Rules, Rulings, and the Paradox of Choice


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    Rules, Rulings, and the Paradox of Choice

    Why do we want rules in our RPGs? What rules do we want, and what rules can we live without? When does the DM make the call, and when do you roll the dice? How deeply do you want the DM to get involved, and how much support should the player get to do their own thing without the DM’s intervention? Come along with me as I help uncover what makes a rule useful, and what makes it intrusive in your games.

    Kings of Nothing
    One of the central conceits at the core of any tabletop RPG is that you can do anything you imagine. You make a character, and they will confront obstacles, and how you respond to those obstacles is entirely up to you. No one is going to make you do a particular thing. You can do whatever you dream up.

    Almost.

    RPG’s have someone to sit in judgment of your actions: a GM or DM is the arbiter of what works, and what does not. The DM describes the consequences of your proposed actions. You have infinite power to create any solution you can imagine, and the DM has equally infinite power to shut it down, cause you problems, and otherwise present you with a challenge.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an RPG. Two or more people sitting in a room with an endless world of imagination in front of them. What else do you need? There are a few RPGs, and probably more than a few sessions of any given RPG, that have been exactly that. If one was looking for the purest expression of role-playing game awesomeness, one would sit down with a friend or two and just imagine. One does not really need anything else.

    And yet, those games and those sessions are not common. They're not what we think of when we think of sitting down to play an RPG with some friends. We feel our games are not complete without dozens of pages of detailed math and dice-rolling all dedicated to the very important purpose pretending to be a magical gumdrop elf, or an imaginary investigator, or a made-up person.

    That seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Here we are, with hours of entertainment with any number of people in any number of settings with any number of stories, all without any outside influence, and yet we actively give some company money to put some rules in there. We have an open market of ideas, and we clearly want rules and regulations to tell us how do play. We value these limitations, at least in raw monetary terms. Why do we want to pay anonymous nobodies thousands of miles away to tell us the “right” way to pretend to be some sort of imaginary creature?

    Well, it's true that some of us don’t. Some of us are very happy without any of those rules. But enough of us do to support an entire (if small) industry around it. This probably doesn’t just spring from the wallets of a handful of fabulously wealthy people who irrationally love rules, so what gives? Why, when I ask you to join a night of free-form roleplaying, are you probably not as interested as when I ask you to join my Pathfinder game? And why, even in the midst of my Rolemaster game, is it important for me to be able to ignore that library of rules?

    They See Me Rollin’
    If you and I sat in a room free-associating a narrative, it might be a pretty fun time, but it is, perhaps paradoxically, more effort to do that than it is to roll some dice and check a table. Barry Schwartz lays down some gospel on the issue here:

    [ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM[/ame]

    While Barry’s talk is a bit more far-reaching than just what freeform interactive narrative lacks, it’s also true that freeform interactive narrative falls into this problem: there’s too much choice. When anything is possible, nothing is significant, and it’s not a very satisfying time. The meaningful, real distinctions are few and far between. We're all very aware that it's artificial choice.

    So we seek out limitations to that freedom. We want constraints. It’s more fun to play within those constraints than it is to boggle at the infinite void – they give us specific tools to use to help our imaginations along, imperfections in the vast smooth sphere of our infinite imaginations that can lead to constructive chaos.

    Hence, we roll the dice.

    There’s other ways to add rules to the game, too, but in D&D, we roll the dice. And because an RPG is also a game, those dice help us determine whether we “win” or “lose,” at least in the moment. We don’t just roll the dice to add some color to our descriptions (though we do that, too), we roll the dice to determine the fates of our avatars. Can my hero slay the dragon? Can my champion take the kingdom? Can my rogue kidnap the princess and ransom her back to the royal family? The answer may be yes, and it may be no, but the place where we find out the answer, as a group, is in the dice.

    This is true in every attack roll, in every saving throw, in every skill check: it is a chance to win, or to lose, and to demonstrate your character’s competence or their lack thereof. While the fates of entire fantasy worlds often don’t rest on the shoulders of a single die roll, ultimately, they rest on the shoulders of several of them.

    Rolling dice is fun for reasons aside from constraining our choice, too. Unpredictability adds surprise and discovery to our games, and makes them more engaging. When our hero fails to strike the dragon, we’re surprised, and tension goes up because the dragon gets closer to victory. When our hero strikes the dragon, we’re surprised, and we get closer to ultimate victory. The rules also provide a shared set of instructions for the game, improving trust between the DM and the players, ensuring that the bounds of “anything you can imagine” are limited by rules agreed-to in advance.

    Of course, the DM always has the authority to break these rules. More than that, they have a responsibility to break them -- the DM and the Player come long before any dice-rolling in the RPG hierarchy. However, the DM also has a responsibility to uphold the rules that they do include in their games. Breaking the rules can ruin that unpredictability, it can violate that trust, and it can open up the imaginary world to a degree where we feel paralyzed by its overwhelming possibility and unpredictability. The rules add something valuable to our games, that we want. So breaking the rules should always be within the DM’s power, but it should be a power employed with caution. If the players can't have confidence in the rules themselves, the game is significantly less fun.

    To see the truth of this for yourself, imagine your next D&D game, dropping all combat rules, and just going with “DM rulings” instead. You say your character attacks, and your DM says if you hit, and how much damage you do. You say you move 30 feet to the left, your DM says what happens. If you want to use a spell or special attack to hit an enemy, the DM will tell you what it does when you launch it. If this doesn’t sound like much fun to you, you’re probably not alone. We don’t need rules, but we want them. They’re fun, they ensure fairness, and they give our imaginations some guidance.

    Combat And Everything Else
    The example with combat above makes for an interesting distinction, because if someone proposed doing the same thing with, say, an encounter where the party thief was trying to sneak by some orcs, or an encounter where the party cleric was trying to persuade the king to act against the goblin menace, or a room where the party may or may not discover a secret door, it might not seem as bad to many D&D players. Take away my attack roll, and we have a problem. Take away my Diplomacy check…and maybe we like it even better?

    Why this division occurs is a thorny problem of authority and gameplay style, but I think the following can be said with reasonable confidence: having unpredictability, trust, and limitations are more important to us in a fight than in any of the other two “pillars” of D&D (namely, exploration, and interaction). At least for most groups. It is likely that one reason for this is because failing at combat is one of the only things that, in D&D, can directly cause your “ultimate failure,” and that there’s more leeway involved in the other pillars. Being neutral is important when it might remove you from play entirely, but it’s less important when it’s just about avoiding a temporary set-back on your ultimate quest. Don’t convince the king, or fail to sneak past the orcs, or don’t notice the secret door, the game continues on. Get killed by the dragon, and you’re rolling up a new character.

    We have seen, though, that rules aren’t just about fairness. They’re also about fun. Rolling dice is fun. Being able to roll an attack roll is more fun than saying “I try to hit the goblin with my sword” and waiting for a response. It removes the burden of decision from the DM, it keeps the game flowing, and it’s an enjoyable constraint.

    Wouldn’t it be great to be able to…but not required to…add that elsewhere?

    Putting Things Where They Don’t Belong
    If the rules for combat represent a more necessary addition to the rules because of their neutrality, they also represent a useful addition to the rules for the agency and unpredictability they add to the game. It’s not just important to use the combat rules to stay neutral, it’s also fun to use the combat rules, because they’re fun rules!

    As the game has moved over time to a less-lethal, more-character-centered kind of game, the need for neutrality on even non-combat issues has become more urgent. Thus, we have rules like secondary skills, non-weapon proficiencies, skills, and skill challenges, all hoping to add some level of granularity to this side of the rules. Adding these elements has been somewhat controversial since day one, often being explicitly optional. Even when only implicitly optional, they have remained fairly abstract and subject to DM interpretation.

    However, even at their most complex, these rules have never been much more than “roll to see if you win.”

    In comparison, the rules for combat, after having more than 30 years’ worth of development, can be complex, multifaceted, engaging, deeply varied, and remarkably dynamic, all from the base of the rules themselves, with little in the way of DM decision-making involved. The rules for combat started off very similar to where skills are now: “Roll a dice and see if you hit.” However, by the advent of 4e, the rules for combat were so varied and dynamic they arguably overshadowed the other areas of the game. A 4e PC has a stack of specific attacks and defenses to use via their powers, but relies much more on DM interpretation and “roll dice to see if you win” for their skills. This is likely spot on what they want for some tables. For others, this might be too many combat rules, or even too many noncombat rules. For still others, this might be not enough combat rules, or not enough noncombat rules. Some DMs might want more variety and dynamism in their sneaking rogues, or their persuasive bards. Others might want to make judgment calls for things handled in 4e by Diplomacy checks or Bluff checks or powers like Come and Get It, relying on player skill over a roll of the dice.

    Clearly, this is a place where modularity would come in handy. Right now, the 5e rules don’t include many non-combat abilities more detailed than “roll dice to see if you win.” For those who want the unpredictability, options, and fun that can come with additional rules in these areas, it remains to be seen if 5e D&D can deliver. Hopefully I’ve made the case that, as an option, as something a DM could opt into, I believe it should.

    But what do you think? Where do you want rules, and where do you want rules to get the heck out of your way? Where is freedom welcome for you, and where would you like to be able to roll some dice and consult a table and not have to make so many decisions? Where do you need trust? Where do you need unpredictability and excitement? Let us know in the comments!
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    Last edited by Kamikaze Midget; Thursday, 1st November, 2012 at 05:34 PM.
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    Mark Rosewater (of Magic: The Gathering fame) has said many times over: "Restrictions breed creativity".

    Without rules, if a group of orcs comes along and you defeat them, then you have defeated your DM in a contest of imagination.

    With rules, if a group of orcs comes along and you defeat them, then you have accomplished something less subjective, you defeated a defined obstacle.
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    I think some of what your saying is central to one of my biggest frustrations with the naysayers over third edition of D&D, lo those many years ago. I lost track of how many times on these boards I would see someone complain something to the effect of "It's just a combat system! There aren't any rules for roleplaying, it's not a roleplaying game anymore!" Someone then points out the Diplomacy, Intimidation and Bluff skill rules. The reaction of course was that those ruined the game by making you roll for your roleplaying results, which was tantamount to saying they didn't want any rules about roleplaying, they just wanted a combat system to roleplay around. Which contradicted the original complaint, and missed the fact that it was the choice of the individual groups how much they relied on those rules anyway!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramaster View Post
    Mark Rosewater (of Magic: The Gathering fame) has said many times over: "Restrictions breed creativity".
    Absolutely - I hear the opposite claimed so very often, but I still don't buy it.

    And - great initial post by KM.

    Add into all of this the role that the rules play in defining and formulating the shared structure around which we can imagine (without suddenly finding that we are imagining irreconcilable things) and I think you have the importance of rules down pat.
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    Interesting article. (I can't XP you yet it seems).

    I love to use the dice more than most. Even good speeches for Diplomacy are made - I might give a bonus (or Advantage) for a very good speech, but I tend to not make things automatic. Even a great speech could be taken the wrong way (or introduces alternative motives for the NPC being spoken to).

    I really hope for a solid core set of rules for all main facets (not just combat) each with options/modules to take them further. I don't think the basics of any of them should be complicated at the core level, but I love the idea of many areas of complexity being added (if needed/wanted). That is why I am hanging for 5E to work. I hope they pull it off.

    As a specific eg. The latest Playtest Pack added 2-Weapon Fighting back into normal combat moves. Whilst in the past I was happy for everyone to try it (and was frustrated you couldn't in 4E without the right build/powers) I am kind of leaning towards it being a specialty. It doesn't complicate the core rules that way, and people likely to fight with two weapons are likely to want to do it often and imerse themselves in it anyway.
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  • #6
    My theory as to why skill usage is less 'enjoyable' than combat is that in addition to the point made about limited risk (which I recognize is a major issue) is that, for the most part, these are not group efforts. The rogue sneaks past the orcs or the cleric convinces the king, the other players become spectators. On those occassions where everyone sneaks it is not cooperative as 1 failure means the whole group fails.

    there are some systems that mitigate against this but for the most part combat (at a good level) involves everyone able to play a part over multiple rouunds of interaction where the balance can shift due to anyones failure or success, but group effort is usually important.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kamikaze Midget View Post
    Why do we want rules in our RPGs?



    We dont just roll the dice to add some color to our descriptions (though we do that, too), we roll the dice to determine the fates of our avatars.



    Rolling dice is fun for reasons aside from constraining our choice, too. Unpredictability adds surprise and discovery to our games, and makes them more engaging.



    Of course, the DM always has the authority to break these rules.



    Right now, the 5e rules dont include many non-combat abilities more detailed than roll dice to see if you win. For those who want the unpredictability, options, and fun that can come with additional rules in these areas, it remains to be seen if 5e D&D can deliver.
    I'm very much from the school that the primary function of an RPGs rules is to resolve the question of who gets to stipulate what is happening in the fiction, and to determine what parameters (if any) constrain such stipulation.

    So I don't agree that the GM always has authority to break the rules - because I don't agree that the GM always has overriding authority to stipulate what is happening in the fiction.

    But I do agree with you that the capacity of 5e to deliver in the non-combat pillars remains to be seen. And I would add - so long as there are no rules here, and hence the game defaults to "the GM gets to stipulate what is happening in the fiction" - then the game will continue to default to combat, because this will be the only domain in which the players can reliably settle the content of the fiction, and thereby advance the interests and determine the fates of their avatars.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton
    I'm very much from the school that the primary function of an RPGs rules is to resolve the question of who gets to stipulate what is happening in the fiction, and to determine what parameters (if any) constrain such stipulation.
    I used the GM/player distinction because it's pretty familiar, but I don't think it's impossible to say that this role can shift through the course of a game. Who the "GM" is at any one moment might not stay consistent.

    But I'd also say that in a traditional model, the player can stipulate what's happening "in the fiction," because they control their own character. If they say Kyle the Swordsguy stabs somebody (or tries to, anyway), that happens in the fiction! In a traditional model, Kyle's player doesn't get to say what happens as a consequence of that action, but he usually gets to dictate that action happening.

    The traditional model has a lot of strengths due to this division of labor into "player controls everything about their character, DM controls everything about the world." It preserves an element of dialogue, it helps pace the game as a continual flow of reactions, and it helps demarcate clear spheres of responsibility that remain consistent throughout play. It also hinges on the two main elements of storytelling, that is, the protagonists and the conflict, so it's a very natural fit. It breeds a fertile ground for competition and creativity within that.

    Games that experiment with where that division of labor lies, IMXP, haven't been very satisfying in part because those clear areas of authority (and the fertile competition they breed) aren't as strongly demarcated. It's sort of like a milder version of why playing an RPG by yourself isn't very satisfying: when you're in control of everything, you don't have the same level of tension and unpredictability. Even if you used dice for half the things, it's not as interesting as with playing with someone else.

    But that kind of group psychology is mostly for a different article.

    I think we're in real agreement about 5e needing some ways for players to "do something" outside of combat that isn't as subject to DM interpretation. I want that as a DM (because I am lazy!), AND as a player (because I want to reinforce my archetype!)!
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    1. Constructive chaos is a contradiction in terms.

    2. What D&DN designers have dubbed Exploration and Interaction had more rules thirty years ago than they've had in the last twenty. They were map-based game system rules, but even back then it was taboo to speak or think of NPCs as machines holding information like data and following programmed behavior, even though it was a game. Now it is de rigueur too openly reject these types of rules and designs. There is a universal lack of everywhere I've look. Part of it is due to the popularity of a singular philosophy seeking to reject any design or theory that would accept such designs back into the RPG world unless they were conceded to be nothing other than "authority" trading activities (i.e. bound by that philosophy).

    3. In terms of rules design I think D&DN needs to be a few different core games that could then be constructed from the same playing pieces / rules modules. I don't see a means of playing the D&D games I prefer under the implicit design assumptions of the last couple decades. So far I've seen no movement away from these last two edition's design philosophies. Modularity in all things, even the "core rules", may be the only way forward here. Whether it happens or not, I'll be rewriting the most basic assumptions of the game for when I run it.

    4. Who will first cast aside the idols of creativity and freedom?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kamikaze Midget View Post
    I used the GM/player distinction because it's pretty familiar



    I'd also say that in a traditional model, the player can stipulate what's happening "in the fiction," because they control their own character.



    The traditional model has a lot of strengths due to this division of labor into "player controls everything about their character, DM controls everything about the world."
    I think I've caused confusion with my post.

    I agree with your analysis of the traditional model, and the game I GM is very traditional: GM authority over backstory, over scene-framing and over action declaration for NPCs; player authority over declaration of PC actions. (There are some areas on the margins where I might depart from the tradition, depending exactly what one thinks that is: eg player authority over action declaration for certain NPCs, such as cohorts; and player authority over some aspects of background such as the nature of their PCs' homelands or secret societies.)

    When talking about the role of the rules in establishing authority to stipulate the content of the fiction, I'm thinking partially about scene-framing, but even more about action resolution. In all its editions, D&D combat has followed the same model at its core: GM frames the scene (including assigning relevant mechanical values to various antagonists); GM and players declare actions for NPCs/monsters and PCs respectivelty; action resolution mechanics tell us the outcome of these action declarations (and also, via initiative rules, establish the sequence in which they are processed); where the outcome needs further adjudication, the GM provides that adjudication within the parameters established by the action resolution mechanics.

    At the core of this core is a very simple rule: if the outcome of the action resolution mechanics is such that an NPC or monster's hit point pool is reduced to 0 (in all editions but 3E) or below 0 (in 3E), then the GM is precluded from declaring actions for that antagonist. And this is the rule that, ultimately, players rely on to have their PCs achieve things via combat: a game-mechnically determined guarantee of finality to the resolution of conflict.

    When we turn to the other domains, there are two notable features: first, with the exception of the skill challenge mechanic in 4e, there has never been a mechanic that players can leverage to achieve finality in conflict resolution: in exploration, for example, the GM has always been free to narrate that the weather changes, or that the door swings shut; and in social conflict, the GM has always been free to narrate that the NPC/monster changes its mind. (This comes up often in threads about why players don't have their PCs take prisoners very often.)

    Second, as a general rule there is no mechanical obstacle or even disincentive to escalating conflicts to combat whenever possible, other than the fear of losing that combat. (Strong alignment or obstacle rules can in some contexts be an exception to this, but notoriously they bring along their own problems.)

    The combination of these two features is that players who want to be confident about the fates of their avatars typically have little reason not to bypass or escalate exploratory and social situations into combat ones. Because combat is the "pillar" in which the mechanics impose clear limits on the GM's power to stipulate the content of the fiction, and clearly confer on them a corresponding power (mediated via their action declarations for their PCs, and subsequent action resolution). This is not a state of affaris that is unique to D&D as an RPG, but I think is somewhat distinctive about it, particularly in the degree to which it obtains.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kamikaze Midget View Post
    I think we're in real agreement about 5e needing some ways for players to "do something" outside of combat that isn't as subject to DM interpretation. I want that as a DM (because I am lazy!), AND as a player (because I want to reinforce my archetype!)!
    We are in agreement. And I hope what I've said above does a better job of making my reasons clear: it's because I don't want combat to be the only domain of conflict in which the GM is not overwhelmingly responsible of determining the content of the fiction. As you say, that is work for the GM. And, as you say, it makes it harder for players to reinforce their PC archetypes. But also, and for me probably most important, it tends to make the players spectators in a story told by the GM, at least until matters escalate to violence. And that's not how I want my RPGing to be.

    Quote Originally Posted by howandwhy99 View Post
    What D&DN designers have dubbed Exploration and Interaction had more rules thirty years ago than they've had in the last twenty.
    I dont agree with that. The interaction rules were quite limited - they governed morale in combat, the related notion of the loyalty of servitors, and reaction rols which are clearly framed on the assumption that the meeting is between two armed and potentially violently hostile bands.

    Furthermore, the interaction rules in B/X or AD&D don't have any dynamics, and in that respect are quite unlike the combat rules in those systems. The reaction and loyalty rules are really closer to scene-framing mechanics - determining the nature of the challenge that the PCs face (a hostile orc tribe, or a defecting henchman) - than action resolution mechanics. The morale rules are a bit different in this respect, but the points of potential player interaction are still very modest: there is no clear mechanical provision, for example, for a player triggering a morale check by having his/her PC do something other than kill the opposition in combat.

    The exploration rules are also quite limited, in my view. For example, if a player wants to have his PC climb a tall tree in order to get a good view of the surrounding land, there is no clear guidance on what the difficulty should be, and within what sorts of parameters the consequences of success and failure should be narrated. Contrast this with, for example, Burning Wheel, which makes it very easy to resolve that sort of action: a low obstacle Climbing check serving as a linked test to facilitate a subsequent Orienteering (or similar) test, with a Light or Midi wound serving as the consequence for failing the Climbing check.

    I'm not familiar enough with 2nd ed AD&D or 3E to contradict your claim that, in spite of their limitations, the exploration and interaction rules in classic D&D weren't more elaborate. But I know both classic D&D and 4e pretty well, and there is nothing in classic D&D that compares to 4e's skill challenge mechanics.

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