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2009-05-25 B ⁄ X Affordances

Gaming with kids I get to play Labyrinth Lord with Zeno and his kids, rarely. In the spirit of yesterday’s post on old school affordances, let me list some of them, as far as I’m concerned. As I noted in yesterday’s post, whether these are affordances you prefer is an entirely different question. All I’m saying is that if you agree with them, then Labyrinth Lord or B/X D&D by Moldvay, Marsh, and Cook might be a system you’d like.

No Skills: This challenges players. They need to roleplay to be diplomatic, intimidating, bluffing, or sense the DM’s motives. I also find that players need to guess where hidden treasure and secret doors are. This usually involves mapping.

Few Classes: Fewer classes and no prestige classes or other specializations provide less mechanical differentiation between characters. Players need to roleplay in order to differentiate characters. This also makes character generation easier and faster as there is no character career planning required.

Quick Chargen: Easy character generation with few actual choices to make speed things up. A high attrition rate is therefore more acceptable as you can bring multiple characters to the table and make extras in a minute or two.

Rare Healing: Players need to avoid wandering monsters and avoid unnecessary fighting. This makes strategic decisions (when to fight) more important than tactical decisions (how to fight).

Simple Combat: No explicit rules for combat maneuvers and battle grids result in quicker combat rounds, less waiting for your turn, and possibly more fights per session, if desired.

Little Damage, Few Hit-Points: Fewer attacks and smaller damage bonuses simplify the math and speed things up.

Smaller Bonuses: The smaller bonuses due to abilities reduce the math and produce far less trickle down effects. This also makes the initial ability rolls less important (without actually resorting to point-buy). Characters are also mechanically more similar.

Random Chargen: Random character generation also provides a strong incentive to just play the class the dice suggest possibly resulting in a surprise for players and interesting party dynamics.

Treasure Is Experience: Treasure acting as story reward encourages to research their goals, picking their fights carefully. It also provides for an easy and quick reason for the party to form and go adventuring.

No Magic Item Bazaar: There are no good rules for magic item creation and trading, therefore they are rare (what you find is what you get – WYFIWYG). They cannot be used for character differentiation. Instead, creative use of magic items is encouraged since they are rare and cannot be sold to buy something else.

Random Encounters, Random Monsters: These force the DM to improvise and adapt the story on the fly (not adapting the story will lead to a dull game).

Do you agree? Things I missed? What cool experiences does your favorite system afford?

(Also note how I sneakily avoided the use of “old school” in the title, haha.)

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Comments

I completely agree with you – and would be happy to play a game with those kinds of rules. ;)

– zeno 2009-05-25 17:28 UTC


I wonder if one could use some more IT/Usability terms and tools for analyzing RPG systems, and how useful they would be in comparing them. Take the cognitive dimensions for example: a role-playing ruleset could be viewed as an information artifact using them. What you describe as ‘oldschool’ would then translate to few premature commitments, short gradient of abstraction, terseness, low viscosity, escape from formalism, etc. at the expense of poor role-expresiveness (no specialized elements of the game), lots of hidden dependencies, weak juxtaposability, etc.

Of course, since it’s a game, you don’t really want the interface to disappear – the point of the game is that it’s hard in some way – the one that is fun for your players and you.

RadomirDopieralski 2009-05-25 21:03 UTC


Even though I’m not playing D&D, and have never done so outside of some ill-fated 3rd Edition games, I have the exact same key points in my latest game. I think they all come together to make for a really fun game.

SuperSooga 2009-05-25 23:08 UTC


“They need to roleplay to be diplomatic, intimidating, bluffing, or sense the DM’s motives.” Does this mean actually being those things, or just being able to describe them. I assume physical actions don’t need to be acted out, so I’m not seeing why “mental” ones would have to be. This also seems to limit players to characters who are only as good at those skills as they are.

“Players need to avoid wandering monsters and avoid unnecessary fighting.” I don’t find that fighting necessarily means a stop to role-playing. Fights should always have high stakes, and move the story forward. If you want them to avoid wandering monsters, why put them in? If a fight is unnecessary, and would not be fun or advance the story, why allow the possibility?

“Instead, creative use of magic items is encouraged since they are rare and cannot be sold to buy something else.” Creative use of items doesn’t relate to creative characterization or role-playing, the way I think of the terms. As with role-playing the “social” skills, this approach would seem to be about testing the intelligence of the players. What if the character being played is less creative than the player needs to be?

“Random Encounters, Random Monsters:” These can be good seeds, but once the story has started to form, encounters should be meaningful - until there’s a need for more inspiration.

“Do you agree?” Well, not entirely. If I didn’t quote it above, I more or less agreed with it, or could go either way.

“What cool experiences does your favorite system afford?” In theory, it can afford anything, but I’ve not had time to plumb it, really. Generally, I go for stories that allow for exciting, positive, hopeful adventures. Since a GM can crush the characters whenever he wants, I’d only introduce serious hardship or failure if the players agreed with me that it would be an interesting narrative choice. If they did, there’d be nothing preventing such a story from being told with the rules I prefer, but it might take some slight adjustment of the types of challenges they’d face and choices they’d have to make.

– pdunwin 2009-05-27 06:03 UTC


Indeed, I prefer my players to describe what they are saying, which arguments they bring forward. If a players does not like to talk, chances are his character will not be very diplomatic. That’s also part of challenging players, for me. I like it, and therefore I like it when my system has no skill system which would “afford” rolling dice instead.

This is the same answer I have for the question on magic items: I’m playing the game not to simulate a world where the character can be smarter than the player, I’m playing the game to challenge the players via their character in our shared world. That’s why the systems are good at challenging players and are probably less suitable for world simulation.

I allow wandering monsters because of two reasons: First, rolling up a wandering monster surprises me as the DM just as much as it surprises players. I need to improvise on the spot, and I like it. Second, wandering monsters force players to make the strategic decision of when to fight. Players meet another party and need to figure out: Is this a distraction, a potential ally, an enemy guarding treasure, or just a time and energy sink.

I’m not sure what to make of your statement that your favorite can in theory “afford anything” – are you saying that system does not matter? Is this based on your observation that you and your players can experience “exciting, positive, hopeful adventures” no matter what rules you use? Does that mean you specifically hand-pick the rules you use? If you’re playing Rolemaster and the enemies roll ought to roll on the critical hit tables, do you ignore it? If your players spend time at the table worrying about which feats to pick and which prestige classes to work for, do you ignore it? Or are both elements part of “exciting, positive, hopeful adventures”? To me, Rolemasters affords deadly combat because of the critical hit tables; D&D 3.5 affords strategic character generation because of its feat & class system. If I don’t enjoy those elements, then I’ve picked the wrong system. I can pick a different system, or I can house rule it. Either way, I cannot just pick any system, because their affordances are important. They influence the way I and my groups play. We can’t afford (hah!) to pick a system that will “afford anything.”

AlexSchroeder 2009-05-27 09:34 UTC


“I’m playing the game not to simulate a world where the character can be smarter than the player, I’m playing the game to challenge the players via their character in our shared world.” That’s quite an eye-opener for me. I’m used to games in which characters can be very different from their players, including smarter and more charismatic.

“are you saying that system does not matter?” It doesn’t matter to the role-playing, no. I game with people who can role-play boardgames and wargames, not just role-playing games.

The question was about my “favorite system.” I believe that my favorite system could reasonably well accommodate any type of role-playing or story theme. There are games that would work better if I was trying to run, say, a horror game, or a pirate game, or a mystery game, or diplomatic game, but so long as the players were on my side and understood the theme, just about anything could work under my favorite system.

“Is this based on your observation that you and your players can experience ‘exciting, positive, hopeful adventures’ no matter what rules you use?” Well, no, in as much as I haven’t played all (or even many) of the systems out there. I’m just talking about my favorite system, which happens to be geared toward that kind of game.

“Does that mean you specifically hand-pick the rules you use?” I usually try not to discard rules offered by a particular system. Blind faith in the designers, I’m afraid.

“If you’re playing Rolemaster and the enemies roll ought to roll on the critical hit tables, do you ignore it?” No, because that would be part of what makes the game exciting. The ability, skill, magic, or technology to come back from that critical is what would make the game positive and hopeful.

“If your players spend time at the table worrying about which feats to pick and which prestige classes to work for, do you ignore it?” No, the ability of characters to improve and of the players to guide the improvement would be positive and hopeful.

“Or are both elements part of ‘exciting, positive, hopeful adventures’?” Yep!

“To me, Rolemasters affords deadly combat because of the critical hit tables;” Deadly can be exciting.

“D&D 3.5 affords strategic character generation because of its feat & class system.” This can be hopeful and positive. I’ll grant that it’s probably only exciting for one player at a time, and I would encourage players to improve their characters away from the table and share the in-game description with us at a different time.

“If I don’t enjoy those elements, then I’ve picked the wrong system. I can pick a different system, or I can house rule it.” Or you can adapt and make them enjoyable. Me, I’m not a big one for character degeneration, but that’s how Call of Cthulhu works. If I’ve joined a game of that, then I’ve bought into that part of the system and I do what I can to take some fun out if it, usually in the description of the decrepitude.

“Either way, I cannot just pick any system, because their affordances are important. They influence the way I and my groups play. We can’t afford (hah!) to pick a system that will ‘afford anything.’” In looking back over this article and the earlier one to which it links, I get the impression that the reason “affording anything” is potential problem is because players will latch on to the parts of the system that they like - which may not be the parts of the system that everyone else likes. The disconnect I’m having is that I’m assuming full player-buy in of a system. If a player came to Call of Cthulhu planning to go in guns blazing, I’d assume they were not aware of the way the system was designed and I’d try to explain it before the game began. They could still play that way, but they’d know what would likely result. If that didn’t suit them, I’d expect them to pick a different game. However, if my entire group (including me) wanted to play Call of Cthulhu that way, I don’t see what would prevent us from having an exciting, hopeful, and positive game of Call of Cthulhu. We wouldn’t even have to throw out any of the rules, but we’d probably have to create our own adventures and choose the adversaries with some care.

(I should mention that Call of Cthulhu is not my favorite system. For one thing, it “affords” boring shopping trips and nitpicking attention to detail. If no one’s interested in those things, the system becomes much more enjoyable for me.)

It’s possible that I’m misunderstanding the point of these articles, but I do think that with reasonable and adaptable players the system doesn’t particularly matter.

– pdunwin 2009-05-28 03:28 UTC


I agree with you, the problem with “affording anything” is that “full player-buy in of a system” is not a given in the games I play.

The lack of player-buy in starts with myself: I find character creation for D&D 3.5 and Rolemaster a chore. I find combat on a battlegrid a chore. I do a lot of rulelaywering in D&D even though that’s not what I want out of the game (I think). The reason is that I find playing with a system that fits poorly is still better than not playing at all. I end up playing with systems that afford a kind of gameplay that I don’t enjoy that much.

AlexSchroeder 2009-05-28 09:27 UTC


So basically you can’t find players to play the type of game you want to DM? That is indeed a rough predicament. Of course you want your players to want to play the game you are running, but as a player I also feel it is important that the DM want to, you know, DM :) And frankly, I am also of the opinion that the DM’s opinion on what type of game to run should have much greater weight than each individual player.

By way of example, I would, under almost no circumstances, run BECMI or AD&D 1st/2nd edition, for a variety of rational and irrational reasons. I would, however, consider playing all three. So I think maybe you can push to run the game you want to run, and push harder than you are now. Of course, I am sure there will be people who feel more strongly about the system they play in, so you risk losing those players.

– Adrian 2009-05-28 12:32 UTC


Actually we had an informal vote about it. Back in 2007 we switched from M20 to D&D 3.5 in the Kitsunemori campaign, and last year we had a two short adventures to see whether we liked M20 Hard Core: 2008-09-22 Some Paizo GameMastery using M20 HC coming up. And the result was clear: 2008-10-14 Cannot Please Them All. Zeno ended up not playing anymore, so Claudia and I are the only two who like the simpler rules.

Then again, I’m taking the long view and teaching Zeno’s kids how to play Labyrinth Lord. :)

Playing in the park

AlexSchroeder 2009-05-28 12:43 UTC


I think it’s more than just different people liking different things. I have noticed a similar problem before with customizable user interfaces: given a choice, users (players) will actively choose settings (rules and game decisions) that are inconvenient (not fun) for them, just because that’s what they are used to, because that’s what they think it should be or simply because it seems easier (more fun) in the short term. When that happens, a good designer will try to come up with solutions that discourage (or even forbid) such choices, and let you focus back on playing the actual fun game, not the meta-game of finding out what is fun.

RadomirDopieralski 2009-05-28 18:09 UTC


“’full player-buy in of a system’ is not a given in the games I play.” Nor in mine, I’m afraid. It’s an ideal to which I aspire, but will likely never reach. What’s left to me is to focus on those players who do buy-in to the same kind of gameplay I enjoy and do my best to tolerate the rest. Most games, I find, “afford” players the opportunity (if that’s the right phrase) to personalize their characters however they want, and this sometimes leads to characters who are very far outside what I’d like the theme of the game to be. I don’t know of rules that force (or don’t afford) certain speech modes and characterizations, and probably wouldn’t want to play under them if I did, but that sort of lack of “buy-in” tends to rankle me. Usually I can get used to it by focusing on my own character or on other aspects of the game.

“I find character creation for D&D 3.5 and Rolemaster a chore.” The process can be complicated but at least in 3.5 it could also be relatively simple. Just because there are classes, races, feats, etc, that were designed to mimic, say, a samurai or ninja, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t take a bog-standard, easy-as-pie Fighter or Rogue and call him a samurai or ninja. But I don’t know which part of it was a chore for you. Fortunately a) it is (or can be) a relatively short part of the gaming process (and can be handled outside of the game and b) others who do enjoy the process might sometimes be willing to craft characters for you.

“I find combat on a battlegrid a chore.” I can see that. I’d certainly like to have a combat system that would work in our heads, but the amount of buy-in required to make it equally fair and equally enjoyable is daunting to me.

“I do a lot of rulelaywering in D&D even though that’s not what I want out of the game (I think).” Curious. I find myself doing it too, mainly when I feel that someone’s fun is being impacted by a misinterpretation of a rule (sort of unintentional lack of “buy-in”) but I strive not to become the person who kills the fun just to get everything “right.” Another ideal to which I aspire.

“The reason is that I find playing with a system that fits poorly is still better than not playing at all.” I quite agree.

“I end up playing with systems that afford a kind of gameplay that I don’t enjoy that much.” It must be quite a balancing act. RPGs by their nature are meant to afford a lot of freedom. Humans, by their nature, are imaginative and contain a lot of preconceived notions and assumptions. I imagine that for any two given systems and any five or more given people there’s going to be at least one person who finds the system being played to be a “poorer fit” than the other system.

A chilling thought: this sort of edges on religions in a weird way. Religions have “affordances,” intended or not, and in any sizeable group of people ostensibly following the same religion there are going to be people who take advantage of those “affordances” in a way that the other people don’t approve of. In the case of RPGs, since it’s just our free time and not our immortal souls at stake, perhaps there’s a way past affordances we don’t like through greater tolerance and adaptability.

pdunwin 2009-05-29 12:48 UTC


I don’t know if anyone is checking the comments on this page anymore, but I wanted to mention that I just read A Quick Primer for Old School gaming. More eye-opening for me and it made me think about why I appreciate “new-school” games. I don’t agree with the article’s take on how “modern” games are run, of course. They can be run that way, but it’s easily avoided. Playing the boring way is “afforded,” in the sense that the rules don’t prevent it, but not in the sense that the rules encourage it.

Well, anyway, I have a clearer idea of why people prefer some games over others, though I still think the enjoyment of a game depends more on the players than the system.

pdunwin 2009-05-30 04:22 UTC


Heh, I still read the comments! Not sure who else follows my RecentChanges. As far as I’m concerned, however, everything on-topic has been said.

I’m still pondering Radomir Dopieralski’s comment regarding users being bad designers so to speak and picking the less useful option and the implied duty to restrict choices to what’s good for them, in a way. While I agree in Software – I like opinionated software that I can use if I like the design or ignore it if I don’t – I’m not sure I want to apply such an antidemocratic principle to an existing gaming group.

Sure, if I was offering a game to strangers on some sort of market, that would be better. But as it is, I’m not so sure.

AlexSchroeder 2009-05-30 11:59 UTC


Good analysis! As I look back on these I consider some to be desirable or undesirable for my vision of how D&D should work, but it’s only by breaking them out and determining the intended and unintended consequences of rules on gameplay that we can evolve our own games in the direction we want.

mxyzplk 2009-05-31 16:03 UTC


A welcome post, and much more serious than the nostalgic mantras passed off as ‘analysis’ and ‘cultural history’ by so many old-school bloggers. Simple and well-put.

Wax Banks 2009-06-03 02:12 UTC


Thanks. :)

AlexSchroeder 2009-06-03 11:48 UTC


Also something I enjoy: The Ever-Present Threat of Death keeps me awake!

AlexSchroeder 2009-06-04 11:27 UTC


For a negative point of view, check out Feedback From Some Former Northern Marches Players.

AlexSchroeder 2009-06-05 09:00 UTC



AlexSchroeder
On the topic of quick character generation, here’s James Young saying Char Gen is Super Boring, specially for new players. I agree!

AlexSchroeder 2014-03-15 08:21 UTC

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