Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spells Through the Ages

Unsurprisingly, I'm a big fan of looking carefully at the text of D&D's various editions in order to mine them for meaning. Several years ago, before I'd fully returned to old school D&D, I spent some time examining the presentation of spells and monsters in every edition from OD&D to 3e in order to see what had changed and what remained the same over the decades. I was actually quite surprised to see just how many elements were constant across the editions, even as the context of those elements changed greatly.

When it comes to analyzing texts across editions to tease out obscure meanings, there are few better than Dan "Delta" Collins. His Book of Spells is a superb distillation of the magic-user spells of OD&D, restoring them to pristine clarity free from later glosses and accretions. Together with his friend Paul, Dan is kicking off a new series of posts called "Spells Through the Ages," which will thoroughly examine the spells of OD&D with an eye toward what's stayed the same, what's changed, and what this means for how the spell is used in the game.

It's something I'm very much looking forward to reading, since the series has already turned its gaze upon a particular spell -- silence -- that's proven very troublesome to me over the years and in recent sessions of the Dwimmermount campaign. I imagine others will find the series equally useful. Even when I disagree with the conclusions Dan comes to, I nevertheless derive much food for thought from his reasons for drawing them.

16 comments:

  1. A while back I was studying cleric spells because I noticed some discrepancies between OD&D and 1e.

    As I'm sure you know, spells don't just change in effect but hop up and down levels and are sometimes removed entirely.

    I don't have the time myself, but I would love to have a poster that shows the history of spells through time-- when they are introduced, how they move level, or get renamed etc.

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  2. [I’m having trouble posting on Paul’s blog, but you may find the comment interesting, so I’ll put it here instead.]

    What about something like “This spell only affects inanimate objects, including those worn or carried”? Speech and spellcasting wouldnt be affected. Sneezing would be heard, leading crafty defenders (or at least those who expect spellcasting attackers) to rig a trap which liberally dusts an area with pepper.

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  3. While I did read your (multiple) posts explaining why, I still find that at times exactly like this your complete evading of 4th edition as part of the D&D spectrum is... bemusing.

    It's like a self-described art expert who visits a landscape gallery and deliberately tries to subconsciously (yes, a paradox, but this is hard to describe) avoid peeking at the section of works painted after a certain date.

    It's one thing to dislike a subject, but to ignore it entirely when doing a COMPARATIVE exercise is... I don't know, not in keeping with a historian's thoroughness?

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  4. James, thanks for the shout-out!

    Aquatic Environment: Say I go to the MOMA website today and click on the first exhibition I see. Just happens to be "Shaping Modernity: Design 1880–1980".

    http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1045

    That's exactly how art exhibits are set up, some identifiable start-and-end dates encompassing a related tradition. If we think that 4E is fundamentally unrelated (and WOTC designers explicitly said so), then we're correct to exclude it.

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  5. Man, is there an OSR equivalent to the slash-dot effect: the grognardia effect? I'll reiterate Delta's thanks, and ask anyone else looking here to be patient with my blog which to date I don't think had very many readers.

    My comments system seems to be flagging anyone new as a potential spammer, and requiring me to manually push them through. Though once a poster is in, he should be good after that. I'm trying to rectify the sitation, but in the meantime please be patient as I try to push the commenters through.

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  6. It's one thing to dislike a subject, but to ignore it entirely when doing a COMPARATIVE exercise is... I don't know, not in keeping with a historian's thoroughness?

    That's one perspective, I suppose, but my experience is that historians periodize stuff all the time, focusing only on those things that fall within certain dates or within their areas of expertise. I have zero interest in 4e and, while I have read much of it, I don't own a copy myself. Plus, this blog is about older editions, so I don't feel the slightest regret at not devoting much space to editions published after my preferred ones. I don't say much about 2e or 3e here either, for what it's worth, but I have at least played those extensively, whereas I cannot say that about 4e at all, thereby rendering my opinion on it a great deal less valuable.

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  7. Man, is there an OSR equivalent to the slash-dot effect: the grognardia effect?

    Heh, sorry about that. I just figured that you and Dan deserved a shout-out for the terrific work you're doing in examining the game's spells. It's highly interesting to me and, apparently, others as well :)

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  8. "That's exactly how art exhibits are set up, some identifiable start-and-end dates encompassing a related tradition. If we think that 4E is fundamentally unrelated (and WOTC designers explicitly said so), then we're correct to exclude it."

    Having played 4th, 3rd, and 2nd edition, and being an avid explorer of retro clones and OSR blogs, I feel the (perhaps unwise) need to declare that my current preference is more related to its roots than many give it credit for. At the very least it deserves a seat at the table.

    I don't know, I'm just venting rather pointlessly now. I guess my frustration comes from how I've learned so much from the OSR and incorporated many of its ideas into my game, yet this exchange mostly remains one-sided. 4th ed isn't just an evil brand that was forced upon poor fools like me, it's genuinely my playstyle and my aesthetic, a reflection of the fantasy I grew up with. I like to think my "era" must have something to offer back to the earlier ones even if the whole package is not to your liking.

    But whatever, this is veering into edition war territory. If James wants me to shut up I will.

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  9. I like to think my "era" must have something to offer back to the earlier ones even if the whole package is not to your liking.

    Well, there are some of us who agree with you. Rob Conley comes to mind, for example, as does Tavis Allison and some others. Unsurprisingly, I'm one of the more skeptical ones but I am open to persuasion. However, I genuinely have so little interest in 4e that getting me to look at it, let alone consider its virtues will be a very hard sell. Fact is I'm happy with the D&D I'm playing and don't see much purpose in looking to later editions for insights into it.

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  10. "Fact is I'm happy with the D&D I'm playing and don't see much purpose in looking to later editions for insights into it."

    But... but... that's the point of the very post we are commenting on! I mean, these are your words:

    "Unsurprisingly, I'm a big fan of looking carefully at the text of D&D's various editions in order to mine them for meaning."

    Then you link approvingly to Delta explaining how the process of examining later editions of the Silence spell helped him rediscover an interpretation that worked better for him personally.

    If this sort of insight can spring from examinations of 2nd and 3rd, surely an exploration-minded person does themselves a disservice by not giving 4th the same scrutiny.

    I feel a baby is being thrown out with some bathwater.

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  11. I feel a baby is being thrown out with some bathwater.

    The main reason 3e gets examined at all is because all the retro-clones use its SRD as the starting point for their own spell descriptions. It's important to mine the SRD text for any connection to the past, whereas there's no real incentive to do this with 4e, particularly given how much spells have changed in their conception from earlier editions.

    Are you saying you think there's stuff in 4e that provides insight into the original intent of spells from the earliest editions?

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  12. An even larger issue is that all pre-4E games share a conceit of Vancian spellcasting, spells-per-day, levels, etc. Without that superstructure in place, I'm not sure how you'd begin to equate or compare spells to each other.

    But you know what? If you think there's some great 4E insight to haste, for example, I'd invite you to post it in a comment on my blog. I personally won't be purchasing 4E just for that exercise, however. Criticism thereafter is still fair game. :)

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  13. I just figured that you and Dan deserved a shout-out for the terrific work you're doing in examining the game's spells. It's highly interesting to me and, apparently, others as well :)

    Well thanks. I really do appreciate the bump, it's very gratifying to see some folks actually commenting on my blog. I hope to see some of them stick around for future posts as well.

    BTW, the commenting issue on my blog should be all ironed out now. Thanks everyone for your patience.

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  14. James said:
    "Are you saying you think there's stuff in 4e that provides insight into the original intent of spells from the earliest editions?"

    Not necessarily anything that specific (though I will make an argument related to that when I respond to Delta in the paragraphs below). What I am saying is that a group of perfectly reasonable, not-evil game designers examined the older editions, used that history to reach some conclusions, and tried a different but related approach in another edition. Of course you are free to dislike most of their conclusions and set your priorities. You are a curator and a preservationist, someone who sacrifices his time and money out of love, not under any obligation to give any portion of history "equal time." But as a curious person, as a theory-minded person, can you really say there is nothing to be gained from sincerely looking at the choices those designers made and thinking about them as part of a spectrum in D&D experiences?

    Who knows, you might even find the spark of an idea worth re-fitting for old school use. I certainly never thought I'd glean anything of value from pre-3e materials until I stumbled onto this site.

    Delta said:
    "An even larger issue is that all pre-4E games share a conceit of Vancian spellcasting, spells-per-day, levels, etc. Without that superstructure in place, I'm not sure how you'd begin to equate or compare spells to each other."

    To this I'd respond that the function of Vancian spellcasting continues to exist in 4e even if the original flavor does not. Yes a lot changed, but not as radically as it might seem at first glance. After all, 4e did not switch to a spell point system, a skill roll system, or a free-form narrative spellcasting system; those would have been real and total breaks from tradition. Instead it kept the original D&D idea that "you get a certain number of uses of spells appropriate to a certain level that you must carefully ration during your adventuring day."

    It also divided "spells" into two categories, and this is where it can get interesting for old school fans of strategic resource management. Many of the utility spells that you would recognize as lifted whole-cloth from older editions (like the divination spells) have been turned into rituals. A ritual requires a non-trivial amount of time to cast (10 minutes or more for the most part), and a non trivial amount of gold. The observable reason for why this was done was so that you now have to make choices where once magic was the obvious and most convenient solution. Here, a crude example:

    3E fighter: Uh oh, a locked door! Since we might be discovered by our enemies at any moment I think I should grab that tall candlestick and jam it into the exposed mechanism to force the thing open!
    3E mage: Nah, I just snap my fingers. *yawn* next so-called "challenge."
    3E fighter: (I really ought to figure out some way to get some spell slots...)

    4E Fighter: Uh oh, a locked door! Since we might be discovered by our enemies at any moment I think I should grab that tall candlestick and jam it into the exposed mechanism to force the thing open!
    4E mage: Wait, that might make too much noise, or break some other mechanism we are unaware of, possibly even set off a trap! Perhaps we should use the Knock ritual instead.
    4E fighter: But that takes 10 minutes to cast, and it'll cost us some of our valuable spell components. I think my way is better.
    *strategic debate ensures*

    Now of course I'm not saying this is a "better" or "more advanced" system, and you are perfectly free to dislike it. I'm just saying that a non-trivial segment of D&D players thinks it's still recognizably part of the D&D lineage.

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  15. 4E has too many fiddly subsystems that waste time. At the moment I'm thinking about haste, and if 4E has something interesting about that, I'm open to hearing about it.

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  16. "4E has too many fiddly subsystems that waste time."

    Wasting time is in the eye of the (ha) beholder(tm), but that's beside the point. I'm not asking you to like it, I'm just mentioning that it's worthy of investigation. I hate descending AC, but I still read Labyrinth Lord and this blog for insights. Let me see if I can put together a point about haste style effects in 4e later today or tomorrow.

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