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There's No Such Thing as a 10th Level Vice President

Here is the first of what I hope to be a continuing examination of rules concepts aside from those given in a game we're all familiar with: Dungeons and Dragons. This is a huge subject and as these columns continue I may wander quite far what I originally imagined here at that the start. But I hope after some dust settles it becomes clear that I have one unifying theme: rules matter. Even the lack of them matters—as I hope to make clear a few columns down the road.

Anyway that preamble out of the way, let's get to it.

Ugh! More Ancient History

In 1974, after Tactical Rules Studies (The company Gary Gygax and his associates started.) first went public with Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game concept went viral. University and high school campuses and computer and war game hobby groups across United States took the idea and ran in a zillion directions with it. This lead to the formation many other small press gaming companies with their own take on the idea. (Eventually, I hope to talk about many of these companies later on.)

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One of these, Chaosium, was founded in Hayward, California by Greg Stafford, Charlie Krank, Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis in 1975. In the early days, fans sometimes referred to it as "The Chaosium" for some unknown reason—or at least I did. In 1978, the company released their take on the fantasy role-playing game idea: RuneQuest. RuneQuest was a game which had a huge number of innovations and variations on the rules presented by Wisconsin's TSR. But at the moment we're just going to focus on one idea: levels

Maybe Level Isn't Such a Good Idea

To represent the growth in skill, learning, talent and power of a character in the game, TSR came up with the idea of levels. This was a way to quantify the growth of a player's power in the game. The idea was to model the very complicated process of how a character's growing knowledge and experience made him or her tougher as their adventures and stories progressed. For example, Conan was not as tough as when he was first released from slavery as when he eventually became king. Gandalf was more powerful when he confronted Saruman as Gandalf the White than when he met Bilbo Baggins for the first time.

So how to represent that change?

Gary Gygax (And Dave Arneson specifically) came up with the idea of using experience points and levels. Each challenge or difficulty the characters faced and successfully vanquished or solved during the course of an adventure would would gain them a number of points. These would be totaled up and once they reached a sum detailed in the rules, the character would gain new powers and abilities—nice and simple.

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Only it wasn't. In the early days, the level and experience point system was welded to the idea of a "character class" an artificial way of representing a character's profession and specialization. Additionally, the concept of hit points (A subject for another discussion.) was distorted by the level idea and this lead to inflation of threats.

Taken as a whole, the system was good first attempt to capture how the world fictional or real behaved but it also lead to artificialities not found in things the game was trying to model.

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Da Mad Skillz!

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Chaosium pioneered a different way with RuneQuest. Instead, your character would have a list of skills each with a percentage chance to succeed using those those skills. A character could focus on improving some skills while ignoring others. The character had several methods to improve those skills, including formal training and education or direct experience and learning in the course of their adventures.

There were no levels or points to keep track of. Instead a character grew more powerful by doing a specific thing (weaving for example or swordplay.) better and more easily as the skill improved. Players only had to keep track of which skills they wanted to improve, which method they were improving them by (training, direct experience or others.) and note when GMs told them to make an "improvement checks" at the end of a game session.

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This led to more whole rounded and realistic characters with mixtures of skills. Doing this prevented things like hit point and threat inflation and did away with rigid and restrictive "classes." Characters could be more unique and well rounded. There was never any joke about tenth level vice presidents. The system worked well enough to be generalized from RuneQuest to every other game Chaosium released afterwards.

For example:

And this lead other companies, in the early 80s, to change other concepts. Which I shall describe in another installment.

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