Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Are Iconic Game Elements?

In game design, it's easy to get into places where you cannot see the forest for the trees... 'hey, I have a great idea for critical hit locations tables' doesn't really jive well with 'fundamentally, hit points are an abstraction of a variety of factors'. In designing a (quite literally) back to basics B/X modernization, I'm left with tons of options - and I have to start with a list of iconic game elements that are 'must haves' not because they are the best or most intuitive, but because they are iconic to the game. A good example of this is the rating of ability scores from 3 to 18. It would be preferable to have the numbers a little lower (maybe 2 to 12 or so) in some circumstances.

But that's not iconic.

I know that some systems have done away with ability scores altogether, and get away with looking only at the modifier (-3 to +3 in most cases) that reflect the way in which the ability scores are used most of the time.

But that's not iconic.

Here's a stab at a list of 'top ten' iconic game elements that (I think) set a baseline for all future game decisions. I don't even pretend to think that this is comprehensive:

1. Characters have six primary ability scores (STR, INT, WIS, DEX, CON, CHA) that typically range from 3 to 18.
2. Characters earn experience points to advance in level.
3. Health, luck, moxy and battle acumen are reflected in an abstract system of Hit Points.
4. Armor, toughness, defensive maneuvering and natural protection are reflected in an abstract system of Armor Class.
5. You roll 1d20 to attack. A 20 is a good thing, and a 1 is a bad thing.
6. There are four primary human classes: cleric, fighter, magic user and thief; the are three primary racial classes: dwarf, elf, and halfling (my stoutling).
7. Player ability is an important facet of play; not everything can be resolved through character ability.
8. There are two types of magic: arcane and faith-based; spells are rated in increasing complexity and power.
9. You have an alignment that suggests your overall philosophy.
10. The default assumption of the rules is that you play heroes exploring dungeons and defeating monsters.


  1. I don't know how many clones of D&D there are. I don't even know how many I actually own. The last thing we need is another one that sticks with AD&D tropes just because that's how it's always been done.

    I've been reading as much as possible about the early versions of D&D and it's amazing how chaotic the rules were and how some iconic elements were added late in the development. For example, ability scores used to be 2d6 and the list of abilities varied considerable. Dexterity wasn't even in the '73 playtest but was added just before publication. Combat itself ranged from 2d6 roll high (ala Dungeon!) to 2d6 roll low with skills for each weapon. When the level-vs-AC table first showed up it was actually listed in percentages: d100 roll high. The saving throw table in OD&D was originally written for 3d6 roll high. It's all over the place.

    The only things really consistent from the beginning are levels, hit points and XP.

  2. The 2d6 ability thing actually makes more sense to me insofar as ability checks are concerned. I see ability checks as only being required for something actually difficult to do... so the idea that your STR 18 gives you a 95% chance of success seems a bit off to me... if 12 was the top of the line for player abilities, then this gives you a 65% chance of success with difficult tasks. In the same way, a character with an average score (6) would have a 35% chance of success... these seem like reasonable expectations. Saying that an 'average' character has a 50% chance of success with a difficult task seems like a stretch.

    It's not a difficult swap either... you roll 2d6 for abilities (or 3d6 and keep best 2) and scale the bonuses as follows:

    2 = -3
    3 = -2
    4 or 5 = -1
    6 to 8 = no modifier
    9 or 10 = +1
    11 = +2
    12 = +3

    Thanks for the feedback! I'll keep thinking on these things...

  3. A 2d6 roll plus modifier trying to get a 7 or better ends up with a success rate that almost exactly matches a 5% per ability point roll. So you could set the 7 as the default difficulty and move up from there. That's just one of the options I was considering since I don't use the ability scores, just the modifier. I do that because my list of ability scores vary.