Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How I helped to pull the rope that tolled the bell for OD&D

Everything printed after the original three little booklets having to do with OD&D (the game as it was played before the publishing of AD&D) was about suggestions, not rules. One of the founding tenets of D&D as it was played in its formative years of ’74 to ’77 was about rulings, not rules. Another was that it was expected that Dungeon Masters (DM’s) would mine for ideas wherever we could find them: books, fairy tales, movies, old comics, the pulps--all were fair game for ideas upon which to build an adventure or campaign.

OD&D (what the original, first version has come to be called) was simple, as in rules light, certainly not simple to understand in reading the three. (Often the term “Old School” (OS) and “OD&D” are used more or less interchangeably.) Every DM sculpted his campaign as he (they were all males in the beginning) saw fit. DM’s in those heady, halcyon days when everything was new and wonderful were direct descendants of our Neolithic ancestors who threw sheep shoulder bones into the fire and read the cracks. We “read” something just as exotic—platonic solids made of pretty colored plastic and covered with numbers. (The original d20’s  had no “-teens”, just 0-9 twice. We rolled a d6 alongside to add 10 or not.) There were no Jump Across a Chasm charts; we had Dexterity (Dex) and Strength (Str) we could factor in to determine the chance of a Player Character (PC) making it. Folks with high Dex stood a better chance of jumping the chasm through which a raging torrent flows; they rolled a d20, the DM rolled a d20 and the DM made a ruling. Was it arbitrary? Mostly not. I treated dice like Nordic runestones; rolling high numbers was good; rolling 4 or less often meant it did not work out so well—everything in between was where we read the cracks in the sheep shoulders (and most of the time I paid no attention whatsoever to the die I rolled). Oftentimes, just “rolling under your Dex” was all it took.

We all as DM’s created our own worlds in which things worked in certain ways. Don’t like psionics? Fine, they don’t exist in your world. Think that vampires as presented are too tough or not tough enough? OK, make them fit your world. Think something ought to work a certain way, or not work a certain way? No problem, they worked the way you felt “right” in your world.

When I took the first set of rules to the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale’s Strategic Game Society (The SIUSGS) in the autumn of ’74 shortly after the GenCon I attended that summer, a few of the guys (no lady members, back then as all we played were boardgames and miniatures (minis)) asked to see them, just to look at them. They were flustered and could make little sense of them just casually scanning; it did not seem to bother anyone in the slightest that only I “knew the rules”. We played 6 or 7 times a month for at least six months before any of the dozen or so players felt like buying a set of their own. It was two months before anyone else bought dice. The point? You did not need a bookbag full of books to play Old School. You did not have to familiarize yourself with dozens of charts and tables to be able to play. All you needed was dice, pencil and paper and imagination. We had no minis in the beginning; we used dice to teach ourselves mental spatial reference skills. “Greg, you’re blue; Tom, you’re green and the orcs are red”. To this day I prefer an OS type of melee, where it is flowing and fast and one-on-ones only happen later in subsequent rounds; you might be fighting three goblins but have hit each one only once so far… .

By now most everyone knows that TSR published the G Series of modules to serve as a common framework for convention games and tournaments (which were, in and of themselves, a perversion of the game’s ethos). We had to standardize play and grade behavior against a rubric.
The untold story up to this point is why we published the Supplements. I will give you my perspective:

Greyhawk (GH) was the only “true” supplement in that it contained the Alt Combat system and a few other things that simply could not be squeezed into the three original little brown-boxed booklets referred to often as the 3LBB’s—the three little brown books. It was truly supplementary material to flesh out the game. At first it was thought that miniatures gamers (the original target audience) would be more comfortable with the standard weapon damage. At some point someone had a “What were we thinking?” moment and admitted that minis players were already inveterate tinkerers , and Damage by Weapon Type was born.

As GH was named after Gary’ campaign, it was widely perceived as “Gary’s supplement”. Wishing to be fair, TSR told Dave that he could have a supplement also, and refine and tinker with the overall system should he wish to. This became Blackmoor, the second supplement, so named for his seminal campaign. As he stated frequently before his death, Dave was not very happy about “his supplement”. (The reasons behind that have all been dealt with at length in other venues. I go into a chunk of all that on the thread I have on Dragonsfoot.org.) In it we introduced new ideas and suggestions for building a temple and cult around it and making it a focus in a campaign as an example for others to mimic; remember that “borrowing” was encouraged. We showed players ways to go underwater and adventure. We were literally trying to open minds to possibilities. It was the last true supplement; the following books were horses of different colors.

Gary had very distinct ideas on how he thought his game should be played. One quirk? He found it intellectually incomprehensible why anyone would wish to play anything but a human Player Character (PC). He found the idea of “half-breeds” to be repugnant, and not just half-orcs, either. He simply could not wrap his head around it at first. However, he knew there were some battles he could win and some not worth fighting, especially if they drove sales. There were other challenges to the game, which brings me to the subject of hubris.

Dictionary.com defines hubris thusly; “…excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.” We had a little pride, but a lot more arrogance, now that I look back on it. We absolutely felt that we “knew” the way the game “should be played”. We fought off the waves of sexual weirdos on the East Coast with their fascination with Girdles of Sex Changing and more; no Moms were going to let their kids play that stuff. We outlasted the hordes clamoring for Spell Points, the most unbalancing feature at the time that would have had wizards ruling the worlds. (Another of Gary’s quirks was that he really did not like wizards and that human fighters should be the heroes of the campaign.) We persevered against the adherents of critical hits and hit locations; didn’t they realize that fighting a really bad guy with something like a Vorpal Sword was going to cost them limbs causing them to bleed out? We preserved the original abstract concept of hit points. We felt that these challenges to the game, as well as many others too numerous or petty or insignificant now to name, needed to be quashed so that the game remained true to Gary and Dave’s vision.

At one point a bunch of would-be “improvers” flat-out told us we did not know what we were doing and should let the game out into the world, giving up all rights. Now that was arrogance.
We shaped and guided the evolution of the game with the supplements.  When magic began to proliferate, we saw a way to shape it and expand it in an “approved”’ fashion with new spells and artifacts. We also addressed an area of imbalance overlooked for some time; monsters with psionic powers like Mindflayers were too horrible even in a fantasy game as they wielded an unstoppable weapon. So we came out with a psionics system that was grotesquely misunderstood and misused from its very publication. (As the author of a great deal of it I acknowledge that it could have been done better and explained more clearly—hindsight.) This was Eldritch Wizardry. These were always presented as suggestions and ideas, never rules. It said so in every Foreword I wrote, but we also hoped that our “gentle nudging” would steer the game back.

Time passed and the game continued to grow as well as expand in unexpected directions. Level-creep--PC’s at high Levels that were never considered, let alone allowed for, began to proliferate. In the early years PC’s “retired” at Lvl 9 or 10 and a new PC started; this level-creep was eating up the game. We were getting pleas for help from DM’s and players alike.

The tipping point came one day in a letter I had to open  that day that spurred a supplement almost that very  week. (I must have “had the duty” that day; we took turns opening and reading mail to TSR.) In this powerful thought provoker, a bewildered DM wrote the following, more or less (I will paraphrase a bit): 

“Dear TSR, I don’t know where to go with my campaign next. Last session, my players went to Valhalla. They killed Loki, all the Valar, a dozen Valkyries, Thor and Odin and destroyed the Bifrost Bridge. “ 

I read this aloud to Gary and Brian; when we picked ourselves up off the floor or regained our senses, as the case may have been, ( I swear to you that this is true) we knew level-creep had gone too far. That week saw the impetus for one more supplement gather enough steam that I set out to edit the last of the RPG-oriented supplements, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. This was the closest to a rule book that we came; we felt that PC’s should not be powerful enough to knock off gods. So we gave them really high amounts of HP: Odin 300, Thor 275. We charted out character levels undreamed of in the original game.

One other crucial point to consider about the supplements is that they produced money on a regular basis and helped the company grow. They were predictably reliable cash cows.

Earlier I mentioned that we ran a lot of tournaments at game conventions. They were huge moneymakers for us, particularly at GenCon where we got all the admission and event fees. Even with modules, we were still finding it nearly impossible to find a large enough pool of DM’s that thought enough like us to feel completely comfortable. It also came to pass that various lawsuits came to be filed at this time that caused a desire to create a new brand. TSR came to the conclusion that it was time to actually codify D&D; thus was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons born, and the death knell of the loosey-goosey, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants OS style of play. There were so many things we did not see coming, the most reprehensible of which is the rules-lawyer.

I have told the story elsewhere: Gary and I spent a week in his office at the end of which the general outline of Basic D&D and AD&D had been laid down. Basic was toned down for younger players and made simpler to understand for easing them into it. AD&D was a tarted-up, codified version of OD&D that would now compel everyone to play the same. Worse, it was now a whole hell of a lot less engaging to the imagination; everything could be found on a chart or table. OS, or OD&D if you will, is more mentally engaging and more challenging than all the subsequent editions, not less. It is also tons simpler to play.

The sequencing of the releases of those first three hardbounds was a masterpiece of marketing. We knew everyone would have to have the whole set and released them in an order sure to sell them all well, and it did. And it killed the OS style of play for a great portion of then-current players; new players only saw AD&D.

So why do I continue to play OD&D when I mid-wifed AD&D? Because it is all the things 1st Edition AD&D (1E) is not. It is not slaved to charts and tables, although it has some. It is not arguable; it works that way on my world because I say so. It is about gathering information, not relying on Skills and Abilities to do the work for you. It is about playing well, having fun and living to fight another day.

I see a dearth of those skills and abilities in newer versions. I think that in some ways OS required a higher caliber player as well as requiring trust at the table; I see the art of running a great table being less respected (and practiced). I actually had a young man in a game at GaryCon tell me I was doing it wrong one time and that I was not being fair; the table stared in open-mouthed amazement all the while. I told him that I was sorry he wasn’t having any fun and that he was free to leave the game; he did not ask for a refund, although I am sure I could have gotten him one.

Old School-style was more difficult and much more nuanced than what later editions engendered. It required more roleplaying, it required asking lots of questions; thus was “the caller” born. The term “the caller” surely had many other synonyms, but it was a vital role in early role-playing. When the entire party started to ask questions for one reason or another, the DM could be overcome by the cacophony. The caller had to be able to sort through his compatriot’s babble and then turn around to the DM with a coherent set of questions, as well as making sure that all his party was heard; sometimes the player that hardly ever opened his mouth had a spectacular insight. Contrary to what you might be thinking, the caller was not always the “dynamic leader-type” that every group seemed to produce that made decisions or swayed the decisions through force of will. But that role was one hell of a character builder. Ofttimes, the caller was the one that led the party in exploring.

Another salient point to keep in mind is that we gamers then (yes, I count myself in that group) were not all possessed of the greatest set of social tools and skills, not all of us, anyway. (I was an exception in that I had been four years in the Navy during Nam, been an NCO, l was married and had a child while going to college; also four years is a lot of time in which to mature.) Lots of players “found their voices” playing RPG’s, gaining self confidence and self assurance. I am not making this up; one of the more common themes I hear at cons is how playing RPG’s (particularly D&D) brought people out of their shell and into a social world.

The caller’s day is done; charts and tables and skills and abilities have all superseded that role; thinking creatively has been stifled; if it isn’t on a chart or table, it can’t be done. In one of my games at GaryCon one time, I had a dwarf PC kill two huge polar bears single-handed. That was not on any chart, but in OS, it could happen. It’s all fantasy, after all.

I guess what I have been leading up to is not another Edition War salvo, but simply this; OS/OD&D involved more roleplaying, not less, and more thought and consideration and just plain thinking. OS may be simpler, but in no way is it easier.

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