I’ve been playing TTRPGs for, oh, 37 years or something. I was exposed to Tolkien as a child, via the Rankin and Bass movies, and shortly thereafter a trip to a hobby shop exposed me to this strange board (?) game with lead figurines and weird dice and hobbits and dragons.
I was not allowed to play this strange game. Not because of the “Satanic Panic” of the time. Instead, my parents – inveterate spendthrifts – easily spied it as an activity that required money, which to them was far more pernicious and awful.
So I’d go to the hobby shop with my mom – I was, like, 8 – and sit and read the manuals while she shopped for craft supplies.
(I suppose I should explain to any younger readers that at the time, a “hobby shop” often contained a strange mix of what would now be separate Hobby Lobby, comic book, and toy stores. One part of the store was silk flowers, another was model rockets, still another needlepoint and fabric, and then a little corner with D&D books, minis, and paint. Also at the time, my main source of comic books was the grocery store.)
Then, I’d go home, and attempt to transcribe what I’d read into some meaningful semblance of a game. I didn’t have polyhedral dice, so I’d try to work out how to make it all work with the 5 6-siders I’d taken from the family Yahtzee game. I didn’t have minis, either, so I used army men.
It was an exceptionally unplayable game, but having never actually played D&D, I didn’t really know that. It was one of the first time I sat down and tried to create a mechanical system. I was hooked.
I’d eventually go on to play real D&D. I remember one DM thought hobbits only had 1 arm, because they couldn’t wield 2-handed weapons. Another couldn’t figure out THAC0 so he just rolled the first die at hand and made the player guess if the result was odd or even.
Over the years, I’ve probably seen hundreds of homegrown and commercial optional rules for D&D; mostly combat and spell casting, but also weird things like random weather tables and managing ones castle.
D&D is an at times frustrating mix of game and simulation. If you’re into that sort of thing you can do an incredible deep-dive on just what all that means, but if you only want the nickel-tour version: a game lets you survive what looks like dozens of sword blows, falls from a great height, or impacts from massive objects; a simulation carefully details just how incredibly fucking dead you are from just one good sword wound (or, how if you survive it, you lose use of a limb or whatever, in other words, permanently maimed).
The other day I was thinking about how to bolt on a system to core D&D combat that allowed for “glancing blows”; that “hits” should be split into solid and meager hits. The damage system doesn’t really allow for that well; if you have a sword with a magic effect, it fires if you do 1 points of damage or 10. And don’t get me started on armor classes and hit points …
When it suddenly occurred to me. I have a bookshelf (and now, digital one) laden with games systems that aren’t by-God D&D, with often novel mechanics to resolve these and many other “problems” with D&D. It’s not just that we want a particular flavor of fantasy world; we want the mechanical resolution to reflect that world.
I think back to the odd-or-even DM, and how while I was perpetually annoyed at “why bother having a magic sword if it’s all just a 50/50 chance to do anything”, what was fun was not the deep, careful, intellectual manipulation of a mathematical/mechanical system, but the game itself. Suspense, action, chaos, heroism, adventure, and discovery; that was the fun. The fun with maths what just what I did when I wasn’t actually playing D&D with my friends.
So I’ll get these ideas, and think, this would be fun for 5E, but, ugh, hit points. But I think now that’s wrong. Mechanics are fun and important, but should never outweigh the value of the game itself.
Programmers lose sight of the business value of the programs we write, instead thinking about the elegance of the algorithms or the utility of some set of libraries. I think I’ve spent a lot of time losing sight of the game itself by spending my idle time thinking about the simulation.