On another site I read a discussion about the rules for original Dungeons & Dragons. The conversation was about Hit Points and what they “mean.”
At some point the conversation turned on the matter of killing a character if the character was tied up and helpless.
One person wrote:
Tell me there aren’t really players and refs out there who have a bound, unconscious enemy who still has 10 hit points so they have to keep rolling hits and damage with their dagger when slitting a throat to inflict enough hit points to kill the poor sucker…
Someone who had played Dungeon & Dragons with Gary Gygax at the start of the hobby replied:
Gary had to write elaborate “coup de grace” rules because the vast majority of buyers were too fucking stupid to figure out implications.
This got me thinking about a shift in the hobby that had taken place from its start until today. Reading that Gygax had to add the “coup de grace” rules meant they hadn’t been there at the beginning of the hobby. But I was well aware I could open up almost most RPGs published since the early 80s and find rules explaining in clear detail that if a PC wanted to kill a helpless opponent he could do it without having to make a roll.
Why the shift?
In a previous posts I discussed how early RPGs grew out of the tradition of Referee driven war-games such as Free Kriegspiel. By “Referee driven” I mean that the Referee makes judgment calls based on his own intuition and knowledge to adjudicate moments of uncertainty and conflict instead of constantly turning the rules. This allowed the game to move along more swiftly, as rules and calculations of odds did not have to be made for every encounter, conflict, and situations. If the Referee is not certain how to make a decision, dice would be rolled to determine outcomes randomly, often using rules and calculations to determine the odds.
The Referee did this in the role of impartial adjudicator of circumstances. At this time in the hobby he wasn’t trying to use the ruling toward and sort of “story.” He wasn’t trying to make ruling to lead the adventure to any sort of climax. His job was to provide opportunities and threats to the Players, allow them to describe their actions and responses to specific situations, make rulings that made the most sense given the imagined details at hand, and turn to the dice when needed.
So, for example, if a group of six Level 8 Player Characters came upon three 1 HD goblins, the Referee might well not bother to roll and simply describe how the PCs slaughter the goblins. If there were forces nearby that might hear the combat he might roll a d6 and determine the odds for those forces becoming alerted. He would decide the odds on the spot and make a roll.
That’s how a Referee ran an RPG in the early years of the hobby. There would be no need for special “coup de grace” rules–because if a Player wanted to kill a helpless opponent the first thing the Referee would do, before turning to the rules, would be to imagine the circumstances of the situation and make a ruling if possible.
“Hmmm…” the Referee might think, “the Lord Belanor is tied up, unable to defend himself, his neck exposed–and one of the PCs wants to slit his throat.” And then he would turn to the Player and say, “Your blade digs into Belanor’s neck as you slide it across. He tries to curse you with his final breath… but already blood is gushing out. He stares at you in shock, until his eyes become glassy and lifeless.”
Boom. No need for checking the rules. Because the Referee is there to figure this stuff out. It is assumed he is capable of making such decisions. It is, in fact, his job.
This got me thinking about the original Traveller rules. So I cracked open the books.
Here is a passage from the 1981 edition of Traveller: Book 1 in the “Special Consideration” section, which covers things like “Full Automatic Fire” and “Group Hits by Shotgun”:
Coup De Grace: Any gun or blade may be used to administer a coup de grace and kill an unconscious or unstruggling individual (person or animal) at close range in one combat round if the character using the weapon so states. Ammunition is expended, but no die rolls are necessary. A coup de grace may be administered with hands or brawling weapons using special blows, but die rolls must be made.
But if you open up the 1977 edition of Traveller: Book 1 you know what you find about “coup de grace”?
Everything else is there about Full Automatic Fire and Group Hits by Shotgun. But nothing about how you can kill an immobilized, unarmed target. Because, of course, the answer is obvious and it was assumed the Referee would make a ruling and the game would move on.
Apparently, just as Gary Gygax felt compelled to add “coup de grace” rules in later editions of D&D, so the gang at GDW felt compelled to add rules that would have seemed utterly pointless only four years earlier.
Now, there might be good reasons for layering more and more rules into an RPG text to shift the load from Referee rulings to the rules.
The most common reasons would be Referees who are really bad at the job. They made poor adjudications that made little sense. Or, worse, they behave not as an impartial judge to make rulings on fictional circumstances but to abuse or beat up the players. By making the text as explicit as possible about as many circumstances as possible the game is protecting the Players from crappy Referees.
Or, at least, that’s the theory.
The fact remains in countless cases judgments have to be made on the part of the Referee in any RPG. Now, there are two paths here: One is to encourage people to become better Referees through advice and practice. The other is to take the responsibilities of being a capable Referee away from Referees and shift those responsibilities to the text of the roleplaying game itself.
For the most part the hobby followed the second path. The rules and text changed (and have continued to change) to move the Referee away from being the impartial arbiter of actions and situations during play and into the role of applying rules from the rulebook. And this has become the default assumption of the RPG hobby.
This is why when people look to the rules of Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 they often become boggled. “It makes no sense!” they say. “There’s no skill system!” they say. Everyone knows how to roll up a character, everyone knows how to roll up a subsector… but the actual application of playing the game with the Player Characters going on adventures and doing things is a kind of mystery.
Other details of “rules” become added in each successive edition of Classic Traveller as well. The original rules offer no Dice Modifiers for Concealment or Cover, for example. I would offer that is because the rules as printed could not anticipate with the same clarity each specific situation as well as a Referee at the table could. How much cover? What is the quality of the cover? While the rules for Cover and Concealment found in The Traveller Book are certainly useful as guidelines, to assume that Cover and Concealment would be impossible in a game of Classic Traveller before they were written into the rules would be weird.
And yet, for many people today, if the rules don’t cover something all sorts of confusion breaks out. For some people the original Traveller rules are missing so much. And I offer this is because our expectations of RPGs, and what we expect a Referee to do, has changed so much.
Because of the expectation brought from later games people assume the original Classic Traveller rules do not work. Such people can’t see the rules functioning the way they were designed to be used, because they don’t even know such a style of play is possible.
If, as a Referee, one thinks, “The Player Characters want to kill an unarmed and defenseless opponent,” and then tells they Players, “You succeed,” without even thinking to check the rules but simply because the circumstances dictate that is the ruling that makes the most sense in that moment… one is on the way to playing the game in the tradition and style it was originally intended.
This isn’t the “right” way to play an RPG, of course. But it is certainly one way. And it certainly the way the original Traveller rules were designed to be played out of the box.