Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Combat Subsystems #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

I don’t think this post will go over well with the professional game designers. Or the amateur ones. I’m being completely unreasonable, but professionals should always listen to their most demanding clients, right? Well, that’s me. I just want to play, and the quickest way to do that is to play a rules-light system. However, once I’ve got the hang of it, I want a rules-heavy system thorough enough not to leave itself open to conflicting interpretations.

I want my cake and to eat it too.

Why So Tense?

One of the tensions in game design is whether an RPG should be rules heavy or rules light. 1e is certainly rules heavy, at least when it comes to a combat system that micromanages so much. There’s a huge disadvantage to that: Learning such rules is a barrier to entry for new players. I get that point of view, especially when you have a system like 1e that requires you to jump from page to page, or even book to book, to get the complete rule (made easier by the hard work of David Prata mentioned in yesterday’s post on Initiative). Some game designers have tried to improve on this by simplifying processes, further abstracting how the system deals with the topic at hand. Well, I think it’s time for some reification.

Whiny Players

Here’s a grossly paraphrased conversation I’ve had since returning to D&D in 2005. In my experience, this is by no means an unusual conversation to have in this or other contexts.

Me (3-5 times while describing the scene): Are you sure you don’t want to do anything else?
Table: Nope.
Me (placing the minis on the table): Okay, you’re surprised.
Table: How? We had a lookout.
Me: I asked you several times if you had anything else to tell me, and you never mentioned it.
Table: But we always have a lookout. We’re adventurers. We know to do that.
Me: Well, they’re ambush predators. They know how to sneak.
Table: Show me in the rules where we must be surprised in this instance.
Me: The rules can’t possibly provide every example possible, so no such rule exists.
Table: Then we can’t be surprised.
Me: The very fact that surprise rules exist cuts against your argument.
Table: You’re a terrible DM. You don’t know the rules.

Truthfully, I am a terrible DM, but this isn’t an example of that.

1e Combat

The 1e combat system is rules heavy. Yes, it’s spread out over different pages of the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but that’s a failure of execution, not concept. I’m discussing concept in this post, so let’s stay focused on that.

The system does two things that I absolutely love but haven’t appeared in D&D in some time. First, surprise is handled by a simple die roll in almost all combats. There are a few things that negate a poor roll, but in general, roll a 1 or 2 on a d6, and you’re surprised. Second, the distance between the parties at the precise moment of engagement is handled through a separate die roll. The rule takes into consideration practical matters such as line of sight, whether the encounter takes place in a 20’ x 20’ room or outdoors on a flat plane of low grass, etc., but no one can say that they were surprised because the DM didn’t properly set the scene or otherwise withheld important information, and they also can’t argue as to whether they were in striking distance at the moment they were surprised. The baseline is that these dice rolls govern, so the burden shifts to the players to point to something they expressly said they were doing, or circumstances of the scene, that justify ignoring or modifying those dice rolls.

So, should all RPGs be designed like this? Maybe not. A ruleset covering all the bases is going to be long and complicated, which can slow down the game even if you know the rules. Even worse, beginners will face a barrier to entry. They’ll take one look at David’s work and say, “Twenty pages? Nope. That’s too much to read just to get to sit down at the gaming table.” Is there some way to avoid that?

Beginning v. Advanced Systems

A possible solution to the problem of the barrier to entry is to go backwards. 1e published the Basic Set (followed by some others) that served this purpose, and it was reasonably compatible with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons PHB and DMG (what I’ve been calling 1e). I never played this, but I seem to remember them having noticeable mechanical differences from 1e, which turned me off to it. This was probably arrogant because, believe it or not, when I first started playing “Blue BoxAD&D, we didn’t use ability scores at all. I don’t remember how that played out and can’t even guess how it worked, but I remember a conversation with a kid named Louis, who explained ability scores to me in 6th grade, which was two years after I started playing. The point is that you could abstract what you wanted, and once comfortable, drill down to a more complicated but well-defined system, but that was haphazard. Game designers should instead provide the roadmap by designing a combat system, then removing complexities from it in such a way that it maintains the balance between the two sides. What’s left is the “basic” system suitable for new players, existing players that prefer a rules-light system, or any player looking for an occasional quick and easy combat. Modern RPGs create alternate rules (e.g., methods for ability score generation), but that’s not the same thing.

A favorite RPG of mine, the FASA Star Trek RPG, did this quite well for starship combat. There was a basic subsystem and an advanced subsystem. The core mechanic was the same, with the base system dividing values by 3 (rounding down), but the advanced subsystem was more than just larger scalar values. It also introduced a more complicated means for bridge officers to affect combat. Not only did this eliminate a barrier to entry into the game, but I suspect that in order for this to work, the design methodology necessarily facilitated either subsystem being played as a board game. That opened the game to a lot of Star Trek fans who somehow thought RPGs were too nerdy. (I’m not kidding.) The rules were divided across five, short handbooks, all contained within the game’s box set.

There Are Still Concerns

Execution aside, publishing multiple subsystems, or even just one excessively complicated one, is not without its concerns. Players don’t want to purchase a nonnegligible amount of product just to move from one level of abstraction to the next. To allay this concern, the core rulebooks should disclose alternate subsystems even if an introductory box set exists. This leads to at least three other issues. The first issue is that game play could be slowed to a crawl if the rules get too complicated, even if you know exactly how they work. This could result in your advanced system almost never being used, making them a wasted effort. Ergo, there will still have to be trade-offs on that advanced system in order for it to have practical value. The second issue is that the core rulebooks could get too long if there are too many alternate subsystems across the entire game system. For both issues, game designers must pick their battles when deciding which rules to abstract/simplify. Perhaps that’s what’s raising my concerns here. Maybe they’ve picked their battles, and I just don’t like the ones they’ve picked, or maybe I don’t even perceive the battles they’ve won and therefore don’t appreciate them. I just know what gives me the most headaches as a DM and looking at all the PHBs and DMGs I’ve used, most have a little room to spare. Also, this is why I’m suggesting only two subsystems and only for combat, where one subsystem is just a compatible extension of the other.

For the record, the third issue, which for now I’ll call the Head of the Table writing method for now, will be discussed in a later post.

It’s All About Me

Let me know when I can stop apologizing.

Believe it or not, I know it’s a lot to ask of game designers to incorporate a second, simplified ruleset for combat, especially considering that my opinion may be a minority one. However, I suspect it would cut down on tension at the table, and designing in-game conflict resolution systems is the primary function of the game designer. Campaign settings are nice, but many people write their own. Not many write their own combat systems, and most can’t do that well. If any system is appropriate for division into a beginner and advanced system, it’s combat. So why not have your cake and eat it too? You could appeal to both the rules-light and rules-heavy crowds, broadening your customer base.

In general, I prefer a thorough system. Considering the conversation above, you can see why. Lightening the rules has led to a notion of DM empowerment in order to make the game playable, but it creates far more “us v. DM” tension than I enjoy at my table regardless of whether I’m behind the DM screen. The conversation above couldn’t occur often if we were playing 1e. I could point to the dice on the table, and that’d largely be the end of it. The biggest problem I’ve faced as a DM is the fact that many players don’t like to lose. By “lose,” I mean fail to solve a puzzle, miss a major piece of treasure, take a single hit point of damage, or get surprised. Just try to kill the average player’s character, and you’ll see how angry they can get. But the dice don’t lie. Thorough rules lead to predictable, and thus fair, results. Though it failed in clarity, 1e had the right idea. The FASA Star Trek RPG got it right. None of that would ever stop a DM from customizing those rules to suit their needs, especially if elements of the advanced subsystem were presented as attachable modules to the basic subsystem. I suspect multiple attachable modules would be harder to implement while maintaining balance, but 1e armor class adjustments, weapon speeds, and weapon lengths were effectively detachable rules that many people ignored, and the game was still playable. I’m looking for a well-defined subsystem that provides a clearer roadmap.


Hey, you chose game design as a career. You have no choice but to try to make me happy.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)

FASA Star Trek RPG at TerpCon, Saturday, November 17, 2012 #gaming

Yesterday I sent in my registration to TerpCon for my FASA Star Trek RPG adventure, “Intruders.” If you’re planning to be in the Washington, DC area on  November 17, consider attending. It’s a free gaming convention held at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland at College Park. They’ll be a good array of RPG events there, but if you have any interest in an old-style, original series adventure, my event will certainly be of interest to you. The gaming schedule isn’t up yet, but you can already create a registration account and check out (or contribute to) the buzz over on their Facebook page.

I ran my other original adventure, Anything but Routine, at a past event, and Intruders involves the same ship and crew. Even if you can’t make TerpCon, you can find several other works published on my FASA Star Trek RPG Resources page and run your own adventures near where you live.

As always, happy gaming.

Follow me on Twitter @GSLLC

FASA Trek Digital v1.0 Is Available

I’ve uploaded the first version of FASA Trek Digital, my Access 2007 database for the FASA Star Trek RPG. You can find it on my FASA Star Trek RPG Resources page (along with an explanation as to what exactly it is) by clicking here. I’ve never distributed an Access database, so if you’re having any problems opening it, let me know.

It’s an *.accde file (executable), so you might require the MS Access runtime application in order to run it. I haven’t packaged that with the program. I can do that if someone’s having trouble downloading the file, though you can also just download it yourself from the Access help database at It’s a quick download and installation, and once installed, it should work. (You should not need the Access Runtime Application if you already have Access 2007 installed on your PC.)

I’m happy with the functionality it provides, but remember that “you get what you pay for.” It could be a lot better, but unless I receive some support through (100% optional) PayPal donations, further development isn’t strictly guaranteed. Nevertheless, I’m planning to complete the player character generation component and am willing to entertain specific requests from all of you.

If you have any problems or uncover any bugs/defects, please contact me.

Happy gaming!

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FASA Star Trek RPG: Yet Another Adventure

A friend had a birthday party yesterday, and although it was a board-game friendly event, I prepared a short, self-authored adventure for a game of FASA Star Trek RPG just in case anyone was interested in playing. The issue never even came up. Instead, I played 7 Wonders (came in a close 2nd my first time playing the game) and Circvs Maximus (my character was killed in a chariot race), but I digress . . . .

A Doomsday Like Any Other

By now any reader of this blog or my Loremaster blog should know that I’ve been revisiting the FASA Star Trek RPG recently, having run it once at TerpCon in College Park, MD. The adventure I ran, Anything but Routine, took place in the Outback area of the FASA Star Trek universe, which is where Federation space borders both Gorn and Romulan space. The Romulans were always my favorite Star Trek villain, and the Gorn were oddly underused. I remember once opining online that one of the later series or movies should revisit the Gorn as velociraptor-like enemies, perhaps representing a subspecies of Gorn. Again, I digress . . . .

For this adventure, I kept the same crew of the Chandley class Frigate, the USS Fife (lifted from the FASA adventure, A Doomsday Like Any Other). It was intended to be only two hours long in light of the fact that it was written for a board-game audience, but it can be fit rather nicely into the story I started with Anything but Routine, either before or after that adventure. In other words, I might have the start of an entire FASA Star Trek RPG campaign.

Now, if I can just find a table of players for it . . . .

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Remembering FASA’s StarTrek RPG

This is a re-blog of my post on, “Remembering FASA’s StarTrek RPG.” For my thoughts on adopting the composite skill system for your Dungeons & Dragons game, see my last article, Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System.

I played D&D Sunday night [10/23/2011], and something came up that I thought I’d share with everyone. I was fondly remembering FASA’s Star Trek game from my high school years. I left [Dungeons & Dragons] in 1981 (not returning until 2005), but for a brief time in high school (1982 or 1983), I bought up materials from the FASA Star Trek game and played it a couple of times. I really miss that game and would like to do a 1-shot or 2-shot game. In 2007, I played the Demand of Honor adventure, which involved the Gorn, but online play was very “unsocial” and lacked the feel of true RPGing.

Can I Cook or What?

I’ve been very lucky to have founded a group that’s open to trying other systems. We’re currently in the midst of a Savage Worlds: Weird Wars campaign because we tried out that system one night (in the Deadlands setting). We’ve also played some Dragon Age RPG but have done nothing more than create some characters and run through a single sample encounter. Tonight, Hal Mangold of Green Ronin Publishing gave me two sourcebooks for DC Adventuresthe Hero’s Handbook and Heroes and Villains Vol. I, and although I’ve never been a comic book fan, I played a demo at GenCon run by its creator, Steve Kenson, and so it remains a candidate for our next experiment.

Still, FASA’s Star Trek would be my first choice for doing something different. As the one who’d be pushing the system, I probably wouldn’t get to be a player, but I love GMing as much as I do playing, so I can live with that.

What’s the Big Deal?

Of all the systems I’ve played (admittedly, not many), none immersed me as much into the setting as the bridge combat system. The hand-to-hand combat system was good, but when dealing with inter-ship battles, I felt like I was on the bridge of a starship. It was so good that they sold the system as a separate product. It could stand on its own.

Visualize the bridge of an Original Series starship. You have the science officer at one workstation, the helmsman at another, the communications officer at yet another, and so on for navigation, engineering, weapons control (for the Original Series movies), and of course the captain’s chair. Other than the captain, this is what the gaming table looks like. Everyone has their spot around a common center. The only difference is that, in a game, everyone always looks towards the center rather than occasionally.

Each of these work stations would necessarily have a different control panel on it. The science officer had a goofy sensor viewing thingy, the helm had it’s own in the Original Series, navigation had a star chart, weapons control had targeting systems and what amounted to “triggers” for the weapons, and so on. For the game, each of the players had their own control panel on paper tailor-made for their handling their responsibilities and tracking the resources for which they were responsible, roughly simulating a bridge workstation. The captain would make decisions on how to proceed, then ask the relevant character to carry out the order. This would usually necessitate a skill roll on the d100 system, and not surprisingly the character was built to contribute in ways appropriate for his position on a star ship.

In other words, there was a chain of command, but it was still a cooperative game, just like 4e [Dungeons & Dragons]. Although it’s certainly possible to play a 4e game without a leader, it helps if you have a healer. The same was true of Star Trek. Yeah, the captain’s in charge but can’t do it all. The time for the captain’s hands to get dirty was when it was time to make contact with others, and captains certainly were built to be good at that.

The game also addressed technology thoroughly, from starship weaponry, to sidearms, to medical and science equipment. All of the major races were addressed, including the Caitian from the animated series. In fact, at DDXP last year, I got to play one. My Gamma World GM created pre-gens for his game, and one of them was a Catian lieutenant from the Star Trek universe who had been stranded here by the Big Mistake. (At the time, he was playing in a FASA Star Trek home game.)

The game even had an ingenious explanation for why Original Series Klingons looked so different from the movie Klingons: The ones from the Original Series were “human fusion” Klingons, genetically combined with humans to make a Klingon better suited to deal with humans. The game took this to the next logical step, introducing Romulan-fusion Klingons as well. The Imperial Klingons (from the movies) existed, but they weren’t the first choice for dealing with humans, so you never saw them on the TV screen. Taking this level of detail even one step further, the game provided a ton of words from the Romulan language. This attention to detail is exactly the sort of thing a fan of the Original Series, like me, would love.

Finally, because everything was handled via the skill system, it wasn’t a burden to have a long list of skills for each character. This allowed each player to customize their character. Kirk liked to ride horses, Picard had a strong background in archaeology, and Riker played the trombone. Your character had plenty of skill points to spend. If you were an optimizer, you could certainly max out your engineering, but you didn’t have to do so. In fact, the game was basically built assuming some characters would be optimizers and others actors (i.e., role-players). Any character could be played by any player type, but because there was always a need for both role-playing and roll-playing, both player types could find a home somewhere on the bridge. Making sure everyone at the table is happy is a goal I’ve set for myself with organized play, but FASA Star Trek makes it easier.

Oh, and FASA Star Trek called them opportunity actions long before D&D had them. 🙂

What If This Isn’t for Me?

Obviously, feeling immersed in the setting isn’t important if the setting doesn’t matter to you. I’ll ask my group if they’re interested, but I won’t beg them to do it. “Play what you like,” implies, “Don’t play what you don’t like.” This might prevent me from every playing the game again, as I might have to find a table of players willing to do so and the time to play outside my group, but there’s always hope.

So Much to Do, So Little Time

Of course, there just isn’t enough time to do all the things I want to do. I’m currently having trouble focusing on a few projects for the Gamers’ Syndicate, and I’m essentially in a job hunt. Once successful in my job hunt, my time might become even more precious. We can’t have everything we want, and I can accept that, but there’s so much out there to do, I don’t see how I could ever get bored.

Either way, consider (re)visiting this game if you enjoyed watching Star Trek. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

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Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System

My love of the FASA Star Trek RPG gave me an idea on how to handle certain situations that I’ve seen before and believe to be handled less-than-ideally by DMs. I ran a quick Google check to see if anyone had already written about this topic, and apparently they haven’t. This surprises me, so perhaps I just couldn’t find it, but I propose using composite skill bonuses to handle an individual task that simultaneously requires multiple skills.

An Example from FASA Star Trek RPG

FASA Star Trek RPG is a d100, skill-based system so that each character would have a skill rating from 0-99 in each of the skills. To determine the success of an action, a player would roll a d100 against the relevant PC skill rating. Roll less than the skill rating, and it’s a success. For complicated tasks requiring multiple simultaneous skills, however, your target wasn’t a single skill rating, but rather an average of all of the relevant skills.

You’ve just boarded your enemy’s starship. It’s a Klingon scout ship with a crew of 8, so it’s no surprise that the entire enemy crew is dead. Unfortunately, the crew activated the self-destruct sequence and severely damaged the only computer that could be used to deactivate the sequence. Time’s running out. There’s no time to fix the computer, then consult a Klingon-to-English dictionary. What do you do?

You roll against your skill in Computer Technology (i.e., repair of computers), Computer Operations (i.e., use of computer interfaces), and Language: Klingon (i.e., your ability to translate what’s on the screen). So, if your skills are Computer Technology 60, Computer Operation 70, and Language: Klingon 20, your target number is (60 + 70 + 20)/3 = 50. If you never learned a word of Klingon (skill rating 0), you’d be at a severe disadvantage, but your general knowledge of computers could still make for a reasonable chance of success (60 + 70 + 0)/3 = 43. Therefore, not knowing Klingon doesn’t automatically make you useless if you beam over to the ship. You’re still contributing on your own merits.

An Example from 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine some examples of how this would work in the d20 system. Let’s use 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons as an example.

There’s a group of ogres sitting around a campfire playing the Orc dice game, Rotting Toes. They’re unfamiliar with the game and downright stupid, but they’re also tough combatants that technically are standing watch. If disturbed, they might sound an alarm.

Hat tip to Erik Nowak for creating Rotting Toes.

The party decides that the best way to handle this encounter is to avoid it. Needless to say, the 3rd-level Rogue rolls a Stealth check (+12), succeeds with flying colors, and passes right on by. Unfortunately, the Paladin is in full plate mail armor. Stealth isn’t much of an option.

The accepted solution is a group Stealth check. Everyone rolls their dice, and as long as half of the group makes the check, the party as a whole succeeds. I’m not a fan of this. I know this is a game of magic and monsters, but at times, this solution defies logic. If, for example, due to the surrounding environment, each character must move one at a time across a long distance, the Rogue isn’t going to be able to help the Paladin stay silent. Any way you slice it, the Paladin is on his own, yet the group Stealth check inappropriately allows the Rogue to help.

More importantly, however, is that this is also a game of creativity and imagination, and the group Stealth check stifles that. Even if the Paladin could enlist the help of his friends, that doesn’t me he should. If I were playing the Paladin, I’d want my actions to count. I don’t want someone else to dictate my success in a situation where a little thinking outside the box will keep my fate in my own hands. There are enough opportunities for teamwork elsewhere in the game. Here, I want to be on my own.

Instead, let’s say the Paladin decides to throw a stick to create a distraction. Is this an Athletics check? Is it a Bluff check? How about both? It’s a single action, so if both skills are in play, both should affect the outcome.

The 3rd-level Goliath Avenging Paladin’s relevant skills are Athletics +5, Bluff +3, and Stealth -1. He should have no problem dealing with Ogre psychology (Bluff), but he also has to toss the stick accurately to place it exactly where he wants it to go (Athletics). So, it looks like his bonus to the skill roll for the composite skill bonus is (5+3)/2 = +4. That’s certainly better than a -1. However, this is a Goliath we’re talking about. He’s got a +2 to Wisdom, and his Widsom score is a respectable 14 because it’s his tertiary stat. Moreover, his background includes a strange parentage; he was raised by wolves (Background: Parentage-Raised by Wolves), giving him a +2 background bonus to Nature checks. As a result, his Nature score is a whopping +8.

The Paladin knows that lemurs are the ogres favorite food, and he also knows that this area has plenty of lemurs in it. Instead of throwing the stick simply to get the ogres to look the other way, he chooses to throw it into a lemon tree where Comyrean lemurs are known to play. This way, the ogres not only will look the other way, but also will keep looking, possibly sending one off to grab some lemurs. In order to reflect this mechanically, the Paladin now gets to add his Nature bonus into the mix. His composite skill bonus is now (5+3+8)/3 = +5, which is appropriate for a single action using each of his three relevant skills.

If the DM rewards the creativity with the typical +2, the Paladin has a bonus to his roll of +7, and he deserves it based on his own ingenuity and character build. In fact, the rest of the party might thank him if one of the ogres leaves to investigate — such a ruling is more appropriate for a Bluff check than a Stealth check — as that means one less ogre remains to spot the remaining PCs during their checks.

The +7 is a far cry from the +12 to Stealth that the 3rd-level Halfling Rogue might have, but it’s still pretty good, and it’s his.

It’s Not All About the PCs

This isn’t just a means to inspire creativity. As my FASA Star Trek RPG example demonstrates, sometimes the DM should require the use of a skill (in that case, Language: Klingon) because it’s logical. I’m sure the character with a skill rating of 0 in Language: Klingon wouldn’t want to have to include it, but it makes sense to require it. In the D&D example, perhaps all of the PCs should be required to include their Nature bonus to their checks due to some natural hazard present in the area. There’s a logic to the composite skill bonus that I find hard to ignore. (Yes, I know; magic and monsters….) In any case, a composite skill is appropriate only where a single d20 roll must simultaneously include knowledge or ability covered by multiple skills, such as where there isn’t enough time to take multiple actions.

What Do You Think?

As DM, you could certainly decide that there were no such lemurs present that night, but why would you? This is a system that allows each character to be judged on his or her own merits, and it encourages creative thinking. I can’t imagine any drawbacks, but if you have any, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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