Friday, April 11, 2008

What D&D Is

Many people, particularly nowadays, as we slouch toward yet another edition, claim that it's impossible to define D&D, because "D&D" is so intensely personal a thing that if you asked 10 different people to define it, you'd get 10 different definitions. Though I recognize the agenda behind such a stance, there's a certain truth to it -- how one perceives "D&D" is greatly influenced both by one's first experiences with the game and how one has approached it since. That's why, for me, D&D will always be, first and foremost, a pulp fantasy game, albeit one with a batch of idiosyncratic accretions that allow it to transcend its roots and become this weird melange I call "D&D fantasy," about which I'll talk in due course.

I'm not going to define "Dungeons & Dragons" in this entry. That'll have to wait for later, when I have more time to write at length, because it's a complicated question (though not one that defies an answer, despite what the obscurantists will tell you). What I will do, though, is present a small illustration of what D&D was back in 1980 and what it was is something that I both miss and feel is missing from more modern claimants to the name "Dungeons & Dragons."

Here are four pre-generated characters from a module I was re-reading last night, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. These guys are a nice little window on what D&D once was and what I wish it were again.
Hum Ftr 12, AL N, HP 54, Str 15, Int 14, Wis 12, Dex 13, Con 14, Cha 16, +3 battleaxe, +2 plate mail, +2 shield, ring of fire resistance

Hum MU 11, AL N, HP 27, Str 10, Int 16, Wis 14, Dex 15, Con 14, Cha 14, +2 dagger, gem of seeing, boots of levitation, wand of cold (28 charges)

Hum Cl 10, AL LG, HP 34, Str 12, Int 11, Wis 18, Dex 14, Con 12, Cha 15, +2 mace, staff of striking, ring of protection +3

Human Th 10, AL N, HP 27, Str 10, Int 14, Wis 13, Dex 17, Con 12, Cha 7, +2 sword, bag of holding, cloak of protection +3
These guys are a snapshot D&D in its most perfect, "real" form, as opposed to an idealized one, which is to say, D&D as it was played at that time, right down to the fighter's having broadly better stats than his companions and more generally useful magic items. This certainly mirrors my own experiences both as a player and as a DM.

Yet, for all that, a 12th-level fighter still only has 54 hit points. Even with his -2 AC, he is nevertheless very vulnerable -- his companions even moreso. Of course "vulnerable" does not mean helpless and, with the gear and class abilities these characters possess, they ought to be able to handle most threats in the module, even the dreaded froghemoth.

I can't yet offer a definitive definition of "D&D," but if you want an illustration of where I'm coming from, I point you to these guys.


  1. It is the minimalist approach to OD&D that lead me in my design of 12 Degrees (what drives yours and mine games). I missed the ability to stat up a hero or villain quickly. I miss the days or yore, were you could prepare for a D&D game in under 30-minutes of time.

  2. Boy, that's a lonely Lawful Good cleric in a party of Neutrals, huh? It's interesting how high the overall stats are, though, with only the thief having a stat under 10.

    The lower overall hps was definitely a component in the overall power of the wizard in D&D - an 11D6 fireball is significantly more scary when you have only 54 hit points (or 27 like the thief - even on a save, you're gonna be hurting).

    Another aspect with the minimalism of the character write-ups - it leaves it up to your imagination who and what these characters are. As much as I like the paizo sample characters in their adventure paths (and I do like them a lot), they're the product of someone else's imagination. These write ups are just someone else's die rolls for me to work with.

  3. Re: Ability scores

    That's why I said these characters illustrated D&D as it was played. My experience was that most PCs had well above average scores even in dump stats. Of course, in both OD&D and AD&D, you need very high ability scores before they meant much of anything mechanically, so it was mostly an "esthetic" issue for many players. Consequently, I don't much mind the way that 3e made even middling scores useful mechanically. I'm one of those rare grognards who doesn't feel this is a concession to "power gaming" or a threat to all we hold holy.

  4. Yeah, I do love the unpolished feel of these characters. You could do anything with them, from just running them as-is for a beer-and-pretzels dungeon romp, which "Expedition" is very well-suited for, or take an afternoon to give them all names and backgrounds and histories, and then do the same for their magical items. They get to be your characters, going on your adventure for whatever reasons you give them. They can have as much or as little personality as you like, and can tackle the challenges in a way that suits your playstyle.

  5. I didn't have a problem with 3e lowering the bar for attribute bonuses until recently. Then I just started to get fed up with the numbers. That 12th level fighter with a Con of 14 that has 54 hit points? In 3e he would have an average of 89 hit points. This is one of my gripes about 3e- the inflation of numbers across the board, for both hit points and damage.

  6. Re: Number inflation

    Yes, I do agree with this. I waffle on this point somewhat, because I have OD&D guys whispering in my ear that any mechanical benefit from high ability scores is the road to perdition and they certainly have a point. Yet, being an AD&Der first and foremost, I don't think bonuses necessarily need poison the mechanical well.

    That said, I am increasingly of the opinion that 3e is a frequently fun and definitely well-intentioned failure. There's a lot of good in the game, much of which really is consonant with the little books Gygax and Arneson penned over 30 years ago, but there's also a lot of stuff that simply warps not only D&D's core conceits but even the rules of 3e itself.

    So, I'm very sympathetic to the need for a new edition of D&D. It's just a pity that almost all the wrong conclusions were drawn about 3e by the 4e design team and the end result will be something I won't recognize as a descendant of OD&D.

  7. I waffle on this point somewhat, because I have OD&D guys whispering in my ear that any mechanical benefit from high ability scores is the road to perdition and they certainly have a point.

    Being both busy and cheap, I've yet to actually read the OD&D rules. What, beyond EXP bonuses, was the point of the six stats in OD&D? Did they actually have any mechanical uses at all?

  8. Re: Ability score use in OD&D

    It varies from ability to ability but neither Strength nor Intelligence nor Wisdom has any mechanical value except as a Prime Requisite. Constitution adds hit points and Dexterity provides a bonus to hit with missile weapons. Charisma does quite a lot, since it affects reactions, loyalty, and the number of henchmen one may have.

    The appearance of the Thief in Greyhawk threw everything off, because the Thief used Dexterity as a Prime Requisite, meaning that, in addition to an XP bonus, most PC Thieves also were good with missile weapons. To "fix" this imbalance, bonuses were also added to Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom, which set the precedent for the ballooning of ability score bonuses generally.

  9. I'm enjoy the analysis of "back in the day." It's part of gaming for players and DMs to be critical of the rules and styles. I've been listening to them since I started playing. Yet, anytime I sit behind a judge's screen I'm entirely unaware of the discontinuity between the days before thieves were added and the trends their addition started after their introduction. I mean, I CAN sympathize with the general notion that their inclusion possibly stole something from the way the game was at that time, but I've never been sensitive to all of that myself.

    Now, I'm not adopting a "shouldn't be done" stance or considering my insensitivity better in any way. I've just always been aware that I remained uncritical of all these things because I've always felt 100% in control of those elements. I never thought of the rules as that important, other than providing a general pattern. Most probably, this is the result of seeing way too many rules alterations and versions. So much so that I saw 1E at the time of its publication as a mere snapshot of a developing system. And in developing it wasn't following a linear path. It was more like a shotgun blast declaring you could do ANYTHING with this RPG concept. To see the evidence one need only look in Gary's expanding content in the Fiend Folio, etc.

    But even Gary had his limits in its expansion. He was uneasy with the idea of fleshing out levels far beyond 20th. This alludes to the point about vulnerability made in your blog entry. Yet, because players seemed to be following that trend he was set to provide them with his version of that content bend.

    That tension between the players and the developing content set many things in motion as well. Moreover, it represented the true nature of a DM. When the players look to the sun for light you give it to them in prismatic colors.

    Sorry for being a windbag! :)

  10. Re: Being a windbag

    No need to apologize! I love reading comments, especially lengthy ones, on what I write. More to the point, I love reading the thoughts of other old school gamers. We're a dying breed, it seems, and we need to stick together.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. This is true. One of the things that is so frustrating about playing now is that people have only a desire for power. They have to have the strongest and best characters. It's not about being creative, it's not about the thrill of the game. It's about pride. How can you make the most powerful god like character and how can you manipulate the rules to make it do things that werent meant for the game. Instead of just having fun and doing the best with what you have. It makes me question a few things about my DMing ability too. Perhaps I allow others to walk over me for the sake of making them happy. Instead, I should just say no sometimes to that powerful juggernaut. Meh....