Monday, October 13, 2008

Original Dungeons & Dragons was a rush job.

A while back I was perusing my Dragon Magazine Archive, and read an interesting article by Gary Gygax in The Dragon #11, Vol. 2 No. 5 (December). The article is titled, "View from the Telescope Wondering Which End is Which."

This article is actually very rich as a spark for a number of discussions. The one I want to visit right now is based on the following quote, "Two years ago we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight. Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of such material, but we are not about to step into that mess again — D&D originally came out as it did because of demands from those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept."

The gist of this portion of the article is essentially saying that outside pressure (excited fans) caused the new company TSR to release OD&D before it was ready. The "gaps" in the rules are a result of this. I think this begs the question, even though it is a fairly common assumption, of whether the vagaries of OD&D are a feature, not a flaw....or are they actually a flaw (in the technical sense)?

I think this point is most relevant not in the idea that there should be rules for everything, just that the material present should be explained more completely and better organized. For instance, spell descriptions, monster descriptions, some class info, how the elf works, and a few other things could have been fleshed out.

There are a number of reasons why the revision talked about was handled as "the great split" of Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. Some of these reasons are political and legal, discussed in many other places on the internet, but one reason was to create a "different" game more like OD&D in case TSR was successfully sued by Dave Arneson. There is a nice interview series over at Grognardia with Tim Cask that mentions some of this (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

But I just want to hit on a couple of things I've been thinking about. It seems that the idea was that AD&D would take all of the published supplements, merge them, and flesh them out with articles from Dragon, as well as make other adjustments and add extra detail. The real successor to the original three OD&D set is Basic D&D (I'm mainly talking Moldvay/Cook here, since the later sets by Mentzer took on a very different path and the first set by Holmes was less complete than Moldvay/Cook), though while they did substantially clean up the core rules, which I think are much better presented in Moldvay/Cook, a bone of contention many people have is that they altered the generation of characters.

So in the end, all legal and political issues aside, probably the "best" thing they could have done for OD&D, IMO with my armchair designer's hat on, at the time was to essentially take the path of revising OD&D with an eye toward better explanations for the core three books. I think that final result would have looked a lot like Moldvay/Cook D&D (and in fact I think that was what this was for), but probably without thieves and not with a "merged" elf class. It is interesting that later "basic" D&D was seen as the game for kiddies. If that is true, then OD&D would have to be a game for kiddies also since its complexity is no greater. But in reality we are only talking about presentation, and seeing Moldvay/Cook as a kiddie game is only in the context of comparison to AD&D, coupled with the push to sell the new "basic" D&D to kids since the explanations of game play had been vastly clarified.

I recommend going back to read this article by Gygax, it is an interesting window into a certain period of time when D&D was undergoing some interesting changes.

9 comments:

James Maliszewski said...

I think it's almost certainly the case that OD&D was a rush-job and that therefore every omission, inconsistency, or lack of clarity isn't (necessarily) there for deep philosophical reasons. At the same time, I tend to be suspicious of most public statements made by Gygax about the purpose and origins of AD&D written between 1977 and 1980, mostly because I'm almost certain many of them are designed not only to justify the existence of the new edition, but also to provide cover in the ongoing legal dispute with Hasbro.

As for Moldvay/Cook, I agree that, barring a few infelicities, some more significant than others, it's a true successor of OD&D (More than Holmes? That's a complicated matter). You're right that it's not a "kiddie" game in any strict sense, although it's undeniable that the edition owes its existence to TSR's push to mass market the game for children, whereas OD&D (and AD&D) were intended for high school/college age players.

Sham aka Dave said...

Good read, Dan. I don't recall that particular article, but I think it is generally accepted that the first three volumes of D&D were indeed lacking in organization and detail. What worked so well was the delivery of the concept, and at the time there was no other publication of it's kind to compare it to.

I don't disagree that OD&D needed to be 'redone', but for my money (other than a handful of clarifications here and there), it remains an excellent core system.

I've said in the past I wish TSR at the time had taken a core rules approach, and not sewn the rules together with various author's campaigns. Keeping all of the campaigns as seperate supplements might have gone a long way to keeping D&D undiluted.

I think the motives behind articles such as this, in regard to justifying subsequent editions, has been made known through the years. And you know what, Gary is no different than many of us. D&D was his baby, and he saw that there was room for improvement.

~Sham

Dan of Earth said...

"...every omission, inconsistency, or lack of clarity isn't (necessarily) there for deep philosophical reasons."

I think that's a key thing. People tend to fetishize Gygax too much, and take game material almost like religious written word.

"At the same time, I tend to be suspicious of most public statements made by Gygax about the purpose and origins of AD&D written between 1977 and 1980...

Absolutely. I'd even take it a step further and say that really one should take everything he ever said through the years with a grain of salt. To me it seems like his attitude changed over time. With OD&D it seemed like he said people should make up their own stuff, then in t=his AD&D era he was interested in more rules heavy, and then at the end of his life he was back to more rules light and "do it yourself".

Dan of Earth said...

"I don't disagree that OD&D needed to be 'redone', but for my money (other than a handful of clarifications here and there), it remains an excellent core system."

Oh I agree, definitely, and some elements of it I do like very much. But for core rules that are simple I much prefer Moldvay basic.

James Maliszewski said...

but also to provide cover in the ongoing legal dispute with Hasbro.

That should read "with Arneson." How that morphed into Hasbro in my head is beyond me.

Sham aka Dave said...

I home brew so much that I could probably use OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, 1e, LL, etc and make it work for me and my groups.

I like them all. As a hard core brewer, OD&D works well for me. My Son has planned to make a LL dungeon, but I think I will need to step in and lead him through the process. I want to give LL a fair go of it, that's how much I appreciate the version you made available.

~Sham

Dan of Earth said...

That should read "with Arneson." How that morphed into Hasbro in my head is beyond me.

No worries, I knew what you meant. ;-)

arcona said...

That should read "with Arneson." How that morphed into Hasbro in my head is beyond me.

Hehehe. Methinks there's a little bit of unintended projection there, James. Perhaps we could rise as one and sue Hasbro for false advertising?

/facetious

Atom Kid said...

Great post! I don't know how I missed that. I absolutely love Holmes ed., even though it's not complete. I look at it as the closest thing to OD&D only without the editing issues.

Molvay/Cook IMHO was as advaced as D&D should've been. This was the system perfected and if they would've stopped there we might not have a 3.5,4.0, WotC or Hasbro to deal with.

Just my thoughts anyways.