Yesterday was my daughter's 8th birthday. It was a lot of fun, lots of crazy kids running around, enjoying themselves. A house full of 2nd grade girls, doing crafting projects, making tortillas, playing hide-n-seek, breaking pinatas (well, one pinata), etc. Fun, fun, fun.
And, of course, a time for reflection and nostalgia when (later, after the guests had left) my daughter and mother and I went through photos from 2014 when she had just been born and was still a little red-faced babe with a spiky mohawk. *sigh* Change. So inevitable. So uncomfortable...at times.
My D&D journey has taken me back to the beginning of my personal history, now that I'm (pretty exclusively) playing first edition AD&D. To an outside observer I can understand how my adherence to that old edition of the game can seem like a curmudgeonly way of clenching my fists and trying to hold tight to some piece of history, resisting the inevitable march of change...of progress. I can see how the AD&D aficionado must often seem like dowager Lady Grantham pining for the pomp and tradition of the previous century (sorry...the fam has been rewatching the Downton Abbey series for, like, the third time through).
|Image of the inner|
soul of a typical
first edition gamer.
As I mentioned at the end of my last post, German AD&D enthusiast Settembrini recently interviewed Trent Foster Smith (in English) for his Zock-Bock-Radio podcast. Trent's been doing the AD&D thing for a long, long time, and I think some of his insights on that edition are pretty spectacular (and, no, I'm not just talking about the bad AC numbers in the MM). However, he and Settembrini both seem to have some blind spots about B/X, its appeal, and why it seems to have taken such a strong hold on the "old school" D&D community, especially through the OSE (Old School Essentials) clone. Let me start with that, as B/X is a large and significant part of my journey.
The main difference between my beginning in the hobby and other folks starting around the same time is that I came to the game through Tom Moldvay's Basic set (the "B" of B/X) NOT the Frank Mentzer authored, two volume hand holder that started the BECMI odyssey of completeness. I would agree with Trent's assessment of the basic game feeling too staid and closed (as a system) compared to AD&D...if the discussion were limited to a comparison between Gygax's opus and Mentzer's series. But Mentzer's series...despite the B and E containing near identical content to the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B and X are quite different in terms of scope and tone. That "fuzziness around the edges" that Trent finds so inviting of addition and extrapolation is likewise found in the B/X books...books of a series that were never completed (they author's talk about a forthcoming "Companion" book that was never published until the series was re-booted by Mentzer with a shift in focus, direction, and...for my money...target demographic).
This is why...when I returned to "serious" D&D play, I came back to B/X rather than AD&D. Both B/X and AD&D have the ingredients that inspire. Both have the fuzziness to invite additional (design) exploration. Both of them are fairly simple to run (one more so than the other). And of the two, B/X is far more accessible to the Average Joe or Jane. That's why, when teaching the game to others, I always start with the B/X system (or Labyrinth Lord, back before B/X became readily available)...it is a far easier method of ingraining the basic premise and understanding of the game before moving into any sort of "advanced" play.
But as a game, B/X is limited. Sure, all D&D is limited...because there are only so many words you can put down in a text/manual and the human imagination quickly and easily surpasses the scope of that which is contained in the books. But B/X's limitations...which I found so charming and that opened so many possibilities ten years ago (back when I was writing my B/X Companion, The Complete B/X Adventurer, and blogging other material for the B/X system)...its limitations stop short of what AD&D offers, namely expanded campaign play. And while the open-ended nature of B/X certainly leaves space to develop that extended campaign play, AD&D's robust system already offers a paradigm for such, including extensive play-testing to resolve (or at least make note of) flaws of design that require addressing.
The world building cosmology on display in the AD&D books is the thing that's missing from B/X and its clones (including LL, OSE, etc.). AD&D shows the evolution of the mindset that is required to continue compelling D&D play. You see it in the extensive world-building of all three core books:
- The MM: the hierarchies of demons, devils, the congress between lower plane denizens (night hags and their trading in souls), elementals, the various sub-races of elves and halflings, etc. and the various tribes of orcs (with their siege equipment and above-ground villages) and men (dervishes and pilgrims and whatnot).
- The PHB: you see it in the bardic colleges, the druid and monk hierarchies, the "guilds" of thieves and assassins, the economy hinted at via the equipment lists, the sketches of the inner and outer planes and their cosmology, and various hints here and there (which races can be psionic, which races may NOT be resurrected, etc.)...all things which say SOMEthing about the world.
- The DMG: an opening into the inner workings of the Gygax mentality regarding campaign construction and world building and yet again MORE examples of world building through the extrapolation of PHB material and the inclusion of more legendary items (artifacts and relics and whatnot) from the author's own campaign and imagination.
Without this evolution...without this attention to world building...the game becomes tired. It becomes just a matter of how one can run tricks and tart the thing up, creating new classes, creating new monsters, adding new (minor) rule tweaks and systems...none of which amount to deepening or enriching the play experience. Instead, it only amounts to sitting down at the table and saying, "well, what's our adventure tonight?"
Advanced play engrosses the participants in a way that basic play does not.
You can see this in the difference between the introductory modules T1 (for AD&D) and B2 (for Basic). T1: The Village of Hommlet spends an enormous amount of space (some would say an inordinate or excessive amount) on the village proper...its history (old and recent), its inhabitants, its various factions. Who cares? The B/X player cries. Where can I buy a two-handed sword? When do we get to the dungeon? This is, of course, the basic approach to the game...it does not invite players to live in the fantasy world or engage with it in more than a cursory manner.
The advanced version of the game does. And while DMs can take what B2: The Keep on the Borderlands offers and extrapolate from it, breathing life into the module, detailing the Keep's denizens, imagining the factions that might exist between Cave denizens, and the secret histories that connect various wilderness encounters with each other and the wilder world...well, most don't. It's more work than what's needed...it's more effort than the need for what the adventure was designed (i.e. an introduction to the game, its systems, its premise, etc.). It is a great introduction to the basic game...for both the players AND the DM. But trying to back-engineer it for advanced play...well, that's an interesting thought experiment, but you might as well be developing your own world.
[see, that's the part that (I think) the Greyhawk aficionados miss. DMs who dive deep into the Greyhawk lore for inspiration are, in a way, still playing just a LARGE version of Basic, juggling all the moving parts of someone else's campaign world...like some sort of mega-normous wilderness/dungeon combo. Not all of them, of course, but...well, that's a post for another time]
I got back into old edition D&D after realizing that there was nothing really preventing me from going back and playing old edition D&D except (perhaps) the need to find willing players. Previously, I had some sort of "block" about this idea of playing "old" games. I chose B/X because it was a well-written, well-designed version of the D&D game that, while streamlined and sensible, left enough out to still fire the imagination and not shut down possibilities with what happens after level 14 (as did Mentzer's BECMI series and the later Rules Cyclopedia compilation by Aaron Alston).
B/X alone no longer satisfies me...at this point, only Advanced play will do. And I have settled on the 1E rules as my vehicle/delivery system of choice for that type of play experience, as later editions seem to have missed the point, instead worrying about appealing to the changing gamer demographic, most likely due to, you know, the need to make money as a business:
- 2E tried to tell heroic stories (and sell novels/book series)
- 3E created complex systems that incorporated universal principals and unique character builds.
- 4E was designed to emulate MMORPG play/terminology (especially World of Warcraft)
- 5E ORIGINALLY attempted to appeal to as many prior gamer generations as possible, seeking to reclaim market share/brand identity by reaching out to individuals who felt alienated by earlier editions and create the One Great Compromise edition. However, due to the overwhelming popularity of the video series Critical Role (and its imitators) 5E continues to morph in a direction that is more about...well, something else. Storytelling, grandstanding, performance art...I don't know. I don't really want to dig into it. It appeals to some folks...that's fine; do you. That's not what/why I play D&D.
To draw this post to a close, I'm not playing first edition AD&D because it's the game I played as a kid (I did play it as a kid, which has given me insight into just how the game is played and its potential greatness). I am not playing AD&D because it is some mark of prestige or curmudgeonly badge of honor. I'm not playing it because its systems are perfect or elegant or the height of RPG design theory. And I'm not playing it because it's the edition with which I have the most familiarity (that would probably be B/X).
No, I'm playing AD&D because I've changed my mindset about what I want from this game and what I want from this hobby, and the 1E books deliver this in a method and manner better than any of the other editions. Its root and core is sound; its author, for all his faults and flaws, was able to convey the experience of advanced gaming in a way that I have yet to see equalled (which, considering the quality, may be a sad statement about the RPG industry).
Change is uncomfortable...and inevitable. More changes, I'm sure, will come. And I'm sure this blog will continue to document my own. Cheers.