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-


  1. I miss my 1e DMG and MM every time I do anything D&D related :(

  2. Ad&d should be re-named 0d&d supplement VI, compilation. The rules therein are just as optional as the turgid weapon attack based on individual height found in the original blackmoor.

  3. the AD&D books have been some of the most inspirational material for my roleplaying games... I am considering starting a 1e campaign up :)

    It has been years since I have played AD&D, but the memories of how fun it have drawn me back to it.

  4. "Baroque charm" is a phrase I use a lot about Tekumel, maybe applied it to the DMG once or twice,but never the system proper. Makes sense, there is this sense of Rococo like over doing it all through those volumes.

    It feels like I got through this cycle of rising need and falling need for AD&D-like detail. I feel like I add subsystem after subsystem, until I get to a point where high crunch things like spell components and weapons vs. AC hold an appeal again. And then comes crashing back to rules lite.

    I suspect I am not the only one of us who goes through this.

  5. I think I was always (and still am) in love with the idea of AD&D's level of detail. Its baroque complexity always seemed so cool to me and it was the game my group always wanted to play. But for some reason, in practice, for our group the simpler (B/X) game just ended up being more fun. So we played "Advanced B/X." I still love reading the AD&D books – they're just so rich.

  6. When I got my first copy of the DMG (orange spine, robed dude opening double doors on the cover) I actually read that entire first section about dice theory. A few years ago, I read that Gary had been an insurance salesmen. I immediately thought "that explains a lot."

    ckutalik: yep, I understand that cycle.

    I think the one time that the baroque complexity really works is when you have a DM with something close to a photographic memory. Then the players get to enjoy the charm without the pain. I had that with one of the DMs I played with for a few years, and it definitely worked that way.

  7. I will say this (and it goes to show why I think LL is the best retro-clone out there):

    I will always prefer to start bare-bones, but I will always be open to the organic expansion of the campaign into the level of detail available in AD&D. Thus, while I began my most current campaign with the three core classes, I now allow paladins, monks, thieves and illusionists because they grew organically through play. The LL with the AEC is brilliant at doing this. Everything is modular so it is incredibly easy to tack on or take off.

    Therefore, my campaigns always end up being somewhere in-between B/X or OD&D and AD&D but never entirely one or the other.

  8. I love to admire the baroque complexity, but found it a giant pain to actually use. I found it a good source of inspiration for things I could include on occasion.

    As to 4d6 and drop,looking at my collection of old D&D books gave some insight. For OD&D, Men and Magic (1974) gave relatively little in the way of attribute bonuses. Some increase in earned experience, and a few +1s for an attribute over 12.

    It was in Greyhawk (Supplement I, 1975) that we first see interesting attribute bonus tables, including the 18/% for Fighters and Strength.

    4d6 and drop doesn't appear until the DMG in 1979, though, unless it showed up in a magazine somewhere.

    My guess is that the alternate methods of rolling up stats are a result of the increased utility of stats. The more diverse the bonuses, the more areas in which high stats directly apply, the more players will want them.

  9. The whole 4d6 thing is worth me looking into further; I'm "defending" AD&D here in the post, but I don't like the idea that adventurers aren't cut of the same mold as the man in the street. You move away from that construct with 4d6 drop 1; it makes AD&D adventurers "special".

    @FrDave: That's a wise approach, so wise, in fact, that I'm doing it too. I'll try not to pull a muscle patting myself on the back.

  10. Yup, something clicked for me as well while reading your article. Excellent stuff. Now those obscure rules really do make common sense.

    "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."

    I intend to quote you on that the next time someone tells me that I need to add in their pet house rule to my OSRIC game.

    I alos agree that most OSR gamers seem to prefer early D&D editions to AD&D. Personally however, OSRIC remains my favorite OSR game -and what's OSRIC if not a tidied up and remodelled edition of AD&D 1e?

  11. Hah! When I went back to school for my graduate degree I found statistics a relatively easy class - and I;m convinced it was because I spent years calculating probability and bell curves in my head playing AD&D...

    I just started playing 1E again a couple of months ago after a multi-year pause. I never really played OD&D, and never really bought into 2E so when I "returned" the 1E coice was pretty simple. The biggest issue was trying to remember the house rules I liked while at the same time not assuming that one way was better or worse than another.

    Simplify damnit! Has sort of become my watchword...

    So I love AD&D 1E for it's richness, but paring down the nonsense and clarifying various rules with house rules is kind of a joy.