On the Inscrutability of AD&D and Ye Olde Styles of Play
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  1. #1
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    On the Inscrutability of AD&D and Ye Olde Styles of Play

    So, a recent comment in a thread had me thinking to myself, "Self, why do people say that all of AD&D was a certain way? Is this like a comedy routine? You know, 'Grognards be doin' it this way, and People that need to get off my lawn be doin' that way.'"

    Anyway, the specific thread/comment that had me thinking about this again is here-
    https://www.enworld.org/forum/showth...=1#post7621612

    And this is the excerpt:

    This shouldn't be terribly contentious. This is D&D after all. Y'know, back to the dungeon, the mega dungeon, dungeon crawling, that sort of thing? I mean, good grief, look at most modules published up until about 1982, which is a pile of them - they're pretty much nothing but hack fest dungeon crawls.
    (h/t @Hussar )

    So, I was thinking about this, and I thought that it was both accurate in some ways, but also ... well, it was also contentious. And the reason why boils down to what I would call the essential inscrutability of OD&D / AD&D / B/X . And since I have been ruminating over this for a while, I thought I would break out my thoughts on the issue, and why it's much harder to make general statements about how people played at that time than it is, say, to make statements regarding 5e. So, here goes! I'm sure this will go well .....

    1. History of the World, Part I. "The Lord has given unto you these fifteen .... Oy, ten! TEN Commandments! For all to obey!" So, history is hard. And while some of us might discuss the release of the Efreeti-covered DMG at our local Waldenbooks like it was yesterday, others might reasonably point out that it happened 40 years ago. And a lot has changed in 40 years. It is easy to characterize and stereotype an era; when a blockbuster movie (like, say, Captain Marvel) wants to signify it is set in the 1990s, it just puts some 90s tunes on the soundtrack, and a few flannels here and there, and a NIN t-shirt. But, of course, that wasn't all the 90s. Just like everyone in the 60s wasn't dropping acid and groovin' to Hendrix at Woodstock, and everyone in the 70s wasn't doing lines and dancing to disco with Warhol at Studio 54, not everyone was playing D&D in the same way.

    I know that there is a fine line between generalizations (which can promote discussion) and unfair stereotypes (which can hinder those discussions), but it applies moreso, in my opinion, when looking at history. The further back in history you look, the more it begins to be an undifferentiated mass, with only certain signifiers standing out. Just like everyone today doesn't play 5e the same way, everyone in the past wasn't playing AD&D (or earlier versions) the same way.


    2. The ATM Conundrum. So, this is a variation on 1, above. So one of the things about new technology is that it quickly insinuates its way into your life to an extent that you don't even realize how things worked before it existed. I mean, not having cell phones and the ability to instantly communicate by voice, text, or email? I happen to call this the ATM conundrum, because I can still recall the sudden and widespread appearance of ATMs everywhere when I was young; just imagine, before that, having to get all of your money for the weekend at a bank ... before it closed (or finding one with Saturday hours). Or having arrangements with a local merchant (and/or bar) to spot you the money for your paycheck. Check cashing became a serious issue.

    I use that both because people can dimly relate to that, but also because with the advent of personal electronic transfers and cell phones, ATMs themselves may seem quaint, soon. Ah, but what does this have to with either price of tea in China, or with AD&D? It's the internet. This forum that we are using, right now, didn't exist back then. The internet has two fascinating effects w/r/t D&D, IMO-

    a. It encourages niche play. In other words, you can find communities of like-minded gamers and play over the internet, or get advice from other people that you don't have in your local community.

    b. On the other hand, it also encourages standardization and homogenization. To the extent you don't know or understand what the RAW (or RAI) are, you can find the answer here. Sure, sometimes there is a debate, but for the most part you can find the correct answer.

    This is really important, because AD&D* didn't have that. And as I put in more detail below, the rules were opaque and could be a little confusing, which led to a great of amount of variance from table-to-table. Moreover, the one semi-official publication that would explicate certain rules (Dragon Magazine) wasn't read by everyone, and was mostly filled with additional rules and content to modify the game! Which means that the truly involved gamers who had access to Dragon Magazine usually also ran the most modified games. This, combined with the amount of DIY ethos in the game at the time, meant that generalizations about style are difficult to make.


    3. The @Tony Vargas Postulate. So, one of the major issues with AD&D is the distinction between what we now call RAW and RAI. AD&D was so complex, so verbose, and had so many optional parts and so many inherent conflicts, that we would probably have to add a completely separate category for RAP (rules as played). In other words, every game, for the most part, was a custom build. The reason I refer to this as the Tony Vargas postulate is because my go-to example always used to be that no one used weapon v. AC modifiers; of course, I learned that Tony Vargas not only used them, but was a huge proponent and advocate of them! And so it goes with almost anything in AD&D; some people loved item saving throws, other people didn't use them. Some people didn't play with the whole "Elves can't be resurrected," other people did play with it, and still other people remembered that elves can't be resurrected, except by a rod of resurrection, because reasons. But the takeaway from this should be that it is difficult to refer to the RAW (especially the more esoteric ones) to prove a point about how AD&D was played.


    Conclusion

    So, why write all of this? As a reminder. To me, partly. Is there a reason that people think of the older styles as including hack & slash, and dungeon delving, and murderhoboing? Sure! That existed, but all sorts of other styles of play existed as well. I think that what people don't understand is how deeply weird early D&D could be, from table to table. With spaceships. And gamma world crossovers. And guns.

    And people discuss Gygax and his old-school manner, but even ol' Old School himself had campaigns with CLONES ON THE MOON and SIX-SHOOTIN' WIZARDS, where adventurers were plane hoppin' and hobnobbin' with demons. I know that I was up and running campaigns with psionics based on Julian May, and magic systems cribbed from Donaldson, and planar adventures with a decidedly Lovecraftian feel. Using the AD&D system to approximate Lord of Light by Zelazny? Sure, why not!

    It's very difficult to constrain the imagination with rules; and D&D unleashed the imagination of so many. Or, to put it another way, the rules were available to all, but those rules led to the different playstyles we still echoed today.


    *I am just going to use this from now on. This will stand in for OD&D as well. It's not like OD&D was as unmuddied as a clear stream.
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    It's difficult to find anything approaching a true commonality for how we all approach the game. There's generational issues, age issues, and a bunch of local and personal idiosyncrasies at work. Did you learn to play in 1977, or 1987, or 1997? Did you learn to play when you were 10, or when you were 25? Were you first exposed to the game by a friend inviting you to play, or did you learn by seeing a book (or boxed set) in the store, and picking it up? Was there a dedicated group of gamers in your town, or was it just you and a couple friends?

    I mean, just as an example of local idiosyncrasies, to this day I still find the idea of running modules and dungeon crawls deeply weird. When I learned to play, roll some characters and make up a story so we can fight stuff was the expected style of play. There was a general vibe that running a published adventure (this was in the mid 1990s, so published adventures also weren't a big thing at the time) meant you weren't a creative DM.

    It's why the general hoopla of "What classic adventure are they bringing back now" is completely lost on me. For me, AD&D nostalgia is completely focused on things like Planescape, or Spelljammer, or Birthright, or the cool red and blue and green books that were part of the AD&D 2e line. The AD&D experience in the '70s and '80s is completely opaque to me.
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    Quote Originally Posted by TwoSix View Post

    It's why the general hoopla of "What classic adventure are they bringing back now" is completely lost on me. For me, AD&D nostalgia is completely focused on things like Planescape, or Spelljammer, or Birthright, or the cool red and blue and green books that were part of the AD&D 2e line. The AD&D experience in the '70s and '80s is completely opaque to me.

    AD&D isn't 2e. Dem's fighting words.

    The first sign that AD&D was suffering from the consumption was the publication of Unearthed Arcana; the DSG and WSG was the coughing up of blood in bed; 2e was the final death rattle.

    (I think that the individualized experiences of times past is often opaque, and while greater understandings can be achieved, true understanding is often elusive.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by TwoSix View Post
    There was a general vibe that running a published adventure (this was in the mid 1990s, so published adventures also weren't a big thing at the time) meant you weren't a creative DM.
    Whereas, my experience was playing with a very niche groups of friends scattered widely over a large city - thus we met up infrequently, often at very short notice ("are you free tomorrow for some D&D, get a bus over to my place for about 11 in the morning, we'll play until my parents get home and kick us off the dinner table"). This was mainly due to me going to a private school some 12 miles from my house, therefore my school friends were mostly not local.

    The traditional image of a group of local geeks meeting up for lengthy gaming sessions in a spacious basement simply did not exist for me. Our houses do not have basements, we played on family dining tables and thus needed parents to be agreeable to their house being invaded by shrieking teens too! I knew 1 player, who also went to the same school, within walking distance of my house, and he was very studious with strict parents, thus he spent more time on schoolwork than gaming.

    Thus modules were a necessity. We needed something we could just pick up and play. We rarely finished them either. Thankfully though this was the mid 80s, so the modules we had at our disposal were from the earlier 1E era, and thus generally very good - their format allowed us to dip in and out of them.

    Running a long term, self written, cohesive campaign was simply never an option.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonnyP71 View Post
    Thus modules were a necessity. We needed something we could just pick up and play. We rarely finished them either. Thankfully though this was the mid 80s, so the modules we had at our disposal were from the earlier 1E era, and thus generally very good - their format allowed us to dip in and out of them.

    Running a long term, self written, cohesive campaign was simply never an option.
    I mean, I often adapted modules into whatever campaign I was running at the time. I often wonder, looking back, how I possibly had time for this, as well as everything else I was up to!

    Ah, youth.

    But it did make me think- if people had trouble finishing the 1e modules, how on earth are people finishing the APs? Anecdotally, I know that some of the teen groups that I taught and gone off on their own haven't been able to finish an AP.

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    People who's formative gaming years happened before the advent of the popular internet had a fundamentally different set of experiences that people who didn't. Also, people who actually played version X when it was the current system tend of have very different opinions of those systems than people who only understand them as artifacts. Prior to forums and chat groups there was no general consensus, no easy access optimization, and no need to do anything except what the actual gaming group wanted to do. Now people have internet opinions, by which I mean they've read stuff about how things work, or what's over-powered, or whatever, but don't hold those opinions necessarily because of any actual experience on their part. This phenomenon isn't localized to D&D either, the various GW games suffered the same growing pains magnified by an order of magnitude. This isn't about good/bad or right/wrong just indexing the difference in opinion that can stem from different formative experiences.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonnyP71 View Post
    Running a long term, self written, cohesive campaign was simply never an option.
    Oh man, "long term" and "cohesive" are really strong words for how we played back then. A "campaign" usually meant we remembered to bring our character sheets from last time and didn't have to start over.
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    I think the only real objective truth in this whole topic is that people played with more variation of rules back in 1e than people do today with 5e. For many of the reasons cited (how rules were written back then...ahem...weapon v armor chart, and with technology bringing more people together). Outside of that one truism, it all comes down to anecdotal experiences I imagine.

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    It really was a whole other world before the Internet. Throughout the TSR era, my experience of D&D was entirely shaped by the groups I played with, and everybody had their own take on the rules; ranging from fast and loose in some cases, to one where there were enough house rules to make a whole new book. (I'm not exaggerating. There was a three-ring binder just for the house rules. It was... something. I only played with them once or twice, so I never got to explore The House Rules in all their glory, which is a pity.)

    And of course, every group thought the way they played was the right, obvious, and true way*, and was shocked to discover that other people played differently.

    These days, I only play with the one group that I've been playing with for a decade-plus. We play about twice a month, for ~4 hours per session. My experience of other groups comes entirely via the Internet, mostly this forum. Far greater exposure to the theory of D&D, but a good deal less practice.

    *Well, except the group with the binder full of house rules. Presumably they had figured out that other people did things differently, and therefore set out to codify every single one of the differences. I can't decide if they were heroic, insane, or both.
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    Quote Originally Posted by lowkey13 View Post
    But it did make me think- if people had trouble finishing the 1e modules, how on earth are people finishing the APs? Anecdotally, I know that some of the teen groups that I taught and gone off on their own haven't been able to finish an AP.
    From my understanding, a lot of campaigns die out before they finish the AP. Honestly there are quite a few old BECMI, 1E, and 2E adventures that could easily become a full AP with very little additional work (assuming you don't have to start at level 1). Castle Amber is a great example of this, and the Desert of Desolation trilogy is another.

    I've found when converting old adventures into 5E, it's easier to just take the concept of the adventure, then boil away a lot of the extra stuff. I ran Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 3 sessions of 4 hours each by cutting the temple down to 1 encounter of cultists and the lair itself into 6 increasingly difficult encounters. If I'd tried to run it as it was, my players probably would have tired of the combat before finishing the temple.

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