Monday, September 26, 2005

Are D&D characters too complex?

I'm in the middle of my second D&D 3.5 game, well, actually I use Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Evolved, but the basic game is still D&D. One of the issues I have with the game is that the characters are too complex. They have too many skills, feats, and abilities that never get used.

I've been trying to think about how to pare down the skill list to a set of skills that will actually get used. We use spot, listen, and search all the time. Intimidate and other charismatic skills get used occaisionally (though we never seem to have characters that really focus on those skills). Knowledge skills get almost no use (and the Akashics in the games almost never delved into the Akashic Record). The "thief" skills (disable device and open locks) rarely get used (I have always felt that these skills were circularly justified, traps started appearing in D&D, so we needed someone to deal with them, so the thief class was introduced, but now we have a character that can't contribute that well in combat, so we need more locks and traps for the thief to deal with, so now we really need thieves, and round and round the mulberry bush of justification we go). Climb, jump, and the other athletic skills get used rarely (especially given the ease of getting flying characters in AE). Tumble is hard to use (for one thing, it's not clear, does the attacker make two rolls, one against your tumble check and one against your AC, or just one. If the attacker makes just one roll, your tumble check has to have a good chance of being better than your AC to be even worth trying).

Spell casters also may end up with too many options. And then there's people's magic item lists. 3e isn't as bad as my AD&D days where PCs might have 20+ items, but still, characters that have items other than standard AC, weapon, and save items that are factored into the "combat" abilities spelled out on the character sheet often get forgotten.

On the other hand, all of these options are important for creating unique characters and providing a wealth of options that are gameable (I like the tactical wargame nature of D&D play). Some are important for creating flavor even if that flavor ends up granting little or no mechanical advantage.

But trading effectiveness for flavor creates imbalances in the characters. We have had numerous flavorful characters that basically sat around on their butts during combat. Even if the character sees use outside of combat, it still seems less effective. And potentially there is circular justification going on.

Character sheets tend to show the failings of this complexity. One page character sheets don't really work. All the skills need to be listed to remind folks what skills are there. There has to be space to show how things like saves and attacks are derrived (and it doesn't really work to have the formula on a "worksheet" on the back, and just plug in the number on the front). Spell casters need at least half a page to list out their spells. Magic item and possession lists take space. Even if you could keep the sheet to one page, there would probably still be stuff missed. My current sheet is four pages, though I get everything (except for spells) necessary for combat on one page (well, skills aren't on there either, but few skills apply in combat - perhaps I should make room for a couple on the front page like Tumble - but then information is being copied since those skills should still be listed with the rest).



At 11:49 PM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

Iron Heroes does a great job with dealing with skills, first in that ANY skill, if you can come up with the appropriate justification, can be used to add a bonus to combat, making it more than just a useless investment. Second, you can also use it to get a "roll-over" bonus into another skill roll ("I'll use Gather Info to get a read on the guy, then Bluff for the actual con job...").

IH also rolls skills together into Skill Groups- such as Wilderness, Agility, Stealth, Social etc. For instance, anyone who uses a lot of Bluff is probably got some Negotiate AND Sense Motive- you pretty much need all of them together to really do the social thing.

Aside from that, there's also the option to go the C&C route- which is to simply go by attribute rolls alone, except that you certain classes get bonuses to a type of attribute roll (Fighters get Strength, Thieves get Dex, etc.)

At 5:19 PM, September 28, 2005, Blogger Martin Ralya said...

Interesting post, Frank -- and I'm glad you have a blog! :)

I've always been a fan of custom-building my PC sheets, character by character, and I usually shoot to fit everything that's commonly used on the front of one page. It doesn't always work out. ;)

At 9:34 AM, September 29, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

I need to look at Iron Heroes at some point. I think one of my players bought it, so maybe I can borrow his copy.

Going with just attribute rolls is definitely a strong way to go. While thinking about skills, I've considered how much easier it was in the early days when there just weren't skills, and the GM just called for an attribute roll of some sort, and perhaps took the class and equipment into account.

But I do find some skills useful, so it's nice to make them more than just attribute rolls.

As to custom building PC sheets - the biggest problem I have with players doing that is that when I need to find something on their sheet, it can be really hard. Also, when lots of skills have defaults, it's nice to know they exist.

But I think it would be good game design to actually make it so the sheet could be one page (except possibly for spell casters if you have D&D style spell casting where the character has a large list of available spells - a feature I like and think is worth some characters needing two pages).

I think it could easily be done with D&D if the skill system was aggressively re-designed. Cut the list of skills to 10-15.

IH's skill groups might be the answer.


At 8:12 AM, December 20, 2005, Blogger allenthailand said...

Actually, Tumble is pretty simple, and useful. All you have to do is to make a DC 15 Tumble check to avoid attacks of opportunity.

Attacks and AC don't enter the picture- it's just a static DC.

If you need to tumble past several foes, the DC increases by 2 for each extra one. 17 for the 2nd, 19 for the third, etc.

At 2:54 PM, December 20, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

Tumble is re-defined in Arcana Evolved to have a DC based on the opponent's attack.



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