Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Price of Complexity

James Maliszewski recently posted about how one of the reasons he switched from Swords & Wizardry to Labyrinth Lord + supplements is his dissatisfaction with the way S&W handles saving throws.

Let me just present this scenario: You have a 12 year old nephew learning to DM. His friends are playing and their party comes upon a hostile party of npcs. The player mage casts charm person on the npcs. What is the npc's save?

Assuming everyone's human, for Swords & Wizardry you have one question to answer: is the targeted npc a non-wizard (15 to save) or a wizard (15 +2).

I did that from memory. Do you remember the Labyrinth Lord saves? Here's a refresher:

So, for the 3 core classes, you have three answers and different answers still, if the charm person is coming from a wand.

You want to play that way because it seems more verisimilitudinous to you, cool. But don't kid yourself that you aren't paying a price in simplicity and playability. With Labyrinth Lord I guarantee your nephew is going to have to stop play and check the book. Hell, I would.

I know this sounds awfully like me saying James is "doing it wrong." If James want to play that way fine, but he's more than just a DM he's got hundreds of people following his blog. It's frightening to me that we have this opportunity for a fresh look at D&D with these retroclones and the main tendency seems to be to figure out how to slap all the old cruft back on them.

It's frightening, because if everyone starts playing it that way, that will be my only choice of campaign to play in (the way my only campaign to be a player in now is 4e, because that's the dominant form of play).

So, do you really need to turn S&W and LL into AD&D? Why not use Osric? Or, why not just play AD&D?


  1. Well, Chevski's been pretty clear that his game of choice is proto-AD&D, so no surprise that the extra complexity of multiple saving throws seems more attractive to him, as does descending AC. But you and I can enjoy Chevski's blog without having to play the game "his way".

    I'm sure once the S&W:WB sets start landing in people's mailboxes (including mine) there will be renewed talk about what people like / don't like about that set.

    The last thing Chevski would want to hear is that people are playing LL because they think he has given that rule set his official OSR stamp of approval.

  2. Even back in the day I never liked those save categories, never could remember them.

    I was gonna use C&C SIEGE engine six stat based saves, but not so sure anymore. I like 3.x save triplet Fortitude/Reflex/Will. Easy to remember and mostly easy to figure out what save should be used in any given situation. Or maybe a single save value with various modifiers; Dwarves +4 vs poision, thieves +4 jumping out of the way, etc. Which sounds, from your description, is how S&W works

    The main thing about classic save categories is they give a stronger feeling to the different classes.

  3. With Labyrinth Lord I guarantee your nephew is going to have to stop play and check the book.

    No he wouldn't, he'd have a quick glance at his character sheet and roll his dice. No biggie.

    So, do you really need to turn S&W and LL into AD&D? Why not use Osric? Or, why not just play AD&D?

    James did explain the why of that in his blog post. Bottom line is he went to the trouble to emphasise the post was about his personal preference, so again - no biggie. Does it matter?

  4. Ahh, I'm being a little reactionary. I thought about deleting this post, but now that you've commented I'll leave it.

    @Paladin: It's possible that the system he plays and makes products for will affect no one. I'm guessing that's underestimating his and other vocal osr blogs' effect on mindshare. Either way, it just bugged me that *the* reason he gave for switching away from S&W is one of the very few elegant revisions to the system Matt Finch made.

    @Norman: S&W have class differences, just less granular, Wizards and Dwarves are less effected by magic, etc.

    @David: Re-read my post, I stacked the deck by saying it's a npc party encounter, probably not going to have character sheets for them. But yeah, that second bit you quote, I'm not making sense.

    If James M. wants to play LL it's his right and I'd be an ass to try to criticize that right, but I reserve *my* right to say the reasons he gives are pretty weak tea when they criticize the system I'm working with.

    Especially when he's talking about teaching it to kids. Have you all introduced new players to gaming? I've been lucky enough to have a bunch over the past 6 months and even my seriously simplified S&W is a lot for them to take in. The less numbers and complexity the easier they get into the imagined collaborative space.

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  6. Personally, one of the things I like a lot about S&W is the single save. Yes, the character sheet can contain the needed information, but I like having even fewer things to consult or remember. The likelihood of it making that much of a difference is low anyhow. The strange thing to me is that this departure from OD&D marks it as unusable to many (I suspect even more so than AAC!). Whatever works for you I reckon.

    @David, no, it doesn't matter. Leaving aside your second quoted part of the original post though, the merits of this particular mechanical difference shouldn't be taboo.

    (grammar edits)

  7. (forehead slap)...

    "discusson of the merits" etc. ;)

  8. Sorry, is the elegant revision the single save or ascending AC?

    My preferences lean towards S&W (there's a reason I bought two whiteboxes and 5 players handbooks). However, I do own two copies of LL, have AEC on my to-buy list, and intend to pick up a few other rulesets, as much to mine them for good ideas as vote with my dollars.

    I don't disagree with you that Chevski's musings carry a lot of weight (much to his chagrin, I think!).

  9. I think this has the potential to be another one of those storms in a tea cup that assail the OSR from time to time. The idea that because James prefers the old system of five saving throws over S&W's single one, he is criticising the single save mechanic or the game S&W itself, is quite bizarre, especially when he himself said such an interpretation of his post worried him:

    Let me begin by saying that I have been for some time reluctant to make a post like this. The reason is that, as it is, things I post here often get read in the worst possible light by some people and the last thing I want to do was become involved in a dispute about the merits of the various retro-clones, with my decision to switch to Labyrinth Lord being used as "evidence" that I "hate" this game or that one. Laugh if you will but I often worry about such things.

    Sounds like a prophecy come true. There's nothing sinister, which is clear by his statement:

    My main frustration was S&W's use of a single saving throw mechanic, which somehow didn't "feel" right to me and that I decided I wanted to change to bring it more in line with OD&D.

    His original intention was to run an 0e game, which expanded into something more, he felt S&W wasn't capturing the "feel" of what he was attempting to do and so he swapped to a rule set that seem to do so. Nothing spiteful, no anti-S&W sentiment, simply personal preference. Why try to twist it into something it's not?

    The merits of a single save vs. five saves? That's a worthy topic of conversation without having to get angry at anyone's personal preference.

  10. Delta's OED walks an interesting middle ground between S+W simplicity and LL/OSRIC 5 save madness. He has one basic save, modified +1-4 by the severity and type of effect.

    Basic save: n
    Save vs petrification: n+3
    Save vs poison/death: n+4

    It's a little gamist for some tastes, but interesting.

    As for James/chevski: *shrug* It's not like Dylan plays electric. He's simply found a variation that works better for his game.

  11. @Paladin: I was talking about saves, but the snarky comments about ascending AC in that very post is probably what made me react in a less productive way than just focussing on the merits of the mechanic of saves.

    @David: Yeah, I wish I had just left the second half of my post off. I apologize for starting drama. I see now James M. was actually trying very hard to account for his tastes. I think his discussion of how things "feel" and my previous experiences with discussions that tend to say X wants to play his game his way and all ways are equally valid-- no accounting for taste and all-- without really teasing out what are Xs tastes are is what set me down the wrong path.

    Keep in mind, the whole reason for my blog is to look at the implications of different game mechanics, how to balance simplicity with detail. My starting assumptions include: system matters, and investigation and inquiry are not just good, but essential.

    But let me try to shift this in a positive direction with a new post of which Chris, I think you give a great example ...

  12. Good point.

    I keep returning to the KISS principle as I am editing/revising UWoM for that very sort of reason.