Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sacred Cows in DnD

Yesterday I talked a bit about Iterative design and the inherent problem of The Ship of Theseus. That got me thinking about my own current projects. Specifically, my AD&D/Lamentations mash-up, and the nature of D&D itself.

The wonderful thing about the OSR movement is that it's a bit like Linux. The core mechanics of D&D are extremely versatile and can be made to do a ton of different things. Everyone in the OSR movement is basically working off the same Kernel, but everyone has customized their own distro to suit their preferences.

In layman's terms: we're all basically using the same engine to power the game, but every variant uses that engine in slightly different ways. And that's awesome. Not just because it allows for ridiculous flexibility, but because the end results are largely compatible. It doesn't matter if the module I'm running was written for AD&D, AD&D2e, Moldvay Basic, White Box, BECMI, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lords, or Swords & Wizardry, it takes very little effort to use it in the framework of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or my own home-brew.

This does raise some interesting questions though. It would be easy to define D&D as the above system, but we also have to take into account 3.x, 4th edition (controversial, I know), and even 5th or D&D next. Each system is as alien to each other as it is the TSR era game. Clearly, changing the way skills work, classes work, special abilities work, spells, etc.. can all be heavily modified without worry.

At what point does the game stop being "D&D?"

The easiest argument would be "If it has the name, it's D&D," but this is intellectually dishonest. First, it precludes Pathfinder, which is effectively a direct iteration of 3.5, and it ignores the fact that the name only has meaning because people associate a certain kind of experience with it. Yes, we could take a 78 Chevette and call it a Mustang, but that doesn't mean people will accept it as a Mustang.

My immediate thought is that D&D requires the following design conceits in order to be "D&D."
  • Iconic Six Stats - you could certainly switch this around, but it's such a trademark by now.
  • Character creation based on classes - I just can't see a point-based character creation system being accepted as "D&D."
  • Earning of experience points - The moment it switched to something like Spiritual Attributes or BW style "beliefs" I imagine people would disqualify it.
  • Level-based advancement - This is a constant throughout every incarnation of the game, and something that separated D&D from other fantasy games early on. 
  • Saving Throws - this is such an odd and counter-intuitive abstraction that it's practically unique to D&D style games.
  • Attack roll - math directly tied to class advancement, rather than being an independent skill
That's my immediate thoughts. I can also imagine some questions coming up if you changed, say, the d20 to 3d6 or something but I'm not necessarily sure either of those would "disqualify" the game from being a D&D game.

What do you think? In your opinion, what are the constants required for a game to feel like a D&D game? 


  1. I largely agree with your criteria, except that I think that the stats do have some flexibility. Gamma World is pretty clearly D&D-like, but its stats are somewhat different. It has pretty much every other characteristic you mention except saving throws (it doesn't have numbered levels, but it does have certain amounts of experience points that give bonuses). I'm not sure that saving throws are essential to a D&D-like game, though they are certainly common to them. Another example of a D&D-like that has different stats is The Arcanum. Perhaps the qualifying criterion should be that it has a fixed list of stats possessed by all or most player characters and NPCs (and in some variations by other creatures). I think that the majority of D&D-likes also use the 3-18 range as the baseline, though I seem to recall a variation somewhere that uses a different range.

    1. The 3-18 range is definitely a commonality. Even TSR's Alternity stuck to it. I'm not familiar with The Arcanum, but I'll have to dig it up.

    2. Ah, I remember. Empire of the Petal Throne used a nominal 1-100 range, though that was mostly reduced to a specific modifier. But, definitely most D&D-likes use the 3-18 baseline.

      The Arcanum started as a supplement from Bard Games for D&D detailing alchemy, called The Compleat Alchemist. They did a couple more "Compleat" supplements, and then put it all together as a full game based on D&D with changes (added a fairly simple skill system tied to the character classes with some flexibility, used armor points to reduce damage instead of armor classes to make hitting harder, simplified most rolls to a general 11+ target on d20, systematized classes and greatly expanded the number of them, tied saving throws to attributes, and so on). Then they produced a couple of supplements detailing the assumed world (an antediluvian world centered on Atlantis), then put them together as Atlantis: The Lost World (with illustrations by Bill Sienkiewicz among others).

    3. Sounds very cool, actually. I'll have to hunt it down. I'm partial to antediluvian settings in general. Thanks for the lead!

    4. I do recommend it highly. To me, it is one of the top 5 best D&D variations (along with ACKS, EPT, 1E, and the Rules Cyclopedia).

  2. What I think makes D&D really feel like D&D are:
    A: Its peculiar system of Armour Class and Hit Points.
    B: Limited use, near instant and failure free spell casting.

    1. I'll totally agree on A. as for B: would a spell-point type system still classify as "D&D"? Or does it need to be pre-memorized vancian spells per level per day?

  3. A daily ration of spell points based on level would still feel D&D-ish.
    The important bit is the limited - but risk free - casting of defined spells from a personal repertoire. Spell casting as a science.
    Systems with on-the-fly spell effects, backlash, physical or mental fatigue , risks of failure .... won't feel like d&d

    1. I dunno. DCC manages to pull it off, I think.

      I think that the important consideration in regard to magic is that it has to feel like a resource, not a power. That is to say, it has to be something that needs to be strategically used as well as tactically. I think that 5E pushes that by making some magic into a tactical resource while leaving most of it as a strategic one (and basically treating the tactical resource as just the "special effect" of the way that wizards fight, as opposed to the way fighters fight).