Thursday, April 29, 2021

Is the plague over yet? No? Ugh.

It's rough these days to be a tabletop gamer who will not under any circumstances play live games online. I miss playing D&D and all, but I have better things to do with my time than put myself through that kind of misery.

I've played short games here and there with close friends and family and coworkers, and they've been fun and all, but it's not the same thing as running a real campaign with a big, open table where just about anyone could potentially sit down, join the game, maybe experience classic D&D for the first time (or come back to it after years and years), and perhaps change the direction of a whole adventure in unexpected ways. 

On top of that, it's only really during this past year that I've come to understand something vital about early D&D: that it was designed with troupe play in mind. That is, the early D&D players who gamed with Gygax &al. always had several characters in the running, even if they only ever actually played one of them at a time during a given adventure. And that is both (a) extremely useful information, because it helps a lot of old rules that people usually don't like (3d6 in order, dead at 0 hp, racial level limits, even level drain) make a whole hell of a lot more sense in context, and (b) mind-blowingly different from the "traditional" way of playing RPGs, where a player only has their one precious character at a time, only ever replacing that character if they're killed or retired. Having only one character leads to emotional attachment and protagonism and other effects that I'd argue just aren't very good for the sort of open-world, living sandbox milieux that early D&D was designed for.

But since I didn't really know this before—which is to say, maybe I was causally aware of the fact, but I hadn't yet considered the implications or realized their importance—it means that I've not really had the chance to put it into practice in the past. I've yet to run a proper "living world" campaign with multiple parties (or no definite parties at all, West Marches style) who don't all come together and meet regularly once a week like a traditional RPG group. I can't do that because there's still a damn plague making public gaming untenable. 

That's what I'm here to gripe about. Even if I do manage to get a genuine, long-term campaign off the ground with people I know, it won't be a "real" old-school campaign. I'll just be another trad campaign with a more-or-less fixed "cast" of characters and an eventual endpoint (whether I eschew traditional "plot" structure or not). While the pandemic persists, there are no other options.

And that's depressing, because it feels like the end of the pandemic should be in sight. It's been more than a year. Vaccines are going around. I'm vaccinated. Most people I know are vaccinated. And, frustratingly, we still don't know. We still don't know if some new strain of the virus, already laying waste to this or that major urban center, will itself prove resistant to the vaccine and then go global and keep this nightmare going for another year.

On top of everything this once-in-a-century disaster has cost the globe, in terms of human life, and economic wellbeing, and political and social and psychological health, we have to tack on the anxiety of not knowing when we can go back to our normal lives. Miseria super miseria, heu.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

There's No Such Thing as D&D 0th Edition

Every once in a great while, I fall into the mood for some pedantic pontification. Nobody is asking for a blog post on this subject. But y'all are getting one anyway.

How often have you heard or seen the original (white box) D&D game referred to as "0th edition" or "0e"? Many times, I'd wager. I've used that label myself, often and without giving it a second thought. The website used to have an article on the history of D&D that called the Holmes Basic set "0" edition. The term still sometimes appears on the covers of OSR games too: "compatible with 0e" is used as a shorthand and a code phrase indicating compatibility with the 1970s D&D rules.

But when you stop and think about it, it's really wrong.

Why is OD&D sometimes called "0th edition"? Well, because it's the precursor to 1st Edition, meaning specifically Advanced D&D 1st Edition. And if you think in terms of "the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game" (as the oft-repeated stock phrase goes), that makes perfect sense: OD&D is the direct ancestor of AD&D 1e, AD&D 2e, D&D* 3e, D&D* 4e, and ultimately D&D* 5e, so it's only natural to call the ur-edition "zeroth." Hell, if it weren't for that messy Basic–Expert–Companion–etc. branch of the D&D family tree, it would be a perfectly clear and indisputable linear progression from one game to the next.

This is, however, problematic in my view for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it subtly buys into the idea of "progress" from one edition to the next: that OD&D is nothing more than the unfinished prototype whence AD&D 1st Edition was fated to emerge, and (so the argument goes) by extension, 1st Edition is naught but the disorganized and unbalanced and needlessly restrictive mess of a game that must lead eventually and inexorably, step by step, improvement by improvement, one new and superior application of better game-design "technology" after another, to the present perfection that is 5th edition. At least until the new and improved 6th edition comes along, which will of course be better than 5th.

Hah. As if.

Just set aside for a moment the fact that every new edition of WotC D&D* appears to be fighting the previous edition's "battle" and overcorrecting for an old problem so as to create entirely new ones. Even if you ignore that whopper of an issue, it's abundantly clear—and has been for many years now, as previously articulated during the height of the OSR by voices as varied as Dan Proctor and James Maliszewski—that tabletop games aren't a technology and don't "advance" like one. So it's best, I think, not to lend undue support to that kind of thinking. It denies the simple fact that OD&D is a perfectly playable game in its own right, one that stands on its own just fine; and that this is also true of AD&D 1st Edition, and for that matter every other old edition of an RPG that's ever been superseded by a newer one.

And then, of course, there's the even more glaringly obvious problem: the basic logic of the matter. Even if OD&D is the immediate predecessor to AD&D 1st Edition (which it inarguably is), that doesn't make OD&D the 0th edition of Advanced D&D, because original D&D is not AD&D. OD&D can only be called "zeroth" in relation to its more popular Advanced descendants, but on its own terms, it's not a precursor or a prototype at all: it's just a game. The D&D game. Calling the white box "0e" makes zero sense from this perspective, because it's already the first edition of the game called Dungeons & Dragons

Now, this realization is both obvious (indeed, almost trivially so) and a mild annoyance. Because it's impractical. We essentially cannot go around referring to white box OD&D as "1e" because everybody who cares even a little bit about old D&D editions already uses "1e"/"first edition" to refer only to AD&D 1st Edition. For the same reason, we are all of us forbidden—by the power of common usage and cultural convention, no less—from referring to B/X as the "2nd edition" of the D&D game, even though that's actually what it is. "2e"/"2nd edition" will always and forevermore refer only to AD&D 2nd Edition in the minds of gamers and grognards. (Though it is getting a bit of competition from Pathfinder 2e these days in some circles…)

And so it goes. When some uninitiated neophyte who only knows 5e and Critical Role—or, frankly, a veteran player with fifteen or twenty years of gaming under their belt who knows every obscure rule from 3.5 and Pathfinder—approaches my public game-table at the local comic shop and asks "what edition" of D&D I'm playing, they expect to be answered with a number between one and five. And then I feel obliged—even if I'm playing BECMI or running my game out of the Rules Cyclopedia—to say something wholly nonsensical and inaccurate (like "0th edition") in order to save both myself and my hapless interlocutor from a nerdy and eye-glazing explanation of red boxes and blue boxes and Basic Sets.

It's tiresome. It's annoying.

• • •

If I had my druthers, I'd call the games what they call themselves. I'm a fan of that: using the names that appear in the actual text. And, heck, it's been a while since I've done the "English major" thing. So let's go to the text.

We can't start with the white box, because of course the white box only ever refers to itself as Dungeons & Dragons, never giving any inkling or indication of successor editions. AD&D 1st Edition only rarely refers back to the "original D&D" game, but when it does, the word "original" is just a modifier, lower-case and not boldfaced, so it's set apart from the title of D&D: in the 1st Edition books, there are only the frequent self-references to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the sparse and occasional references to the original Dungeons & Dragons (or to one of its specific volumes or supplements).

Concerning the proper names for the two TSR-published AD&D editions, I was surprised to note (when I started researching the topic) that the first edition of the game is referred to as Original [Edition] Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the text of the 2e books more frequently than it's referred to with any variation on "first edition." The 2nd edition, of course, is called "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition" all over the place (including on the covers), with that capital "E" marking the edition number as a formal part of the game's title. But for first edition, well…

You can see an example of this in the AD&D 2e preview document, which refers to AD&D 2nd Edition in this formal fashion, but "first edition AD&D" more informally. 

By the time of the PHBR splatbooks, though, we have both "Original Edition" and "1st Edition" being used more or less interchangeably when referring back to the older rules. So it would seem that as far as AD&D 1st Edition goes, both "AD&D 1e" and the somewhat less common "OAD&D" are equally correct (and official).

Things get a little bit more interesting when we turn our attention to the Cook/Marsh Expert Set. This volume, on page X4, refers to the Moldvay Basic Set several times as the "2nd Edition" of D&D Basic—which, of course it is, as the Moldvay Set has replaced the Holmes Set as of 1981. But curiously, this is also the only place anywhere in the text of any Classic D&D rulebook where any part of Classic D&D is referred to with an edition number. So B/X straight up calls itself "2nd Edition"—but, tellingly, BECMI never, ever calls itself "3rd"!

There are (as I've mentioned on this blog before) a few spots where BECMI refers to itself in relation to other (A)D&D editions. On page 63 of the Mentzer Basic Players Manual, the red box edition very clearly calls itself "the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game" (as distinct from AD&D)! Whereas on the inside front cover of the Mentzer Expert Set, it uses the term "Original Set" to refer to the 1974 white (or woodgrain) box rules—and also spells out quite clearly that just as the newly revised 1983 Basic Set is the official replacement for the Holmes and Moldvay versions, the 1983 Expert Set has officially replaced both the white box and the Cook/Marsh Expert Set as the current version of the D&D game. The text of the 1983 Expert Set establishes itself as the inheritor of OD&D—not as a 3rd edition OD&D, mind, but as a revision to the (Moldvay/Cook) 2nd edition of (O)D&D.

That's what BECMI is, when you get right down to it: it's OD&D 2nd edition, revised. D&D v2.1, if you'll pardon my hateful use of version numbers (or D&D v2.5 if you happen to be clueless about how version numbers work). 

And then of course there's the Rules Cyclopedia, which (despite the fact that it does indeed make numerous small tweaks to the rules and content of the boxed sets that it collects and reorganizes) is never treated by its own text as a "new" edition of D&D. You could think of it as OD&D v2.2, I suppose, but really it's just BECMI all over again—or at least, that's what the book itself would apparently like the reader to believe. 

• • •

So where does all of this mess leave us? Well, I think it affirms that there are fundamentally four distinct versions of TSR (O/A)D&D. AD&D 1st Edition and AD&D 2nd Edition are obvious, they get called that by the text of AD&D and also by everybody who still cares to discuss them. But there are also Original D&D and Classic D&D. Original D&D—the 1st edition of D&D—consists of the original white box, the four or five supplements, and the Holmes Basic Set (which both serves as an introduction to the rules and frankly fills in a lot of gaps in the white box, making it complete enough to be playable). And Classic D&D—that is, the 2nd edition of D&D—consists of the magenta Basic Set and cyan Expert Set, followed by the 2nd edition revised, which is BECMI and all of the 80s and 90s D&D supplements and rulebooks that followed (including the Rules Cyclopedia).

Is that useful for talking about these various D&D versions in online forum discussions? No; not at all. People everywhere will still know them as B/X or Mentzer or whatever labels are in vogue at the moment. But for me? While it's a bit funny to realize of a sudden that I'm both an occasional AD&D 1e referee and a frequent OD&D 2e referee (huh… I'm a 2nd edition DM after all… imagine that…), I still recognize that there's no point in futilely trying to get all the old-school D&D players thinking of B/X and BECMI as "OD&D 2nd edition" (even though it is). So I'm going to continue to refer to these two versions of the D&D game as white box D&D and red box D&D (or, when the distinction is necessary, white box OD&D and red box OD&D)—because it's accurate enough, it's clear enough, and it's what we actually called these games back in the 90s.

Though it would be nice, I suppose—if only as a courtesy to all the other tabletop roleplaying gamers out there—if the labels "1e" through "5e" absent other context didn't automatically refer to an AD&D or D&D* edition. After all, lots of other RPGs have numbered editions. Even Pathfinder now. Maybe the frequent references to PF1e and PF2e will force people discussing AD&D 1e and 2e to be more precise when circumstances demand it. That might just open the way for broad acceptance of my OD&D 1e and 2e labels after all. (But I doubt it.) ∎

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Curious Case of D&D's Two Experience Systems

Take a look at the table below. It presents in succinct form four pieces of information about D&D's four basic character classes (fighters, mages, clerics, and thieves) as given in in the white box D&D rules, the red box D&D rules, and the AD&D rules (which are broadly consistent between 1st Edition and 2nd Edition). Specifically, this table gives each class's name level (the level at which the class stops accruing titles and hit dice), its hit point increment above name level, its XP increment required to advance beyond name level (which becomes linear at that point, where before it was an exponential doubling), and just as a benchmark of comparison, the total amount of XP required to reach 20th level in each system.

Some truly curious features stand out. To briefly analyze the oddest of the lot, the original white box progressions: we can see that all of the classes reach name level at a different level (from 8th to 11th), and as a consequence of this, they have quite different post-name-level XP increments. The cleric becomes a patriarch at 8th level and therefore only needs to accumulate another 100,000 XP for each higher level, which means that the cleric (not the thief) advances faster than all the other classes in the long run. But the thief, despite not reaching name level until 10th, is almost as fast as the cleric, on account of the fact that the thief's original XP does not double after 7th level and actually becomes linear much earlier than the other classes. And yet, despite the fact that the cleric and the thief advance so rapidly above name level, they only earn half a hit point per level gained—which means that they stay roughly on par with the fighter and the mage in terms of hit points accumulated. Fighters and mages require significantly more XP to gain post-name-level levels, but they gain a full hit point or two each and every time they do manage to level up.

The red box progressions (which originally come from the 1982 Cook/Marsh Expert Rules—here I'm using "red box" as a shorthand for every version of D&D which might be considered the "2nd edition" to original white box and blue box OD&D, viz. B/X, BECMI, and Classic D&D/the Rules Cyclopedia) are clearly the result of a deliberate attempt to bring some uniformity to the process of reaching and then surpassing name level in all the classes. In red box D&D, all of the classes roll their final hit die and acquire their "name" title at 9th level; the spell-casters (clerics & mages) add +1 hp per level above 9th, while the non-casters (fighters & thieves) add +2. Thieves (because they previously rolled d4s for hit points) don't actually slow their hit point growth all that much beyond name level (assuming no Constitution adjustment), which has the effect of thieves catching up to clerics long-term and eventually having a median hit point total to match their median attack and saving throw progressions. 

Notably, as both fighters and thieves are adding +2 hit points per level above name level in the red box rules, they both require 120,000 XP to level, while mages advance more slowly (to balance their acquisition of ever-more-powerful spells) and clerics more quickly. But the most curious fact of all is that clerics did not change their XP progression at all from the white box through the RC. Moreover, the fighter and the mage require precisely half as much XP to advance post-name-level in the red box as they do in the white box, and one can even use the white box fighter's XP table and simply continue it with an increment of +120K instead of +240K to achieve the same result. (Some have claimed that the fighter's +120K increment in red box D&D is a result of misreading the white box XP table and assuming that the progression is meant to become linear after 8th level rather than 9th, but I'm inclined to believe that Zeb Cook and Steve Marsh knew what they were doing and made the change deliberately for the sake of uniformity among all the D&D classes—and possibly to help differentiate D&D from AD&D as well.) This doesn't work with the more peculiar mage and thief XP tables (and the red box thief's XP table remains peculiar), but it's nevertheless telling: one more strong argument (among many) for the continuity of the OD&D game as an entity that maintained its identity from the white box all the way through the tan box (the Denning "Classic D&D Game").

Now take a look at the AD&D numbers. Just setting aside the fact that the name levels and hp increments were tweaked (the hp increments adjusted to go along with the increased hit dice for most classes; the cleric's name level raised to 9th in 1st Edition, and then the mage's name level lowered to 10th in 2nd Edition), we can see that the name-level XP requirements for fighters and mages actually stay pretty consistent with the white box—but whereas the revised D&D game made the classes consistent by leaving the cleric alone (and slightly tweaking the thief) and then halving the requirements for the fighter and the mage, AD&D instead opted for the path of slower advancement for all classes by roughly doubling the cleric and thief XP requirements to put them in the same ballpark as the fighter and the mage.

The result is a decidedly different sort of game, one where the uppermost experience levels are significantly harder for player characters to access—which makes sense, given everything we know about Gygax's home D&D campaign and the fact that player characters were supposed to be retired shortly after name level. But it's nevertheless a fun curiosity to note that because the character classes were constructed so differently in the white box—with rapid advancement for clerics and thieves and slow advancement for fighters and mages—that this was eventually able to spin off into the gonzo power of Companion- and Master-level D&D vs. the more serious and grounded tone of high-level AD&D! ∎


* Clarification on the white box high-level XP requirements given in this post on Delta's D&D Hotspot.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

My First Step into the World of Painting Minifigs

When the vast majority of D&D players play out a combat with miniature figures, they use a distance scale of 1" = 5' and the now standard 28mm miniature scale that practically all commercially-produced minis meant for tabletop fantasy games come in. But for the longest time, I've used a smaller scale of ¾" = 5', along with a Chessex 1½" gridded battlemat until I was able to print my own custom ¾" gridded mat. I just like the smaller scale, and I like being able to display larger dungeons or battlefields on a tabletop of manageable size.

That does mean, however, that I cannot use standard 28mm miniature figures for my campaigns. This has never really been a problem, though, because I've always advocated using generic pieces—pawns and checkers and chessmen—rather than proper miniature figures. Plain game-pieces are easy to find in a variety of sizes, and they're more versatile than minis: a handful of checkers or chess-pieces can represent whatever characters or monsters you like, without having to repurpose miniatures in potentially confusing ways.

That said, there are some smaller-scale fantasy miniatures out there, in 1/76 or 1/72 scale (about 18mm to 20mm), which fit on the ¾" grid I like to use. This scale is much more common for WWII and some Napoleonic minis, and what options there are for fantasy also tend to focus on armies—orcs, goblins, skeletons, elves, dwarves, and so forth, with large numbers of minis coming in relatively inexpensive boxes. Dark Alliance miniatures, for example, have about 40 figures in a box (at 1/72 scale), for about ten bucks plus shipping. Not bad at all.

I decided to pick up a box of their orcs, because even if I wound up not getting into the habit of painting 20mm minis, they'd still make decent 28mm goblins. And tonight, I painted one. The results are… adequate for a first attempt? Anyway, I'm more surprised by the fact that in all my years of gaming, this really is my first time painting a mini.

My first orc.

My 20mm orc next to a 28mm ranger that my wife both
designed via Hero Forge and then painted this evening.

Oh, yeah… and because I didn't have any 18mm bases lying around, the orc mini is actually mounted on a bingo chip. For some reason, I just love that. It's just so very "MacGyver." Or at least "DIY." ∎

Thursday, April 1, 2021

A Foolish Post for April Fool's Day

Are you familiar with Epic Rap Battles of History? If not, you should be. They're quite clever and tremendously entertaining. The premise is a short rap-battle between two historical figures or fictional characters: pretty simple. They somehow got Snoop Dogg to portray Moses (facing off against Santa Claus) and Weird Al to assume of the role of Sir Isaac Newton (vs. Bill Nye, naturally). Perhaps the best one of all is Mahatma Gandhi vs. Martin Luther King Jr., with Key & Peele in the respective roles. But I can't help but have a soft spot for the Ghostbusters vs. the Mythbusters:

Another fun diversion—and much more substantial than the Epic Rap Battles YouTube channel—is the improv comedy podcast, Hello From the Magic Tavern. The premise is simple enough: podcaster Arnie Niekamp (who works for Jackbox Games in real life—the voice of Cookie Masterson is an occasional cameo during the first season of the podcast) falls through a dimensional rift behind a Burger King in Chicago and winds up in the magical land of Foon, where he uses the wi-fi signal he's still getting from the Burger King through the portal to do a weekly podast about the magical land and the people he meets. Every week, he's joined by his two cohosts, Chunt the talking badger/shapeshifter and Usidore the Blue Wizard. 

The humor is definitely on the blue side, but the fact that each episode is unscripted is impressive. (Though that does mean that the guest's ability to keep up with the hosts will usually make or break the episode.) Just don't expect anything like a coherent, overarching plot: this podcast has been running for about six years now, and it's a running gag that the "heroes" can never seem to get anything done or make any headway in their various quests to get Arnie back home to Earth, save Foon from the Dark Lord, etc. But it's definitely worth checking out—no foolin'! ∎