May 14, 2012

I Have Combat Advantage, Therefore I Am

Earlier I argued that an RPG resolution system can—and should—help convey the game’s emotional message.

This raises a question: can we look at existing systems and ascribe an emotional message to their various interactions of arithmetic and die rolls?

We have no reason to believe that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were thinking about this stuff when they codified the “to hit” rolls. Nor was it an issue when designers of later editions expanded it into D&D’s unified core resolution mechanic. But what does a d20 roll do, emotionally?

A d20 is very swingy, offering the biggest range of results possible in the standard polyhedral toolkit. Its raw result introduces a high degree of randomness. You use the rules, in which a +2 bonus is consider mathematically significant, to try to shape its fundamental unpredictability. Stacking up bonuses from magic, items, feats, skills and situational modifiers, you try to move the needle from succeeding about half the time to instead about a 66% chance of success.

In other words, you are incrementally assembling small advantages into one big advantage, in an attempt to impose order on chaos. Through a kitbag of step-by-step accumulation you strive to dampen life’s fundamental arbitrariness. Roll well, and rationality prevails. Roll poorly, and you are reminded that disorder can never be conquered, only forestalled.

Years ago I argued that D&D is a celebration of naked capitalism, red in tooth and glaive-guisarme. Can it at the same time be our foremost existentialist roleplaying game?