Sunday, December 31, 2023

On Play-Style

Welcome to the third post wherein I lay the groundwork for this blog's future direction. Today, I want to discuss the concept of play-style as it pertains to TTRPGs. In brief, play-style is an approach to playing RPGs, a set of norms and values and goals that pertain not just to how players play and referees run, but why.

Taxonomies of play-style are numerous; my favorite is The Retired Adventurer's "Six Cultures of Play." I do recommend following the link; it's practically required reading. While the Six Cultures taxonomy has as many detractors as advocates—probably more of the former now that some time has passed since it first appeared—I nevertheless find it valuable, because it matches up very well with my experience and understanding of the wider hobby, both in real life and online. I prefer to use the term "play-style" over culture, though, because even though the latter is accurate enough (cultures most certainly involve the continuous transmission of norms and values), it implies that a "culture of play" is something bound to individuals or gaming groups, something passed on from GM to GM like a tradition or an inheritance. "Play-style" makes it clearer that a given group can play different games in different styles, though it does come with its own pitfall, namely the overly-close association of specific game systems with play-styles. The truth of the matter is, even the same game system employed by the same gaming group can be played in a variety of styles.

It's about how you play, and why.

The "what you play" matters less than the how and the why. This is the infamous "System Matters" debate, the contentious notion that the rules of an RPG are determinative; and the equally contentious corollary that if a GM momentarily sets aside a rule because it conflicts with the desired play-style, that's tantamount to no longer playing that game ("as intended" being the oft-unspoken coda clipped off the end of that statement). This is a subject that will certainly require its own full post; for now, suffice it to say, I think that this sort of determinism and slavish adherence to "designer intent" is usually bogus, but not wholly vacuous. Designer intent is a thing, and System Does Matter, just not nearly as much as the Forge forums' indie designers liked to imagine.

So, getting back to the Six Cultures. I've said that they match up pretty well with my experience. The only perspective I can really add here—and this will reverberate through future posts when I need to bring up the concept of play-style in other discussions—is that I don't think clean divisions can be made between some of them. And The Retired Adventurer (henceforth "TRA") says as much, acknowledging that the Six Cultures have fuzzy, porous boundaries; that's fine, that's expected, but it's not what I mean. I mean that I find it more helpful to think of Three Style Families than Six Cultures. TRA draws some clear distinctions between Classic and OSR, and between Trad and OC/Neo-Trad; I think that the distinctions are overstated. (Heh; there I go, being more of a lumper than a splitter yet again. Thank goodness I never majored in cladistics.)

I think of TTRPG play-styles as falling into three overarching categories: Old-School, Traditional, and Avant-Garde. More specific styles are hierarchically nested within these broad families, whether by shared history or shared values and goals.

Old-School is the mode of play closest to wargaming, original to D&D as it was designed by Gygax, Arneson, &al., and revived (unevenly and with different emphases) by the OSR. While there are certainly noteworthy differences between Old-School play as it existed in the 70s and as it exists now, these are a matter of emphasis and principle. In the 70s, without clear contrast between itself and other play-styles, Old-School play was necessarily less defined and more amorphous, more all-encompassing of the hobby as a whole in a time before other styles could define themselves by splitting away from what the Lake Geneva and Twin Cities groups were doing. (And split off they did, and rapidly, as documented by Jon Peterson in Playing at the World and The Elusive Shift.) 

In early Old-School play (TRA's "Classic"), more fudging and manipulation on the part of the DM would be regarded as acceptable or even laudable, for example, so long as such were aimed and keeping the game fair and challenging; whereas the modern OSR puts more emphasis on fair play through principled refereeing, avoiding techniques like fudging and illusionism. Another distinction, much more impactful IMO, is the OSR's continued tendency to focus on specific points of contrast between Old-School and modern styles—referee rulings, player skill, XP for treasure, lethality, consequences, &c.—at the cost of sometimes not seeing the big picture of campaign structure. While some elements of old-school games, such as open tables and "West Marches" style adventuring that begins and ends in town, have been emphasized, other elements, such as character rosters (also called "stables" or "troupes") and 1:1 time (including the widespread misconstrual of the vaunted "STRICT TIME RECORDS" as referring to dungeon turns rather than campaign days), have often gone ignored except in a few quarters. But the differences between early and present-day Old-School are nevertheless overwhelmed by the similarities they share, chiefly in terms of that they do emphasize in common: player agency, exploration of an open world, a broadly impartial referee, gameplay focused on challenge (though at times the OSR emphasizes verisimilitude to the utter exclusion of fairness), and perhaps less emphasis than many modern gamers are used to on characterization and thespianism.

Traditional (or "Trad") is the play-style which, ironically enough, most closely resembles narrative, interactive media—not just RPG video games, but practically all modern AAA video games, with their cinematic cutscenes and "RPG elements" (which, in the world of video games, just means character advancement or customization mechanics). The point of a Trad-style game is to have a cohesive story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, but one that the player characters were the "stars" of—without sacrificing strategic or especially tactical gameplay. The player characters "play through" the story, with their decisions introducing branches into how the narrative unfolds. This should seem very familiar to just about anyone who has ever been exposed to either tabletop RPGs or modern video games, because it is the dominant, mainstream way that interactive narratives are experienced in both media. This has been true of TTRPGs since at least the early-to-mid 80s, and it remains so right up through to the present day. Critical Role and Dimension 20 are as Trad as Trad can be. 

Order of the Stick is a webcomic that tells the story of a "3.5e" campaign from an in-universe perspective, and you can tell just from reading through the comic that the campaign (though we never get any inkling of what the players or the DM are like) is just so very Trad, including a convoluted end-of-the-world main plotline and a swaggering "BBEG" (i.e., "Big Bad Evil Guy") in the character of Xykon the Lich, who, just like Sephiroth or Kefka or Exdeath or Golbez or Garland or Darksol or—man, JRPGs always have one of these, don't they?—serves as the story's main villain, but who will likely be supplanted by a true "final boss" in the climactic conclusion of the whole grand arc. That right there? That's super Trad.

The only thing that really distinguishes between old Trad and Neo-Trad is how essential the specific characters are to the plot. Trad is GM-driven: the GM has a story to tell, the player characters get slotted into that story as protagonists, and while the players' decisions can affect the outcomes, who the characters are doesn't matter so much. Different characters could be slotted into their place, and the GM's story would still unfold largely as planned. Neo-Trad is character-driven: like a prestige drama TV show, the characters' backstories and personal arcs of development are essential to the main plot. Change out the characters, and you have an entirely different story. Naturally, Neo-Trad play goes hand-in-hand with TTRPGs where the game mechanics themselves put a lot of emphasis on character customization: it is a matter of ludonarrative consonance to expect that characters who are central to the game's plot are also central to its mechanics. In Trad-style play, customizing your character—creating or building rather than merely generating—is how you declare from word one that your character is a protagonist.

Avant-Garde is the indie RPG sphere, especially the part of descended from the Forge. It is concerned with rectifying some of the problems inherent in Trad play, such as the necessity to negate player choices or set aside game rules in order to effect narratively satisfying outcomes. (There is an inherent tension between games and simulations on the one hand, and coherent stories on the other. In a game or a simulation, unless the initial conditions have been very carefully circumscribed, practically anything can happen. There are no guaranteed outcomes. But that's bad for stories. In a narrative, you can't let just anything happen, because most of the time, most possible outcomes won't be good stories. Stories that meander, go nowhere, suddenly deflate the stakes, or seem to build up to something only to end without payoff, aren't satisfying stories. They can make for great parody or subversion at times, but only occasionally.) Consequently, the Avant-Garde play-style shares one major goal with the Trad style—to tell satisfying stories about themes and characters—but it wants to go about that by taking the burden of making a story happen off of the shoulders of the GM and placing it squarely on the game-mechanics, using rules to ensure that a meaningful story will emerge from play.

It is impossible to discuss this play-style further without at least mentioning the "GNS theory" of RPG "creative agendas," the invention of Ron Edwards, founder of the indie RPG design forums known as the Forge. The theory is considered discredited today, because it placed a great deal of emphasis on the notion of "coherence" in game design, which was the idea that a well-designed game aims at delivering on one and only one specific, designer-intended experience, which must be in service to only one of three possible creative agendas, those being Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism. Games that try to serve more than one master, so to speak, are unavoidably "incoherent" according to this theory, since there's inherent tension between the agendas. Now, entirely aside from the fact that "coherence" in game-design is something of a bullshit idea (because most groups of players would prefer to get more than one thing out of any one TTRPG), GNS is frustrating because its language is deliberately obfuscatory. People look at the word "Narrativism" and think, "oh, that means RPGs that are about telling specific kinds of stories," but, nope, that's Simulationism. Narrativism is chiefly concerned with forcing decisions on the player that, in the moment, define who the player character is, in order to drive conflict and produce a dramatic story out of that conflict. Simulationism? You'd think it means simulating an imaginary world, a believable world with a high degree of verisimilitude and accuracy to real-world outcomes—and along with that, crunchy game rules that look like actuarial tables or physics equations. But, nope, that level of predictability is part of Gamism. Simulationism is all about simulating specific genres of fiction and narrative tropes with game mechanics. (Experience points for treasure is, e.g., an example of a Simulationistic rule aimed at simulating a trope of sword & sorcery fiction.)

As you can see, it's a frustrating subject delve into. Edwards did that deliberately, to make us think about the language being used to describe our games, and boy did that ever backfire. Instead, everyone just took a surface-level look at the terms being used and then mixed up and misapplied what they were supposed to mean according to the theory. Good job, Ron. Thank goodness your theory was rotten down to its roots from the word "go," and nobody takes it seriously anymore.

Now, I bring all this up to point out that one of the main strands in Avant-Garde play is storygaming, which takes coherence very seriously and sets Narrativism up on a pedestal as the best of the three creative agendas, the one that TTRPGs ought to be aiming at. Two of the key elements of the storygame play-style are (1) distributed authority over the fiction (meaning that players often have control of what exists in the world or what happens, aspects of gaming normally decided by the GM) and (2) an almost obsequious deference to the designer of a game as an auteur who intends for the players to experience something by playing that game rules-as-written, to the point where the designer's authority over the game is ideally supposed to trump that of the players or the GM (if there even is a GM)—as if the spectre of the designer were constantly hovering over the shoulders of everyone playing, to make sure that they're playing correctly—which is, I suppose, exactly what we should expect to see happen if we turn to rules systems to provide the consistently predictable outcomes required of satisfying stories.

While there are a huge number of indie RPGs designed with storygaming principles in mind, games like Burning Wheel and Sorcerer and Hillfolk, one of the first to achieve widespread popularity was FATE; but even FATE has been forgotten in the wake of Apocalypse World (and its descendant "Powered by the Apocalypse" games, including Blades in the Dark and its descendant "Forged in the Dark" games). But I do need to stress here once again that play-style is a way to play, not a kind of game. You can run OD&D in an Old-School way or a Trad way or even an Avant-Garde way if you want to. Play-style, creative agenda, and a third concept that I need to introduce next—"stance"—are all independent of system. A game system can facilitate or fight against any of these things, but they're mostly imposed on games by players and referees.

Stance is a concept vital to some of the other strands in Avant-Garde gaming, such as Nordic Larp and Israeli Tabletop, because those sub-styles often concern themselves with player emotions and states of mind. (When a player feels the emotion their character is feeling, that's called bleed; when a player feels like they're actually in the game-world or the story, that's immersion.) Stance is a term that also comes out of the Forge, and thankfully, it's much more straightforward and useful. It has to do with the relationship between the player and the character, how the player uses the character to make decisions and interact with the game world. Traditionally, there are four identifiable stances—Pawn Stance, Actor Stance, Author Stance, and Director Stance—but I don't think that list is exhaustive. 

• Pawn Stance is treating the player character like a tool or game piece, an empty vessel into which the player self-inserts; the player makes decisions that look like smart, winning moves from the player's perspective—or decisions that come from the player's own drives, desires, motivations, and emotions. (Pawn Stance aligns well with Old-School play. It is also often dismissed as mere metagaming, "Mary Sueing," or "bad, one-dimensional roleplaying." But there's little room to deny that Pawn Stance can, at times, facilitate a great deal of bleed and immersion—because it minimizes the distance between player and character and maximizes the identification between the two.) 

• Actor Stance treats the character as a fleshed-out person with personality, psychology, motivation, &c. all distinct from the player. Players take an Actor Stance when they try to do what the character would do (and not necessarily what the player would do in the character's place). Crucially, it's less about outward, performative thespianism and more about internal decision-making process. Basically, improvisational method-acting. (Trad play often puts Actor Stance upon a pedestal as the only kind of "real" roleplaying and dismisses everything else as either inferior metagaming or pretentious wankery.)

• Author Stance and Director Stance are similar in that they both envision the player "hovering over" the character, making decisions that drive the character to do things that aren't necessarily the smart move or "in-character," but rather things that generate the best story. In simplest terms, Author Stance is when the player makes the character do something that drives conflict, while Director Stance is when the player makes the character do something that generates emotion. Both are fundamentally about creating drama, and they're especially important to those lesser-known strands of Avant-Garde gaming that exist alongside storygaming (but they also have a strong presence in storygaming as well, especially in the more collaborative, "writers' room" sorts of games).

The most important thing to remember about stance is that it's fluid and nigh impossible to discern in someone else. Most players are constantly "code-switching" between stances from moment to moment as they play; and nobody other than the player can ever truly tell what stance they're taking with respect to their character at any given moment.

Okay; so now that I've outlined the concept of play-style as I understand it, I'll next time be doing a deep dive specifically into the Old-School play-style and the many, many gameplay elements that constitute it. This will be, fundamentally, a statement of the way that I run games—or, at least, the ideal that I want to strive for. ■

Monday, December 25, 2023

On Advanced D&D

Merry Christmas to one and all, joyeux Noël, god jul, Nollaig shona dhaoibh, and iō Sāturnālia!

I find myself with a few spare hours to spend writing—at last!—on this lovely holiday morning. It's an unexpected white Christmas here in beautiful, scenic Omaha, with a steady snowfall and a rapid accumulation on the ground. I say "unexpected," because yesterday was a Christmas Eve so warm that I was more comfortable outside in short sleeves than a jacket, and that entirely in spite of the fact that it rained all day. Family get-togethers aren't happening until the evening, and as a bona fide Baldur's Gate 3 widower, my wife is contentedly occupied with her druid character and something-something, goblin camp, Astarion. (I can't be arsed to pay that much attention to modern AAA video games.) So, at long last, I can write.

There is a myth that persists in grognard circles that AD&D is something akin to "OD&D plus all of Gary Gygax's personal house rules." This follows from the notion that white box 3LBB OD&D is a kind of "toolkit" for making your own game, a starting-point from which every referee will begin. As each campaign develops, and referees add house rules to suit their particular needs and preferences, every OD&D table diverges, each one becoming something unique, something bespoke to that referee. OD&D is the foundation; from it, every referee builds their own fantasy campaign, their own D&D. This tendency toward variation, however, makes cross-campaign compatibility functionally impossible, hence the eventual declaration from on high that OD&D is a "non-game." In its place, the universally-accepted "standard" ought to be AD&D, because while AD&D is only one possible pathway, one possible game that could be derived from OD&D, it's the path taken by D&D's more prominent, more involved, more mechanically-minded designer. It's the intended path, the trail blazed by the referee with more D&D experience than anyone else could possibly have.

Now, this is not the most pernicious myth surrounding Gygax, OD&D, and AD&D. No, that award must doubtlessly go to the myth of "Gary's secret house rules," which is the now roundly debunked idea that a certain set of house rules used for one game of OD&D one time maybe was "the way Gary played." Even though it isn't true—

—the legend persists that "AD&D is full of rules that nobody used, not even Gary Gygax." That most of AD&D, in other words, is useless padding: unnecessary rules-bloat at best and untested garbage at worst.

Why do I bring up this second, rather more insidious myth? Because it's in direct tension with the first one, and I think that it illustrates something useful. We can call these two myths the myth of "precedent" and the myth of "padding": the first asserts that AD&D's complexities are organic and arose through play, while the second implies that they exist only to inflate the page-counts of rulebooks and thereby distinguish AD&D as a different game from OD&D (ostensibly motivated by a cynical agenda to screw Dave Arneson out of royalties).

Both myths serve different aims. The "precedent" myth is excellent at justifying a "Gygaxian" view of OD&D and AD&D. By "Gygaxian," I mean a certain picture of the history of the game that paints Gary Gygax as the chief architect of OD&DAD&D 1st edition as a collated refinement of OD&D writ large (the disorganized sprawl of booklets, supplements, newsletters, and fanzines); and the later game that AD&D 1st edition was becoming as it moved in the direction of Unearthed Arcana and the Gygaxian 2nd edition that we never got as the pinnacle of the game's evolution. This is the corner of the hobby that treats AD&D as the one true game; 3LBB OD&D as the zeroth edition, the unfinished prototype of the game; and everything that came later as devolutions to be blamed on Zeb Cook—not just 2nd edition, but also everything B𝑒𝑥CMI. (This is, of course, a broad caricature of several different points of view on the matter; but that's okay. At this point, I'm still just laying out the ideological landscape. The point is, this "camp" is where you find everything from "by-the-book, tournament AD&D"; to the Knights & Knaves Alehouse's narrow conception of "Gygaxian" D&D; to the so-called "BroSR"; to the nostalgic gamer who "comes home" to just running AD&D rules-as-written, and the accompanying disparagement of house rules as an inevitable dead end or waste of time.)

The "padding" myth, meanwhile, has been prominent in the OSR ever since the late 2000s: it's one of the foundational myths of the OSR, for it serves to justify the "DIY," toolkit approach to OD&D. It exhorts referees to make the game their own, to tinker, to house-rule, to create retro-clones and heartbreakers. It pines for a lost age that never was: for a timeline where AD&D never happened, never dominated the hobby, never contributed to the rules-heavy, charts-and-tables aesthetic of 80s RPGs; where not only did game-rules stay lightish and freewheeling and firmly in the hands of free Kriegsspiel minded referees, but maybe even the Hickman revolution never happened, and the sandboxes and open-ended scenarios were never displaced by railroads and performative thespianism.

Both of the myths I've just described are cartoonish exaggerations. No individuals that I'm aware of actually hew to either view without nuance. And, of course, reality is complicated. History is complicated. And while I have lampooned two opposing points of view, I am also strongly sympathetic to both. I can see where the Gygaxian, rules-as-written, by-the-book AD&D players are coming from. I can see where the DIY, toolkit, tinkering OD&D players are coming from. And while I am personally more in agreement the latter view of the game, I recognize equally the ahistoricity of its myths. These are constructs: arbitrary and in service to an agenda.

The "precedent" myth is complicated by the fact that much of AD&D didn't come from Gary Gygax's home campaigns. We know that other designers contributed to the rules. We know that many of the rules were collected from outside sources. And yet, the "padding" myth doesn't hold water either, because very little of AD&D's supposed "bloat" isn't useful. None of it is what I would call "garbage" design. Heavy in places, yes, but certainly not everywhere. A lot of the crunch is very clearly organic, in that it must have arisen from a need that came about in play. I'll cite two brief examples, and I think they'll serve to illustrate my own view on AD&D.

Many of us have read the DMG (1979) cover to cover. But it's also true, I think, that even those of us who have done so tend to be more familiar with the earlier pages nearer to the beginning of the book. That's natural: that's just what happens when the aborted attempts outnumber the read-throughs that don't just get started but also get finished. And pretty much everyone who has attempted to read through the DMG is familiar with the early section on spying and assassination missions. This section is an oft-cited example of AD&D's "useless" cruft, mechanics that bloat the system without having any real value. I've heard this charge leveled from all quarters, and every time, it baffles and astonishes me. Have these people never played a game of D&D that wasn't strictly the player character adventurers always doing their own dirty work? Have they never played a game that got above name-level and put a PC in charge of a stronghold, a fiefdom, or any kind of organization? Any game where the player characters have the ability to send agents to do work for them "off-screen," so to speak, because that sort of thing is both plausible and sensible? I submit that a game where the players have sufficient agency to make these sorts of moves will categorically benefit from having clear rules governing the time required and the odds of success for spies or assassins. These rules are so very clearly the result of necessity and campaign play. And yet the basic game has no equivalent, no robust framework beyond the "Spy" entry in the section on NPC specialists in the Expert Set or the Rules Cyclopedia, which says simply "the DM decides" and then offers no suggestions for how to decide. For my part, I can say with some confidence that whenever a player character decides to hire out a spy to carry out a mission, I'm going to consult the DMG to decide how it goes. 

But just because I'm inclined to pull that one rule out of AD&D and apply it to my own OD&D games, that doesn't mean by any stretch that I'm actually running AD&D. And the reason why has to do with the overall ratio of rules that I find personally useful versus rules I'd prefer to ignore. A great example of the latter comes from the DMG's rules for training to go up an experience level. Now, I'm of the opinion that training between experience levels is absolutely vital to a well-run D&D campaign, because it creates gaps during which characters become temporarily indisposed and unplayable, forcing players to expand their personal roster of PCs. But it's the time rather than the cost which makes this mechanic effective. I think that the cost in g.p. required to train, at least at low levels, is too inflated in AD&D, too much bent in the direction of siphoning cash out of the PCs' coffers so as to keep them artificially poor and treasure-hungry. (I'm of the opinion that PCs need very much to be saving up that treasure, or putting it to use on personal projects like strongholds, research, crafting, and the like.) Moreover, I have absolutely no use for the E/S/F/P grading system. While I fully understand that this mechanic exists to deliberately incentivize a certain approach to play that prioritizes playing to alignment and class archetypes, I do not happen to value that approach overmuch. I don't believe that alignment needs to be involved in micromanaging player character behavior, and I certainly don't believe that playing a character class to the stereotypical hilt merits reward or reinforcement. I get why these mechanics are there; I respect what they're for and the fact that they work; and I reject them at my game-table for my own considered reasons. 

If we set aside all of the rules that OD&D and AD&D share and only consider the areas where they differ, on balance, I reject more of AD&D's extra rules than I keep. And, lest we forget, OD&D has some rules that AD&D does not, and on balance I keep more of those than I discard. It's really just that simple: when you get right down to it, they're different enough as games and game systems that just picking one is the best place to start, and I've picked OD&D. Its mechanics suit me better; it's the game that I started with, so it more readily tickles the nostalgia bone; and its aesthetic is just different enough from the game's mainstream lineage (the Gygaxian path which can be traced from "0e" through AD&D to the d20 System™ editions) that it has an identity of its own. Those latter two points aren't to be scoffed at, either: nostalgia matters, and aesthetic matters, and I dearly love the Mentzer–Elmore–Allston–Dykstra aesthetic (which I'm going to summarize as "Mentzerian") of 80s red box and 90s black box OD&D.

With respect to OD&D, I am a tinkerer. I take the version that I like best (B𝑒𝑥CMI), I add bits and pieces from other versions that I like (including Holmes, 3LBB, AD&D, and retro-clones), and I add my own house rules and innovations. There is a solid foundation that comes from published rules-as-written, but my game is bespoke to me, suited to my needs and preferences. With respect to AD&D, I treat it as precedent, but nonbinding precedent. It is a body of case law, but the kind that you consult to inform your understanding of statutory law and thereby aid your rulings, not the kind that makes up a body of common law. I do not play AD&D, because I do not need all of AD&D. (Which is not to say that I don't respect AD&D for what it is; nor do I assume that if someone prefers AD&D, that means that they "need" more rules, or that needing or preferring more rules is at all a bad thing. Far from it.) Whereas I play OD&D because I do have need of something more robust than an ultralight. 

(Secondarily, I have a keen interest in playing D&D games set in milieux other than high fantasy sword & sorcery. While AD&D's Historical Reference line is an admirable attempt at setting D&D games in various ancient, medieval, and early modern periods, those seven wonderful green-cover splatbooks nevertheless pale in comparison to the vast offering of OD&D-compatible OSR games that run the gamut from space opera to four-color superheroes. If there is a second major reason to choose OD&D over AD&D, it is this flexibility. The OSR has, against all odds and common sense, somehow managed to expand OD&D into a functionally "universal" TTRPG system.)

I've already passed through my "ultralight" phase, where I wanted to give up D&D and play something like Risus instead. I came out of it when I discovered that ultralights are a poor tool for full campaigns, and a poor tool for old-school games, being better suited to trad-style play. This is, perhaps, why I have such visceral distaste for the "artpunk" and "NSR" subcultures (and why the "FKR" approach seems to me so misguided and uninteresting). When the rules are too light, they better serve a puppet-master GM (the sort of dice-fudging, plotline-writing GM that in the past I've called a "Maestro Houdini") than they do an impartial worldbuilder–referee. ■

Monday, December 18, 2023

On Original D&D

I’m starting up my blog again for a few key reasons:
• To get back into the habit of writing regularly and redevelop atrophied writing skills.
• To articulate a philosophy of tabletop adventure gaming as a distinct subgenre of fantasy roleplaying.
• To get back down to the brass tacks of creating gameable content, both for my home campaign and for sharing with the community.

The first order of business, I think, is to establish why tabletop adventure games (TTAGs) and the original D&D game in particular will take center stage on this blog. Why do I play OD&D? And why am I writing about OD&D? What do I even mean by the term "OD&D"?

Let us set the stage by tackling that last question first. What is "OD&D"? The acronym stands for "original Dungeons & Dragons". This refers to the very first version of the D&D game released by TSR ("Tactical Studies Rules") in 1974, some years prior even to the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (which began to appear starting in 1977). 

OD&D includes the original 1974 "white box" edition of the game's core rules, various supplements and expansions, and also a number of revisions to those core rules that appeared throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Essentially, every product published by TSR between 1974 and 1996 that bears the label Dungeons & Dragons (not Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) falls under the umbrella of OD&D. This is up to and including the 1996 release of The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game (TSR 1106), but it excludes the 1999 Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game released under the auspices of a WotC-owned TSR (as that set is actually an AD&D product). 

While OD&D is a single game that mostly maintained a consistent spirit, ethos, and identity throughout its impressive 22-year first-party publication lifetime, there were nevertheless changes to the rules and to the game's overall philosophy with each successive revision. Most old-school D&D players tend to think of the game in terms of individual core rules releases, which, depending on how you count, means that there are anywhere from four to seven distinct versions of the OD&D game. I find it more helpful to think of OD&D in terms of two broad eras, the early OD&D game of the seventies and the classic OD&D game of the eighties and nineties. 

(If one wishes to find cover art for the various versions of the game that I'm about to describe below, The Acaeum is a helpful resource, but the TSR Archive is even better.)

Early (seventies, white box/blue box) OD&D

The 1970s OD&D game consists of:

• The original 1974 "white box" or "3LBB" ("three little brown booklets") version of the core rules. In a woodgrain or white box bearing the title "Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures" by Gygax & Arneson can be found three booklets (Men & Magic: Volume 1; Monsters & Treasure: Volume 2; and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: Volume 3) as well as a few sheets of quick-reference tables copied from the booklets. 

Emphatically, the wargame Chainmail and the board game Outdoor Survival are not technically part of white box OD&D. While the rules text does call them out as "required" components, it's more the case that they're optional add-ons. Few to none of Outdoor Survival's actual rules are pointed to by Volume 3, the booklet that explains wilderness survival and exploration; instead, the Avalon Hill game's hex-gridded board is supposed to be coopted for use as a campaign's overworld hex map. And Chainmail, while it can be used in place of OD&D's native d20-based combat system for man-to-man skirmishes and heroic "fantasy combat," is nevertheless only required for large-scale mass battles, and only then until its replacement by Swords & Spells. I have more to say on this subject, but in the interest of limiting this post to a mere survey of the OD&D landscape, I shall save it for later.

• The supplements to the OD&D game (1975–6), which are five more little brown staple-bound booklets: Supplement I: Greyhawk; Supplement II: BlackmoorSupplement III: Eldritch Wizardry; Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes; and the unnumbered Swords & Spells: Fantastic Miniatures Rules on a 1:10/1:1 Scale. The material found in these booklets (and also in the seven issues of The Strategic Review newsletter) expanded the scope of D&D, filled in gaps in the rules, and fleshed out the system. Not everything in the supplements and the newsletters made it into later revisions of OD&D, but much of it became core to the Advanced D&D game.

• The "blue box" D&D Basic Set (1977) by J. Eric Holmes. Many gamers regard this boxed set as its own distinct version of the D&D game, both because of the idiosyncrasies in its rules and because of the several passages in the text directing the player to Advanced D&D after having exhausted the possibilities offered by blue box Basic. But it's now well known that all of the references to AD&D and also the blue box's worst rules oddity (daggers attack twice per round, two-handed swords attack every other round) were added to Holmes's manuscript by later editors prior to publication. Moreover, one of the other unique quirks of this set, basing initiative off of each character's Dexterity score instead of a die-roll, is Holmes's own perfectly reasonable interpretation of a note given under the Dexterity ability score in D&D Volume 1 (as the white box makes no other mention of initiative; one must either use Chainmail or find the rule in The Strategic Review if not willing to take up Holmes's interpretation). 

I am of the opinion that the 1977 blue box Basic Set occupies the same position with respect to the white box that the later Basic Sets hold with respect to the Expert Sets or the Rules Cyclopedia. That is to say, it is an introductory set that lays out the basics of the game, explains how dungeon adventures work, and describes character advancement up to the 3rd level of experience; thereafter, one must either look forward to an Expert Set or back to the white box to play at higher levels. And prior to the 1982 release of the first Expert Set, the white box was the only place to turn if you wished to continue playing OD&D (rather than switching to AD&D). In short, the 1977 Basic Set completes the early OD&D game system by providing it with a starting point and some much-needed rules explanations and patches. And the rules found therein are indeed much closer to and more compatible with the white box than AD&D.

Classic (eighties–nineties, red box/black box) OD&D

The classic D&D game is usually divided into three editions (B/X, BECMI, and RC), sometimes collapsing BECMI and RC into one, sometimes dividing RC into "1070" and "1106". The major differences between early and classic OD&D are the codification of demihuman character classes ("race-as-class") in the core rules and the eventual expansion of the character progression system out to a full thirty-six experience levels. 

• Classic OD&D begins with the 1981 "magenta box" Basic Set by Tom Moldvay and the 1982 "cyan box" Expert Set by Zeb Cook and Steve Marsh, both with cover art by Eorl Otus. The Basic Set describes dungeon adventuring and provides rules for advancing any of seven classes of player character—fighters, magic-users, clerics, thieves, elves, dwarves, and halflings—up to the 3rd level of experience. The Expert Set expands the game to include wilderness adventures ("hex-crawling") and character advancement up to the 14th experience level; it also mentions a future D&D Companion that will describe character advancement up to the maximum 36th level. Many gamers, especially those active in the Old-School Renaissance movement, refer to these two booklets by the moniker "B/X" and take them in isolation to be the perfect expression of the D&D game. For my part, I am skeptical of "B/Xceptionalism," and I do not regard the Moldvay/Cook edition as in any way separate or distinct from earlier and later releases of OD&D's core rules. It's merely another link in the chain—and frankly, one of the shortest-lived in its day.

• 1983 saw the release of a revised "red box" Basic Set and "blue box" Expert Set, both by Frank Mentzer and with cover art by Larry Elmore. The 1983 Expert Set is interesting, because while it makes some obvious changes to some of the tables in the game (such as the cleric's spell progression and the player character attack tables), many more changes (such as the saving throw tables and the infamous thief skill progressions) wouldn't actually come about until the following year, when 1984 saw yet another blue-cover Expert Set, revised a second time to conform with the "green box" Companion Set. In 1985 and 1986, the core system was completed with the releases of the "black box" Master Set and the "gold box" Immortals Set—hence the acronym commonly given to Mentzer's edition, "BECMI" (for "Basic–Expert–Companion–Master–Immortals").

• It is impossible to mention BECMI without also mentioning two important lines of game supplements that greatly expanded the scope of the OD&D game, taking it in a very different direct from the old supplements from the seventies. These were the Known World Gazetteers, which described the world of Mystara, and the Creature Crucibles, which provided rules for playable monster characters.

• In 1991, the BECM sets were slightly revised and collected into the D&D Rules Cyclopedia by Aaron Allston, alongside a new introductory boxed set, the (New, Easy-to-Master) D&D Game by Troy Denning. In 1992 came the heavily revised Wrath of the Immortals (also by Allston, replacing the Immortals Set). This version of the game was supplemented by the Thunder Rift setting and the Challenger Series and Hollow World releases. Finally, the 1991 D&D Game box (known commonly as either "the black box" or "1070," read aloud as "ten-seventy") was replaced by the Classic D&D Game by Doug Stewart (sometimes called "the tan box," better known as "1106" or "eleven-six"). This last boxed set was actually released twice, with tan trade dress in 1994 and black trade dress (and cover art matching the 1991 set) in 1996.

Honorable Mentions (retro-clones and such)

The phrase "Dungeons & Dragons" means many different things to many different people. It is suffused with nostalgia and loaded with the fiery spark of a thousand undying nerd kerfuffles that flamed their way across fanzines and bulletin boards and onto the modern internet. Is it a single game with a specific set of rules? A family of related games? A brand-name? A folk tradition? A way of life?

On this blog, when I speak of the tradition, the genericized way that we all "play D&D" whenever we sit down to play any tabletop RPG (the way every video game console was "a Nintendo" because your mom couldn't be arsed to know what a Sega was), I shall leave the phrase in plain, unitalicized type. 

When I refer to the brand, that ephemeral thing that got bought by a trading-card company before the trading-card company was itself bought up by a toy corporation, I shall refer to D&D™.

But when I refer to D&D, in italics and without the trademark symbol, I mean the specific game that Gary & Dave made, the one with five saving throw categories and descending Armor Classes and a different experience point table for each character class. If I need to specify, I will refer to the advanced game as AD&D (either 1st or 2nd edition) and the original game (so thoroughly outlined above) as OD&D (original white box/blue box or classic red box/black box in the event that further hair-splitting should ever be deemed necessary).

Since I hold to the notion that D&D is a set of game-rules and not a brand, that means that any game using those rules is still D&D, even if it doesn't explicitly say so on the cover. That means that OSRIC and For Gold & Glory and Hyperborea are all still AD&D. And it means that Swords & Wizardry, Blueholme, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy RPG, Dark Dungeons, Old-School Essentials, and many others are all still OD&D.

If your coat of mail imparts a base AC 5, you're playing D&D, branding be damned.

Thus concludes my taxonomy of the original D&D game publications. With one of the more important key terms defined, the groundwork is now in place to move onto the next pertinent question: why am I playing this game at all, and why OD&D over alternatives (such as AD&D)? ■

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Tabula Rasa

Hello, one and all, and welcome to Playing Dice With the Universe. This is a blog about fantasy, science fiction, and tabletop roleplaying adventure games—most especially TSR's original D&D game, a.k.a. OD&D.

I created this blog all the way back in 2010, back when I had a very different understanding of tabletop gaming. In my very first post, I also expressed my hope that starting a blog might help me get into the habit of writing frequently. That . . . did not happen. 

I desperately want to get back into the habit of writing frequently. Daily, even, if I can manage it—but I'll happily settle for weekly at the outset. And this is indeed the outset: a new beginning. A tabula rasa. I've wiped the slate clean, and now I'm starting fresh. It's a drastic, radical, dire F5. 

Or maybe it's more of a Ctrl+Alt+Delete? Whatever. The point is, I'm Etch-A-Sketching the whole mess.

It's time to start writing again. It's time to start writing about adventure games again. It's time to start writing about speculative fiction, something that I had originally intended to do when I first started this blog. 

I have hit "reset" on my blog for a very simple reason: the past thirteen years of accumulated posts are not illustrative of any kind of growth. They did not adequately document my journey from a trad gamer to an old-school gamer. They did not, in any clear or understandable fashion, articulate a cogent philosophy or point of view. And any old posts not specifically about tabletop gaming were too few, too sporadic, too purposeless.

It's about purpose. It's about getting back to first principles. Laying down a foundation—and from atop it, building up something sturdy and rational and pleasing. 

This post is merely a preface. Playing Dice, day zero. On day one, I shall have to begin at the beginning, to ask and to answer: why tabletop gaming, and wherefore OD&D? ■