Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Relationship Between Rule Complexity & Rule Opacity

"This pitiless reptile had killed his poor companions"
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931)
 Since I've started to try to reorganize Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for my Ruins & Redcaps project, it has been really interesting taking note of what Gygax chose to share with players in the PHB, and what got moved to the DMG.

In fact, one of my big complaints when I made the shift from Mentzer Basic to AD&D in 1987 was that some things I was used to seeing in the player's book, like attack matrices and saving throws were nowhere to be found. 

It was equally aggravating a year and a half later when I finally got the AD&D2e DMG to complete my set and discovered that it didn't have saving throws, either. They had been put back in the PHB. At eight years old, running my first campaigns that moved above third level, I found myself doing extrapolations of mathematical algorithms in order to figure out what the saving throws ought to be at higher levels.

(Yes, I was one of those, kids.)

There was definitely some complicated and clashing ideas between different TSR designers about exactly how transparent Dungeons & Dragons ought to be.

We take it for granted now that players ought to know a fair chunk of the rules. Most role-playing manuals don't have nearly the same delineation between the players and the GM section. Where they do have such a division, usually the GM section includes rules that will never intersect with the players, such as adventure planning, encounter-design, and campaign planning.

Things like attack rolls and saving throws would most naturally be where the players can learn about them.

Part of this comes out of complexity of the game. The WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons (3rd, 4th, & 5th), and many more complex role-playing games like the Palladium system or GURPS require players to build characters out of a lot of moving parts. Your combination of stats, classes, feats, special abilities, skills, and the like all will have a major impact in how effective your character is in dangerous situations, and how well they execute the skills that they are specialized in. Poor choices in character build can lead to poor performance at the table.

With TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, your character is a mix of random generation, and then making choices based on the results of those early random rolls. The player chooses a race, class, alignment from the ones they might be successful at according to the dice, and then buys gear, and if necessary,  chooses spells. Once those decisions are made, the character’s capabilities are essentially set. Gaining a level as a Paladin gives you the exact same upgrades as every other Paladin gets.

With so few "moving parts" to the game,  the players really don't need to understand much of the rules. Case in point, one of my Silver Gull players has been playing with me for four years now with a mix of PARANOIA, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPGIndex Card RPG Core 2e,  and Swords & Wizardry. Three of those games are derived from Dungeons & Dragons,  and use most of the same procedures. Rolling to save, Ability Checks, and Attack rolls are at least similar in every game, but she still hasn't learned them, and doesn't really need to. "Roll over your Death Save", or "Roll under your DEX"  are all she needs to be told, and she can play the game. 

Being a very clever player, she tries her damndest to never have to roll in the first place. She prefers to solve problems with narrative. 

So knowing rules is far less important with such a light system.  There are no "suboptimal choices" or "ultimate builds" to worry about.

So there are certainly fewer down-sides to keeping the rules opaque in a lighter system like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons  compared to a more complex game like Pathfinder.  But what of advantages?

2/3 pages of my
Ruins & Redcaps
Cleric entry.
Ruins & Redcaps will
be released under v1.1
of the Open Game License 
In Ruins & Redcaps, I find myself amalgamating data from multiple places across the three AD&D Core Rulebooks. The Cleric class every in particular was a challenge. 

  • First, I had to reinterpret the data on the class itself on p. 20 of the PHB.
  • Then the weapon proficiencies chart on p. 37 of the PHB
  • Then the Cleric Attack Matrix from p. 74 of the DMG
  • Then the Cleric Saving Throw Matrix from p.79 of the DMG
  • And the Description of the Turn Undead ability from p. 65-66 of the DMG
  • Along with the table and Mechanics from p. 75-76 of the DMG
  • And the detailed breakdown of Men-at-arms among Clerics' followers on p, 16 of the DMG
  • And I needed to make note of spell recovery times on p. 40 of the DMG
  • And, finally, how Clerics receive spells on p. 38-39 of the DMG

Most of this information isn't too hard to find in the DMG (relatively speaking)  but to make a modernized book, required a lot of hunting and collating. 

And I asked myself,  "How much of this does the player really need to know?" And "What is different about the experience when they don't know all of it?"

And the latter question  gave me a flash of insight... 

Not knowing is a tension builder. A Cleric player in AD&D might not have known how Turn Undead works. All they know, as the level-sucking wraith is bearing down on them, is that if they thrust out their holy symbol and evoke St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel, he might just save them.

The DM might call for a d20 roll. He might tell you what number you need, he might not. He might just roll a d20 and a d12 behind the screen, then carefully check a table on the back of his screen while you hold your breath.

And that is immersive. You are sharing your PC's hopes and fears, at least a little.

Not knowing has its own value. 

But it comes at the cost of cognitive load for the DM. Players have relatively little to manage.  If they can take responsibility for their class features and do more of the dice rolling, the DM has one less moving part to worry about.

Which is probably why they moved Saves and Turn Undead mechanics into the PHB in AD&D2e. And I suspect as well might have been the reason why more of the rules were in front of players in the various incarnations of Basic D&D: if you want to train new DMs and eventually graduate them to AD&D, you want to make learning the game as easy as possible for them.

I wish Holmes were around to ask about it. I suspect his thoughts would be enlightening. 

Certainly, players will never feel that same uncertainty in Pathfinder where they must know how that mechanic works in order to build their character. 


  1. For the first year I played, I had no idea how the game worked. I just described what my character did, and rolled the die the GM told me to. It was exciting. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. It was infuriating. I eagerly looked forward to the weekly game. (There were usually 6-8 players under the DM, and we quickly learned to have two or three characters handy.) I was so excited when I finally bought a second-hand over the summer break from school. I finally knew how to create my own characters!

  2. I got the Mentzer basic set in 1986, after a friend showed it to me. At first I had no one to play with. I read through the books several times.

    My first few play sessions were reading out the solo mission to friends, in hopes of getting them excited. Ran afoul of at least one parent who bought into the Satanic Panic and told me to leave and not come back

    I was the DM from the very start. I didn't really get to enjoy that phase of play until much later in life, while learning an unfamiliar system.