Saturday, April 18, 2009

More My D&D

My two most recent entries concerning D&D served to share some of my own evolving theories and opinions about the game. This post revisits a topic I wrote about last year; the question of at what point does tinkering with OD&D turn it into something else? This is one of the problems with using specific labels and titles for your D&D games. As soon as you declare an edition, players will have certain expectations for your game.

I’m aware that my own D&D essentials are not shared by other fans of the game. There are certain features, even in OD&D, that translate to “D&D” for the players. If I tackle the essential categories I shared in the last entry, and homebrew each by tinkering and reworking the rules, I’m certain that other OD&D devotees would say my game is no longer OD&D. As far as I’m concerned, it is still D&D, but this is only due to the fact that I approach the game more so now than ever from the conceptual side. The concept is what I have come to appreciate more than the framework of guidelines presented in 1974.

My point is that by utilizing an exact edition title, I am presumably enforcing more narrowly focused parameters. Even by using the OD&D tag. This theme has been visited by a few threads over at Finarvyn’s OD&D site in the past year. Here, here and here.

But how much tinkering can you get away with and still call your game OD&D? If you fool with it too much you’ll be better served just calling it D&D. Or making up some new name and pretending it’s NOT D&D, even though everyone knows it is. There are countless examples of NOT D&D out there, and everyone knows while they might not be D&D by Name, they are Conceptually D&D. That is, they combine the Essentials of D&D and claim to be some new game.

Apparently, Dave Arneson was the first to define and combine these essential elements in his original Blackmoor games. With Gary Gygax’s input, expertise and organizational skills, the two were able to create D&D. How much of it was Arneson and how much of it was Gygax I’m not sure, but I do find it interesting that the Ten Essentials I wrote in the last post were evident in Arneson's formative Blackmoor. Nonetheless, D&D introduced the concept and this blend of features which still has game geeks such as me writing about it 35 years later.

As usual, I digress. The question at hand is how much tinkering can you do and still call your game OD&D? Last year I summarized some OD&D Truths:

1. Class based Character progression
2. d20 Combat Model
3. Rules as a 'skeleton'
4. Six Cardinal Character Abilities

Yes on Class based Character progression. Yes on Six Cardinal Character Abilities. No on d20 Combat Model. I can use Chainmail 2d6 as well, but I think the point was using the whole Armor Class, Roll to Hit, Hit Dice system, or some reasonable facsimile. So Yes to that. Rules as a ‘skeleton’ is kind of the entire point to this post. Having Rules as a ‘skeleton’ as a truth serves to remind players that the referee will be fleshing out the guidelines and filling in the gaps prior to or during play.

But what about changing OD&D? Even the category OD&D can mean many things. My OD&D game might be limited to Volumes I-III and my homebrew additions, or it might include the Supplements and The Dragon articles. Supplement I, Greyhawk, blew up a lot of the conventions introduced in the first three volumes.

Rules as a ‘skeleton’ looks to be the most important truth now that I look back at that post. But aren’t there other nuances or features found in OD&D that come to be expected in a game described as such? What might those be? Saving Throws. Hit Dice and Hit Points. Spells and Spell Levels. Armor Class.

I can’t think of much else. To make it feel like D&D of course we set it in a fantasy milieu with Classes, Races, Monsters and Treasure that fit that particular theme. A theme which can be tailored or taken from the books.

Sham’s OD&D Truths

1. Class and Level based Characters
2. Six Cardinal 3d6 Ability Scores
3. Combat Model (including RTH, HD, HP, AC)
4. Saving Throws
5. Spells and Spell Levels
6. Fantasy Milieu (the world and features)
7. "Fill-in-the-Blanks" Design

Unlike Sham’s Ten Essentials of D&D, the above Truths are to be used as presented in the original volumes for the game to be called OD&D. These aren't simply categories or features which need to be present, but Truths that should be followed as presented in OD&D. I added number 7 in hindsight, but it's a vital Truth which is spelled out in a few places in OD&D.

Damn it, now there I go trying to label someone else’s game of OD&D.

Remember, no one can tell you how to play D&D. Let the above serve to remind you what outsiders might expect when you tell them you are running a game of OD&D. For what it’s worth, just make mine D&D. As long as I can explore dark labyrinths, trackless wastes, gloomy hollows or lost cities while not becoming some nameless horror's lunch all in the name of gold and glory, I’m in! That’s D&D.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Matthew James Stanham said...

The idea of a "normal man" and the relation of other characters and monsters to that standard is, I think, a big part of the D&D experience. By the same token, the idea of a "hero" as being a fourth level fighter feeds into that notion.

John Adams said...

I really enjoyed reading this article and it has given me quite a bit to think about. Thanks.

Santiago said...

I loved both articles.

You have esencially discovered the "D&D Building Blocks".

With these elementes, you can create infinite diferent games based on the same structure: D&D howardian, D&D oriental, D&D starwarish, D&D modern adventures, D&D any-setting.

The main areas of costumization with the building blocks are the classes, the equipment,the spells and the monsters. The rest can remain quite unmodified.