Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If D&D Aint d20 Then What Is It?

Not sure that title looks right all capitalized, but the normal convention didn't look right either--so what the hey.

In my last post I was pretty vocal about why d20 is NOT the actual D&D system initially created. Not that d20 is bad--it has lots to reccomend it. But it isn't the system as initially designed. So exactly what mechanics do I see as the original D&D system?

To answer this question I refer again to the actual incarnations of the game up to an including 2e. What we look for are things that change within the system and things that don't. I'm going to list the things that don't change under the column "definitely D&D" and those that have as flexible within the system.

Definitely D&D
  • Classes--Centered around the archetypal four of Fighter, Magic User, Cleric and Thief
  • Races--Centered around Human, Elf, Dwarf & Halfling
  • Non-Human Racial limits
  • Hit Points--determined randomly by die roll
  • AC--descending from 10 to -10
  • Attributes--Core of 6 determined randomly from a 3d6 base and a range of 3-25
  • Abstract Combat--based on class specific tables and a d20 roll
  • Saving Throws--divided by type of danger presented and based on class specific tables and a d20 roll
  • Alignment--Based on Law / Neutrality / Chaos & possibly Good / Evil axes
  • Vancian magic--fire and forget
Concepts Open To Change
  • Addition to numbers and types of classes
  • Addition to numbers and types of races
  • Extent of non-human racial limits
  • Die used for determining hit points
  • The way to randomly generate attributes, as long as no more than 3d6 is counted for the final score
  • The point buy system was introduced in 2e Player's Options book and never really caught on either
  • The addition of Comeliness never caught on permanently, so extension to number or types of abilities is out
  • Addition of combat complexity ie--different initiative die, criticals, fumbles, hit location, maneuvers, weapon speed, armor modifiers, specialization, and other bonuses and modifiers to combat
  • Addition of background development tables
  • Addition of weapon and nonweapon profficiencies
  • Addition of cantrip type spells, magic schools and the like
But you know what, as I try and compile this list something very important comes to me. The initial D&D is something more than just a set of mechanics. 0e, or  the original Dungeons & Dragons is much more about creating your own game. About changing the rules to play the way you want them to. Should we really say that a game that uses Minotaurs as the predominant race is "not D&D"? Back in the day I don't think the designers would have agreed that it was "not D&D". But maybe that's just me.

Then Gary built onto the original system with AD&D, and though he kept many of the core concepts mentioned above as "Definitely D&D", he also defined the game so strictly that he curtailed some of that creativity that had inspired 0e players. After that poibnt it became easier to say this was or was not D&D, largely as defined by what Gary had laid out for us. But wasn't AD&D but one manifestation of an earlier game.

But if you took that initial creative vision and developed it into something new, you probably weren't "playing D&D"; you were playing your own game. To still call the system D&D I would say the above pretty much have to be in place. And the fact is we are sort of stuck with the fact that the initial fantasy RPG was called Dungeons & Dragons, but it's system was ported into a number of different genres. Gamma World, Boot Hill Top Secret and others used many of the same concepts used in the system development for D&D. So really the "sysytem" used in TSR games in the early days was really separated from the fantasy genre itself. If you used the system to play fantasy you were playing D&D. And in that case you could really take out the qualifier of Races and Classes fitting fantasy archetypes and instead simply require classes and races as part of the actual system.

So really we have several visions of what D&D is and is not.
  1. Dungeons & Dragons really represents what some call an old school way of doing things, in the sense of creating and designing your own mileu, creating and adapting rules to fit your needs and using creativity, reason and imagination to determine the nature of your game.
  2. Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game with common fantasy tropes, played in rules lite fashion, with a gritty, deadly, swords and sorcery tone and according to a system that utlizies tables and die rolls (see above rules descriptions) to determine outcomes.
  3.  Dungeons & Dragons is the finalized system codified by Gygax and Arneson in the original game, Holmes, Moldvay, Cook and/or Mentzer in the BX-BECMI system, Gary Gygax in AD&D, and, to at least an extent, by TSR in the 2e system.
To tell you the truth I'm not sure which one I agree with.

I'm certain that #1 can lead to a game that is just more generally called a tabletop RPG--though it might be called a simulacra of some version of D&D.

#2 is really just a fantasy tabletop RPG and is more likely a clone or simulacra of D&D. I would be comfortable assigning a D&D moniker to such a game, and some of our present clones fit this description such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures Dark & Deep and the like.

The last, #3, is clearly D&D by just about anyone's definition. Some clones come under this definition; as the critical thing here is the rules, not the actual out of print copy under that title. Such games as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons and Swords & Wizardry to an extent are for all practical purposes D&D.

But coming away from this discussion has left me still with the same question that I had previously. Where is the system that allows for the detailed development of player characters and still maintains itself as D&D?Because the fact is 3.5, Pathfinder and to a large extent 4th edition is satisfying many players in their search for a fantasy game of choice. I think this has to do with a several things but most definitely includes expanded player options and customizability. The path D&D has taken in the past (including the d20 system) is periodic exponential expansion in available classes, races and the lik; but has also suffered from an inevitable power creep.

Actually the addition of proficiencies, though weakly done, and the concept of kits in 2e started to break ground in allowing a skill based PC development path. The argument against such a path is that skills waters down the class based system. This is the bugaboo Gary Gygax tackled in Lejendary Adventures via skill bundles. While this allowed for a "lite" approach to a skill based system, it really lacked the sort of specificity most PC developers yearn for. A skill bundle like "Weapons" covers so much ground as to almost be too powerful in its ambiguity. It did however, allow lots of latitude for PC description and customization. And LA's "Orders" concept does preserve a form of archetypal characters for the avatars in the game. Overall however, LA suffers from lack of definition that, though it might have been corrected with time, for obvious reasons never quite got there.

Next time a look at the "OTHER" most popular RPG of all time.
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