Monday, March 02, 2015

On Randomness In Character Generation, and Why Old School D&D Is Awesome For New Players

So: Old school D&D is a terrible system for playing the game most people want to play when they pick up something called "D&D," not having any prior experience with old school D&D. The texts don't do a great job of communicating their purpose, and honestly, the other things that people want to do are fun and it's reasonable that they want them.

One of the big things that people want when they pick up something called "D&D" is a game where they get to craft exactly the guy that they want to play. Old school systems by and large do not deliver this, especially on a mechanical axis: Your initial character generation is random, and your advancement is usually relatively fixed and relatively random.

The thing is, most of the folks I've met like that got into the game before I got them-- middle or high school, or occasionally college. These are people who saw "fantasy adventure game" and opened it up to find that there was also a bunch of math and were super happy about it. (I'm in that camp myself-- I've had few happier days than the one where I discovered the interlocking logic of the 3e EL and XP tables.) But there's a big, big pool of people I've gotten into the game who got scared away by all that math and all those decisions, even though they desperately wanted that fantasy adventure.

But those people already get enough air time in the OSR. One of my favorite things about old school D&D is that it's made it much easier for me to run games for a mix of highly invested and brand new players than any other edition I've encountered (except maybe also 5th-- still gathering data). While really serious D&D strategists will get annoyed by the shenanigans the newer, less death-hardened players get up to, it's much easier for brand new players to contribute to the gamier side of the game than with the newer, more character-build focused versions. You don't have to read the book and absorb the rules system to play a really powerful character in old school D&D: You just have to be quick on your feet, and the right mix of careful and reckless.

Random chargen helps make generating a new character fast (important when death rates or high, or you're playing with different people every week so you need to be able to get the new guy into the game fast) and can create interesting tactical and expressive challenges for experienced players: "Well I would never choose to play this guy but now that I've got him what do I do with him?"

Fixed advancement and random advancement also make leveling easier and faster, which is important when your character is more a token that lets you interact with the game-world than an end to be developed in itself. It also really helps players who like developing their character's personality but either don't care about or actively overwhelmed by mechanical differentiation.

In general they all can make getting into D&D a lot less intimidating for new people. Generally my experience with getting brand new people into 3x/Pathfinder has been "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh okay, just these bits... uh... which feats do I want... wow, it's going to take us a really long time to make all these characters, this is kind of boring." 

My experience with getting brand new people into old school D&D has been more "Oh my god I have to read that entire book? Oh, okay, just these bits... rolls stats my intelligence is really high so I guess I'll be a wizard... oh wait no, I want to be a bard, my charisma is really low but that will be hilarious."

Or even "okay, so what are all these numbers on this index card? oh, okay, you'll tell me when I need them, cool. oh, sweet, I have a grappling hook, I wonder what I can do with that."

Not that Pathfinder is a bad system for newbies-- I've played with new-ish people who expected mechanical character differentiation from video games and were disappointed/frustrated by old school games because they didn't provide that. One of the things I like about 5e is that it potentially bridges the gap between those folks and the systems I like.

The old school character generation and advancement are also fantastic for the players who want a strategic resource management game that's mostly about their lateral thinking cleverness. For those folks, choices about what widgets to give their character would be choices they weren't making about things that they care about.

10 comments:

  1. I have thought about this topic from time to time and have reached much the same conclusion. By having a random generation routine, it can level the playing field between "those who know the rule system / munchkin type players / optimizsers" and "those who are just starting / don't want to think about fiddly bits / just want to socialize".
    However, in my opinion, the old rules still suffer from a large swing in power between the results of the random tables and even in the smaller choices that are available. In Basic D&D, for example, one could pick an elf and wear armor and cast a spell and potentially roll straight 18s whereas another could pick a thief, roll 1 for hitpoints, and straight 3s for ability scores.
    Not that any of that matters in the hands of a good DM.

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  2. In the last 6 years I have had more newbie players than experienced ones, and the outcome is always the same: there's nothing better than Basic D&D to introduce people to the core concepts of the game. Apart from randomness, the fact that everyone can make mechanically meaningful choices at the table since there are so few rules is fundamental to keep a newbie interested. If a newcomer feels that he doesn't grasp something, and there's so much rules material to digest, he may feel compelled to do random choices just to start gaming, and could well feel "inadequate" in comparison with experienced players. A pet peeve of mine is the number of spell choices for some classes; even in AD&D you can't give a cleric to a newbie and expect her to "grasp" all there is to know about how to use spells, and I don't like barring a character from a player because it's too complex. With newer editions things are definitely worse (4e might be the absolute worse in this respect,) and even 5e is not exempt from this problem: all spellcasters get at least 2 or 3 cantrips, plus a few more spells, and clerics and druids suffer from the same problem as AD&D. An excellent approach is the one in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, whereas also divine spellcasters have a limited repertoire of spells.

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