The Immortal Rants of Sean K. Reynolds – “We need rules for called shots!”

LARP: Sternenfeuer group from Germany

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Editorial0 has contributed a set of article-replies to some of Sean K. Reynolds rants about third edition design decisions. Those decisions have heavily influenced a lot of game designs since, so I’ll be putting those up – along with some additional comments.

To avoid excessive reprinting, you can find the general introduction to this series in the first article, HERE.

This particular rant is entitled “Called shots do bad things to the game!” – and explains why Mr Reynolds feels that called shots are inherently disastrous.

The Called Shots rant might seem like a small side issue, but in fact it points out a huge discrepancy between groups of gamers. As usual, Mr. Reynolds math is flawless, his arguments logical and straightforward, and his conclusions fairly solid.

Unfortunately, while he addresses the mathematical rules of the system, he fails to give the players options. And role-playing games are mostly about letting players do cool things – which means that the right answer for some playstyles is wrong for others.

Called shots may or may not be worth doing in a game. They’re fun if they work within the system – when they’re built-in and flow smoothly. When they go outside the normal rules, then things become a problem. A game system which has hit locations can more easily handle called shots than one which doesn’t. A game system in which called shots use completely separate rules for damage, critical hits, and effects is a major problem.

Sean K. ignores that and focuses on the mathematical system he devised. And he’s quite right: the system abstracts everything to the breaking point. It doesn’t necessarily need rules for Called Shots. The rules abstract that away into the random hit and critical rolls.

But this doesn’t entirely satisfy some gamers, and we should all see why. They don’t have any input into the dice rolls and they can’t announce that they want to try a special trick. They may have precisely the same chance of critical damage at level 20 as at level 1. A high-level archer probably won’t have any critical enhancements on his bow – they don’t stack very well. A melee-type might or might not depending on his weapon.

Nonetheless, that high-level character can have a huge attack bonus, and it makes a certain amount of sense to hit the enemy where he wants to. And shouldn’t this cause some kind of problem for the target? Shouldn’t chopping off his arm make him less effective in battle? Well, maybe. Except that D&D characters don’t really have arms, either.

Part of the problem lies in the D&D concept of hit points, or the lack thereof. Are high-level characters super-tough, or are they just really good at somehow getting out of the way? The game is largely silent, Gary Gygax leaned in favor of the latter years back, and the rules themselves actually imply the former. D&D characters have always been milk jugs full of hit points: when you poke them they leak a bit. Nobody ever gave the rules more thought than that during design, so that’s how it stayed.

And there are a lot of good reasons for that. Hit points are an abstraction, but they’re a very useful one. But always remember that abstraction is a giant pain in a lot of ways. It’s a compromise, and it leaves a lot at the door.

We did something about that in Eclipse. Eclipse offers a vast array of specialized abilities. You can learn how to make all kinds of ways to cripple and hinder your enemies. But most D&D games aren’t using those kinds of options. It doesn’t help that the “Power Attack” feats favor strong characters over precise ones and don’t work with any ranged attacks. There were and are some considerable holes in the game system, which need a lot more than patches.

So, while the complainers are partly wrong in the desired solution, they’re pointing out a real problem. The game needed a bit more of a grounding and explanation, and it simply didn’t have it. D20 is indeed an extremely smooth system, but smooth is often less important than “easy to understand.” Gamers always make allowances for odd results. But when the basic structure of a game doesn’t allow for the obvious (or allows it, but doesn’t explain how to get it), they become confused or angry. And maybe they should.

For a brief counterpoint article, you can look HERE.

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