Friday, February 3, 2012

What works in D&D - part 5


One of the iconic physical artifacts of the D&D experience is the DM screen. I, personally have a kind of love/hate relationship with the cardboard wall. Its nice, every now and then, to take it down, roll your dice in the open, and be a little more engaged with the table. Nothing to hide, so to speak.

Which brings us to an interesting point. Is the function of the screen to hide what you're doing (notes, maps, dice, etc) from the players? In part, perhaps. But those screens aren't just blank on the Dm side, the side opposite all the pretty art. They are functional - the 1E screens have all the intricate combat tables, saving throw matrices, cleric turning charts, and so on.

And I love all those charts. They work - they provide an invaluable service, and they are why 1E adventure modules have a much lower page count than, say, 3E modules.

Because they eliminate the need for stat blocks.

Its an easy thing to overlook after 12 years of giant stat blocks, easy to compare a 3E gnoll stat block with a 1E gnoll stat line, and say, "aargh, 3E has all these bloated rules!" when in fact, we just aren't seeing them all every single time a monster stat is written out in a room's description. Because most of it is right there on that handy DM screen, no need to print it over and over again.

It can all be there on the screen because a lot of it is standardized. A 4HD ogre uses the same attack matrice as a 4HD Giblet Zombie. Later editions ended this standardization in favor of more individualized and situational statistics. Why? More realistic? How do you make an Ogre more realistic than a Giblet Zombie by giving it a better save vs. spells? Do players care if fourteen different 3HD monsters have 14 different chances to hit AC 0, or 14 different saves vs. fireball, or 14 different chances to spot a sneaking thief (something taken care of in early editions by the thief's percentage roll, rather than the thief's roll opposed by the monster's roll)?

A little standardization, in actual play, becomes almost completely invisible to the players. How they interact with the world is more easily defined by their own character stats and player ability than how they struggle against an endless array of largely arbitrary situational modifiers, conditions, and self-contradicting rules.

Standardization works, and furthers the emphasis on exploration over stat-based combat scenarios.

8 comments:

  1. A really nice post. Very insightful and well presented. I'd never considered the positive benefits of standardization and I've been at this since Ford was president. Thanks for sharing this, it really got me thinking.

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  2. A lot of stuff in 1st Edition doesn't make much sense but damn, it's fun to play! A bit less realism and a bit more gung-ho works wonders.

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  3. Of course, 4e largely standardized monster HP and damage and saves by only 2 variables - level and role. If you ignore the exceptions in pre-built monsters (i.e., almost all of them), it would have little effect on gameplay.

    Yet somehow they still take 2 pages for encounters that in 1e would only have maybe 4-8 lines of text. It seems mostly because they leave nothing to the imagination of the GM/Players anymore - it's all explicitly detailed and described, and measured out in precise feet and inches to perfect scale.

    I think 1e assumed the GM would fill in the details, which matches my preferred playstyle these days. Ends up customized to the specific play group that way.

    Great post.

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  4. I use the Judges Guild screens and I have to agree with you here.

    http://in-the-cities.com/

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  5. > ...But those screens aren't just blank on the Dm side, the side opposite all the pretty art. They are functional - the 1E screens have all the intricate combat tables, saving throw matrices, cleric turning charts, and so on.

    *g* Yeah, per Keith418, to begin with they weren't blank on either side. To quote Bill Owen;
    "I was completely puzzled by how one side of theirs was just artwork--huh? The players didn't need the reference charts?!"
    => http://www.acaeum.com/jg/MoreFineProducts.html

    > I think 1e assumed the GM would fill in the details, which matches my preferred playstyle these days. Ends up customized to the specific play group that way.

    +1 to that. Too much detail can certainly throttle imagination, both for the GM and player(s). A degree of standardization /can/ help to cut through that, even if it would appear WotC couldn't resist the temptation to spoon-feed their customers in other ways.

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  6. I'd love to get my hands on an original set of the Judges Guild screens, they're not easy to come by!

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