Posted by : David Guyll May 07, 2009

Note: This is actually a lot less venomous than it originally was. I also realized that I wasnt really reading OD&D as I understood it, but the revised 4th-version from 1984. I should check the dates more any rate, I got the correct version of OD&D and read through that, but from what I've heard is that Adrian isnt actually playing by the actual rules (where they even exist), but is using a combination of retro-clones and other rules scavenging. So...yeah.

Another Note: After going through the actual original D&D game, one revision, and one retro-clone, I've come to the conlusion that while a good chunk is the same, there are some differences such as available classes, weapon damage, and spell effects. I'm not going to go through each version and find out all the problems in each one, but will work in an overall general sense.

In the recent past I've gotten into frequent debates over the merits and flaws of various Dungeons & Dragons editions with my gaming group. In normally goes something like, "Hey, what do you think about [insert mechanic here]?", or some such. However, one of the occasional players occasionally takes this a bit farther by trying to justify various strawmen with tenuous arguments about things that frankly, he doesnt understand.
This really isnt anything new, as I've survived worse flame-wars on the Wizards and (especially) Paizo forums with much more skilled individuals, but it always sucks when it takes place in person and during what you would normally expect to be a friendly social game.

The guy got back into D&D a few months after 4th Edition was announced when he noticed me reading one of the new books, and after a bit of talking picked up a core set on impulse just to see what it was all about. At the time he was excited and really enjoyed it, etc etc etc. Fast-forward about a half year into the future and he has come to the conclusion that, of all editions, that OD&D is the superior animal. His arguments are that there are less rules, its better for role-playing, and he can run the types of games that he wants. Oh, and that 4E seems like a glorified minis wargame. I of course was totally not expecting that one. Nope.


Dont get me wrong, I'm sure that back in the day when OD&D was the only RPG around that it was all well and fun. Or at least tolerable. Kind of how like back in the day people still played Pong and that it was worthwhile. Now? Not so much. In a nutshell my opinion of OD&D is that the mechanics are crap and the choices just arent. Of course in all fairness I would also say similar things about AD&D, so please dont think I am singling out OD&D as the only bad guy.

I've only had the chance to rummage through the books since they are very poorly written and laid out, making it a Herculean ordeal to read. Add that to the fact that it comes in apparently four different "levels" of rules/three separate booklets and its a pain in my ass to dig through.
OD&D suffers from all the crap that I remember in 2nd Edition, just magnified when I can actually find what I'm looking for. There arent any meaningful choices to make, and there arent any meaningful reward mechanics. If you level up, you get hit points. Thats about it. Its actually worse than Rifts (words I never thought I'd ever say): at least in the game you got actual features from your class and sometimes got to pick more skills.
I know I'm going to catch flak for saying this, but reward mechanics are a very important element of game design that keeps people interested when dispersed properly. It keeps players hooked and really helps break up the tedium. For example, God of War wouldnt have been nearly as fun if you never learned any new moves or acquired any new weapons.

The gist I get from character creation is that you basically choose from one of threeunless you knew that your campaign would push past a certain point (I'll adress this later).
You can pick a fighter fighting man, which allows you to roll a d20 over and over again until you or the thing you are trying to kill falls over. Thats it. Theres nothing dynamic or interesting, and all your levels just gradually increase the odds that you get to say, "Hit", after rolling.
Wizards magic-users suffer from the design flaw that they suck at low levels, but if you put up with them long enough they will blow your characters away, or so the claim goes. They in general dont do any wizardly things, having only one spell per day at level one and gradually gaining the ability to participate actively for more than one round each day as you carry their sorry asses through dungeons. Note, that wizards dont actually get an attack spell until they hit level three (and thats if the DM gives it to them, since the DM decides what spells you get).
Clerics get the abilities of a fighting-man (the ability to attack, I guess) and magic-user (only not), can use more shit than a fighting-man, and cannot use edged weapons for...balance? I've never understood this restriction, and the only rationale that I can recall is that they are supposed to avoid, of all things, bloodshed. Since, you know, blunt weapons dont do that sort of thing.

Speaking of weapons, weapons all kind of bleed together in vague categories of lumped damage. Well, depending on which version of OD&D you are playing. In the retro-clone and another version, they all do d6 damage. However, in at least one iteration the only thing that sets one weapon apart from another is damage, which doesnt amount to much (about...1 to 1.5 points on average). For example, all swords and axes (except for the hand axe) deal the same damage. All pole-arms and two-handed swords deal the same damage. Really, damage is all there is to weapons. This makes them rather boring, and was also a turn off for me in Worlds of Darkness games when "swords" all did the same damage, and this is only one step away.
This means that your choice of weapon is largely cosmetic to the point where you could just as easily write in "Weapon" and call it done. This would be considered a strength, except only the most diehard power gamers are going to angst over the damage output. In 4E many weapons are thematic to certain races, but I still end up picking the one that I want. For example, Red Jason has a dwarf paladin that uses a khopesh instead of a more traditional axe or hammer (which would benefit from the dwarf racial feat and his Constitution). However, these elements do add an immersive layer to the game (why dwarves typically use those things).

It was after reading an article on Wikipedia that I had realized I was "doin it rong": there were only three classes (no thief), and all weapons did flat d6 damage. The main difference that I could see between that version and the revision was that you can combine a race with a class, but since dwarves can "only be fighting men" its essentially the same thing as saying that the dwarf is its own class, just better. Of course, dwarves can only get to a certain level, correct? The problem with that mentality is the same problem that people had with Level Adjustment in 3rd Edition, which was that some players suggested an alternate method where instead of using LA, you instead had to get more XP in order to level up.
Now, on one hand it might seem logical, but in the end its a bad idea since it means that anyone can play anything at 1st-level, but they just have to "wait it out" longer to get a level. This means that you could play, say, a red dragon at level 1, chock with all of your bad-assery right from the get go. Take into account that often you might be playing a one-shot game or the campaign might not extend for very many levels, and it means that even realistic choices like tieflings and githyanki see a considerable power curve.
This is a major design flaw of D&D editions before 3E, and even games like anything Palladium shoves out: they make classes of varying degrees of power with the caveat that you need more XP to level. This alleged balancing mechanic doesnt do shit for one-time or low-level games, and it gets worse when you consider that you didnt get much for leveling in the first place.

Those are some of the glaring flaws that I noticed while talking with Adrian about my thoughts in older D&D editions and games in general. With those mostly out of the way, I'm going to actually address his arguments.

There Are Less Rules
This is true. The game has very little in the way of rules, and those are universally tied to combat. This is also very bad. While OD&D falls into the category of a role-playing game, it does so in the same way that you can say Metal Gear Solid 4 is a role-playing game in that you are pretending to be something you are not. There is a lot lost on the various aspects of role-playing, especially when it comes to character immersion. In fact, since its up to the DM to handwave and invent whatever rules and interpretations he feels like for "shit that isnt combat", its a lot like MGS4 where you do one or two things and then watch a long-ass movie.

For example, there arent any skills. So if you want to play a very suave character, too bad. There is nothing to back you up on the mechanical front. You wanna do something thats not combat? The DM gets to figure it out. How does the DM figure it out? I have no clue, but I imagine it involves his ass and pulling shit out of it.
Your ability scores are used to govern only combat elements, with the exception of Charisma, whose only function is to determine hirelings. There are no rules that help determine haggling, lying, stealing, or hiding. I guess its up to the DM to just arbitrarily determine whether or not that whatever you are trying to do works, or doesnt. No advice on how you might go about figuring this out on your own. Nowadays I'd just houserule in the use of ability scores to determine success or failure, but back then you didnt have anything to base it on. This leads us to...

Its Better for Role-Playing
Rules and game mechanics end up creating a greater depth of immersion into the game by ensuring that whatever your character is supposed to be good at, she can actually accomplish. You see, Adrian is one of "those people". You know, the typical role-playing elitist that tries to tout that talking in character is the true measure of a role-player.

The flaw in Adrian's logic is that by forcing people to engage you socially and determining success or failure based on their personal abilities, you are in fact restricting their choice of character that they want to play. Players become bound to their own Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores: if they suck in any of those categories, then options are barred to them. The fucked up thing about this is that I have yet to see a DM force players to bench press in order to determine how strong of a character they are able to play.

This lack of rules and relations to actual character stats takes away from role-playing. The character is only as good or as bad as the controlling player. It doesnt matter how smart your magic-user is, if you yourself cannot answer the riddle, you're fucked. It doesnt matter how charismatic your fighting-man is, if you cannot think of a lie that the DM thinks will worked, you're fucked. This brings me to a point that Adrian didnt actually cite, but I thought of while mulling all this over: player mastery.

Player Mastery
You know how some DMs get pissed off when their players start to memorize the monsters and magic items after playing the game for awhile? A very common example is when a DM throws trolls at the players and they find out that fire is required to hurt them. Its great when the players dont know (or not, depends on the circumstances), but after that they know what trolls look like and it all boils down to if they have fire. Some DMs really cant stand it when the players use player knowledge instead of character knowlege, but unfortunately thats going to happen and the most elegant solution I have seen for this is using some sort of knowledge skill. Unfortunately, OD&D has no skills, so we're back in the realm of DM-Handwavery.

Now, there is an example of this in the OD&D books concerning charm person spells. In the book, it says that a beginning player will use it and ask for the effect. Since it only functions on a limited number of creatures, the player will "try it on many things and learn by trial and error". So, the first time through a player will end up blowing a lot of these spells and gradually pick up on who it works. However, the next time through they as a player will already know what it will and will not work on. Pretty bogus, having a magic-user who apparently can cast such a spell but have no fucking clue if its going to work on certain things, but thems the breaks.
I will note that this bizarre method wasnt in the 1974 rules, but was present in later revisions.

Its A Wargame
I find it absolutely mind-boggling that he would gripe about the use of minis and battle map considering the fact that it assumes the use of minis and measures distances in inches. See, OD&D was created around the assumption that you played Chainmail, and probably already had all the minis on hand or something.

The reason why my group didnt use minis in 2nd Edition was because there really wasnt a point. Combat was just a repetition of dice rolling where nothing particularly interesting happened. Positions never changed, terrain rarely factored into the equation, and there wasnt any tactical reason to do much beyond move in front of a monster and start trading blows. What we did most of the time was I would draw the map as Bat Jew described it, and then they'd ask me if they could get to X monster or do Y thing (I would draw it on a sheet of graph paper, you see). The real reason why we didnt use a battle map or minis is because most of us were poor.

OD&D assumes minis, and provides ranges and movement rates in inches just in case you thought your editions was minis-proof. Unlike a minis-game, using minis probably doesnt add much since there isnt any sort of tactical advantage to be gained without the help of more DM handwaving and improvisation.

Red Jason commented on his past experiences about how he had fun during an encounter where he pulled a tapestry onto a bunch of skeletons and just stomped them to death. He didnt have to roll or anything, Adrian just let him do it. This constitutes a problem because Adrian has just told Jason that if he attempts such a think that it will always automatically work, at the least against skeletons and presumably other humanoid-shaped and -sized monsters. He wouldnt say how many rounds it took for him to stomp them to death, but suffice to say they could not fight back and he was able to take on, "the other skeletons that were also there."
What we learn is that the tapestry is a very dangerous weapons, as it can effectively take out multiple monsters automatically. When Jason tried to pick it up, Adrian said that it was "too heavy" and that he could not. This seems like Jason trying to logically utilize something that he learned, and Adrian trying to save his ass for making a bad ruling and not wanting to backpedal on it.
Of course, this action isnt actually in the rules. Adrian just made it up on the spot. It could be performed much more elegantly in later editions while not making it the best possible option. In 4E, you would have them make a simple attack roll and have it cause the affected creature to grant combat advantage as it frantically tries to escape. Is this better than other attack options? Probably not, so its a nifty idea to try when its around, but not something players are going to go out of their way to try and "auto-kill" an encounter. In this instance I would have enjoyed myself more because it would have felt like that both creativity, luck, and a bit of skill went into the attmept.

The Conclusion
In the end there is absolutely no way I am ever going to play OD&D. Not even to "see if I like it". Its later versions of D&D with all the options and customization stripped away, so why would I want to step back and reduce the choices I can make to what amounts to picking out a unit from the Warhammer Fantasy Bretonnia Codex? Character creation feels very much like I am picking a premade unit out of an army book and giving it a name: I can play sword-guy, the magical one-trick pony, or Clubman McHealz. Woooow.
To sum it up, if you want to see what a really terrible game looks like, if you want to see the product of numerous bad game design flaws and tenets, this is the game for you. If you are looking to make your own game, I would get this, read it, and then do generally the opposite of what was done here.
I dealt with this shit in 2nd Edition, and after a few years I started to drift into other games. 3rd Edition brought me back, and 4th Edition ensured that I was here to stay. To me, it would be like rolling back to Windows 3.1, complete with a CRT monitor, 2x CD-ROM, and a hard drive measured in megabytes: I prefer my games to have potential and options, not restrictions.

Questions to Red Jason
Red Jason is prette open and flexible, and has played OD&D with Adrian, so I asked him a few questions about the flaws that I identified.

When it comes to skills, Red Jason is on both sides of the fence. On one hand, he likes not having skills because its, "more fun since you really have to engage things," and is, "up to the DM to gauge success/failure". On the other hand, he likes them because it helps represent the strengths and weaknesses of your character.
Skills help add a huge immersive layer to the game: they help determine what your character can and cannot do (well).

Red Jason considers the lack of character options to be a major weakness to the game. There isnt anything very meaningful to select from, except for possibly your class. This greatly restricted form of character creation severely limits diversity. You cannot play a fighter that uses magic in OD&D. You cannot play an assaassin empowered by divine or psionic gifts. You cannot play a suave, swashbuckling pirate. This isnt even counting the nonsensicle racial limitations: dwarves cannot cast spells, and elves cannot be clerics. There would be more, if there were more character classes to choose from.
This is bad game design since there are an exceedingly few number of decisions to make.

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