Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coming to terms with AD&D

Alex over at the Autarch blog had this interesting perspective on Gary Gygax, and it's been rolling around my head now for a few weeks:

I once had the pleasure of lunch with John Zuur Platten, the business partner of Flint Dille, Gary Gygax’s old friend and collaborator. Through Flint, John had had the chance to learn much about Gary Gygax and the origins of D&D. John explained to me that “to understand D&D, you have to understand that Gary thought like an insurance actuary. D&D is fantasy fiction through actuarial science.”

Re-reading the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, the truth of this claim becomes obvious. Previously inexplicable rules – like the disease tables, or potion mixing – clicked. Gary wrote those rules because he wanted to account for the actuarial risk of living in a fantasy world. Gygaxian Naturalism exists in a like manner...

"(AD&D) is fantasy fiction through actuarial science."  Take a moment and flip through the 1E DMG or Monster Manual and the truth of the statement does indeed become evident - both of those books are practically textbooks or field guides for quantifying and classifying life in a fantasy world, reducing incidents, demographics, and ranges of results to percentages and tables.  This view really helps me get a handle on why AD&D 1E holds such baroque charm.  It's why I refer back to the books so often, regardless of which version of D&D I'm running at the time; it's implied setting and rule books all-in-one.

I recently came to terms with another aspect of AD&D, as well.  I used to hold this belief pattern:  D&D combat is abstract and not a simulation, so there's no value in adding rules and game elements to enhance simulation - therefore, weapon vs AC, weapon speed, and various new combat rules, don't improve the game.  (Looking at the AD&D poll on the right, lots of folks have ignored some of these rules as well).

These days my view is more nuanced; D&D combat isn't a simulation, but adding tactical complexity in AD&D creates interesting choices for gamers.  Providing interesting choices is a different end goal than enabling combat simulation.  Rules like weapon speeds, segments, weapon vs AC, etc, look a little different when you treat them as rules that create tactical choices; they give folks wanting more of a war game experience more knobs and levers to control.

Sometimes we speak of "authorial voice" and those AD&D books certainly have a unique style (Gygaxian prose).  Taking it a step deeper, its useful to see how Gygax's background and passions (actuarial science and war gaming) created the big differences between OD&D and the AD&D books he penned solo.

One thing I'm not familiar with is why ability scores were changed so dramatically between OD&D and AD&D.  Why was the 4d6 drop the lowest score adopted as the primary ability score generation mechanism?  I'd be grateful if any AD&D scholars can point me to old Dragon columns or online sources that might discuss the reasons for the change.

My weekly game continues to pull in more AD&D into Moldvay BX and Labyrinth Lord by using Goblinoid's AD&D-like supplement, the Advanced Edition Companion.  I'm hoping to do a ton of the classic AD&D modules as we continue the Gothic Greyhawk campaign (Tsojcanth, the Giants and Drow series are somewhat on the horizon), so we'll either continue to convert monsters back to BX style, or make the switch over to AD&D entirely.

I get the sense most old school bloggers play the more stripped down games, like OD&D or Moldvay BX (or the clone equivalents).  But I'd wager many of you still get wrapped up in the "baroque charm" of those AD&D books as well.  Go on, you can talk about it-