Saturday, December 26, 2009

Unified Mechanics in RPGs

D&D's wonky game mechanics never used to bug me.  Low AC was good, high HP was good, roll high on a d20 to attack, roll low on a d20 for an attribute check - I had no trouble grasping it all, and never gave it too much thought.  When I started playing 3.5 it took me a second to get used to the new concepts, but that too came swiftly.  Recently, however, I have introduced my girlfriend and a host of other first time pen and paper RPGers to Mutant Future in my ongoing campaign.

Mutant Future is a relatively rules light game, due to its Labyrinth Lord cum B/X D&D heritage, but it has been difficult to get everyone to remember the rules.  While there are not a lot of rules in terms of specific game mechanics to govern things like the use of skills, or sneaking around, or any of the other things that have been codified in 3.5 and 4e, what rules there are have little mechanical relationship to each other.  People ask me constantly if they are trying to roll high or low on a particular throw of the dice, because they like to know before they throw.  I remember one attribute check when somebody rolled a natural 20 and was very excited until I told them it was the worst thing they could have rolled.

I have also been asked the difficult question, "So why is a lower AC better?" and have given my dutiful old school answers, that it stemmed from a miniature war game, that descending AC lets you add all the modifiers on both sides of the attack roll together, that it is just the way it is, dammit!, but it still seems dissatisfying to the players.

What I have come to realize is that there really isn't any good reason (in my opinion) that all the mechanics in a game shouldn't share some logical principle that makes them easy to explain to a first time player.  While I am not a big fan of 3rd edition D&D by any means (4e I like for its tactical combat options), this is something that I think it got right.  This may hurt my old school credentials, but then again, I'm not even 30 yet (barely) and I started playing D&D with 2d edition.

Being able to tell someone, "The basic mechanic is that you add your modifiers to a d20 roll and try to match or beat a target number" is much easier than having to explain all the ins and outs of the old school method.

Just my two cents worth.


  1. A good two cents Carl. For what its worth I prefer Ascending AC in my games, whether I'm playing Mutant Future or Labyrinth Lord.

  2. We're talking about two possibilities - high or low. Add or subtract. Gamers as a species are pretty intelligent. I've never - ever- understood how anybody ever had a problem with this. And unified mechanics are never as elegant as they look. My old 3.5 campaign generated ten times as much confusion and debate as Labyrinth Lord does.

  3. @ nextautumn - that is the way I always thought about it as well. But whether or not I personally understand the confusion, I have experienced it as a very real occurrence in this game. Part of it is that half the people in the game have no pen and paper RPG experience at all, and no-one has a rulebook except for myself. Add to that the fact that several other players only have experience with 3e.

    It would be nice to be able to tell everyone that every time they pick up a d20 they are trying to roll high (or any dice, really). There is no mechanical benefit to having the target numbers vary from high to low, so why do it?

    As a side note, 3.5 IS way more confusing once you add in all the permutations of the system - but the basic concept is simple. Running a game of the complexity (or should I say simplicity) of Labyrinth Lord while simultaneously using the d20 system/high is better convention would make Labyrinth Lord even easier to explain to a newbie.

    I am still not necessarily ready to abandon the rules as written, I just wanted to comment on something that I have noticed for myself for the first time, instead of just hearing other people complain about it.

  4. Nice comment, though I suspect that part of the phenomenon you observe in your MUTANT FUTURE group may have to do with the high number of first-time RPG'ers in that group. Further, many of those aforementioned players are not particularly gamist- or rules-minded. I myself vastly prefer the old "wonky" ways, not out of tradition but because I would prefer to have each individual mechanic make the most sense possible, and I do not care about a unified mechanic. But I came of age when the "wonky," non-unified way was the norm, so it never dawned on me to perceive that as difficult or hard to remember. (For example, if I switched to an ascending AC system, it would confuse the hell out of me -- as it did when I played 3.5.) I totally see your point about "roll high = good" being an easy rule of thumb for novice gamers, but I am pretty comfortable with asking new gamers to learn a few "unrelated" or non-universal concepts as the cost of doing business if they want to play an RPG. Especially in old-school rules-lite systems, this is not much to ask.


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