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.