I honestly don’t remember how I ended up reading Smiorgan’s post on the Department V blog, but no sooner was I reading it than I felt compelled to reply. At first I planned to post a comment there, but those who know me, know that brevity is not my strong suit.
So here I am.
First of all, let me say that it is an interesting post. One of the first things that stood out to me was this quote by Ron Edwards:
I suggest that the systemic differences among many OSR games, even the retroclones, are so profound that they exceed the community ideal of compatibility, which then must be papered over by claims of some kind of homogeneity.
I know Ron is supposed to be some kind of gaming expert, but honestly, what the heck is he talking about? I routinely use materials (primarily adventures) written for Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry (not to mention the classic games on which they are modeled) in my games, converting materials on the fly. Claims that the systemic differences are “profound” is, well, a profound overstatement.
More to the point, though… Smiorgan provided a list of things he (I think it’s he) says could be changed to make D&D-like games more palatable to modern players. Let me say that I tried pretty much all of those things, and found the results wanting.
Back around 2002-2003 or so, about the same time Castles & Crusades was being developed, I wrote a set of core rules intended for use with spells and monsters from any edition of the classic game. I called my rules “Project 74” and my plan was to achieve compatibility with classic materials, much as I just now described, while including modern features. I didn’t go after Smiorgan’s list, of course (as it was just now written) but rather followed along with the list written by Mark “Kamikaze” Hughes titled “What’s Wrong with AD&D.”
I took his list of complaints, which surprisingly after more than ten years is still at the same URL, as a list of things to correct. I boiled the rules of those classic games down to a sort of mechanical ideal, “refactoring” (to use a programming term) the rules to make them more “sensible.” I addressed Mark’s list with my own philosophical statement, still available on my website.
In my opinion, I did a very usable job of creating a rules-light, semi-modern game system that managed to retain D&D-isms like class and level while having a full skill system. I made an effort to make all game mechanical systems properly “first class” (in a programming sense) so that the rules would have few special cases.
The game was not satisfactory. Oh, I ran my ongoing campaign, set in the world I created back in 1982, using those rules, and things went along well enough. But there were things that just felt wrong.
I could give an exhaustive list, if I felt like racking my brain long enough (remember, I last played with these rules around 2007), but I’m not going to that much trouble. Rather, I’ll point out the one thing that really stood out to me.
My game had a unified skill roll system. Every “difficult” action other than combat was resolved using a standardized core mechanic; this was similar to the D20 method, but arguably the same thing as in games like RuneQuest, where percentiles are rolled for everything. The end result was that the party half-ogre with 17 Strength was actually not a lot better at knocking down doors than the party dwarf, also with a +2 Strength bonus (Project 74 used a similar attribute-to-bonus mapping as BFRPG). Yeah, I gave the half-ogre a bonus because he was big, but I also had to assign bonuses or penalties (for easy or hard doors) using larger numbers than I generally assigned as “situational modifiers.”
I could have messed around with the numbers, sure; but it was by far simpler to switch back to the classic 1d6 roll to open a door. Each bonus was worth 16.7% instead of 5%, and the adjustments were very obvious. I wrote down in my last version of Project 74 a new rule that even allowed for changing the die size as an indicator of difficulty. Though it’s not in the BFRPG rules, it’s exactly the method I use now, as it works beautifully.
Why didn’t I write it down? See my post on this blog entitled “Metarules” for an explanation of that.
It might be tempting to think I’m a true grognard, i.e. a grumbler, one who loves the classic games with a religious zeal. I’m not. I’m working on a game called “Realms of Wonder” right now, a fantasy game set in a world that differs markedly from the kind of world defined by games like Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC, or of course BFRPG. Mechanically the game is a lot like the kind of game Smiorgan seems to want, and I expect it to be a lot of fun… breaking the player’s expectations usually is. I wrote another game, shared on my website but never actually published, called Variant V; it owes more of its DNA to RuneQuest than anything. I ran that campaign for several years. The point is, I like the classic class-and-level games for their own merit, not because they are the only kind of game I want to play.
Do I have a point? Yeah, I think I do. Trying to “fix” the classic rules is a mistake. They aren’t broken… they’re just different.