Streamlined Mechanics aren't all they are made out to be

I'll tell you what I instinctively disliked the first time I opened the 3e Player's Handbook: 

Priest spell levels going all the way up to 9th level. 

Now, the reasons for this change seem fairly obvious to my mind. It streamlines spell progression for priests and wizards and makes it easier to gauge power level of a priest vs wizard spell. 

But are those actually good reasons? Is streamlining in and of itself a positive? Perhaps being able to gauge power level is useful, but tangentially so if so. How often do you need to compare a priest spell to a wizard spell and determine how powerful they are compared to each other? 

As for streamlining spell progression between wizards and priests - This may seem useful as it makes progression transparently equal (getting rid of different XP tables was another move to ensure everybody progressed at the same pace. An alleged virtue I would question the virtue of), but it belies a point that is central to the argument of this blog post: Homogeneity is not necessarily a virtue in RPGs and is in fact often a vice. 

Homogeneity is especially not a good thing when it comes to classes. Having Wizards and Priests work the same way may make it easier to grok spellcasting overall, but it works against the point of having a class-based system in the first place. A game where the difference between wizards and priests are functionally d4 vs d8, armour/weapon selection and "divine vs arcane" tag on spells is straight up a more dull game than one with more mechanical distinction between the two.

I liked the fact that divine spells were fundamentally different in nature from wizard spells and that this reflected in a different hierarchy of spell levels, even to the point that some spells were both arcane and divine, yet had different spell levels depending on their nature. It says something about the game world that makes thing a bit more interesting.

Of course, Gygax is himself guilty of similar homogeneity. Why are clerics vancian casters? There are no good answers to this question, only excuses. They arguably work better casting spells on-demand from their spell list, it lends itself more easily to fictional impressions of prayer and makes them mechanically more interesting. The list of 12 spells per level in B/X is a finely curated list for on-demand casting and 2e Spheres lends itself very easily towards similarly curated lists for AD&D clerics. Unrestricted access on-demand to the 22+ spells at each level in AD&D might be overkill though.

AD&D in general however, revels in lack of homogeneity. There's a ton of derived stats from ability scores and they are all different, with different progressions and determining the math behind the curve of progression is not at all transparent. 

I suspect there is none and that Gygax et al used a more powerful tool than mathematical progression - Deciding on modifiers based on gaming impact. And this one of the great virtues of game design that are lost with streamlined mechanics. 

Modern games, I posit, suffer from a tyranny of number harmonies and easy calculation. Everything must be transparent, easy to calculate and preferably limited to a few basic methods the recur throughout the whole gaming engine.

But does the game actually play better when STR gives the same bonus to hit as it does to damage? Or CON an equivalent bonus to hit points? Does it yield the desired results at the actual game table or simply look pleasing in the rulebook and easy to memorise?  Harmonies do not necessarily equal better game play.

Is it really a problem that to hit and damage derived from STR progress asymetrically, in turn different from Hit Point bonuses from CON, in turn different from Missile attack adjd. for DEX, in turn different from AC adjustment from DEX? Not to mention the various percentile scores derived from ability scores.

You look them up upon character creation and note them on your sheet and then you simply refer to your sheet from there on out. No calculation, memorisation or comprehension really needed. 

The presumptive gain (giving Gygax the benefit of a doubt here) is that we  gain mechanics actually suitable to the circumstances it involves, rather than something that is easy to calculate simply because everything should follow the same basic principles of calculation.

Saving Throws is another example, that I feel has lost most of its interesting parts. By 5e, it has become simply an ability roll. In TSR D&D, you had asymmetric numbers across different classes and levels that reflected a more interesting range of capabilities between different characters. 

I am not championing calculators and massive tables together consult at the table. They are not the necessary opposites to streamlined mechanics. non streamlined mechanics can be complex, or non transparent at any rate, but still easy to use. 

The complexity or opacity of how a given mechanism is derived or presented is easy to render trivial, because once it is on the sheet it has no complexity at all. I put to you the following maxims:

  • Complexity in mechanics are generally RPG vices.

This is not hard to argue for, I think most will agree, but I will make the case anyway:

Example: GURPS. Take this situation. "I run to try and jump over the ravine. How far do I jump?"
"Ok, that's (2 x Basic Move) - 3 feet. But a running jump, so add the number of yards you run to Basic Move in the formula..... (notice how it uses both yards and feet. wtf). Well, you didn't make it. You fall 10 yards, so that's a collision with an immovable object, which is ((HP*2)velocity)/100 where velocity is yards per second, as determined by the Falling Velocity Table". If <2d dmg, you round fractions to 1d with modifiers, otherwise you can mercifully round to the nearest whole number to figure the dice of damage. 

Some things in GURPS are delightfully simple, but some are annoyingly complicated. Here you have to calculate formulas with multiple calculations and attention to parenthesis and may well end up with fractioned numbers in order to resolve a simple running jump and fall. And still need to consult a table in order to calculate the formula. It's bad bad bad. However:

  • Whatever can be put on a character sheet as a single number is not complex.

It doesn't actually matter that the formulas for jumping and falling in GURPS are complex. What matters is that it can't be pre-calculated into a table and then jotted on to a character sheet. Calculating Medium Encumbrance limit in GURPS is somewhat complex. It's ((ST*ST)/5) *3. But that doesn't matter, because there is a table you can consult and then scribble that number on to your sheet and never have to worry about it again. Suddenly, it's an easy to use mechanic.

Of course, this second maxim is a law of diminishing returns. There are only so many values on can put on a character sheet before it becomes a slog to look it up. Compare the character sheets for BX vs AD&D:

There is just a lot going on in that second sheet. And they both suffer from what I do consider a vice on a sheet: Tables. Needing to track along the row to find what AC you hit is not preferable to a quick addition after rolling the d20 in my book.  Table consultation during play may be preferable to complex calculation, but it is not preferable to simple calculation and ought to be avoided where possible.

But, the B/X sheet also 'cheats' a bit to gain its simplicity, the same way some modern rulesets boast of slim page count by omitting monsters or magic items (meaning you still need 3rd party books to actually play). That table for turning undead, spells known and different move rates depending on activity would be just as useful for B/X player to have on their sheet as it is for the AD&D player. This is the kind of simplicity that is not actually useful at the table.

That AD&D sheet is more than I would want to look at on a sheet, honestly. It needs some trimming to be a good sheet at the table. But, despite the overload of information, it has a redeeming quality. It looks fun! And this is where non-streamlined mechanics shine. Give me this

over this

Any day of the week. I want to hear my DM declare "save vs Death Magic" and not "make a Charisma save." Let me glance at those save tables and ponder what makes a 4th level cleric better at making that save than a 16th level thief. There is no math to answer that question. Those tables have nothing in the way of streamlining, transparency or ease of calculation. The only reasons for those numbers are gaming reasons, derived from game play. The best of reasons and a far more compelling dictum to follow than streamlining.

Streamlining does not necessarily make for simpler games in terms of actual game play. It simply makes for more numerically pleasing games. The trade-off is often less interesting games and, crucially, games that simply do not play as well, because their numbers are slaved to streamlining and ease of memorisation rather than outcomes in the game.


  1. Your preferences are clearly stated, and they make sense. About the GURPS comparison, I would point out that obscure formulae, for distance jumps, for example, are rarely actually used in GURPS games. I ran GURPS games for years (long ago) and never once resorted to those kinds of calculations. It's the same in D&D: players and DMs readily ignore the stuff they don't want to bother about. Think of all the charts in the AD&D1e DMG. I'd bet that most AD&D players have ignored most of them, focusing on the ones they want, instead.

    One thing often forgotten about GURPS is that it was initially intended to be a universal supplement. If your game lacked rules for calculating something so specific as how far a character can jump from a standing position, GURPS had it for your other game. The scale of stats in GURPS is just like those of D&D for a reason, with 10 as average. The GURPS formulae could therefore be used unchanged in D&D: all you need to start is a ST(R) score to calculate your standing long-jump distance, if you really want. As it happened, very few people have used GURPS in this way, as a set of modular rules to supplement any other game. But that was the original vision explicitly stated in the first edition.

    There's also the issue of transparency vs streamlining. A lot of different threats have been covered by "Save vs Poison and Death Ray" over the decades. This is a matter of DM lore, not rules, and the burden is on the DM to know it. Agreed, however, that save vs Death Ray sounds much cooler than Charisma save.

    Lastly, there are different axes of simplicity and lightness in rules. This blog post gives examples of some of them:

    Not only do tastes vary, but player groups are different, too. Experience is a factor. Playing with a veteran group I spent years with is one thing, where complexity is no big deal for them, but with newer players, every additional complexity risks their feeling lost during the game and simply not coming back for the next session.

    1. Let me clarify also that I have a lot of appreciation for GURPS as something wholly different to D&D. I critique here just these rules rather than GURPS overall. And I am aware that Action and Dungeon Fantasy present usable jumping and falling rules. But these are nonetheless the only rules given in the Basic Set for events that are a stable of RPGs across genres. And stand as an example of terrible rules, since they are both mathematically complex and require calculation every time.

      Transparency is a good point - I think many (myself included) only truly understood some facets of TSR D&D conceits after the OSR spelled it out in blogs. Saves for example:
      And whilst I think the TSR designers did a good job of internalising many of the virtues of all these, I don't think they ever really properly conceptualised why they are virtues and thus, things are often not explained well. Ie, lack of transparency. Hence OSR.

      I like the rpgdiesis link. I've groused along very similar lines lately, though his thinking seems more conceptually clarified than mine, I think many Light systems are skipping past essential parts in the Name of Light, I dislike Density (see for example my rant against d20 difficulty class) and generally don't like Complexity.

      Though I think in this article, I am splitting Complexity into something a bit more granular and arguing that in some ways AD&D is not actually that complex (although in other ways it is). It has very many parts, but the parts are not necessarily hard to learn or use. It's more a complexity of knowing that such rules exist at all, than of how to use them in play (I am ignoring obvious bad complexities here, such as segmented combat. blergh).

    2. To re-iterate my point about complexity and why different mechanics can enhance the game - I don't think having old school Saving Throws and System Shock on the character Sheet is necessarily more complex than a rules set that has a unified Saving Throw that would nonetheless apply in all cases where an old school Save or System Shock roll occurs.

      In either case, the learning is that "there is a rule for these situations" and the rule is essentially "consult your character sheet" for what to roll against.

      Yes, the AD&D DM has to know that it is Save vs Petrification to avoid being petrified and System Shock Survival for being un-petrified, so that is an extra complexity (I refer to my point about stuff on the sheet not being complex as a law of diminishing returns) and yes, this example is certainly inelegant (not to mention that I think System Shock is a bit of an adversarial gotcha mechanic in the first place), but I stuck with it because I still think it favorable to:

      The Sword&Wizardry player just rolling against the same unified saving throw for both and all other dangers ever that aren't attack rolls. Which is ,to my mind, frankly a bit dull (unless it's a Fighting Fantasy book). I like those "ooh, well for *this* one, you'll need to get out your 1d100" moments. I like polyhedral dice and the rules should reflect that they exist.

      I imagine people will have different thresholds for when the character sheet has too much going on. But I don't think boiling it down to the least possible elements from which everything else can be derived is necessarily a virtue.

    3. The bit that bugs me is what they didn’t simplify. They didn’t simplify the spell levels. If you can only get a spell at 5th level the spell should be called a 5th level spell not a 3rd level spell.

      They streamlined things they didn’t need to and left obvious confusing things alone. Odd choice to me.

    4. "It's the same in D&D: players and DMs readily ignore the stuff they don't want to bother about. "
      Yes, and it creates a serious problem. Clunky rules get ignored, and so the problems which they were aimed to adjudicate do, too. ;( Known cases are with encumbrance and fatigue in DnD - while, say, Warhammer Fantasy RPG had relatively simple and elegant rules for these, so they were used.

  2. "complexity or opacity of how a given mechanism is derived or presented is easy to render trivial, because once it is on the sheet it has no complexity at all."
    One word: Strength spell. %) Another: Ray of Enfeeblement. And there are others, too. ;)
    But I agree with the main point here: the 3rd ed. was made to be aesthetically pleasing from a very specific point of view - without much consideration for the actual game effects. An example is that their "streamlining" of stats directly led to a disbalance between them: the authors themselves agreed that the Strength was the most important stat and Charisma the least useful except for very specific cases. 5 e. tried to rectify that (one of the reasons behind "Charisma save") but succeeded only to a degree and produced another serious problem in the process: "one-stat builds". :(

    1. Strength has a mitigating circumstance of taking a turn to cast, so at least the casting will never disrupt the flow of combat.

      You got me on Ray of Enfeeblement though. Needing to calculate 25%+2% loss of Strength per caster level above 3rd level and then consult the Strength table in the PHB to determine the effects (or try to divine how this will affect a monster), all of a spell typically cast in combat, is frankly terrible.


      In SECOND EDITION, Ray of Enfeeblement reduces your strength to a fixed score of 5 and the spell description spells out what that means. And just a straight -2 to hit and -1 to damage pr damage die for creatures who lack strength scores.

      OK, enough edition-warring - Yes, 3e is the origin of many faults in D&D game design. But I look at least a little leniently on those designers as threading new ground, drunk on the idea of revolutionising D&D.

      4e was the opportunity to dial back some of those excesses, bring it back closer in line to those things that actually worked in TSR D&D. Of course, they chose to basically make the game unrecognisable to TSR D&D instead... 5e was another missed opportunity in that regard, although it skews a little bit in that direction compared to 3e.


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