What Classic D&D gets right

Oh my. This has been a very difficult post to write. Partly that’s because it’s my humble opinion that Classic D&D gets pretty much everything right, but also because I’ve already written a whole weeks worth of posts about what’s so great about the D&D Cyclopedia, and I don’t want to re-write it all over again. I suggest you go read that series then come back.

I’ll wait.

Done? That’s character generation, the Known World, the cosmology, combat and the mass combat system covered, all of which Classic D&D gets right. I’m not going to repeat myself, so what else is there?

This IS D&D

The original Dungeons & Dragons game (from the White Box to its final Rules Cyclopedia incarnation) is the game which later editions (and countless other rpg publishers) have tried to emulate with varying degrees of success. It’s not just D&D done right, it’s D&D, done. We have dungeon crawls, wilderness adventures, treasure, intrigue, random encounters, building strongholds, forging empires and fighting huge battles on the field of glory.

What makes D&D what it is, is here. The core classes (Fighter, Cleric, Thief and Magic-User) and races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling), Hit Points, Armour Class, to hit rolls and damage, STR, INT, WIS, DEX, CON, CHA, Swords +1 and Potions of Healing, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Dragons, Beholders, Skeletons and Mind Flayers…. the list goes on. What Classic D&D gets right, every subsequent Edition of D&D has inherited and adopted. This is the foundation on which the whole game is built, and the importance and significance of Classic D&D cannot be ignored.

Modular hackability

Classic D&D isn’t the simplistic system for kiddies it’s occasionally made out to be. Not if you don’t want it to be. There’s a skill and weapon mastery system every bit as complex and detailed as any that later editions have presented – if you want to use it, of course. And that’s the joy of Classic D&D. There’s optional rules for the things that should be optional, and a solid core that just begs to be hacked around. This is a game for playing with, rather than playing at, and that’s a fundamental difference between it and, say, Fourth Edition D&D. Create new rules and monsters for 4e and suddenly you’re a game designer. With Classic D&D you’re just another GM preparing for the night’s game, or inventing stuff on your feet in the middle of the session.

If AD&D is a model Spitfire, Classic D&D is a Lego set. Make your own damned Spitfire, then take it apart and make something else if you want. This is pre-Internet D&D where it really doesn’t matter if different groups use different rules for turning undead, character generation or rolling initiative. Heck, it still shouldn’t matter today. All that should matter is that we’re having fun, right?

36 levels

AD&D and Third Edition had twenty. Fourth Edition has thirty but Classic D&D tops them all with thirty-six whole levels of gamery goodness. And that’s just for starters because the  Wrath of the Immortals boxed set adds another thirty-six levels of Godhood Immortality meaning your character could rise a whole seventy frickin’ two levels in Classic D&D. You’d need about three real-world lifetimes to manage it, but no edition of D&D comes close to offering you so much game play. Booyah.

It all begins at 1st level where your character is nothing more than a farmboy with big ideas and his father’s rusty sword strapped to his waist. Classic D&D has often been criticised because 1st level PCs have very few hit points, but that’s because too many gamers don’t understand the history of the game. D&D is born from a wargame history where one hit meant one kill. Your average foot-soldier, in other words, had 1 hit point (in 4e D&D terms, a Minion). There was no damage roll. If you’re hit, you’re dead. Simple as that.

Heroes were made of far superior stuff, and could survive multiple hits. Heck, even a lowly 1st level Magic-User with 1d4 hit points could potentially have 4 times the number of hit points of a common man. “Hit Points” literally meant “how many times you can be hit”.

Then somewhere along the line someone invented Weapon Damage rules where weapons did more that 1 point of damage (first 1d6, then variable depending on weapon type). We’ve been trying to fix that problem ever since. I look forward to seeing how the Next Edition of D&D approaches this historical anomaly.

But back to the Levels. With so many levels to play with, it’s easy to shift the goalposts if you prefer your heroes to have a higher chance of survival at the start of your game. Begin at 4th level and Classic D&D feels more akin to Third Edition in tone. Bump it up to 6th level and your heroes are comparable to those in Fourth Edition D&D. I guess it’s no accident that still leaves 30 levels to play.

There’s more, of course. Oh gods, much more. There’s the Voyage of the Princess Ark series from Dragon magazine which featured flying ships, knights, Tortles and (among many other things) a Western setting complete with gunslingers, the Orcs of Thar and other Known World supplements which have yet to be beaten in terms of sheer quality of writing and imagination. There’s monsters still only found in Classic D&D (I’ll leave those to discover yourself) and the Hollow World to travel to and explore. And I’ve still only scratched the surface.

Classic D&D (in particular the Rules Cyclopedia) is, and will always be, what Dungeons & Dragons means to me. It’s everything those two words and funny squiggly symbol in the middle represent.

It is, quite simply, D&D, done right.

I thank you.

6 Comments on “What Classic D&D gets right”

  1. My sincere hope for DnDnext is that it returns to the modularity of the original that you write of in this article. I hope they pull it off really well.

  2. I like the retro-clone of it called Dark Dungeons. It basically IS Rules Cyclopedia D&D but with most of the problems and contradictions filed down.

  3. I have to second he hope that 5e brings back some of the modularity. Greywulf already demonstrated that 6 is 4 is 1, and Zack S has a great couple of posts showing how different rule styles can live together. Someone else (might have been jrients) had a post describing how they ran a game with 5 players each using different rules, and the DM using his own rule set and for the most part it worked out fine. It’s clear with the right modularity, 5e could bring everything together and advance the game at the same time.

    1. Dark Dungeons (and its Darker and Darkest cousins) are terrific systems, especially considering that the D&D rules Cyclopedia itself is no longer legally available either as a PDF or in print. That’s a crying shame, but WoTC’s loss is Gratis Games’ gain :)

      1. Well, not really, since Gratis Games isn’t making Dollar One off it. It’s totally free. Even the print versions are sold at-cost. This is totally a hobby labor-of-love thing for Blacky the Blackball.
        But I agree, they are awesome. I wish I had a group to play them with. I’d probably use Dark Dungeons, but with the Druid and Mountebank classes from Darker Dungeons.

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