Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 3 of 11)

Yes, yes, I realize that parts of this essay are pure speculation on my part: I wasn’t playing D&D pre-1980 and there are no rules sidebars of the Great Divine Founders to give us insight into their design philosophies and besides they’re all dead now anyway (well, Gygax and Arneson and Holmes and Moldvay are)…but if you’ll allow me to speculate tangentially for a moment (this series is going to take a few pages anyway):
  • D&D was designed as a wargame (not just like a wargame…the title says it all!) by wargamers for wargamers. It was certainly a different TYPE of wargame (small scale, fantasy in setting), but still very playable as such…and written to use a wargame’s resolution mechanics (specifically, CHAINMAIL).
  • While the game begs for additional rules to fill the gaps, it is still MECHANICAL in nature. Want to hire someone? Spend X gold and roll a certain dice looking at a certain target number. Want to run a kingdom? Here’s the code to show how many citizens you have and your tax basis. And that hoary old code of “alignment” is simply a mechanic to tell the referee/players whose side a critter is running with.
  • Combat: whether on foot, or naval, or in the air is TACTICAL and movement/mechanically based. No, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of D20 or 4th Edition, but it can play like a cheap version of this.
  • No personality or role-playing is required: gamers are simply defined by their courage (do we fight this monster or run?), their cunning (where are you searching for treasure, concealed items), and creativity (how are you going to circumvent this trap you discovered).

So how did we get from that to Holmes? “Good characters should not be torturing prisoners.” Why would they even want to? And even if so, who cares? I mean, “points” (XP) are only gained from finding treasure and defeating monsters…why would you bother torturing anyone?

As I said, I can only speculate, but I’d think the “morphing” of the game can be linked to a couple possibilities (one, the other, or both):
  1. Long term play and character identification. Over time, players playing the same PC develop a bond with the character (the “My Guy” syndrome) and begin to invest the character with personality…whether through actions/behavior or out of simple boredom from “moving the piece around the (imaginary) board.” The game STARTS as a wargame…but survive long enough and you develop an attachment (and dare I say, “infatuation?”) with your heroic imaginary persona.
  2. Supplement I: Greyhawk. Gygax’s first supplement introduces two new character classes to the game that change the whole dynamic of play: the THIEF and the PALADIN.

Prior to Greyhawk, your choice of character was both limited and fairly straight-forward. Fighters fight. Magic-users use magic. Clerics occupy a place somewhat in-between, and providing some necessary support skills, including a means of repelling those especially dangerous undead monsters. The different races provided a little variation/variety but otherwise your place in the adventuring hierarchy (your “role”) was fairly set…unless you started taking an active role-playing stance (due to long term play and identification). Of course, as said there are no guidelines or advice on “role-playing” at all in those Little Brown Books.

That changes with Supplement I. With the inclusion of the paladin class, players are suddenly forced to think about character behavior and motivation. The character class didn’t have to have the inherent behavior restrictions: Gygax could have simply made paladins dependent on the proper ability scores (17 Charisma) and an XP penalty that normal fighters don’t suffer. Instead, players are forced to start putting their mind into the mind of their character: why does my character go into these dungeons? What is the best use of the treasure I’ve acquired (since I’m not going to keep it)? How do I interact with NPCs in a way that’s upright and noble? How do I “embody goodness” in-play? Are these actions going to cost me my powers (due to being “selfish” and/or “evil”)? Just making such a character class available in the game can cause players of other classes to consider their own characters’ motivations.

The thief kind of seals the deal. The paladin class provides a system of behavioral strictures that impact actual play (do the wrong thing and you lose your special abilities). The thief, by its very name and level titles, describes a character of mean and honor-less nature. Such doesn’t have to be the case, of course (there are no behavior strictures that will cause the thief to lose HER skills, for example), but the definition of the character (a thief!) opens up the idea of PERSONALITY for the character. Not just a party role, but a means and way of life.

And the pick pockets skill. I mean, how many dragons (or trolls or worms or giant rats or shriekers) have pockets? How many creatures in the Underworld…or the Wilderness, for that matter? Fauns and nymphs and giant beavers?  Treants? Patrols of plate-armored knights? For the most part, this is a skill to be used within an urban environment (a type of adventure environment NOT discussed in the LBBs)…or against one’s own party members. And in the latter case, what is that in aid of? Nothing…from a wargaming “accomplish-the-objective” mentality.

On the other hand, if you are role-playing a character with a less-than-savory personality, then the ability makes perfect sense within context. And it helps push that mental shift by giving you (the player) one more thing to be paranoid about besides the possibility of a pit trap or Big Ugly lurking in the dark.

The OD&D rules tell you how to make a character. They tell the referee how to create a challenging environment. They provide information on what monsters and magic items might be encountered. But they tell you nothing of the attitude or mind-set you should have in the game…nothing about role-playing, in other words.

Sprinkling in a dash of paladin and thief starts to put your head in the game. At least, that’s my speculation.

Back to Holmes: we can see there’s no paladin, but the thief is definitely present…has been present in every edition ever since, by the way. The addition of the thief PLUS the updated take on alignments (that they are some sort of gauge for…and provide judgment of…a player based on the character’s behavior)…and we start to see the emergence of a new type of game. A role-playing game.

Just not one with any real guidelines on how to role-play.

When AD&D comes out shortly thereafter (the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons) we see no mention of “role-playing” in the title. Not terribly surprising considering that
  1. Gygax and Arneson’s original game wasn’t designed to be a “role-playing” game, and
  2. Gygax’s AD&D set out to be a definitive codification and compilation of OD&D, its supplements, and various magazine articles, and
  3. It seems fairly clear (based on the results) that Holmes’s and Gygax’s AD&D were not on entirely the same page. There are clear and substantial differences between the two editions despite Holmes Basic’s explicitly stated intention of being a bridge and introduction to AD&D.

Is it any wonder that nowhere on the AD&D covers can the phrase “role-playing” be found? Despite Holmes promoting the game as the original fantasy role-playing game?

[to be continued]


  1. The title page for Holmes' draft for the Basic manuscript can be seen here. He used the same subtitle as in OD&D, with the addition of "Complete Rules in This Volume". It's possible that Holmes later changed this, but keep in the mind the possibilty that TSR (either Gygax or another editor) changed it to include "Role-Playing Adventure Game". Likewise for the statement on the cover of the book - could have been chosen by TSR as part of the cover design. We haven't seen the rest of the manuscript, so I'm not sure if the original uses "game of role playing" in the Intro or not.

  2. Speculation or not, this is a great series so far!


  3. Enjoying these too but you almost lost me with the thing about "OD&D was a wargame, it says so right on the cover!"

    I would not read too much into that word. There was simply no other term available for an RPG.

    I'd agree that the RP aspect did change over time, and enjoy this look at how mechanics might have created some feedback on that ... if not causality ...

  4. Regarding torture, I see it as feasible that groups would capture creatures and then torture them to find out either where treasure was hidden or what dangers might be up ahead.

    Enjoying this series.


    1. I agree that torture probably cropped up pretty early in D&D's development. I mean, it's been part of human conflict since ancient times, right? It stands to reason that the behavior would carry over into D&D from the get-go. Shoot, as a little kid playing pretend-war (before I discovered D&D), I know that capturing and tormenting "prisoners" featured prominently. So unfortunately, that tendency seems to be part of human nature (i.e. the domination of perceived "enemies"). Hmm, perhaps there needs to be a series on recurring behaviors expressed while roleplaying and what said behaviors mean with regard to human, someone probably already did that!

      Anyway, bottom line: if I was sitting at a table over and over, basically playing a board game without a board, I would get bored too...and would probably resort to doing something "crazy" like, I don't know...acting like my character had a personality. It is indeed the logical progression...

      Great stuff, JB! Looking forward to more.

  5. Another important consideration is that the original OD&D rulebooks were meant for the DM (or referee) only. The player was not supposed to have a copy of the books. Therefore, it would have made no sense to talk about how the players should act in a book they shouldn't have.

    In the Empire of the Petal Throne rulebook (published in 1975) there is a paragraph on how to create interesting PCs including giving them their own motivation as well as likes and dislikes. Something you'd expect from a DM's book.

  6. As an historical aside, do note that the Cleric class in fact has behaviorial prohibitions in OD&D that force characters to take alignment seriously. The most striking is the fact that if a Patriach abuses the "Finger of Death" ability, they instantly become an Evil High Priest (see M&M pg.34). This is the model for the paladin mechanics, and is at least as meaningful as the Holmes quote about torture you supply. There is a weaker echo of this on M&M pg.7, where Clerics "changing sides" lose benefits bestowed on them by their previous masters.

    To the specific thesis that D&D suddenly became a role-playing game when it incorporated the paladin and thief classes - I think the thoughtful questions you have the paladin asking himself are not in Greyhawk, and if you can read them into Greyhawk, you can certainly read similar ones into OD&D as well. There are numerous places on the edges of OD&D's system where characters are brought to the fore: in dealings with hirelings, in the intelligent sword system, in barony management.

    Of course it's true that as time went on, designers thought more about characters and roles, and by 1978, we see that role-playing section at the start of the PHB that is absent from OD&D. Long-term play of characters is a plausible place to look, but it had been in a factor for wargamers in the 1950s, too, and thus it cannot itself be said to mark the transition point to RPGs. To really answer the question of how the extended play of characters expanded characterization, crack open the fanzines: read the earliest accounts of play from actual players. Did the play of D&D suddenly change from wargame play to role-playing game play sometime between 1974 and 1976? I think you'd be hard pressed to find any clear difference. Dungeons became more imaginative, worlds became more ambitious, but players were all over the map in terms of how much they invested in their characters - just like they are today.

    By mid-1975, the needle in game design had moved some towards richer characterization, sure. But I'm not sure I see that the publication of Greyhawk marked any stark transition from wargames to RPGs, though - OD&D already made you think about alignment, and thieves, as another historical aside, were first released by Gygax in May 1974, five months after first print OD&D and nearly a year before Greyhawk.

    Speaking of early appearances of thieves: just a nit, but, if the "urban adventure" is not a concept considered in OD&D, I wonder why we see lines like, "players can have town adventures roaming around the bazaars, inns, taverns, shops, temples and so on. Venture into the Thieves' Quarter only at your own risk!" (U&WA pg.15) Understood that you're doing conceptual speculation rather than historical analysis, but sometimes historical fact is going to show where speculation goes awry.