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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  1. I really enjoyed this. So true about the "suggestion" factor. When I present an challenge to my players I don't need a skill or chart to tell me what the outcome is. A dice and imagination are the best judges in telling them if something is successful or not. Dexterity, Strength, Wisdom, Intelligence. It is all on the character sheet and in the imagination.

  2. Great explanation of the OD&D vs AD&D. I started with 1e. Had all of the books too.

  3. Great explanation of the OD&D vs AD&D. I started with 1e. Had all of the books too.

  4. I agree with so much of this, and I miss those early days of actual "roleplaying". Now it's all about "leveling" and getting new "feats" Feats in the old days were actually cool things that the player would come up with and asked the DM if he could try it, a fair DM would consider it, and either allow it or disallow it. AD&D saw the shift of "control" go from the DM to the player. To many times I have played in games where the dynamic was player VS DM instead of a group of people creating a shared story.

  5. As someone who also started in 1974, I appreciate the insights!

  6. Not all of us AD&D guys are slaves to charts and tables..... As Gary put it, I don't let any barracks room lawyer pervert the intent of the campaign and game.

    Tim, I think the most salient point in you post is the issue of trust. The fact is, there were, and still are, a lot people sitting behind the screen that you can't trust. Heaping rules onto the game is one way to mitigate that problem, by straight-jacketing the DM with "fair", "consistent", and "balanced" rules. That works for some, but it doesn't for me. I prefer to just find a better DM.

    Ironically, D&D is a social activity, full of individual and group relationships. Like any social dynamic, there has to be a certain level of trust between the parties involved, or it just isn't a fun situation. Some geeks have trouble with unwritten social contracts and nuance, which leads to lower trust levels. It's good to see that some realized this, and used their time swinging swords to develop interpersonal skills, and more importantly the ability to learn to trust others.

    See you in March.

    1. Agreed! Then again, I would not even play Monopoly with someone I did not trust or like.

    2. I'd only add that sometimes the "straitjacket" is for other players, not the DM.

  7. Tim, I began roleplaying in 2006 with the "3.5" version of the game. When I began to DM, I grew to hate those rules - I felt so straight-jacketed by the system. In 2012 I began learning about earlier editions of the game, and fell in love with OD&D. I feel like I can actually run an enjoyable (for myself as well as my players) fantasy campaign now, and much of what I favor about the original edition is exactly what you've specified here - not least the fact that I'm no longer throwing my back out or tearing the straps off a backpack trying to carry game books around!

  8. I've heard these stories before and always love them, but sadly were so different from my groups experiences (one of the reasons early on I was the DM was because the alternatives were poor). Bitd we welcomed the AD&D rules because frankly most of the local guys running OD&D games were terribly unfair and ran awful games which used the games' lack of rules against the players...a lot of the problem was the local guys running games in the late 70s were wargamers first and had no frame of reference for RPGs so they ran them like bastardized wargames...it wasn't unusual for an entire table to go through a dozen characters each in one session, and the idea of a "campaign" was foreign. Players didn't have to be happy or even having fun as long as the DM was getting his jollies tearing character sheets in half. A lot of us were happy to see the "official" rules in the PHB and DMG, because it meant the DM couldn't screw with you (well, he still could, but you could now point out to him in the rulebook how far off the reservation he was...)

    I wish we could have had a DM we trusted back then because now I enjoy a much more open game and go through many a session without cracking a rulebbok.

    1. The rules can't fix stupid, and the rules can't fix asshole.

  9. I've heard these stories before and always love them, but sadly were so different from my groups experiences (one of the reasons early on I was the DM was because the alternatives were poor). Bitd we welcomed the AD&D rules because frankly most of the local guys running OD&D games were terribly unfair and ran awful games which used the games' lack of rules against the players...a lot of the problem was the local guys running games in the late 70s were wargamers first and had no frame of reference for RPGs so they ran them like bastardized wargames...it wasn't unusual for an entire table to go through a dozen characters each in one session, and the idea of a "campaign" was foreign. Players didn't have to be happy or even having fun as long as the DM was getting his jollies tearing character sheets in half. A lot of us were happy to see the "official" rules in the PHB and DMG, because it meant the DM couldn't screw with you (well, he still could, but you could now point out to him in the rulebook how far off the reservation he was...)

    I wish we could have had a DM we trusted back then because now I enjoy a much more open game and go through many a session without cracking a rulebbok.

  10. I started playing with AD&D and have seen the rule and power creep you mention. However, you can't let yourself get bogged down with the schematics of the charts. I have them at my disposal and use them regularly but I don't let them run the game, that's my job. If I don't like the rate hp is healed with rest I amend it and move on. I will usually allow anything that enhances the story.

  11. I love to hear the thoughts of those who were part of the inner circle back then. I wish I could have been with you in those early games before the LBBs went to print. Although I grew up with OD&D, I find it ever harder to locate local folks who enjoy that style of play. Newer editions have tainted peoples' expectations. But in reading your posts, and the comments, it is nice to see that people of similar views still exist.

    1. Hey Old Guy, do what I do. Stop looking for "gamers" and start asking your other friends to give OD&D a try. I've had great luck getting folks to play that way.

    2. This is good advice. The best gaming groups are formed from people who are already friends. Fishing in the gamer pool has too high a probability of compatibility problems. Especially as time goes by and the gaming community becomes mire and mire fractured.

  12. Tim Kask absolutely is in love with himself.

  13. Thanks for this article. I was an early player, back in the late 70's-80's. I don't remember when the 2nd edition rules came out, but my group pretty much petered out after that. But wow, did we have fun back in the day. Our DM was awesome and encouraged creativity. So we ended up with one guy who always played magicusers coming up with a magic frying pan who's only use was to cook stuff in a cold camp situation where we didn't want fires going, to my cleric pummeling people with frozen turkeys using a create food and water spell. I see all the books out now and am pretty dismayed. I wouldn't know how to get back into playing at this point.

  14. My group started playing in 1975 with the 3LLB and Greyhawk. We treated the AD&D books just like we did the OD&D supplements -- we used what we liked from the AD&D books as they came out -- and ignored what we didn't like. Other groups in my area (South Central Texas) did the same.

  15. Very worthwhile account - and very interesting to get the "inside scoop" on what happened with the transition from OD&D to AD&D. Thank you!

  16. I only started playing D&D with Frank's boxed sets, and since then, the game has been one of my favourite, and still get to play it to this day. However we soon moved to AD&D 2e because of the additional options, but our style of gaming didn't change a lot. Even when I DM D&D 3(.0) these days, my "ethos" is still the one I acquired with Frank's Red Box; guidelines, not rules.
    Thanks for the insights, Tim.

  17. Thanks for sharing. I started playing in the 70s, but 1sted AD&D became the version I played the most. I play it fast and loose nowadays, just using what I want and being more free-form. I'd love to play in your game one day.

  18. This confirms what I have always thought to be the case reading between the lines of the way the various editions of the game are written. I much prefer the "tool kit" aproach of OD&D.

  19. @Randall: pretty much the same in my group. We started in early '76, so we had two summers before the PHB was out. I have really only realized in recent years how much picking and choosing we did out of the AD&D books when we nominally converted our campaign in '79. I'm back to occasionally running OD&D, with a big slice of Greyhawk.

  20. Those times I was able to talk with Gary in person back in the 1990's it was his autism that struck me. The man was playful. He also loved language. Combine the two and you get Epic Gygaxianisms. I can't pretend to be Gary Gygax, so I'm not trying as I work on a new version of Dangerous Journeys and Mythus.

    But the most important thing to remember about Col. Pladoh is, he was out to have fun. That is what D&D was all about, fun. I don't agree with everything he said and did, but the part about having fun I do agree with.

  21. "...they were all males in the beginning... no lady members..."

    I'm sure Judith Goetz, Lee Gold, Hilda Hannifen, Judy Kerestan, June Mofatt, Linda Mosca and Bjo Trimble would love to hear about that :p

    Or what about that Kay Jones chick that called you out on publishing Lakofka's Women & Magic article?

    Laurie Van De Graaf, Karen Scensny and Kathy Wood were all playing D&D before the first Origins

    Hell, Mary Dale may've even played before you!

    1. Psst...he was specifically speaking of the SIUSGS, Sparky. Reading comprehension is a wonderful thing, you should get yourself some.

  22. That's a great blog entry.

    I started out with 2nd Edition AD&D (so after Gary had already been pushed out) and really got into the idea of campaign settings.

    I really liked those campaign settings because I could imagine what it was like to be a person in those fictional worlds. I found this a lot more fun than generic 2e play.

    I don't know how well this compares to OD&D roleplaying, as I've never had the pleasure to be in one of your games Tim, but I like to think that, if I ever got the chance to play in one of your games, I would be more interested in how your world works, than what charts could make my PC beat your NPCs.

    I stopped playing D&D for a while, but got pulled back in by a 3rd Edition D&D game. I was dissatisfied, but that was not so much because of the rules, but because WotC was putting rules above those cool campaign settings that the 2e Era had given us.

    I found some people talking about 3rd Edition conversions of old settings. And although I like 3e's Skills, I like them because I think of them as something that can help me work out what my PC thinks they are good at, rather than as numbers for "beating" the GM.

    And one of my favourite 3e books is the Hero Builders Guidebook, which min-maxers give really bad reviews to, as it is mostly about working out ways to expand the background of a player character and does almost nothing to make PCs statistically better. It's all about the roleplaying.

    One of the best 3e campaign journals I saw (sadly deleted now by WotC) was the Commoner Campaign. The 3e Commoner, was said to be an NPC class and not any use to players (as it was too "weak") but a GM and a player, decided to run a campaign about a commoner and the WotC topic the GM created had dozens of pages and hundreds of fans, wanting to know about the adventures of Joe the Commoner.

    It was truly epic roleplaying...with a low level, low powered character.

  23. Ah, yes, the old "Dungeons & Dragons is too important to leave to Gary Gygax!" letter.

    Gary missed an opportunity there; he should have said "Well, for $20,000,000 it can be yours!"

    I mean, seriously; it was a commercial product, produced by a commercial company, to be sold for a profit. This is beyond "hubris" and into "pants-shittingly stupid."

  24. I created an old school document for 5e (now on DMsguild)which tries to present this idea as everything is merely an option or guide line rather than a set rule.

    In fact, it was a representation of OD&D in 5e that are my own personal houserules for my home campaign which I utilize the most in that. It's basically my own set of houserules (which most had in OD&D) in regards to OD&D. As such, if you have the original booklets, you can see the direct correlation to almost everything in the bit I put in about the original game.

    I also included recreations for BX and Advanced, but it is the OD&D (under the pseudonym of basic) rules which I use the most out of that document.

    I prefer the Old School way of doing things, where you really don't have to worry about rules lawyers, or power gamers or super high levels, it's about the world, the game, the characters, and the players.

    I think it's something to gaming world has gotten too far away from. Even 5e has a focus on skills, super high levels (each of their modules except one goes up to 15th level and you engage in deities and super immortal creatures at high level) rather than the days and life of an adventurer.

    I prefer play with a simpler and easier style (I still use the three booklets, normally with Greyhawk...very rarely with Blackmoor. Can't say I've ever used the other supplements), even when I play with AD&D or BX it is normally with a faster and easier style of OD&D.

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  26. What a disappointing read. I thought I was going to get an in-depth look at the transition from "OD&D" to AD&D, but instead, I get the equivalent of an old man's rant at "kids these days".

  27. Low Fantasy Gaming RPG has re-adopted the roll "equal or under" attribute system for most actions - it makes improv a bunch easier. I did not know that this was the original way folks played - very enlightening, thank you :D

  28. Tim -

    Just read this, linked from FB page.

    Thank you. I have been trying to write some rules for my campaign and realized that i run rules light - and my players love it.

    Roll vs. stat works. If simple, 1d20, if hard, 2d20. If nearly impossible, roll d100.

    You saved me a lot of writing. Thanks again.


  29. I have really enjoyed reading this Tim! Little did I know that at 12 years old in 1982 we were playing more correctly old school because we didn't fully comprehend the AD&D rules and would wing much of it. It definitely was more fast, loose, and exciting before we grasped the AD&D rules and applied them. Still fun, but in a different way.

    Side note, I find it so ironic that Gary didn't like magic-users much, yet his own Mordenkainen because his most famous character.

  30. Thanks Tim, this is a great perspective. I played my first game of OD&D in 2012 at the age of 29, and I think that much like classic boardgames (Monopoly, Sorry, etc.), the original ruleset should still be published and sold on store shelves today. It was distinct, distilled, and was more a set of tools than it was a set of rules. I still find it hard to believe modern RPGs lost focus of what made OD&D so fun. I guess it's not surprising since so few RPG authors have ever played using the LBBs.