Why OD&D Is Still Relevant
  • Why OD&D Is Still Relevant



    Since it was probably all over your feeds already (and has been mentioned on the front page here), I won’t go into a great deal of detail except to say that the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons is out in PDF on all of the OneBookshelf related-sites. A big part of the problem with having role-playing gaming conversation online (and in person as well) is that a lot of the viewpoints are based off of what people have read or heard other people say about games, rather than experience them first hand. Many times this is because the material in question is long out of print, and the people wanting to talk about couldn’t experience them first hand. As more older material comes back into print (or made available in PDF form) I would like to think that it will make having honest conversations easier. I know that is likely a naïve idea.

    Original
    (or Old, depending on how you like to fill in the “O”) Dungeons & Dragons is the transition from earlier wargames to what would eventually become role-playing games. I like to think of this incarnation as being more like “proto” D&D, mostly because while there are a lot of the elements that gamers without familiarity with the older D&D experience would recognize as being D&D, still not all of the pieces are in place. I think the things that aren’t there will be more likely to trip people up.

    Let’s talk a little about what the proto D&D isn’t, or doesn’t have, for those who haven’t experienced it. First off, everything from weapons to hit dice are on a d6 “scale.” That means that weapons tend to look pretty much alike, as do the hit points of characters. Fighters (called “Fighting-Men” at this point after Edgar Rice Burroughs references) get slightly more hit dice than Magic-Users, but Clerics are close behind. A party without a Fighter can hang on with a Cleric or two (which is how games I’ve played have worked out).

    The other “missing” component is the Thief class. No Thieves ‘til Greyhawk.

    Most of the other elements are in place, and “race as class” isn’t yet on the table. There is a flaw, though, in that a couple of special abilities for elves and dwarves refer to the Chainmail rules.

    The issues of hit dice and a lack of Thieves are my biggest issue with the proto D&D. The Thieves are a big deal, because between Leiber and Howard, it doesn’t feel like fantasy to me without a Thief. It also seems a weird omission for dungeon-based adventuring.

    In play, the sameness of hit dice and weapons damage can lead to a generic quality for things, particularly weapons. It can also create a weird quality of the characters all having roughly the same “toughness” to them, regardless of class. Randomness is a great equalizer in the proto D&D, and your first level Fighter can have fewer hit points than the Magic-User. While it might just appear happenchance on the surface, I think that the random quality is what passed for “game balance” in these earliest versions of the game.



    Now, I haven’t played proto D&D directly in a couple of decades, but over the last few years our group has played a lot of Swords & Wizardry, starting out using the Whitebox rules, and then eventually adding more detail from Core and Complete as we went along in our games. Whitebox certainly was more Magic-User user friendly.

    Now, Greyhawk, the first supplement to OD&D, “fixed” these “problems.” This was also the point at which Magic-Users were forever consigned to having d4 hit dice (I personally use a d6 for them in my “old school” games), which can be good or bad depending on your view of things. I get that the reasoning was probably “Hey, they get spells…let’s not go crazy with the Magic-User” but it isn’t a line of reasoning that I agree with. But the nice thing about the game is that it is flexible enough to take a few smacks from house rules, with only minimal wobbling on the part of the system.

    And this boils things down as to why I like playing these older editions of the game. For some, playing OD&D or “old school” games like Swords & Wizardry get written off as being nostalgia-driven. Despite having gamed since 1979, I am one of the least nostalgic gamers that you are probably ever going to encounter. Honestly, I killed off enough brain cells in college that I couldn’t remember how I gamed as a kid if I even wanted to do so. But, and this is probably evident in my writing about games, I have reached a point in my life, and my gaming, where I want simpler approaches to things in my gaming. That’s where “old school” games come into play for me.

    A couple of years ago, when a long-time friend of mine asked me to introduce her to tabletop RPGs (after years of playing WoW) via Google Hangouts, I started a search for fantasy games that would have a similar enough of an experience that she would be able to recognize it from her experience, while being a simpler experience and getting away from the grid and miniatures approach (that I am not a fan of anyway). I scoured the internet, looking for things that were free downloads (didn’t want her to buy a bunch of stuff and turn out to hate tabletop) and looked over games like Basic Fantasy and Swords & Wizardry. I don’t remember the exact reasoning, maybe because the Whitebox rules were so simple, but that was what we went with. We used a variant Thief class to round out our game.

    Anyway, this is a digression but I wanted to dig in a little and show that what I am talking about is play-based. Plus, the flexibility of the game is a huge consideration. Making up new classes is pretty easy, mostly because there aren’t as many mechanics to complicate matters. Expansion for an OD&D game (without Greyhawk being out in PDF at the time of publication) is really easy with all of the resources that exist for games like Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (which, if I haven’t explained well enough is based off of just the rules from the initial OD&D three booklets) to take your OD&D games in all sorts of directions. Barrel Rider Games does a lot of material for Whitebox that can easily be slotted into OD&D as well.

    Even if your plan isn’t to play OD&D as-is, there is still a great foundation onto which you can build a fun class and level based fantasy game that does better suit the needs that you might have in a game. Crafting new spells and new monsters is pretty easy. I made about five new monsters before our Tuesday game in just a couple of hours. That time was going from “I have a cool name” to “I have a fully statted out creature.” If you want to check out something that is fairly close to OD&D (but is free), there is Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry. It is a pretty great game in its own rights, and our group has gotten years of enjoyment out of playing the game. I really hope that new edition Swords & Wizardry Kickstarter happens.
    Comments 71 Comments
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      I quite like OD&D, in all its rawness. I’m not sure I’d want to run it with all the supplements…after a certain point, it more or less just becomes AD&D.

      With so few bonuses in the game, few character abilities, and damage more or less the same for anything, it’s much more a game of luck and player smarts.

      I think it’s important to know where the game started…knowing your roots and all that. One of my players (who pretty much hates all old-school play) once commented that OD&D was a cruddy (he used a stronger word) game. I think that does it a disservice; it’s easy to judge the game based on how far we’ve come in the days since, but it doesn’t negate the fact that there were no templates to go from, that this was something new, and it caught on like wildfire.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Of the two people that are in our group, one wasn't born with OD&D came out (and never played it or any variant of it until our games) and of course my friend who had never played tabletop. Both of them were able to see the foundation that was there, and build their thing from that foundation.

      I think the idea that newer is better, or more evolved, can be a flawed one, but I don't think that there's anything wrong with a mix of old and new. I played in a Werewolf game on Monday, ran Swords & Wizardry on Tuesday, and I am going to be running a Fate Accelerated game on Saturday.
    1. estar's Avatar
      estar -
      OD&D has thieves, just steal something and you are a thief. It may seem like sarcasm but think about it, OD&D character before Greyhawk were stealing, stealthing, picking pockets, and and opening locks, just like they were climbing, jumping, bending bars, etc. However rather than have a class dedicated to that with a special ability that gave you the odds you had to come up with a chance of success based on the specific plan, the circumstances and what the referee thought was the relevant attribute.

      Of course the actual mechanics varied from referee. The one I know about included rolling 1d20 low, rolling 3d6 low, rolling percentage equal or below your attribute, rolling percentage under you attribute time 5, and so on.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Newer is not necessarily better, as a great many of us decided after experiencing 4e. New Coke sucked, too.

      That said, I have the venerable White Box and all those little tan books - the original 1970-something copies - sitting on a shelf in my bedroom. A few years ago I read those rules, with an eye toward running a short story arc using them only. I started with a feeling of nostalgia and excitement, and ended an hour or so later, shaking my head, laughing about how awful those rules are. That, obviously, is entirely subjective. I look at the true OD&D - that box - as like a first kiss...an awful, sloppy behind the gym in middle school or something like that kiss. When it happened it rocked like a Kiss video, but looking back on it the functional side of it was pretty bad. It was a good place to start, but better things have followed since.
    1. Zaran's Avatar
      Zaran -
      I don't think it's relevant at all. That's like someone buying a Model T because it's easy to work on. Sure it's easy to work on but it only goes 30 mph and needs to be hand cranked to start.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zaran View Post
      I don't think it's relevant at all. That's like someone buying a Model T because it's easy to work on. Sure it's easy to work on but it only goes 30 mph and needs to be hand cranked to start.
      However, in the case of a Model T, if you wear a Steampunk costume and introduce yourself as "Professor Mortimer Smythe III, esq." while driving it, you'd look pretty cool. In some crowds.

      OD&D does not afford that utility.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      If I had money to burn, I might pick it up just as a collector. I'm at the point in my life where I don't want to spend the time to read through a bunch of role-playing game rules I'm not going to ever use, but I assume that the text of OD&D is short enough that I might give it a go.

      As far as the evolution of role-playing games...

      I think the biggest true evolution and refinement is about standardization of mechanics. I would argue (strongly) that having different mechanics for everything you want to do (bend bars/lift gate it's own thing, initiative its own thing, etc) is primitive game design. By the modern (and even not so modern) state of the technology it is bad design. A lot of games standardized way back in the 80s. It was one of the first things that people started noticing as being a mess. That is my problem with retroclones--replicating bad design. It would be like redesigning a Model T, but not bothering to make the invisible little adjustments that would make it better. What's the point? It was good design at the time. It is primitive and bad design now.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      One thing that most folks forget is that D&D was created to allow role play gaming rather then tactical board game combat(think Chainmail). Somewhere in those 3 original books is a comment that if you really want to include miniatures, you can use the Chainmail rules. It seems odd that as the version numbers increased, miniatures slowly crept back in, becoming mandatory in 3.5. The escape from tedious miniature combat had came full circle back to a tedious miniatures combat game with some bits of role playing still around.

      One of the things I remember most fondly from my D&D gaming sessions was the speed of combat. Entire combats were resolved in just a few minutes since we didn't have to bother with precise miniature movements. Then we could get back to the role playing. The other thing is magic items tended to be rare and unique. None of this expected magic equipment based on level. And they tended to stay useful as your levels increased.
    1. rastus_burne's Avatar
      rastus_burne -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zaran View Post
      I don't think it's relevant at all. That's like someone buying a Model T because it's easy to work on. Sure it's easy to work on but it only goes 30 mph and needs to be hand cranked to start.
      "Relevant" clearly depends on who you're asking. In my opinion it is very relevant. It provides the antecedent framework of D&D, which all new editions of D&D are derived from. If you're wanting to use the argument that because something is old it is therefore obsolete, consider the invention of the wheel, Greek logic, Indian mathematics, Mesopotamian law, and the fact that in large, these inventions are still used contemporarily. In the same way, even 5th edition borrows tremendously from OD&D: the same classes still exist; you still roll a d20 to hit things (presuming you're not using Chainmail); you still roll damage dice; you can still fight orcs, goblins, dragons, etc.;it is still Dungeons & Dragons.

      I'm currently running an OD&D campaign and it's a lot of fun — far more rewarding and flexible (to me) than the modern games of 5e and PF which I ran previously. Is this subjective? Entirely. But D&D has had enough impact on popular culture that to conclude it is not "relevant" is rather dismissive.
    1. the_redbeard's Avatar
      the_redbeard -
      Quote Originally Posted by estar View Post
      OD&D has thieves, just steal something and you are a thief. It may seem like sarcasm but think about it, OD&D character before Greyhawk were stealing, stealthing, picking pockets, and and opening locks, just like they were climbing, jumping, bending bars, etc. However rather than have a class dedicated to that with a special ability that gave you the odds you had to come up with a chance of success based on the specific plan, the circumstances and what the referee thought was the relevant attribute.
      This. This is why OD&D is relevant, WITHOUT THE THIEF. Character actions were not limited to abilities spelled out in the rules. Your character picked up a crow bar, a 10' pole, and role played through the dungeon.

      Later players reading the rules from the Greyhawk expansion onward sometimes did not understand that their characters could interact with the imagined environment _without specific ruled abilities_. This is somewhat a fault of Gary and the other writers of D&D and AD&D.

      Whether or not you prefer the game that way or through the mediation of a limited set of abilities delineated in the rules is a different question. OD&D reminds us that there is a different way to play.
    1. Chimpy's Avatar
      Chimpy -
      From a relatively new tabletop gamer I don't see the appeal in these old versions. These days games designers often think about good design principles, balance, fairness and making the game exciting and interesting for all the players and GM. Some of these old systems have horrendous balance issues, design that just isn't logical, or things that are frustrating to players.

      I know people will say that players that like it just accept this is the way it is, and have fun with it, and that's fine for them, but I think it's primarily older gamers who played it the first time round that are going to get excited about it. Also to players who like making up their own rules. To me it's nothing more than a snapshot of a first try at a RPG.

      When people say that modern RPGs are too complicated, I think it can just be a case of not having the interest to learn the system. If someone puts up a mental barrier to a product before they even open the cover, of course what's inside isn't going to sink in.

      I guess tabletop RPGs had to start somewhere. In that sense this kind of early product has value- but as a museum piece.
    1. Chimpy's Avatar
      Chimpy -
      Quote Originally Posted by the_redbeard View Post
      Character actions were not limited to abilities spelled out in the rules. Your character picked up a crow bar, a 10' pole, and role played through the dungeon.

      Later players reading the rules from the Greyhawk expansion onward sometimes did not understand that their characters could interact with the imagined environment _without specific ruled abilities_. This is somewhat a fault of Gary and the other writers of D&D and AD&D.

      Whether or not you prefer the game that way or through the mediation of a limited set of abilities delineated in the rules is a different question. OD&D reminds us that there is a different way to play.
      Surely any character, in any setting, in any RPG system can try any action? That's what RPGs are about. It's just a case of knowing what kind of roll to make and how hard the check is?

      Maybe in your example the crowbar makes it a bit easier - either there will be rule for it, or the players make a fair decision on how it affects the check. I don't think old school systems do it any differently.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Balance is a myth.
    1. darjr's Avatar
      darjr -
      Actually balance is a useful idea to strive for even if it's ultimately unobtainable for a fun game.

      For example if every character class was exactly the same you'd have perfect balance between classes. Though that game could be very boring.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      There are always those abilities that aren't really quantifiable, however. Intelligence. Wisdom. Knowledge. Artistic ability. Measuring the amount of damage that one thing does and comparing it to the damage that another thing does is quantifiable, but it ultimately is a small part of things to only look at combat.

      An elf can see in the darkness. A dwarf can detect the angle of passages. How do you quantify those to "balance" them out against other special abilities? Just because two species, or classes, have the same number of special abilities it doesn't make them equivalent to each other.

      Balance is a pointless pursuit, particularly when it isn't actually isn't actually what people are looking for when they say "balance." More often they mean "spotlight time" which is even more vague.

      A part of the reason for the randomness in early editions, and particularly in something like OD&D is to give a somewhat even footing to characters. Hit points are a great equalizer, when everyone has fairly close to the same amounts. A 1st level magic-user with 1d6 hit dice in a dungeon isn't that less squishy than the fighter with 1d6+1 hit dice, and when everything deals the same damage, a fireball isn't that much more deadly than a sword.

      This is why it is important to know about early games. Games aren't technology, they don't become obsolete. Just being newer doesn't make something automatically better. Andy Warhol's works aren't better than Picasso's just because he made them more recently.
    1. ExTSR's Avatar
      ExTSR -
      Tim Kask and I (Frank Mentzer) run OD&D games at many conventions. Just sign up and play. However, mine is straightforward OD&D, while Tim's the radical progressive, using all the Supplements.

      In my intro I emphasize that nowadays, characters' abilities are precisely defined; that's what you can do. In OD&D, by contrast, the approach is the opposite: you can do almost anything. You're unlimited except for a very very few things (only spellcasters get spells, frex). Clerics and Wizards can set traps, Elves are the best at hearing & seeing things, and anybody can try to pick a lock... and often succeed.
    1. ExTSR's Avatar
      ExTSR -
      Quote Originally Posted by Chimpy View Post
      When people say that modern RPGs are too complicated, I think it can just be a case of not having the interest to learn the system.
      And by contrast, I run OD&D games for folks who'd LIKE to try D&D... but don't want to make the major commitment in time and money just to find out whether they'd like it.

      Less rules means faster combats, too. If you prefer a full Sim, nice and slow for precision, then great. But in a 4-hour convention slot I can run 4 major melees plus 4-6 plot-advancing scenes and still have time for everybody to strut their roleplaying ability. OD&D is streamlined, not dumbed-down.

      If you like rules for everything, fine. I don't play freeform boardgames; we use all the rules. If I play PF or 3.5 we use all the rules (well, most of 'em). Any style is valid if it works for you and your group.
    1. darjr's Avatar
      darjr -
      I don't agree that balance is pointless. I've also shown that it can be achieved, though that achievement would be rather boring in my opinion, so it isn't a myth either. I do agree that too much attention to balance is probably a bad idea.

      Also games are very much technology, how is it not? They are a technique or an art used to achieve a certain goal. The problem comes in when folks think that newer technology is necessarily better technology. That is never true by default. Also with games it can be very difficult to have an objective idea of what's better.

      I love OD&D very much, and it has many lessons to teach.

      For instance ExTSR's post above. The debate that continues about the thief class is a valuable lesson for me.

      edit to add: btw I really like the article.
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      I think the oldest edition of the game I would likely enjoy playing at this point is the Holmes Basic Set. OD&D was a little too raw in my opinion. I've been playing since 79 or so, and can honestly say that 5th edition is my favorite iteration of D&D since the early days of 2e. That being said... if I were able to find a set of the old books I would definitely not be against owning them as collectibles.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      Balance is a myth.
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      There are always those abilities that aren't really quantifiable, however. Intelligence. Wisdom. Knowledge. Artistic ability. Measuring the amount of damage that one thing does and comparing it to the damage that another thing does is quantifiable, but it ultimately is a small part of things to only look at combat.



      Balance is a pointless pursuit, particularly when it isn't actually isn't actually what people are looking for when they say "balance." More often they mean "spotlight time" which is even more vague.

      A part of the reason for the randomness in early editions, and particularly in something like OD&D is to give a somewhat even footing to characters.
      If "balance" is a myth, than what does "even footing" refer to? If it's really mythical then it doesn't become less mythical by using slightly different wording.

      I also don't understand why you equate "balance" with combat.

      Personally, I think that mechanical effectiveness is a real thing in RPGs, and that it is something that design can address. Just to give a couple of examples: many players find that low-level thieves in classic D&D struggle with mechanical effectiveness (and 2nd ed AD&D recognised this and addressed it by changing the rules for determining thief skill percentages); and many players find that high-level fighters in 3E/PF can struggle with mechanical effectiveness in comparison to spellcasters.

      Whether it's good or bad for the game that some character builds tend to be more mechanically effective than others is of course a different question. The MU class entry in the AD&D PHB, for instance, both (i) explains how high-level MUs are the most mechanically effective characters in the game, and then (ii) explains that this is counterbalanced by their comparative lack of mechanical effectiveness at low levels. That's a design that tends to make sense in a play environment where PC levels have to be "earned" through actual play, and where it is realistic to expect PCs to be played enough to rise to high levels. But other play contexts (eg starting PCs well above 1st level, so that the weak levels don't actually have to be played through; or playing only at low levels, so that the rewards for that initial suffering are never gained) can mean that that particular design choice doesn't serve the purpose for which it was intended.

      It's no surprise that what counts as good or bad design is relative to certain contexts and purposes of play. But that doesn't mean that the idea that PCs have a degree of mechanical effectiveness, which admits of comparison, is a myth.
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