Monday, December 12, 2011

Misconception Monday: Subsystems

In the waning months of 1999 the world held its breath in anticipation of Y2K. Would computers around the world crash? Would power grids go dark, airline catastrophes dominate the news, and life as we knew it cease to be? January 1 came and went, with barely a ripple in the collective experience. The true cataclysm of 2000 wouldn't hit until August, and it would be heralded by an innocent moniker: d20.

d20 gave us a unified system mechanic. Sure, other games had unified mechanics. Good for them. D&D and AD&D never had, and that simple premise shook the foundations of our game. Roll a d20 for everything task-related. Always, always, roll high. Simple, to the point, and flavorless.

D&D gets picked on for its wealth of subsystems. Virtually every major game activity has its own system, none of them really function with similarity. Roll high on a d20 for attacks and saving throws. Roll d20 low for non-weapon proficiencies (when used). Roll d6 for opening doors. Percentile for thief skills. And so on . . .

The problem with this should be obvious. Remembering which die type to roll for which situation. Remembering if it is roll-high or roll-low. Since each roll and situation is unique, so are each of the modifiers. No light is -4 on to-hit rolls, for example. What about no light when a thief is searching for traps? Would it be -20%, since 4 points on a d20 roll equals 20%? What about initiative in the dark? Would it be modified at all? It's a d6 roll, so it can't have the same -4, and it doesn't translate as well as it would to a d100.

The thing about these "problems" is the same as it is with other problems: they are part of the charm. They are part of what makes it a D&D experience. I adore the subsystems. For me, unified mechanics make a lot of sense, but they don't really speak to me. As a referee, I like for the game to have a certain air of mystery about it. When it seems mysterious to the players, then I seem sort of, I don't know, almost like some sort of intermediary. I understand how things work, and without me acting as a sort of translator, their characters are lost. Kind of weird, I know, but it gets me in a good place to referee from.

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