Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Montrosities and PITAs

As much as I loved playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons when I first started, eventually it started getting on my nerves. Because the game had evolved from miniatures wargaming rather than being designed from the start as a role-playing game (understandable, since the category didn't really exist before D&D), there was a lot of abstraction built in for game balance purposes that didn't make a damn bit of sense from a roleplaying standpoint. At the same time, its reliance on detailed charts and special rules for different types of actions made it incredibly specific in weird places.

For instance, the rule for characters knowing skills (other than the central skills for their character class) consisted of one table in the Dungeon Masters Guide accompanied by one paragraph that basically said, "Just use your judgement on whether the skills apply to any situation and how." The entire section took up less than half a page.

On the other hand, the rules for contracting diseases (which the DM Guide suggested be consulted for every month of game time) were very detailed and took up a page-and-a-half. I don't know anyone who used those tables as written, because they were PITA rules--Pains In The Ass, for both the characters and GM.

Role-Playing Rule #4: PITA rules serve no purpose. They'll either be ignored or drive players to a different game.

Or there was the entire central concept of character classes and levels. The idea that your profession would determine what kind of clothing you could wear, or what weapons you could wield, was silly. Just as silly was the idea that you could only get better at, say, lock-picking or learning spells by killing monsters and taking their treasure (because monsters and money were the only things that gave you experience points). And then your character would suddenly get better at everything, all at once. Yes, there was a section in the Dungeon Master's Guide that said you actually had to travel to your mentor and take a month off in game time to train, but nobody really gamed that out cause it was another PITA rule. In practice, the process was compressed to a house rule that said "you can't level until you leave the dungeon."

So we would go in, clear two or three rooms, get wounded in combat and leave to heal up and get more spells (more about that later). Go back in, clear another two or three rooms, leave to level. Rinse and repeat until dungeon is clear. It might take you over a year of game time to clear one really big dungeon.

And then there was combat. Holy crap, where do I start on combat? Well, as I said last week, combat and movement took place on a grid of one-inch squares, with each square equalling 10 feet per side. Only one character could fit per square; the rationalization for this was that you needed all that room to swing a sword. But that meant if your party of six characters ran into a group of, say, six orcs, you'd need to be in a room that was 1200 square feet to accommodate the battle. That's almost as big as my house.

But, you say, you'd really need that much room for 12 guys fighting with swords. Fair enough. But that sort of scale meant that you'd routinely encounter dungeons with 20 foot wide corridors to allow the characters to walk two abreast. For mapping purposes, corridors and rooms were huge, never cramped or claustrophobic as you'd expect in a subterranean chamber. And the scale tripled, from feet to yards, when you went outside. Each character occupied a 30-foot by 30-foot square outside.

If you picture it on a football field, it looks pretty ridiculous--one guy with a sword standing on the 35-yard line, let's say, swinging a sword at an orc on the 45- yard line. You could say they were actually toe-to-toe on the 40, but say the fighter was also being attacked by orcs on either side; the closest they could approach would be 15 feet away.

This is explained away in the rules by saying that, since combat rounds are one minute long, each round actually contains a flurry of effort on both sides accompanied by lots of moving back and forth and such. That's right. You could only take one attack per minute. If you were to game out a boxing match in AD&D, each fighter would only be able to roll three punches per round of the fight.

It just seemed as if, the longer I played AD&D, the more it seemed completely made up of arbitrary rules and ridiculosities and complex tables that nobody ever used.

Armor didn't make you resistant to damage, but harder to hit.

Stats ranged from 3 to 18. Why? Because that was the range for three 6-sided dice. If you were a fighter, you could have exceptional strength over 18. But you couldn't have a strength of 19, oh no. You had to roll percentile dice to come up with a strength between 18/01 and 18/100. WTF?

A 10th level character could take roughly ten times the damage a 1st level character could. Once again, it was abstractly described as your being so experienced in combat that you could avoid attacks that would have killed you previously or something like that. And it certainly seemed in keeping with the fantasy genre, where heroes in battle were invariably described as "bleeding from a dozen minor wounds." But it just seemed silly, especially since there were no penalties for being wounded. You could have 176 hit points, like Marshall (my high-level bald bard from Paul's Rainbow Road campaign), take 175 points worth of damage and still operate at full-capacity indefinitely on that one remaining hit point.

Then there was all the bookkeeping. Reading through the Players Handbook and the DM Guide, it's clear that Gygax saw the game largely as one of resource management. You had to buy food and supplies and pay upkeep on your castle or whatever. Spells required material components to cast, and if your DM wanted to be a dick, he could require you to hunt down or purchase every single component and keep a record of every one you were carrying and mark them off when consumed.

So say your party is in a dungeon and along comes a wandering party of ogres that you have no chance of beating. So the magic-user casts a Dancing Lights spell down the hall to create the illusion of a bunch of torches as a distraction. In order to cast that spell, he'd have to look at his character sheet to confirm he actually was in possession of a bit of phosphorus, or wytchwood, or a live glow worm, cast the spell and mark it off.

Except that that would never, ever happen. In my years of playing AD&D, I don't think anyone ever cast a single Dancing Lights spell. As far as I know, no one in the entire history of AD&D ever used the spell. Why not?

Because of the stupidest stupid rule of all, the rule that stated spell-casters had to select their spells before the adventure and could only cast the selected spell once. The rules explained that each spell had to be memorized before use and would be forgotten once the spell was cast. A third-level magic-user, say, can only memorize 2 first level and one second level spells. That's it. That's your entire wad. That plus the puny dagger which is just about the only weapon your character's class allows you to use. There's no way you're going to waste a slot on fucking Dancing Lights, especially since you have the option of memorizing a good spell more than once, which makes even less sense than the rest.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that it wasn't long until I was looking around for a different game, just for a change of pace.

More about that next week.

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