D&D General Why TSR-era D&D Will Always Be D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Yeah, you saw the title! It's been a while, right? (Checking ....) Almost a month! How did that happen..... how did I go so long without starting a thread? I mean, I know that my dissipated life has led me to my sorry fate of non-posting, and yet ... I blame society. Society made me what I am. Did you miss me?

Anyway, my recent life of sloth and indolence was disturbed by this thread, wherein @GMforPowergamers was wondering if 1e and 2e really hold much sway any longer? And I realized that this is something that I needed to fully flesh out, because it touches on two favorite subjects of mine- (1) path dependency, and (2) D&D history. So I am reinstituting HAWT TAEK THURSDAY for the following topic: TSR-era D&D will always dominate D&D.*

*For certain values of "always."

Bring it on.

That said, in order to understand what I am discussing, I first will have to detail a little into the issue of path dependency. Then, I will offer the more concrete examples of my thesis.

A. Path Dependency, and the Road Not Taken.
I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.

Path dependency is a very useful concept to understand that is helpful in understanding why many things are the way they are and so resistant to change. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the concept, it's often helpful to think of the poem so familiar to most, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.​

I know, I know ... no one told you that there would be homework on ENworld. But the salient point here is that choosing one road necessarily forecloses the other road. Once a choice is made, you can wonder what might have happened if you had taken the other path ... but you didn't .... and "that has made all the difference." In a nutshell, that's kind of the concept of path dependency. It's a concept that is simple, yet also profoundly powerful.

Choices are not made in a vacuum; the choices that came before influence the choices that you are making now. To use the simplest example from Robert Frost (and to ignore the deeper meanings), if you are traveling in the woods, and you come to a fork in the road, you can choose to go left or right. Let's say you go left .... now, regardless of what happens at that road, the further down the path you go, the more likely you are to keep going because you've already gone down that path. To go "right" would require you to go all the way back.

We see this all the time around us. For example, a lot of the transition from ICE vehicles running on petroleum to some other type of vehicles (electric, other sources) has been slowed by path dependency; there was already so much infrastructure, engineering, etc. built to support ICE vehicles that it was a challenge that required concerted policy. Or legacy skeumorphic design- think of the famous example of using a floppy disk as the save icon, long past the time when many people recognize what a floppy disk is. In the common law legal system, path dependence can be seen in the use of past precedent that will continue to control and the difficulty in moving away from it. Many have argued that the widespread QWERTY keyboard is much less efficient than other alternatives- but it continues in use. Others point to the continued use of rockets for space travel and launching satellites- some say that but for the V2 and massive expenditures during the cold war to hurl nukes (ICBMs) that led to the "rocket infrastructure" we would have developed much better ways for space launch.

Anyway, you get the idea. Path dependency, at its most simple, is the idea that history matters- and that it can serve to constrain decision-making in the present. This is an idea that can be both banal and profound. So, what does all of that have to do with today's HAWT TAEK? Why do I think that TSR-era D&D will always dominate D&D?


B. D&D Has Followed, and Will Continue to Follow, the TSR Path.
Hell is not what I expected at all. We got totally lied to by our album covers!

I have written a lot (a LOT!) about how the historical antecedents of D&D developed. For example, here is the thread where I go into the history of the saving throw. It's pretty fascinating to (IMO) to see how "saving throws" were borrowed from wargames and incorporated into D&D as an early sort of plot armor, and gradually evolved into part of the system that calibrates challenge (difficulty to character) to power (character's ability to overcome challenges). Pretty cool, huh!

But wait- on a more fundamental level, and despite some changes in the underpinnings ... we are still using the term saving throw. I mean ... think about that! And so it goes with a whole bunch of the decisions that were codified in OD&D and AD&D (1e). Here's a few-

1. The six ability scores of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Sure, the order might have moved around, but we are still using the exact same ability scores.
2. The core races are primarily the same. There are nine races in the 5e PHB, of which seven of them are identical to the ones codified in the 1e PHB.
3. The core classes are primarily the same. There are twelve classes in the 5e PHB, and nine of them are in the 1e PHB. Another (the Barbarian) was a popular optional class in the 70s (from Brian Asbury's article) and was first codified in 1e's UA.
4. The dice are the same. Famously, D&D was originally going to use just a d6 with a d20 option, but by the Greyhawk supplement they included the use of the Platonic solids (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20). While percentiles existed before, they were rolled using the d20 and the first d10 as we know it now didn't ship with D&D until the Moldvay set. Regardless, we still use the exact same dice.
5. Levels? Yeah, we still use the confusing term to refer to both class level and spell level. Luckily, we don't refer to dungeon level quite as often.
6. Hit points. Whether they are meat, or not, they are still hit points.
7. Experience points. Again, mostly the same.
8. Names and effects of spells. There is a staggering amount of overlap between the basic spells in the 1e PHB and 5e PHB; everything from fireball and magic missile to Leomund's Tiny Hut.
9. Primary Monsters. The vast majority of iconic monsters in D&D all date back to the TSR era; Beholders and Mind Flayers and Tarrasques, oh my!
10. The "primary loop," while somewhat different (with the action economy) is still very familiar- initiative, attack, repeat.

I could continue on, but I think you get the idea. The marvel isn't that things have changed .... because, over 50 years and five editions and two owners ... of course they will change. The amazing thing is that things are still so familiar. The decisions made decades ago profoundly influenced the evolution of the game, and continue to constrain the possibilities today.


C. A Specific Example- Armor Class.
He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.

One of my favorite examples of this is the continuing use of "Armor Class." Now, if you play D&D, you're probably so used to the term (and the abbreviation, "AC") that you don't even give it a second thought. It's just, you know, armor class! But wait ... what? What does it mean? Why are we using it?

Think about it- to begin with, it's a pretty confusing term. D&D has already appropriated the term "class" for something very specific- the "class system," that define the majority of your character's abilities. And Armor Class has absolutely nothing to do with your class.

Okay, but it also doesn't mean anything in plain English, either. When you unpack it, it's just a number (or a ranking) of how difficult your character is to hit- it certainly doesn't refer to the class (or TYPE) of armor you are wearing. A lot of characters will have an identical "class of armor" even though one character will be wearing armor, and one won't. So ... why are we using this term?

Well, the history is confusing (whether it was pulled by Arneson from a naval combat game or directly from Chainmail), but in Chainmail (the original combat system for OD&D) .... the likelihood of hitting varied depending on both the weapon used by the attacked and the type of armor worn by the defender. The very first edition of Chainmail referred to this as "defender's armor protection type" before it was later revised to ... wait for it ... armor class. (Here's a quick source on that).

Later, we would see some echo of that in the "weapon v. armor table" in the 1e PHB, but for the most part ... by the time that D&D was being played in the 70s, armor class was already somewhat inscrutable. Yet here we are, still using the term. Why don't we change? Well, primarily because people use it. They are familiar with it. It's part of D&D.

And because a road was taken 50 years ago, and it's really hard to switch paths now.


So there you have it. Enjoy!
 

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Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I just wish people would stop comparing editions of D&D to video games. It's a really bad analogy, including but not limited to the following reasons:

1. Video games are influenced by technology. You can do exponentially more with a video game today than you could in the late 70s/80s. TTRPGs are based on imagination, which doesn't change.
2. The % of D&D players who still prefer to play TSR era D&D is probably higher proportionally than the % of video gamers who still primarily play the Atari or original NES as their go-to video gaming experience.
3. 5e took off, in part because of going back to some pre-4e design elements and playstyles. You can't do that with a video game and expect the same level of success. You don't see PS5/Xbox1 devs going back to side-scrolling or top-down linear games with no save points, do you? It would....not be successful lol. Certainly not in comparison to 5e's success.
 


I just wish people would stop comparing editions of D&D to video games. It's a really bad analogy, including but not limited to the following reasons:

1. Video games are influenced by technology. You can do exponentially more with a video game today than you could in the late 70s/80s. TTRPGs are based on imagination, which doesn't change.
2. The % of D&D players who still prefer to play TSR era D&D is probably higher proportionally than the % of video gamers who still primarily play the Atari or original NES as their go-to video gaming experience.
3. 5e took off, in part because of going back to some pre-4e design elements and playstyles. You can't do that with a video game and expect the same level of success. You don't see PS5/Xbox1 devs going back to side-scrolling or top-down linear games with no save points, do you? It would....not be successful lol. Certainly not in comparison to 5e's success.
Only quibble: Gaming technology also changes and advances due to innovation in game design.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Its certainly painful trying to read a wall of text written in a style from the 1960s. Gramps.
What exactly is your issue? You just joined the forums, created a couple threads just to complain and take shots at people, went after me personally in my thread about digital rewards, inferring I was a liar, and now are going after Snarf personally. Are you just having a bad week? Or is something else going on?
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Only quibble: Gaming technology also changes and advances due to innovation in game design.
The rules aren't tied to technology (not the in-person rules anyway). There are lessons learned as time goes by, sure, but the actual rules of a modern game like 5e absolutely could exist in 1974. Books are books, and existed back then as well. I.e., there is nothing technology-wise that would prevent the core 5e books from existing in the 80s. Certainly not nearly as big of a gap as there is between an Intellivision and a PS5.
 




The rules aren't tied to technology (not the in-person rules anyway). There are lessons learned as time goes by, sure, but the actual rules of a modern game like 5e absolutely could exist in 1974. Books are books, and existed back then as well. I.e., there is nothing technology-wise that would prevent the core 5e books from existing in the 80s. Certainly not nearly as big of a gap as there is between an Intellivision and a PS5.
My definition of technology is more expansive. Any system is a technology that can be refined and improved upon.
 



Mercurius

Legend
Nice post as always, @Snarf Zagyg. It reminds me of my thinking back in the early 90s, when I discovered games like Talislanta and Ars Magica, or even White Wolf. I thought some variation of, "Boy, D&D's rules are kinda wacky - these are much better designed." It was a game whose chassis felt out-dated - and it was. This felt especially true comparing it to AM's magic system, or Tal's streamlined Action Table. Where games like Tal and AM were designed and published in the late 80s--after almost 15 years of RPGs--D&D was still borne from the halcyon days of Gygax's fertile (by idionsyncratic) imagination. I mean, even going back to the late 70s, Runequest seemed "better" designed.

Now 2000 comes around and 3E feels like a massive upgrade - mechanically speaking. And of course instrumental in that was Jonathan Tweet, who co-designed Ars Magica and had a hand in a later edition of Talislanta. But it felt like D&D crawled out of the murk of the 70s and--even if it still retained idiosyncratic elements (e.g. AC)--was at least streamlined and felt more like the older brother who still had a mullet, and less like the grandpa who couldn't work the VCR.

Fast forward to today, and I still wonder why I always come back to D&D. There are "better" designed games, and games that suit my aesthetic preference much more. Further, with WotC's recent quasi-ideological emphasis, I find myself withdrawing further ("can't we must play a game of dragons and wizards, and not worry about real-world stuff? There's enough of that on twitter"). But...D&D is still my first love; I was imprinted on D&D and, to this day, love its weird and wacky idiosyncracies and now immense body of lore.

And I think there is something more than just familiarity or imprinting. Despite its quirks, D&D has a unique signature or flavor - both crunch and fluff. From AC to the six ability scores to Vancian magic to mind flayers and beholders, to chromatic dragons and drow. And of course the worlds - Greyhawk, the Realms, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, the planes, etc. It is all "D&D," and nothing else.

So even if I don't like all elements of D&D, and like other games more, or appreciate them more aesthetically or from a design/mechanical point of view, I still love D&D and probably always will, on some level or another. Or to quote Charlton Heston in reference to my first edition hardcovers: From my cold, dead hands!
 

So...? (to Snarf)

Yes, you are right, but what is the value in this? Yes D&D will always be shaped by its initial development. But when our generation dies off, only D&D historians will have any idea what TSR was.

Or perhaps the way I think of it is like an automobile. Automobiles (like RPGs) tend to have certain things that in their early history were found to work well. Like 4 wheels and 1 motor (abilities & dice). Sure, there are some autos that occasionally break these rules (3 wheels or 2 motors), just like their are class-less and dice-less etc RPGs, but the vast majority of folks stick with autoss that have 4 and 1.

Yes, innovation can and does take place. RPGs generally don't have save or die anymore, and some cars are moving to 4 motors (1 electric motor at each wheel). But does that mean a Tesla is still a Ford?

And about path dependency, sure, yea. Ok, again you are not wrong. But it seems you are arguing that they only way to get to a point is by a specific set of decisions. I don't believe that is true. D&D could easily be exactly what it is today had a thousand different decisions been made. How can one say that only if Darcy had decided not to be a (whatever he wasn't) that something like the SRD wouldn't have come to be?

In short, I think you give too much credit to keeping D&D linked to TSR.
 

Urriak Uruk

Gaming is fun, and fun is for everyone
Kinda a Ship of Theseus situation, under a long enough timeline. Mechanical refinement and drift inevitably mean that some future version of the game will have no mechanical connection to yea olde Chainmail.

This is definitely true, though the OP is probably correct that some rules (or at least, their names) will stay possibly forever. AC is a distinct example, despite the reversal from THACO.
 

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