Tuesday, April 4, 2017

D&D and AD&D are Different Games

I've been working on my analysis sheet of the AD&D Rule Books that I mentioned previously, and trying to peck away at several entries in that regard. However, over the weekend I spent some time re-reading old Dragon Magazines and wanted to write about an article Gary Gygax wrote some time ago. The article in question is "D&D, AD&D and Gaming" in Dragon #26.

In the article Gary discusses the state of D&D at the time, AD&D's development and recent release, and how the two are and are not related. Now, before I launch into my thoughts I should call a few things to your notice. By the time this article was written, June 1979, AD&D was released, all three major books were out. They had been in production since about '75 - '76, and the ideas that were to become AD&D had mostly been talked about, debated and play tested for months if not years by the time the article saw print. In other words, the first thing we need to realize is,

They (Gary and TSR) knew what they were talking about.

Secondly, there were lots of imitation games cropping up out there. D&D had seen amazing success and was being played by lots of creative people. These people had their own ideas and wanted in on the action. Also, D&D was of the nature that one could come up with an almost new or different interpretation simply by playing the game, and hell, the game encouraged such things. However, if TSR were to let any Tom, Dick or Harry come along and write their own game based on the ruleset they had created, D&D would quickly go the way of the ghost. They needed to exercise creative control. They did this in a number of ways, but first and foremost was to solidify what the game was via the production of AD&D. So the second thing to keep in mind was,

AD&D was, at least in part, a product protection move.

Third, Dave Arneson was already making some noise that he was not being given enough recognition, control or input, let alone commercial benefit. Now, Gary talks about this quite a bit in other Dragon articles and elsewhere, and no matter where you personally come down on the matter Gary made the move to consolidate his ownership of the game. Therefore this may have necessitated downplaying the future importance of D&D as it was still tied to Dave and his ownership. So don't forget, these opinions may have been due to,

A need to downplay D&D from a need to assert property ownership of and investment in AD&D.

Alright, those advanced warnings out of the way, I wanted to give my feelings on the matter.

And the fact is my first thought is more of an emotional response: it made me sad. The whole article really let me down. It did so on a number of levels.

I realize that back in the day I played AD&D a bit like it was D&D. What I mean is that I didn't use a lot of the rules that were in AD&D and I added in many rules that weren't official AD&D. Some of the same rules he uses to condemn D&D for being inferior and comic book-like. This made me feel as if I was playing AD&D in some way wrong or inadequately. I'll also admit I couldn't help but wonder if I should rather play D&D instead of AD&D. Was my gaming home the wrong one?

Then there is the implication that D&D in its original form (with only a slight improvement for the Holmes rewrite) was a crap product that allowed DMs to run wild and ruin the game. In fact it was, he said, not even a game anymore; but rather some independent exercise in creative license. That AD&D would correct this by allowing for creative expression, but within bounds set by the rewritten rules. This made me feel bad for more than one reason ...

AD&D is said, in the article, to be a different game from D&D altogether -- inherently different in style, approach, and structure. For the longest time I thought that AD&D was an outgrowth of D&D, their supplements and additions from Strategic Review and Dragon. That it was a natural evolution into something more formalized and standardized. But a different game? So yeah, I felt bad because if D&D was crap, how could AD&D be an outgrowth of it and not be crap? Unless he was right and the two were basically different. Now, this may be true, let's assume that it is, and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the two are basically related that they are actually very different. How might this be so in more than AD&D was the flowers sprung from the manure laden soil of D&D?

But, moving on from even these quotidian concerns, something larger yet loomed before me. D&D, the article says, allowed for games to take on multiple different forms, appearing in a kaleidoscope of separate games, so different one from the other they were -- none of them -- alike. Moreover, he says most were cartoons of what was intended when the game was first developed. (And here I take "cartoons" to mean caricatures of the true essence of what the game was intended to be, not just silly or funny.) Now, and this is the first realization that hit me, the thing about this is that this is exactly what has happened to the game today -- in point of fact it is what has happened to the entire game industry.

Allow me to explain. If one were to take the kinds and types of games available in today's game market I would say close to 70 to 80 percent are basically a riff on original D&D. Some might point to this being a sign of D&D's innate strength, but can't we also see it as a fulfillment of Gary's prophecy? The fact is all one has to do is peruse RPG Now, DTRPG, or any Hobby Shop that still carries a decent RPG selection. I can't even find a game to play because there are so freaking many of them out there. And yes, may of them are exceedingly cool and appealing, but the actual audience for these games are minuscule at best. Even amongst fans of a given game, the actual players involved in playing them are few indeed. We have become no better than what Gary saw in his day, thousands of separate and independent operators playing something they created, often off of a D&D base.

D&D itself has been through several different iterations now, and each one after AD&D was based on what was essentially an Original D&D chassis. the d20 concept in fact simplified the basic system and made it even more flexible and universal. So all those posts wherein I argued D&D 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e were not D&D -- I was wrong. They essentially are D&D, after a fashion. Original D&D that is. What they are not is AD&D -- the game Gary intended to create. The one he considered definitive.

As a prime example of how this happens, take D&D Next. If you kept up with the 5e playtest, the designers made much of going through each edition to get the feel of them. To allow it to inform what was essential to be included in the fifth edition. But most importantly, to distill what they saw as the essence of D&D. There were many discussions and debates and surveys to get at what these essential elements were. Six ability scores, alignment, classes, races, hit points, armor class, and several other key items which made it into 5e. What does that sound like? It is the basic chassis, the skeleton of D&D that was first built back in the day of the Original Edition. And what do we have that is distinctively 5e? HD based healing surges, advantage/disadvantage, backgrounds (ala 2e kits) and the concept of bounded accuracy (something I am still not even convinced is a thing -- but that can come at another time). And that cartoon, superhero ethic? Yep, still there.

Back in another old issue of Dragon they did an extensive comparison of class balance. One of the most powerful classes during the time of 1st edition was the Druid, believe it or not. The druid was a late edition, and one which diverged from the basic class concept in some ways. much like the monk. One of the reasons that Druids were so powerful were not only HP scaling, but also the powerful abilities they gained as they advanced in level. But a Druid of the old order would not hold a candle to the simplest classes in 3, 4 or 5e. Each class swells with power with each new level, gaining and amassing more and more super powers. They took this idea, powers added as you rise, and built them into every damn class in the book. And thus we get a comic book caricature of a game instead of what was intended. Which, as Gary said, "feature comic book spells, 43rd level balrogs as player characters, and include a plethora of trash from various and sundry sources," and which he makes clear "AD&D cannot be so composed."

What Gary claims is that this was already happening with D&D in the late 70's and early 80's. AD&D was designed to avoid this happening and by design wold not allow it to happen unless one ignored or changed the rules. Something that was abandoned when WoTC took over, and thrown away in favor of a return to the streamlined D&D chassis that was d20. As rather strong supporting evidence for this claim I point to the "problems" inherent in 3.5. With the release of the d20 SRD the can of 3.5 was opened to allow creative and independent individuals to bring out their own supplements, settings, classes, and so on. Those who were around during that phase of D&D replicated the same issues the Gary struggled with back in the early days of TSR. 3.5 had become so varied, bloated and vast, vastly different, that the game became untenable. I'm sure that some of the reasons for the change, as has been opined by Mike Mearls himself in his design notes, are more about design principles and commercial viability, but the entire reason this impetus came about was the nature of the system behind 3.5 -- the Original D&D chassis. The point here is, each edition of D&D is a different game built upon the stripped down and streamlined chassis that is Original Dungeon & Dragons. (Some might argue 4th as an exception.) The real question is though, what about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons?

The claim Gary Gygax is making after all, is that AD&D is fundamentally different from its D&D ancestor. And that AD&D is the design that will solidify the game into a stable and reliable system. In an attempt to answer the first adequately, I would hazard a guess based on an assumption. If what Gary meant by fundamentally different is contained in the subsequent statement, that AD&D is designed to be a more stable, reliable, and "rigid" system, and that adherence to such a system will allow for a more unified and stronger gaming community, then we may have our answer. If this is the case then AD&D is indeed a very different game.

Certainly there are those who will take issue with this, and even if they do see the system as different in this regard, they will certainly not see this as a good thing. This is where I get personal again. Though this article made me sad, I also saw something in it that rang incredibly and deeply true. I have struggled for years now, playing in systems that I felt were inferior, and that somehow left me wanting in terms of my gaming satisfaction. I looked around and saw numerous games, that, as mentioned above, excited me but never quite fit the bill. I've played many of the as well. They are at core D&D, but only in the vaguest sense. It is for this reason I spent so much digital space arguing they were not. The closest I have come to the feeling that I was in the right space since the early 2000's when I began gaming again was OSRIC, and AD&D itself.

Above, I mentioned that back in the day from about age 12 to 24 I played AD&D, but there were rules we didn't use. It was never quite original D&D. We used racial level and ability limits, we enforced alignment and armor class and weapon restrictions. We used strict Vancian spell casting, and numerous other rules that were certainly AD&D. We also moved into some elements of second edition, most outlined as early ideas in Dragon magazine, but what we played was certainly more AD&D than D&D. But that is not really the point. I was taught by Original D&D gamers. Teenagers that still owned and in some cases referred to the Original Books, but who had bought the hardbacks and were making the shift, as it were. Thus my initial introduction to the game was decidedly influenced by a more light and flexible style of play. However, what was happening as we played was an increasing reference to and shift towards a more strict style of AD&D play. When we had questions, the books reigned supreme, and where those "few" grey areas that Gary mentioned existed, our confusions were answered by reference to Dragon magazines and modules and supplements. Though my first decade of gaming was as an adolescent I had begun to advance in my understanding of the game, what it was, and what comprised its spirit.

In 1987 Gygax released a slim volume of game theory entitled Role Playing Mastery in which he outlined the ideal of mastering the game. And though the book talks of games generally it is really about THE game, AD&D, and what the process is in mastering it. I dare say that few who have walked the path of game designer have actually walked the path of game mastery as Gary outlines. And in this way I am beginning to understand that AD&D was a game that could not be mastered in a year, let alone a session or even a series of adventures. One does not even master this game in two, five or even necessarily in ten years. True mastery is something that is attained not through years of play, but through a process of realization. I am certainly not claiming to have mastered the game myself by any stretch; but I am beginning to feel more prepared to do so.

The last time I allowed myself to stand up and say "I want to play AD&D" (even though we played OSRIC at first because the other players didn't have the rulebooks) I experienced something quite unique and satisfying. I did find that in less than one adventure, not only was the game and its mechanics and spirit coming back to me, I was beginning to apply rules that I had not really incorporated into play previously. I was, of course, older, wiser, and frankly, smarter. I was also better at running a game and at understanding it. But something else also occurred. The more we played, the more the game challenged my players in a good way; within the system. We began to have deep discussions about rules and design and how they affected the game and what they implied for play. They turned to the rules and we had discussions which deepened our immersion in the game world that was AD&D. Much of the fruit of these discussions was what rocketed my blog forward in those early years.

Now, this may seem simple to some. Maybe others have experienced the same thing in other games. Even games based on Original D&D. I have not. In fact I am struggling with 5e now for this very reason. The game seems shallow, and lacking in substance. I feel like it is the copy of a copy of a copy. And yes, very cartoon-like. This has been something I have struggled since I came back playing 3.5. I see them as very cartoonish and over the top. Not the fantasy I like to imagine. I also feel it is far too oversimplified, even the massive 3.5, 4e, and PF. Yes, even these huge option heavy systems where the complexity is in the proliferation of character options instead of actual game depth. The exact plagues that Gary mentioned before are the very ones that have plagued D&D since its inception--those that AD&D was supposed to rectify.

I've worked and reworked this entry, more than I have my entries in a long time in fact more than most. I'm usually a scribble and post guy, not even editing sufficiently. An idea hits me madly, demanding to be shouted out, and shout I do. Not this one. I labored over this one, and am still not entirely happy with it. This is partly because this is a complex and nuanced thesis. I have no doubt there will be those who scoff, stop reading after the first few paragraphs, and those who will feel insulted and troubled and downright pissed. Good. That doesn't bother me, decent thoughts should never just be accepted, but should challenge us. That's what Gary's article did for me. It made me sad. More than anything else, sad because it seemed to isolate AD&D and separate it from the rest. Odd too, this realization. For years now I've been arguing this. But inadvertently, ignorantly I had lumped D&D and the whole early effort of the birth of tabletop roleplaying games as a golden age. What did I know? D&D is alive an well. It is alive in 5e, was alive in 3rd and even in 4th. It stayed alive in that brilliant idea that was born as the original Dungeons & Dragons books. And the creation that was AD&D and lived for almost over two decades ore or less in tact is now gone. That it was a dream that has been abandoned. And I don't mean that it can't be played, or that it still isn't being played. Or even that there isn't a vibrant if shrinking community that is still pursuing it. Rather the dream Gary talked about in issue 26 of the Dragon, was that AD&D would become the game. It did for awhile, and even during this period D&D hadn't died. It lived on to some degree in basic D&D and its various platforms, but AD&D was the game. Of course there were always fringes in even the AD&D community, but what was clear then was there was a right way to play AD&D, an accepted way in which one could recognize the game for what it was. And the dream was that this would be what the game would be.

Somewhere as 2e developed, and Gary was no longer welcome at TSR, and his influence nominal if at all, we lost that dream. Everything the dream warned us against was forgotten and the walls came down. Sound like a good thing? Well, you're not alone. You're just not with me. Now we have 5e, and more that ever many see pleased. I wonder how much is simple resignation. We are tired. Tired of the fight. Tired of losing. And what did 5e promise? To be able to play D&D and play it the way you want. Just like Original D&D, just like Gary talked about. The problem is where is AD&D? Where is the dream? Where is our Gary?