Sunday 10 May 2015

Anatomy of an Unused Rule

What prompts a game writer to include rules that they don't even use in their game? It happened to Gary Gygax, writing the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, putting in all those rules about weapon vs. armor and contracting diseases on the random and grappling.

It happened to me - the decision to give experience for sites, not monsters, in the 52 Pages  rules never came about in my own games.  I kept on with a version of the 100xp/ hit die rule from the oldest version of the D&D, the one that has worked well and given a decent rate of advancement of the last four years of play (together with xp for treasure, carousing and occasional story awards for momentous acts that deliver none of these) .

You could argue that writing a rule you don't play reflects a failure of playtesting; in my case, more like a mistrust of playtesting. Why deviate from something that works? Experience, and a look at the AD&D DMG, gives two main reasons.

1. Misguided realism. The driving force of blogs and heartbreakers - the need to install a system that more accurately models some process. These fail for a number of reasons.

  • The GM finds it hard to use the rule on the fly. See AD&D grappling and any number of "Rulemaster" procedures. 
  • The rule makes the game more difficult and less transparent for the players. Many rules that give combat options have this fault. Tactics shift to knowing which attack option or power move to use at which time, rather than common-sense ideas based on movement and positioning.
  • The rule takes away focus from the main action of the game. In 52 Pages I found that recording where on your body you kept each piece of equipment, although consequential for play, was not appropriate to an adventure game. Encumbrance is just fine as a list-based "you're carrying too much stuff" consideration.
  • There are other ways to save the peasants.
  • The rule misunderstands the way the players want to interact with the setting. If you want nasty element like disease or sexism in the game, it's better to present examples in the game (plague-ridden towns to be avoided, female NPCs having a hard time) rather than mechanically restricting or punishing the players with random disease chances or gender limits.
2. Misguided control. This kind of rule tries to use carrots and sticks to motivate player behavior, but ...
  • To encourage something that players do anyway (like giving benefit points for roleplaying).
  • To discourage something that really isn't a problem (like players killing monsters "just for the experience points")
  • To discourage something that really should be handled by better campaign management or interpersonal skills (like player misbehavior towards others, or characters gaining excesses of treasure from the system.)
My experience points rule fell into the latter category. It treated my players like cow-killing, rat-farming murderhobos when they really weren't --and when in any case there were easy fixes available, like awarding xp only for hostile attackers and awarding less xp for "overkill" of much weaker foes. More on that next time.

The advantage of having experience come from concrete achievements rather than abstract geographical goals? It's adaptable to using other people's adventures -- I don't have to go through Temple of the Iron God or Castle of the Mad Archmage putting little stars in key rooms. It also feels less arbitrary to give out experience through things that exist in their own right. The only feature I would consider adding would be to give some kind of reward for bypassing traps, and that is easily enough figured - say, 50 xp for each 4 points of average damage, with more for unavoidable or lethal designs.

So next time I'll explain the one innovation that I used in coming up with my new experience rule, to deal with a specific problem implementing it. Will it be destined for the dustheap? Let's see ...


    As characters face and overcome challenges, they gain experience and knowledge, which allows them to fulfill the roles demanded of them. At the end of each game session, each surviving character that has not significantly disrupted play is awarded an experience throw; roll d6 for PCs and d4 for NPCs:

    Experience Table

    1) Preferred class level is increased one
    2) +2 to physical age
    3) +1 skill or language
    4) House rules, DM decides
    5) +1 skill, language or DM approved feat
    6) +1 level

    1. this is more like gamma world xp

      imagine gammafying dnd - a random modifier or add on from each status level and HD according to class die but one die for each con point, throw around lots of magic items and runs as a 10lv dnd game instead of standard level progression

  2. I agree on the level idea here about the consequences of rule selection, impulses towards false realism and unecessary rules - all are to be avoided. I also have been worrying about tendencies towards totalization and artifical systemization (i.e. rules on different subject should be unified and modelled in mechanically similar way.

    My players are still murderhobos but have always planned thier massacres based on diagetic imperatives, but I still use XP=GP because it's clear and easier on GM record keeping.

  3. Good article! You have many interesting topics. Will be here for awhile!

  4. I've had similar thoughts. If you treat the rules of D&D as oral history, then you have a clear process for pruning your rules. If you look at a rule, and nobody ever remembered to apply it, drop it – like your XP for locations rule.