Friday, June 13, 2008

The Two D&Ds

First, thanks to everyone who's expressed concern at my illness. I'm on the mend, but I still have bad cough and tire easily. I'm also a bit more melancholy and moody than is usual for me. So, posting will probably still be light till next Monday. I'm hoping the weekend will be enough to help me kick this bug and get back into the saddle again.

That said, while I've been laid up in bed and generally shutting out the world, I was thinking about the history of OD&D and I realized that, within about a year of its release, the game developed a split personality that's not never really healed. The first published edition of OD&D was released in January 1974 and laid the foundation for what would come. The three little brown books thus established the "core personality" of Dungeons & Dragons -- the outline of a game of fantasy adventuring grounded in both the pulp literary tradition and the wargaming scene of the late 60s/early 70s. In 1975, the modestly named Supplement I: Greyhawk appeared. While Greyhawk is self-described as "a supplement to an existing body of rules" rather than a replacement, it nevertheless did replace many elements of OD&D (Hit Dice for classes and monsters, weapon damage by type, etc.). More importantly, Greyhawk also gave the world its first taste of what I will, somewhat inaccurately, "Gygaxian naturalism" -- D&D's second personality and, over time, it's dominant one.

One of the things that should strike anyone who reads the little brown books of "pure" OD&D is how bland they are. They assume the reader has a grounding on wargames and pulp fantasy by their allusions and ellipses, but the text, as written, has very little flavor of its own. In my opinion, that's one of the virtues of OD&D: the reader must engage the texts and actively make sense of them. One simply cannot read them and understand them without effort. Consequently, anyone who sincerely makes a go of playing OD&D will, of necessity, be co-creator with Gygax and Arneson in making his own fantasy adventure game. The early history of the hobby shows lots of people doing just that, which is why roleplaying went off in lots of unusual directions in those days, with individual creators inspired by this or that element and running with them as they saw fit. I think it's hard not to find those bygone days an Age of Giants, by dint of enthusiastic creativity if nothing else.

Greyhawk changed all that. We now had a supplement that not only changed and expanded rules, but that gave us flavor as well. Prior to Supplement I, there were no named magic items, for example. Named spells wouldn't officially appear until AD&D, but many distinctly D&D spells, such as magic missile, would appear here. Likewise, many original-to-RPGs monsters first appear in Greyhawk. Where the three little brown books (largely) contented themselves with concepts and ideas drawn from a common store of pulp fantasy, legendry, and history, Greyhawk begins in earnest the establishment of a common D&D mythology drawn primarily from the Lake Geneva campaign co-DMed by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz. Though it was almost certainly not TSR's intention, the Greyhawk campaign would become the Versailles of D&D, its fashions and eccentricities being taken as normative rather than merely suggestive.

I call OD&D's second personality "Gygaxian naturalism" because, as the develop of AD&D shows, Gary Gygax was quite keen that D&D should be a game that not only had its own distinctives, distinctives largely drawn from his home campaign, but that gave each DM the tools to create a whole world. Whereas OD&D has a strong (but not exclusive) emphasis on dungeon crawling, AD&D casts dungeon crawling as initiatory rites to a wider fantasy adventure experience. That's why stories of the Lake Geneva campaign are filled with tales of characters becoming mover and shakers, with holdings, henchmen, and ambitions beyond mere loot. Such activities demanded that there be a whole world out there to explore. Thus, you get discussions of the planes of existence, stats for mundane creatures, random prostitute tables, and all the rest. These things all arose, I'd wager, as part of an effort to make D&D a game that could describe a world not bounded by treasure and trap-filled catacombs -- just like the Lake Geneva campaign.

None of this is to say that dungeon delving wasn't important in Greyhawk, because it was, nor is it to imply that other campaigns, such as Blackmoor, didn't have a significant "political" component, because they did. However, I think it's significant that, for example, what we know of the Blackmoor setting from Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign and later products is far smaller, both in terms of geographic and topical scope, than the Greyhawk campaign. And I know from conversations with Gary before his death that there were plans to describe all the lands of Oerth after the fashion of the 1983 boxed set. His vision was a wide one, anchored in the belief that DMs needed such a breadth of information, because the player characters might wander far from the dungeon and hunt wild boars for food drink too much in a tavern and suffer the ill effects of intoxication. Even fantasy worlds need verisimilitude, at least to a degree, and Supplement I began the process of providing rules for it.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think there are two D&Ds, each one rooted in a different phase of OD&D. The first is a game of pure adventure, with comparatively few concerns about the wider world in which those adventures take place. The second is a game of fantasy world building, so as to establish the boundary conditions inside of which adventures can take place. The second approach is the one that was canonized with AD&D and thus became the default one most gamers of a certain age associate with the game. Indeed, I could argue quite forcefully that, for all the claims that 2e had betrayed the Gygaxian vision, it was in fact simply an extension of Gary's own world building emphasis. The "pure adventure" line of descent survived in the Moldvay/Cook version of the game and lingered even in the Mentzer/Compendium rules (thought not supplements, which became increasingly AD&D-like over time), but it was overshadowed by the Greyhawk approach, to such an extent that "dungeon crawling" is usually a term of opprobrium among gamers, with the implication that it's a "lesser" form of D&D.

I'll admit that, despite my own mechanical preference for OD&D, I am rather more in line with Gygaxian naturalism than I am with pure adventure. That said, I think a better balance between the two approaches needs to be struck, since unchecked Gygaxian naturalism was the seedbed for Dragonlance and other later developments that, in my opinion, did violence to the original presentation of the game.

And now I must rest. I'll try to keep up with comments, but I can't guarantee it. I'm still very stiff and achy and have a nasty headache. But feel free to discuss things in my absence.


  1. (Hi, been lurking for a while)

    It's interesting that you should mention the fact that "dungeon crawling" is used as a term of opprobrium, because I've been wondering about that a lot myself recently.

    As I've been looking more deeply into "old school" game design, one thing I've noticed is the difference between actual "old school" "dungeon crawls" (apologies for the double-air-quotes) and the modern usage of the term.

    The term "dungeon crawl" conjures images of a linear adventure with prescripted monster attacks and masses of arbitrary loot and combat.

    A classic dungeon adventure, however, seems to be (from my limited experience) something significantly more complex and interesting - a highly interactive, highly open ended scenario with emphasis on the exploration of an unknown which, by dint of its small scale, can have an extremely high sense of internal "reality". It's a scenario where deciding whether to turn left or right at a particular intersection is actually a meaningful decision.

    Of course the problem is that it's very hard to *write* a good dungeon adventure (because you need to give the players lots and lots of information with which they can make informed decisions about how they explore) and very easy to write a bad one (because hey, it's not your characters on the line), and so the "dungeon" winds up being seen as a world of arbitrary traps and linear encounters, instead of a strange and intense playground of the imagination.

    Which is a crying shame really.

  2. Interesting thoughts, James. I think you may be drawing a line too cleanly, or making a distinction that's too fine, though: Gygax and Kuntz's campaigns within a year or two of their foundings had pretty detailed "campaign" elements like cities, political intrigue, established name level PCs building fortifications, etc. And all of the rules for castle construction, nautical warfare, and such in the OD&D rules certainly speak to the perceived need for this info at the onset of a game (vs. it appearing later in the supplements).

    The Greyhawk supplement certainly details elements that would mature into AD&D, but I'm not at all sure that they, in and of themselves, point as broadly to a penchant for more-grand world design vs. simply providing alternatives for the core OD&D rules. While adding beholders and swords of nine lives stealing and such into the mix begins to add uniqueness to the D&D game's overall oeuvre, it's still painting the larger world at large in very broad strokes, where it paints there at all.


  3. I also don't know if I agree that there is a direct dichotomy between 'generic' adventuring and world-building details. These things need not be seen as adversarial IMHO.

    Is world building really such a bad thing? To me the problems arise more from railroad-y adventure modules, which not only define details about items, NPCs, politics, etc., but actually define the "correct" or "required" adventure path for characters.

    This is, I think, where the real problem occurs. IMHO having lots (or even a few) of 'world details' and information about various political structures, named magic items, specific powerful NPCs, etc. is all good and only makes D&D (of whatever flavour)'s when these things are then taken over by a pre-scripted text into which you insert your characters (a la Dragonlance)that the problems arise.

    Otherwise all of these great flavour details are nothing more than cool new items to add to the toolbox and use as you wish...after all unless you use plot-railroading there's no rule that says your characters even have to go to the pre-defined places or meet the pre-defined NPCs instead fo going to the ones you create yourself.

  4. Allan,

    You're correct both that Greyhawk alone doesn't change all that much and that even the three little brown books do include lots of discussion of things implying the existence of the wider world. My point, which was perhaps poorly stated owing to my splitting headache, was that the 3 LBBs clearly gave pride of place to dungeon delving and that Supplement I was the first official canonization of the particulars of Gary's campaign, which emphasized some aspects of the OD&D heritage over others.

    It's a subtle thing, to be sure, and I wasn't trying to bash either approach or imply that Greyhawk represents the beginning of the end of OD&D. Rather, what I wanted to say was that D&D has always been at war with itself, with two primary strains of play fighting for dominance. AD&D made campaign play and world building top dog, even though the seeds of that were right there in Volume 1 of OD&D. I think a lot of the debates that rage are often proxies for favoring one approach over another and that they arise when one favors one over the other to such an extent as to imply the other isn't what the game is about. I don't think Gary or anyone in the early years really did that, many people, for various reasons, took them as doing so and thus we are where we are today.

    My personal feeling is that over-emphasizing one or the other approach is to make D&D far narrower a game than it was ever meant to be. If anything "betrays" the visions of the old days, it's that.

  5. I'm not sure the divide was nearly as large as you suggest. After all, over half of Underworld and Wilderness Adventures was devoted to non-dungeon activities.

    At the beginning, most D&D games I was personally familiar with in the mid-1970s stayed in the dungeon because wilderness adventuring was tried and seen as too dangerous. 40-400 goblins surprising a party of ten characters was not fun. It wasn't much more fun if you were not surprised.

    Wilderness campaigning took off down here after I decided that entire tribes of orcs or goblins wandering through the wilderness en mass was going to be pretty uncommon -- and when it did happen one would hear or see evidence of this large horde a long ways off in most terrain. Instead, one would be much more likely to encounter a (much smaller) hunting or raiding party. The same with bandits and other large groups -- they just did not usually abandon their encampments and all go wandering through the woods together.

    Reducing the size of the average wilderness encounter made wilderness adventures possible for the average group of player-characters. My "insight" quickly caught on with other groups in the area and suddenly people were doing a lot more non-dungeon adventuring.

    Soon players were interested in exploring land for future taming, following treasure maps, going on missions for local nobles (or the church when someone needed major healing), etc. Dungeons and dungeon-like environments were still the mainstay of the games, but worldbuilding beyond the dungeon, the general store, and the inn started happening on a fairly major scale.

  6. Take care of yourself, James. You know the drill: drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest. We promise not to burn the place down while you recover. ;)

    - Brian

  7. Quote:One of the things that should strike anyone who reads the little brown books of "pure" OD&D is how bland they are. They assume the reader has a grounding on wargames and pulp fantasy by their allusions and ellipses, but the text, as written, has very little flavor of its own. In my opinion, that's one of the virtues of OD&D: the reader must engage the texts and actively make sense of them. One simply cannot read them and understand them without effort.

    I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with you on that one. There's never an excuse for bland or flavorless writing in documentation like that. Role playing game manuals shouldn't read like server administration documentation. You want to call it a feature, that's fine. I'll call it a bug regardless.

  8. Also, I'd hardly call the idea of OD&D taking on some setting-referential trappings a "split personality". An infant does nothing but eat and crap and cry and sleep, but within a couple of years, the child begins to develop it's own preferences for food, environment, clothing, habits, and behaviors. Is this a "split personality" from the child's infant-self? Hardly. The baby is growing and developing into a real person.

    That's what happened to the game, and to reach further and further back into the history of the game to try and pin down when the "big change" happened that ultimately led to everything being "ruined" (which is now, according to this column, less than two years after the game was published), is just chasing after phantoms in my opinion.

    I admire your enthusiasm, but I fear obsession over events so long ago done and gone does little to make things any more fun now.

  9. I admire your enthusiasm, but I fear obsession over events so long ago done and gone does little to make things any more fun now.

    You will note the tagline of this blog.

    If that's not of interest to you, I can understand that, but that doesn't make it an "obsession" nor does it make an examination of it valueless. Judging by the very lively discussions we have here of "events so long ago done and gone," I'd say that quite a few people share my psychological deficiencies.

  10. Sign me up to go into the loony bin with, James!

    Heck, I wasn't even *born* when all these "events so long ago done and gone" took place and I am most interested in them.

    And it's not out any morbid curiosity either, but because I feel knowing how it was done "back in the day" actively contributes to my gaming experience in the present.

  11. Trollsmyth said: "Take care of yourself, James. You know the drill: drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest. We promise not to burn the place down while you recover. ;)"

    Speak for yourself!

    I'm not going to comment in regard to any paths Mr. Gygax may have led D&D down to it's own detriment; but, I would like to say that at some point in D&D's past, it would have served the greating gaming good if an archetypal, non-setting version of 'the rules' had been set up (in a more concise manner than the OD&D LBB's) to be used as the core reference for everything that came after it. A GURPS type of thing, if you will. A statement of intent, saying: "Here are the rules, now go out and make worlds, campaigns and rules to use with these concepts."

    That would've meant about 12 pages of rules (as I've mentioned in the past), that set IN STONE what D&D is, was, and forever should be all about.

    Get Well Soon JM!


  12. I've got to agree that AD&D added somewhat to the view of D&D as a total-world game, but I don't think that's the hallmark of the Greyhawk supplement. Greyhawk made two HUGE changes in the game - the thief class, which changed the nature of how traps were adjudicated, and the new HD system, which made post GH material incompatible with the white box system, in terms of numbers and using them without adjustments. Moving the damage inflicted by giants from 2d6 to 5d6 and adding monsters with multiple attacks (many at less than 1d6 damage) was a watershed in the game. It added more flexibility for new material, at the cost of stark simplicity (which has its own benefits). I don't see the GH supplement as the watershed in which dungeon gaming really shifted into "total world" gaming ... I mean, there's mention of naval combat, for example.