Monday, October 13, 2008

Riddle Me This

There are lots of strange things that have, over the years, become gamer "collective wisdom." As with all such things, much of it is utterly wrong and based on misunderstandings and misapprehensions. One common one is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was an impenetrable maze of complexity. How anyone who actually played AD&D could say this eludes me, because, with the exception of psionics -- which I grant was indeed complex (and stupid) -- AD&D was, in nearly every respect, far less complex than, say, 3e either to prepare or run.

Were I to guess, I suspect that the myth of AD&D's complexity owes its origins in the Cult of the Universal Mechanic. AD&D has no single way to do anything. Sometimes high is good; sometimes is good. Sometimes you roll 1D20; other times, you roll D100. There are matrixes; there are tables. There are sub-systems galore, many of which have their own internal logic to them rather than building on existing systems. I deny none of this, but if this makes AD&D "complex," then what are we to call pretty much every game every published by FGU?

I ask this only partly in jest, because I simply can't get my mind around the idea that any gamer, in this post-3e world, could call AD&D complex with a straight face. Complex compared to OD&D perhaps, but otherwise? Not on your life.

51 comments:

  1. I think you're mostly right, but I have to say that those initiative rules are rather intimidating.

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  2. > One common one is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was an impenetrable maze of complexity.

    Common perception within gamer "collective wisdom" amongst those who have, or who haven't played it? (for chronological reasons or otherwise)
    Can't say I recall too many complaints to that degree back in the day from a player perspective although not /all/ rules were in play.

    > I ask this only partly in jest, because I simply can't get my mind around the idea that any gamer, in this post-3e world, could call AD&D complex with a straight face.

    *nods*

    > pretty much every game every published by FGU?

    Ah, darn... you knew someone was going to say B&B, didn't you? :p

    Cheers,
    David.

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  3. I agree Maasenstodt on initiative. It took me two decades and numerous re-readings to get a handle on the init rules and I'm pretty certain I'd bungle them if I tried to actually use 'em today. But past that and psionics, AD&D wasn't particularly more complex, just bigger.

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  4. what are we to call pretty much every game every published by FGU?

    Exquisite mental torture. I guess I'm one of the few people who actually liked those games, but C&S made you careful as a player mostly out of fear of having to roll up another character, and Space Opera was the worst mismatch of system and purported mood ever. I loved it, and it prepared me to play GURPS without flinching.

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  5. Were I to guess, I suspect that the myth of AD&D's complexity owes its origins in the Cult of the Universal Mechanic.

    I think perhaps you've hit the nail on the head with this comment. I always thought that the openness of the system contributed to the seeming "complexity". Because so much was left to the DM to adjudicate, this intimidated many DMs and players alike. Also, one must consider the period in which AD&D emerged. Compared to what most people thought of as games at the time, a 100+ page book filled with those tables, matrices, etc. must have seemed quite daunting and no doubt helped contribute to the myth.

    As a side note, I just wanted to say what a great blog you have here. I haven't played for many years, although I have kept an eye on things going on in the industry. I actually bought the 3E books, but never went beyond that. I've recently got the bug to start gaming again and it will certainly be "old school" all the way for me.

    Cheers!

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  6. We Tunnels & Trolls players always found it pointlessly complex.

    But playing T&T back in the day has ruined me for *all* modern mainstream games, complexitywise.

    So that doesn't really contradict your main point.

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  7. Who uses the AD&D initiative rules, for chrissake? One uses the Moldvay rules for initiative (and round duration), and goes from there, of course... 1 minute round, yeah okay...:). AD&D isn't complex at all, it's just that you have to actually READ the DMG (yes, from cover to cover) to understand how to run the game. It's only 200 and some odd pages, so that's not such a tall order.

    Never played anything from Fantasy Games Unlimited, so I wouldn't know.

    It's "matrices", BTW.

    I like psionics.

    What's wrong with an impenetrable maze of complexity? Sounds like my favorite Dungeon Module(tm)?

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  8. I've never played 3rd edition, so I don't have that much context here, but what little I have seen of it leads me to believe that it's a much, much more byzantine system than AD&D was.

    That said, I don't think it's unfair to say AD&D is/was complex on its own. In certain respects I believe it can be very complex and daunting, especially to newcomers.

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  9. This makes me think of my first impressions of 3rd edition which were, on the whole, good. I liked the idea of a core mechanic, I liked the idea that various minutiae were defined as game elements (such as, for example, fire damage), and I liked the idea of feats initially.

    Over time, I came to hate the fetishistic obsession with 'balance.' I came to hate the way that the core mechanic would spin off into robust but detailed little cul-de-sacs for any kind of special case, rather than hewing close to a simple resolution wherever possible. I definitely came to hate the dominance feats came to have over the game, and every time some young upstart born during the 90's for heaven's sake would proudly rattle off the exact combination of feats and class abilities he strung together to break the system, I just became more disgusted with the whole affair.

    3rd edition is a 'high-crunch' system that empowers the players by giving them plenty of options and rigorously defined power levels. The normal contrast with that these days is the 'high trust' system, such as the earlier editions of the World of Darkness line that would define ranges, areas, and durations in terms of scenes and locations rather than by any concrete math.

    Older D&D, including AD&D, is hard to fit into such slots, being largely the primordial core from which (at least) two directions of gaming sprang. The empowerment of the DM calls for a high-trust atmosphere, but many player abilities are pretty rigorously defined with crunchy numbers.

    I think this is one reason I enjoy games like Savage Worlds and C&C so much. They use a straightforward core mechanic for a minimum of reference, and trust the gamers to achieve resolution of special cases on their own. Nor do they demand exacting mathematical balance of all characters and encounters to adhere to some mysterious algorithm of fun.

    No doubt I could enjoy AD&D again sometime, but if I've got either of the above or Moldvay B/X as alternatives, I'm unlikely to try.

    Sorry if I rambled a bit here. I'm a little short on sleep, but I can never rest until I've read Grognardia and Jeff's Gameblog.

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  10. Maybe it was just Gygax's prose that made it seem more complicated than it was. Concise and clear he wasn't. Plus a contradiction or two.

    Take for example a question that popped up recently on therpgsite - how many spells does an MU start with? The PHB tells us the MU's player goes through the spell list and rolls against each with their Intelligence-derived "chance to know", until they reach their minimum or maximum.

    But then the DMG tells us that each MU begins with Read Magic, one offensive, one defensive, and one miscellaneous spell - and the rolls to learn just come with new spells after that.

    You can reconcile the two with a little common sense, but it confuses new players, especially if the players aren't supposed to be looking at the DMG...

    On second thoughts, maybe that's where the reputation for complexity comes from? Any system seems complex when you're not allowed to read the rules :)

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  11. "what are we to call pretty much every game every published by FGU?"

    F****d up?

    A part from Flashing Blades (a GREAT game) FGU games were complex to the point of ridiculousness, and -well- AD&D was complex and in some places, absurd. Yet that did not make it a worse game than others.

    However I have to say, is not the Universal Mechanic that got 3e wrong and messed up. It was feats and attacks of opportunity.
    Take these two out and you are left with a rather light game system that a 10 -yrs old could play.

    Best regards
    Artikid

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  12. Although I think many people, in actual game play, frequently reverted to something that was a hybrid of Moldvay/Cook and AD&D, AD&D on its own IMHO isn't too complex. I think the reason people often reverted to a hybrid is that there are some elements that make game play tedious (for some), like weapon factors or the "true" initiative rules.

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  13. I have read one method of explaining by drawing a distinction between "complex" and "complicated". D20/3e is "complex", but AD&D is "complicated". I don't recall the precise definitions, but the thrust of things was "complex = good", "complicated = bad".

    Of course, when people say "AD&D" they often mean as much 2e with all the optional books as they do 1e, and the former could certainly be described as "complex".

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  14. As someone who played 1e as the volumes were being published, it's hard for me to actually say how complicated the system truly was. At the time playing with OD&D or Holmes or Home Brew, we looked at 1e as material to be cherry-picked. I don't think I've ever played in, nor have I ever DM'd a game of "AD&D" that actually used ALL of the rules.

    Such was always our mind set, though. Each issue of The Dragon was viewed the same way; as optional or supplemental. The guys who actally pulled out an AD&D hardback book during play were Rules Lawyers. The DM made the rules. If he didn't like Weapon Speed or Armor Class Adjstments, it was accepted that it was HIS/HER game, and the actual play was the focus. Through the years more and more 1e tidbits became ingrained in our campaigns, but it was never all at once. If a rule was too cumbersome, it was ignored or house ruled.

    I kinda feel sorry for modern players who perhaps may have lost this philosophy.

    ~Sham

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  15. I'd have to say that I do believe AD&D to be a complicated beast, but 3rd edition never really did it for me either, until recently. As a stripped down version of the SRD, I find Microlite74 to be exactly what I want. A simple system with a universal mechanic that lets me as DM rely on more rulings and less rules.

    That's the thing about OD&D that this blog and others have made me realize. There was a certain flavor for D&D before AD&D and Basic/Expert. The pulpy fantasy underpinnings that got obscured by a myriad of tables.

    I understand why they did AD&D, I mean ya gotta sell books.

    Mind you, I've been away from gaming for nearly 20 years, but I much prefer Microlite74 and some adapted Judges Guild material.

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  16. "and every time some young upstart born during the 90's for heaven's sake would proudly rattle off the exact combination of feats and class abilities he strung together to break the system, I just became more disgusted with the whole affair."

    Ignoring Munchkins is a skill we old farts would hafta develop no matter what system we were playing. Try playing Hero System with a dedicated rules rapist sometime.

    I find arguments about 3.x's complexity or complicatedness or whatever baffling, and a bit boring. It's hardly the most difficult system to master out there. The switch from 1st/2nd Ed to 3rd was hardly as jarring as 3rd to 4th. I think James' statement about 1st ed is just as applicable to 3rd, there are much more complex and opaque game systems out there.

    As for "the cult of the Universal Mechanic", I'm a proud member. It's probably why I was drawn away from AD&D towards Hero and Gurps for many years, only returning when I found a very good GM and group to play with. And my GM would be the first to say "The system doesn't matter much if you know what you're doing"

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  17. First off, I don't think that AD&D, as played, was more complicated. Creation rules in 3e were way more complicated than any edition of DnD so far released. Tracking all those feats and powers, prestige classes and "kits" was verging on the point of ludicrous. The DM's job was MUCH more difficult due to the myriad rules that invited rules lawyering simply due to their existence. (Oh and building a monster / NPC? Fergitaboutit.)

    The system doesn't matter much if you know what you're doing.
    Who does this pertain to? The player or the DM? I'm imagining the DM...

    Playing 3E and 4E is a different experience altogether (for different reasons) than any of the older editions.

    3E because as a player, you were constantly tracking and mapping your feat / skill trees in order to build your character the way you wanted. (No matter if you were a munchkin or just a role player who was looking for that good "character fit".)

    4E, because you're now constantly thinking about how your "powers and abilities" tactically add to an encounter. It's all about the power and ability. NOT about what you as a player want to do.

    Don't believe me? Try the old swing from the chandelier trick... It'll pale in comparison because now you're not playing within the given abilities, you're suddenly relegated to a simple attack.

    A good DM can lessen the workload a small amount by hand holding through a lot of the process, OR s/he paves over a lot of the non-desired written rules with house rules. Either way, they're taking on more of a work load. Some are OK with that...some even thrive. Many don't though.

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  18. I have to say that those initiative rules are rather intimidating.

    Readily conceded, although I'm not sure I ever used them myself (which isn't an argument in favor of AD&D's simplicity, to be fair).

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  19. Common perception within gamer "collective wisdom" amongst those who have, or who haven't played it? (for chronological reasons or otherwise)

    Common perception nowadays. I expect the vast majority of those who accept it as true have never played AD&D at all or, if they did, they played late 2e rather than 1e.

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  20. But playing T&T back in the day has ruined me for *all* modern mainstream games, complexitywise.

    Understandably :) But then, by hoary gamer legend, T&T owes its origin in the fact that Ken St. Andre couldn't make heads or tails of OD&D and decided to make a game that made sense to him.

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  21. It's "matrices", BTW.

    That's certainly the more common plural, but I prefer to avoid Latinate plurals in English, which is why I say "octopuses" rather than "octopi," for example.

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  22. Overly complex? No, not really.

    Miserably organized? Absolutely.

    Difficult to learn without a peer guide? Certainly. At least, I never "got" how roleplaying worked until someone else demonstrated (with a different game), even though I'd owned the AD&D core books for a year.

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  23. However I have to say, is not the Universal Mechanic that got 3e wrong and messed up. It was feats and attacks of opportunity.

    Throw in prestige classes and I think you have the right of it. The resulting game still wouldn't be one quite to my taste, but it'd certainly be far less complex.

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  24. I think the reason people often reverted to a hybrid is that there are some elements that make game play tedious (for some), like weapon factors or the "true" initiative rules.

    Speed factors never bothered me much, nor did the weapon vs. AC tables. Initiative, yes, was a pain and we never used it that I recall.

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  25. Of course, when people say "AD&D" they often mean as much 2e with all the optional books as they do 1e, and the former could certainly be described as "complex".

    You might well be right.

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  26. I kinda feel sorry for modern players who perhaps may have lost this philosophy.

    I suspect that philosophy is still alive and well, even among modern gamers. What I think has changed, though, is the presumption -- strongly emphasized by game companies -- that anything they produce is a priori acceptable in your campaign unless the referee explicitly says otherwise. Gamers today still pick and choose, of course, but I don't think there's the same widespread skepticism about new rules additions that there was in the past.

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  27. I think James' statement about 1st ed is just as applicable to 3rd, there are much more complex and opaque game systems out there.

    In terms of PC/NPC creation, particularly at mid to high-levels, I must disagree. Creating, say, a 12th-level wizard in 3e is much more complex than in AD&D, even if you restrict yourself solely to the core rulebooks.

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  28. Miserably organized? Absolutely.

    Difficult to learn without a peer guide? Certainly. At least, I never "got" how roleplaying worked until someone else demonstrated (with a different game), even though I'd owned the AD&D core books for a year.


    Both very true. One of the things I love about the OSRIC project is the way it's rationalizing the presentation of AD&D. The end result is a masterpiece of clarity and concision.

    That said, I rather miss the fact that, to play D&D, you had to know someone who already knew how to play it. This helped build communities, as each new player was "initiated" into the mysteries of the game, often in a highly idiosyncratic way, since each community had its own accepted house rules and interpretations.

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  29. "That said, I rather miss the fact that, to play D&D, you had to know someone who already knew how to play it"

    No you didn't. You could just muddle your way through with your friends. Actually, I miss THAT part of playing.

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  30. You could just muddle your way through with your friends.

    True enough. That's how I started playing "D&D" as well -- until my friend's older brother set us straight. Or sort of did, because he didn't play "straight" D&D either.

    My point was that, back in the late 70s, it was very common for their to be "mentors" who passed on the wisdom of the ages to the newcomers. There was a connection between the first generation of the hobby and those who came after and that connection seems to have largely been sundered.

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  31. As Sham put it, "The DM made the rules. If he didn't like Weapon Speed or Armor Class Adjstments, it was accepted that it was HIS/HER game, and the actual play was the focus. Through the years more and more 1e tidbits became ingrained in our campaigns, but it was never all at once. If a rule was too cumbersome, it was ignored or house ruled."

    Right on. Preach it. Amen.

    I had about exactly the same experience playing when I was growing up. Still, AD&D was seen by many of my friends as an attempt to bring some order to what had been growing into a disorderly game (though little did we realize where this would take us later....).

    As for FGU products - Scott Bizar and company did not attempt to make any of their games like the others. IIRC, they actually wanted games to show the individual designer's style, and not aim for uniformity.

    And specifically about Chivalry & Sorcery: aside from the magic system, the game actually ran quite well and things fitted together, from my recollection. There were a few things, like figuring out that the to hit roll and the critical hit roll were one and the same, but the system wasn't any worse than AD&D 1st Ed. - and the setting was really specific. Either you liked a high fantasy medieval setting, or you didn't. And if you didn't, you could just change things. I recall one C&S campaign where gunpowder was introduced, and the setting was more Renaissance pirate-y. Show me how you could do that with 3e without adding several more hardcovers to make it work.

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  32. James --- good instinct on Latinate vs English plurals. As it happens, "octopus" isn't a Latin -us/-i word at all, it's a Greek word, and the Greek plural would be "octopodes!"

    I'm sticking with "cthulu-heads."

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  33. Ed,

    Yes, I actually knew that -- I made a post about it somewhere in the last six months -- but I'd apparently forgotten it till now. Thanks for reminding me.

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  34. Just to add my thoughts :

    - As others mentioned before, you had a lot of "supplemental rules" coming out, and I felt there was always confusion among more isolated player groups as to how right/wrong was it to ignore this stuff as opposed to working it into an existing game. The more you worked in, the bigger/more complicated the rules package became, but the less you used, the more you annoyed players who wanted to try this cool new class/race/spell etc.

    - The GM Rules Binder Phenomenon. Every GM tweaked the rules differently, and many added whole chapters of their own rules, most of which were implemented to make the game more "realistic". If you played with a number of GMs over the years and weren't really a GM yourself, you probably felt that there were a lot more rules out there than there really were, and some times they got used, some times they didn't, etc..

    - The Asshat GM Phenomenon. To go with the above, you've got all the anal-retentive, abusive, elitist, asperger-syndrome rules-fascists clutching their DMGs and refusing to let the players know the rules (because that'd mean they wouldn't be the only one with The Power of The Rules!). These jerks would routinely try to obfuscate the rules and belittle any player who couldn't keep up ("...for god's sake Mark, this is ADVANCED!"). I'm sure a lot of the players who suffered from this abuse dropped out of playing D&D for a while, and when they got back in playing something else a number of years later (I saw it a lot in the 90's with people playing White Wolf games), the most common response was "Wow, this is so much easier to play than D&D".

    So looking back at my comments, I'd say that it wasn't that AD&D was overly complicated or confusing, but that the vast numbers of no-talent hack DMs out there made it seem that way.

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  35. Initiative in AD&D is more terribly explained that terrible. With a sensible breakdown (available online and not in the DMG, sadly), one can easily "get" it.

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  36. As a person who learned to play from those who taught me (passing the torch), I had the pleasure of having two rather decent DM's pave me on my way.

    And the most impressive thing I ever saw (to my young and still unjaded eyes) was when during a question of a ruling the DM had made during an encounter by another player, suddenly bogging the game down, the DM had opened the DMG to the page the player was indicating where said rule was - and the DM nodded, shut the book with a final sounding "whap" and then tossed it over his shoulder where it landed on the rug. "The name of the book is the Dungeon Master's GUIDE. GUIDE. Let's continue the game now, whose next on initiative?"

    Defining moment for me. 26 years later I still remember it with a smile.

    Any rule set is as complex as the gamers want to let it grow. Nip, chop, and prune as needed.

    A great statue isn't found by adding marble, but by chipping away the stone that doesn't belong.

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  37. "In terms of PC/NPC creation, particularly at mid to high-levels, I must disagree. Creating, say, a 12th-level wizard in 3e is much more complex than in AD&D, even if you restrict yourself solely to the core rulebooks."

    I could make up a 12th lvl wizard in 15 minutes. Sure I could do it faster in AD&D, but I'm not sure I'd want to... ;)

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  38. Man I gotta side with Sham and Vraymond, only in a more definitive fashion.

    Rules as Written is for suckers. Learning to make house rules that are suited to your group is the first skill a GM should try to be good at.

    I'd be willing to concede that if you have to house-rule, say, 60% of a game to make it playable for your group, that maybe you should look for something else. Otherwise, a GM should be able to hack, mash, mix, deviate, and create changes that make the game a more pleasant experience for everyone invovled without negative implications on the parent game. Was AD&D that complicated? Not really, but if it was tough for a GM the real question is how good were they at fixing those complications for the good of their game?

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  39. "Otherwise, a GM should be able to hack, mash, mix, deviate, and create changes that make the game a more pleasant experience for everyone involved without negative implications on the parent game."

    I agree 100% in theory. Only two problems with it...

    1. Should != Can. Like I said, lots of DMs try to "improve" the game with house rules, and wind up generating nothing but sludge.

    2. This only works if your players are savvy enough with the rules you're using and won't get confused by "your" rules set as opposed to the rules set used by the DM they gamed with before, or the guy they'll be gaming with after.

    Never underestimate the ability of players to not pay attention to the rules until something directly affects them, and even then, only have a vague idea of what's going on.

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  40. Well, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t make much sense of a PHB—my first encounter with the game. The next encounter went fine, but I’d already been through the B/X booklets. Looking back, it is reasonable to assume that all the guys I played with learned from one of the basic sets and we just cherry-picked from the AD&D books.

    So, I don’t know that I can really form an objective opinion on how hard it was to grasp.

    And while I think that complexity and ease of understanding are related, they are different things.

    I laughed when I realized that in simplifying things through the unified mechanic, 3e exploded in additional complexity elsewhere. Likewise, the d20 Star Wars Saga edition looked like a bunch of moving around of the complexity rather than simplifying.

    In any case, I know that if anyone calls my current favorite edition (B/X) complicated, that must have no clue what they’re talking about. (^_^) Unless they’ve only ever played Risus and Dungeon Squad.

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  41. Never underestimate the ability of players to not pay attention to the rules until something directly affects them, and even then, only have a vague idea of what's going on.

    I agree, transparency and clarity are very important for the house rule hacker.

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  42. Part of the perception is TSR's own self-creation. Observe this lovely passage from the Mentzer Basic Set (emphases added):

    "The AD&D game system is different from the D&D system, which you have now. It is also a fantasy role playing game, but is much harder and more detailed.

    "There are currently six hardback books of rules for the AD&D system. Since it is so much more complex than the D&D system, with established rules for almost everything, it is often used in large tournaments, where accurate rules are needed.

    "Remember: you are not playing the more complex AD&D games with these rules. You are playing the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game!"

    That passage messed with my head when I was 11 years old. I imagined AD&D as being something equivalent to the IRS tax code and didn't seek out games with the other kids at my school who played AD&D, since it was apparently such a radically different game. ::eyeroll::

    Elsewhere in the same book it is emphasized that one should not attempt to play an AD&D module with the D&D rules. Pooh!

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  43. Was I the only one who found AD&D unarmed combat exceptionally confusing? (Or the only one who remembers it, or even looked at it?)

    Also, I must not have used the official initiative rules. We rolled a d6 and went in order, high to low.

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  44. @sben:

    I think even Gary himself regarded his grappling rules as a botched effort [citation needed].

    That said grappling is an oft-house-ruled topic for 3.x GMs as well, far as remember.

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  45. Having thought about it a little more, and deferred to a dictionary for clarity of meaning, I would suggest that "complicated" is used in two different ways when speaking of AD&D and D20/3e:

    1 : consisting of parts intricately combined

    2 : difficult to analyze, understand, or explain

    The former applies to D20/3e, the latter to AD&D. I think this the differentiation of meaning that was attempted by the complex/complicated dichotomy I mentioned, which turns out to be unnecessary.

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  46. @Max, re grappling in 3e: Absolutely. Purely by the rulebook, it's one of my biggest headaches in actually running a 3e game, as far as I've found.

    (Prepping for a 3e game is an entirely different set of headaches.)

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  47. But then, by hoary gamer legend, T&T owes its origin in the fact that Ken St. Andre couldn't make heads or tails of OD&D and decided to make a game that made sense to him.

    Not just hoary gamer legend he says as much in the intro to T&T 5th ed.

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  48. 1st edition AD&D grappling never struck me as complex, just crappy.

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  49. AD&D was complex. What happened of course, is that most if not all groups never used all the rules. We didn't use the weapon speed or initiative or psionics rules, had clear rules on acquisition of starting spells, and didn't really use unarmed combat rules outside of monks.

    Compared to Basic or Expert, it was a lot more complex, for not much benefit, as far as I can tell. When presented as Advanced, it almost forced kids to play it, so they could brag about being precocious.

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  50. "1st edition AD&D grappling never struck me as complex, just crappy."

    More specifically, slow. All you really do is find the percentage values and roll against them, but the parameters factored in are so many and so varied that it takes forever.

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  51. The problem isn't that AD&D 1st edition was complex really, it's that it was poorly organized. It really needed a streamlined description of all the major game processes with all the factors that influenced them in one place. Reading a 200-page book cover to cover is one thing, but keeping it all in mind at once is something much harder. Impossible, actually, until the players get the process digested.

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