Saturday, May 31, 2008

What Was OD&D?

So over at, Xaos opines that 4e is "OD&D done right." Xaos really means BECMI, but that's a tangent no relevant to this post. Clavis123 comes in to set the record straight, pointing out all the details where the divergence could hardly be greater.

Then James_Nostack counters:

These are all excellent points, but it doesn't go to the OP's argument that 4e hits the OD&D design goals better than OD&D did. (I presume by his reference to "master and immortal" play that he really means the Mentzer BECMI stuff, rather than what the old, old, old, old people call OD&D (the three little brown books released in 1974 by Gygax and Arneson).

That version of OD&D - the Three Little Books version - is a complete mess which is practically unplayable without house-ruling everything under creation (whether this is a bug or a feature depends on who you ask). But more importantly, it promises adventure reminiscent of Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, and Vance - and does absolutely nothing to support this play. Gygaxian D&D, like D&D 3.X (and I suppose 4e though I haven't seen it), is its own distinct niche of the fantasy genre.

It's certainly legit to point out that the sacred cows of "Gygaxian D&D Fantasy" are missing in "D&D 3.5 Fantasy," and (apparently) even more are missing in "D&D 4e Fantasy". So that these are two very different sub-genres of "D&D Fantasy," the way Bronze Age comic books are very different from Modern Age comic books.

But if the 4e design spec is to accomplish what the Gygax & the other designers were going for, thru different methods, complaining about the absence of the sacred cows could miss the point of the 4e design.

The questions are:
1. What was the ideal sought by the early designers?
2. Did the early designs hit that goal?
3. What is the ideal sought by the 3.5 or 4e designers?
4. Does the 3.5 or 4e design hit that goal?

This is what we regulars at refer to as "Old Geezer bait":

1) "We made up some shit that we thought would be fun".
2) "Yes."

Specifically, as I've said several times.... Brown Box D&D was explicitly, DELIBERATELY designed to be "Here's some hit charts, a saving throw matrix, some suggested monsters, magic, and treasures. Add imagination and go apeshit."

"What was the game about?" What did you WANT it to be about? Okay, THAT's what it's about!

And yes, first level characters should be FRAGILE! You started with 1 HD at first level, and most monsters did 1 HD of damage.

Surviving to second level was a game in itself, and one that as experienced skirmish-level wargamers, we relished.

All that weird shit in the equipment list... 10' poles, iron spikes, jars of oil... They wer'nt there because Gary put them there, they were there because at one point or another we tried to buy them.

Then follows an interesting breakdown on earning XP and advancing levels in Moldvay Basic, where OneEyedMan breaks down the numbers on a nest of goblins:

Well, each goblin was worth 5 xp. The leader is worth 35 xp, and his bodyguards are worth 20 each. Each golbin carries 2-12 electrum (1-6 gp), which means that each is worth an additional 1-6 xp. The lair itself, with treasure type C, averages about 1000 gp in value, possibly much higher if you roll good for jewelry (13,612 gp value maximum).

So a full 60 goblin lair is worth, totalled up, between a minimum of 438 (60 goblins, 2 bodyguards, 1 leader, and 126 ep) and a theoretical maximum of 14,625 (60 goblins, 12 bodyguards, 1 leader, 12,000 cp, 4000 sp, 4438 ep, 4 1000 gp gems, and 4 1800 gp peices of jewelry).

Assuming I counted right, of course.

For a party of 8, that goes to between 55 xp (you got hosed) and 1828 xp (thief, cleric are up to level 2, everyone besides the elf is getting close, and the elf is sulking and tossing dirty looks at everyone else).

Then follows a discussion of the difference between outdoor and dungeon adventuring.

I have to say, I think 4e might be closer to OD&D played with the Chainmail rules in its focus on tactical combat. Outside that, I really don't know either version well enough to say, but the treasure packets, lack of henchmen and followers, and absence of a stronghold "endgame" do seem to make 4e a very different game from any version of D&D before 3.0.


Oddysey said...

What? No henchmen? I sense a house rule coming on. I have no knowledge of how such things were done back in the day, but Leadership is my absolute favorite 3rd edition feat. Hmm . . . I may just give it to them all for free . . .

But yeah, though I don't have any play experience with either system (a situation that, in both cases, I would like very much to resolve) they do seem pretty different in basic philosophy. Not entirely dissimilar, mind you, but different. Which isn't a bad thing, so long as they're both fun.

trollsmyth said...

Not entirely dissimilar, mind you, but different. Which isn't a bad thing, so long as they're both fun.

This may be blasphemy among the grognard crowd I run with now, but I think it's a good thing. After all, we already have OD&D. We don't really need another. And while 4e won't be claiming status as my go-to game for fantasy, if it's fun, I could see enjoying it for beer-and-pretzels dungeon romps and the like. In fact, based on the little I've learned of the game so far, it might be possible to cobble together a sort of DM-less, Dungeon! -esque board game style evening with it. The only problem is you really need someone playing the monsters to get the most out of it; I'm not sure how to clear that hurdle yet.

- Brian

Jeff Rients said...

Brian, I agree with you completely. Despite not really digging on the new edition right now, I wouldn't see the point of retreading an earlier version of the game and calling it a new edition.

James Maliszewski said...

I think the idea that 4e is somehow closer either to OD&D or Moldvay/Mentzer D&D is the kind of thing only someone who never played either extensively could say. I'm certain 4e has many virtues, even if they're ones I don't like, but none of them include a return to old school gaming, unless by "old school" you mean tactical miniatures play with roleplaying thrown on top as a bonus, in which case I'd question the person's experience with old school D&D.

Ripper X said...

Wow! All I can say is that this one was neat! Thanks for bringing this conversation to my attention, it is normally the kind of thing that I would completely avoid.