quarrel: (gaming)

Light your torch, grab your sword and step into the dark maw of the dungeon ... of 1981. Game designer Luke Crane (Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel) takes you back in time to explore the 1981 edition of D&D. He discusses the early editions of D&D and what makes this particular edition - the 1981 Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay - so special. Do you think you know what D&D is really about? Can you survive the dungeon and find out?

— summary from the PAX Prime 2012 Program

(Note: a blogger posted an audio recording of this presentation here.)

This talk surprised me the most out of all the panels I attended at this year’s PAX Prime. The title gave me the impression it was mainly a history lesson, but the summary is right on target, and I either didn’t expect or wasn’t aware of a lot of the things Luke revealed.

To start things off, let’s look at a short list:

First Ten (Or So) Years of D&D Publication:

  • 1971 Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures. Gygax & Perren, authors. “First recognizable step on the road to D&D.”
  • 1973 D&D. (“White Box” edition) Gygax & Arneson, authors. 3 boxed booklets.
  • 1977 D&D Basic Set. Holmes, editor. Monochrome blue dragon cover. 48 pages.
  • 1979 Advanced D&D (1st Edition). Gygax, author. 3 books. Players Handbook 128 pages, DM’s Guide ≈256, Monster Manual.
  • 1981 D&D Basic Set. (“Pink Box” edition) Moldvay, editor. Erol Otis cover. ≈58 pages.
  • 1983 D&D Basic Set. Mentzer, editor. Larry Elmore cover. 64 pages.

Holmes’ edition was edited from previous work, mostly that of Gygax & Arneson, and very different. It was pared down, clarified, and refocused. Moldvay and Mentzer continued that trend, all with the benefit of DM experience and the goal of focusing on essentials, two of which were “dungeons” and “dragons”. Contrariwise, Gygax mostly expanded the game and explored other territory with AD&D.

The edited editions were basic sets. Basic sets were for the mainstream market: people new to D&D or to hobby games in general, or non-gaming relatives looking a gift for a gamer in the family. They included dice. Some had pads of character sheets. They covered dungeons only. They mentioned you’d encounter towns once you hit level 4 but kept them abstract until then — a place you came from only in theory and returned to in a narrated postscript when the adventure was done.

Meanwhile, Gygax took things the opposite direction. The hobby was still in its formative years, so this divergence took a sizeable segment of the market with him. Instead of trimming three booklets down to one, he expanded them to three hardcover books with five times the page count. As popular as Gygax’s work was at the time, in hindsight his writing was dry, disorganized, and rambling, and he set the DM in an adversarial authority position. Some examples:

  • The “Adventures” chapter in the AD&D DM’s guide covers wilderness, airborne, underwater, and city adventures, along with aerial and underwater combat. Neither dungeons nor dragons are mentioned — not even in the aerial combat section, which used pterodactyls in its example scenarios.
  • He put the rules for creating characters in a book that players aren’t supposed to read, as if they could not be trusted to do it without cheating.
  • In the section “Conducting the Game”, the first subsection is titled “Control of the Game” and authorizes DMs to use measures such as invulnerable enemies, permanent stat loss, and even arbitrary instantaneous character death to dissuade players from attempting too-unorthodox solutions or rebelling against DM authority.

Moldvay and Mentzer took less draconian approaches (pardon the pun), though still different from one another. The main differences were in tone. Moldvay was warmer. More comforting. He was an encouraging voice at your side. “You know...you’re going to die down there. It’s okay. You can make a new character and join back in. Give it your best shot.”

Menzer was dryer, and his play examples focus too much on solo adventure for a team game. Though the anatomy and technical details in Elmore’s art were great, that art also featured many solo heroes (including cover and frontispiece) — and not just that, but notably weak characters in losing situations or outright defeat.

So Luke focused on the Moldvay edition.

Stat creation: roll 3D6 for each stat, in order, then optionally tweak down less-important stats to raise desired ones at a 2-for-1 ratio. This meant that, without tweaking, there was a 47% chance for each stat to fall in the “average” 9-12 range and provide no modifiers, with a 26.5% chance of being above-average, and 26.5% below. That produced well-rounded characters with roughly 4 moderate, 1 good, and 1 bad stat on average. (There were failsafes. A character with too many low stats could be rerolled entirely, and you could reroll the hit points of a new character until you got at least 3 — though this did not actually add a significant amount of survivability.) In comparison, Gygax’s approach was to avoid flaws. To him, every PC should be an exceptional person who is average or superior at everything because they’re heroes.

The dump stat was Intelligence. It only determined how many languages you spoke. And while languages could be important, Intelligence was the only stat with no numeric bonus or quantitative effect for any class. (It provided no magic bonuses as it does in recent editions of the game.)

Charisma, which is often viewed as the most dump-worthy stat throughout the various years and editions of the game, was super-important in 1981 because it modified the monster reaction check at the beginning of every encounter — and that mattered because you got full XP for defeating or outwitting monsters via any method.

Example: 2nd level party is rushed by a dozen level 1 kobolds demanding money. Most of party wants to fight. Leader is a fighter with a +1 Charisma modifier, throws coins at them and tells them to leave. They take the loot and run. Outcome: full XP for overcoming the encounter. Outcome if they’d fought: likely obliteration.

And just what was the 1981 version of D&D about? Adventure? Fighting? Role-playing?

It was about mapping & exploration.

Luke cites benefits in visualization, creativity, memory, and even information theory (in a loose kind of way). It was an emergent skill developed by the players. It let the players deduce the existence, or at least likely locations, of secret rooms and alternate routes, in a way that was more skillful and more satisfying than rolling against a character skill. It was also a transcendent mechanic — it was both an IC and OOC activity, and had restrictions on both aspects. The mapping character required both hands free and a light source, typically provided by another character. And the party couldn’t be running. The players were told relative directions like “left” and “behind you” unless their characters had reason to know “south” or “east”. The party needed to produce a backup map in case the original was lost, and designate a secondary mapper in case the primary died. The party could not just say, “We leave.” when they wanted to exit.

There’s more. A D&D-oriented periodical at the time analyzed typical modules and discovered that, on average, only 20% of all potential XP came from fighting. The other 80% came from treasure, due to the 1 GP = 1 XP reward rule. Since combat was always risky and frequently fatal at low levels, finding a back door or other alternate way past conflict to a loot goal had a better risk/reward ratio. This led to more varied play than a constant stream of combats. Detailed maps were key here.


Dec. 12th, 2011 01:01 pm
quarrel: (Default)

A company makes a car. Said company promotes that car as having a top speed of 100 mph and being suitable for all drivers. A subset of customers is generally unhappy with this car, reporting that it performs poorly once you get it above 60 mph. Regular, independent commentary appears on multiple discussion forums that the acceleration is poor, there’s a lot of road noise, and the handling is particularly questionable.

The majority of that model’s owners, however, give it glowing reviews. They say they’ve never had problems with it, and that all their friends have one and they all like it too, and they point out that it’s just fine for grocery shopping, daily commutes, and driving the kids to soccer games. When informed of the problems that high-speed drivers experienced, they turn defensive. Those people are just haters. They’re elitists who’s real motive is to dump on things and boost their own egos, not present honest opinions. And anyway, driving that fast is unnecessary and unethical in the first place. This car works just fine if you only use it in the manner that all reasonable drivers should use it, so the “expert” complaints aren’t legitimate.

If you’re trying to buy a new car, which group would you listen to?

Dungeons & Dragons has been in such a state in recent years. Four years ago, the company that makes it shifted paradigms without a clutch and released a new, incompatible 4th edition with significant — and ultimately unpopular — mechanical and stylistic differences from the then-current version 3.5. A third-party company that had been in the business of making adventures, sourcebooks, and other add-on products for 3.5 took it upon themselves to fashion their own main rulebook to that now-abandoned product line. They called this new rule system Pathfinder, and they claimed their revisions fixed a slew of balance issues that weren’t addressed (or weren’t addressed correctly) when D&D’s owners originally created version 3.5 from 3.0.

I’ve encountered wildly varying opinions of Pathfinder from people who’ve played it. Three or four friends speak well of it. They say they have a blast playing it and that it’s everything its creators make it out to be. On the other hand, I’ve found trenchant and undiplomatic, yet plausible and well-reasoned, criticism of it here, as well as a discussion here of why it’s been so popular and commercially successful despite its design shortcomings and marketing dishonesty. And I can’t get any Pathfinder fan I know to evaluate those arguments rationally. Now, granted, that site is extremely hostile to fanboys, arrogant newcomers, amateurish works, and poor arguments, so it’s understandable that most people won’t enjoy the discussions there, but I’m the only one I know who doesn’t agree a priori with the bulk of its content yet is willing to read it. Predictably, I’m batting zero in personal conversations when it comes to getting either side to address particular opposing claims I want to delve into deeper.

quarrel: (Default)

It is historical fact that you can take a ridiculous and crumbling imperium, with serfs and horse-drawn carts, managed by a tyrannical and squabbling aristocracy, and bootstrap it — in a single generation, while it’s being invaded by an evil and genocidal empire — into a technologically sophisticated global power that can win the Space Race. The people at the top don’t even need to be nice or sane. They just have to understand that economics is an entirely voodoo science and that the limits of production can be broken by thousands of percentage points by getting everyone to buy on credit, work on projects that people looking at the Big Picture tell them to work on, continuously invest in productive capital, and believe in the future.

It’s called “Communism”, and it ends the Dark Ages immediately even when it isn’t run well. Presumably, if it were run by Paladins who radiate actual Goodness and by inhumanly intelligent Wizards who can cast powerful divinations to determine projected needs, and goods could be distributed to the masses with teleportals, Communism would work substantially better. That sort of thing is not beyond the capabilities of your characters in D&D. It’s not even beyond the capabilities of the people in the village your characters are saving from a gnoll invasion. It’s not technically complicated, either. But it isn’t done.

Partly it isn’t done because we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, not Logistics & Dragons. While it is true that you can fix the world’s ills in a much more tangible fashion by industrializing the production of grain and arranging a non-gold-based distribution system such that staple food stuffs are available to all, thereby freeing up potential productive labor for use in blah blah blah... the fact is that to a very real degree we play this game because telling stories about slaying evil necromancers and swinging on chandeliers is awesome. But the other reason is that the society in D&D really isn’t ready for a modern or futuristic social setup. No one is going to understand how they are supposed to interact with Socialism, Capitalism, or Fascism. Things are Feudal, and people understand that. Wealth is exchanged for goods and services on the grounds that people on both sides of the exchange aren’t sure they would win the resulting combat if they tried to take those goods or that wealth by force of arms.

Rome had steam engines — actual difference engines that propelled a metal device with the power of a combustion reaction through the medium of the expansion of heated water. Really. But they never built railroads, because slaves were cheaper than donkeys and the concept of investing in labor-saving devices was preposterous. In D&D, the idea of having an economy based around trust in the government and labor/wealth equivalencies is similarly preposterous. It’s not that the idea wouldn’t work, it’s that every man, woman, and child in society would simply laugh you out of the room if you tried to explain it.

— Frank & K’s Tomes


quarrel: (Default)

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags


RSS Atom