Monday, August 6, 2012

The Importance of Mechanics

For purposes of D&D, what's the difference between a Norman knight, a viking, a samurai, a Roman centurion?  What if we throw a muskeeter in the mix, a Mongolian horse archer, and a Hospitaler?

Is there something that prevents a player from being "knightly" because both the knight and the viking are represented by the fighter class?

I love this question with regards to the fighter, because the convergence of technology and tactics has created great variations in the fighting men of world history, and the differences are so easy for us to visualize.  The evolution of D&D from its original vision has involved a long line of add-ons and extensions to create mechanical differentiation among character classes - new classes and sub-classes, secondary skills, kits, feats, prestige classes, and so on.

It's a topical question for me - I'm thinking over what a game in an Oriental Adventures setting would look like using a BX style of rules, and I have a pretty good idea how I'd handle archetypes like the samurai, the bushi, the kensai, the warrior monk:  you're all fighters.  You wear different armor, use different weapons, but at the end of the day, you all get paid to slug it out with the other guy.  My work here is done.

And yet... if we run an Asian themed game using LOTFP, it has that nifty d6-based skill system, it'd be so easy to add some skills to reinforce the in-game flavor.  If we ran it with ACKS, the upcoming player's guide is filled with class-building guidelines; one could probably convert the contents of Oriental Adventures to classes balanced with ACKS.  It's so easy to start sliding down that slope - "story elements should be supported mechanically so players feel like their character can do something different or exclusive".

I'm just using the fighter as an accessible example, you can do the same thing with every class.  Is the illusionist necessary?  Isn't an assassin just a guy that kills people for money?  Does the wu-jen really need a separate spell list?  And so on.

Seems like a good time for a new poll:  How important are game mechanics versus flavor?


  1. This is an issue on which I'm kind of torn. On one hand, I feel like simplicity is the way to go and like set dressing over mechanical differences. On the other hand, I think different classes are a neat hook and everybody likes having options.

    I think it really depends on what sort of game you're running.

  2. I'm torn as well. With Raggi's skill system one could quickly adopt so all characters are classless. Everyone is a specialist. Do you choose combat, spells, thief or bush skills?

    Yet if I say to you C 3, or MU 5 - you could have that NPC done in 15 seconds.

  3. I voted they are all just fighters, but I would like to complicate that somewhat. A generalized way of focusing fighter development might be the way to go. For example, separating things like ranged attack bonuses, melee attack bonuses, unarmed combat skill, and "agile" swashbuckling style finesse fighting. Then the cultural archetypes can be built up from the same general toolbox. The tricky part is to do it somehow without an option explosion, feat system, or martial caster (which would each make the class too complicated, hard to approach, and vulnerable to optimizers).

  4. Back in the day I played an ex-pit fighter, a nasty piece of work who fought in leather armor using a short sword and a spiked buckler in melee, and a sling at range. He was all about mobility and speed.

    The party also included a knight, plate armor, tower shield, great helm, warhorse, sword and mace and lance in hand by turns, served by a squire. He was like Sir Gawaine, a brutal warrior prone to fits of bloodlust, but loyal to a fault.

    Both 1e AD&D fighters, of course.

  5. I think it's important to keep them all as "fighters". Cherry picking certain cultural archetypes to have skills and special moves doesn't make a great deal of sense - a samurai, knight, viking, native American brave, zulu warrior, whatever, devoted their lives to practising killing people. There is probably no real practical difference between any of them in terms of effectiveness. So I favour one class to encompass them all.

  6. Two things differentiate those three dudes: 1) equipment and 2) details of fighting style that are way too precise for basic d20/D&D.

    We can assume that if a Viking or samurai had access to plate mail (not field plate, which was impractical for foot combat anyway) they would take it. If the game has more specific feats or combat moves, it might be appropriate to give them different cultural fighting styles. Otherwise, go with the simplicity of the system!

  7. As far as the rules go, they're just fighters. If the samurai player wants to do some cool samurai-movie shit, we'll work that out on the fly. Rules would just get in the way.

  8. I prefer calling them all fighters, but at least two of my players very strongly prefer mechanical differentiation. They even want an archer to be different from melee guy ...

    I don't mind caving to the players on that, within reason. We played with 'fighting styles' in 2e, and all that.

    I'm very tempted to try a LOTFP 'classless' system too -- I'd mkae NPCs always use a class but players could choose to get the +1 to hit, a level of spell-casting, or 5 skill points at each level. Maybe make saves race-based and you're done.

  9. I see a number of bloggers agree with the idea that a fighter is a fighter is a fighter, and the archetypes aren't so fundamentally different as to require alternate classes. I can't help but wonder if it's a function of DM vs Player perspective, where DMs tend to think the mechanics aren't that important to the flavor or story piece, and players want mechanics. Any players care to chime in?

    1. I've been playing more than I have been refereeing recently.

    2. I play in games as well as running them... but my feelings are the same either way, for different reasons.
      As a player I prefer the differentiation of my character come from choices I make in play... if I take a contract to kill a man I'm an assassin, if I join an army for pay I'm a mercenary, if I choose to follow a code of conduct I'm a chivalrous knight.
      Adding more mechanics just about always has me feeling constrained/limited.

  10. The simpler the rules, the better, so I'd say they're all fighters. My son runs a 4e game off-and-on, and when the DnD Next test set came out, I ran it for his group. Every single one of them said, "Let's keep playing with these rules, they're so much simpler..." I'm also running a Traveller (original) game for this same set of 15 to 18 year olds, and because they're NOT focused on the rules, they're fully engaged in the game-universe in a way they aren't when they play 4e...

  11. I think in the limiting factors of a class based system, you might as well try to play within those limits. thus most fighting men are just that.

    That being said, I think this is where I think the limits sometimes feels like limits to the imagination. I perer to switch game systems in that case and use something like BRP, which handles the transition better.

    I does remind me of the excellent miniatures system, DBA. In that system you have classes like Blades, Warband and suchlike which model the fighting capabilities from 3000 BC to 1300 AD. Even though the details changed a lot over the years, most of the time hitting a guy with a stick is still hitting a guy with a stick. It worked.

  12. I like something that differentiates me from the others. Sure I can forsake certain armors or weapons, but if I can have a skill the others cannot have, so much the better.

  13. I used to be all about new classes, sub-classes, sub-sub-classes, and all that stuff. Lately I am drawn in by the idea that we can have all this stuff under the label of "fighter."

    Three quick thoughts:
    1. Maybe class-based damage is the way to go, so that we don't have fighters choosing exclusively from the d8 or d10 weapons and leaving spears, short swords, and other time-honored weapons to rot.

    2. Maybe a simple bonus: archer gets +1 to ranged attacks. Berserker gets +1 to melee attacks. Cossack gets to reroll 1's on his Hit Die. Mongol can fire from horseback at no penalty. Etc...

    3. Maybe d6 damage for all weapons wasn't such a bad idea after all. I'm sure getting whacked by a samurai with a katana is just as bad for your health as a viking with an axe or a European guy with some obscure polearm.

    1. Plus one.

      I especially like the idea of point 2.

  14. It occurs to me that, aside from the differences imposed by technology and the fighting style of the place and era, the only differences between Norman knight, viking raider, Samurai, and Centurion are social position.

    Knights and Samurai are a sort of nobility, although they don't have to be highly placed. As such, they have material and legal support from their lords, and have military and civil duties they owe their lords, in return. Sure their sword-styles are different, but that only matters if you have a Norman and a Samurai fighting each other. In a setting where you everybody's coming out of the same culture, it matters much less.

    Centurions are army officers (well, maybe closer to NCOs, but you get the idea). They take orders, and lead troops. Chances are, a fighter-adventurer is a *former* Centurion, and thus without those perks and limits.

    Vikings are free warriors who follow a leader in hope of gold and glory. They're pirates and raiders, sometimes merchants, and fall under the same rule as "An Assassin is just some guy who kills people for money."

  15. I'm way late to the party here, but one possible solution that flexibly encompasses the variety while sticking with the "fighter is a fighter" simplicity is a simplified, generalized version of McWieg's 2nd suggestion:

    Fighters are mechanically the same but at character creation get to choose a weapon or situation in which they get a bonus. This bonus could be a DnD Next-style advantage (best of 2 rolls), 3e-style +2 to hit, or whatever, but should probably be consistent.

    Knights might get the advantage/bonus in mounted combat. Musketeers, swordsmen, grenadiers, crossbowmen, pikemen, archers, etc. are all self-explanatory. Assassins might get it when striking from surprise. It might not even always have to be combat-related. An aristocrat might be a fighting man who gets a bonus or advantage for charisma checks.

    As might be surmised from the above, I like ability checks since I cut my teeth before non-weapon proficiencies and skills muddied the waters of just what people may be expected to accomplish. 1e-style secondary skills expanded to cover WFRP careers are another matter, since they are nicely vague and amenable to a similar approach to the fighter-differentiation technique, above. If you have a background as a fisherman, you might get a bonus to a strength check to avoid drowning in the raging river.