D&D General Understanding the Design Principles in Early D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
As per usual, I saw something in another thread that captured my attention. Specifically, it was the issue of game design- and how early D&D (OD&D and AD&D, aka 0e and 1e) were designed, and the ways in which they differed greatly from the design principles that we are more familiar with today.

I think that the conversation is useful, but I wanted to do a slightly deeper dive into why TSR-era D&D, and especially 0e and 1e, can be so inscrutable to modern players. I think this can be for three reasons- first, the rules themselves are difficult to parse, especially in comparison to modern rules. Second, the people who tell you who the game was played back in the day lie ... they lie like rugs. Not knowingly, of course- but if you ask three different grognards how games used to be, you'll get four different answers. Finally, the gestalt is completely different- in effect, the surrounding culture is different enough that it can be hard to comprehend some of the decisions that are implicit in those games; after all, it's not just that the games were designed in the 70s, it's that the people who made those games grew up in the decades before that - Gygax (for example) was 36 by the time the LBBs for OD&D was released in 1974.

The fundamental thing to understand is that 0e and 1e were never designed to be complete systems, or designed to be complete- they were always intended to be used as toolkits. As detailed further below, it is only with that basic approach that you can begin to make sense of early D&D's design principles.

Please note that while I am using information learned from various great sources, I don't have my books handy, so I will be doing this mostly from memory.

A. RAW as Applied to Early D&D
I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me. -Pat Boone, assuredly.

One thing we often see here is continual debates about RAW (rules as written) and RAI (rules as intended). But ... here's the thing .... OD&D ... the LBBs ... they don't work RAW. They just don't. Even something like combat (whether you're using the "Chainmail" rules or the alternative combat system ... aka, the combat system that we would end up using) is a total mess, because values are inconsistent. Famously, D&D only began to take root after people saw other people playing the game. It wasn't completely impossible to teach yourself just using the LBBs and a vivid imagination, but ... nearly so.

And why was this? Well, arguably it's because of the way the game was invented. Arneson was running a very ad hoc, black box game (with rulings being determined and written on the fly) and Gygax attempting to make the game into a set of rules to be printed up and promulgated. It was kind of a mishmash- a little bit of Chainmail, a little bit of Arneson's notes, and a little bit of Gygax's attempts to make it more of a game (such as the emphasis on the leveling) and more systematized (from his wargaming roots).

For that reason, you couldn't view the original D&D as a way to play the game- you had to get exposed to even more material. You needed to read The Strategic Review (later renamed Dragon), you needed to check out the supplements as they came out, there were prominent hobbyist clubs and 'zines, and there was 3PP (such as Judge's Guild, who realized before TSR did that people might want such quaint things as "adventures" or "campaign settings"). But to use a common example, the second issue of The Strategic Review published a column that had to explain things like what initiative was, explaining that dice are rolled and "dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on."

For this reason, modern players looking to play OD&D will often look to Holmes Basic (a cleaned up version of OD&D) or will look to other streamlined or edited rules. Importantly, though, at the time .... the idea that you would be playing completely "RAW" was not just unlikely- it was laughable. Having scores of pages of notes and modifications was so common that many of the early TTRPGs were simply house-ruled versions of D&D- in fact, one of my favorite bits of trivia is that the first superhero TTRPG (Superhero: 2044) was just the published houserules of an OD&D game that went to to a parallel world with superheroes.

B. The Modular Approach to 1e
Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously. -Daniel Day Lewis, assumedly.

And then there was 1e (AD&D). By 1979, with the publication of the DMG, the core three books of 1e were complete. Now, looking back it's very hard to understand the intent of 1e just by reading what Gygax wrote in the core books and his columns in Dragon Magazine. One reason for the difficulty is that Gygax contained multitudes, and would often contradict himself by the end of any given paragraph. More importantly, however, you have to understand the internal battles that he was going through; we all have the struggle between the angels of our better nature and the demons that drive us, and Gygax was no different. Specifically, he came from a hobbyist background, where rules and ideas were exchanged freely, and people were expected and encouraged to tinker. But by the time of 1e, he had interests to defend; he had a product, and he didn't want competition riding on his coattails. It was a strange dichotomy, and one you can see playing out- he both encourages people to tinker with the game and make it their own, while claiming that 1e is a complete system.

Ahem. It's not. Instead, 1e is exactly what the title suggests it is - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It's Dungeons & Dragons (the original LBBs), plus the supplements, plus some material from TSR's house magazines, plus some additional stuff thrown in. It's a cornucopia overflowing with ideas. It is amazing, and inspires awe, and I love every bit of it.

...but as a cohesive whole, it doesn't work. Not exactly. Let me explain- a modern system, like 5e, is designed from the beginning to have things work together. To have general systems to resolve situations (DC etc.). But that's not what 1e was. Instead, 1e was, for the most part, a system that organically evolved.

Think of it this way- start with OD&D and the most basic of rules. Now, every time something new comes up, you make a new rule. Do you want a class to play Aragorn? Okay, make the Ranger. Feel like doing some mental powers? How about throwing in a psionics subsystem? Want to make weapons more realistic - how about give them speed factors? Not realistic enough? How about adjusting their properties against different armors!

....and so on. Instead of starting with design principles and working from those, the game simply made additional bespoke subsystems as needed. Which can be very cool- after all, the systems were bespoke. But ... as you make more and more and more awesome bespoke systems, you quickly realize that these systems don't work well together.

One example of this is the A.D.D.I.C.T. sheet, which shows you how encounters and initiative is supposed to work in AD&D. There's a copy of it here. But it just goes to show- things are complicated. Real complicated. And this isn't even taking into account some of the weird non-weapon rules, or targeting of the head.

The point of all of this is that no one, and I mean no one, and I include Gygax, played the RAW- both because it's absolutely impossible, and because that was never the real intention of AD&D. Instead, it is best viewed as a modular system. As a tool kit. You take the parts you want, modify what you need to, and leave the rest.

C. Modern Game Design is a Different Beast Entirely
Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why. -John Wayne, indubitably.

I've seen people repeatedly mention some variation of, "Rules should work without using Rule 0." To a certain extent, I agree with that- no one like broken products. Nevertheless, the idea that we are buying product to be used as-is as opposed to a product to be modified extensively, is different than the past ethos.

Not worse, but different.

And I think it's important, when discussing the early versions of the game, to try and keep that in mind.

I would write more, but I have things to do. So I'm throwing this out for general comments. Have fun!

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Great Old One
While I appreciate your article as always, I don't think that basic games were toolkits. They were complete games but for a much more simple environment, dungeon delving. Of course, you needed to customise them for wider uses, and interpret things, but I don't remember a lot of customisation.

AD&D, on the other hand, I completely agree with, it was a huge toolkit.


It was clear for me that AD&D was an accreted Frankenstein's monster of accumulated add on systems such as bend bars lift gates, added on expansion classes, multiple surprise and listening systems, and such that had accumulated over time. This was not surprising, it was a greatest hits all accumulated into one (three) place(s) with some lessons learned over years of play and expansions.

What surprised me when I eventually bought the OD&D PDF was how incomplete of a game OD&D was, even with Chainmail. Also how opaque it was in trying to describe its rules and systems.


Reeks of Jedi
I didnt understand 1E until I read OSRIC. Goign back and looking at 1E now that I "get it" makes it mroe clear.

I also think basic 1E is very simple (and fun to play) once you seperate out the chaff.

A Dwarf knows mines etc. A thief knows ropes. A Ranger and Druid know nature lore. Etc you didnt really need to roll. And if you did, you roll under the related stat. Does my Gnome know this stuff? Roll a D20 under your INT of 16. Or he wants to tie someone up really well, roll under your Dex. Easy! No need for skills. Your Race/Class simply "knows" related stuff and if they dont they roll under a stat. Easy.

Keep AC simple.

Everyone rolls the same for iniative. One side goes first etc. The new The One Ring RPG reminds me alot of this form of RPG combat.

So much more simple before skills and sub classes and a billion HP etc etc.

IMO anyways


Mind Mage
A Dwarf knows mines etc. A thief knows ropes. A Ranger and Druid know nature lore. Etc you didnt really need to roll. And if you did, you roll under the related stat. Does my Gnome know this stuff? Roll a D20 under your INT of 16. Or he wants to tie someone up really well, roll under your Dex. Easy! No need for skills. Your Race/Class simply "knows" related stuff and if they dont they roll under a stat. Easy.
The 5e DMG has a skill variant that does this kind of thing, especially to drop skills, and assume one is good at anything relating to their background.

The DM decides if something sounds plausible, and if it does, just do it. Only occasionally is there a sense that something might or might not work, and only then roll the ability check.


Mod Squad
Staff member
Second, the people who tell you who the game was played back in the day lie ... they lie like rugs. Not knowingly, of course- but if you ask three different grognards how games used to be, you'll get four different answers.

Indeed, there's a solid argument that the same could be said of the game today, that things have not really changed in that regard.

Instead, 1e was, for the most part, a system that organically evolved.

Except, evolution produces results that mostly work together, by making incremental changes and testing them in the field.

I think of it more as a system that has had repeated visits from Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Indeed, as you put it, it is a "Dr. Frank's Build Your Own Monstrosity Kit". The Doc doesn't expect you to use all the limbs provided in the package. And he personally never uses that second spleen he includes in the kit, but figures you might like it, so...


Mind Mage
I learned to play D&D from 1e die hards whose houserules include borrowings from other editions, but whose player options are 1e. It is a, ahem, "system", that I know and appreciate.

1e is an oral tradition, not a written tradition. One learns it by observing a group that is already playing it. And it is an esoteric tradition, because each group is doing the tradition differently, improvising new rules that come up, ignoring old rules that get in the way, and sometimes comparing notes with other groups.

The same thing that is true for its Do-It-Yourself mechanics, is also true for its Do-It-Yourself setting. There is no such thing as a setting in 1e. At least, no such thing as an official "canon" for a setting.

There is especially no such thing as a Greyhawk canon in 1e. 1e gamers really do invent their own settings from scratch. Each adventure is like a different thought experiment. Eventually such experiments accumulate to form a defacto regional setting, or maybe even a world setting, if the thought experiments are sufficiently farflung. But every table ends up with their own unique setting. Players may or may not use an "official module", an adventure. They might plug in some and not others, or none at all. Even if in use, the adventure may or may not undergo heavy revision. The City of Greyhawk regional setting, and the World of Greyhawk continental setting did come out during the 1e era. But there was no concept that people would use these because they were "official". It was more like, here is some more stuff that you might want to riff off for you own table. You might want to compare your notes with the notes for the campaign that Gygax is in.

The concept of a "setting canon" is a 2e development. Its 2e World of Greyhawk setting was itself a thought experiment: What if? What if everything published in 1e was somehow all simultaneously true? What would that look like? But that way of thinking is alien to 1e. Gygax himself was surprised when some people would rather play in his setting, rather than create their own settings.

The 1e ethic is: Explore a world whose only limitation is your own imagination.

This 1e-style freedom of DM world building and freedom of player character concept invention, are what I cherish most of all in all D&D.
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Many buyers didn't understand how to play D&D reading the LBB. They wrote letters to TSR. Which led to Holmes, then to Moldvay and finally to Mentzer who solved the problem for the most part.

Many groups cobbled together the LBB (or Holmes) with the Monster Manual. They created their own version of D&D.

For decades I thought I had played AD&D as written. When I reread AD&D two years ago I realized we had not. Turns out we mixed and match rules with Basic Moldvay.

We were all hackers.

AD&D is Gygax's 'hack' of the game he created with Arneson - with many things added because he didn't want Arneson to get royalties on AD&D.

Gygax was a hacker.

AD&D2e is a hack of AD&D. Reformulated to be more palatable. It is a toolkit offering many optional rules. To me only 2e is an actual, voluntary, toolkit - as in build your own D&D LEGO kit.
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