Friday, June 5, 2009

Why Not AD&D?

One of the questions I get asked a lot is why I am playing OD&D/Swords & Wizardry rather than AD&D. I think that's a perfectly reasonable question, because I've admitted on numerous occasions both my fondness for AD&D and my willingness to use a lot of the supplementary material for OD&D, which brings the game well within spitting distance of its descendant. Given that, why not just go whole hog and play AD&D?

I have a couple of responses to this question, but the first one is that I simply prefer the lack of assumptions that comes with playing OD&D. Were I to play AD&D, it would be "AD&D minus," which is to say I'd be excising many elements from the published rules and would have to make a point of telling my players what parts of the game I wouldn't be using. When I play OD&D, I play "OD&D plus," where I tell my players what things I'm adding to the three little brown books.

Now, this may seem like a distinction of no consequence and perhaps it is. Yet, I can't deny that, from my own perspective anyway, playing a "plus" game is conceptually simpler than a "minus" game, since there's no confusion in reading about class X or spell Y in the Players Handbook, getting all excited about it, and then being told by the referee, "Sorry, I don't use X and Y in my games." One of the reasons I've been so down about supplements is that I feel they often create expectations in the minds of players that put undue pressure on the referee to accommodate them. Certainly the mere existence of a new class, spell, or magic item doesn't put a gun to a referee's head, but I know from experience that many players nevertheless assume that, if it's in an official game book, it ought to be in the game too. I have very reasonable players and yet I still wish to avoid that.

The second reason I'm not playing AD&D is that I think the baseline level of character ability in AD&D is much greater than I feel comfortable with. Hit Dice are all greater than in OD&D, for example. Ability score modifiers are all generally higher. There's also the explicit assertion that characters who lack scores of 15 or higher in two or more abilities are somehow sub-par. There is throughout the game a subtle but pervasive power inflation compared to OD&D and it no longer suits my tastes as far as fantasy gaming goes. That's not a condemnation of AD&D's approach by any means, but rather an acknowledgment that, for all the tweaks I am making to OD&D, I'm still a good distance away, both mechanically and philosophically, from it.

And that's the long and short of it.


  1. One of the reasons I've been so down about supplements is that I feel they often create expectations in the minds of players that put undue pressure on the referee to accommodate them. Certainly the mere existence of a new class, spell, or magic item doesn't put a gun to a referee's head, but I know from experience that many players nevertheless assume that, if it's in an official game book, it ought to be in the game too.

    I whole-heartedly agree. It's a conundrum: How to present 'optional' material as 'optional'? Actively working on this.

  2. You are for sure speaking my language now JM, because I have been using 1st ed. for three decades.

    Minus would be a good description for what I do with it I think. Althuogh I refer to it to prospective new players as "AD&D first edition light."

    And let's face it, there is plenty worth leaving out, especially in the DM's Guide. I remember hearing you on a podcast before I ever read your blog, talking about all the info in there - including a curiously large amount of info on how exactly to use a mirror! Yeah, like I really need that.

    As a "wing it" man I do like have less info to work with, and the "minus" concept for 1st ed. works for me in that regard. My years and years and years of house rules make up for a lot of what I leave out.

    And as I never went to cons or hung out at game shops as an adult, I mostly culled players from people I knew and friends of friends who wanted to try it. I was lucky in my ability to actually form large groups out of non-gamers, or those who just did it once or twice.

    So I was able to do what I wanted rules-wise. They didn't generally know any better (for the most part).

    But last year after several years off I got a new group, all experienced gamers. 2nd edition guys, 3.5 guys...I had to do the whole song and dance you describe, having to explain what I have changed and why (not usually up front, but as we went along). Since late last year I lost a couple of players who might not have liked that (although they didn't vocalize it), but right now I have a decent group who seem more than happy to deal with my little ways of doing the game.

    So really, my "1st ed" light is working for me just like it has for decades. I have DM artistic freedom, and therefore am more willing to let players put together the type of PC they want. Could I go to a con and do it my way with strangers. Probably not. But I don't want to anyway.

  3. All I can really say is: bravo. Well stated and well said.

  4. My game foundation defaults to AD&D, and Greyhawk, since they are the most comprehensive, and I don't have to rush to come up with something, rules wise, if I'm caught unprepared. I'm working on a setting for a Holmes plus game that will be more undefined and weird, but, I think these are things that are largely the concerns of DMs only. Players rarely seem to care what rules we're going by. Unless they fall in a hole.

  5. The increase in character ability reaches a truly ridiculous level in more recent editions, particularly 3.5. I am refereeing my last 3.5 campaign right now, and the characters, which are at about 12th level, have literally become superheroes in medieval dress. Because of this and several other reasons(including your arguments on this blog), I am switching to "Swords and Wizardry".

  6. I've called this the "additive and subtractive" model in the past...And I absolutely agree with you. It's far easier to take a strong, simple foundation and build upon it, than to take a much more complicated foundation and tear it down till you've got what you want.

    I was running a game of 3.5 about 3 to 4 years ago and a few of the players were rabid consumers of anything that WotC put out. I had absolutely no desire to spend all of my free time reading this "new" material in order to determine if it was suitable for the game. So in the end I hand waved most of it and thought, if it keeps them happy, then why not. Big mistake.

    It's a whole lot easier keeping things simple and asking the players to create any type of "extra" gew-gaw themselves and submit it to me for approval.


  7. James, I totally agree with your line of thinking. Better to add new goodies than excise things already in the book. As much as I like a lot of AD&D, nowadays I think they make better references than corebooks.

    Also, the encumbrance rating for AD&D is much higher than I like. I'd rather have a small book in my duffel bag so I have room for stuff like Fight On! issues.

  8. The increase in character ability reaches a truly ridiculous level in more recent editions, particularly 3.5

    At least it isn't 4.

  9. While I am more of a Moldvay/Cook slash Labyrinth Lord guy myself, I very much agree with the post. Especially the 2nd part about power levels. There is -for every gamer, I think- a "sweet spot" for power levels. If you like S&S (like me), lower power levels are a much better fit. I don't want my players to be utterly frustrated or feel like their PCs are helpless, but the guts of the game -for me- is where the characters sweat it (at least a little) when faced with a gang of ruffians, swords drawn. They don't give up and die, but they still have a fight on their hands.

  10. I agree with you, to a point. It's much more fun as the ref to be able to hand out more to the players than it is to cross things off the list. And it's easier, in many ways, to turn a simpler rule set into something you want than it is to hammer a more complicated one into the desired form.

    My problem ends up being that, but the time I've finished hammering and fiddling, I end up with AD&D anyway, so might as well say "we're playing AD&D, but we're modifying these half dozen rules and those optional rules over there are out."

    It ends up being a matter of where on the spectrum you fall, I suppose.

  11. the encumbrance rating for AD&D is much higher than I like. I'd rather have a small book in my duffel bag so I have room for stuff like Fight On! issues.

    There is plenty of room in any duffel bag for the three core AD&D books and a bundle of A4 sheets filled with the DMs own ideas. The trick I have found is to consider all other published materials superfluous and irrelevant. The whole point of D&D is to make up your own stuff.

  12. "Were I to play AD&D, it would be 'AD&D minus,'"

    Yes, but... Nobody has ever played AD&D by the rules as written. I'm not even really sure that those rules were written to be used as such.

    Power inflation may have something to do with the multitude class specializations. The original classes had to be boosted to be a viable choice against the specialized classes.

  13. I consider myself an AD&D Player because the framework and most of the game mechanics come from the AD&D Books, but not all. I am most comfortable with Gygax's concept of Non-Weapon proficiencies, 3rd Ed and beyiond skill systems are too cumbersome, with feats etc. It worked great in the Fallout CRPG and sucks on paper. And skill based ssytems are bad for defining a character class. So, I use the Gygaxian Non-Wpn Proficiencies but with the stats and mechanics for the skills from the Runequest. To generate the NPC personalities I use a modified system from Twilight 2000 (old RPG), where you deal several playing cards and each playing card tells you soemthing about NPC (sort of like gypsy fortune telling in reverse). In my case, I use concepts from Freud, Jung, Horney and a couple of others to flesh out the NPCs beyond the Tall thin Captain of the Guard, Grinning narow faced wizard wearing the livery of thee... and then the cards give you believable if a bit dull people motivated by love, greed etc with a scattering of true villains. Specific aligments and character types are determined by combinations of cards, like poker hands... way beyond anything Gygax may have initially written.

  14. I find it fascinating that this month's Dungeon editorial was about letting the players add to the campaign by making use of optional materials. In some ways, it almost seemed a 'sales point.' "You've got to let your players bring in everything and anything that they buy! It's a must!"

    Don't get me wrong, I think that there are a lot of areas that the core books, espeically in 4e, by being such a large book, provide too much. For example, if you want to run a fairly... 'classic' D&D style game, tielflings, half-elves, dragonborn, and some others might not fit.

    Here the Dummies book actually works better as an introduction with four classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard) and four races (dwarf, elf, halfling and human).

    The more options presented to the GM, the more... pruning may be necessary to get to what the GM wants to run.

  15. I always start with the Basic Game Book (1977) and introduce the Players Handbook (1978) after a player hits Level 4 ("Hero" and equivalent). It is a quirky approach. It is technically a "by the book" way to do things. More importantly, it accomplishes a few things:

    1) Sets the game up as rules-light. So the players spend their time racking their brains instead of flipping through the Players Handbook, and likewise the DM making rulings rather than flipping through the Dungeon Masters Guide.

    2) Sets up the characters as low-power. Again, brains over mechanics.

    3) Keeps the party makeup (race/classes) pretty "normal" at start, which gives the campaign a classy feel. The expanded options opened up later on seem exciting and exotic.

    4) Preserves that "plus" feel you're talking about. That is, the DM and players all know that the "new" stuff in AD&D is perfectly optional and totally within the domain of the DM to add in or not. (Because the transition/integration is not smooth, it can only be accomplished by DM creativity/fiat.)

    That's one way to get the best of both worlds.

  16. In my own D&D games back in the day, I used the 1E Player's Manual with Moldvay for the combat tables and monsters. I didn't own the 1E AD&D DMG and MM at the time. By the time I saw and read through a friend's copy of the 1E DMG, I thought it looked like a disorganized monstrosity. (The only thing I used from the 1E DMG, was a photocopy of the combat tables for higher levels). Though by then, I was entering high school and took on other interests unrelated to D&D or gaming in general. Gaming fell by the wayside for the most part for me, for several years.

    Nevertheless in my own games back in the day, I dropped all kinds of stuff like: class and race limits, weapons non-proficiencies, speed factors, XP, weapons vs. AC adjustments, etc ... Basically I dropped all the stuff I either didn't understand at the time, thought it was just too complicated to keep track of, and/or thought it looked silly or completely arbitrary.

    Things I changed outright from the beginning:

    - allocating maximum hit points for the player characters and sometimes the monsters too
    - allowing unlimited use for certain offensive spells such as magic missile, etc ... (but requiring a d20 roll of less than or equal to the magic user's intelligence score for the magic missile to hit)
    - initiative order was based on dexterity scores

    Stuff in the game which looked unreasonable or plain silly, I largely changed the DC by DM fiat. For example a magic user using a sword, I would just plain forbid it outright. But if a magic user still insisted on using a sword, I would secretly impose something like a -8 penalty on the to-hit rolls.

    When it came to "leveling up", I just decided when the players could level up without keeping track of any XP. After maybe every 8 to 10 combat encounters, I usually had them level up all at once.

    In hindsight, I was very much DM'ing my D&D games in a "munchkin" manner in those days. Then again, what can one expect from a bunch of clueless 10 or 12 year old kids?