Friday, January 6, 2012

How Does AD&D Suck?

The other day, the estimable Jeff Rients made a near-perfect little haiku of a post: What Part of AD&D Sucks the Most?  With a mere 39 words, he conjured a gigantic debate that sprawled out to 72 posts at the time I write this.  As a writer marked by prolixity, I admire anyone who can inspire such thought with so few words.  This post was originally to be a comment on Jeff's blog, but given the vast number of existing comments, as well as my own need to be more verbose than commenting easily allows, I make it a post of my own instead.

In my comment to Jeff, I said this:

Damn! That's hard. Like...maybe impossible to answer hard. I'm tempted to go "Other - Percentile Strength", but I have to think more. Certainly, the way Level Limits and spell components were handled kinda sucked, as did segments in initiative.

Man. And yet I loved that game for a long time.

Reading the later comments, I began to see just why I found this question so difficult. Like any good piece of writing, there is more than one thought buried in Jeff's question. There are at least two: which ideas sucked (rationale) and which implementations (rule) sucked?  These can be very different questions with very different answers.

The hottest topic in the comments related to Demi-Human Level Limits and I read most of them as saying that the implementation sucked. The idea behind it is generally agreed to be something like "to provide a weakness to demi-humans to balance out their advantages viz a viz humans" or "to provide a rationale as to why demi-humans don't rule the world". Most commenters had no issue with the idea and, indeed, suggested various alternate implementation that would suck less. I'll note, in passing, that both a commenter named Timrod and Jeff himself appear to have the absolute converse opinion: that the rule is a wonderful implementation of a completely different rationale. They are alone in this so far as I can tell.

The analysis holds true for most of the other suggestions. No one really opposes ideas such as grappling rules or initiative, but rather the implementations of them. A few exceptions: I think the objections to gender-based stat restrictions and training to level up is an opposition to the idea itself. One might expect someone to object to the idea of psionics, but I haven't seen one (nor, obviously, would I agree with it, but it would be a fair opinion to hold). I'm not sure if the objections to Weapon vs. Armour Class are calling the rationale or the rule sucky. Alert, hypothetical, long-time readers of this blog know that I find the idea of Weapon vs. AC very good indeed and have laboured long and hard to find an implementation that suits me.

What does all that mean? Well, it explains what seemed such a paradox to me: why did I love a game that sucked so much? The answer is that, by and large, it was specific rules I disliked and not the underlying ideas. And for a person who likes tinkering, "fixing" mechanics is not necessarily a bad thing to do.

Finally, my thinking confirms for me that I choose Percentile Strength as my suckiest part, but I had to think hard why that was. The thing is that a lot of the sucky rules are so damn easy to ignore that they hardly even count in my book. Did the grappling rules suck? Sure did, but I never met a person who even bothered to read them twice. You could easily forget they existed and get on with the game. Ditto gender restrictions and helment rules et. al.  But Percentile Strength was so in one's face. It was not buried in the middle of the DMG; it right up front in the PH where every damn player would see it at CharGen. You couldn't ignore it. You could house-rule it out, but that's not the same thing. And the implications of it, as others noted in the comments, were profound for changing the perceived need for "good stats".

All that said, I still think this is another example of a sucky implementation and not a sucky idea. If the idea is "to provide for a privileged relationship to Strength for Fighters", then I have no problem with that. Both Spellcraft & Swordplay and Castles & Crusades provide nice rules to address that idea. However, I have to say that my favourite is something I cooked up myself, which was cut from Under the Dying Sun only because I chose to go with One-Roll Combat. If I ran another game with more standard combat I would use this idea: anyone gets a bonus to damage from exceptional Strength, but only Fighters get a matching bonus on the "to hit" roll as they are trained to use their strength to its best advantage. I think that's a rather elegant rule.


  1. I went with Weapon vs. AC because not only was the implementation too fiddly, I think the idea is flawed: it mixes levels of abstraction in a way that I don't think can work. I think different weapons having different strengths and weaknesses vs. specific types of armor makes a lot of sense, is realistic, and depending on implementation might add some interesting player decisions to the game. But AC isn't a specific type of armor, it's an overall rating of defense in the abstract, and that makes the whole thing fall apart. Even in the earliest editions of D&D there were multiple ways to arrive at the same AC (depending on missile weapon range and magic bonuses)... and each version added more things that figured into AC. That's fine, until you try to reason backward from AC to the types of weapons that historically were effective against it: if it's worth messing with at all it should make a crucial difference whether your AC 5 was the result of chainmail, scale-mail and shield, leather armor and a dex of 17, and so forth.

  2. @Joshua: Actually, AD&D represents part of the transition away from AC as a specific type of armor; Weapon vs. AC is a (poor) elaboration of that older concept, appearing right around the time that things like negative AC were eroding the old AC system and switching to AC as abstract rating only.

    @Matthew: Strangely, even though I used the terms "idea" and "implementation" when I expanded on my thoughts about Jeff's post in my own blog, I never noticed the way the objection broke down into just those two, with a greater number of objections to implementation. Good eye!

    My own pick was min/max ability scores, for any reason (gender, race, class,) but I later acknowledged that I disiked pretty much anything about the way AD&D, and Greyhawk, handled ability scores. Percentile Strength? Sucks. Min/Max spells known based on Int? Sucks. Bonus inflation? Sucks.

    I really should write a post on that specifically, though.

  3. @Joshua - yep, that's why I ended up having to redefine AC as "actual type of armour worn" rather than what it became, whicb is "how hard you are to hit."

    @Taslysman - it really did take me a while to work out how that distinction was coming into play. Good post by the way; I feel much the same about the continual need to screw over wizards as some sort of balance to them being too powerful at high levels. Actually, it's just the converse of demi-human restrictions and both are poorly implemented IMO.

  4. @Joshua

    Yes, but that is just a matter poor naming. The concept has always been weapon versus armor type, and at one point AC was really just that: a class of armor. It later mutated into an abstraction, as Talysman notes.

    I have come to appreciate this system more for a number of reasons. First, it helps keep power inflation down. Second, since many different systems handle AC differently (ascending or descending, various values for unarmored) it is more compatible to just specify "AC as plate" (or whatever). Also, this translates easily into other genres, as there are only heavy (plate), medium (chain), and light (leather) armor.


    Please write that post on bonus inflation so that I can reference it. One less post I don't have to write myself. :-)

  5. FWIW, in my house rules I made AC the net armor quality (Chain is AC 5) as well as noting an numerical Armor Type (A-H). Thus someone in Chain is AC 5C, while someone with Scale + Shield is AC5D. Still fiddly, but less confusing.

  6. I object to demi-human level limits as an idea, and humans-first rules on principle, exactly as I object to gender-based stat maximums. They encode despicable ideologies in the physical rules of the game, without making those ideologies important, and as such they encourage taking the ideologies for granted, both in game and out of game. They are mean-spirited without being fun.

    Let me be clear: I'm not advocating political correctness for gamers here or trying to police anyone's imagination, I'm rather saying that if you're going to be chauvinistic then you should be out and proud about it. It might be true that real women cannot be as strong as real men (I don't know that, but people say it). Still, folks seem to object to that for imaginary women. Why do they not object to imaginary elves and dwarves having limited potential? How about imaginary Asians? Again, I'm not saying there's a right answer there - you are responsible for what you imagine, I'm not going to tell you to limit that. But how about a wisdom max for men? Or charisma, or intelligence? There's plenty of prior literature on which to base such ideas.

    If balance is the goal of level limits then I don't object to that idea and yes, my beef is with implementation - there's a hundred ways to achieve it, which will create actual inter-PC balance in every session of play rather than some bizarre illusion of balance that is only apparent to the designer, not the player (imagine if NASCAR allowed some racers to use jet planes, but didn't give them enough fuel to finish the race. Balance?). FTR I dislike xp massaging as a means to "balncing" too: IME either players divide xp evenly, so someone's always lagging a coiple of levels behind, or they choose to keep everyone as much in level lockstep as possible, which defeats whatever purpose you thought you wanted. And I'm not going to tell my players they can't share their rewards however they like.

    So. Sorry for the rant. Just recording that sometimes it is the idea. That and alignment - making good and evil matter in a murderhoboing game is a really interesting problem, which alignment seems specifically designed to avoid or distract from. Alas, in refusing to grapple with the thorny issue, it topples into a swamp of obscurity.

  7. @Richard - I think, although, I may be wrong, that everyone objects to the idea of gender-based restrictions. It's stupid in too many ways.

    Alignment is a toughie. I think the big problem with Alignment is that it isn't at all clear what the idea is supposed to be. It was really just an organizing principle in the early game - these monsters go on the Lawful side and these go on the Chaotic side. I think Alignment only works when the game's cosmos has them function as real powers, such as in Michael Moorcock's fantasies. If Alignment is simply an ethic, then I wouldn't use it.

  8. @Matthew: I'm not defending gender-based rules differences, but why are they stupid (and why might the idea of race-based level limits not be)?

    OK, sorry: I shouldn't put you on the spot like that. You're reporting a common opinion, not asserting its rightness. I kinda suspect there's a generational thing going on regarding sexism - evidently someone thought it was OK to play on gender in this way when 1e was published, now it seems lots of us don't like that kind of play. I'm genuinely puzzled to find that race-based play seems to have different social rules. And yes, I know they're fantasy races, but I'm coming at this from the angle of what we choose to imagine.

  9. Well, I think the "what we choose to imagine" is the point. We could choose to imagine that 3' tall hobbits are usually as strong as a 6' human and that would be fine. But we usually don't; I think for fairly obvious reasons.

    Leaving reality behind, on a purely game level, I think the fiddling with stats is part of the appeal of demi-humans. A way to mechanically enforce "this isn't human". Not the only way and not likely the best way, but a way.

    As to the difference between gender- and racial-restrictions, I think that a lot more women play today than then, while comparatively few hobbits play D&D (or, if they do, they aren't vocal in their complaints). ;)

  10. Yes, only Fighters get a matching bonus on the "to hit" roll as they are trained to use their strength to its best advantage is elegant, with the Damage bonus hypothetically available to all. After all, I'm not willing to accept that the strongest Fighters in every world are always stronger than the strongest Lumberjacks. Conan is da stuff, but he's no Paul Bunyan. That said, I think a training track for Assassins, Rogues and such should be available for them to improve their percentile Strength "to hit" bonus. Thoughts?