The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity

Probably the biggest single source of bad rule and mechanics decisions comes from the fact that most game designers, rather than actually going to a library, base most of their research on the work of other game designers.  In this way errors are compounded, unrealistic ideas are perpetuated, and design flaws from the earliest of games become commonplace in all modern iterations.  It all goes back to the origin of the "role playing game."  Here we are talking about the true origin of the "let’s pretend" game like House or Cops and Robbers, but of the origin of the systemized, rule-based role playing simulation.  It all starts with Chainmail.

Chainmail was a short, cheaply published book by Gary Gygax and Dave Perren, originally published by Guidon Games, copyright 1971 (Gygax claimed 1969, but the copyright information contradicts this).  It was a set of rules for tabletop miniatures battles using lead figures and dice, and contrary to popular geek-convention myth, there was indeed a 12 page fantasy rules supplement present (in addition to the now-standard concept of "hit points").  By 1974-1975 it was being published by Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Rules (TSR).  About this time, the first version of Dungeons and Dragons came out as sort of an add-on to Chainmail, three little brown books that focused on the playing of individual figurine-characters as opposed to conducting large scale tactical combat.  The combat tables determining hits, misses, and damage were very similar to those in Chainmail. This is where all the trouble begins.

The modern idea of the systemized RPG, from pen and paper to MMORPG, all stems from this Chainmail legacy, and several silly factors have never been properly weeded out.  The two biggies are:

  • The focus on combat as the core activity in games that are purportedly about assuming a role, as opposed to a tabletop miniatures battle system
  • Arbitrary and unrealistic characteristics ascribed to weapons and armor, very convenient for calculating casualties in mass combat quickly yet wholly inappropriate for small-scale tactical simulations

It is difficult to underestimate the ability of people to consider themselves an authority on things when their only source of information is a game manual someone else wrote before them, which was in turn based on another game manual, etc. etc.  Things become worse when these designer-types elect to "make a few little adjustments" in the thirdhand systems they’re stealing from.

Example:  In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 1st Edition, there is a huge hairball of a combat chart that nobody used, called the "Weapon vs. Armor Class Type" table.  This one table helps to make sense of the arbitrary D&D weapon damage system of, "duh, a dagger is pretty small so it does 1d4, a bastard sword is a little bigger than a long sword so it does 2d4 instead of 1d8…".  The table assigns various bonuses or penalties to hit with any given weapon vs. an armor type, i.e. a weapon may have terrible chances against full plate and shield, but be better at penetrating chain.  The table was flawed (it treated chain and shield the same as it would treat splint, as they were both base AC 4, etc.), but it lent some purpose to a weapon one might not otherwise consider useful.  It was also very complicated to use for the typical beer and pretzels gamer, and so nobody ever used it.  In the misbegotten later editions of AD&D, this table was simply removed altogether, and players were back to the old choices of longsword, longbow, and two-handed sword.

The advent of the computer as a referee, or even a referee’s assistant, presents entirely new possibilities to get away from these godawful abstrations and arbitrary damage values.  A computer is perfectly happy to calculate whether or not the sun is shining at a bad angle into an archer’s eyes, or the effects of windage on a sniper’s shot.  As better, more powerful machines become available and come down in price, the potential of the MMORPG server to do complex battle calculations increases.  The basic ones aren’t even that complex.  Is the guy being stabbed by the stiletto wearing maille?  Then the stiletto has more effect!  Is a spear longer than a club?  Advantage spear!  Simple considerations like these can add a whole new level of subtle realism to the game, and with it, a whole new importance to strategy in combat, as opposed to how high one’s numbers are.  If game software engineers would stop thinking in terms of an expensive version of 3 little brown books published in 1974 and more in terms of computer-simulated battle conditions, I would be ecstatic.

2 Responses to “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity”
  1. It’s too bad no one reads or considers this idea more. Though to pipe in with others besides Combat and Damage. There are also game design that are stymied in old design that just doesn’t value.

    Attributes. Take a game like Warhammer. They have attributes but they are associated with direct values of what the game is trying to achieve. Movement effect, hit chance so on. In AD&D most of the primary attributes were used to value secondary stats like Bend Bars and Lift Gates, notice percentage. so on. In D&D 3.0 Attributes still had some of there old modifiers but became mostly irrelevant. While they had a potent value for level 1 characters they became near useless as the levels went up. The Hitting Skill BAB was entirely a separate attribute based on class and level as are most of common used abilities. Out side of D&D world systems often used attributes. Sometimes they meant something important as a base starting value % and other times they weren’t. Most of the time Attribute are best just served as secondary modifier.

    Anyways interesting article. Couldn’t agree more with the idea. We are too dependent on using other game material to create our own works.

  2. Tony Stroppa says:

    Most RPGs have extensive rules and mechanisms for combat, but rarely for social or other situations that can be equally important or involved. Still, these rules and RPGs do exist. Maybe a focus on combat is because that’s an important element of the kind of stories people want to tell and experience in gaming. Game of Thrones incorporates a great deal of ass-kicking, so does pretty much all other fantasy, most SF, even popular fiction like Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc.

    I’ve been in (and run) RPGs where combat was a small part and the combat rules were rarely used. As the social aspect is intuitive to most people it didn’t need a lot of “social” rules.

    After all, we interact socially every day, most people don’t fight Orcs on a regular basis. Many police may go an entire career without drawing their service weapon and so on. I’m not saying “don’t fight it” with regards to a preference to combat over social rules mechanisms, but if that’s not what many people want in their RPGs then it wouldn’t still be prominent.

    (That’s not to say that everything that is still common doesn’t overstay it’s welcome; for example, strict character levels and classes. Also, I don’t judge, I get off on the “shooty parts” of RPGs so hey, bring on the combat!)

    Research is always important! Actual research wasn’t available on most weapons and damage wasn’t common until recently, and in the 70’s and 80’s was difficult to access and translate. This does not disprove (or excuse) the fact that early RPGs were simplified and arbitrary, yet, how many RPGs are really based on wisdom handed down from D&D despite having easy access to far more accurate data?

    Newer RPGs like Silhouette, Spotlight, Over the Edge, Dogs in the Vinyard and others purposefully simplify weapons and damage to a degree beyond D&D. (Maybe the rules are intended as being generic or multi-genre, maybe they emphasise playability or social structures, etc.) So the arbitrary nature and simplification is deliberate.

    To sum up, yes, RPGs incorporate a lot of “legacy” systems. Sometimes this is laziness, sometimes it’s because they still serve a purpose. You can’t always reinvent the wheel!

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