parentheticals. I didn't sleep much last night so it's going to be rambling and I'll probably cuss a lot and man here comes the all-caps.


If you feel that it can be hard to post on RPGnet if you don't have a specific mindset, you are (in some limited cases) correct. However, I think that it isn't clear to most users what that mindset is and why it exists. This became a noticeable problem when we instituted the sexism policy, which you might decry as the mandatory feminism policy if you're the kind of person who says shit like that. I think that is because the staff basically made a certain minimum degree of feminism near-mandatory for participating in certain discussions. I ALSO THINK THAT WAS A GOOD THING. If you don't agree with me then that's fine, but it would be cool if you understood why I think that. This is more about helping people understand why this stuff is happening than convincing anyone.

FEMINISM IS NOT ONE THING. It is an academic discipline related to history and sociology, which studies women's issues and what we generally refer to as "patriarchy." It is also a collection of distinct and often sharply incompatible social movements that are intended to help women and (implicitly or explicitly) dismantle the patriarchy. It is a set of ideological statements or values, which again can vary wildly or be grossly incompatible depending on what kind of feminist you are (I'm not going to get into types of feminism because I will fuck it up and everyone will laugh at me.) Feminism is ALSO what I call a "craft," a set of practices used to oppose patriarchy/privilege/whatever in the real world or on the internet, right off the cuff. That is, there are a bunch of practical techniques and rhetorical devices shared among feminists that are properly considered a part of feminism. Probably nobody in the world but me would call that a craft, but I don't care. This is my soapbox and I'm going to paint it however I damn well please.

NB: Feminism can look weird as an academic discipline because while it is Empirical in many places and times, it also rejects rigid empiricism as a prerequisite to being taken seriously. If a woman says that women get catcalled on the street all the time, and a bunch of women agree, then that is supposed to be sufficient and we should listen to their stories. We aren't supposed to be totally skeptical of the "lived experiences," and wait until there is hard, operationalized data to believe them. 

That change in approach exists SPECIFICALLY because of institutional barriers and power structures that keep marginalized groups from doing the research they want to do. If you want to do research on why oil and coal are totally not causing climate change (which is not a real thing anyway!) then the money will roll in. If you want to do research on shit that is important to rich white guys or establishment academics then you've got a shot.

The kind of people who are marginalized and want to do research into how much more often women get interrupted than men do (Hint: It is a fucking lot! That research finally got done, and the results are, in fact, empirical), then it was not until relatively recently that you could get the wherewithal to do it.

Short form, feminists and racial minorities and stuff don't necessarily  have the budget or the access to the levers of power needed to do rigorous experimental sociology, and that is bullshit, so to some extent Feminism accepts a relaxing of standards on these issues. Basically: If enough people tell you something happened to them in a certain way, you should listen. I'm a lawyer and I don't think that this idea should be controversial, but there are a lot of people who just won't buy it and demand hard data to back up every proposition. Too bad!

RPGnet has accepted Certain Things from feminism which are considered facts. Some of this is from the theory of feminism but some of them relate to what I above called the "craft" of feminism. If you have read Derailing for Dummies and seen people dinged for derailing threads, you have some idea of what I am talking about. 

I think that a lot of the genuine (as opposed to feigned) confusion about our sexism policy comes from the fact that people do not understand the distinction between our policy and our factual premises. I accept that not everyone is going to agree with me (although I wish they did! I want everyone to take up hammers and help me smash the patriarchy! I promise it will be fun and we will have punch and pie!), but I really don't like it if people genuinely don't understand our policies and find them strange and frightening. I would much rather have ten people who think we're worse than Stalin than a hundred people who have no idea what the fuck is going on.

To get to the thing, RPGnet as a whole basically accepts that privilege is real. You are not necessarily going to get dinged for saying "lol privilege is not real," or for just strongly disliking the term, or for speaking out against ideologies you think are based on faulty notions, but Imma tell you right now that privilege has a solid as a fucking rock empirical foundation, built over hundreds of experiments, and if you don't think it is real then you're basically like a climate change denier. That is why you are going to get met with hostility even if the staff doesn't do anything to you in terms of infracting you.

Because some of it relates to that craft of feminism stuff. Our policy on derailing is the centerpiece and most visible part of this. Part of what got me thinking about this was some disagreement on what derailing is (also, a feminist blogger or someone who is way smarter than me but whom I can't remember the name of wrote some stuff about this that I agree with, and I'm stealing her metaphor and then making it about D&D.)

Imagine you want to talk about D&D. In fact, that's a big part of why I come to RPGnet and I hope I'm not alone, so this shouldn't be a hard thing to imagine. You start threads about D&D. Imagine that every time you start a thread about D&D, some dudes roll in and want to know about hit points. "What are hit points?" You try to tell them what hit points are and they keep asking more questions. "If I have my max HP and someone casts one of these 'Cure' spells you mentioned on me, does that increase my max HP? This problem with the rules will allow everyone to gain infinite HP without question!" This goes on forever. They ask about XP: "Why do XP make sense? How do I get them? What do I do when my GM doesn't give me enough of them? Wait, what are experience levels again?" At some point they start disagreeing with your premises, "I don't think Saving Throws really work the way you say they do. YOu're probably mistaken, and your DM really wants you to roll a dex check. You probably misread the situation about whether that gargoyle could be hurt by magical weapons or not."

This is annoying. If you ignore these guys it's kind of rude, but you can't talk about any of the shit you want to talk about because they keep questioning everything and arguing with minor, niggling details.

Now, keep your imagination-ship fired up because I want you to imagine that not only does this happen to EVERY SINGLE THREAD, but that THE SAME GUYS DO IT.

Even if you explain to Bob Wizardpants (I'm sorry if that's a real user) what HP are this week and that no they are not related to Spell Slots why would you even think that, he will come back and ask you the same bullshit questions next week, maybe slightly rephrased, when you start another thread and want to talk about YOUR ACTUAL TOPIC.

At some point, I would step in and use the powers of the Crimson Word which the admins so unwisely bestowed upon me, and I would tell Bob Wizardpants to GTFO and go read Labyrinth Lord himself for the sake of Christ, it's a fucking free download you mouthbreather.

Now the kicker is YOU DON'T HAVE TO IMAGINE THIS, IT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU TRY TO TALK ABOUT FEMINISM ON THE INTERNET. Seriously, that is what it is like any time you want to talk about Feminism or women's issues or whatever you want to call it. IT IS EXACTLY LIKE BOB WIZARDPANTS ASKING YOU THE SAME STUPID-ASS QUESTIONS ABOUT HIT POINTS EVERY FUCKING WEEK WHEN HE COULD JUST GO READ ANY GODDAMN RETROCLONE AND THEN COME BACK AND BE ABLE TO SAY SOMETHING INTELLIGENT. Or maybe he wouldn't say something intelligent, maybe he'd say something dumb and awful, but at least if he was being dumb and awful in good faith then it would be an INFORMED dumb and awful, and hence possibly interesting in a train-wreck kind of way.

And this, in its most essential flavor, is why the derailing and sexism policy exists. It is so we can have an actual productive discussion without Bob Wizardpants and a dozen of his friends pulling at our fucking sleeves every five seconds asking for a citation to a study and a from-first-principles explanation of structural inequality every five seconds, forever, no matter how many times we've already explained it. In other words, we have this rule to exclude a lot of boring discussion so that we can have an interesting discussion. If we don't exclude this class of degenerate instructions, we NEVER GET TO HAVE the interesting discussions.

EXCEPT THAT IS NOT ENTIRELY TRUE, because in fact if you want to know about Feminism 101 and Privilege Explained For Freshmen and I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THIS ARTICLE ON THE TOAST IS TALKING ABOUT then I guarantee you that you can start a Tangency  [+] thread and people like me will catch you up, with patience and even maybe citations, so long as we think you're asking in good faith. 

If you do not have a working knowledge of what derailing and sea-lioning is, if you don't know what privilege is, if you don't grasp how subaltern narratives are excluded from the discourse and the experiences of marginalized groups are made invisible, then I heartily encourage you to LOOK UP THOSE THINGS before you post in a thread about women or sexism or GBLT issues or racism or anything like that, because YOU ARE DRAMATICALLY INCREASING THE LIKELIHOOD THAT YOU WILL GET RED TEXT IF YOU WALK IN AND START TALKING WITHOUT A GROUNDING IN THE BASIC REALITIES OF THE SITUATION.

Now, I am allowing for the possibility that you can disagree that any of those things exist (although if you don't think privilege and discourse control and patriarchy exist, I think you are seriously in the same boat as YECs and THAT BOAT SUCKS BECAUSE IT IS IMAGINARY SERIOUSLY NOBODY BUILT A BOAT THAT TWO OF EVERY ANIMAL COULD FIT IN AND FORGOT THE UNICORNS OR SOME SHIT) and still get along okay in our threads, IF YOU HAVE A GOOD WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF THOSE THINGS YOU DON"T BELIEVE IN, but you are going to be ice-skating uphill.

So, short form: No matter what you believe, if you do not have a working understanding of feminism (which anyone can get if they're willing to read some pages on the internet and ask a few questions in a thread designated for feminism noobs) then I would personally suggest they steer the hell clear of certain RPGnet threads. This is not a policy mandate or a mod instruction or whatever. This is me giving frank and free advice as a fellow user.