Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why OD&D? part 2

As I’ve stated before, this blog is not concerned with belittling any of the subsequent versions or editions in the D&D family. After all, they are the offspring of OD&D, and all of us share an interest in the hobby for one reason, and one reason only. To have fun. As long as you are having fun under the D&D Umbrella, regardless of which edition you might use, please, carry on, but perhaps take a moment to read why I like the original version so much.

So, perhaps you already understand and appreciate the concept presented in OD&D. That this game is one limited only by your own imagination, and that the rules are presented as guidelines on how to play. More so than any later version, OD&D embodies this concept. To quote myself and restate the Empty Room Principle:

D&D is a vehicle for creative input. Logically, therefore, D&D is hindered when the potential for creativity is reduced.

The Empty Room is a metaphor, it represents the potential space provided by the designer or author of a game, to be used by the players of that game to exercise some form of personal creative input.

OD&D trumps all other versions. It is a vehicle for creative input in ways that modern versions are not. How? By keeping things simple.
To borrow a term used quite often in OD&D circles, the game is a tool-kit. In the right hands, it is the perfect model for constructing the game that you want. This is OD&D in scope and in spirit. It’s the ephemeral definition of the old school philosophy in it’s purest form.

My fellow blogging friend Brian pointed out, quite rightly so, in his comment in part one of Why OD&D? that my post read as if I was saying I love the rules because there are no rules. While that is not entirely the message I was conveying, it sort of is the point. As I stated, I believe that D&D could have been introduced to the gaming world in a simple 12 page pamphlet. From there, the core rules could have been used as a basis for future publications and versions which hewed closely to that 12 page pamphlet. Such a gaming model would have preserved the OD&D rules and concept for decades. Instead, TSR took a different approach and redefined the actual game.

What is packaged together with those core rules, in the first three OD&D volumes, could have been the first example of how to use them. In this case, a fantasy setting of Goblins, Wizards, Trolls and Dragons. TSR made other games based on D&D, but it should have stood apart as the core rules, the framework upon which these other milieus were built.

I work in an industry that frequently relies upon engineering standards, specifications that designate compatibility for certain products within the field. It is generally accepted that when a new specification has been met by manufacturers, that this new standard not only supersedes but is also backwards compatible. D&D has taken the opposite approach, and subsequent versions have become more and more narrow in focus, to the point that versions are almost linked to their own setting or gaming world. Not so, as I have pointed out, with OD&D.

As promised, I do want to state, specifically and without theorizing quite as much, what I like about the OD&D rules, and not simply the game.

1. OD&D uses a class model based on the three pronged crown of Fighting-Man, Magic User and Cleric. In other words, no Thief. I like this because it allows any player to engage obstacles with critical thinking and logic. The players are interacting with the game world, and not simply reaching for the dice.

2. OD&D employs a rather abstract combat model. It’s the perfect basis for keeping it as is, or expanding and detailing the act of conducting melee. The abstract approach keeps combat moving quickly.

3. OD&D employs a minimal amount of ability based bonuses. The only benefit for having an exceptional score in a prime requisite is a percent increase to experience gain. This approach allows for perfectly viable characters with less than average ability scores.

4. OD&D does not assume that characters begin as heroes. That potential is there, but it’s a status which must be earned through overcoming the challenges set forth by the referee. Anyone can become a hero. Such potential is not limited by ability scores.

5. The Charisma ability, as it relates to the other five abilities, is just as important in OD&D as it’s character defining brethren. The de-emphasis of the other scores serves to accentuate the usefulness of this often underappreciated ability. Hirelings and monster reaction are two aspects of D&D often lost in later versions. Being proficient with a sword will only get you so far in OD&D.

6. For lack of a better way to explain my next reason, I will borrow some terms bandied about in role-playing. OD&D is the antithesis of min-maxing, power gaming and bonus inflation. Therefore, even the most basic magic items do not lose their allure. Players need not fret about poor character ability scores, nor do players spend time engaging in meta-gaming thought patterns. The focus of the game is in the play itself. To quote Philotomy: increases of all sorts (including increases in PC level) have greater significance in OD&D, relative to later editions of the game.

7. Originally, the d6 was used for all monster hit dice. All attacks deal a base 1d6. There is synergy here. With this model, a stab from a dagger can indeed slay normal men. Furthermore, later editions of D&D have managed to weaken two of the signature Magic User spells. Fireball and Lightning Bolt are much more effective when monsters have not been subjected to hit point increases. By all rights, those two spells should have increased in potency along with character and monster hit dice. I prefer this original synergy.

8. The simple alignment system of OD&D accentuates the fact that alignment should not determine some moral code for how a player controls his character. Just play the game. The referee will keep track of who is on what team, and use this simple system as it relates to character-monster reactions and role-playing.

There’s not much else in the very basic rules of OD&D that wasn’t carried into later editions. The Attack and Saving Throw Matrices, the Spell Tables, the Experience Point Tables, the Races and lists of Monsters and Treasure were all repeated in OD&D’s immediate descendants; Holmes, Moldvay, and AD&D.

To summarize:

1. Three Classes
2. Abstract Combat
3. Basic Abilities
4. Hero Potential
5. Impact of Charisma
6. Focus on Play
7. d6 Synergy
8. Basic Alignment

I am probably missing some of the aspects of OD&D that set it apart even from it’s closest descendants. Clearly, my preference for OD&D goes beyond the rules themselves but these are the differences in such terms which have led me to prefer OD&D.

I must give acknowledgement to the collected wisdom of the members of the OD&D forum, and to Philotomy for his excellent insight into OD&D.

Why OD&D, part 1
Why OD&D, part 3
Why OD&D, part 4

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Randall said...

"The game is a toolkit."

I'd list this as one of the major defining attributes of OD&D. It assumed that players and DMs would create their own campaigns set in their own worlds (or a world borrowed from -- or cobbled together -- from their favorite fantasy stories).

Therefore it came with very few built in to the gamesystem assumptions about how the campaign universe worked or the style of play that would be used. Even First Edition AD&D made a lot more assumptions about the campaign world and style in that it assumed people would be playing in a world not all that different from the designer's Greyhawk.

OD&D also encouraged gamers to make it their own not only by being very easy to house rule, but by encouraging house rules -- something later editions do less and less.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks for the comment, Randall. I agree with your points 100%. In these posts I am also trying to show why I like OD&D versus, say, Holmes or Moldvay.

I think many of the people reading this series of posts already get it, so I wanted to be a bit more specific in regard to what I like, mechanically speaking, about OD&D.

Perhaps someone who never tried OD&D will read this, though, and be willing to take the plunge.