This is my first post, and I’m going to dive right in by telling you how much I hate D&D. When you love something, you want it not to suck, and so you hate it when the things you love suck. D&D sucks, so I hate the it, but only inasmuch as hating it is an expression of my affection for it.
Let’s talk about why D&D sucks. Today, I’ll discuss the the unnecessarily large numbers (aka “numbers bloat”).
One of the things I despise about D&D is how the math works–or, more precisely, doesn’t. You know what’s stupid? Rolling 1d20 + 37. This is obscene. Why am I generating values that range from 38 to 57? It clutters up the game and slows everything down. THAC0 in 2e was the same way. Aside from being counter-intuitive (lower is usually worse, not better), subtraction slows the progress of the game with an unnecessary process. It’s faster and easier to perform addition, so it was only natural to replace the cumbersome THAC0 system with ascending Armor Class in later editions of D&D. In the same way, creating a system of large numbers retards the progress of the game.
Some people will argue and say that the higher numbers serve a purpose within the game. I’ll make a bold claim using bold text and reiterate my original claim: D&D has unnecessarily large numbers. Bigger numbers are not necessary to the game. This itself is counter-intuitive. As noted above, people think bigger is better, so a bigger number means you’re better at what you do…right?
Wrong. Well, it’s technically right, but it doesn’t have to be. See, most RPGs take the position that getting better at something means you have a better chance of success. This makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t. D&D starts your newbie thief off with a dick chance of doing thievery. You can pick locks…sort of. In Pathfinder, the DC to pick a simple lock is 20. At first level, your rogue will likely have one rank in his Disable Device skill (+4 bonus) and a +2 Intelligence modifier (assuming he doesn’t pump Dexterity at the expense of his mental stats). That gives him a whopping +6 bonus to disarm a simple lock. When he’s in a safe environment, he can pick that lock 100% of the time, but he must take 20 to do so. He can’t even take 10 and do it in the normal timeframe–he has to go about it slow and methodically. When he’s under duress, the rogue must roll, and he’s only going to beat the DC on a roll of 14+, which translates to a meager 30% chance of success.
Pretty lame. Now, I’m meandering back to my point, so keep reading: D&D presupposes that the rogue needs to have bigger numbers for picking locks. Again, this is intuitive. Rogues who level up get better at picking locks, and so they should have a higher chance of success, so the numbers get bigger. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?
False. While the increased ability to pick locks represents an improvement in the rogue’s abilities, it is not necessary to simulate such. (The Office is still relevant enough that I can post this. I think.)
For instance, let us suppose an entirely different model of D&D, in which the competency of the rogue is measured not by embiggened numbers but a cromulent capacity. (Ugh, that Simpsons reference was horrible and forced. I apologize but I wanted to fit “embiggened” into this post.)
Untrained: For those who wish to pick locks without any formal training, If a person has a set of lockpicks, he can attempt to pick a lock. He must roll 1d20 + Dexterity vs. DC 15. Success lets him open the lock, but failure jams the lock, breaks his lockpicks, or potentially triggers a trap (DM’s chocie).
Novice: The thief’s basic level of training. With a set of lockpicks and a few minutes of time, he can pick mundane locks. That’s right, he doesn’t even need to roll. If the thief wishes to force a lock open quickly, he must roll 1d20 + Dexterity vs. DC 15. Success lets him open the lock, but failure jams the lock, breaks his lockpicks, or potentially triggers a trap (DM’s chocie).
Adept: The thief can improvise when missing his lockpicks. As long as he can provide a reasonable facsimile (even something as rudimentary as a sewing needle), he can pick locks as normal.
Expert: The thief can open locks quickly. No matter the situation, he can pick a lock within seconds.
Master: The thief can bypass any magical protections on a lock to pick it. He ignores any wards or enchantments on the lock.
Paragon: The thief’s abilities transcend mortal ken. The thief no longer needs no tools or significant time spent on it. He must merely touch the lock and it yields.
The abilities of the thief thus move from what one might expect from John Q. Commoner to a supernatural thief, all without giving the thief bigger numbers, which brings me back around to my original point: game designers need to ask themselves why they need such large numbers. Chances are that they don’t.
Now, let’s turn this principle to the meat-and-potatoes of D&D: combat. D&D is and has always been a wargame at heart, so it’s no surprise that the focus of the rules has been on combat. How does the design principle of small vs. big numbers play out in terms of combat?
This, I think, is more difficult to pin down, but there are ways to do it. Dungeon World does a reasonable job, although the system is a bit freeform for my taste. See this post about the 16 HP dragon as a starting point. Point being: you don’t need big numbers to be a high-level character, you need big effects.
Fireball is not an awesome spell because it does tons of damage. Fireball is an awesome spell because it’s an hand grenade the wizard stores in his brain. Now, the damage is a nice side effect, but let’s scale everything back for a minute. In D&D 3e, fireball does 5d6 damage when you first get it. Enemies can make a Reflex save for half damage. This means that fireball is not very powerful, and its use is limited to swarms of weak monsters. This is an unfortunate side effect of the idea that more power is represented by larger numbers.
Step back and look at the power of fireball a moment. It has a long range and large area, it’s undetectable prior to casting, it doesn’t need to be aimed, and it is hot enough to start things on fire and melt metal. Step back from the numbers a moment and consider this. The wizard has within his mind the capacity to destroy a small building, kill dozens of people all at once, scatter a military formation, and otherwise be very disruptive. When the wizard casts this spell, it needs to have the aforementioned big effects: people running and screaming, horses panicking, fire spreading out of control, walls and roofs collapsing inward. But it doesn’t, because D&D where numbers translate to power. Thus, we run into the aforementioned problem of big numbers.
And that’s why D&D sucks.