Great Khan Enthroned

Great Khan Enthroned

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Pair of Meditations on OD&D

I have been thinking a lot about the game, as it is played now, even by us OSR types, versus how it was played at the beginning. This led me down a couple of similar, related paths regarding the origin of the game and the expectations of it's players.

These days D&D, and RPGs in general, have evolved into two distinct categories. I do not claim that one style of play is superior to the other, I merely observe that there are two camps. They are not mutually exclusive of each other either, though groups tend to fall with a majority of players in one of the two camps and rules systems have developed to play to the advantages of both styles. I also do not claim that the camps are opposed to one another, they simply are.

The first category of RPG takes the RP part and expands upon it, to the near exclusivity of the other parts of the game, essentially making the experience a directed improvisational theater performance. Some D&D players do this, most everyone in the “Storyteller” type games is doing this. I have found this type of game to be generally too abstract and often too linear. I like to make the story for myself, reacting to the world around me, even as it reacts to my actions; I don't like to be locked into a pre-plotted narrative.

The second group embraces the G, and become somewhat gamist about it; meta-gaming and rules mastery are rewarded, most people playing 3.x D&D, Pathfinder, or 4th edition D&D seem to fall into this camp in my experience, which is, admittedly, small. Games that emphasize tactics and have detailed rules systems kind of encourage this, I found this style of play to be too simulationist for my tastes.

So I sat down and read a bunch of blogs about OSR gaming. I read through a couple of different iterations of the D&D rules from the early days, and their modern clones and variants. When I was done doing that I thought about it for a while.

On Player Characters-

D&D started out as a cooperative skirmish scale wargame. Players, at least beginning players, were encouraged to play only one “unit” in this game. One unit being a single individual, the character. Wargamers tend to begin to identify with certain units, or at least they think of certain units with regard for the memories of what those units have done in past games. When there is a campaign game, and units can gain experience, moving up from green, to veteran or even elite status, they care even more. Since early D&D, and presumably the “Braunstein” games that preceded it, adopted this experience system, and the players were identified solely with their single unit, those units developed a life and personality of their own. The game could be played with miniatures, and I am certain it was, in the beginning. That's how I played it when I started out. However, and this is important, it could also be played “theater of the mind” style, with out miniature figures, without a board or table. This opens up a lot of possibilities, you don't need as much space to play, and you don't need to have the “right” unit (miniatures wargamers tend to hate substituting in the “wrong” miniature), to name just two, off the top of my head.

My point here is that the single unit that you play in this cooperative skirmish game, becomes something you get attached to more and more over time, with repeated successes, or at least escaping death. Your character's stats may be written on a 3x5 card, but he ultimately becomes more than the card he's written on. He doesn't start that way though. Gygax is famously quoted as having said “Backstory is what happens in the first three levels”*. Generally as your character gets more experienced he starts to acquire retainers and hirelings, sub-characters whose job is to assist in the success of whatever “mission” the party is on and to help keep the primary character alive**. The player character becomes a “squad leader” as the game scales up, and it generally becomes expected that the trusted, experienced henchmen will become player characters in their own right over time, usually at the death or retirement of the primary PC; and all of this was necessary because PCs never reached the power levels that are common now.

I came to wargames and D&D at the same time- I played my first hex-and-counter wargame one week to the day before I played D&D for the first time. I had no preconceptions of how either type of game “should” be played, so I approached both of them from what my previous board game experiences had taught me, and, in the case of D&D, just what being a kid with a good imagination taught me. The lack of a board was slightly confounding, but I got that my single character was my “piece” or token for the game, and that, if I died, it was game over (a term I was just beginning to see in the nascent video game industry). The more difficult part to wrap my head around was the “play acting” part, that took time.

My original D&D crew also had to be slowly coaxed into having hirelings, and never really took to henchmen at all. I suppose AD&D taught us to regard them as experience point leeches. We did start to really give personality and individuality to our characters though, eventually, as they were played more and leveled up some. I guess we were more or less on point with regard to how the elders of the game had originally played there at least.

So, to sum it up. I think it's possible that we are placing too much emphasis on our player characters, making them too individual, with their own backstories and personalities too soon, jumping the gun trying to make all of our characters special snowflakes right out of the gate, where in the earliest days of the hobby that wasn't really a thing. Both schools of thought in modern gaming seem to have lost sight of what was just obvious in the beginning, for different reasons.

On Alignment-

My second thought was about alignment, which has been popping up here and there across a bunch of blogs, but I never would have understood in it's originally conceived form, if I had not thought about D&D as a wargame. Simply put, alignment has no real morality to it in it's original conception, it's just the faction or “team” your character plays for. Lawful versus Chaotic (Law vs. Chaos), with some neutral parties that could go either way, or they might form their own team and fight against both sides. This “which team does my unit belong to” alignment system makes a great deal of sense when coming at this from a wargaming point of view.

Admittedly, there was some moral component creeping in even at the start (or at least near the start).
This is the alignment chart from the Holmes Basic set, which I think we can all agree is closer to OD&D than it is to either AD&D or B/X.

The moral component, or Good-Evil Axis only really comes into it's own with AD&D, where each of the nine alignments in the spectrum have distinct definitions. Few aspects of the D&D game have brought about more rancor and disharmony than the expansion of the “team” alignment system into the “morality spectrum” alignment system, and we lose an important part of what alignment meant back at the beginning. Holmes Basic was my first D&D, followed quickly by the X half of B/X and AD&D, pretty much concurrent with each other, so my entire concept of alignment was the AD&D style, until now. Now I like the “team” alignment system present in OD&D, that apparently continued, with a slight hiccup in Holmes, through the entire TSR D&D line.

To conclude I want to state that I wasn't looking to declare any one play style superior to the others, but instead to discover for myself what we do differently than the creators of the hobby did. Going back and reading through OD&D, skimming through Chainmail, and reading through S&W White Box and Delving Deeper, but from a wargamers perspective was an interesting exercise. The expectation of what the play experience was going to be is somewhat different than it is now. Regardless of whether the game is more story oriented or more simulationist, new games spend a vast amount of time in character creation, which means that high mortality rates are extremely undesirable. Contrast this with the five or so minutes of character creation in OD&D and it's simulacra, and the concept that the character is just a playing piece and the high mortality rate is no big deal, but you really start to feel it when they have some time invested in them later on.

I don't think any of this is ground-breaking news, simply stuff that I was unaware of. I may be wrong about the whole thing, this is just what I got from trying to see things from a different perspective as I read through these early D&D books and their more recent restatements. I had a similar epiphany the last time I did this, after I had read a series of blog posts about the post-apocalyptic assumed setting of OD&D with regard to setting and encounter design, and embracing randomness.

* Or five maybe? It's possible he never said it at all, but that doesn't make it a bad sentiment.

** I suppose that makes Charisma seem less like a dump stat, it affects how many retainers you can have and whether or not they stick around; which is important in the “squad leader” phase of the game.