Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why OD&D? part 3

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.

Now that I have addressed the reasons why I prefer the original version of D&D, both conceptually and rules-wise, I will continue with my initial questions posed in The Why Of It All, in particular: Why do I think others don’t share my appreciation of the LBB? This post could be titled Why Not OD&D?

OD&D is presented in a very rudimentary format. The three volumes are certainly lacking in organization. Closer inspection of the rules reveals much in the way of vagueness and ambiguity. Actual play, without guidance from some wiser soul, and without prior knowledge of other forms of D&D, can lead to many questions as holes in the rules are found. Certain aspects are glossed over, and the references to Chainmail can be maddening at times.

D&D grew by word of mouth, and by actual examples of live play. I’m convinced that the LBB, as written, were very difficult to comprehend out of the box. Players discovered this game at conventions, and later in gaming clubs and groups, being taught how to play by referees who had learned from someone else along the D&D playing word of mouth chain.

Out of the box, OD&D is certainly not user friendly. It takes time to interpret and understand. The concept itself often eludes beginners, and actually applying the rules once you have located them can be confusing. The fact of the matter is more concise treatments of the game were needed in order to foster it’s growth. AD&D was intended initially for players who had already embraced the D&D concept. It was a grand treatment of the rules and added layer upon layer of complexity to D&D. It also compiled many of the various supplements and articles which had sprung forth from the seeds of OD&D.

Before jumping into AD&D, given the rather crude initial publication of OD&D, TSR intended players to discover and learn using a ‘cleaned up’ version of OD&D, a sort of pre-AD&D version, thus the Holmes Basic D&D box was published. It served to right many of the wrongs of OD&D, but it was intentionally limited in scope, because it was intended as a lead in to Advanced. Basic to Advanced was the concept, even though AD&D, once the D&D concept was understood, indeed stood on it’s own, and didn’t require Basic at all.

While this approach has merit, the underlying fact of the matter is that the rules changed between the transition from Original to Basic and Advanced. By now, the supplements were becoming much more than simply supplemental information, and were being ingrained into the rules of D&D itself. The end result was newer versions that did not keep the LBB concept and rule-set intact. Having said this, I admit that I enjoy Holmes, Moldvay and AD&D. Particularly in the case of the Basic versions, they are clean, concise and user-friendly, unlike OD&D. AD&D is a masterpiece of gaming. My only issue with AD&D is that it sent D&D down a much more narrow track, and it’s rules, more often than not, got in the way of the game itself. It’s cumbersome and unwieldy if one attempts to use all of the rules, and it claims that if you change things, you aren’t playing AD&D, and so what’s the point?

OD&D is probably the most intensive version in terms of gaining an understanding of how it works. I believe that it requires the highest level of input by the referee, both in terms of deciphering the concept and the rules, and of actual play. More often than not, the referee is charged with making on the fly decisions, and ad-libbing. The job of the referee can be eased by house rules. The scope of these house rules is left entirely to the individual referee. That was one of the charms of OD&D, but is also a primary reason why I think people do not share my appreciation of the LBB. It requires quite a bit of behind the scenes work on behalf of the referee.

The simple fact that OD&D has been out of print and unsupported by TSR/WotC for three decades certainly is one of the major reasons that it’s greatness has been lost and twisted by misconception over the years. But, the truth of the matter is that OD&D is indeed disorganized, vague, lacking, rudimentary, amateurish, demanding and very basic. When compared to modern D&D, it is these aspects of OD&D which I think have prevented players from seeing it’s sheer genius. Modern D&D is in fact organized, concise, complete, polished, and ready to play ‘out of the box’, so to speak.

Then there’s the artwork. Not much needs to be said that hasn’t already been said in regard to the OD&D art, or lack thereof. It’s art, and it’s appearance are facets of it’s amateurish approach. These traits do hinder the willingness of modern players to see OD&D as little more than some old fashioned, outdated version of the game.

Perhaps modern players desire a professionally produced game, and don’t enjoy the idea of taking on the task of deciphering OD&D, and putting so much behind the scenes work into a campaign based on those rules. I prefer the creative potential that OD&D affords me. Maybe OD&D is a referee’s game, while modern D&D is a player’s game.

To change this, players would need to see that in fact, the game itself, and not the rules, determines the level of fun for all involved. Modern D&D is certainly a boon to DM’s in general, in that it is so easy to manage a cohesive, well though out game and campaign. OD&D, on the other hand, requires a DM willing to spend a lot more time and imagination to reach such a point.

To summarize my thoughts about why OD&D is not embraced by modern D&D players:

1. Lack of Availability
2. Lack of Support
3. Difficulty of Play
4. Time Investment Demands
5. Amateurish Publication

Perhaps no one needs to ramble on about the D&D concept, or the fact that it’s a vehicle for creativity, as I have been doing. The fact is that players and DM’s alike might simply want to get on with actually playing the game, and not sit around filling in the gaps, dreaming up house rules, and constructing campaign worlds.

Nothing is going to change these facts in regard to OD&D. It is what it is (or was). Maybe I’m in some tiny minority that enjoys deciphering the original text, theorizing on the concept presented, appreciating the sheer genius and originality, enjoying the creative potential, and then sitting around and writing house rules, adventures, maps and kibitzing to no end on the internet. Perhaps if I were involved in a weekly modern D&D campaign, I wouldn’t be here right now trying to understand why OD&D is not embraced in gaming any longer. I’d be having too much fun to worry about it. Somehow, though, I feel I would be missing out on the real thing.

Why OD&D, part 1
Why OD&D, part 2
Why OD&D, part 4

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


trollsmyth said...

I think the real problem with OD&D is that, more than any other version of the game, you really need someone who already knows the game to explain to you what it is. If you come to it cold, it's damned near impossible to play.

This may be the reason we're seeing this old school Renaissance now. Some critical mass of people who know how to play has been reached online, and the word is getting out to others. People are stumbling across web pages like Philotomy's, or groups like Dragonsfoot, and having little personal epiphanies about the game. The stories about how Gygax and Arneson and the others actually played the game are now reaching a wide audience on the net. Uncertainty in the face of the release of 4e is accelerating the process. Combined with the availability of the game via PDFs for the first time in about a quarter century, and you have something of a perfect storm for OD&D.

- Brian

Randall said...

I have to disagree, I don't think you had to have someone who already knew how to play OD&D to explain it to you -- at least not when OD&D was first published. I know a good number of people, like myself, who picked up that little brown box, read the rules, played around with them a little, drew up a dungeon and were ready to find players and try a game.

The OD&D rules weren't written any worse than most miniatures rules of the era and certainly were easier to figure out than the rules of the average SPI board wargame.

I think what people today forget is that most of the first people to buy and play OD&D were wargamers who also liked fantasy. Once we figured out the concept of roleplaying, the rules were easy.

trollsmyth said...

Ok, I'll happily concede that, though it still doesn't take us very far from my thesis, especially when you consider the dearth of people getting into the hobby now who have no experience playing SPI's games. ;)

I'm still struck, however, by how so many people had such different experiences playing D&D. I remember reading how Gygaxian dungeons are impossible slaughterhouses because of the number of monsters you encounter. "How are 5th level characters supposed to fight a dozen giants?!?" Well, five 5th level characters might, indeed, be slaughtered. But if you're average group is closer to 8 PCs, and each PC has a henchman or two in tow, a dozen giants starts to seem like a far more reasonable encounter.

OD&D doesn't dictate how the game ought to be played. On the other hand, I don't think it explains very well how the game can be played. If you've got some gaming experience under your belt, sure, you can tackle the thing and make it sing. But if you're coming to it cold, if your past gaming experience is mostly card games or, even worse, CRPGs, you're going to end up with a mess.

- Brian

trollsmyth said...

Uh, dearth of people who do have experience playing SPI's games. :p

Ok, maybe I need to go back to bed.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

I can only speak from personal experience, and keep in mind that I was 12 years old at the time, but I was already into those SPI pocket and micro games before I even knew about D&D. They normally required a few reads, for me, to understand the rules. Then I could play them. They were essentially complicated board games with cardboard chits. But the rules were in very neat sections and subsections. The same with Avalon Hill gmaes, which I also played back then.

I tried shortly thereafter to play Holmes D&D, and I not only did it completely wrong, but I missed the entire concept of role-playing. Now, in retrospect, I was trying to jump right in, since I was so excited about playing, and possibly I didn't read the rules enough times.

Randall, I think it's awesome that you learned with the LBB. I've come to them decades later, and I still find them vague and disorganized. The references to Chainmail in particular confounded me. Perhaps I am looking at them with a modern mindset, and from the point of view of a former AD&D player, but to me, and I think to any player of newer versions of D&D, OD&D is difficult to understand 'out of the box'.

You speak from actual experience so I cannot disagree with you. I've read about many other neophyte referees who went through the same trials and tribulations that I went through, though. And with later more concise versions.

D&D's growth was for the most part, from what I've been led to believe, through a word of mouth, 'here's how you play' style.

Luckily, with the internet and the collective knowledge of the many fans of the original version, we don't need people to show us. It certainly helps if a player is able to experience OD&D via running characters in an OD&D game, run by someone who already understands OD&D.


Sham aka Dave said...

Once we figured out the concept of roleplaying, the rules were easy.

I do need to add that as always Randall, your insight is spot on. This is a given with players who are discovering OD&D now. It was not always the case, though. Understanding the concept is half of the battle.

But, those that understand the concept because they have played other versions will often look at OD&D as disorganized, vague and incomplete, and write it off.

personal epiphanies about the game.

*raises hand* Here!

Gygaxian dungeons are impossible slaughterhouses

I don't think Gary's attitude about risk/reward changed much between OD&D and AD&D. I think in terms of the truly original dungeons, those legendary constructs which we now refer to as Megadungeons, there was certainly an attitude of 'you made your bed, now sleep in it.'

There was no molly-coddling of characters, the referee was impartial, and the dice were revered. Modern players might think this unfair, but it's how the game was played.

So your character died, deal with it. It's a game. Learn from your mistakes and start over. The rewards to be gained in this game will not be handed to you. You'll appreciate them that much more once you've actually earned them.

Adventuring is dangerous, Monsters are deadly, and exploring level 8 with your party of 4th level PC's meant you were likely in for a world of hurt.

But you're right, Brian, in that the original D&D sessions involved greater numbers of bodies, whether the dungeon was hosting 20 players, or 10 players and 20 henchmen. I like to think that they kind of knew what they were doing.

Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was a new post...


Randall said...

...keep in mind that I was 12 years old at the time...

I was 18. I picked up my copy of D&D a couple of months before I graduated from high school because I saw it on the new games shelf at my local wargames store. By then I had been playing SPI and AH wargames for 5 or 6 years. I started with Panzer Blitz. I suspect age and gaming experience made it easier for me than it was for you.

Gygaxian dungeons are impossible slaughterhouses

They certainly are if you expect get through them by without having to do much more than roll the dice to see if your character succeeds at a task. If you instead see them as mental challenges to be solved, they are generally less deadly.

If your group of five 5th level characters encounter 10 Storm Giants and decide to fight it out, the characters are going to die. However, they are probably other ways to handle the giants (talk to them and make a deal to pass through the room, lure them out of the room, lure them into a trap, etc.) Back when OD&D was the only game to play, this is how players thought. Today, most players are used to looking at their character sheet, selecting the best skill or cool power and making a die roll to solve the problem.

I once had over 25 players in a game session and regularly had 12-15 players every Saturday for over a year of play, so player groups often were much larger in the late 70s, but players still had to think for their characters as charging in without a good plan and depending only on die rolls was often a ticket to rolling up new characters.

Sham aka Dave said...

I once had over 25 players in a game session and regularly had 12-15 players every Saturday for over a year of play, so player groups often were much larger in the late 70s, but players still had to think for their characters as charging in without a good plan and depending only on die rolls was often a ticket to rolling up new characters.

Now that's old school! Great comment, Randall.

Robert said...

Perhaps if I were involved in a weekly modern D&D campaign, I wouldn’t be here right now trying to understand why OD&D is not embraced in gaming any longer. I’d be having too much fun to worry about it.


But it was a nagging frustration whilst running what I thought was the best version of the game to date that sent me looking back at the earlier editions.

The stories about how Gygax and Arneson and the others actually played the game are now reaching a wide audience on the net.

That was a kicker to me too. It started with Gygax’s stories in latter day Dragon, which sent me searching for every Gygax, Kuntz, Mornard, etc. story I could find. I tried to bring what I found in those stories to the games I was running, but that wasn’t enough to dispel the frustration. I suppose it was just too much of a mismatch for me from the DM side of the screen.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks for the comments, Robert. It's good to hear that others have found their way back to OD&D by other paths. Mine was simply the realization that OD&D was what I should've been home brewing with all along. But there's more, and I will touch on that in an upcoming post.


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