When I read the recent D&D Next discussions regarding how the game should feel thematically and mechanically, my thoughts always wander to Moldvay's introduction in the Basic Set:
I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave...This is followed by a description of Moldvay's intentions in revising the D&D rules and simplifying them for inexperienced players before it returns to the action and once more inspires the reader to imagine just how exciting game play will be. Setting aside the staid and cliche scenario Moldvay describes, the words are evocative and set a tone for potential players. It is that tone which describes "What is D&D" to me. Games and scenarios that inspire that kind of imagination while maintaining the simplicity and ease of play that Moldvay describes as his goals in the introduction. An ideal "D&D" game is a game that is quick to learn, easy to play, and includes collaborative storytelling. When things get too complex, they become "Rolemaster" or "GURPS" to me. GURPS is a great game, but the complexity of its presentation can be overwhelming. And let's not even begin to discuss games that use the famous Avalon Hill/SPI "case system" to present their game rules. Let's just say that as much as Squad Leader innovated wargaming by adding a role playing elements, you don't want your roleplaying game to graphically look like an Advanced Squad Leader rule book if you want it to appeal to new gamers.
Interestingly enough, this means that not every game that is "D&D" to me is D&D, and not every version of D&D is "D&D" to me. Some non-D&D games are fantastic, but they just don't capture the freeform, house ruleable, quick and dirty feeling I like in a "D&D" game. For example, Moldvay is D&D to me, but Pathfinder isn't. AD&D is D&D to me...unless you actually used Weapon Speed Factors, Weapon Versus Armor Adjustments, multiple attacks for people who have shorter weapons and are within melee range (check the DMG and get out those Daggers). Using solely the 3.0 rulebooks, 3rd edition is D&D but the moment you add one splatbook it begins to wander away. 4e? The AEDU core rulebooks are not at all D&D to me, but the Essentials line is. I named all of these games because I think they all are wonderful, and all of them use some version of rules that have been copywritten under the name Dungeons & Dragons.
From the non-D&D realm, there are a number of games that just feel like the game that Moldvay inspires in his description. The first in my mental list, and the subject of this post, is Green Ronin's brilliant table top roleplaying game Dragon Age. The core AGE system designed by Chris Pramas -- with help from T.S. Luikart, Jesse Scoble, Owen K.C. Stephens, Steve Kenson, and Jeff Tidball -- is a marvel of simple complexity. You can download a free version of the Quickstart rules for the game by right clicking here.
Like the Moldvay Basic set, one can play Dragon Age battles as tactical miniatures struggles or throw out maps entirely and use common sense to determine outcomes. The game includes random chance in the creation of characters, characters that mechanically fall into strict archetypes, and has clear and concise rules presentation. That last part is central. Most rpgs today take pages upon pages to describe the game mechanics, and technical writing is dull to the neophyte. This is true even when the technical writing is well articulated. Unless the technical writing is concise, it runs the risk of wandering into dull-land. Additionally, I believe that the more "core" rules a game has, the less easy it is to tweak to your desires. If I'm presented with a strong core mechanic and given free reign to create, I will. If I'm given case study after case study within the rules as more and more specific possibilities are quantified, I'm less likely to be inspired to create my own rules. Either because a rule already exists, or because it is more difficult to figure out how a new rule will patch in with all the existing ones.
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What Dragon Age does magnificently, and that I hope the folks at Wizards of the Coast will remember, is give a simple core of rules and expand outward from them. The underlying system is easy to explain...roll three dice add them to a modifier to see if that exceeds a target number. That's it. This simple system gets expanded. One of those dice -- the Dragon die -- is used to determine how well you succeed if you succeed. If you roll doubles on any two of the dice (about a 50% chance), then that Dragon die also signifies a number of points you can spend on "stunts" on an action you succeeded on.
In Dragon Age, you don't describe an awesome attack attempt -- like trying to hit someone in the head to knock them prone -- only to roll poorly and fail at the event you just described. Instead, you roll for success knowing how many points you have to make the success more awesome. The game reverses some of how gamers have been playing the game for 30 years, where they imagine the action before outcome then get outcome and reassess success. Instead, you roll to find out how many resource points of awesome you have to spend. It's like a Reiner Knizia Eurogame adaptation of RPG mechanics. First roll to see how many resources you have, and if you can use them -- then go to town spending those resources.
It's elegant and fun and I have essentially described the entire game. Yes, there are subtle mechanics and flavor mechanics and effects throughout the game, but the core is simple and strong. It is also evocative. It somehow manages to overcome the roll to see if you can see the troll "roll playing" that can happen in many games with skill lists. It manages to make combat cinematic. And it does this by using a less complex mechanic rather than adding more and more complex mechanics like "marking" and "surges" or "berserker points."
If D&D Next follows in the footsteps of Dragon Age and presents a clear system that is elegant and abstract, and which can support additional "plug-ins," then they will have created a game that I consider to be D&D. I imagine it will be a game that a lot of people consider D&D. Dragon Age feels like D&D and it doesn't ever use a d20.