Tuesday, July 21, 2009

OD&D Thoughts & Observations

As the Dwimmermount campaign has evolved -- I have another session report to post sometime this week -- the gravitational pull of the little brown books plus supplements has become inexorable. There are lots of reasons for this, chief among them being my growing (and possibly Quixotic) quest for D&D 0.75. Much as I rail against many aspects of AD&D, I can't deny that the flavor of those rules very much appeal to me. But I could never run a full-on AD&D game again. I'm no longer mentally nimble enough to do so effectively and I am now so enamored of the OD&D ethos that AD&D, flavorful though it is, feels too much like a straitjacket to me.

So I've reading and re-reading all my OD&D books and it's been an interesting experience. It's hard now to find them nearly as impenetrable as I once did, because I've been so immersed in the extensive exegesis of their contents for the last two years that they seem (almost) straightforward to me. I realize they're not in any absolute sense, but I also more keenly understand that, if one had been part of the wargames culture out of which OD&D sprang, they probably weren't quite as opaque as they seem decades after the fact. That's not to say that no one had trouble understanding them, because we know they did, but I suspect the number of early adopters who were baffled by them is smaller than is suggested in after-the-fact discussions by people with a vested interest in claiming OD&D is the gaming equivalent of the Voynich Manuscript.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that OD&D, especially the LBBs, contain hidden depths of meaning that can only be plumbed after extensive periods of prayer and fasting. Rather, there are many passages and even whole sections whose meaning is obscure because of either the way they were written -- no one can claim OD&D is a model of auctorial clarity -- or a dependence on a context not provided by the text itself. That's why it's so vital to speak to people who were involved in the hobby at the time in order to gain that context. It's been my contention from the start of this blog that a lot of this knowledge is in danger of being lost forever, which would be a pity.

In any case, while reading through OD&D, I noticed several things I'd somehow never noticed before:
  • Wisdom is the only stat that does nothing other than provide an XP boost. Even Greyhawk does not expand upon Wisdom's mechanical utility. This strikes me as very odd.
  • Originally, only fighting men benefited from high Dexterity in terms of being harder to hit. I must say I rather like this approach.
  • All magical armor is plate mail.
As I continue my readings, I'll post other observations here. I can certainly see why some might claim OD&D has hidden depths, since those little books repay regular re-readings, if only to find passages that one might have overlooked before.

33 comments:

  1. "As I continue my readings, I'll post other observations here. I can certainly see why some might claim OD&D has hidden depths, since those little books repay regular re-readings, if only to find passages that one might have overlooked before."

    Hidden depths or hidden trivia? I would hesitate to say that observations like "all magical armor is plate mail" somehow result in a *deeper* D&D game.

    I think many people who have given OD&D a pass in favor of more clearly-explained and logically-organized iterations of the game (B/X for example) would argue that these little bits of interesting trivia aren't there, just that no version of D&D is actually worth a two-year time investment to be (almost) understood.

    It seems like a whole lot of effort for very little payoff.

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  2. Oops. First sentence of second paragraph should start: "I DON'T think many people who have given OD&D a pass..."

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  3. It seems like a whole lot of effort for very little payoff.

    I think that depends on what one is looking for. For myself, it's both an exercise in intellectual archeology and a form of "time travel," allowing me to play the game as it was written. And that's the thing: I've been playing this game. This isn't a purely theoretical exercise. I've been using these rules and seeing what works and what doesn't. I find that extremely useful and well worth the time I've invested in it.

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  4. "an exercise in intellectual archeology"

    Now that's great. If you enjoy that, fine.

    It's great that you're playing, too.

    Both these elements are really necessary for an OD&D enthusiast, though, IMHO.

    If they're not into "intellectual archeology", it's very, very difficult to make the case that their game would be substantially different running something like Moldvay/LL.

    If they're not playing, it's hard to justify that degree of "intellectual archeology".

    At the crossroads of both, I'm glad you're happy.

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  5. "Originally, only fighting men benefited from high Dexterity in terms of being harder to hit. I must say I rather like this approach."

    Me, too. I've always liked that.

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  6. I realize they're not [straightforward] in any absolute sense, but I also more keenly understand that, if one had been part of the wargames culture out of which OD&D sprang, they probably weren't quite as opaque as they seem decades after the fact.

    Needless to say, the exact same thing can be said of D&D 4e (and 3e to an extent), your defensive/traditionalist disdain for modern RPG culture notwithstanding.

    A project worthy of the name 'intellectual archaeology' (or intellectual anything else) should spend more time exploring its assumptions and comforting postures.

    And whatever I think of your silly nitpicking Gygax-idolizing orthodoxy, you're one of the motherfuckers smart enough to undertake such a project.

    I've been reading the LBBs lately as well, prompted by this blog and a couple of others. They're interesting documents, juvenile, audacious, arbitrary, charmingly myopic, with the obsessive character of an autist's diaries. I can see why people of a certain disposition are so attracted to them - but I hope you can see why other intelligent adults might find them inadequate for reasons other than personal deficiency.

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  7. A project worthy of the name 'intellectual archaeology'

    James is, of course, perfectly capable of defending himself against foul-mouthed trolling, and I will not presume to do it for him.

    Still, I'd like to understand exactly what the criteria of worthiness are for claiming the name 'intellectual archaeology.' The term "archaeology of knowledge" has a history of its own, which might be useful here. As I understand it, James is trying to get at the intentions of the LBBs in their own historical context. I'm not sure what a discussion of 3e or 4e would add to that particular project, beyond some asides and curios. If he were writing a thorough comparison of editions in their respective contexts, obviously he would need a more comparative framework, but AFAICT he isn't. One might likewise criticize him for "Gygaxian orthodoxy" if he claimed that 4e was inherently bad or inferior, but it seems like a strange charge to level at someone who is trying to excavate a Gygaxian past, unless one were defending Arnesonian contributions against Gygaxian credit-napping, and I've seen James attempt to be quite scrupulous on this point.

    My guess is that Wally is objecting to not having his own "assumptions and comforting postures" acknowledged. I'm assuming he's not going to claim that he has access to a "value neutral" method for conducting such an archaeology.

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  8. Here's what I like about OD&D:

    * Just a d20 and a d6.

    * Simple skeleton that I can enflesh as I like.

    * No "Roll to do it." Searching, trap and puzzle solving... all is done through description and negotiation rather than die rolls.

    Those aspects free me to present a fantasy world as I choose to present it, and let the players interact with it through the vehicle of their characters. The dice are a mere adjunct, rather than a key element. The key element is the decision-making of the players.

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  9. As a satisfied AD&Der, I have seldom (but not never) felt the urge to take spade in hand and exhume OD&D in order to see if a more "primitive" (in the strictly archeological sense, don't take it as a value judgment) form of the game suits me. Traditionally, my excuse has been the prohibitively high (for me) cost to acquire the rules, even before EGG's and DA's passing put the OCE cost into the hundreds of $. But now I find myself ever so slightly intrigued by the charming little idiosyncracies and later-to-be-filled lacunae. I therefore just purchased S&W (White Box version) from Lulu so I can find out what all the fuss is about. I probably won't convert, but at worst it'll give me a better appreciation of why I like AD&D so much.

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  10. I've read many old wargaming rules, and while many of them is quite dense and badly explained not all of them are. I just read Chainmail and compared it to other rules sets I've read upon that subject matter. My impression is that Gary just wasn't very good at organizing his thoughts.

    I've claimed that since I first saw the 1st ed PHB and still think so.

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  11. James is, of course, perfectly capable of defending himself against foul-mouthed trolling, and I will not presume to do it for him.


    Then don't do it!

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  12. I didn't. I really do want to know what Wally thinks is worthy. The rest was brush-clearing: trying to make my own position on archaeology of knowledge clear.

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  13. @Andreas, yeah, it's James blog, but it's perfectly acceptable for the community at large to call someone out on bad behavior. Think of it as nature's way of ensuring fairness!

    That said, from my chair I haven't too much more than "really poor attitude" here or there in this particular thread--which is subjective in any case. One's rapier wit, is another's snarky troll.

    The Grog-o-sphere has been filled with a lot of anxiousness of late. It might behoove everyone to take an extra breath before hitting the 'publish your comment' button.

    Keep the combat on the dry erase mats people! ;)

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  14. Where did you find the comment that all magic armour is platemail?

    [As far as I can tell, the nature of magic armour is not explicitly defined in OD&D (the exceptions being from Greyhawk which explicitly defines Armor of Etherealness as being plate, and that +4 and +5 armor is made out of mithril and adamantium respectively).]

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  15. @Thalmen:

    I think S&W:WB is nice, but it is a bit "finished" for my taste. One of the interesting things about OD&D is that so much is open to interpretation. So the Ref can begin a sentence with "Here's how we're going to do Hit Dice this time..." without necessarily throwing everyone for a loop.

    So much of what is there in OD&D is merely potential, waiting to be actualized. Each Ref will actualize it differently. To me that's part of the joy of it.

    In addition to running EPT, I'm playing in a Mentzer-based Classic campaign... my second one in recent years. It's OK, but I find it so staid and dull... the rules are the same every session. There are few judgment calls or situational cases. It's all so standardized.

    One of my players for EPT last night, a guy who is an excellent player but a firm 3E enthusiast, was momentarily frustrated by the lack of a mechanic for "charging". "Why can't we acknowledge mechanics from the last 30 years?!" was his angry complaint before I even really said anything. But my approach was to ask him what he wanted to do... then I'd make a ruling. In the end, he got to do what he wanted to do and was able to choose among options. That to me is how it should work... you say what you want to do and the Ref makes a reasonable call on how that works. No need for a thick rules manual... I can always play a wargame if I want that.

    Word verification: wings
    !

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  16. @Korgoth

    So much of what is there in OD&D is merely potential, waiting to be actualized. Each Ref will actualize it differently. To me that's part of the joy of it.

    I have no problem with this in principle, but in reality I am a stay-at-home parent with two young boys and a workaholic wife, and DM of a group that insists on playing D&D 3.0. It's all I can do to prepare for each semi-weekly session by scanning through the published AD&D 1e module I'll be using and determining what I need to convert from 1e to 3.0 in advance and what I can get away with fudging on the fly. I just haven't got the time or energy to figure out how I want to interpret the rules on top of it all. I just want to get a general sense of what all the fuss is about, which from what you say S&W: WB seems admirably suited to provide.

    If anyone's curious, 3.0 on their side of the screen and AD&D on mine works out okay most of the time (and since I refuse to play their version and they refuse to play mine, it's all I got). I ignore their skill rolls and make them describe what they're doing, while not beating them over the head with the fact that I'm ignoring their skill rolls (of course hilarity ensues when a player states "I search the chest" (trapped), rolls a natural 20, and I respond, "You don't find anything," and they open it). Sorry for rambling.

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  17. I'm amused by accusations of SW: White Box being "too finished" when it actually leaves out a whole swath of explicit rules and procedures from the LBBs. :)

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  18. I suppose I wouldn't have known any better if you hadn't posted that, but now that I do... What is left out of WB that's in the LBBs?

    Word verificationL rhirripi (no idea what this might mean, but it sounds like a great name for a D&D monster, no?)

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  19. RE: bullet point about Wisdom:

    Prior to Supplement I: Greyhawk, none of the prime requisite scores did anything other than provide an experience boost, and all of the non-prime requisites did something else. Not so?

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  20. [As far as I can tell, the nature of magic armour is not explicitly defined in OD&D (the exceptions being from Greyhawk which explicitly defines Armor of Etherealness as being plate, and that +4 and +5 armor is made out of mithril and adamantium respectively).]

    It's not in the LBBs so far as I can tell. However, the "Magic Armor Effects" table in Supplement I strongly implies that all magic armor is plate, since it notes without comment that "Armor +1" and a shield is AC 1, which makes no sense unless the armor in question is plate.

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  21. Prior to Supplement I: Greyhawk, none of the prime requisite scores did anything other than provide an experience boost, and all of the non-prime requisites did something else. Not so?

    That's correct. I just find it interesting that both STR and INT were given more mechanical benefits and WIS was not.

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  22. Originally, only fighting men benefited from high Dexterity in terms of being harder to hit. I must say I rather like this approach."


    Why?

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  23. Keep the combat on the dry erase mats people! ;)<

    Almost anybody here who doesn't say something like "...I agree, I feel that way too, James" risks getting some heat.

    I'd like to think that James would rather get some weighty feedback, neg. or pos. rather than a reader just agreeing with what he said. Personally, I admire James for some of his stuff, and some of his stuff I sneer at. So far in reading the posts here I've seen a dude being called a troll just for not agreeing (in a passionate manner, but I would not call it flaming). This is not an ass-kiss fest. It's a place for discussing both sides of the coin (IMHO).

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  24. What is left out of WB that's in the LBBs?

    A bunch of dungeoneering procedures including: chances to open stuck doors, chances to find secret passages, standard trap rules, handling area damage in confined spaces (e.g. fireball in a narrow corridor), standard surprise rules and encounter distances, reaction rules, chases, rules to shake or distract pursuit, falling (two optional systems), swimming & drowning, hireling loyalty, languages. Then there is the whole section on wilderness travel, naval & aerial combat.

    To be fair, S&W Core added a fair chunk of this stuff back in its 2nd edition (but WB has yet to be so revised), but other bits are still left out. In some cases like the naval rules, because they never appeared in later editions, and thus are hard to justify under the OGL, but in other cases I think it's just a desire to imagine that the LBBs had less explicit procedure than it actually did.

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  25. Actually, you've got it exactly backwards on the Voynich, as Randall Munroe points out:

    http://www.xkcd.com/593/

    Adam

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  26. How odd. Just yesterday, I posted about how I will probably rip out all of the ability score bonuses next time I run D&D.

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  27. I tend to agree very much with about 95% of what James says here regarding OD&D, and more than once I've looked to his writings for inspiration or explanation of some element of OD&D I can't quite grasp. In fact, it was this very blog, along with Philotomy's musings, that set me on my own quest to reconcile OD&D with Chainmail (a quest that is coming along swimmingly on my own blog).

    James: I noted that you're no longer listing Swords & Wizardry in your "Now Playing" and have gone back to OD&D. Any reason for that? Just curious.

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  28. In fairness, I consider every time James finds an assumption to question a personal victory for my goal, that being an understanding between the old ways and the new.

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  29. Brunomac,

    I like it because it simultaneously enables me to avoid bonus inflation, something I like about OD&D over its descendants, especially AD&D, and it makes the fighting man stand out as the true master of combat.

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  30. Jason,

    I switched back to OD&D because I kept finding myself changing things in S&W to make them more like OD&D and I figured why not just go whole hog? I'm also in the process of re-writing the LBBs + supplements into a document that's pretty close to "D&D 0.75e" and, as you'd expect, it's pretty close to OD&D when it comes a number of things.

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  31. I see the sense of giving fighters the dex bonus. It just feels like it takes some crumbs away from others who don't get platemail and such. Not just the thief (the PC most likly to have high dex), but the occasional MU or Illusionist who cannot wear armor but might have a high dex - their only chance to have anything but 10 AC.

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  32. @Adam Thornton

    AC in Yoynich--descending or ascending? Maybe that explains the demise of the Templars or perhaps the Albigensian Crusade?

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  33. Lest anyone think me a Gygax-fetishist, here's a point in favour of the professionalisation of RPG design that has happened since the old days: Robin Laws explains why rules support should be a controlled affair.

    Granted, his approach doesn't necessarily prevent situations like the Gygax-on-alignment one, where conceptions evolve slowly through a variety of differrent takes, but it should help minimize outright self-contradiction.

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