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

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.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

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.


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.


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.


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...)
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?


Small Ball Archmage
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.


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.


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.
Last edited:

Remove ads


Remove ads

Upcoming Releases