Greetings all. For those of you who aren’t into tabletop role-playing games (RPG) (I’m talking Dungeons and Dragons style), you’ll have to forgive me this series. I’m going into a select subset of geek culture, if not the geekiest of the geekiest, then certainly in the frothy lager head of geeky brew. I’m going to talk about game systems as modeling engines, both for modeling scenarios, character building, and world building. For those readers who aren’t gamers, but do write SF, this may be tangentially interesting. If not, again, apologies. I will include a brief introduction to the RPG concept so folks unfamiliar with the way it works don’t get lost.
For those who enjoy classic RPGs, then welcome and read on…
In all my years of tabletop gaming, I’ve spent more time pouring over rules, making characters, world building, and constructing scenarios than actually playing. The “prep time” for RPGs have been, for me, just as much (and sometimes more) entertaining than actually playing the game. I’ve also found they’ve influenced me as a SF writer.
The rules of a game provide a direct framework for both world building and character building. Some rule-systems influence world design more than others, while there are also those that allow maximum flexibility while increasing detail.
For those who aren’t familiar with tabletop RPGs, there are essentially three roles in the game. The first is the player, who narrates the choices of a single character in the story (and uses the rules to create/design a character). The second is the Game Master (GM), also called Dungeon Master or Storyteller. This person is the referee who narrates the world around the characters, all characters who aren’t played by people (the non-player characters (NPCs)), and the reactions of the world to the players’ choices. The third role is usually also filled by the same person acting as the GM, and that is world/scenario designer. In RPG lingo, it’s called ‘building and running a campaign’. In SF Writer lingo, it’s call world-building and story-crafting. In some cases, this may be done by a game-company by publishing pre-generated worlds and scenarios, which the GM then takes, adapts, and runs. Ok, basics are over now.
Why the term “modeling” over “crafting”? I use World Crafting to refer to the art of building a fictional setting in which to tell a story. World Modeling, as I tend to think of it, is an optional subset where the world builder uses numerical formula and rules (game mechanics) to “model” how the world works. This can be useful to a SF writer in several ways:
- Numerical means to compare powers and abilities of different characters
- Comparison of futuristic weapons, relative spaceship speeds, etc
- world economics
- racial abilities
Modeling these aspects of the world can be used to help achieve story consistency. If you’re a sci-fi writer and have several different classes of space fighter ships, it would do no good to describe the X21-A Orion Spitfire as outpacing and out maneuvering the Y82-Z Mercury Intercepter in one scene, and then maybe 3 books later in a serial series you describe the opposite. Coming up with a “spec sheet” to catalogue your star fleets’ capabilities is a way to avoid this, and game mechanics give a modeling tool to use so that you don’t have to also invent one yourself.
Note, I do not think modeling in this way is mandatory for good story telling, and it runs the risk of becoming too detail oriented–sometimes the smooth flow of a story can suffer for it. Nevertheless, it can be a fun and useful tool if done right.
RPGs model two things: Nouns (Stuff, Characters, Magical spells, etc.) and Verbs (scenes, conflict resolution, combat resolution, spell power vs. magical resistance, etc). As such they give you a tool for both *world* building, and *situation/scene* building.
I will only talk about games I’ve actually played and/or run: The games I’m going to look at:
- Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) (1st and 2nd ed are close enough I’m lumping them together)
- Vampire the Masquerade
- d20 (D&D 3e, 3.5, Star Wars)
- D&D 4th Edition
- Pathfinder (revised d20)
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to examine and compare how they work:
- Basic Mechanics and Overview
- Overall situation resolution (non-combat)?
- Combat system?
- Magic system?
From there, I’ll evaluate on four criteria, the first two specifically about the gaming experience, and the rest have some applicability to writing SF is the author choses to use the game structure as a starting point for world modeling:
- Evaluation for game play: (How fun is it to play? (Character perspective); How fun is it to run? (GM perspective))
- Evaluation for writers and world-builders: (How flexible/fun/powerful is world building? How flexible/fun/powerful is character building?)
Finally, I’ll talk about some of the modeling mechanics I used for Ahmbren, the world of Lightfall. I didn’t pre-model all aspects of the world, and borrowed the best of multiple systems to set the stage for things like magic and magical powers.
Without further ado…
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D)
AD&D inherited from the original stream of tabletop RPGs, D&D. It is the Grandaddy system, responsible for kicking off the overall genre in the 80s. So, while you will find me critical of this system, it does hold a sense of nostalgia for me.
AD&D Mechanical Overview: AD&D uses all the standard variety of dice (20, 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4 sided dice). It is a hodge-podge of rules, with no unifying system. Spells are handled differently from melee combat. Skills were nonexistent in its early version. Characters are described primarily by 6 statists, race, class, and level. Along with level went how much hardiness you have (hit points (HP)), what kind of armor you wore, and how much damage your weapon does. HP and your statistics were better the higher the number. Armor Class was better the lower the number, as was your to-hit score (THAC0 for those who remember). Rolling high was always good, unless you were called upon to make a check against a stat (like Strength or Intelligence)… then, you had to roll lower than your number, to preserve the effect that high numbers for stats are good (it’s easier to roll under a 17 than a 4, for example). As players demanded more complexity and rule-gaps to be filled, the publisher tacked on rules without a sense of unifying theme, resulting in a jumbled mess of ad-hocery by the time the game reached its maturity.
Non-combat situation resolution. There is none to speak of. Infrequently used were stat-checks (roll under your stat, using three 6-sided dice), and skills were tacked on later. However, these really weren’t part of the core system. This reflects that the original AD&D had no underlying unifying game mechanic.
Combat. Combat was determined by comparing the character’s to-hit ability to the opponent’s Armor Class, and determining the target number you needed to beat on a 20-sided die. You rolled one die, and then if you beat the number, you roll the dice specified for the damage of your weapon, and deduced it from the opponent’s HP. In principle, when your HP run out, you’re dead. Overall, I found this single-dice role for combat to be a rather boring game mechanic. AD&D didn’t come pre-packaged with many combat options other than “I swing at the goblin”. To make matters worse, the HP system was explained as an abstract system of hardiness and skill, not a pure measure of life. In practice, this meant that a dagger, which could do a max of 4 HP of damage, could not kill any hero beyond 1st level, since everyone would have more than 4 HP of life. The “I stab him while he’s sleeping” had to be handled by common-sense GM narration, and not by any of the rules. AD&D combat requires creative narration to make it interesting in spite of itself, and for this I think it is the weakest system on the list.
Magic. Here’s where I hate the Dungeons and Dragons franchise to this day, although it’s gotten better as it’s gone on. In AD&D, game designers suffered the same mentality that early computer game programmers did: games should be hard, and any game that’s not hard isn’t worth playing; only losers have fun playing games that aren’t hard. In other words, fun wasn’t the target design. This is especially true in the AD&D magic system. By design, there was no game balance with magic. In the early levels, wizards were weak and useless. They got to use one spell per day, which gave them one attack per day (in-game day). Other than that they had to hang back and offer sage advice to the other players. Pretty much any direct hit would take them out. I’m skeptical of any wizard who truly made it past the first few levels without some rules-bending on the GM’s part. (When I ran, I always had my players start at level 3, in order to mitigate some of this nonsense). Ostensibly, the payoff for wizards was at the higher levels in the game, they were the most powerful characters. I high level wizard could move mountains, destroy kingdoms, and test the limits of imagination with a carefully crafted wish spell–which then became a contest to see if the GM could interpret the wish literally in a way to screw over the player. Again, game design nonsense.
All that said, this is not what kills AD&D magic for me. It comes back to game mechanics (and this affects the world modeling discussion later on). I mentioned earlier that the hapless player who wanted to play a wizard, maybe having visions of slinging spells like Merlin and being an all around general badass, could cast one spell per day. Per DAY! Why? Oh, because magic is fickle, and once you cast the spell you forget it and have to re-learn it. Every night, wizards have to re-memorize (re-learn) spells they cast during the day.
That’s fucking stupid.
Yes, I realize Gygax was influenced by one of the fantasy series he enjoyed (Dying Earth, by Jack Vance). I’ve not read this book, but I still think the concept is stupid. It may be an interesting idea for a story or a world, but it certainly didn’t deserve to become, through the vehicle of AD&D, the model for mainstream sword and sorcery magic.
Granted, the mechanics of having to prepare spells every day can be explained in different ways… and that’s fine. The “preparation” system in AD&D redeems itself in AD&D’s d20 grandchildren. However, in the 80s and 90s, if you were playing D&D or reading D&D inspired books (like Dragonlance), you were left with a lame-assed excuse for a magic system. (Again, not having read Vance’s books… it may have been great in that–however, it’s such a specific “way” for magic to work, it should have stuck in the world for which it was built, and not become the universal template for franchise after franchise).
AD&D Evaluation for Gameplay
Most of us gamers grew up on it, and most of us had a blast. It hooked us on the genre, so from that perspective, it was certainly a successful game. However, with the alternatives out now, I think I would stab myself in the eye if forced to play this again. AD&D provides a framework, but it absolutely requires narrative creativity to bring it to life. (“Wait,” you might say, “this is true of all such gaming systems.” Yes… however, it seems to me that other game systems support narration, and this one doesn’t as much. Then you might say, “Yes, but this one time we had so much fun…” yeah, I don’t care.)
Character Creation: If AD&D had one thing going for it: Character creation was quick, because it was simple. If you died, you could “roll up a new on” in minutes and be back in the action. Pretty much every game system after this requires an hour, or more (ahem, Rolemaster) to gen up a character. More on that later. The only complaint I had in the early days was that what you could be was driven by the ad-hocery of the game mechanic system. Wizards couldn’t use a sword or wear armor. Why? No explanation. Each world came with some lame excuse. In Dragonlance, it was written in the books that the gods had decreed it so wizards wouldn’t become too powerful. In other words, the gods decreed the artificiality of game balance (wizards could rule the world with their magic, and if they didn’t it wasn’t because they couldn’t pick up a sword at low level). In fact, a wizard couldn’t equip any weapon other than the most basic of weapons (daggers, staff, sling). (Nevermind a sling takes actual skill, as does knife fighting and quarterstaffing). Monks couldn’t wear armor, Fighters couldn’t learn a single spell (unless they were elves), and learning a new profession meant starting the game over. (The rule was, if you were a wizard and wanted to learn to be a fighter, you kept your HP, but started over as a level 1 fighter. If you used any wizard abilities, you couldn’t progress. This made some amount of sense, but if you were a fighter wanting to learn to be a wizard, if you stabbed someone with a dagger you could get experience because it was a wizard’s weapon, but if you picked up your sword, there were penalties.) AD&D was built around the concept: You must work and sweat for any inkling of awesome you might be allowed to feel.
Playing got pretty boring after a while unless the GM was good, and running also got boring. What it came down to was this: the narrative act of cooperative storytelling was fun, and as good as the group of people you had. General consensus was that when you cracked open the books to use rules to resolve a situation, the game easily got bogged down. Dungeon crawls with lots of combat got to be a repetitive grind. Fun could drain out of the room with the dreaded words from the Dungeon Master: “Roll for initiative…”
AD&D World Modeling Evaluation for Writers
This should be no surprise, but this is a relatively horrible system for writers to use, unless they are specifically writing for the franchise (and had a time machine to port their stories back to the 80s and 90s–the D&D world has moved on). This is not to say some of the books weren’t useful. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide had some great sections on world-building… brief descriptions of the different kinds of government, economies, and religions, and this was one of the few books out at the time that specifically addressed world building in this manner.
Mechanically, however: every 5th level wizard is gonna have a Fireball Spell to chuck. Because of the way characters are boxed in, this system offers very little to the non-gaming writer. May as well just create characters without aids.
World-building is the same. The rules that govern characters and the rules that govern magic pretty much set a rigid structure for the metaphysics of the world. Magic in Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft was essentially the same as magic in Dragonlance. So, for the SF writer, this modeling mechanic doesn’t prove useful.
So if AD&D is such a (relatively) poor world-modeling tool for writers, why include it? Because this is the baseline against which the others will be compared. This sets the stage for the genre.
So, that took longer than I thought. Rather than cram the rest of the systems into 1 long super-post, I’ll continue with the rest of the RPGs in the weeks to come, in this manner (not necessarily every week. I’ll continue this series interleaved with other topics).
So, Part 2 to follow, and cheers all!