Monday, June 2, 2008

D&D's Biggest Problem

Perhaps one of the most infamous editorials Gary Gygax ever penned was published in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon. Along with the much later (November 1982) -- and probably far more infamous -- "Poker, Chess, and the AD&D System," this editorial was written by "TSR Gary," which is the name I give to one particular persona of Ernest Gary Gygax. TSR Gary was the persona whose sole purpose was the relentless -- and often shameless -- promotion of TSR's corporate interests above all else, including common sense and, occasionally, truth. In the two aforementioned articles, TSR Gary is in fine form, arguing not only that Dungeons & Dragons reaches its perfect form in AD&D but also that any deviation from that perfect form is a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance. TSR Gary's efforts even go so far as to dub OD&D a "non-game" and bearing as little similarity to AD&D as OD&D's imitators bore to it.

TSR Gary's disingenuousness aside, I mention the June 1979 article because, in it, Gygax explains why he believes AD&D was necessary for the good of the game. One of his most interesting points is that "The target audience to which we thought D&D would appeal was principally the same as that of historical wargames in general and military miniatures in particular." He goes on to explain that that assumption was "a bit off target" and, consequently, there was a need for a new roleplaying game that "addresses itself to a broad audience of hundreds of thousands of people—wargamers, game hobbyists, science fiction and fantasy fans,
those who have never read fantasy fiction or played strategy games, young and old, male and female." In short, TSR Gary claims that AD&D is necessary, because it will be more accessible to a wider audience of people than that stodgy old non-game OD&D, which was written for a more narrow audience.

I could quibble at some length about Gygax's points, even his basic one, but what's more immediately interesting to me is the implication that, in its original conception, OD&D was too narrow in its intended audience. Back at the beginning, the people who picked up and played OD&D all shared a common "culture," one rooted simultaneously in wargaming (and, specifically, the wargaming of the late 60s/early 70s) and in pulp fantasy literature. You'll often hear younger gamers who claim, upon reading OD&D for the first time, that the game's rules are both incomplete and don't support the style of fantasy people like me claim they do. That's because, to read OD&D out of its proper cultural context is to misunderstand it. The guys who bought those little brown books simply got it, because OD&D was a product of their culture. They didn't need to be told how to make the rules work or how they supported pulp fantasy gameplay. Those things were givens, by and large.

That's not to say there were no disagreements or misunderstandings. Even a cursory reading of fanzines from the period will suggest otherwise. However, what's absolutely essential is the realization that OD&D arose out of a particular culture and most of its supposed "deficiencies" are only deficiencies to people not steeped in that culture. The best analogy I can think of is slang. Non-native speakers of a language often have difficulty with non-standard language that native speakers simply understand without any trouble. OD&D is written in a kind of slang -- the jargon of early 70s fantasy wargaming. It doesn't explain a lot, because Gygax and Arneson never expected that anyone outside the culture would read it. There was thus no need for explaining that, in this context, "bad" means "good," so to speak.

Once D&D expanded beyond its original audience, the game's intentions and focus became problematic. Gygax is partially to blame for this. Despite his aforementioned claim that OD&D had a specific target audience in mind, I think he also suspected that the game might be able to attract players other than that audience. That's part of the reason why he inserted Tolkien references into the game, alongside those from Burroughs. At the time, The Lord of the Rings was a huge hit in fantasy fandom. Gygax later claimed, and I believe his claim, that the game wasn't much influenced by Tolkien and the references were (mostly) an attempt to connect the game to the then-faddish interest in the Professor's works.

The plan certainly worked and OD&D did quickly become popular beyond its target audience. But with that popularity came frustration. If you read early issues of The Dragon, Gygax sometimes seems almost apoplectic in his attempts to explain that, no, Dungeons & Dragons was never intended to simulate Tolkien's world, since he didn't in fact care much for it himself. (I believe that Dave Arneson was in fact much more strongly influenced by Tolkien and, weirdly, Bob Bledsaw's Wilderlands began as a homebrew Middle Earth campaign -- just look at its name) By that point, though, the damage had been done and what D&D was about no longer lay in the hands of Gygax; it had acquired a life of its own and that life included not just Tolkien but other kinds of non-pulp fantasy. In short, the original vision for D&D didn't long survive contact with reality.

In the decades since, D&D has undergone several different reinventions of its vision, very few of which are in fact compatible with its origins. This has caused lots of problems for many gamers, because the game has never, not at the beginning and certainly not now, really explained itself well. Just what is D&D supposed to be about? What are its inspirations and influences? Nowadays, in light of a new edition that seems to gleefully have rejected much of the game's prior history and concepts, you'll hear lots of people opining about the essential qualities of the game and almost all of them are mistaken. They're mistaken because they usually begin without any knowledge of the history of the game or of the culture from which it sprang. If I seem a little cranky about this point, it's because I think it's important to remember the origins of the D&D. It may well be true that what D&D is in the minds of many gamers is not what it was intended to be, but I don't think that makes a whit of difference. If anything, it only strengthens my contention that D&D has lost itself over the years.

Had I been in charge of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I'd have made my number one priority the elimination of the game's identity crisis. I'd have striven to explain the origins and intentions of the game, as well as its inspirations and influences. The end result would perhaps have been something that's no longer very commercially viable, so it's just as well that no one has entrusted me with this task. However, the fact remains that D&D has never explained itself well and needs to do so ever more desperately. I realize it's too late for the game calling itself Dungeons & Dragons to get in touch with its roots again, but I can dream, can't I?


  1. Bravo.

    You, of course, no my thoughts on this. Hell we've talked about this a lot lately.

  2. What I don't really understand is :

    WHY do no one of YOU ALL - and with this I mean all the people who know the history of D&D and even plyed more or less all versions of D&D - go into the forums like Enworld or even the WotC Forums and

    TEACH the "youngers" the origins and the philosophy and the play style of Gygax/D&D ???


    Most of my gamer life I played only in one group consisting of my friends and we played many, many games. And AD&D 2nd Ed was one the many games.
    But today I know that I don't know how to really play the old style of D&D.

    But the real problem is that I know no one and also not one (virtual) source (may it be a book or a wiki page or something) that TEACHES me this original style of playing.

    YOU ALL have bunkered yourself in your corenered forums(DF,K&K,etc.) that no one knows and reads and always whine and bitch that todays siblings don't know Gygax.

    Okay, I want to end with a real disturbing question, only because disturbing questions make people MOVE and not because of disrespect:


    Good day and good gaming
    wishes an anonymous D&D player

  3. Speaking only for myself, I agree that too many old school gamers have themselves off from the wider gaming world -- to the detriment of both the wider gaming world and themselves. At the same time, I also understand why they have done so. Places like ENWorld can be quite hostile to fans of older editions, which is no surprise, given that WotC itself seems hostile on this score. I learned long ago that attempting to correct the misapprehensions of random posters on such boards is generally pointless, because those who wish to know more will find the resources to do so and those who do not will continue to believe what they wish.

    That said, more can and should be done to spread the good word about older editions, their origins, their inspirations. I'm doing my small part here, judging by the traffic the site generates. And I'll be doing some other things in the not-so-distant future that I'll talk about once those plans come to fruition. If you have any specific suggestions of what you'd like to see, you're welcome to make them here. I have a keen interest in promoting older games and older styles of play, but my goal is not to crash someone else's party, which is why I prefer to host my own here.

  4. Okay, for one example:
    Write one and only one document - and for this consult as many people as possible and needed on DF and K&K or other forums -
    WHY is 4E not in the style of OD&D (or AD&D1e or something what you want to describe) ?

    This document should check up in easy to read - and if there is someone in the forums out there who can write good and fun style then also in fun to read - words
    4E has races
    4E has classes
    4E has D20
    4E has magic
    4E has items
    4E has whatever etc. etc.
    Why this is so and how can I make my own old style fun gaming session - here you can include a big one page advertising for OSRIC or LL or BFRPG -.

    Then you put this document under a free license so that everyone can copy and distribute it to anyone (the best is a Creative Commons license).

    Then you put this document on a good and known download page called Bittorent

    Bastard at the bus stop
    Bastard at the bus stop
    Bastard at the bus stop
    Bastard at the bus stop
    Bus stop to eternity
    Bus stop to eternity
    Bus stop to eternity
    Bastard at the bus stop
    is waiting for the bus

    Let the World domination greet you

  5. I am willing to contribute to this kind of document which describes the people out there what the differences of "today" and "past" are.

    1) my English is too bad
    2) I don't know, I just don't know what these differences are.
    For example I have the opinion that if someone _really_ wants it that he can play 4E in the style of OD&D. I know that many are shouting out loud now but I read many, many threads in the last three or four weeks on DF and K&K about the old games.
    Nowhere is a real explanation.

  6. Just to play devil's advocate for the moment, that article can be seen as counter-productive to your, um, crusade. All that our friends as Wizards are doing is the same thing that the founder did: Realize that they had too narrow of a focus and these changes are necessary because it will be more accessible to a wider audience of people than that stodgy old non-game 3.5...

  7. A last point:
    Maybe - and I am sure that this is so - I cannot contribute to the content of such a document
    I can of course help you to deliver this document in many technical formats and in many networks so to reach a maximum of people.
    I would also translate it to my own language and distribute it to the people here.

    (I am very curious to learn how did Gary wanted us to play and what are we maing today wrong.)

  8. All that our friends as Wizards are doing is the same thing that the founder did

    Oh, absolutely.

    I think it's telling that a lot of the old hands from the TSR days realize, in retrospect, that AD&D was a mistake that set a bad precedent. Tim Kask said as much recently online and Gygax himself continued to play OD&D with house rules rather than 1e. At this stage, a back to the source approach is called for.

    So what I'm calling for is not so much a crusade as a reformation.

  9. To address the issue of where the grognards are, there are a number of folks posting over at who qualify for the term, including Old Geezer who actually played with Gygax and company. As for me, I doubt I qualify by some standards, but I'd post more often at enworld if I could actually hit the place more often.

    On the topic at hand, I'm curious how you plan to thread the shoals to your goal, especially considering the powerful force that was serendipity in the creation of OD&D. For instance, if the tales are to be believed, the cleric was created specifically to counter a powerful vampire PC. How do such "accidents" factor into your goals?

    - Brian

  10. Wow, maybe I'm not an old schooler after all:

    I am really beginning to wonder if I "get" it at all. I think I do, I thought I do, but after reading the first issue of Fight On! (which has a very OD&D feel to it, IMO), and the latest blog entry, I really wonder... Though I first started with the Moldvay Basic Set, and despite the fact that my all-time favorite module is still B2 and that I truly enjoyed Best of The Dragon vol. 1 as a glimpse into the history of D&D, I really LIKED the way AD&D codified things a bit. Perhaps it's because I don't have a creative bone in my body, and I needed (and still need) the handholding...?

    I appreciated the way the World of Greyhawk boxed set was a bare bones template for a campaign world, but it also gave me SOMETHING to build on. I almost always used modules when I DMed (again, couldn't or at least didn't come up with much on my own), and let the player's actions/desires, etc. dictate what happened "between episodes" and the general direction of my campaign.

    Of course, I am a member of one of the groups TSR Gygax created AD&D to appeal to (Fantasy fiction fan), so I'm definitely not a member of the gaming "founder culture" and maybe that explains me.

    OD&D just seems so amorphous (I've never played), and doesn't particularly appeal to me from what little I can reconstruct of what it must have been like. But, I think I do appreciate some of its elements--I think those that survived into AD&D. I grok the kind of gonzo free-for-all milieu where S3, the Machine Level, or Barsoom can coexist with or spill over into a medievalesque setting, but I don't think I have it in me to create it myself...I want to be spoon fed the asthetic, 'cause I just can't come up with this stuff on my own!

    What of OD&D survived into AD&D, in your opinion? I'm havin' a friggin' identity crisis here :). I can't stand 4th ed/3rd ed/ForgottenRealms ed, but I'm beginning to suspect I don't "have what it takes" to be an OD&Der.

  11. On the topic at hand, I'm curious how you plan to thread the shoals to your goal, especially considering the powerful force that was serendipity in the creation of OD&D.

    For me, it's easy: "D&D is always right," by which I mean that the ideas and concepts we got in OD&D, whatever their origins, must be the standard by which we judge everything else. Enough things weren't added to OD&D that I can only conclude that, if they were there, they were there because Gygax and Arneson both signed off on them and deemed them a good fit for the game they'd created. Remember too that, when I say, D&D was created as a child of pulp fantasy literature, that doesn't mean it's a clone of its literary parent. There are differences, owing to many factors, including serendipity. In the end, though, OD&D was written according to a certain vision and I think that vision is both recoverable and worth investigating.

  12. How hard is it really to make up a document that explains what OD&D is about? I see you and other grognards discussing it, but no one distilling it down. The expectation seems to be that one should read this site, philotomy's site, wade through lots of forums, talk to other grognards, etc. That's a lot of work for something that a lot of people seem to believe they understand well.

    What is stopping you from putting together a 1-page outline explaining what D&D is really about, then expanding that to a whatever page essay. How hard would that be, really? Why isn't this viewed as worth the effort, and why are a thousand blog posts better than a short essay?

  13. James, I think at the very least there needs to be an extremely matter-of-fact, concise, dispassionate discussion of what OD&D aspires to be.

    I've gotten interested in OD&D over the last 2 months or so, lurk on several different OD&D boards, and read five different OD&D blogs daily. But I've not seen anyone define the game itself. Rather, the game is defined almost entirely negatively: it's not this, it's not that.

    This occasionally degenerates into a kind of scenery-gnawing denunciation of modern gamers and/or modern culture generally. Which is, at the least, not particularly persuasive to those who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid.

    I also think that there needs to be critical analysis of what it means for RPG rules to "support" a particular style of play.

    Without an understanding of how rules relate to play, and what design goals Gygax and Arneson had, any critical analysis of OD&D is going to be pretty difficult.

  14. >>I also think that there needs to be critical analysis of what it means for RPG rules to "support" a particular style of play.

    ... that way leads to Forgeyisms...

  15. Why isn't this viewed as worth the effort, and why are a thousand blog posts better than a short essay?

    Until very recently, very few people were actually asking for this sort of thing. These blogs and forums were mostly read by people who already knew the answers to these questions, who instinctively understood what old school gaming was about. We're the remnant of people who still do get it, so we never really considered the necessity of such an approach.

    But the situation has changed and we probably should do a better job of explaining things. That was kind of the point of my post. D&D has a long tradition of just assuming people get it when, obviously, they don't.

  16. For those demanding a short, concise explanation, and yesterday — have you ever read "The Evitable Conflict", by Issac Asimov, as collected in "I, Robot"? Specifically, the description of grading cotton?

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    “The cotton industry engages experienced buyers who purchase cotton. Their procedure is to pull a tuft of cotton out of a random bale of a lot. They will look at that tuft and feel it, tease it out, listen to the crackling perhaps as they do, touch it with their tongue — and through this procedure they will determine the class of cotton the bales represent. Now these buyers cannot yet be replaced by the Machine.”

    “Why not? Surely the data involved is not too complicated for it?”

    “Probably not. But what is this data that you refer to? No textile chemist knows exactly what it is that the buyer tests when he feels a tuft of cotton. Presumably there’s the average length of the threads, their feel, the extent and nature of their slickness, the way they hang together, and so on — several dozen items, subconsciously weighed, out of years of experience. But the quantitative nature of some of them is not known. So we have nothing to feed the Machine. Nor can the buyers explain their own judgment. They can only say, 'Well, look at it. Can't you tell it's class such-and-such?'”

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    That is what is stopping anyone from putting together an outline explaining what (O)D&D is really about. It is known from experience, not by analysis. It wasn't put together systematically, and it hasn't been dissected and synthesized. This blog is, in part, the process of doing that; of figuring out what OD&D is such that it can be explained.

    And it may be a difficult enough problem that it won't be cracked, at least with the minds and the time that will be devoted to the problem. In which case the only way to gain the understanding will be subconsciously, through experience and exposure to a thousand blog posts. An apprenticeship, like that undergone by a cotton grader.

  17. I think at the very least there needs to be an extremely matter-of-fact, concise, dispassionate discussion of what OD&D aspires to be.

    Certainly. That's what I'm building towards here. My whole point here was that D&D has never done a good job at explaining itself or its design goals. So much is assumed that it's very easy to misunderstand. Before I can do that, though, I wanted to point out the problem.

    You expect some deeper discussion of what OD&D is/was and what Gygax and Arneson sought to do over the next few days.

  18. I got started with BECMI D&D, and later RC D&D and AD&D 2e in 1992 (the horror!). I remember thumbing a copy of the AD&D 1e PHB in awe at the variety of cool classes, missing from both AD&D 2e and RC D&D.

    Recently I've grown keenly interested in so-called "old school" gaming, for its aesthetics, for its closeness to the "pulp fantasy" roots you defend so vehemently, and especially for its lack of pretentiousness in both form ("fluff") and function ("crunch").

    And as an "old-school-curious" gamer, I must say this article was the single most enlightening thing I've ever read about the history of D&D, out of the many enlightening articles in your blog.

    D&D, indeed, is a game which sucks at what Forgeites call "genre emulation" - i.e. it does not do such a good work of emulating its parent genre.

    Which, if I get it right, led to the idea that "D&D as its own genre", a meme which landed us all in this mess, from Dragonlance to 4e. ;)

    So, I look forward for your upcoming articles on Gygax, Arneson and the true meaning of OD&D. Do enlighten us further.

  19. Steven,

    That had to be the best explanation I have ever read about OD&D.

    This is similar to a discussion I was recently in about the lack of good Dungeon Masters and how many who play and have played even since the mid to late 80's don't want to DM usually because they view the job as too difficult but most stop short of becoming a DM simply because they don't know how to do it.

    Someone asked why didn't we just write up a document instructing one on how to be a good DM.

    Like trying to systematically define OD&D, you can not impart the skill and art of DMing via a systematic textbook with a full cross referenced appendix of hints, suggestions, and tips.

    The bottom line is you must have experience to get there. You can read and piece together all the threads and posts into a vast tome but even after spending months reading it you wont have the experience that makes the difference. I can write a technical document that tells you how to build a deck on your house but if you don't have the basic knowledge and know how on the proper use of a carpenters square and a plumb bob or spirit box then your deck will likely end up crooked and very much out of square.

    Of course the use of such simple tools in carpentry are fairly easy to learn and takes little time. But you still must have hands on experience and hands on instruction on their proper usage.

    Being a DM was something that was always done via an apprenticeship. You played under a DM for a period of time until you or he decided it was time for you to learn the craft. Then you ran games with your DM as one of your players and he critiqued you and imparted his wisdom (wisdom not Intelligence)on to you as you garnered more experience until that day you started your own group.

    Playing and defining OD&D to me is absolutely no difference. But to even complicate matters more, OD&D unlike AD&D was not codified. Everyone did it a little or a lot different to the point of including, excluding, appending, and out right re-writing of the core rules. Then you had the whole supplement sets of rules to pick, choose, or ignore from.

    Some played very sci-fi themed games, others very medieval, some extreme hybrids.

    Each group came away from OD&D, and one could say even each player from each group, came away from OD&D with their own unique perspective gained through actual game play. Not by reading campaign notes or adventure logs. Although quite common these days, those things which would offer a great deal of insight to the games were the exception, not the rule.

    In all of our OD&D games even playing up into the late 80's, and including our AD&D games, there might be one person keeping a game log (aside from game to game character info) and more often than not that person was the DM himself. I am sure other groups, heck I know other groups where more vigorous in log keeping but even then it was usually for 1e games.

    So all that is left is the war stories and the "no shit, there I was" stories that we grogs share with each other in our comfortable Alehouses and Dungeons.

    I guess what I have been trying to say in far too many words is that to fully understand OD&D you need to play OD&D and since it is OD&D and not AD&D, you make it your own and whatever you want it to be. Now if you want to understand my OD&D or others' OD&D from the early days up through the present then the best way is to find one of us willing to run a game - I have a sneaking suspicion that if there is one near by they would jump at the chance. We that still run OD&D games find it harder and harder to find new players and even old ones for that matter.

    But in the mean time if you really want understand and maybe even get inside the heads of OD&D DMs and players then yeah, for the time being, your best bet will be to hang out at the Delver's Dungeon, Knights and Knaves, the Original D&D Discussion site, Sites like the excellent Philotomy's OD&D Musings, as well as continuing to visit and read the new blogs that are dedicated to the game.

    I know it's not the answer people want to hear and not the easy road but in a way I feel that is quite fitting. We didn't learn to DM or play by reading a quick start reference guide or even a book, we learned by participating.

    I would myself like to see something that describes OD&D and the sometimes wild west feel of the era but I am also a grog, therefore a traditionalist when it comes to many things (not all mind you) and I would never believe any document that claimed to teach you everything you ever wanted to know about OD&D or DMing for that matter. Especially if it was outlining it as the definitive way.

  20. Man, I guess I've just realized that I have zero interest in OD&D. I feel like a 3etard telling a 2nd edition fanatic that I'm just not interest in "kits". I just don't need a "wild west" feel. I'm totally stunned, but I guess I needed to work through what I really want in an RPG. And it's AD&D.

  21. Excellent post and a good read.

    "so it's just as well that no one has entrusted me with this task."

    Nor I, for that matter.

    David Howarth: There's nothing wrong with that realization, and you should not be ashamed to call yourself an AD&D fan. There's a TON to love about that version. For me, I just realized at some point along the way that there was much more to D&D than just AD&D. I realized it way back when I started home brewing and house ruling like mad. When I discovered OD&D this year, it just made sense to my creative sensibilities and desire for less rules. I know OD&D is not for everyone.

    Carry On!


  22. My question is: Are there any OD&D DMs around the Greater Toronto Area that will allow someone to sit in on a session?

  23. But the question(s):
    Why should I not just play with 4E in the style of OD&D?
    Huh, it is not possible to play old style with 4E? Why? It has dungeons, it has treasures, it has fighters...all these things. Where is the difference?

    are all not answered.

    All you are saying is : Ohh, it is easy. Just look into my head. There you will find your answers.

    Super! Really super!

    The thing is, that I have the feeling that all of you strive and fight for some growing fan population of OD&D, for some market share - even if a very tiny market share is more than enough to you -.
    But if you want to grow in what percentages whatever than you have to explain. Really explain.

    This is a pain. As a Free Software developer I know your pain. Since some years now, we have the responsibility to EXPLAIN our software and our philosophy to the people out there
    IF we want more users and marketshare.

    In the first days there were people like you , saying just check out the software from the repository and compile it yourself. Only few knew what this meant, and so only few used Free Software.
    Now, the most known collections of Free Software called distributions are those that explain in easy words.

    And no, it is not more difficult to explain OD&D than to explain FS. Only, you have the one or the other reason NOT to do it.

  24. I am very skeptical about the usefulness of "public service D&D". Why should I need to fight for "market share"? What good does it do to me in Pécs, Hungary (but I could have just as well asked this from Mississauga, Ontario or Lillehammer, Norway)? Do I owe these assumed unenlightened masses information, or whatever? No, I don't think so.

    What I do in gaming can stand on its own merits; what I release or post can provide a glimpse into what I think about the game, and if people like what I have to say, they can use it, modify it, discuss it or eventually reject it. I enjoy the same, certainly. But James here didn't owe me anything either, nor did Jeff Rients, Sean Stidd or Geoffrey or others, I just happen to be interested in their ideas. To me, a central "what it really is" document would be useless, potentially insulting or highly comical (maybe all three). And the same goes for a game association, which, I notice, always tend to become petty tyrannies masquerading as serving the common good.

    Instead of public service D&D, I think we will be perfectly fine if we operate from self-interest and let interested people come if they wish. I got into old-school D&D this way myself; nothing in my age predestined me for it, except that I liked what I saw. If people enjoy Fight on! or a post on DF, they can stick around. If they don't, well, more power to them.

    This is all becoming rather silly.

  25. I have a book called "Watching the English" by Kate Fox, an anthroplogist, in which she tries to define Englishness.

    The bulk of the book consists of a huge number of observations and anecdotes, with each chapter covering a different subject (e.g. pubs, sex etc.).

    In the final part of the book the author tries to analyse what she's learnt and state what Englishness "really is". She comes up with a list of about dozen character traits that are "typically English". Seeing what these traits have in common, she condenses them into three "uber-traits". Then seeing what THOSE traits have in common she comes up with a single "uber-uber-trait" - the essence of Englishness! This turns out to be "social dis-ease" i.e. English people are not naturally at ease in social situations, so they rely on coping mechanisms such as politeness, humour, alcohol, games etc.

    I'm not sure I actually learnt anything *useful* from that book, but it was an interesting read, and some of the anecdotes were very funny (if you happen to be English). And it's the only book I've seen that defines Englishness as something other than a list of random stuff (e.g. cricket, double-decker buses, the Queen etc.).

    Anyway, to change the subject, what *I* would like to see is a "retro-clone" version of the OD&D rules (including supplement I) which preserves the "feel" of the original game AND acts as an ideal introduction to RPGs for beginners. A "pick-up and play" RPG that is easy for non-players to understand, and that starts your imagination buzzing! Then if anyone wants to know what OD&D is they can be pointed in the direction of . . . well, I don't know what it will be called, butit should have a cool name, not something boringly descriptive.

  26. I agree with Melan that old school "evangelism", for it's own sake, is VERY far down the list of things I want from the "old-school movement". Scott Adams once said that what you have to avoid in business is spending too much time on things that are "one step away" from what your business actually *does*. I think what the "old-school movement" actually does is to play old-school games and to create cool stuff that can be used to play old-school games. Analysis and evangelism are both "one step away".

    However, I think an OD&D retro-clone could be useful to existing gamers as well as new ones.

  27. @melan: If you don't want a enlightning document than it is your (not existant) need. Okay. But , please, don't tell others what they need and what not.

    Soon, in a month or less we will have thousands and thousands of people who will have bought the new D&D 4E.
    For a very large percentage 4E will be what D&D is.


    The larger and larger and more and more postings of people like James here show me that there is a need in the older gamers that all who do not know the "original" game style and "original" design of D&D should know it.

    Then there is a movement of some publishers - and their numbers will grow soon I think - to put professionaly designed documents out there for whom it will be better if the people out there would know the "original" game style of D&D.

    If this all is the case then we should work "professionally and productively"
    to write one and only one document which everyone can distribute so that all the people who want to learn can do so.

    I am not speaking that you force someone into learning I am speaking to getting the knowledge to those what want to learn.

    And for me the best way to archieve it is :
    * To go into the few forums we Simulacrum fans have today
    * Begin to write the document in each forum
    * And sum up all edits and proposals from each forum in one central place
    * Then someone can render it in various formats and put it on various networks to get the best reachability

    I can not understand what the reason of such postings like this actual from James "D&D biggest problem" is if not to get the knowledge and understanding of OD&D out there.

    But then if someone asks for a document easy and fun to read then from everywhere come the naysayers to write that knowledge about OD&D does not have to be distributed.

    Okay, but then James does not need this blog and other blogs and the Simulacrum forums can also be closed BECAUSE
    they ALL are there to get the knowledge about OD&D. Or not?

  28. Can I just say that the whole idea that you cannot explain to someone what Dungeons & Dragons, or how to Dungeon Master, in words, but only through practice, is absurd?

    This is a game, not a direct experience of godhead.

    We can explain quantum mechanics in words. We can explain neurochemistry in words. We can explain legal systems in words. We can analyze artworks in words.

    Sitting around a table pretending to be Elves is not a transcendent experience surpassing all capacity for description or analysis. It might feel magical, but people learn to do it every day.

  29. @jamesnostack:
    I have a theory that the reason all those guys here state that a definition of OD&D play style is not possible is

    If you know that you have some knowledge that only you and some few others have than you can shut yourself up in virtual walls dividing you and the like and all the other persons.
    So these grognards and would-be grognards want just to be in their own fan group and other people should at best get just glimpses of their knowledge if even that.

    Look at the postings here on this blog and also on the blogs linked from here.
    Great postings, and great thoughts but soo unclear that you get the feeling you see only the tip and maybe you should only see the tip.

    On the other hand in many postings it is written that it would be good to get the knowledge about Gygax and his direct works and his wished play style and so on out there.

    But if someone wishes an explanation than
    a) there are suddenly all the people who don't need explanations
    b) it is suddenly not possible to explain something which is written in books using words o_O


    As you said: There are themes just like theoretical physics which was wonderfully described by Hawking but OD&D - some books with some matrix like easy mathematical operations - is not to be described.

    Of course.

  30. Yes, theoretical physics "was wonderfully described by Hawking" — after a lot of thought and effort over time by Hawking.

    And sure, art can be analyzed in words. We've had literal millenia of people engaged in the literary analysis of art, including some of the greatest geniuses in human history. And still a current college art appreciation textbook will not give you a clear and simple answer as to "What is art?"

    On OD&D, I didn't say it was impossible. I said, it might not happen, "at least with the minds and the time that will be devoted to the problem."

    And no, I'm not saying OD&D is anywhere near as hard as theoretical physics, or the field of aesthetics. Again, it's a relative effort. It's going to take time and effort by people like James to describe, and James is not Stephen Hawking.

  31. @steven

    Why don't you include in your calculation that it is not only James but there are many, many people who can help with this description.

    If every casual poster in the Forums DF and K&K writes one sectence in one day for one week for this OD&D description document than I can think of four to five days that we will have a complete and rounded document. Then one to two days for some artistic layout and artwork. Finito.

    The net, gals and guys, you forget the net. The 1n73Rn37 , you know?

    We all should help with this document which can also help to document some history which is to be lost because
    a) even today it is only in some heads
    b) WoTC works to drive D&D further away from its history

  32. Good luck trying to come up with something that is neither a highly subjective partial perspective nor a compromise that satisfies nobody.

  33. Too many comments -- and too many good comments -- to respond to them all individually, so I'll speak generally here and let my follow-up posts to the blog do the heavy lifting.

    I'll reiterate a point that some people seem to have forgotten: my post was a lament that D&D, in all its forms, not just OD&D, has ever really explained itself well. Instead, it was just presumed that people would grok it without the need for the game itself to do the explaining. This approach worked well enough in the very early days, because everyone who bought OD&D came from a similar gaming "culture" and shared certain assumptions that otherwise didn't need to be stated.

    But that situation did not last much beyond 1977 (if not earlier) and, as the popularity of the game grew, so did misunderstandings about its origins and purpose -- misunderstandings sometimes aided and abetted by no less than Gary Gygax and TSR. In retrospect, it's easy to see that this lack of a clear self-definition adversely affected the growth and development of the game, to the point that we now have a new edition that bears only the most superficial resemblance to the game Gary and Dave created 34 years ago.

    So I fully agree that there needs to be some discussion about what D&D is and what it was intended to be. However, as the discussion here shows, many people outside the grognard community -- and I'd wager, even many within it -- hold so many strong opinions on the matter that even beginning to explore the issue isn't just a matter of saying "D&D is X" and people will just nod their heads and acceptance. Indeed, I can guarantee you that, had this post been entitled "What D&D Is" and I had then proceeded to define the game and its purpose, many of the very same people moaning about the lack of a definition would be upbraiding me for having the temerity to define the game and its vision in a way that they didn't agree with.

    That's why I'm taking this topic in baby steps, building up a picture of the history of the game, where it came from, and why. It's a slow, tedious, and sometimes contentious matter. It will take time to lead up to a definition and I'd like to give people the chance to discuss the little points along the way. If that suggests to you that we're all a bunch of sticks in the mud who just want to hide behind our castle walls and laugh at younger gamers, then I might recommend you look elsewhere for edification. I have no interest in going off half-cocked or making pontifical statements without the opportunity for discussion and even argument. I'd wager that we'll be able to piece together something vaguely definitional in far less time than it took physicists to be able to explain quantum mechanics to the general public in terms they could comprehend.

    In the end, though, this is all about a game. The stakes are not high or world-shattering. No one will live or die based on how quickly or succinctly I or anyone else can define D&D. For me, the fun is the exploration of the past and thinking about how what we learn can be applied to the present. That's really the heart of it. Anything more than that would make the word "self-importance" inadequate.

    So, I say: sit back and enjoy the ride. A slow ride with lots to see. There is a destination up ahead, but it'll be a while before we get there. If you're impatient, there are many faster forms of transportation out there and I recommend you avail yourselves of them. Whether they're going the same place that I intend to, I have no idea.

  34. Re: OD&D in Toronto area

    I know of no one running such a game at present, but enough people have inquired about it that I may take up the call myself in the coming months. I'm currently playing a different game with my group, so my time is limited. By September things might become freer for me and I'd love the chance to run OD&D.

  35. I think a lot of people are missing the points that James is raising, on two fronts:

    1. There is no single consensus or definition of what constitutes the "old school D&D aesthetic": Gygax's game differed from Arneson's game differed from Barker's game different from Kuntz's game differed from Kask's game. To use a biological analogy, each game shared a common evolutionary parent at the Class level (Entertainment > Games > RPGs > OD&D, in my version of Linnaeus' gaming taxonomy), but individual interpretations of the rules within campaign settings spawned further mutations resulting in different Orders of the "Old School experience" that are relatively- specific to a DM/playgroup/campaign setting: ... > OD&D > Gygaxian OD&D or Arnesonic OD&D or Barkerish OD&D or Kuntzian OD&D or Kaskoid OD&D. Etc.

    2. That OD&D enables the above flexibility of design and play-experience is pure coincidence: the rules were badly explained, with little in the way of true scenario-creation advice for new DMs/players, therefore everyone playing the game imprinted a substantial portion of their own interpretation onto them. That is, the "true" OD&D experience is largely edition-independent, and I would further argue that it may-well be system-independent. Any competent DM should be able to emulate the OD&D experience using any game system, whether AD&D, 2e, 3e, 4e, as well as using RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, GURPS, etc., etc., etc. The fact that OD&D supported so many different genres of play, different world settings, and levels of technology has shown consistently that the game engine can support a huge number of permutations. The fact that it comes down to the DM merely reinforces the "it's hard to communicate" aspect of the game, because each DM places his or her personal spin on the rules, which makes each campaign relatively unique, and distilling the "essence" of each campaign across the OD&D spectrum in order to define the OD&D zeitgeist is necessarily difficult: not impossible by any means, but certainly a far-more difficult summation to perform than merely defining the rules in one page, or defining the edition difference for elves across OD&D/AD&D/Holmes/Molvay and Cook/Mentzer/2e/3e/4e, etc.

    In many ways, I also feel that OD&D's openness stems from the fact that it was created during an era prior to the market categorization of Fantasy Fiction as a separate field from Science Fiction: the roots of OD&D game stretch back to when Science Fiction and Fantasy were more-blended, and less-distinct, and published side-by-side. Moorcock, Leiber, Smith, Vance, and others regularly intermixed standard fantasy and sci-fi elements in their tales. Holmes Basic and AD&D and their successors inherited the post-Tolkien cultural view where Fantasy and SF are distinct genres and market categories, which also partially explains how OD&D is more open and free-wheeling than its successors, since it liberally ignores such now-traditional (and baked into the rules) genre boundaries.

    Ignoring genre-boundaries is also not unique to OD&D: the many comparisons of 3.x and 4.x to anime, Hong Kong action films, and MMO games show that this tradition is alive and well in the D&D brand. The fact that those aesthetics didn't inform the original D&D game merely highlights that the core of the game can flexibly support continuing reintretations of the original concept. If 3.x or 4.x have gone "too far" in some direction, then it is up to us to help lead the masses back to the original source, and show how OD&D is still relevant to the present zeitgeist (and not as a historical artifact of the 1960s and 1970s that birthed the game).


  36. Thanks, Allan.

    That rather nicely summarizes the situation and it lays the groundwork for the next few posts I'll be making on this topic.

  37. I understand the reticence to explain what OD&D is, but I am surprised that people show no such reticence when they discuss what OD&D is not. All of the grognards, including James Maliszewski, are extremely free with their opinions on what OD&D/D&D is not.

    It is more difficult to define what something is relative to what something is not, but I don't see how one can get to a goal of explaining what D&D is without having some outline or direction. Now maybe this outline is super-secret and highly sensitive and not appropriate for those not anointed to the mysteries, but since the game itself doesn't take itself that seriously, I don't see why the keepers of the flame should do likewise.

    What's the downside of putting up a preliminary outline and seeing what people say about it? You can always change it later.

  38. Lots of interesting discussion. One thing I would like to respond to is jrmapes comment that in the old days, GMs always had an apprenticeship.

    I started GMing when my best friend got Holmes Basic D&D for his birthday. The limit of mentoring that I got my first session was having watched my friend GM the night before, and that his older brother had played D&D in high school and shared some comments. Later, after I had been gaming a while, I did get some mentoring from the son of one of my mother's friends, and Glen Blacow (who I was introduced to by my FLGS owner), and later in college by another fellow gamer, and a few others here and there (also a few guys who ushered me into the MIT Strategic Game Society). Definitely not anything that resembled apprenticeship. I learned by paying attention to how the game had come off, listening to my players compliments and complaints (mostly the latter), reading the dragon, and occasionally talking to other GMs.

    But as to nailing down what play was like back then? The problem is that there wasn't a single understanding of how to play. Every time a new player joined one's group, the game changed. The new player either brought in ways to play from previous experience, or they were brand new and brought in impressions from having read the rule books, or were "coached" by the GM and players (but took their own spin on the game).

    Something to consider. Go watch different groups of people play chess, checkers, or bridge. I guarantee you won't find a single way any of those games is played, and in fact, players most likely even change their style of play depending on the individual circumstances of a particular game. And those are stunningly simple games compared to role playing. Or look at Monopoly, which I suspect is actually rarely played "by the rules." And I also guarantee you will see the same sorts of problems that we see in role playing of players joining a group and playing by their favored style and mortally offending the rest of the players.


  39. Hey, so just a couple comments.

    - "TSR Gary" was indeed a bad thing for D&D. It broke my heart when I was a kid, those editorials, with one of my heroes telling me I was playing wrong. I did though come to appreciate that aside from his own desire to make money, EGG was in a very awkward position as the Blume's pawn - very much a neutered CEO. So, not total forgiveness perhaps, but the reality of the situation at TSR was extremely complex for all kinds of reasons, and faced with the kind of money they were making I'm not sure how much better I would have done.

    - OD&D was understood at the time as a 'generic fantasy game' by most who played it. You could make it into whatever you wanted. The big camps were the kitchen sinkers and the Tolkien/Medieval purists, but other possibilities were explored. My personal feeling is that clarity of vision was and remains a mistake in connection with old D&D, but I don't argue this on messageboards because there's no percentage in it. That's not to say that individual groups and GMs can't make their vision as clear as they want and still be playing D&D, it's just that no such vision is IMO intrinsic to the game. YMMV.

  40. What's the downside of putting up a preliminary outline and seeing what people say about it?

    I can again speak only for myself, but the simple fact is this: I'm not interested in exploring the question in that fashion. I prefer to dissect it over many posts rather than starting with a "draft" and revising it. That's just how I operate. Given that this post alone has generated over 30 comments suggests to me that people like the approach I've taken.

    If it doesn't appeal to you, there's not much I can do. You can always check back in a few months and see if we've made any headway.

  41. - Oh yeah, and I don't think people 'just got it' because of the common culture either. Ken St. Andre wrote T&T because he couldn't even figure out the rules, just the idea of dungeon crawling, and he was a fantasy wargamer of the time. Most people pulled from Tolkien even back at the beginning because Tolkien was the fantasy they knew. (A modern game catching a similar sort of fire would want to draw on the monster-trainer and wizard's apprentice archetypes as well as Tolkien, I think.)

  42. I once knew a guy who'd go to showings of old movies, ones he had very specific and elevated opinions of and unshakable ideas of how they were to be appreciated. However, very often a less stridently minded audience would giggle or outright laugh at scenes that, though originally intended to be serious, came off as silly in a modern context. This would enrage this fellow, who sometimes would stand up in the middle of the theater and shout, "Idiots! You're watching it wrong!" One guy, declaring to dozens that their enjoyment was invalid because it didn't meet his personal criteria.

  43. One guy, declaring to dozens that their enjoyment was invalid because it didn't meet his personal criteria.

    I'd like to meet that guy and shake his hand, because, you know, I'm just like him.

  44. I realise this is somewhat off topic, and probably not the right time, but when I think of something I have to write it down in order to get it out of my head!

    So, *my* feeling of what "old-schooliness" is:


    1. Openness.
    The players and the referee should feel free to do as they wish, and to discover for themselves how they like to play to game.

    2. Simplicity.
    'nuff said!

    3. The game should challenge the players, not their characters. Or to put in another way, survival should depend on the players being smart, not the characters having good stats (there was a good post on Ars Ludi about how traps should *always* be avoidable by a smart player, even if their character has no "find traps" skill).

    4. Amateurishness.
    In the best sense. For example, one should feel games companies are motivated by enthusiasm more than by money!


    1. The main OD&D/AD&D aesthetic is "mid-20th Century sword and sorcery".

    2. Also, it falls somewhere in-between "cliched" and "bizzare", in that there is enough cliche for the ideas underlying the game-world to be easily comprehensible, and enough bizarreness for the game to be "fantastic".

    3. Pure nostalgia.
    Why else would anyone prefer "to-hit" charts to the 3e "bonus-to-hit"? BTW I am NOT knocking nostalgia, I like it!

    P.S. James, your blog no longer seems to accept "anonymous" commenters, only people with Blogger or OpenID accounts. Did you do that?

  45. Once again another fantastic and interesting post. A shame some can't see the forest for the trees. Please keep 'em coming James.


  46. I am a programmer and been programming since the mid 80's.

    The funny thing about programming languages that once you have certain elements you can pretty much do anything with them. Different programming languages exist because people have found by doing Y instead of X specific tasks become way easier to code. But if all the elements are in the new language you can still code anything project you wish.

    RPGs are the same way. OD&D was the to bring together all the elements to allow players to play a character in a fictional world doing well... anything.

    Of course the easiest thing to do to fight fantasy monsters, and build castles but that didn't stop many from throwing whatever they wanted into the mix. Later people built their own RPGs to do Y instead of D&D's X.

    The reason things are confusing is because OD&D was the first general purpose RPG. The unlimited possibilities of a general RPG were exploited to the point that to say "what was OD&D" is very hard.

    Later other RPGs came out and allowed D&D/AD&D become defined as a fantasy RPG.

    I am not saying D&D as printed wasn't a fantasy RPG. But if D&D was the ONLY example of an RPG you knew and if you want to use that cool monster from Aliens or Star Wars. What going to happen? Right! It going to appear on the next level of the dungeon your buddies are exploring the next session.

    By the 80's we had a lot more options so we could say "Hey I got a cool idea to run a Traveller Game next week. Want to try it. You all going to start by owning a huge ass freighter..."

  47. I'd disagree about the apprenticeship comment. I dove in with the LBB and muddled my way through alone, although thankfully AD&D came along relatively soon to give me some more concrete examples.

    I'd also point out that genre-crossing has an old and distinguished lineage, stemming from Lovecraft and his cohorts. Don't forget that in R.E.H.'s "Tower of the Elephant", there's a frigging _alien_ from a distant star...

  48. As for my apprenticeship comments, I did not mean to come off sounding dogmatic as to this is how everyone did it in every group. Back when my first dm started he was like many others that had no one that was playing the game - since no one had heard about it.

    No being tutored in the ways of the dm was no always the case prior to being a dm yourself. However, IME and listening to many tales over the years of fellow DMs from the late 70's to early 80's, this was a wide spread way of new DMs coming into being. Of course those that came in on the ground floor of the game in the 70's would not have the luxury of someone to teach them thru example.

    I of course can't offer hard statistics to back my statements anymore than someone who shares a contra position to mine. All I can do is share from experience like they can. I will happily concede that not every DM had the luxury of being mentored.

    All that aside. The point of it all in relation to defining OD&D is that you can not just learn how to what everything is about something just by reading about it. You have to have experience. As some has said themselves that disagree with my DM comments, they had to struggle to "Muddle" their way along before they got into the DM groove. So IMO to try to define OD&D so that someone can know everything about it, is all but impossible to do. Sure you can tell them all sorts of things about the games, how they were played in various groups, even show examples - I would hate to see the size of that document though considering the diversity because of the open endedness of OD&D - but in the end they still wouldn't and couldn't fully grasp what the hears and soul of OD&D is or any game for that matter without playing and experiencing it themselves.

    If someone wants to type up what OD&D is to them that is peachy with me and I am sure everyone else. But you can't expect every one us old farts that have been playing OD&D from it's inception or close to it to agree with their take on the game. The mechanics and principles maybe. The spirit and other intangibles - not likely.

    It is so different than the editions after it in terms of codification and "how to play" instruction that no one did it the same or approached it the same.

    Nevertheless I am sure someone will try to do this, so...

    An pertinent comment that was made on K&K, I agree with it completely, and that is even if this is attempted, it would be best if those of use that have played it since the early days and still play it today - NOT - be the ones to create this document. It would be best if someone new did it using solid research and reading what we post and write on the forums and blogs about out old and recent games, and also by interviews of the old DMs.

    This way all of our individual biases that each of us carry for the hows and whys of OD&D will not become a contention that stalls or halts the process but allows those biases to become part of the flavor and history of what OD&D really is.


  49. Interesting topic, though I am not sure the comments about DFooters or K&Kers going to ENWorld is an apt thing. Most forums turn into groupthink.

    Try having a 4channer or Something Awful goon use their style of posting at RPGnet. Or vice versa. The style and mannerisms of those forums are set in stone, and would generally clash with the other place, for good or ill.

    Its sort of why people go to those retro RPG sites in the first place. The more modern RPG sites are pro modern D&D and tend to be rather dismissive of the older games. (Or in ENWorld's case, probably any RPG that doesn't have the D20 logo on it and the magic words Dungeons and Dragons.)

    People want to go to places where their line of thinking is at least on the same wavelength.

    Of course this leads to forums like No Mutants Allowed and RPG Codex which seem to loathe anything Bethesda Softworks does with a passion. But if it makes em happy to be with folks who hold similar opinions even if an electronic RPG forum that is console oriented would find them to be completely bonkers (and vice versa!), who are we to judge?

    (Except in amusing ourselves at THAT OTHER GUY'S expense?)

    As to what version of D&D I would be all gaga over? Moldvay-RC Basic with some 2nd ed AD&D classes and stuff brought over.

    When did I get this opinion? After 3.5 was released.

    I didn't get my first tabletop RPG till 1988 and it was Runequest. (D&D wasn't permitted till 1990 or so. Thanks Pool of Radiance! )

    Is it because its oldschool? No, though I do really like the older "feel" Moldvay and later on Mentzer would add. (And Elmore's B&W artwork. Sooo.. awesome..)

    If being old is what mattered, my gamegroup's most beloved campaign and intro into D&D would have been AD&D 1st ed instead of D20. But I tried reading AD&D 1st, and the DMG was just full of ... well the kiddies of today would call it FAIL. I disagreed with almost every design decision on every page. (D20 has its own flaws that are just as bad, if not worse. AD&D's little secret is how few of the rules most people actually USED.)

    Later on I would realize Basic D&D, which I got Red-Green boxsets for the NES ROB Robot and Gyromite was basically what I wanted all along. Simple and flexible enough for what I wanted to do, and close enough to AD&D 1 and 2 that I could bring all those lovely classes right over.