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D&D General On Powerful Classes, 1e, and why the Original Gygaxian Gatekeeping Failed

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't see it as a failure at all provided that a) one wants a mechanism to soft-enforce degrees of class rarity and b) one harshly (but fairly) enforces roll-up procedures starting with all rolls must be done in front of the DM.

I also see uneven advancement charts as an excellent balancing mechanism, though the originals in the 1e PHB do need a bit of tweaking to work best IMO.
Ultimately, that depends on what unit your balancing around. Rarity was a poor balancing factor for intercharacter balance. Perhaps not as bad when looking at balance issues in at the campaign level as a whole when balancing the presence of different character types over others in some kind of Gygaxian naturalism.
Then again, it isn't until decades after 1e that intercharacter balance becomes cemented (maybe even fetishized) as the be-all, end-all of balance in D&D.
Long-term balance is IMO far more important than short-term here-and-now balance.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
That's still a terrible balance mechanic, if it even can be called such a thing. Rare cards weren't even remotely equal. I mean... Arabian Nights had a MOUNTAIN as a rare card.
If you’re familiar with that story, you know why it’s disingenuous to call it a rare.
By that logic, a card that automatically let you win not only the game, but the entire opponent's deck, would be balanced, because it was rare.
That’s just silly. Obviously that would be an absurd card. Rarity is a balancing tool in a limited environment. Rarer cards are able to be more individually powerful when access to them is not guaranteed. In a constructed environment, where players have unlimited access to the entire card pool, rarity is not a balancing tool, because no card is actually any less accessible than any other.
 

Yeah, the gatekeeping stat requirements weren't very effective. There were 3 ways I know of people getting around them to play the PC class they wanted to play:

1) Use that really degenerate rolling method from Unearthed Arcana
2) Roll again and again and again to get the stats you needed
3) Roll up the character and then simply raise stats that didn't meet the requirements so that they did so.

As a variation of #3, I did like way MERP handled it (and maybe that was a feature of Rolemaster too, I didn't really delve into the original game). Every class had a primary attribute so you put your lowest rolled stat in it then raised it to 90 (out of 100). It guaranteed you had that primary attribute at a very good level and you got to ditch your lowest score to do so.

Ultimately, I'm glad the gatekeeping got ditched.
Not to be "that guy," but we always rolled as it said. We rolled in front of everyone. There was no cheating or bending. Most campaigns we had average players. My fighter had a 13 strength. But, magic items could change things drastically. They were powerful.
I like 5e too. Not disparaging that. Just, there is also a nice nod to using wit and surviving when you shouldn't. We rolled in the open (including the DM), and our actions and the dice determined our fate. When you made it through something, like Against the Giants, it was more rewarding because the risk was greater.
 

There was Chainmail :)

1e had a few years of experience with its predecessor OD&D to learn from.

I could not say off the top of my head what else came out before 1e. Based off the 1e DMG Boot Hill, Gamma World, and Metamorphosis Alpha from TSR. I don't know the exact timeline of Traveller, Runequest, or others.
There were rather few RPGs before 1978 when the 1e PHB was released. Classic Traveller was one, Tunnels & Trolls was another, and Empire of the Petal Throne was a 3rd (which TSR published, though I think MAR Barker designed the game, anyway it was not that different from D&D mechanically). RQ didn't come out until 1978. Bushido was out around '78 too. MA and GW were basically 'D&D as Science Fantasy' so they added little in terms of design expertise. Boot Hill was a very simple system, sort of a 'beer and pretzels' game really. PCs mostly didn't live through even one session.

Wikipedia also lists a number of other games. En Garde! was a very early RPG about basically dueling swordsmen. I see a few others I have played or at least read, but many of these really were very primitive games in a design sense, which often saw a single printing and then vanished forever, or became restricted to very limited niche fan bases. V&V came out in '79, that one was pretty successful. Chivalry & Sorcery in '77 was also a pretty long-lived game, but I can't say honestly that it added much to the cannon of RPG design compared to D&D. Bunnies & Burrows, somewhat considered a joke RPG at the time, was nonetheless the first game to use skills AFAIK, something that TSR never really took to, but which was emulated by Traveller and then RuneQuest

Truthfully, T&T was pretty different and innovative, but not much else has gone in that direction. There were other games that aren't listed here too. There was a Sci Fi RPG, where the players played the SHIPS, not human characters. It was VERY different from anything that has come since really, another 'road not taken' by mainline RPGs. I mean, AD&D 1e PHB COULD have learned a few things, but it was mostly a compendium of Gary's actual in-play rules, not a redesign of D&D as-such. So it could have cribbed skills from B&B, but didn't. It could have cribbed from T&T as well, but the two were so different it would have been hard to translate any mechanics (and T&T has VERY few mechanics!).
 

Ogre Mage

Adventurer
As I recall, 3.X was the edition which made the biggest paradigm shift in terms of gatekeeping. High attribute requirements for certain classes, multiclassing limited to demihumans, class level limits for demihumans -- all that was discarded in 3.X. That was also the was also the first edition where an attribute of 12 was enough for a +1 bonus to the roll. It felt like a breath of fresh air at the time and in the spirit of the OGL era.

In the late 1980s (which was still the 1E era), we middle-school D&D players used that 9d6 UA method to roll for attributes. We used 9d6 for our main stats and "only" 5d6-7d6 for other attributes, lol. I remember my multiclass cleric/mage having the following stats --

Strength 15
Dexterity 18
Constitution 18
Intelligence 18
Wisdom 18
Charisma 17

Today this character would be banned from almost all tables while generating massive side-eye. But in those days it was how we rolled. :LOL:
 

Stormonu

Legend
Counterintuitively, 3E also had the "you must be this high to cast spells" for it's casters - needing a minimum Wis, Int, Cha or whatnot for spells (Ability - 10 = highest level you can cast, as I recall).
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
I would like to note here the reality of TROUPE PLAY which was practiced in, at least Gary's, early campaigns. That is, the game was designed such that players would develop a number of characters and play different ones at different times. You were bound to get some 'good ones', and it was normal practice to A) use these character sheets for NPC henchmen (IE you rolled up a really nice wizard with an 18 INT, but you're playing your 6th level fighter now, so you hire a wizard, guess what sheet you use). and then B) henchmen could be promoted to being PCs. This was pretty close to a 'rule', at least of campaign management. So in a LOT of cases when you needed another PC, you already had some good stat blocks lying around to use, and they had some experience, etc. Technically your wizard PC might be the henchman of your fighter PC "out on sabbatical" and next week he's an NPC again, but that was perfectly fine. At some point the relationship might change, or the fighter might get ganked and maybe the wizard even gets some of his stuff, or inherits some of his employees.

The point being, you might well roll a lot of characters up, and even if you weren't allowed to toss the ones you didn't like, you could just make them less significant hirelings or whatnot, and you could build up the 'good ones' before you even really played them, and keep them 'on deck'.

All too often, this is the missing piece of context that detractors of early D&D fail to understand.

Nowadays, the norm is that you play the character you want to play because that's your character, the singular protagonist of your singular story, and just like a protagonist of written fiction, there need not be any limits on who or what can reasonably be the protagonist of your story.

In early D&D, the milieu has priority over the characters. Ability score requirements are there to make the sub-classes rare, and racial class restrictions and level limits are there to enforce the genre (human-centric sword & sorcery). Add to that the fact that the fighter sub-classes were all basically fighters but better, and you especially needed for the paladins and rangers (and, I guess, barbarians and cavaliers if you were a heretic) to be gate-kept to make the common fighters, well, common.

Unearthed Arcana looks positively insane to someone like myself, who came into the hobby during the 2nd edition days, when Zeb walked back a lot of the excesses of 1st edition: scores rolled on straight ironman 3d6 in order (without even the option to adjust stats 2-for-1 like in Basic), the sub-classes all clearly marked in the PHB as campaign-optional and pending DM approval, constant exhortation in the text of 2e to prefer low stats over high and weak characters over strong because that was a mark of "good roleplaying", etc., etc. But even 2e kept up the notion of a human-centric milieu and the fact that most PCs should be human fighters, mages, clerics, and thieves—because that kept sub-classes like paladins, rangers, bards, druids, and specialist wizards relatively rare and therefore special when you managed to qualify for them. And that was something that we've lost along the way! The 2nd edition DMG warns that if you make a campaign-specific rule that gnomes can now be paladins, don't be surprised when your campaign is overrun by gnome paladins! (A sentiment which makes perfect sense in a game where gnomes have special abilities that humans don't, and paladins have special abilities that fighters don't.)

From 3rd edition forward, the desire to center the player character as the focus of the campaign (which clearly most groups were already doing; 3e was nothing if not a response to the market demand of its day) led to a removal of all such restrictions and limits, but also a leveling of options—from then forward, humans had to be on par with all the other races in terms of advantages, and fighters had to be on par with all other classes. While the success of this endeavor has varied since 2000 (I don't think anybody would argue with the contention that the 3.0 martial types, the ranger especially, were all pretty terrible in terms of balance against the caster types), it has also resulted in a markedly different sort of game, and one that doesn't really support the same style of troupe play that really sings when you play one of the TSR editions in that style. But more notably, nobody who plays a WotC edition would ever argue that paladins and rangers are something special in the way they (ostensibly) were during the TSR era.

In the old days, having a special character was at least in theory supposed to be a rarity. Now it's the norm, and so The Incredibles maxim holds demonstrably true: when everyone is special no one is.
 
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Truthfully, T&T was pretty different and innovative, but not much else has gone in that direction. There were other games that aren't listed here too. There was a Sci Fi RPG, where the players played the SHIPS, not human characters. It was VERY different from anything that has come since really, another 'road not taken' by mainline RPGs. I mean, AD&D 1e PHB COULD have learned a few things, but it was mostly a compendium of Gary's actual in-play rules, not a redesign of D&D as-such. So it could have cribbed skills from B&B, but didn't. It could have cribbed from T&T as well, but the two were so different it would have been hard to translate any mechanics (and T&T has VERY few mechanics!).
The only people I remember playing T&T were playing Solo...Played a lot of Melee/Wizard by Metagaming bought The Fantasy Trip but never played. The major influencer of D&D outside of TSR and Judges Guild preAD&D in my area was Arduin Grimore by Dave Hargrave. I remember the levels going to astronomical levels, it was very popular with the Monty Hall games...
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Method V allowed you to roll up to 9d6 to generate an ability (!), and if you didn't get the minimum, you could just take the minimum score needed. Although it said it only applied to humans, because Gygax really, really loved humanocentrism, that was almost always ignored at tables that used it, and it quickly became a way for table to generate very high ability scores while also choosing their class.
I really liked your post, but I'm not sure this broke that many games. I found exactly 0 DMs that would allow me to use that method. 4d6-L was pretty universal in my experience. Even after the UA was released.
 

mach1.9pants

Adventurer
The base methods for 1e wasn't 3d6 as alluded to in the OP, it was the now main stream 4d6k1 arranged to suit
"Method I: All scores are recorded and arranged in the order the player desires. 4d6 are rolled, and the lowest die (or one of the lower) is discarded." Although the other methods were just as valid, method 1 took rank just cos it was first!
In addition Gygax had this advice for PCs "Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics. " And that was in the PHB no less, so player's could reasonably ask for re rolls until they got that!
 
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S'mon

Legend
And that's what it comes down to- in the end, the method used just wasn't popular, and most tables found a way around it either explicitly or surreptitiously. Which is why, AFAIK, there are no vestiges of Gygaxian gatekeeping left in 5e.
Running Village of Hommlet in 1e, I noticed that Gygax's NPCs have pretty incredible stats, eg (from my blog, but I think unchanged) Fulnok of Ferd (Thief) ST 8 IN 14 WI 10 DE 18 (+3 -4) CO 15 (+1) CH 13 , Elmo the Ranger ST 18/43 (+1, +3) IN 15 WI 16 (+2) DE 16 (+1/-2) CO 17 (+3) CH 11. These are normal PC-equivalent NPCs and I got a pretty strong impression this is what Gygax expected PCs to look like.
 

mach1.9pants

Adventurer
Running Village of Hommlet in 1e, I noticed that Gygax's NPCs have pretty incredible stats, eg (from my blog, but I think unchanged) Fulnok of Ferd (Thief) ST 8 IN 14 WI 10 DE 18 (+3 -4) CO 15 (+1) CH 13 , Elmo the Ranger ST 18/43 (+1, +3) IN 15 WI 16 (+2) DE 16 (+1/-2) CO 17 (+3) CH 11. These are normal PC-equivalent NPCs and I got a pretty strong impression this is what Gygax expected PCs to look like.
Most of the pre built PCs and also NPCs had super high scores. I've heard it that to survive to higher levels they had to have those great rolls, the crap abilities ones died 🤣
 

S'mon

Legend
, it has also resulted in a markedly different sort of game, and one that doesn't really support the same style of troupe play that really sings when you play one of the TSR editions in that style.

Recently I've been using 5e for more troupe style play (ironically, my original 1980s AD&D games were very much in the PC-centric play mode). There's very little in the 5e books to fight against this style; I just turned off the modules like Feats & Multiclassing that add PC complexity and tend to work against it; I use PC class NPCs (an option in the DMG), and every PC starts at 1st level. I find the challenges are purely in adjusting player expectations, not in the ruleset.
 

Running Village of Hommlet in 1e, I noticed that Gygax's NPCs have pretty incredible stats, eg (from my blog, but I think unchanged) Fulnok of Ferd (Thief) ST 8 IN 14 WI 10 DE 18 (+3 -4) CO 15 (+1) CH 13 , Elmo the Ranger ST 18/43 (+1, +3) IN 15 WI 16 (+2) DE 16 (+1/-2) CO 17 (+3) CH 11. These are normal PC-equivalent NPCs and I got a pretty strong impression this is what Gygax expected PCs to look like.
Yup it's absolutely no wonder people started going with more "creative" generation methods and so on when you saw stuff like that. By 2E we'd got to the point where PCs were seemingly meant to be in the same general league as heroes in the various (then hugely popular) FR books and so on, and when you saw their stats they were eye-popping, and NPCs who got full stat blocks tended to look like pretty high-rollers.

Recently I've been using 5e for more troupe style play (ironically, my original 1980s AD&D games were very much in the PC-centric play mode). There's very little in the 5e books to fight against this style; I just turned off the modules like Feats & Multiclassing that add PC complexity and tend to work against it; I use PC class NPCs (an option in the DMG), and every PC starts at 1st level. I find the challenges are purely in adjusting player expectations, not in the ruleset.
I can believe that.

5E is heavier than old editions in terms of rules that apply to all PCs and if the players are playing smart the groups will be extremely well-rounded skill-wise and pretty damn hard to kill unless they make no effort to live (esp. with larger groups), but at lower levels it shouldn't be too different. How high have you gone with it? It feels like in the mid and high levels the proliferation of abilities, the fact that casters have more/better spells/day and so on might make an impact - it doesn't bog down like 3.XE and 4E did though, I've played as high as 15-ish in 5E, but that wasn't really troupe-style.
 
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S'mon

Legend
Yup it's absolutely no wonder people started going with more "creative" generation methods and so on when you saw stuff like that. By 2E we'd got to the point where PCs were seemingly meant to be in the same general league as heroes in the various (then hugely popular) FR books and so on, and when you saw their stats they were eye-popping, and NPCs who got full stat blocks tended to look like pretty high-rollers.


I can believe that.

5E is heavier than old editions in terms of rules that apply to all PCs and if the players are playing smart the groups will be extremely well-rounded skill-wise and pretty damn hard to kill unless they make no effort to live (esp. with larger groups), but at lower levels it shouldn't be too different. How high have you gone with it? It feels like in the mid and high levels the proliferation of abilities, the fact that casters have more/better spells/day and so on might make an impact - it doesn't bog down like 3.XE and 4E did though, I've played as high as 15-ish in 5E, but that wasn't really troupe-style.

I remember when 3e came out, the "standard array" 15-14-13-12-10-8 seemed laughably low to players used to 1e norms! 3e Point Built PCs would generally go for an 18. Rolled best-3-of-4d6 3e PCs varied hugely in ability, which only got worse with level up boosts. In hindsight I wish I'd used standard array in my 3e games, though class imbalance would have remained.

Then with 4e point buy became the norm, and had an assumed default start of 18 or 20 in the prime attribute. 5e really toned it down with a point buy max 15 (16-17 with race mods) which limited starting attribute mod to +3, same as an 18 in Classic D&D. I find this 5e approach works really well in play. When running 5e I normally assume the standard array or point buy represents pretty much peak ability; PCs and PC-equivalent NPCs use that while everyone else works down from there.
 

I remember when 3e came out, the "standard array" 15-14-13-12-10-8 seemed laughably low to players used to 1e norms!
Yup lol, I was like "Are you joking? What kind of schmendrick has stats like that?" coming off of 2E and various "generous" takes on 4d6-drop-the-lowest (I seem to remember allowing someone to roll an entire page full of 4d6DtL and just pick one because hey they were all real collections of rolled stats right?).

In 5E we've finally gone to standard array, which, and I hate to admit this, has resulted in more interesting characters. Albeit the level of "INT is our dump stat" in the parties in 5E is hilarious. So many classes use CHA, so few use INT...
 

S'mon

Legend
5E is heavier than old editions in terms of rules that apply to all PCs and if the players are playing smart the groups will be extremely well-rounded skill-wise and pretty damn hard to kill unless they make no effort to live (esp. with larger groups), but at lower levels it shouldn't be too different. How high have you gone with it? It feels like in the mid and high levels the proliferation of abilities, the fact that casters have more/better spells/day and so on might make an impact - it doesn't bog down like 3.XE and 4E did though, I've played as high as 15-ish in 5E, but that wasn't really troupe-style.
Been running it since August 2020, average 2 sessions a week with different PC groups. Highest level PCs are now 5th. I use 1 week long rests but 1 hour short rests. which prevents the LR classes dominating play.

I haven't yet really faced the challenge of a PC group being too high level for a starting PC to adventure with, though some 1st level concepts have proven unviable in a group mostly 4th or so - the Fighter-1 PC half-elf who wore only a chain shirt, wielded a greatsword, and liked to take point in assaulting the ogre & orc lair, did not survive to level 2. Player came back with a half-orc Rogue, which worked fine. I think a level 1 axe & shield Barbarian-1 would have been viable, but a melee character with AC 15 & 12 hp was a step too far.
 

Been running it since August 2020, average 2 sessions a week with different PC groups. Highest level PCs are now 5th. I use 1 week long rests but 1 hour short rests. which prevents the LR classes dominating play.

I haven't yet really faced the challenge of a PC group being too high level for a starting PC to adventure with, though some 1st level concepts have proven unviable in a group mostly 4th or so - the Fighter-1 PC half-elf who wore only a chain shirt, wielded a greatsword, and liked to take point in assaulting the ogre & orc lair, did not survive to level 2. Player came back with a half-orc Rogue, which worked fine. I think a level 1 axe & shield Barbarian-1 would have been viable, but a melee character with AC 15 & 12 hp was a step too far.
Yeah I suspect at a point the level gap will become too big, to the point where virtually any first level PC is non-viable unless they sort of hide out and do nothing (and maybe not even then), because of the way monster damage scales in 5E, but I wonder how far it can be taken (further than 1E, given death saves and 1hp of healing getting you back up, I'd guess). Even in the OD&D/1E troupe games I've heard about it seems like people started coming in at higher levels after a certain point. I suspect you'll establish that organically though - if you get to a point where 1st-level PCs are just not viable if you go to 3rd or whatever.
 

S'mon

Legend
Yeah I suspect at a point the level gap will become too big, to the point where virtually any first level PC is non-viable unless they sort of hide out and do nothing (and maybe not even then), because of the way monster damage scales in 5E, but I wonder how far it can be taken (further than 1E, given death saves and 1hp of healing getting you back up, I'd guess). Even in the OD&D/1E troupe games I've heard about it seems like people started coming in at higher levels after a certain point. I suspect you'll establish that organically though - if you get to a point where 1st-level PCs are just not viable if you go to 3rd or whatever.

The plan is that eventually there will be discrete higher & lower level PC groups adventuring at different times, but I expect this will be a challenge for me to implement. Players like having multiple PCs but I expect some resistance to 'you must be this tall for this ride'. :) OTOH if players with high level PCs want to shepherd newbies until they're viable, I guess that's ok.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Most of the pre built PCs and also NPCs had super high scores. I've heard it that to survive to higher levels they had to have those great rolls, the crap abilities ones died 🤣
Weren't you supposed to roll a bunch of PCs and retire all the low rolling smucks early or recall them when you make a stronghold?

Maybe te 9d6 rolling was just to skip rolling the other jerks by giving one PC all their dice?
 
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