Wednesday, February 1, 2012


A subtle or slight variation, as in meaning, color, or quality; a graduation

- The American Heritage Dictionary

[I’m not writing dictionary meanings to seem intellectual…I’m doing it ‘cause I had to look up the word this morning to make sure I was using the term correctly. I wasn’t an English major and I screw up terms and definitions all the time; putting the meaning at the top of the post keeps me focused]

NUANCE. Slight or subtle variation. This, to me, is a good way to label the difference between most editions of Dungeons & Dragons…even those that don’t carry the name “Dungeons & Dragons.”

I was reading through my copies of Labyrinth Lord this morning in preparation for Randy’s new game Thursday (Randy, who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is new to the DM hot-seat, but he is an exceptionally creative, smart, and funny individual and many of us have been looking forward to him running a game). Fortunately, I am still being allowed at the table (though with the stipulation I play a gnome due to the persona non grata status I’ve recently acquired) and so I wanted to brush up on the LL rules because there are nuances the distinguish it from the B/X game.

I LIKE Labyrinth Lord. There’s a lot about it I like: the presentation, the artwork, the motivation behind it and its adherence to the original B/X rules. But there are also things about it that really irritate the hell out of me. Because they are so few, I’m going to just enumerate ‘em:

- Clerics receiving a spell at 1st level. I understand why some folks like this; I know the reasons why this is preferable for some players. My reason for not liking it is two-fold: #1 I think the class is stylistically stronger to have to work for that 1st level spell (though I know many players don’t give a rat’s ass about “style”), #2 I think it immediately puts a clerical player in a position of “oh, you’re the medic (as opposed to an armored, righteous butt-kicker with a secret weapon against the undead).” Personally, when I’ve played a cleric I don’t like being placed in that role…but I probably have a poor temperament for the class in general (I know a lot of cleric players ENJOY the support role, and the extra spell is quite welcome).

- Unlimited class levels. Big whoop, right? Few campaigns were going to get up to the B/X-stipulated level 36 anyway, so who cares if classes go to 100 or 1000 or infinity? But it just makes the demihuman classes look even more undesirable…I would have preferred changing the human classes to a maximum of level 14 (the end of B/X) or even stopping at level 20 (where the LL class tables end) rather than going on “forever.” Again, this is simply a matter of taste.

- The combat matrix for player characters.

- The increased costs for armor. Why should plate mail be unaffordable for a 1st level character? Because it’s more “realistic?” There aren’t any 1st level youngsters that have inherited a suit of plate from their knightly parent? If you want to limit the amount of plate (and other heavy armor) allowed into the game simply say PCs can’t spend more than half their starting gold on any single piece of equipment; hell, set the 50% limit and stipulate they need to retain 10-20% of their starting wealth as coinage…this will limit plate mail to characters who roll a 13+ for starting gold (upper class types) and 10+ for chain mail (middle class warriors).

But that’s it…and THAT’s just nit-picking (you’ll note I didn’t list my complaints for the combat matrix; my reasoning is just a little too esoteric for this particular post). Four complaints over-all ain’t bad; the rest of the book, including all other differences from B/X (of which there are few) are things I can totally live with. And I don’t have ANY issues at all with the Advanced Edition Companion as a complement to LL (I was reading that last night, too, but I think I’ll be picking up a print copy today).If one wants to use AD&D in a B/X fashion, AEC is the way to go (sorry, Barrataria).

And ALL those complaints I’d put firmly in the category of nuance. And I can live with nuance.

Same with BECMI, an edition I have derided many times, here and elsewhere. The difference between B/X and the first two volumes of Mentzer’s opus for the most part is simply one of color…Mentzer’s book is aimed for a younger audience. Why that’s so irritating to me (now) is a matter of my own silly foibles…I’ve played BECMI before and enjoyed it, especially at low levels (we found it a bit tougher to adapt to some of the “CMI” deviations at higher levels).

Sometimes these nuances are important differences; they can have major impact on the face of the game. When the paladin class was first introduced (in the first OD&D supplement, Greyhawk) it was simply a sub-class, open to any fighter with a Lawful alignment and a 17 Charisma that was willing to live by the paladin’s rather strict requirements (never act evil, give all your wealth to the poor, limit yourself to a handful of magic items). Meet those prerequisites and you reaped the benefits of the sub-class.

Since the fighter class (or “fighting man” as it is called in OD&D) is one that's open to all PC races, one can infer that paladin status could be conferred on ANY character that met the requirements: dwarf, elf, and halfling included. Maybe I missed something in the text, but I re-read Supplement I a couple times looking for anything indicating paladins were limited to the human race and couldn’t find anything. It’s only in the AD&D Players Handbook that the paladin is prohibited to any race but human.

I actually like the OD&D paladin quite well (and THAT’s a feeling I’ve never had for the paladin class in any other edition). Compared to later versions with its spell acquisition and clerical abilities, I feel this character is well-balanced, and restricted enough (for the minor bonuses) that there’s no need to “beef up” the fighter class with weapon specializations and what-not. Plus, why shouldn’t the class be open to all who are willing to devote themselves to righteous service and duty? Why limit it to humans?

I wonder what players of dwarf paladins thought when they picked up a copy of the PHB for the first time. Probably the same way I feel every time Games Workshop comes out with a new edition of WH40K that renders my army officially unplayable.

[and, hey, if anyone sees where I missed the page in Greyhawk proscribing paladins from any race but human, please point it out to me]

But even with THAT change from one edition (OD&D+) to another (AD&D), it’s still just a nuance: a slight variation (if not a particularly subtle one). There are still paladins in both versions. The paladins have the same, basic requirements. The paladins have (mostly) the same special abilities. And what HASN’T changed is the role the class takes in the game. When you meet “Fred the Paladin,” regardless of the edition, you’ll probably be able to pin a few expectations on how he’s going to act in various circumstances, due to the behavioral requirements of the class. The slight changes in rules are just that: slight changes.

Luke, one of the guys I play with down at the Mox, has pointed out that part of the fun in playing these games (and playing different games) is achieving mastery of a game’s particular nuances. Learning the rules so as to have a higher level of play (whatever that means to you). I tend to agree with him…at least for the “gamist-types” out there (and I definitely fall into that category).

But for others who don’t care overly much about specific rules…for instance, people who just want to play a halfling thief, but don’t spend a lot of time mastering the 5’ maneuvers, flat-footed catching, attacks of opportunity, etc. that makes the rogue class strong in 3rd Edition…for the people who don’t CARE about rule "mastery," the STRENGTH of the Dungeons & Dragons line IS that the differences are simply ones of nuance. I can sit down at a table that’s using LL or B/X or AD&D or some hybrid (like Heron’s game which uses Labyrinth Lord’s AEC Illusionists but no Halflings, for example), and with very minor input I can start playing. I don’t have to learn elaborate dice pools or bidding systems or rules for “scene resolution” (not that any of these are “bad things,” mind you…just saying I don’t have to LEARN any of them) to play a game of “Dungeons & Dragons.”

Even D20 with its additional complexities is very much the same game. Classes, hit points, saving throws, attack rolls, initiative, XP, level, spell books, monsters. It’s hard to say the difference is simply one of nuance, especially when the game play is so slow and “clunky” compared to earlier, easier editions. But for the most part, the essentials (that which makes the game “D&D”) hasn’t changed. Barring a magic spell or potion, your character is still dead if you take more damage than you have hit points, and you’re going to be rolling another set of six ability scores.

For me, the nuances are important to which edition or version or variation of the game I prefer. But, as I said, I can live with nuance (well, with most nuance). And the more I play (and play different editions/variations), the more I begin to really appreciate the game of D&D and its nuances.

Not from a design standpoint…as a designer, this kind of variation and constant change and craziness makes me want to cringe at least or go play something better designed at worst. But from the perspective of a game player, there is a real power in this variation and inelegance. It allows players to play across boundaries with pretty minimal fuss, AND it shows players that the rules are NOT sacrosanct and freely customizable and here, take half a dozen different editions and cobble together something that works for YOU.

There is a lot to be said for consistency and elegance in design. And then there’s this heaping, steaming pile of Dungeons & Dragons. Much as I prefer the former, I seem to keep coming back to the latter. Maybe by being as messy as it is, it’s more true to life.

Just my thoughts of the day.


  1. The main reason I would tell anyone to use LL over B/X is that it's a currently available product. People can buy print copies and get the art-free pdfs for their tablets and smartphones.

  2. I see what you mean and I agree with you. Granted, I cut m teeth on a lter edition than you, 2E, I have copies of LL and some of the older versions of OD&D. I also have Swords & Wizardry as well and think that the best thing about all of these rule sets is as you said, nothing is sacrosanct, take what you want and cut away what you don't.

  3. @ Luke:

    If the AD&D re-prints are released as PDFs will you recommend those over Labyrinth Lord?
    ; )

    @ Drago;

    I know I have (and continue to) been hung up on the differences between of the reasons I "insist" on a B/X base when I am DMing. However, I'm starting to gain an appreciation for
    the wide spread of nuanced variation.

  4. I don't see why allowing a spell to the cleric at 1st level automatically makes him a "medic." There are lots of other excellent 1st level spells the cleric could use that have nothing to do with healing (command, light, detect evil/magic). If the other PCs try to pressure him to take cure light wounds, he should just have the gonads to say "Fuck you, that's not what I'm here for."

    As far as armor goes, I don't follow your logic. If you think a fighter could inherit a suit of plate mail, then whether it's listed as 60 gp or 450 gp is irrelevant; the guy who's inherited his suit didn't have to pay anything for it anyway. I think expensive plate mail is a good idea, as it gives a low level fighter something to strive for. When he's completed a few adventures and has enough gold in his pocket, then he's earned his new status as an AC 2 tank.

  5. to me, one of the main attractions to playing the older editions is how easy they are to mod.

    Even if someone is running a cookie cutter Greenwood/Tolkien kind of game, I'd rather see them pick and choose specific rules a la carte from the various editions, rather than slavishly follow one specific snapshot of the game.

  6. @ Chris: As I said, it's a matter of personal taste.

    RE Clerics: In the past I've received angry comments from fellow players for NOT taking the "expected" spells. If you're a cleric, with a single 1st level spell, most players are going to expect you to carry cure light wounds ("we've got torches for light!"), just as people expect 1st level magic-users to stock sleep when possible.

    RE Armor: Who said anything about giving someone something for free? The starting gold of a 1st level character represents the character's beginning wealth and equipment. By pricing plate mail at 450 (more than the maximum possible starting coin of a 1st level character) you are saying, "1st level characters don't have access to plate mail." As if it were a magic item or something.

    But plate armor is not; it can be inherited, borrowed, stolen, or purchased right out of the shop. Why shouldn't some 1st level characters have it? If they do, their background might reflect that ("oh, this was my father's armor," OR "I saved all my pennies for 6 years to buy this suit and start m adventuring career")...whatever justification you choose. I'm not into "earning" normal equipment. Some characters are born with a silver spoon...just like some characters are born with an 18 strength or charisma. But, again, this is a matter of personal taste. I know of a certain video game that requires you to get 40 levels before you can buy a horse...that's a LOT stupider (but not much).

    @ Heron/IG: Well, YOU know I'm as guilty of "tweaking rules" as anyone else. Even I can't stand to play B/X completely RAW (clerics memorizing spells beforehand? thief skills? barf!). But, yeah, I'm starting to really appreciate it as a strength of the system (whereas before I saw it as "something to be put up with").

    Maybe Dungeons & Dragons needs to be considered as a SINGLE GAME as opposed to many editions. No "Advanced," no "2nd," no "Basic." Simply one giant monster and under each section a bunch of "suggested, optional rules."

    Maybe that will be my NEXT writing project. Want to do some art for it?
    ; )

  7. Hi, JB!

    Great post. While none of the things you've listed are deal-breakers for me, I grok you. I agree on the "spells at first level" thing for clerics, but it doesn't bother me in LL. I think the B/X/LL Cleric is just tough enough without it. I also agree that two spells several levels apart do not a medic make. That said, given the expectations of newer players especially, I think it's a relatively harmless bone to throw.

    I actually kinda dig the more expensive plate and I really like the more smoothed out fighter combat matrix. For one, as I run an AEC game, it mimics the caveat in the original DMG about fighters (with DM approval) being able to improve their chances to hit every level (bottom of 74). I can see how it would niggle a B/Xer, of course, but I have no issues. It's as you said: a matter of nuance that demonstrates how the game can be tweaked so as to facilitate certain play styles or preferences.


  8. Speaking of tweaking and different versions...I have recently been running some 4e games, in which I have essentially stripped down most of powers system and reduced the hit points of PCs and monsters. Result: an exciting, fast moving game which retains the "flavour" of Classic D&D.

  9. @ Dan: Yep!

    @ Antonio: I don't disbelieve you...but isn't that a lot of monetary output (not to mention kind of a heavy backpack) just to run a 'stripped down' version? Labyrinth Lord (for instance) is a cheaper investment (and easier on the back) and you can just 'add to it' the extras you want.

    Hey, I'm just saying....
    ; )

  10. Strongly agree with pretty much everything you write here.

    I much prefer my clerics to be armored demon hunters than priest types. Can we blame Second Edition for that transition? The lack of spell at first level is pretty critical to that.

    I would also add that many of the divergences in LL from B/X are probably not game design decisions, but legal decisions, to make it clear that the system was derived from the SRD rather than B/X. That is why there are so many different types of armor (rather than the three types from B/X of leather, chain, and plate).

    Maybe Dungeons & Dragons needs to be considered as a SINGLE GAME as opposed to many editions. No "Advanced," no "2nd," no "Basic." Simply one giant monster and under each section a bunch of "suggested, optional rules."


    Like Antonio, I'm also running a 4E hack game (with elements from OD&D, B/X, and Second Edition). I only own four 4E books, and I really only need the core 3 (I also bought the book on undead for whatever reason). I have probably spent more on pretty much any other edition (other than 3, of which I have no books).

  11. @JB I hate to say it, but the idea of reducing DnD to its most basic roots and then having everything else as an optional addon is exactly what they seem to be trying to do with 5e. Only time will tell of course, and I personally am trying very hard to not drink the koolaid, but perhaps....

    Also, to totally derail this, what about your Star Wars ala B/X ruleset? Been on a Star Wars kick lately (thanks to SW:TOR) and it is one of your pet projects I always enjoy hearing about

  12. @ Harv:

    Oh, you know just how many projects I've got on the "back burner" these days? I'm just about out of burners!

    I will try to get to B/X Star Wars next week (got the Blue Ray DVD set for Christmas and haven't even mentioned it yet! Yes, lots to be addressed in the near future...).

    RE: 5E

    Yeah, as I was writing the thing on nuance I was considering 5th Edition a lot., how to put this delicately...I think they're going to balls it up. Really, I do. It's not that I don't have faith in people or the designers' good intentions. It's that I have no faith in capitalist corporations doing things "right" when other ways lead to more profit.

    But I've written my piece on 5E in the past; I'm going to withhold any judgment on it till I see it (judgment of Hasbro/WotC is another story).
    ; )

  13. I only invested in the core 4e books (oh, and Dark Sun, because I am a sucker for Athas,) so the monetary output was not much (and with Amazon, even less). And I am used to AD&D in terms of weight :)
    Jokes aside, it's an experiment: I had those books, I HAD to do something with them, on my own terms. And to my surprise, I am enjoying it. I have very simple characters, which can be tweaked in a lot of fun ways. 4e makes for a great toolbox. And running monsters in 4e is a blast.