Thursday, January 16, 2020

Out of the Dungeon

This post might ruffle some feathers. I'm okay with that.

Once upon a time, someone wrote (in reference to Dungeons & Dragons):

We don't explore character; we explore dungeons.

And that is as apt a way of describing B/X-style play as I've seen, at least in relation to (most) post-1980s gaming. As I've described before, the character in B/X is simply one's avatar for exploration; it is the vehicle used to facilitate play. Describing and developing character can be a form of "play" in RPGs (see both late edition D&D and many, many other games as examples), but it isn't in B/X and, for my money, isn't a very satisfying form of play even in other RPGs. And I say that as a person who played a lot of games like Ars Magica and Vampire, etc. back in the day.

Why isn't it "very satisfying" as play? Because the actual play of the game, the interaction with other X factors (GM, fellow players, random chance) is the place where the unexpected and magical happens. It is in reacting to the unexpected that we are truly challenged. Building a character by selecting from a list of options and set values (whether at the beginning of chargen or over 20 levels of development) isn't a "challenge;" it is but a chore, one that some can accomplish with more aplomb and enjoyment than others. And once the chore is accomplished, what are you left with?

For myself, I prefer to deemphasize the chore of character creation and instead emphasize actual play, where the actual challenge lies. Hence, exploring dungeons over exploring character.

And yet, there comes a point at which exploring dungeons ceases to satisfy as well. A point at which, no matter how competent the DM, no matter how exciting the adventure, no matter how rip-roaring the player interaction, there is a feeling of "what are we doing here?" There comes a point when ennui sets in and you wonder why your adventurer (you, in your mind's eye) is doing down in this dank hole of a labyrinth. A point at which satisfaction with the game play requires further context beyond some mission given to you by a mysterious wizard or stodgy duke.

For me, this is the point at which Advanced Dungeons & Dragons begins. In basic D&D, we explore dungeons; in advanced D&D we explore worlds.

For those seeking context and meaning (such as it is) to their fantasy adventure game, Advanced D&D (yes, literally: AD&D, first edition) is the proper jumping off point for creating a fantasy world. Despite a perception of the game as some sort of "generic fantasy RPG," I've long felt that AD&D implies a strangely specific setting. Not explicitly, mind you, but it's there nonetheless. You find it in the class systems, in the appendices, in the original monsters created for the game, in the alignment system and demihuman relationship tables. It's there: a whole strange world waiting to be interpreted by the DM and explored by the players. And it's about something more than just slaying goblins and hoisting sacks of loot.

Yes, there's a world that you won't find in B/X or OD&D. B/X tells you to draw a even provides you with one (and OD&D does much the same by instructing you to use the Outdoor Survival game board).  But a map by itself is nothing: just a random scattering of castles and cities, spread over a random geography, perhaps with a few proper names like Luln or Specularum.

AD&D gives you glimpses of what is going on in the world itself: circles of druidic hierarchy, bardic colleges, guilds of assassins and warrior monks. A manticore is just a manticore, surely...but why do dark elves live underground and why do they worship a spider goddess? Dwarves and elves are well known creatures from fairy tales, but why do they have antipathy for one another? And why exactly do rangers lose all their special abilities if they fail to act contrary to a "good" alignment?

B/X doesn't raise these questions for exploration. Elves are elves, dwarves are dwarves, any class can be any alignment and it matters little...because the game is just about finding treasure and leveling up. Treasure is found in dungeons (and the wilderness is simply the space between the dungeons), and when enough is found, castles may be built. It is a simple game, a streamlined game, a basic game.

The advanced game adds more...much more. And not just in terms of rules and "crunch." It draws from sword & sorcery literature, and yet in most pulps demons and devils are one and the same, whether they are from hell, hells, or some other nether region. In AD&D these are distinct beings and the various nether regions are distinct from each other (whether you're talking the Abyss, Hades, Gehenna, etc.) obeying different laws and following different cosmologies. This is specific setting material, not generic...and the game (AD&D) provides you with the means (through spells and magic items) to explore that setting.

Why must assassins belong to a guild? Why can't rangers operate in groups of more than three? Why don't paladins belong to a particular church or order with a hierarchy like the (lawful) monks? These are ALL specific choices about the game setting...and yet they are only scantily defined, inviting the advanced Dungeon Master to nail down the specific reasons of their specific campaign. Maybe your rangers ARE just wandering Dunedain, descended from the men of ancient Numenor...or maybe they are instead human bugbears living on the borders of man-space. AD&D requires the DM to fill in the details, but the empty cup is already present, waiting to provide context to the in-game action.

It all just struck me like a ton of bricks the other day (i.e. about five days ago) when a reader was asking me about the practicality of including an assassin class in B/ which I responded (much as I've written before) that I saw no real need of an assassin in B/X. A party of adventurers has far more to be gained from a thief's bag of tricks than those of its subclass. There's just not much need for disguise (especially if the assassin doesn't speak a humanoid's language) compared to, say, climbing walls and picking locks and whatnot in a dungeon.

In a dungeon.

But what about outside the dungeon...ah! That's another story. And it's the same story for the other Advanced classes: what good is a paladin's war horse in White Plume Mountain? What good is a ranger's tracking ability in Tomb of Horrors?  Does a demilich make tracks? We could follow it to its hidden lair, right?!

No, the advanced game is for when you are TIRED of the dungeon...when you want your game to be about something more than just scurrilous rogues looking for coin. When you want to put your character in context of the (imaginary) world itself: your place in society, in politics, in prestige and rank.

And I do mean "your place." Remember how we don't care about our characters except as a vehicle for exploration? This is the next road on which the vehicle is going to drive...a road for advanced drivers. When I'm done experiencing the fears and exhilarations of the dungeon (or, at least, when those experiences start to pale) I can still experience my place in the fantasy milieu: how do I interact with the hierarchy of my religious (or magical) order? How do I gain rank in my guild? How do I avoid the guild that would shut me down and take my wealth? What gift can I give the local ruler that will get her to look the other way as I march around at the head of my personal mercenary company?

World building is the advanced game. And there are already pieces in place to be explored. Yes, you can add those pieces to your B/X or OD&D or Holmes game...but why would you? Why need you? If you (like myself) are longing to play an advanced game of D&D, then why wouldn't you simply start with the system that gives you the tools you need? Why wouldn't you simply start with AD&D?

I am directing that question as much at myself as at any of the readers, just by the way.

I have run...and loved running...B/X for more than a few years now. I take great joy in designing dungeons, and have felt very comfortable running the game in a "dungeon style:" episodic adventures with one jackpot being followed by yet another. It's comfortable, it's easy. But it's not altogether satisfying. You want to throw a demon prince in your game because it's a cool monster/challenge, and you're forced to invent a good reason for placing such a thing in the dungeon site (cultists of course...duh). It's forced; it's contrived. There's no context without a larger world view/perspective.

When my friends and I discovered AD&D...waaay back in middle school...we switched over from B/X immediately. Truth is, the dungeons had already begun to pale somewhat. The various hints and implications of setting found in the PHB and MM and DMG (from diabolic hierarchies to artifacts and relics) fired our imaginations far more than yet another rope bridge over a lava-filled chasm. Damn...just using the Urban encounter tables while wandering around a medieval town could end up with an interesting adventure! We still went into dungeons, of course: braved the Forbidden City and delved (unsuccessfully) the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. But most of our days were spent exploring the world in which we found ourselves, the villages and towns and river crossings and mountains and NPCs of both high estate and low. Bar maids and barons and druidic hierophants and wandering apprentices and thieving halflings and secret guild halls. When a magic-user's power came from spells and the only method of spell acquisition was thieving a scroll or spending a ton of gold...well, adventure was never far behind.

As I move into the latter half of my 40s (I turned 46 in November) I am just about done with B/X. Just about. I think that was a point I was coming to through most of 2019, but it was (and still is) difficult to confess when I've profited so much by that particular edition. Not just actual "profit" (thanks to all you purchasers of my books) but profiting through wonderful gaming experiences and a renewed interest in all things D&D (as well as a deeper understanding of game design and the hobby's history). I still feel B/X is the easiest way to teach and learn this game called Dungeons & Dragons and, when they're ready, it's still the edition I will use to introduce D&D to my children. But B/X has little left in the tank for me, personally: I'm done exploring dungeons.

Bring on the world.

Sometimes you need a little liberation.


  1. Hello. I agree with the first part about what D&D is (hidden room/exploration game), but not the second part that you need AD&D outside of the dungeon. I think that the X in BX deals with the wilderness and the wider world. There's plenty of rules for exploration in there and the monsters are mostly those outside of the dungeon.

    The challenge I believe is to provide a wilderness or world with a series of situations that the players need to use their PCs to solve through brains, brawn, diplomacy and guile. In a free form game that's harder than the closed system of a dungeon.

    Interested in how you develop your ideas further.

  2. I think it's interesting that you associate bx with the dungeon. It's true that we played BECMI, but we only had 2 pcs reach 10th level while my dad was dming. Most of our adventures were wilderness/City adventures. Our play was defined by b10 and the x series and what followed naturally from those beginnings. Sure we delved the occasional dungeon, but it wasn't what defined D&D(which was Basic/BECMI at the time) for me.

    I think the implications of a setting/world you see in AD&D is also present in bx. It's simply buried deeper in the text/rules. Some of that shines through in BECMI, maybe if bx had gotten its promised companion book there would have been more exploration of the default setting similar to AD&D.

    But that implied setting certainly exists in Basic dnd. You even bring up that all elves are just elves, they don't specialize. Well what does that say about the world and the fact that all elves can use magic? It wasn't really until I stated my analysis of the cleric spell list that I saw how the rules really spelled out the basis for a world. The druid(from BECMI) being a subclass of the cleric who goes off in the woods and to learn a new way of life makes so much more sense to me now. The Basic cleric and his church clearly have connections to the natural world(plants, animals, etc) and condemns the perversion of that natural order(undead), so a cleric going into the woods to become closer to their God makes a whole lot of sense.

    I agree that adnd has an implied setting, but so does basic, and they are quite different from each other both in how they are implied and what is implied. Though really I guess the implied setting of adnd is just greyhawk as it was played at Gary's table and not necessarily what was published. Adnd was built with that setting in mind, whereas in basic the rules came first and out of those rules an implied setting emerges.

  3. Well, yes and no. I think of BX as about exploring, not just exploring dungeons (which I honestly think the most interesting of places to send a party).

    AD&D is just more of everything. You can throw in a city environment in BX as well, it just doesn't need all the "chrome" of AD&D (or later editions). I entered the D&D world via AD&D, to be fair, and I loved it. But it was never more than a fun way to have an adventure--and our adventures took place in dungeons, primarily.

    To each their own. I have never been a fan of "guilds" and the generally political interplay of cities. But, as I said, to each their own. A good adventure is a good adventure.

  4. And isn't Expert just another way of saying Advanced?

  5. I completely get where you are going with this...I see the same world-building implications in the Holmes edition of Basic. The rules assume certain implied realities that suggest a world that defies convention. Some of those assumptions play a huge role in the way I world build and play the game. Doing a deep dive into certain rules to come out the other side with a realized world is a lot of fun. To be honest, however, I have never much had the energy to do it with AD&D. So I am glad you are doing it so I don't have to ;)...

  6. Interesting post, seems as I am getting back to B/X after a very long time away, your are moving away from it. I can see your points, but for me B/X always had an exploration aspect to it beyond the dungeon.

  7. I went through an OD&D phase about 15 years ago, and it was a thought process very similar to what you describe above that eventually led me back to AD&D (and, specifically, the later "baroque era" of 80s-era AD&D where the MM2, UA, and World of Greyhawk box amp up the worldbuilding even more than the core AD&D books, and point to even further development in that area, which Gygax never go to, but I have through my house rules and additions)

  8. I think BECMI, even if you leave off the I like I did as a kid, does a pretty good job of "opening up D&D" to exploring the world, not just dungeons. But I also get where you're coming from with wanting all the little bits of color that AD&D has that Classic lacks. I add a lot of those into my house rules for Classic D&D.

    Also, this post reminded me of one of the threads on The Forge that primed me for the OSR:

    There's a lot of discussion about the setting implied by the rules of BX.

  9. Isn't this the third post where you explain why you're moving toward AD&D 1e?

    1. @ Bob:

      It sure feels like the third (or maybe the fourth), but I think it’s actually the 2nd specifically addressing the inadequacies (for me, as I see it) of the B/X system. And it’s the first where I really state “enough is enough.”

      I think. Maybe I’m wrong.
      ; )

  10. I long ago came around to the view—TSR's orthodoxy, even—that D&D and AD&D are two separate but very similar games.

    As others have already said, BECMI does all of the same things that you've pointed out AD&D does; it just does them in an alternate way, so that the flavor is less Gygax and pulp novels, more Mentzer and Elmore and 80s fantasy novels.

    But the claim that D&D isn't about exploring worlds? That seems a little off to me, given that getting out of the dungeon is the entire point of the Expert Set. The Basic Set lives in the dungeon; but everything from level four on up—hex crawls, Gazetteers, dominions—it too implies a world. A world with more Saturday morning cartoon Arthur-and-Merlin gadzookery, and less thinly-veiled Yog-Sothothery, to be sure.

    Maybe that won't satisfy everyone the same way Lolth and Iuz and Juiblex will.

    I guess what I'm asking is, is it the rules system you're after, or is it all that canonical Gygaxian lore? To a certain extent they're inextricable, but they're still not exactly the same thing.

  11. There is a reason I've come to prefer the term Classic over Basic. Using Basic to describe BX or BECMI only describes one small part of the rules and implied that the Advanced game is better or something you move to when you've mastered Basic.

    I'm not trying to discourage you from starting to play with AD&D, I just feel your description of BX (or Classic) D&D to be off-putting.

    To echo John Higgins, do you want the rules to reflect the lore of the world(AD&D and Greyhawk)? Or do you want the lore/setting to reflect the rules(Classic)?

  12. Wow. This...isn't the post I expected to read on your blog. I applaud your evolution as a gamer.

    I started with Basic in 1977 and went through these same feelings even as I moved on to AD&D. That was 1979-81 however.

    My experience differed largely in that:

    A) I was never really a Fantasy fan per se, and once I realized there were Sci-Fi and Superhero games I was like, "What? Why aren't I playing those then?".

    B) I played under a number of bad DMs, who emphasized all the worst aspects of Gygaxian style play and the weaknesses of the system. This after starting my first session with a DM whose bottom line rule was, "What a great idea! That sounds so cool. Sure you can do that thing not covered in the rules as it makes total action-movie sense!"

    The question of where you go from here is one I am very eager to follow along with as you search for the answer.

  13. One of the things I appreciated from AD&D was the "implied" campaign details, which definitely give the DM a good basis to expand and build. On the other hand, the Expert set was explicitly designed to bring characters outside of the dungeon, although it didn't have the same implied setting details as AD&D, so in my experience it requires more work from the DM. As someone said once (possibly Steven Marsh or Frank Mentzer?) the really "advanced" game (requiring more DM creativity and input) is Classic D&D, not AD&D.

  14. I feel like I'm missing something. I can understand the desire to shift to a more fleshed out world over dungeon crawls but I don't really see how AD&D gets you there. The advanced classes were mostly created to emulate specific fictional characters without much effort at an implied world, let alone a world where all these characters made sense. Thieves can read magic scrolls because Cugel the Clever & the Gray Mouser could. Paladins have special horses because Holm Croger could. Clerics are quasi-Christian in abilities but AD&D glossed over the setting implications.

    Likewise the various encounter tables and such could be imported into BX. There's a lot of inspiration for world building in AD&D but I don't see why you can't just import these ideas into BX. I think there's a lot to be said for Fr Dave's approach where to create a coherent world you pare down the details - fewer classes and monsters and come up with a world where they all make sense.

  15. I haven't associated B/X with "dungeons" any more than I do other versions of D&D in a very long time. I have run games with fully realized characters and settings in B/X. Its true that AD&D implies a setting, but that raises a few questions. Is that the setting you want to explore? If so, I say go for it, but you don't necessarily need the AD&D mechanics to explore that setting. You could just run Greyhawk, which all those class elements you mention stronly mirror, using B/X. Most of those things don't need to be mechanically codified so you don't need to homebrew much. For me, I keep gravitating back to B/X for two reasons: internal consistency and simplicity. I find the simpler rules get out of the way of character, setting, and story. You mention that we use B/X to explore dungeons. I would argue that looking up from the foxhole you see a battlefield and looking up from the battlefield reveals a countryside. The dungeon is just a hole in the ground in a bigger world. The least important thing about my characters are their mechanics. What defines them, and becomes their stories, are their choices. That's what tells me who they are. This is why, for instance, 5e is not my cup of tea. Its all about what your character can do and not about what they did and why they did it! I'm not telling you not switch to AD&D 1e or even 2e. I have played both and they have things they do well. I'm just saying you should consider whether you have backed B/X into an unnecessary corner and are imposing limitations on it that aren't really there. In a lot of ways the less of B/X is more.

  16. I forgot to add this: the classes, races, and options in the AD&D Players Handbook and Unearthed Arcana have been B/X-ified in the Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules book. In my opinion, its handled in an elegant and thoughtful way and supports a broader ("more advanced") style of play.