AD&D: Defining D&D

As I wrote about last time, I now have a great fondness for AD&D.  Contrary to what some may feel, I place the game firmly in the realm of "Classic D&D".  In other words, the game shares the same general mechanics, direction, and spirit of OD&D even if it begins to suffer a little from rule bloat.  Classic D&D's style of game-play is vastly different from its modern descendants.

But far more than the actual nuts and bolts of AD&D, I feel that the core rulebooks explain how "the game" was meant to be played, philosophically, far better than any other.  If someone were to approach me today and seriously ask what D&D was all about, I would tell him to study, not just read, the AD&D core books and then come back to me.  Especially the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Gary Gygax is well-known for his ponderous, if not bloviating, writing style.  Much of what he says could be communicated in less than half the number of words.  But in my humble opinion, this writing convention is actually an important ingredient to D&D.  Gary loved his game, he couldn't stop talking about it, sometimes what he says made little sense, it's rambling, incoherent, and often very unwieldy in real-world practice.  But I think what we should realize is that if there isn't a little bit of that in our D&D games, we're simply not playing it right.  If we're not so in-love with our fantasy worlds, to make the effort to put care into every tiny piece of it, maybe we need a new hobby.  Today's commercial fantasy is largely devoid of that kind of freewheeling tender-loving-care Gary injected into his game.  We need more of it, not less.

But if you wanted to frame, not only AD&D, but D&D into a single picture, this is it:

No other image in all of D&D art captures more completely what the game is about (including the back cover not shown here).  I'd like to take just a moment to list a couple large points to detail exactly why this is:

1. D&D's focus is about dungeons, it's dark, a little scary, and it sure ain't mommy approved.

Ever since the 1980s, there has been an ever growing trend to white-wash fantasy into something your grandmother could approve of.  Heroes got bigger and badder, they started carrying around swords twice their size, and they were all but impenetrable.  Super hero comic books and fantasy now resemble each other so much, they are almost indistinguishable.  And remember that little fabric softener teddy bear thing?  At some point, someone decided that we needed more of him in fantasy, and we ended up with stuff like this in our video games:

Puffy Snuggly Chunky Heroes Inc.
Now at the risk of exaggeration, I'll admit that not all modern fantasy is 100% G rated these days (though I can't really think of a good example at the moment).  But, there was a point in time where fantasy and RPGs in particular were a thing quite out of this world.  Look at the big, nasty idol in the image, with its eerie lighting, and the recently-used sacrificial altar below it.  I think we can agree that it's about the last thing you'd find in your average Christian church.  Early RPGs were a little edgy, even downright occult at times.  But this is part and parcel of good fantasy; we see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinth. 13:12) - it was never meant to be paraded around on a bright, shiny, silver platter, accessible by every common layman who wants to take a pass at it.  It should require a little bit of mental exertion to figure it, to discover, to uncover, and to enjoy.

I'm reminded of the early CRPGs of the 1980s: Ultima, the "Gold Box" games like Pool of Radiance, and Might & Magic.  Those games gave you an obscure back-story with next to nothing to start with, but a vast open world with a deep, complex mythology and hundreds of secrets to be discovered.  The barrier of entry was tremendous, but the rewards for discovery were equally so.  These games emulated this tenebrous part of D&D very well.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should be trying to mimic Black Leaf or anything like that.  But keeping our games a little gritty and edgy maintains the wonder and magic intact.

2. D&D doesn't have heroes, it has heroics

Take another look at the people in the two images above.  The people on the D&D cover are hardly what you would consider heroes.  In fact, most of them seem like they have no business at all hanging around such a nasty place.  The old man could die of heart disease at any moment and the two in the foreground, looking at a map or ledger of some sort, appear a little confused about what to do next.  The other side of the book shows a small group of similar men hauling crates away.  Not to mention that none of them even realizes that they are being robbed right out from under their noses by the thieves prying the jewel out.  Yeah, the first thought that comes to my mind is that these dudes are not cool at all.

These aren't heroes, these are the local villagers who had a few rusty old weapons lying around and decided to raid a dungeon.  The other thing you notice is that they are all middle-aged or old men.  No women, no elves, and certainly no angsty teenage Gokus or Clouds here.  You see, feminism, Saturday-morning cartoons, and Japanese hair stylists never really existed back in the Medieval European Dark Ages, the real-world based setting where Classic D&D takes place.  That's not to say a woman or child couldn't be found in a dungeon like this, it's just that most of the time they would probably be locked up in a cage somewhere.

Gary Gygax spends quite a few paragraphs in the DMG talking about the setting of D&D.  Unlike the modern game, Classic D&D is not truly setting neutral.  It has one built in, and its tone is pretty pervasive throughout the entire collection of rulebooks.  This is a low-magic world, where humans are the dominant race, and places and things of your worst nightmares exist, basically, to torment them.  Player characters are not really there to save the world, just to save his own corner of it; himself, and more rarely, his family and maybe his sorry excuse of a town.  Often he's out to get rich and nothing more, the rules in fact heavily imply that advancement revolves almost exclusively around the obtaining of gold.

Gygax also heavily implies that player characters have no more right to exist than anything else in the world.  Those Kobolds in that dungeon are not just their to fill up your experience bar, they have lives and stories of their own.  It's the goal of the player to guide their character, as their pseudo spirit-soul, to make a name for themselves - to make a difference in that world.  Most importantly, it's about telling a story, not winning.

3. The World, not the Character

Characters in D&D die frequently, at first level they may start with only a few hit points.  But whether they die within the first game session, or manage to survive in a campaign world for years and years, the story told is equally valid and just as impacting.  The real character in D&D is the world itself, not the player characters.  Moving and shaping the world ought to be the main goal, moving and shaping your character comes as a symptom of it.  Your characters have a lasting effect on the world even after their death, through their deeds.  Towns may erect statues or monuments for them, new PC and NPC characters may go searching for their treasure, and bards may sing of their deeds in local taverns.  Winning in Old School D&D means adding to the world's richness.

A lot of people love to talk about whether you run your RPG as a sandbox or as a linear "story-driven" affair.  I'll say this right out: there is no other right way to run D&D other than as a sandbox.  If you're not playing your game as a world that is living and breathing, you're frankly not playing an RPG.  This is immensely important, and something that has been all but dropped from the definition of RPGs today.  A linear story has no meaningful choices, it is a DM's personal fantasy fetish that he has decided to force on a group of guinea pigs to get a rise out of.  There really can be no other way to sum it up than that.

Another thing people love to talk about is creating the "illusion" of choice in their game as a way to trick players into feeling like they are making meaningful choices.  Example: "If the players decide to go south instead of north, just place the same dungeon in their path without their realization".  This is rubbish.  A phony, concocted railroad is still a phony concocted railroad whether your players know it or not.  I can't live with myself if I know I've broken my world to satisfy my personal agenda.  Also, consider this: D&D worlds are not just for the players to explore, they're for the DMs to explore as well.  The DM as narrator, not creator is something I'd very much like to get into more deeply in a later post.

A true Classic D&D campaign is run mostly from improvisation.  Sure, setup all the dungeons you want, plan an awesome world with lots of people, places and things to do.  But when you get to the game, let the players decide how they will approach it.  Read S Is For Sandbox if you want a great tutorial on how to do this effectively.

Well, this is enough for today.  I could go on another 20 pages on this topic, but we'll leave some for later.  Next time I will be discussing my D&D ruleset of choice.

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