Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tables and charts in RPGs. How much is too much?

I was chatting with my friend Lee Langston after the gaming session at my FLGS last night. One of my current favorite RPGs (Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG) came up during the conversation. He mentioned that one of the things that he doesn’t like about the game is the thickness of the book. This is fair comment since the book is about two inches thick. I mean it is large. We are talking college mathematics textbook large. (I like it. It has a good feel in the hands.) Part of the reason for the thickness is the type of paper used for the pages. The book does not use the thin, glossy sheets that many RPG books use these days. It uses something closer to bond paper. It is thicker and coarser than many other publishers use. It is the kind of paper that TSR used back in the 1970's and 1980's. It also has the added effect of making the book lighter than it appears to be on the shelf.

I mentioned paper choice a major reason for the size. For example, The DCCRPG book is approximately 480 pages and about two inches thick. It is almost one and one-half times as thick as the Pathfinder RPG book which is approximately 575 pages. The Pathfinder book, when held, feels almost twice as heavy as the DCCRPG book. The difference is that DCCRPG uses more coarse paper and is printed in black & white, while the Pathfinder book is printed on glossy paper in full color. (The Pathfinder book also costs $10 more, but that is not really relevant.)

The other reason I mentioned is the spells section of the book. The spells, both Wizard and Cleric, take up about 175 of the 480 pages, or a little over 1/3, of the book. This seemed to be the root of Lee's displeasure with the game. I actually think it is quite cool. Most spells, with a handful of exceptions, take up at least a full page. Many take up two pages. Some, like Patron Bond and ESP, take up three pages. This is because each spell is fully detailed. There is a section on what it does. There is a section on how it manifests when cast. There is also a table of effects. It is this table that takes up the most room. In DCCRPG a caster doesn't just succeed or fail at casting a spell. In the game magic is... well... magical. Magic is also dangerous. Spell casting is unpredictable. The better the caster succeeds on his/her casting roll, the better the spell effect he/she creates. (Note that this "success" is not necessarily healthy for the caster, or anyone else within range for that matter.) It is also possible to fail quite badly, creating unintended effects, when casting a spell also. There is a table for this which applies to any spell.(Failure can also negatively affect the rest of the party.)

So, casting a spell requires table look-ups. For Wizards (Cleric magic is slightly different), the process is to find the correct page for the spell, roll the spell check, and find the result. If you fail, does the spell just fail, or does it misfire? There is a section for this in each spell table. (There is also a generic misfire table for spells that don't specify their own.) Does the spell just misfire, or does it also cause corruption? There is a corruption section in each spell table. (There is also a set of three corruption tables for spells that don't specify their own.) So, if the caster fails badly at casting the spell there are up to two extra rolls that need to be made to determine the outcome of the casting action. This sounds like quite a bit, but it is actually quite fast at the table, as long as the player has the book open to the correct page before his/her turn comes around. I like it. Lee didn't.

So, that overly long prelude has established the scene and brought me to the topic that I want to ponder. What do tables and charts in a role-playing game bring to the table? (No pun intended.) Do tables and charts help the game move, or do they slow the game down? Many modern games eschew lots of tables and charts. Rather many attempt to replace this material with easy mechanics which are a roll plus a skill or an attribute. Take Savage Worlds for example. When a caster wants to use the Bolt power he/she spends a number of Power Points for the spell, rolls the casting check, and on success uses the number of spent Power Points to determine the magnitude of the success (i.e. how much damage to deal). On failure the Power Points are lost. It is then up to the player or GM to describe the effect in story terms.

That is the big difference. The spell table has a set of canned effects which can be fun to read and provide a set game effect which can be embellished to the player's, or the Judge's (DCCRPG renames the GM to the Judge), liking. In the Savage Worlds example any non-mechanical effect is left completely up to the people at the table, so the descriptions will be hit-or-miss depending on how creative those players, or the GM, are feeling that day.

I realize that no single RPG is for everyone. If that was true the industry would never have grown beyond Zero Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Both methods have their place, with tables and charts tending to be a more "Old School Renaissance" sort of mechanic. I enjoy both. I like many of the modern RPGs which have been released in the last decade. I also like OSR D&D-like games. I play, and enjoy, Pathfinder. Heck I will even state, for the record, that I have played Rolemaster in the past, enjoyed it, and am quite willing to play it again. (I am even thinking about picking up the new edition when it comes out.) Maybe it just comes down to personal preference and mood?

Oh, and speaking of Rolemaster. Those of you who have never played it should get the PDF of the main book from, or try and find it at a used games store. It shows just how far a game can go with charts and tables. (Many grognards like to affectionately call it "ChartMaster.")

At the end I am left wondering how much table is too much. There are games that have few to no tables. There are games that rely heavily on them. It occurs to me that it is also going to depend on setting and what the game is trying to accomplish. In RPGs system affects mood and setting. This is why universal role-playing systems are hard to get right. The game mechanics can either enhance the experience at the table, or detract from it. It is my opinion that the tables in DCCRPG, especially the spell tables, are an enhancement. They help to provide that "old school," gonzo, 1970's feel that the game designers were trying to evoke. I find them to also be quite fun during play.

So, these are just my gaming thoughts. What do you, dear readers, think? What are your opinions on the use of tables in RPG books? Do they work well? In which games do they work? Are there games that should remove them? How much chart is too much chart?