Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Piledriving D&D

I'm not a huge reader of blogs which cover mainstream D&D 4th edition, Pathfinder, that sort of thing. Not necessarily out of choice, but more because I'm not sure what the interesting and good ones are. (I'm even less knowledgeable about blogs covering WoD stuff - there must be hundreds but I don't read a single one.) But Critical Hits occasionally has interesting content. This post, for instance, strikes a definite chord with me. For those too lazy to read the original entry, the author describes what he calls the "Piledriver" - which is "the term we use for every time an unintentional rules mistake is made during play and not corrected". I'm sure you've encountered this, because every role player surely has. The following example is given:

Embarrassingly enough, I am guilty of one the most pervasive and (in hindsight and for others) frustrating Piledrivers in our game group’s history.  During our Warhammer 40k play era, my favored tactic was to load highly specialized Eldar forces into Wave Serpent troop transports, deck them out with holo fields that made damaging them more difficult, fly across the battlefield at breakneck and dump off each set of specialists in the place they were needed most.  It worked wonders!  Heavy weapons fire rolled off my fast and tough transports and sheltered my lightly armored specialists.  There was one problem: the defensive cornerstone of my tactic, the holo field, could not be equipped on Wave Serpents.    This mistake over nearly a dozen games certainly taints the resulting victories and rightfully frustrates the vanquished victims. 

What's interesting for me about the Piledriver is how frequently such instances occur in D&D, and how they have warped the game for probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. The reason it happens so frequently in D&D is obvious - it's a disorganised mess, whatever edition - but this raises an even more interesting point: the most popular RPG ever, by far, is also probably the least correctly played RPG ever made, too. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I'm not sure, but it certainly feeds in to the whole "D&D is a toolkit" discourse that you sometimes encounter on the blogosphere.

What are some Piledrivers in pre-WotC era D&D? Some examples from my own checkered playing history are:

  • Not realising that Hold Person in 2nd edition AD&D lasts 2 rounds per level - we thought it was 2 turns per level.
  • Totally misunderstanding casting times. If the casting time for a spell is 1 round, it takes place at the end of the round in which the caster begins casting.
  • Always forgetting to use speed factors for weapons.
  • Memorising spells takes 10 minutes per spell level and the caster has to have had a restful night's sleep. Often treated as "you get to memorize however many spells at the start of the day" in my experience, no matter what happened during the night.
  • You determine initiative after announcing what your character is doing, not before. Important for disrupting spells: if you announce your magic-user is going to cast a spell and then it turns out you're last in initiative, tought shit - there's a good chance the spell will fizzle. This aspect of our game was missing for years.
  • There are modifiers to initiative depending on the surroundings and situation, and also optional ones depending on the type of attack and various other factors.
  • If you have more than one attack, your second attack occurs after the first initiative cycle has gone through for everybody in the combat.
  • For years I used to roll a d20 on random encounter tables rather than d8+d12.
Some of these are more egregious and game-changing than others. Forgetting speed factors, the thing about memorising spells, initiative rolls taking place after statement of action, and d20 on random encounter tables definitely gave things less depth tactically and made for a blander experience, I would say. It just goes to show that when you're 12, reading a rulebook like the AD&D 2nd edition PHB and taking it all in is really a rather daunting task. Something makes me think that people working at WotC haven't really learned that lesson, judging by the length of the 3rd and 4th edition books.


  1. Some of these are your mistakes, yes, but others reveal flaws in the rules to me. If people keep forgetting a rule it's usually for a reason - you are having too much fun playing, the rule's getting in the way of the action and should be simplified or dropped.

    Example 1: Weapon speed factors. I don't think it's a particular badge of shame to have dropped those.
    Example 2: Calling actions out at the top of the round. I tried this in my recent campaign and we always forgot it. At which point I judged whatever tactical tension it caused as not worth the sacrifice of immediacy.
    Example 3: Precisely timing out your spell memorizing so you can see whether you set off for the dungeon at 8:10 or 8:50 - again, not worth it. Highlight uptime, abstract out downtime.

  2. We deliberately forgot speed factors.

    For years I've been giving my Call of Cthulhu players an experience tick for a critical failure on a skill use, but I discovered that there's no basis for this in the rules. I'm not sure if that counts as a piledriver since it benefits the players.

  3. I have had my players outright refuse to play with speed factor, casting times, announcing your actions, etc, loudly and aggressively.

  4. I rather like Piledrivers, as they're typically the sort of thing one discovers, shrugs about, and decides whether to correct the rule or adopt it as a house rule.

    My guess is that it's a combination of both players and game designers: keeping every rule in mind is sometimes difficult, but it can also be difficult to write a game without being vague or overly complex.

    Also, for kelvingreen, I've never done played Call of Cthulhu with experience marks for critical failures, but I've thought about it often. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought that makes sense.

  5. Roger the GS: The thing is, these rules genuinely DO make the game better, and also remove some of the things people always complained about with D&D.

    Example 1: Weapon speed factors make combat more strategic and interesting. Instead of having every single fighter who ever lived go for a long sword, other variants are possible. They didn't follow through properly because there isn't a genuine trade-off between speed and damage (an awl-pike does the same amount of damage as a long sword but is about twice as slow) but the principle is sound.

    Example 2: Calling actions at the top of the round is more realistic and actually rewards the person who has the best initiative, because the alternative is to have those who roll poorly getting the chance to declare their actions after the round has developed and the faster people have already moved.

    Additionally, forcing spell-casters to declare their spell-casting at the top of the round leaves them open to being attacked in the meantime and having their spell fizzle, reducing at a stroke the problem that players of D&D always complain about - magic-users being too powerful and game-changing.

    Example 3: I agree about that, but the thing about having a proper night's rest is a good solid rule. Again, it makes the game more strategic (you actually pay attention to where you're setting up camp for the night, and making sure it's secure, so the magic-users can sleep through the night) and again reduces the dominant role of spell-casters.

    Kelvingreen: I think it counts - Piledriver is a neutral term, I think, and can mean something bad or something good.

    Keith: That's weird. See my response to Roger above.

    S P: Well, ultimately it is down to D&D being a very incoherent game with rather confused design goals. That's something that whatsisface at the Forge got absolutely right.

  6. The whole initiative/suprise/segments thing confused me for years. Every time I read it my brain hurt and I gave up. I think I finally just got it a couple weeks ago. But I actually had to rewrite it in my own words.
    I translated it from Gygaxian.

  7. Thanks to constantcon I've played about a dozen variations on D&D within a very short time and I can say that---either by accident or "this-is-my-houserule" design--most of these "mistakes" reflect exactly the way DMs and players instinctively play, no matter what the system.

    S&W, LL, B/X, AD&D, 3.5 whatever, the spells all go off immediately and nobody announces until their initiative and it all works out.

    To me, its interesting because this means players of all different ages and experience levels from all different parts of the world have been simplifying the game in exactly the same ways.

  8. Malcolm Sheppard has an interesting post on his experience of playing AD&D by the rules, not forgetting anything, and he says that it's a completely different game when played according to all its nuances. I agree with him that the way we played as children was so full of egregious piledrivers that we may well have been basically playing a different game, and I am interested in seeing what it's like to play AD&D strictly by the book.

    I think, incidentally, that in his posts on his campaign he identifies many of the same piledrivers in his childhood gaming as you do.

  9. I agree with everyone who's been saying the simplifications of AD&D are a good thing. Although I think the restful night's sleep is something that needs to be stressed. Barricading a door and sleeping in a haunted house or dungeon is not going to be a restful night's sleep.

  10. I read scalable, as 'sociable'. That was truly weird until I re-read it.

  11. I think the example given, in a competitive wargame situation, is a problem, but in a cooperative RPG these "mistakes" really aren't worth worrying about. RPG rules are not really rules, they are guidelines, and each group will use the ones they want and modify as they see fit, to no one's loss.

  12. I'm with Zak here. I don't see 'mistakes', I see your (and your group's) particular take on the game.

    That and the fact that some of these rules are about the least interesting elements of D&D (and RPG gaming in general) I can possibly think of.

    "Not realising that Hold Person in 2nd edition AD&D lasts 2 rounds per level - we thought it was 2 turns per level."

    Never really played 2nd. What was it in first?

    "Totally misunderstanding casting times."

    Never used casting times. Wizards at 3 level have so few hit points and no armor that casting time was like saying, "How about I just shoot you in the foot and call it a day."

    Later we made a house ruled casting time system that was still pretty fast.

    "Always forgetting to use speed factors for weapons."

    Never used speed factors.

    "Memorising spells takes 10 minutes per spell level and the caster has to have had a restful night's sleep. Often treated as "you get to memorize however many spells at the start of the day" in my experience, no matter what happened during the night."

    Bingo. See casting times.

    "You determine initiative after announcing what your character is doing, not before."

    Wow seriously? Never did that either.

    "There are modifiers to initiative depending on the surroundings and situation, and also optional ones depending on the type of attack and various other factors."

    I do this for difficult terrain, injuries and other appropriate elements.

    "If you have more than one attack, your second attack occurs after the first initiative cycle has gone through for everybody in the combat."

    Yeah, no.

    "For years I used to roll a d20 on random encounter tables rather than d8+d12."

    Heaven forbid. Don't worry dude. I won't rat you out.

  13. I wouldn't go so far as Barking to say none of these rules matter or could make the game better (rolling d12+d8 v d20 creates a probability curve is the point, and that;s something) I just meant to say it is strange how a bunch of mostly non-communicating non-overlapping groups all over the world all changed the same rules.

  14. the whole "D&D is a toolkit" discourse that you sometimes encounter on the blogosphere

    ...that's me. Learning, playing and adapting D&D made me into a game designer, got me my first job and started me on a path to various kinds of interactive design. I consider it my single most important teacher for all of that. It taught me half of the lessons my fine art foundation course lecturers subsequently tried to drum into me, except they did a less coherent and interactive job of it. Like Lego, it was made out of a bunch of recombinable subsystems. Unlike Lego, you could create your own bricks, and mash them together with the original bricks, and it would still work well enough that a new player couldn't see the joins - and well enough to provide feedback about what was wrong. It taught me to be critical of any kind of product that had been polished and packaged for my use - chances were the designer would not have anticipated the uses I would want to make of it, or it could be streamlined to my needs, or it might be completely useless but still contain some handy cogs and levers. It gave me a can-do attitude about system design, which in retrospect was very 60s/70s (the same era that produced home-programmable computers, which you don't see much any more).

    And one of the most useful things about it, from this point of view, was that it was so imperfect. So frustratingly full of kludges and special subsystems and hacks and hedges. It demanded redesign. Or not - you could try to play it exactly like Malcolm Sheppard, but that was actually harder than redesigning it to be the game you wanted. I was probably 12 the first time I decided to ditch the whole mess and start again from the ground up.

    So, your piledrivers are my creative diversity. And the results of such creativity might not always have the same beauty as Gary and Dave's original, but that was no cathedral either.

  15. It does seem like a different game when you look at all of these changes together. I think when I played 2nd edition in high school, we used most of these variants regularly.

    I would say that they add nuance to the game, but many of them (esp. the initiative rules) can be a goddamn nightmare. It's hard enough to keep my players on the ball when the round is only "Hey what are you guys doing?" By requiring people to declare their actions in initiative order before resolving anything, you've doubled the length of my combat round, and now Mike's going to get another drink, etc.

    Also, these rules tend to require more record-keeping, looking up more numbers, etc. Now I'll admit I play Pathfinder, but nobody wants to look up spell casting times.

  16. Nemo235: I started with Basic and then 2nd edition, so never had the Gygaxian prose. But this is where the rot set in, as I'll write in a post today (dun dun DUN!)

    Zak: I think this is because we were kids when we learned and kids everywhere have the same tendencies - notably, impatience. Again, I'll write about this today.

    faustusnotes: Malcolm Sheppard, whoever he is, gets it.

    Stuart: For me the restful night thing is just stupid to ignore - it makes play so much richer. I think the other stuff does too, but this one especially.

    Anonymous: The point I wanted to get across in the post, but obviously didn't, was that I don't class these things as mistakes to worry about, per se. Just that they undoubtedly make the game a bit blander and less strategic. It's like playing chess without rooks. It's simpler and probably still fun, but rooks are great.

    Barking Alien: See above, really. I'm not worrying about this stuff - whatever rules anybody has are their rules, whatever. But these ones I've cited change the way you think about the game and play it.

    The d8+d12 thing is important, by the way, because it allows you to construct random encounter tables with the most common monsters in the middle and the rarest monsters at the ends, because results will tend to cluster in the middle of the range. A d20 table is purely random.

    Richard: Nice comment. I'll reiterate that I'll write a post about some of these issues later today.

    HDA: The initiative thing isn't that hard when you think about it. At the start of the round the DM says "What are you going to do?" Everybody declares their actions. ("I attack the orcs", "I cast fireball at the troll", etc.) and the DM decides the monster actions. Then everybody rolls. Then results get worked out. I guess it adds one more step into the process. I can understand why this is annoying for 12 year olds, and from there the Piledriver seemed to get built in so that as adults most people continue to play the same way. But they're missing out on more tense combats.

  17. It's quite a different thing to *really* know the rules as they are intended, tweaking them, with full insight about what you're actually doing and to ignore the rules because you don't even bother.

    Like this d8+d12 system. I've always rolled 2d10 as in the MM2 instead, I prefer the 2d10 curve because it's easier for me to figure the stats, but I knew the d8+d12 rule.

  18. 2E PHB, page 103, Turning Undead, paragraph 3, final sentence: "Only one attempt can be made per character per encounter, but several different characters can make attempts at the same time (with the results determined individually)."

    Overlooking this sentence, given the frequency of vampires/undead and Ravenloft-like scenarios in my games, had a MASSIVE effect on my campaigns for several years. It makes the difference between a lone priest easily holding undead hordes at bay, by using Turn Undead round after round, and a desperate attempt to buy the rest of the party time to flee.

    Similarly, the difference in the number of undead affected, between Basic and Advanced.

  19. The 1d8+1d12 is nonsense. Why not to use a 2d10 roll? Also, the best piledriver I remember is how Gary Gyrax designed that falling damage was 1d6 per 10' per 10'

  20. If these are pile drivers, I'm a professional wrestler.

  21. Interestingly, regarding sleep and spell memorization, Holmes states that magic-users don't bring their spell books with them while adventuring (so much for player agency):

    "More important, as the spell is recited it fades from the spell-caster's mind and he can not use it again! He must go back to his study and re-learn the spell. This takes at least 1 day. Magic-users can not bring their magic books into the dungeon with them. Always assume that more than 1 day has passed between expeditions, so that a magic-user who leaves the dungeon and goes home may start a new game with all his spells ready, but the appropriate time lag must be carefully noted." (p13)

    And slightly prior to that, on the same page, he writes:

    "A magic-user must concentrate on his spell, so he can not cast a spell and walk or run at the same time, and he certainly can not cast a spell while engaged in combat."

    Personally, I have ignored many of the fiddly bits in my past games (never liked speed factors). I do like the ability to disrupt spells though, so either declaring spells prior to initiative, or having them go off at the end of the round, seems like a good compromise.