D And D And Me

Over on Critical Hits, Dave has posted up his view of what D&D means to him, and it’s all good. Rather than derail his comments any further, and come across as an even more grumpy anti-4th Edition git than I have already, I thought it’s worth putting down a word or two about what D&D means to me.

I first played D&D way back in 1978. Even though this new-fangled thing called AD&D have been released a year earlier, this was straight D&D Basic, and we loved it. But I’m getting ahead myself here. My first ever role-playing experience was Traveller, in 1977. The sheer lethality of combat and awesome mini-game that was (and still is) Traveller character generation framed my expectations for D&D, and we found it a very different beast indeed.

For a start, character generation in Classic D&D is perfunctory at best; rolling up a new character takes around 5 minutes, with the implicit expectation that you’re going to be doing it several times before you find a character lucky enough to survive a few combats. I think we notched up about 15 character deaths in the first few sessions. Given that we were all supposed to come from a tiny hamlet with a population of about 30 souls, that was quite a head count!

Despite it’s (literally) hit-or-miss lethality, D&D for us was all about charging headlong into combat and damn the consequences. This differed from our Traveller sessions where “combat” mainly consisted of hiding and waiting for the shooting to stop :) We’d invested time, care and effort into those characters for Traveller, and didn’t want them to get hurt, whereas our 5 minute D&D dudes just didn’t share the same emotional baggage – at least, not from the start. As the characters developed through play, we grew to take more care of them, until by around 3rd level a character death would truly be a moment of mourning for all.

It’s probably worth mentioning that levels in Classic D&D are a very different thing to levels in 3rd Edition. It took a lot longer to increase in level, meaning that it was a serious cause for celebration when it happened. For comparison, as the per D&D Rules Cyclopedia (my nearest copy of Classic D&D to hand), a Fighter would need a total of 32,000 experience points to reach 6th level. In contrast, under 3rd Edition they would need a “mere” 15,000 – but that’s not all! Monsters were worth far fewer XP too. Killing an Orc at 1st level under 3e merits a 150xp reward (split among the party). That same Orc in Classic D&D would be worth only 10xp – that’s a fifteenfold increase as the game has evolved! Even going from 1st to 2nd level in Classic D&D meant you needed a couple of adventures under your belt. In 3e, it’s just 13 kills (1,000/(300/4). Do the math.).

One key difference was that players gained XP from treasure as well as monsters; this made as little sense back then as it does now, but it opened up the entire game to the idea of “combatless” adventures. For a while we ran a series of Sinbad-style adventurers where the players used cunning, magic and stealth to break into steal from the wealthy merchants around the city. What combats there were involved the characters being discovered by the guards and being forced to stage fighting retreats with minimal injury on both sides. Good times.

This is the D&D I love the most where the PCs are Heroes beating the odds through cunning, guile, luck and teamwork. It’s Epic (as in Play,not in Level) D&D where a single character would face off against an Ogre to save his party. Unlike 3rd Edition, Classic D&D wasn’t an exercise in statistical balance where each encounter was nothing more than a dance of probabilities. Classic D&D doesn’t give a flying hoot about balanced encounters, sterilised classes that have been designed by committee to be genetically equal, or any of that other claptrap. It’s about providing the rules so we can play and have fun; it’s up to the GM and the players to find their own sweet spots because The Rules Trust Us To Do That. Sure, some encounters might be too hard (or too easy), but it was up to the DM to set the challenges; the rules made no assumptions about how many players there were or their equipment levels. This is hairy Chested D&D without the baby chains. And I love it.

Sure, parts of Classic D&D are illogical, but we managed to rationale them all away. Casting Spells involved long and complex incantations that the Magic-User chanted in advance, voicing only the final syllable to actually “cast” the spell. That was Spell Memorization sorted. We renamed the Character Classes as “Castes” and came up with the idea of Clerics overseering a Casting Ceremony similar to a Christening or Bar Mitzvah (it varies from culture to culture) that identified the child’s Caste. The poor couldn’t generally afford such ceremonies, hence the existence of Commoners, Warriors and the like, and entire Royal Dynasties would hinge on the Caste of the next in line to the throne. The other races (Dwarf, Elf and Halfling) just scratched their heads at the strange habits of Humans. A Dwarf was just a Dwarf, and an Elf an Elf. We ran scenarios based around the idea of a Nobleman hiding the “disgraced” Casting of his son as a Thief, and Evil Clerics who sowed discord by purposefully Miscasting children of the rich and powerful.

While Classic D&D suited our style of play, we kept toying with AD&D. I still own a copy of 2nd Edition AD&D, and occassionally crack them open, read a few pages then close them with a shudder. I know some people love playing the game, but I could never get my head around so many inconsistent rules. It felt like a role-playing game designed by committee, and I see too many echoes of it in the development of 4th Edition. While Classic D&D was simple and elegant (it it’s own funky way), AD&D was a nightmare of twisted ideas, half-conceived concepts and illogical leaps of rules fakery. Which is a crying shame, because the Time of AD&D was also the age when D&D was at it’s most creatively brilliant. We had campaign settings by the bucket load, terrific adventures and the now legendary Three-Ring Binder Monstrous Compendiums. I’ve still got those, and used them regularly with Classic D&D to toss strange and varied beasties at the players.

Our default setting for our D&D games was the Known World, which was renamed to Mystara (ick) then killed off completely during the Last Days of TSR. As a default setting, the Known World in it’s Classic D&D incarnation is a worlk of brilliance, and I still rate it as one of the best generic fantasy world settings ever made. It contained not one, but two different Magocracies, a Romanesque expansionist Empire, Norsemen, a developing rural susperstitious nation and much, much more, all in tantalising hex maps. and it is Hollow. I mean, cool, or what………………???!!!!

It provided a context to place your games, with more than enough wiggle room to be able to make it your own, with the full expectation that at 9th level the players would be able to claim an entire Hex for themselves and put their name onto the map they’ve poured over for many a year. My own players made it up to the heady heights of 13th level (-ish) and took to the responsibilties of running (and defending) their own domain with relish. Classic D&D (and especially the Rules Cyclopedia) just kept right on delivering fun, giving us everything we needed to make our own role-playing experiences.

Then came 3rd Edition.

After a few exciting playtest sessions, we decided to leave Classic D&D behind and completely shift over to 3e D&D. We were that impressed, especially after our dislike of AD&D. The system felt so much cleaner, more consistent and downright fun than AD&D. While the emphasis on miniatures use didn’t suit us, it was easy enough to ignore them and just play the game. So we did.

And the campaign died. Badly. Looking back, I think the problem was that we’d tried to make 3e D&D work like Classic D&D, and it doesn’t. There’s no way you can toss 30 orcs into the same room with the PCs and expect to be able to run the combat as fluidly as you could in Classic D&D; there’s so many rules options, choices,conditions and maneuvres that you’re heading for Total GM Meltdown. In Classic D&D we’ve played battles involving thousands of combatants (using the excellent War Machine rules from the Cyclopedia), and could run direct combat involving up to 40 characters on each side without much trouble with each player handling 7 or 8 characters each. In 3e D&D, the players struggled with more than one character, and the most Monsters a 3e D&D GM can run without breaking a sweat is about 8. We’d gone from Big Epic Battles to Small Skirmish with one change of rule system. Add that to the change from a system where the players felt they could do anything to one where it feels like the player’s options are limited to what’s on their character sheet, and we can see why it failed.

That’s not to say we dislike 3e; far from it. It just took us a while to realize that, while it’s still D&D, it’s not the same D&D we’d grown up with where an Orc was worth 10xp. Of course, there’s things about 3e I really don’t like. I still don’t see what Challenge Ratings do to improve the game; Hit Dice serve the same purpose. In Classic D&D, special abilities merited a star, so earned you extra XP, and…that was it. Simple, clean, and easily understood. Now we have CR to calculate based on the number of monsters, a table to cross-reference against player level then divide my the number of toes on your left foot, and……. Seriously, calculating XP has gone from being a doddle (the XP award is right there, at the bottom of the monster’s stat block!) to being some arcane Math test. Progress, it ain’t.

As I’ve said before though, there’s not a lot wrong with 3rd Edition overall – certainly nothing that couldn’t be fixed without a complete re-write of the rules. As a game it’s less wildly imaginitive as it’s predesesors – no mass battles, Strongholds or Giant Space Hamsters here! – but it’s a solid, workable rule set that’s fun to play.

Then, we have 4th Edition.But that, my friends, is a whole nuther blogpost for another day……..

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