Friday, April 7, 2017

Are My Biases Showing?

In case you haven't been able to tell, writing about AD&D objectively is always hard for me. Inevitably, my biases begin to show, and it is clear I think or feel AD&D is a superior product to previous gaming iterations. On the surface that is fine, Most people are willing to allow me my favorite game, just as they expect to be afforded the same privilege. Problem is, when my rhetoric begins to imply that AD&D, or the age in which it reigned, was somehow fundamentally worth preserving. Because this implies that what AD&D and TSR during that age claimed is also true--that AD&D was a superior game and playing in its boundaries afforded players a superior experience, and that this built a stronger and better gaming community. Ouch. People seem to have a problem with that.

So, if in some way you've been put off or offended by my recent rants, well ... I apologize. Really, I do. I mean I'm not an idiot. I see the current state of gaming, and the popularity of next gen games like 5e. I also now clearly admit that the preference in the majority of games are for a high degree of personalization, customization, creativity, freedom and flexibility. Heck, it's the entire premise of 5e! Maybe I'll be left behind, but then again maybe I'm striking out on my own. The fact is I am not intending to offend as much as I'm attempting to make a case. And what case is that exactly?

That, although I had pointed out two entries ago what AD&D was, I now want to state that AD&D was not just a product protection, ownership and marketing move. It was what Gary had been developing for some time. It was the culmination of the game he had dreamed of. I don't think the vision sprang full blown from his mind like Athena from the head of Zeus, but I do think he felt like he was working towards something. In fact, if you read Gary's biography Empires of the Imagination, you get the distinct feeling that after AD&D was finished he was then free to go and move the industry in other directions. He had finally "done it". Had achieved what he had set out to do. And even the subsequent articles in Dragon and elsewhere that talk about the ideas for a second edition of AD&D were minimal, small changes at best--the game itself was already created.* But Gary realized it took a constant fight to keep the train on the track; and ultimately he lost control of TSR and AD&D and we have been reinventing varieties of 0e ever since.

Moreover, that there was something key in the presentation of AD&D that made it more than a concretized ruleset which DMs and players had to adhere to blindly. I think that is what Gary is referring to in his interview comments above. There were certainly more rules in 3.5 than 0e, just as there were more in AD&D. But in his estimation 3.5 had not preserved what AD&D was. Creativity and improvisation and DM control was still very much a part of the spirit of the AD&D. It was this dichotomy that caused problems later on. Exactly what rule increase broke the spirit of what was AD&D?  In issue #3 of Dragon magazine in an article entitled "A Plethora of Obscure Sub-Classes" The editor made the following comment,

"The authors of D & D have asked me to stress that none of the following [classes] are to be considered “official.” I feel that the purpose of THE DRAGON is to provide new ideas and variants, and have printed in the past and will probably print in the future things that I wouldn’t let in my own campaign; a great deal of them are superfluous and better handled by the DM. Be that as it may, I would like to urge caution and discretion in allowing the proliferation of weird sub-classes. All too often, they only make it harder for the DM, and are often too powerful to use as player characters. In the last TD, the alchemist was intended to be recommended as a non-player character, as are many of these. — Ed." [By the By, the Editor was Tim Kask]

Here we have a tantalizing view into the kinds of discussions that must have went on inside castle walls of TSR. I would have loved to have been a fly on those walls for the discussions that led up to this editorial comment. I can imagine it being about all the variants threatening to inflate AD&D with the "profusion of wierd sub-classes" among other things, and how that undermined what they were trying to do with AD&D. And the response from Tim possibly wondering what the hell he was going to fill Dragon with if he wasn't allowed to print the tons of submissions he was getting daily?! This last fact has been confirmed in Mr. Kasks recent video interviews about how he received lots of fan submissions for monsters, classes, magic items, adventures, art, etc. etc. But the real point here is that the "archetypes" that Gary had outlined in AD&D were not to be endlessly or needlessly elaborated upon. Which was a clue--just because it was in Dragon did not mean it was safe to put into the game, or useful, and certainly not for player consumption but rather judicious DM use and control. AD&D was to be a carefully controlled piece of work which allowed DM creation and design within certain boundaries. And what was official was limited to what TSR declared so. For how else could they ensure that tournaments, inter-campaign play, and consistency be preserved across the tens of thousands of players of the game? Otherwise AD&D would simply go the way of 0e. And in point of fact, by the time of 2e class proliferation was one of the first things to rear its head. and eventually explode into a a supernova which would eventually burn our AD&D altogether.

So, yes, its about preferences, but its also about making a point. Maybe I'm just the kind of person who likes to justify his preferences. Not sure about that. But when the very nature of your banana is that it claims to be the best damn banana around for doing what it was designed to do, a guy sometimes feels the need to explore that idea.

*Just as an aside here Joseph Bloch from Greyhawk Grognard fame has done a brilliant job of extending these thoughts of what changes would have been made in AD&D had Gary been allowed to create a second edition of the game. His work is also one of the few exaples of a gae that is built on a 1e fraework and not on a ore fundamental 0e chassis.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

D&D Won the War

Custer's Last Stand
Reflecting on my last entry, a lengthy and difficult one at that, and I have a few thoughts that have developed as I've done so.

1. D&D was the system that prevailed into the 21st century and give birth to subsequent systems post TSR. Why is that?

2. AD&D, as much as it drew inspiration from D&D, it also contributed some elements to later editions. Most profoundly this was in terms of background content and the lingering feeling that rules were somehow very important.

This second idea requires a little more explanation, since it wasn't covered last post. The idea that AD&D's rules would be the final say in the game, and that rules were first and foremost, was an idea championed by Gygax and TSR generally for over two decades. This same feeling or opinion would linger into later editions, but never be true to the extent that it was claimed in AD&D itself. Nonetheless, the idea that players must stay within the rules and not stray outside them would remain a part of most editions to one degree or another--in spite of the fact that most editions made clear that this was not required.

3. The apparent support for the AD&D approach by the Gygaxian TSR would later be contradicted and ultimately spell the downfall of TSR and AD&D, paving the way for the preferred approach of 0e.

Simply put, D&D won the war. 3.0, 3.5, 4e and now 5 have all essentially been built up from the basic rules of 0e, and for that matter so was AD&D. But more than this, there was a preference among most gamers that the flexible, creative, and fluid approach to rules and gaming was the way to play. The idea that we should take the basic skeleton provided for us in D&D and make it our own was what ended up happening regardless of what TSR or Gary wanted to occur. D&D won the war.

This was inevitable perhaps, because the forces that rallied behind the AD&D banner did so with split allegiances all the while. Gary could say in one breath that AD&D was the ruleset to abide by and playing against those rules was breaking with the game. While in the next uttering phrases like "DMs only roll the dice for the sound they make", and others that clearly support DM fiat. In fact he criticized 3rd edition in one interview as being to restrictive and for turning DMs into robots that simply applied and enforced rules and had lost the idea and concept of a true judge.

"GameSpy: Have you had a chance to play or even look at some of the current Dungeons & Dragons games?
Gygax: I've looked at them, yes, but I'm not really a fan. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It's done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good."

But wasn't this sort of what he was arguing for with the advent of AD&D? I mean he certainly didn't want robots, and he did say AD&D was designed to allow creativity within certain bounds. But the rule intensiveness in 3.5 was certainly a part of AD&D as well, especially in relation to 0e. To get to the basis of this claim it would require a more complete analysis of 3e, however, the general claim in the interview is that 3e is not AD&D. It had not achieved what AD&D was, it lacked the essence that was AD&D. Just how this is and to what extent it might or might not be true that players also did not play 3e to the extent of its written rules is a matter for another post. Of course if 3.5 is based on a 0e chassis and 0e was a different game from AD&D then it follows AD&D would be as well. 

As I played this argument back and forth in my mind, struggling with the article Gary had written, and what it meant for the game I loved; and attempted to reconcile these apparently contradictory claims by the game's creator, I realized several things.  What helped bring it together for me was actually found in satire, a parody.

Knights of the Dinner Table, Hard Eight Enterprises, and the game they play and design, Hackmaster, exists because of what was attempted with AD&D. But why is it material for parody at all? Satire requires some excess or contradiction to be effective. And by the time Hackmaster was being created, we were in a time in TSR where 2e had abandoned all the commitments that were made to the AD&D ethos. It had become a parody of itself. It had transgressed all the boundaries it had set for itself. It had become a bloated caricature of itself. And honestly, Gary could have said the same thing about late 2e as he said about 3rd in the quote above. And why was this?

Why was this indeed. The questions actually brings us full circle to our first question: why was it 0e D&D that won the war? Simple. It's what people wanted. In Dragon itself we get authors and designers beginning to make additions and modifications to AD&D. Even those that were a part of 0e and dismissed by Gary as anathema to AD&D. We couldn't hold the AD&D rudder quite straight. Admittedly this was much more successful in spite of Dragon pre-2e, but the gamers in the hobby had been raised in 0e and the pull of the creative freedom inherent in D&D was too strong to not have an effect on AD&D.

I too played the game (AD&D) less than what it was designed to be. I added in material that wasn't designed to be added in, I left out rules that were supposed to be in, and so did everyone else. However, was that the way I stayed? No, as mentioned in the last post, gradually I was moving to a more purist style of play; and I moved even closer to this when I came back to AD&D. Why was this the case? Is there something worthy there to try and achieve? Well, regardless of what I think, the majority of people didn't. None of us mastered the game like I believe Gary intended, and instead we went off chasing the next new fix, and the new thing. And now we are rebuying new editions every five to six years (something I've talked about before) and that my friends is why D&D won the war.

Like Custer, D&D died on the hill that day surrounded by superior forces (the Indian Village = TSR) and having D&D relegated into retreat (the creation of Basic/introductory D&D = Reno's retreat and abandonment of Custer) they stood no chance. However, like the Native Americans that would eventually be ridden into near oblivion and chased to the far corners of the country in small reservations 1e old school die hards would ultimately lose the war. A pretty metaphor? Perhaps. But the fact is, most today agree, and 5e proves, that gamers seem to want the next new thing, a nice power curve; they grow bored very quickly. At least that is what the industry is catering to, and capitalism demands that we give the customers what they want.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to make value judgments. I'm just asking questions, presenting possibilities. I am also driven by something that has made me very dissatisfied with the current trend in gaming over the last two decades. I just don't feel like its the Golden Age, I feel like its the death of Rome. Rome, mind you lived on, and still does, but the Empire fell long, long ago. And perhaps I'm just not comfortable letting go. Maybe I cannot go gentle into that good night. Is it possible that the epitaph, all good things must end, is wrong?  I am admitting that the way most are playing favors a more or less as you wish style. But I am also saying I saw something different. I had begun to catch a vision of the grail, and now can dream only its attainment.

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?