Why is Basic So Limited?
There is a psychology in sales that holds true, “If you let the customer choose everything, they choose nothing.”. This has been proven numerous times in both retail, design… and gaming. Why would anyone want to limit player options? Because when players can choose anything, they choose everything!
When giving clients design options, smart designers present 2 or 3 of the best options. When more are presented, clients waffle, they are unsure. The designer is asking the client to make design decisions and there comes a hundred revisions before the project ends in frustrated “I guess so” decisions.
In stores, retailers have presented shoppers with a taste test of 50 types of mustard, or 5. When shoppers were faced with 50 the sales were dismal but many samples were had. With 5, sales records were broken and customers returned to sample other flavors later.
Let’s just start with saying that this is not an edition wars post. If you enjoy your edition and have no issues, wonderful. It is my hope that you might also consider coming back to the origins that new systems claim to emulate and trying them out when you want a change. It’s been my experience that new editions are not emulating Basic as much as they think.
Does it Fall Apart?
When the game options open to any race / class combination and any character spanning any profession at any level, things start to go awry, and here’s why I struggle with it.
Opening the class and race options to everything invites a min/max effort right away. The player feels as if there may be some sort of “edge” to playing a minotaur fighter over a human fighter, and they may be right. Even if the table warns of “Roleplaying social stigma in towns etc.” Most of the player’s life is in a dungeon, where doing 2D12 damage is more important than the barkeep not serving you ale inside. Players start seeking ways to manipulate the numbers of the game before even thinking of their character, and it’s not even on purpose.
If one of the players at the table opts for a dragonborn barbarian that breathes fire, sees in the dark, casts some spells, has some immunities, has extra hit points, can sneak, can go to negative hit-points during bonus rage…. Why would the next one then choose “Human Fighter”? The answer isn’t to give the human fighter more super powers to match the dragonborn. The answer is to balance the player power from the get-go and throughout the game.
Furthermore when one player can advance as a Fighter, Wizard, Thief, Cleric etc.. at any time at will, why do they even need a “party” or “unity”? Maybe only to get more attacks per round.
Why would anyone want to limit player options? Because when players can choose anything, they choose everything. B/X, BECMI, Labyrinth Lord, and the various Basic D&D clones have a commonality. A cap on player class and race power and how it affects gameplay for everyone at the table. Labyrinth Lord (And most B/X systems) offer:
In the days when this was standard, we didn’t expect the GM or publisher to create a set of rules and mechanics because we wanted to play a pirate. We opted for one of the above classes and told the tale of the character’s sea-faring background. Want a wilderness type ranger? Neat! Your fighter has a bow and comes from the Misty Mountains and knows the outdoors. That was it.
A Fighter also doesn’t arbitrarily decide one day to toss his new XP into being a Magic-user to have the power of both. Switching professions was a serious life choice that would bring you back to level 1. Combining fighting and wizardry is the realm of elves, and has it’s price.
The Balance of Limit
With the BECMI / LL / B/X characters, no one class was “better” than the others. The game was carefully balanced, and each played very different roles in the game with their unique abilities. Humans, the most prolific and wide-spread race had the option of four different professions. The rarer sub-races were a class unto themselves by their nature and scarcity. Each advanced at a different rate that balanced their power in the game.
These power balances and abilities create a situation where players rely on one another and the unique abilities of each class. Every class filled a niche hole in game strategy that was important. Even a BECMI fighter with all 18’s in all stats can’t cure disease, or pick the next lock. She might excel at being a heroic warrior, but it doesn’t fill all challenges of the game, it also doesn’t even dominate a combat scenario.
Never Getting a Turn
I’ve sat at the table of various editions (2E and up) where one character might be a race/class combination that just decimates a battle encounter. They dole out copious amounts of damage and can end a combat in a single round. To keep the party challenged the GM has to crank up encounter power. That means other players, if they ever get a turn in combat, only get one hit before they die. Players are fiddling with their phones and soon the only one playing is the super-character who min/maxed correctly.
In B/X and clones, a thief might level up at 1,200 XP, while an elf, who has some neat abilities and spells, might not level up until they obtained 4,000 XP. Balance of power throughout the game is important. It keeps all players important and allows the GM to easily present a game that is engaging for everyone with minimal pressure.
I Want to be a Unique Character
Every character is unique with limited class options. A player could opt to be a Witch, Noble archer, Singing rogue, Arctic Huntsman, or anything that you can imagine. They all fall into the role of one of the classes without adding game mechanics, rulings, and special tables that can up-end game balance. They add story and immersive content.
Distribution of Wonderment
These power-controlled situations in the game also make it easy for the Game Master to introduce wondrous magical items that are fun, exciting and add to the story and fantasy of the realm. When players hold all the wonderment in special abilities, and power by simply leveling up, only magic that totally skews a world stands out. In art I have a saying, “When everything is the focal point, nothing is the focal point.”
It is my sincere hope that gamers everywhere set aside their shiny new books for a few sessions and just try out the old or OSR rule sets on occasion to get a feel for what the games play like. It’s hard to keep the wizard alive to fourth level, where he starts saving the hides of everyone at fifth. When only one player in this dungeon, a mile underground, can heal that fungal disease, they are contributing to the story. Ragnar can’t smash the lock to get out of a trap and the thief is unconscious? STRATEGY. Dungeons and Dragons can become something like advanced chess when the balance and game works out.
The GM Advantage
Labyrinth Lord, B/X, BECMI, and clones also give ultimate power to the Game Master. It also makes it easy to present and manage the game. Being a GM in newer systems is an intimidating task. The most common thing I hear about becoming a GM is, “I’m afraid I’ll screw it up, I don’t know all the rules.”
When the rules are a short booklet that walks you through running the game, this changes things dramatically.
Becoming a BECMI GM is a future post.
~Lloyd M [FSG]