D&D General The Early "Design Principles" of D&D, and their Lasting Legacy

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This post is building on the prior post about the general design principles in early D&D. One topic that came up and is somewhat interesting is how you can glean some ideas about the principles the designers were using through the system.

As I noted before, early D&D (OD&D and 1e) could be kind of a mess- more of a toolkit or a modular system that was created through a series of individual decisions than a system designed from the ground up to "make sense." As such, there are few grand design principles you can see in the game like you might in later and more modern games- things like unified checks (for the d20), or bounded accuracy. Nevertheless, I think that some of the following are concepts that Gygax and other early designers were using that are reflected in the early rules. As you can see, some of them continue to be reflected in D&D's design (less so in other games), while others have been minimized or discarded.

One of the things to remember when looking at these early design principles is that many of them came from a background in the wargaming hobby- after all, that's where the early designers cut their teeth.

Now, without further throat clearing (as excess verbiage is the antithesis of weal!), here are some of those early design principles:

A. Niche protection.
The people who lived on the internet were often compared to those legendary experiment rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.

Niche protection is one of those principles that has to be inferred; you won't find it referred to as such in any of the core books. But this principle animates both the class design as well as numerous other features that flowed from the class design. In much the same way that wargames would have "specialist" pieces with different functions, it was assumed that classes would fulfill different roles in the de facto adventuring party.

You had the core two classes- the Fighter (Fighting Man), and the Magic User. Roughly, the Fighter was the primary front-line character, and the Magic User was akin to artillery- devastating, but vulnerable if you got close to it. After those two, you get the third core class- the Cleric. The Cleric (originally modelled after a Van Helsing vampire hunter) was the original gish; able to cast spells (although not the great offensive ones that the MU had) and able to fight (although not with the same hit points and weapons and ability that the fighter had). Later, you had the last of the core four- the Thief, which was always an odd fit, both because of the skills, and because Gygax seemed to delight in nerfing the Thief at almost every opportunity.* Nevertheless, the Thief's abilities were different than those of the other four.

Later, "subclasses" sprung off of those classes, but niche protection remained strong. While spell lists had some overlap, it was minimal, and even those spells that overlapped would change depending on the class (the reincarnation table for a Druid and a MU were different). The most powerful magic items were often "coded" to a particular class. You wanted to use a talisman of annihilation and a sphere of annihilation? Better be a magic user. Want to use a Spade of Colossal Excavation (heh)? Better be a fighter. And so on.

For the most part, classes were designed to provide characters abilities that would allow them to contribute to the party in a way that others, lacking that class, could not. This could, at times, be aggravating- many people were familiar with the need for the Cleric to load up on healing spells, but it was certainly present.

Remnants of niche protection and the class system remain in 5e, although greatly tempered by feats, subclasses that mimic other classes, overlapping spell lists, and lack of gating magic items by class.

*Seriously, the PHB Thief was already plenty weak. Then Gygax spent time in the DMG complaining about Thief skills. "The following additional explanations of thief abilities will help you to prevent abuse of these activities by thieves...."


B. Balance is rough, and can be achieved over time or through massive drawbacks.
The doctors warned them, “Don’t go home and look this up.” That was the difference between the old generation and the new, though. She would rather die than not look something up. She would actually rather die.

It's not that early D&D was completely unconcerned with balance- just not overly concerned with balance. There was certainly no attempt to work it out with mathematical precision. However, the conceptual ideas used to create balance can often seem foreign- none more so than the idea that balance isn't an instant thing, but instead can be measured over a longer period of time. In other words, it's okay if something is more powerful now, if it's not as powerful later; on the other hand, it's okay to suffer now, if you're going to be more powerful later.

If that seems unclear, the easiest illustration is the infamous demi-human level caps. Demi-humans (the term that referred to the playable non-humans back then, which was inclusive of Elves, Half Elves, Gnomes, Dwarves, Halflings, and Half Orcs) were provided a number of abilities that human PCs did not get immediately when they were created; an Elf in AD&D, for example, could multi-class, was almost immune to sleep and charm, had +1 to hit with a bow or sword, spoke a number of extra languages, could see in the dark (infrared....ahem), had better chances to discover secret and concealed doors ... oh, and could naturally move silently. Not to mention being able to min/max ability scores (+1 Dex, -1 Con). In other words, it was an absolutely massive advantage to be an elf at early levels.

The flip side of those massive advantages was, of course, the level cap. And the level caps were (except Thief) punishingly low in many cases. An Elf with less than a 17 strength would max out at 5th level in fighter- even an 18 strength would only get you to 7th level. All those early advantages were frontloaded, and choosing not to have them (playing a human) would pay off later when you weren't level capped.

But this was true in other areas, as well. Magic Users were notoriously weak; with d4 hit points, no armor, and no cantrips, and few spells early on, playing a MU prior to level 5 was often an exercise in frustration; it was only when your spells really kicked in that the class became "worth it." Suffer early, profit later. Or, for that matter, Thieves. With Thieves, the class was weak starting out, but the supposed carrot was it had the most favorable XP table; you'd be gaining levels rapidly!

This (balance over time) is probably the feature that aged the worst, and AFAIK, doesn't really exist in 5e. As a design principle (such as it was), it simply wasn't very effective. The demi-human level caps were always notorious- most table found some way to avoid or ameliorate those level caps simply because it caused endless player frustration to have to stop progressing. The XP balancing never worked- the "fast advancing" Thief was always the same level, or one level ahead, of the slower advancing classes once you got past level 5. And while there was some merit to the way the MU was balanced, it also led to a lot of frustration for players. In short, if you provide the dessert early, the players aren't going to want to suffer for it later (level caps), and if you make the players suffer early, a lot of them will get frustrated before the class abilities really kick in.

Another, related concept is achieving balance through drawbacks. The two easiest examples of this are the Paladin, and Artifacts & Relics. For the Paladin, it's pretty clear- if you just look at the list of abilities that the Paladin has, it is massively overpowered. It is an insanely powerful class. But then.... how does it get balanced? By the drawbacks. In exchange for your giant list of superpowers, you-
1. Can't keep money other than a limited amount for specified purpose, and have to immediately give away 10% of everything they earn.
2. Can only associate with other good people (which means that your party can't contain assassins or druids, and only the rare NG thief).
3. Have a limit on magic items.
4. And, most famously, have to abide by a strict code- and if they perform an evil act (umm....) they are immediately stripped of their abilities.

That's some drawbacks! It's similar with the Artifacts & Relics. If you look back at the Major Malevolent Effects that Artifacts have, you quickly see almost everyone one is absolutely terrible (you know, things like "Change the possessor into a like artifact/relic" or "change alignment every time used") to the extent that drawbacks like losing a point off of your ability are the best ones to get!

In effect, the way to balance something powerful is to always make it a poisoned chalice- pair it with something awful... don't even get started on the powerful spells (or good ones, like haste) aging the caster. This design trend continues to pop up; reading the UA Barbarian was an exercise in masochism to determine just what sacrifices a person will make to get the shiniest car on the block. Luckily, this has also disappeared from modern D&D.


C. Gatekeeping via rarity.
Previously these communities were imposed on us, along with their mental weather. Now we chose them — or believed that we did. A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.

Quick aside- I don't mean the modern, pejorative sense of gatekeeping. Just the older sense of the word. This is more about making things more difficult to "get" by making them more rare. In that way, there are really two aspects to this- one likely uncontroversial, and one moreso.

Starting with the easiest and simplest explanation- think of a random table for magic swords. A generic "Sword +1" has a 25% chance of being rolled on the table. A Vorpal Sword has a 1% chance of being rolled. Most people, I think, would intuitively agree with this- to the extent that you are randomly generating things, more powerful things should be more rare! That's the relatively uncontroversial part of gatekeeping via rarity.

Where it gets a little more fraught is when character abilities are gatekeeped in this manner. In effect, D&D (and AD&D) very much followed the "rich get richer" mode of game design, in that the best abilities often had prerequisites of other, high abilities. This could reach ridiculous extremes at times. But it also placed an inordinate amount of stress on the original rolls at character creation (remember that there were no ASIs or other easy ways to increase your scores back then).

Anyway, this is illustrated throughout the game. If you had an 18 strength (and were a Fighter) you were entered into the percentile strength lottery! If you wanted to be a paladin, you had to have incredible ability scores! If you wanted to have psionics, your chances of having them increased if you had amazing ability scores, and your psionic powers were better with insanely high ability scores! Most classes provided a 10% XP bonus for having a 15 or higher in your primary ability score! If you were a demi-human, your level cap would be higher with a higher ability score!

....and so on. With AD&D, the bonuses you got and the things that were unlocked (classes etc.) from having high scores just kept feeding on each other. The rarity of the score was supposed to be the limiting factor- it served the gatekeeping function to those bonuses, subclasses, and other abilities. In the actual play of many (not all) people, though, it either was a source of frustration due to power imbalances, or the source of .... creative rolling.

This is something that has also largely disappeared from modern D&D.


So I wanted to toss those out for conversation, and also elicit other people's thoughts. What other design principles do you see in early D&D? Do you think they have any continuing validity in the modern game?
 

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I think some of these balances were more reasonable and more effective than others.

The fighting man/magic user use balance makes sense as something coming from wargames would come up with -- MUs were artillery and you needed to protect them and you didn't always get to bring them to bear (but when you did...) and so on. The FM/MU advancement balance works if you have multiple characters and any given night you are deciding whether to roll in heavy with your Fighter 4 and bust heads or try to advance your latest MU to level 3. "Rich get richer" in general again works (or at least have a good explanation) if you have lots of chances to make characters. In that situation, it ends up being like coming up with an advantageous starting spot in Settlers of Catan or Civilization -- a nice little easy(ier)-play-through, but next time, someone else will get it. Also probably was a more reasonable situation when both death and success are widely determined by things other than the stats or classes available (the slime mold any character could run into, the magic item distribution), and so on. I think a lot of it was predicated on playstyles a lot of people didn't really want to play (and tended to do so, via houserules), but I can understand how most came to be.

Other things, well.. okay, you're point about Gygax and Thieves is spot on, but isn't the only example. Within the demihuman list, elves and half-elves seem to have the most benefits, yet they have the highest level limits and most classes available to them. Swords and bows had far-and-away advantages on the weapon damage charts (and longswords an unprecedented advantage on magic item drops). Multiclassing in general had disproportionate benefit depending on which classes were included (1e F-MU could cast in armor, but anything-thieves needed to strip down to do most thief-like activities and clerics still had weapon limits. None of this seemed to be situations where the most beneficial selections got the most stringent requirements or largest opportunity costs. They just seemed like designer favorites.

Given that both of the above were placed under the same umbrella of done for balance, it's easy to see why all of them can often get viewed with the same distrust.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
It's interesting to me that the character class gatekeeping via rarity that you point out didn't really enter the game until various supplements and then was codified in AD&D 1e. The high stats needed as entry tickets into certain classes, the percentile strength bonus for fighters, etc. were AD&D things not in the core game - and the divergent game created by Basic D&D didn't include them. Except for the bonus to XP for getting lucky and winning a high stat early - that was in all of them. In retrospect it makes me realize how much more important the "character creation subgame" was to AD&D than to B/X D&D beyond just AD&D having more choices to consider.

It's also interesting to think about how those 3 areas have flowed into the modern game and where they changed. Balance over time was thrown out with 3e - the unified XP table, the attempts at making classes more equivalent to each other. Yes at higher levels you had the linear vs. quadratic progression to deal with so it didn't go away entirely, but the idea that it was a balancing mechanic rather than an artifact of high level play that showed the rules were "broken" did go away.

3e also mostly did away with "rarity gatekeeping" - you still had random tables for treasure, but the "you must be this high to play this class" restrictions were removed. (I'd argue that the gatekeeping moved from the rules and onto the player base, where optimization started really becoming a thing and dictates on what kind of characters you should make started being spread around).

But niche protection remains a fundamental part of D&D even in 5e. 3e was built on it, 4e was niche protection taken to the extreme limit, 5e dials it back but it's still there and still considered an important thing to structure classes around, even if it is tempered compared to earlier editions of the game.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
This isn't quite so much a design principle as an observation, but a sentiment I've been seeing in the D&D blogosphere lately is that (at least in its first few editions), while it's put forward as a role-playing game, D&D is actually a wargame, hence things like the comparatively high lethality rate, emphasis on leadership and rulership at higher levels, the infamous "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" quote, the large numbers of monsters that could be randomly encountered (e.g. 1d10 x 40 goblins in the AD&D 1E MM), etc.

I'm not sure how much I agree with that idea, but it's interesting to consider.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
This isn't quite so much a design principle as an observation, but a sentiment I've been seeing in the D&D blogosphere lately is that (at least in its first few editions), while it's put forward as a role-playing game, D&D is actually a wargame, hence things like the comparatively high lethality rate, emphasis on leadership and rulership at higher levels, the infamous "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" quote, the large numbers of monsters that could be randomly encountered (e.g. 1d10 x 40 goblins in the AD&D 1E MM), etc.
I don't hold with that kind of analysis because, frankly, I played D&D within the framework of the first few editions and I also played the occasional wargame. And D&D was nothing like a wargame (we didn't use miniatures on a field or cardboard chits on a hex board, which differentiated from a wargame right there).

What I think folks are seeing when they make these arguments is that early D&D wasn't a modern rpg - which is true, it was defining the field and as the first rpg it's not going to have all of the elements that folks who started gaming in the early 2000s (or later) think of when they think of an rpg. Heck even in the 90s I remember arguments about D&D being "a combat system pretending to be an RPG" because it didn't have things like unified mechanics, a comprehensive skill system, advantages/disadvantages, narrative character elements as part of the game, etc. But calling it not an rpg is a bit like calling Univac "not a computer" because you couldn't play Breath of the Wild on it.
 

Yora

Legend
Classes and levels to simplify character advancement are about the only design structures of early D&D that I still see surviving in D&D in the 20th century. All other aspects of the rules that are still around only exist in appearance, but not in function.
XP still exist for example, but with a different purpose and execution.
 

This isn't quite so much a design principle as an observation, but a sentiment I've been seeing in the D&D blogosphere lately is that (at least in its first few editions), while it's put forward as a role-playing game, D&D is actually a wargame, hence things like the comparatively high lethality rate, emphasis on leadership and rulership at higher levels, the infamous "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" quote, the large numbers of monsters that could be randomly encountered (e.g. 1d10 x 40 goblins in the AD&D 1E MM), etc.

I'm not sure how much I agree with that idea, but it's interesting to consider.

I don't hold with that kind of analysis because, frankly, I played D&D within the framework of the first few editions and I also played the occasional wargame. And D&D was nothing like a wargame (we didn't use miniatures on a field or cardboard chits on a hex board, which differentiated from a wargame right there).
If oD&D were a wargame, it wouldn't have needed to exist. There already was a wargame to be played by the people playing the proto-D&D -- Chainmail. oD&D was a supplement to wargaming. It was the kind of RPG that a wargamer might want to play, possibly in the same 'world' as their wargame (alongside the game of Diplomacy or Braunstein that they played in the same world, and potentially had the consequences in one carry over to the situation in the other. I think, particularly given how little actual rules there were for the leader/ruler portion of the game for almost a decade, I would say more that early D&D was a gamer designed for wargamers. It certainly seems that, when Gary realized it was college kids and other non-wargamers who were the majority of people picking up the game, that he didn't really change many of the rules structures.

As for the time records thing -- I do think that the general assumption that you were on the clock (and thus took too long to do things, or went back to recharge, you might lose out on some good loot) were fundamental assumptions that the game has been dealing with ever since (see: any thread about the 15 minute workday).

What I think folks are seeing when they make these arguments is that early D&D wasn't a modern rpg - which is true, it was defining the field and as the first rpg it's not going to have all of the elements that folks who started gaming in the early 2000s (or later) think of when they think of an rpg. Heck even in the 90s I remember arguments about D&D being "a combat system pretending to be an RPG" because it didn't have things like unified mechanics, a comprehensive skill system, advantages/disadvantages, narrative character elements as part of the game, etc. But calling it not an rpg is a bit like calling Univac "not a computer" because you couldn't play Breath of the Wild on it.
Or early <music genre> missing some component routinely considered a defining trait of said genre, or First Blood/Mad Max/The Evil Dead being the least Rambo/Mad Max/Evil Dead film in the respective film series.
 


Just because a mousetrap works doesn't mean that no one's going to try and make a better one.
Well sure, but this was spun directly off of a wargame because what they were trying to do with it needed to work for something different -- this funny little dungeon-crawling thing that had spun off of mining/counter-mining that people found so fun they ignored the larger siege. It is using a wargaming-centric framing to attempt to solve (well, play) a different challenge. I guess if you called Diplomacy or Braunstein the dominion-level portion of wargaming, then you would call early D&D the dungeon-crawling and adventuring portion of wargaming (that people previously hadn't realized was part of wargaming). That so many people went on to just do the dungeon- (and later hex-) crawling portion of it indicates at least possibly that it was a bad fit for the wargaming-centered game experience.

I think if the war part of D&D were more baked-in, such that the PCs had to have been army pieces that then got individual-focus in a constrained environment, I'd more buy that the game was really a wargame in disguise. They have those -- Mordheim is one (and people pretty generally say it is in the wargame camp, not the RPG one). Early D&D... well, soo much of the rules portion really are procedural components for doing this other dungeon-crawl thing. It is its own type of game and related to wargames mostly in who plays them and maybe the kind of worlds in which they exist.
Obviously these distinctions are at the gut level rather than the definitional.
 

It's not that early D&D was completely unconcerned with balance- just not overly concerned with balance.
Y'know, it would be really nice if people could stop using this canard.

OD&D was plenty concerned with balance. You literally said, in your own words, that Gygax went out of his way to nerf a class he thought was OP when you think it was fine or even weak. How is that not being super concerned about balance? As for the bit about "not working it out with mathematical precision," sure it was. It's still a statistical model. It's just got a somewhat wider range of accepted results. Things like MU vs Fighter XP tables were not eyeball guesstimated, these were things Gygax built up for a reason.

As for the instant-ness of balance...no game goes for that. Instead, it is a matter of short-term balance (e.g., over the course of a full adventuring day) vs medium-term balance (e.g., over the course of a full level) vs long-term balance (e.g., over the course of a full campaign). Gygax's balance was at the level of campaigns. This can be fine, if players are cool with potentially very long stretches of divergence, or more commonly, if you have DMs addressing these weaknesses with ad hoc fixes, like fancy magic items or special story beats for individual characters. Unfortunately, that sort of thing is difficult to do, and many games fold before such stuff can truly mature and bear fruit. That, plus the overall higher opportunity cost of playing the game these days, is why the game has moved pretty steadily toward something between short- and medium-term balance, favoring short-term. The 5e update (whether it be 5.5e or not) is likely going to shift to a specifically "everyone recharges on long rests" schedule in order to more fully support this scale of balance, for example.

Other than these two issues, I actually find pretty much everything you've said here reasonable and well-argued. We may not agree on a lot of things, but at least here, you're recognizing a difference as a difference (and saying where the old way was...not necessarily ideal, but what it did do well or at least tried to do well.)

So I wanted to toss those out for conversation, and also elicit other people's thoughts. What other design principles do you see in early D&D? Do you think they have any continuing validity in the modern game?
There's a certain technique of "balancing" (note the quotes) that was very popular in early D&D and which has largely been left behind in the game today...but which has cast an extremely long shadow on video games. Actually, I guess you could call it two very closely related techniques: so-called "naturalistic" area design, and wandering monster checks/tables.

"Naturalistic" area design, despite the name, is not particularly naturalistic, in that it both bears little relation to producing actual natural-looking or -behaving environments (DMs will make whatever geography they like, science be damned, and I have no problem with that), but more importantly it isn't really about what environment is present. Instead, it's about what creatures are present. In this "naturalistic" paradigm, it is considered "unnatural" to have much in the way of smooth progressions of difficulty: there could be a red dragon two hexes away from the capital city, or a random hex full of nothing but wild chickens surrounded by hexes of, I dunno, hellhounds or whatever. It's a "balancing" technique because it creates a massive selective pressure for caution, patience, etc., and has a tendency to weed out low-level characters with powerful stats. That helps mitigate your completely correct description of early-D&D balance as "the rich get richer": the rich die just as easily as the poor, but the poor are a lot more common than the rich.

Wandering monster checks, on the other hand, create balance by applying moment to moment pressure. The players cannot dawdle, they must always move with purpose. This discourages turtling and overly-cautious play, mitigating some of the issues of the previous technique, which might otherwise induce players with high-stat low-level characters to "protect" that character until it's powerful enough to adventure without fear.

The problem with both of these, of course, is that they are very spiky in their balance impact. It's very scattershot. The party might coincidentally never stumble upon the red dragon's lair. They might get lucky and easily defeat the wandering monsters they encounter, or convert those monsters to their side, turning what was once a mitigating factor into a power boost. Neither one is particularly used in more modern game design because of these effects. In video games, however, these things have taken on a life of their own. Many games feature scary-powerful wandering creatures in the world, or World Bosses, or a variety of similar "sudden power spike" type things--not as a balance tool, but as a dangerous foe you witness early and come back to fight later. Some, particularly the early MMOs like Everquest and (to a lesser but still very real extent) World of Warcraft, actually did seem to use these as balance mechanisms...and players really, really didn't like it.

In a sense, you could even argue that these tools were specifically replaced by the shift to short-term (e.g. day-length) balance rather than the campaign-length balance Gygax shot for. There is no need to constantly shake up the status quo with sudden disproportionate threats ("naturalistic" area design) nor to put constant pressure on the party (wandering monsters) because you already have, or are intended to have, a reasonable expectation of balance on a small scale. If it's balanced on a small scale, it is assumed that it must thus be balanced on the large scale. Whether that assumption is true or not is another matter entirely.
 

I take time to read the forewords and preface of the ADnD DM guide,
if I can’t take out a design principle I would say it is about taking the game in your hands as a DM. Using imagination, common sense and pragmatism to build your world and game.
Respect the overall framework but don’t hesitate that add your personal flavor.
I take out that we should use contraints and rules as a way to give substance and meaning to the epic and unexpected adventure that the characters will live.
niche, balance and gatekeeping that the OP present as design principles should be view as tools not goal for the game.


For what I read in the actual Dm guide, Overall 5ed is pretty in line with that.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Y'know, it would be really nice if people could stop using this canard.

OD&D was plenty concerned with balance. You literally said, in your own words, that Gygax went out of his way to nerf a class he thought was OP when you think it was fine or even weak. How is that not being super concerned about balance? As for the bit about "not working it out with mathematical precision," sure it was. It's still a statistical model. It's just got a somewhat wider range of accepted results. Things like MU vs Fighter XP tables were not eyeball guesstimated, these were things Gygax built up for a reason.

I appreciate the feedback, but I think you might have misunderstood the statement you were replying to (or it wasn't explained in a way that clearly communicated my intent). I'll put it again, and explain, with emphasis-

It's not that early D&D was completely unconcerned with balance- just not overly concerned with balance.

As I explain in the post, there is a great deal of concern with balance in early D&D- not always how modern games approach it, but certainly attempts to find it. It would be a serious error to think that people in the 70s (many of whom had extensive gaming and wargaming backgrounds) had no concept of "balance."

But the designers were certainly not overly concerned with balance; I would say that the basic precepts of the system (including the gatekeeping by rarity that effectively allows "the rich to get richer") shows that, in fact, balance wasn't a primary goal in the system. Which is okay! There are other, competing, design goals.
 

Voadam

Legend
Where it gets a little more fraught is when character abilities are gatekeeped in this manner. In effect, D&D (and AD&D) very much followed the "rich get richer" mode of game design, in that the best abilities often had prerequisites of other, high abilities. This could reach ridiculous extremes at times. But it also placed an inordinate amount of stress on the original rolls at character creation (remember that there were no ASIs or other easy ways to increase your scores back then).

Anyway, this is illustrated throughout the game. If you had an 18 strength (and were a Fighter) you were entered into the percentile strength lottery! If you wanted to be a paladin, you had to have incredible ability scores! If you wanted to have psionics, your chances of having them increased if you had amazing ability scores, and your psionic powers were better with insanely high ability scores! Most classes provided a 10% XP bonus for having a 15 or higher in your primary ability score! If you were a demi-human, your level cap would be higher with a higher ability score!
This is a design trend that I think was at its height with AD&D. The stats worked off of a reverse bell curve for bonuses. A 14 strength in AD&D gave you zero attack or damage bonuses, not the flatly ascending +1 per two points above 10 that is common from 3e-5e. 18(00) strength in AD&D gave you more damage bonus than a 5e 20 strength's +5. B/X by contrast smoothed down the progression of bonuses so that a 13-15 is a +1, a 16-17 is +2 and an 18 is a +3. In B/X rolling 3d6 in order has significantly less impact on your PC's mechanical effectiveness. In AD&D there is a hugely significant advantage to using the Unearthed Arcana human stat generation rolls compared to other stat generation methods. Both in that it guarantees making the minimum on the gatekeeping stats for a chosen powerful class, but also for getting a better chance at those top tier stat bonuses.
 

Voadam

Legend
A big drawback to balance over time is that it is designed for working over time and D&D can be played in campaigns or one shots or in campaigns of various level ranges.

If you are doing a tournament adventure of high level Descent Into the Depths, a capped out 5th level demihuman fighter is significantly behind the curve of both the expected monsters that will be faced and the fellow PCs.

Conversely if you are doing a one shot 1st level Caves of Chaos then elven PCs can have significant advantages. An elven fighter 1/magic-user 1/cleric 1 has significant advantages over a human magic-user 1.
 

Undrave

Hero
The fighting man/magic user use balance makes sense as something coming from wargames would come up with -- MUs were artillery and you needed to protect them and you didn't always get to bring them to bear (but when you did...) and so on. The FM/MU advancement balance works if you have multiple characters and any given night you are deciding whether to roll in heavy with your Fighter 4 and bust heads or try to advance your latest MU to level 3. "Rich get richer" in general again works (or at least have a good explanation) if you have lots of chances to make characters. In that situation, it ends up being like coming up with an advantageous starting spot in Settlers of Catan or Civilization -- a nice little easy(ier)-play-through, but next time, someone else will get it. Also probably was a more reasonable situation when both death and success are widely determined by things other than the stats or classes available (the slime mold any character could run into, the magic item distribution), and so on. I think a lot of it was predicated on playstyles a lot of people didn't really want to play (and tended to do so, via houserules), but I can understand how most came to be.
That's a good point! The 'troupe play' style possible when you can roll up a new character in 2 minutes is something else that fell to the wayside as story became more important. When you can switch between your Magic User, Thief or Fighting Man every session, you're probably less likely to notice the downside of the level progression because everybody at the table gets to be on each end of that particular stick.
They just seemed like designer favorites.
That still happens today (lookin' at you, Wizard...)
the infamous "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" quote
What kind of time records?
But calling it not an rpg is a bit like calling Univac "not a computer" because you couldn't play Breath of the Wild on it.
But could you play Doom on it, though?
 


One thing that's wild is that I actually tripped over the intuitiveness of gatekeeping item power by rarity, our play culture is actually such that we stress about randomness in even that area-- like there's something wrong with it being so removed from the player's hands, or with the fact that something like that could just happen and swing your game's balance so radically-- I expect the random things you could get to be similarly strong, if maybe differently powerful for different builds. I guess that part of play culture has moved yet another step forward in some circles, its an interesting thing to reflect on.
 


Undrave

Hero
Hilariously my initial draft used Doom instead of Breath of the Wild and I said to myself "self, that reference is so dated only a paleontologist could love it" so I used BotW instead.
The joke is that you can play Doom on almost anything :p

And Doom is still relevant, they had popular new games in the franchise recently.
 

TBeholder

Explorer
Many good points. And yes, the Hammer Horror Cleric was an atavism long before it mutated into "CoDzilla". Also:
  1. You mentioned it, but maybe it needs to be said more explicitly: D&D started as a character-level extension of a wargame. Which left tracks all over the place… and caused more distortions when the relevant assumptions were forgotten.
  2. Followers were supposed to be a big deal on high levels, and one of the "long term balance" elements.
  3. Not only custom XP tables, but also individual XP awards. First it was XP for loot, but in AD&D2 era various XP awards became a big thing! They could be used as a tool to reinforce flavors, e.g. Dark Sun introduced lots of race- and class- based awards like this. Also, it made multiclasses more tricky than they seem, now that they had more possible sources of XP.
 
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