PDA

View Full Version : On Abstraction in D&D, and similar role playing systems



EternalShadow
01-05-2014, 11:48 PM
Note: This article could apply to many rpg systems, but for illustrative purposes I will D&D 3.x as the example here.

Pen and paper role playing game systems attempt to simulate actions in a fantasy world, most particularly combat actions, through statistics, guidelines and dice rolls for probability.
D&D is a d20 system, meaning that the deterministic rolls (those indicating the chance of something happening, as opposed to its magnitude or other factors) are make using a single 20 sided die. Other systems use ten or six-sided dice but add a layer of complication by rolling a pool of dice and counting “successes” over a target number.

Ideally, when familiar with a pen and paper role playing system, the players can see past the numbers and dice rolls to imagine the simulated scene taking place in their mind’s eye. However, an obstacle to this is the tendency for the brain to try and see a direct correlation between things happening in the game and the numbers used in the simulation. In the majority of statistics for D&D, this is simply not the case. The numbers are an abstract system representing the action with no direct correlation.

The most obvious area is “Hit Points”. This is a value assigned to every character representing how much damage they can withstand before dying. In varying systems this value is sometimes termed “vitality” or “health” however the term HP often get confused with is “wounds”. Where systems with a “wounds” stat generally are a direct correlation (so many Lethal wounds = death,) Hit Points most definitely are not. A character gains Hit Points with every experience level gained, so that an attack that deals 5 hit points worth of damage might be lethal to a low level character but might be no more than a scratch to a high level character. Thus Hit Points cannot represent how many wounds a character can take, but rather they are an abstract measure of the intensity of damage a character can deal with.
Take, for example, an attack with a spear for 5 points of damage. To a character with only 5 hit points we could think of this as a lethal spear strike to the heart. However it is downright comical to imagine a character with 50 hitpoints withstanding multiple spears to the heart and still be doing alright. Instead we must imagine the 5 hitpoints as the intensity of the attack, so the low level character stands helpless as the spear is driven through his heart while a high level character has trained and honed his battle senses to be able to partially deflect the attack*, roll with it to lessen the impact or turn to take the hit in a less vital area. Now this makes more sense how the higher level character is able to withstand 10 attacks at this intensity, or one attack 10 times as strong - that would be one he is simply unable to lessen.

* (We have to be careful not to call aim into question when dealing with damage; in D&D the attack (to-hit) roll is separate from a damage roll so here we are assuming we have a hit and must decide how bad the hit is.)

There is a similar abstraction made with Armor Class and attack bonuses. If this figure were a direct correlation with actual armor it would be better to represent it as a reduction in the strength of the attack, the armor absorbing part of the blow. In recent editions of D&D there are a lot more potential bonuses that go into this figure besides armor: dodge bonuses, deflection bonuses, luck bonuses, sacred bonuses, etc, etc. Obviously a single abstract armor class figure is used in D&D for simplicity; there are systems that do well treating armor as a damage reduction effect but they require additional statistics for dodge and parry and any other kind of defensive mechanism. The key, when envisioning what is going on in D&D, is to remember it is an abstraction. How could a point-blank shot possibly miss? Why are these two melee combatants failing to hit each other round after round? There are many factors in the abstract Armor Class number; a failure to “hit” could really represent a parry, a dodge at the last second, deflection off of a magical shield, a target concealing their true location, or protection from cover. Similarly an attack roll factors in skill with the weapon among other things, so failure to hit at point blank could represent a weapon malfunction or improper use.

Time and space are also abstractions in D&D. The typical medium sized creature is represented as occupying a 5 foot by 5 foot square on the battlefield. However except for something like a gelatinous cube that literally fills a 5x5x5 cube, characters do not actually fill the entire square. Rather the space, or square on a battle mat, is an abstraction representing the amount of space needed to bob and weave, maneuver a weapon, cast a spell, etc.

Time in D&D 3rd edition combat is divided into 10 six second rounds per minute. Every character has an initiative modifier that represents their reaction speed to battle and determines what order they take their turn in during combat. Combat rounds are run sequentially by initiative, but in reality the characters would not simply stand and wait their turn from round to round. Everything that takes place during a round happens in the same six seconds, but in order to properly simulate the sequence of split second actions there has to be an order. Part of the fun of the game is planning a strategy to implement each round, but if you want to envision a realistic situation combat would be wild and chaotic and everything is happening nearly simultaneously.
2nd edition AD&D tried to embrace this realism with rules for modifying the initiative numbers according to weapon speeds and castingl speeds,) however this significantly complicates things and can get very messy (http://www.seankreynolds.com/rpgfiles/rants/weaponspeeds.html).

Dungeons and Dragons is one of my favorite role playing systems, but many criticisms can be made about its balance between realism and efficiency. D&D 3.5e lies on a spectrum between very simple mechanics where broad actions are represented by a single roll and very complex where every facet of possibility has a precise probability and statistic. Other editions and other systems are elsewhere on this spectrum. I believe 3.5e works well for roleplay and simulation, but it is important to take note of how things are being abstracted. Realizing that the numbers are an abstraction from aggregate sources can greatly enhance the role play and bring better clarity to the age-old question: “what the heck happened that last round of combat?!”

-ES

tesral
01-09-2014, 04:53 AM
Well written. Getting around the numbers I have found is the biggest impediment to role-playing. Simple system are easier to ignore, complex system less so.

That said simple system, like D&D cannot be simulationist. That requires complexity because reality is complex..

The more complex the system the more the metagame impacts the game. One reason I have stuck with D&D through the decades even with the obvious flaws in the system.

nijineko
01-09-2014, 12:31 PM
excellent points. i wonder if it might be interesting to contrast rolemaster with d&d in another article.

DMMike
01-09-2014, 10:30 PM
Ideally, when familiar with a pen and paper role playing system, the players can see past the numbers and dice rolls to imagine the simulated scene taking place in their mind’s eye. However, an obstacle to this is the tendency for the brain to try and see a direct correlation between things happening in the game and the numbers used in the simulation. In the majority of statistics for D&D, this is simply not the case. The numbers are an abstract system representing the action with no direct correlation.

Reading this, I think of a player making a really low Hide check and thinking "well I hide. In FRONT of the curtain." Isn't that a direct correlation?

I think the separation between mind's eye and the game comes in the form of rules, not rolls. In the above example, it's not clear what, EXACTLY, the Hide skill does. How many footsteps are involved? Can you hide behind things, blend in with them, or use chameleon-like powers? Hard to say for sure, since Hide is somewhat abstract, and the mind's eye wants to see something precise.

cloa513
01-24-2014, 01:25 AM
D&D is totally inconsistant about hit points- early on it says its the will to fight so that players or monsters in general should easily go negative. Logically you can say in the heat of battle or the nervous stealth strike that its general damage- cuts on flesh or internal wounds or bruising of major organs none of which hit anything vital like lungs, heart, brain/spinal column and nothing disabling like limbs or hips. 5 HP PC/NPC is simply one that has no great will to resist any such wounds and collapses easily (say unconscious). Give them recuperation etc and they should be usually all better. It also says that undead are raised by magic and logically they shouldn't have hit points as they don't have a will to fight its just the magic driving them to fight.

DMMike
01-25-2014, 12:58 AM
Well, one thing is consistent about D&D's hit points: when you run out of them, you're in trouble.

I actually made damage (not hit points, I took those out) MORE abstract in my RPG. Taking damage means everything from getting winded, to drinking poison, to losing a lung, to suffering dehydration. That's PHYSICAL damage. I also included Mental and Metaphysical damage. They all have one thing in common, much like D&D: when you take too much damage, you're in trouble.