Wednesday, August 30, 2017

AD&D as a Uniquely Gygaxian Toolbox

Don't go Vampire Hunting without your ToolBox ...
And you can't  play AD&D without your Gygaxian ToolBox

AD&D is often seen as a restrictive and rules heavy version of the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Admittedly, later editions (even 2e) make AD&D look like the cliff notes to D&D, a lot like )e looked when first compared with 1e. But without argument AD&D was certainly an increase in volume of paper and rules over the original version of the game. The real question is: why?

How was this new game supposed to be played? Anecdotal evidence gives us ample proof that Gary rarely played AD&D with all of the rules, and like most of the old guard actually preferred playing in a manner closer to the original edition plus supplements, see Mentzer, Kask, et al. The three most popular clones of AD&D seem to be Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, Swords & Wizardry Complete, and Castles & Crusades. All of which are lite versions of AD&D that more closely mimicking the 3 little brown books plus supplements than actual AD&D. OSRIC is the exception, and can be played (as I have done) as a game in itself when the books are not readily available to your players. But OSRIC is not a popularly played version, especially since the AD&D books are now so readily available. It tends to be used as a supplement production base.

And it seems to those I have been talking to about the matter here and there on the internet, and among gamers I know off the internet, that the preferred way to play AD&D is with a selective use of the rules and some houserules. In other words not with the by the book rules as written. Now, I've written before about this. I never played AD&D rules as written early on either--in fact I never have. But, as you can tell from this year's posts, I have felt a desire to do so more than before. This is a perspective that I have developed as I have tried to come to grips with what AD&D is and where it "fits" in the overall scheme of D&D generally.

I mean why play AD&D if you are not going to use the rules? And what about all those injunctions that the DM should remember the rules are guidelines and ruling are important? That "The DM only rolls the dice because of the sound they make," and other such nebulous comments? Well, and the dragon articles I have quoted in recent posts make clear, that D&D suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in the late 70's. I would love to believe Gary had a distinct grand vision in mind with the development of AD&D, but having listened to Tim Kask and his commentaries on how the AD&D and Basic lines developed it is clear that it was a lot more haphazard and slapdash than we might want to think. Much of AD&D, and the Dungeon Masters Guide is most clearly representative of this, were notes and resources Gary had come across, developed and dreamed up for his campaign and play and for the game generally that made it into the DMG as appendices. Much of the rules, when you take the time to read them, are laced with that strange cant we call Gygaxian delivering justifications of why things are the way they are, what Gary's thinking was when he made some of the choices he did and equivocations about applying certain ideas and rules to the game. Monster race characters in the DMG comes to mind here, as do allowing characters to start at levels above level one. Both sections are equivocal about which way to take this, and sort of discourage it, but say if you do choose to do so, then this is how you could handle it. And Gary himself, when approached about rules questions, like the infamous answer of how invisibility really worked, was prone to default to answers like "Umm, by magic." And again the extremely helpful Mr. Kask also makes clear that alot of time Gary would listen to some request to solve some deep problem with the rules or that the rules didn't cover, and then pause and ask the questioner, "How did you handle it?" After which he would listen carefully and thoughtfully and say something like, "that sounds really good to me, I don;t know that I would have handled it any differently." In other words, it wasn't the rules so much for Gary as it was the game.

Now, none of this is new for most people. But the question comes up again, why play this then if most of the rules and options can be safely ignored? Or even worse if the rules don't really "matter", at least not in the way we might have once thought. Well, I have two ideas, and they aren't revolutionary in any great way, and only one of them makes good sense.

  1. AD&D is a toolbox

This is the idea that spawned the title of this post. AD&D up through Unearthed Arcana, and the Survival Guides not to mention the Dragon magazine articles and the like created a vast tool box to use within the game. But even if you limit yourself to the three canonical works of DMG, MM, and PHB, you can still see them as a tool box of rules to use as needed to build the kind of AD&D world you want. There is nothing wrong with not using some tools or with bringing in new tools, as long as they worked to build the kind of game and world you and your players wanted. This seems to be most people's approach to AD&D. This is the tack that games like C&C took, and their DMG is advertized as just that, a large toolbox of ideas you can choose to implement or ignore altogether. In fact, you don't need the C&C DMG at all to play their game. It is that modular in design. The simple and complete design of the game is contained in the PHB. AD&D didn't do that, and you really can't run the game without a DMG, or at least a DM's screen with the attack and saving throw tables. But this doesn't really get at why one would choose this toolbox over other toolboxes. Undoubtedly the game is a tool box, but it's not just a toolbox.

     2. AD&D is uniquely Gygaxian

Here is where the real argument comes in. AD&D is the only uniquely Gygaxian game out there. Well, I mean Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventures also have a strong Gygaxian flavor, but they are hurt by trying too hard to not be D&D for reasons not critical to the discussion here. If you are going to play Gygaxian D&D you can only do it with AD&D. And sure, a person could be so "in-tune" with the Gygaxian muse that they are able to make their campaign unmistakably Gygaxian despite the rules system they are using, but most of us rely to some extent on the words of the master in guiding our game to fall within his flavor of game style. I wrote about Gygaxian some posts ago, and tried to make the point on at least part of what this style of play encompassed, but whatever you might think it is, it is enshrined in one game--AD&D. And though AD&D is a tool box of sorts, it is a uniquely Gygaxian one. It is the only Gygaxian toolbox that exists. Other supplements and articles to one degree or another express this quality, and other early D&D designers write in this vein, but we have to be judicious with what we consider Gygaxian and what we don't. We also liekwise have to be careful with what we allow in and what we don't if we want to hew at least somewhat closely to the Gygaxian style of fantasy. And if we choose AD&D as our base we are already 75% of the way there. And moreover, this toolbox is the turn of first resort that we look to when we have a question or uncertainty about the rules. Sure we make rulings instead of rules, that too is the Gygaxian ethos, but then afterwards we research and look to see what if anything the rules have to say about this. And even if we don;t find something, we are steeped further into the Gygaxian tone as we search and our rulings tend to be flavored with the spirit of the game. Our players search through them as well, and strategize, plan and create within those same Gygaxian rivers of thought. In this way the game stays ultimately Gygaxian and keeps the tradition, and in a very real way Mr Gygax himself, alive.