Monday, January 9, 2012

Wandering Monsters and GNS

So, Fr. Dave's startlingly acute insight into the role of the Wandering Monster Table got me to thinking (an aside: this is at least the second post that comes from thinking about something that worthy said).  Basically, what FD did was take a mental step to the side and look at the concept of the Wandering Monster from a new light.  In the comments, I noted that his particular shift of POV made me think of yet  another.  As I walked around on my afternoon constitutional, I thought more about this and it occurred to me that here is a place where the GNS Theory (which I never hear discussed anymore) might be useful.

I have always had a troubled relationship with Wandering Monsters in Ye Auld Game.  I honestly didn't even understand the idea when I started playing and ignored it.  Later, I began to understand the idea, but seldom used it because something about it bugged me.  I didn't have the conceptual tools to understand why it bothered me; it just did.  It is clearer now to me that my problem has something to do with how one answers the question, "Why are these 2d6 Skeletons wandering around here?"

When you look at early dungeons, it is pretty clear that the answer to the above questions is something like, "Because that's a decent encounter for this level of the dungeon."  It is an implicitly Gamist concept, in which monster Hit Dice are related to Dungeon Level, and the whole thing has to do discouraging dawdling and noisy war-bands.  That's not to say that one could not provide some in-game rationale, but any such rationale would be an ex post facto invention on the part of the Referee and not the intent of the encounter.

That's what truly irritated me about Wandering Monsters because I was, in the GNS Model, a determined Simulationist, trying hard to play in a world that felt "real".  I wanted to know why it was skeletons, why it was 2d6 of them, and why they were on this particular level and not another (you couldn't even appeal to idea that monsters stick to levels where they won't get eaten by something tougher, because skeletons don't really have any sense of self-preservation).  I wanted a Table that was specifically designed for each locale instead of the endless supply of Giant Rats and Hobgoblins.  But trying to put those together was so much work that I usually just gave up entirely.

Now, what strikes me a so damn clever about Fr. Dave's idea is the way it promotes a Narrativist agenda for the Wandering Monster Table.  And, yes, I wrote that precisely - it makes the Table itself a player in the game, with agency, and a say in the unfolding narrative.  This point-of-view makes it explicit that there is a non-Gamist answer to my question, but still requires the Referee to flesh it out.  These might be the only 2d6 Skeletons in the dungeon, or in the world, and if they are destroyed, there aren't any more.  Unless, that is, they come up again on the Table, at which point some intriguing narrative is surely unfolding: are the skeletons unkillable, rising up again a few hours after being destroyed?  Is there an enthusiastic necromancer just ahead of the party, practicing his art to keep them delayed?  Are the skeletons the unquiet remnants of living monsters killed by the party, chasing them for revenge?

I don't know, but suddenly the whole enterprise seems so much more interesting to me.

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.