A Different Way to Slice the Pie
Each week I do an Indies & More post where I take a look at Monte Cook’s Legends and Lore column for the week and share some thoughts on how other games and designers tackle the same issues. I’m not arguing with Monte or speaking for some larger design movement, these are just my thoughts on the same topic coming from a different gaming background. Since Monte’s writing for Wizards of the Coast he can’t talk about how other games deal with these issues, that’s why I write this column. This week Monte’s topic was self-contained rules.
I’m a little late talking about this column since I was traveling when it came out, but I’ve heard that the general response has had more than a bit of confusion. I feel more or less the same way: I’m not quite sure what Monte is getting at here.
It sounds to me like Monte’s suggestion is something like this:
When you make a ranged attack [...] then any enemies who threaten you get to make an attack.
You move x squares [...] if you leave a square threatened by an enemy they get to make an attack against you.
Cast a Spell
Casting a spell takes a number of actions [...] any enemies who threaten you while you cast a spell get to make an attack.
This doesn’t really change what I think were the common issues with attacks of opportunity: how often they came up, how they slowed the flow of combat, etc. They do provide an easier reference for what an “attack of opportunity” means, but that comes at a cost as every rules that uses attacks of opportunity has to repeat all the rules for attacks of opportunity.
The idea that each rule appears when you need it is great. I’ve mentioned Apocalypse World far too many times here, but Moves are just that: rules that appear when you need them. That approach only goes so far though. An Apocalypse World move might look like this:
When you do something under fire, or dig in to endure fire, roll+cool. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice.
Notice that the term “roll+cool” is used, instead of breaking down “roll 2d6, add them together, and add a stat.” Attacks of Opportunity are like rolling: they’re a common concept used throughout the rules, and deserve to be treated like that.
Of course this is all getting caught up in this specific example. The idea that just the rules you need are presented is wonderful, but it does raise the question: why are the other rules there? If you really can play the game with only these rules, why are more added later?
Lady Blackbird shows a different approach here: only the rules you need to play are presented, and that’s it. It’s like the quick start rules for a game where you then realize the quick start is it, that covers everything. Of course there could be more embellishments on the system, but why? Monte mentions damage resistance as something you don’t need at first level, which had me thinking: why do you need it at all then? Just because otherwise the math scales out of control?
The unfortunate side effect of tying complexity to level is that some groups, because they prefer a simpler game, will never play higher levels. Burning Wheel also has a core of low complexity that expands to more detailed rules (all of which are carefully designed to be worthwhile, not just detail) but that complexity has nothing to do with the fictional actions undertaken and everything to do with the amount of time and detail the group wants to invest.
Comparing Monte’s hypothetical D&D and Burning Wheel: In MD&D to play certain types of adventures I have to accept more complexity. Maybe dealing with demons is just something my group can’t do unless we accept that we all have to get comfortable with damage reduction and attacks of opportunity. In Burning Wheel we can play whatever fictional situation we like using just the core of the rules. If we want to deal with demons, we can have a satisfying adventure with them using only the core concepts. If we like more detail we can use those rules, turning combat against a demon into a wonderfully detailed fight, but that’s not a requirement to fighting demons.
The idea that the rules are there when you need them is fantastic, and I hope to see more of it in D&D. I just hope that those rules are packed smartly, identifying common concepts and making complexity a group choice, not the designer’s choice.