Friday, March 15, 2019

So about OD&D presentation and style.

There long been a thread of thought that ODnD is poorly written and organized. When criticism is charitable it a result of ODnD being Gygax's first attempt at writing about a tabletop roleplaying game. When it not it because Gygax's ability as an author is also being criticized.

So this came up again in a forum that I participated one. To date the general gist of my response has been
Part of ODnD are uncleanly written but as a whole it is a work of genius and a lot of what is unclear is a result of Gygax writing for the miniature wargaming hobby as it existed in the early 70s.
But this time I got thinking that I never really dug into many of salient. So I decided this time I would look at ODnD with fresh eyes.

Men and Magic

The crucial section is on page 5 of Men & Magic titled Preparations. Here at the first Gygax summarizes and outlines everything he going to talk about.
The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his “underworld,” people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level. This operation will be more fully described in the third book of these rules. When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the “huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.” Before they begin, players must decide what role they will play in the campaign, human or otherwise, fighter, cleric, or magic-user. Thereafter they will work upwards — if they survive — as they gain “experience.” First, however, it is necessary to describe fully the roles possible.
Breaking it down we see this involves
  1. the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his “underworld,”
  2. people them with monsters of various horrid aspect
  3. distribute treasures accordingly
  4. note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level.
  5. Explicitly states that the above will be more fully described in the third book.
When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the “huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.”
Before they begin, players must decide what role they will play in the campaign, human or otherwise, fighter, cleric, or magic-user. Thereafter they will work upwards — if they survive — as they gain “experience.”
Then for the remainder of Men & Magic, Gygax outlines how how characters are defined, and some of what they can do or have like equipment, combat and magic.

It is in the details where writing for his expected audience of miniature wargamers is most evident. He assume that his reader has experience running or playing other miniature wargame campaigns. That they are familiar with the idea of initiative, and combat turns. That what needed to be spelled out are details to make it work at the level of the individual character. One method is the alternative system. Another is how to integrate with Chainmail, a rule system that he know many of his potential customers already have and are using to handle not only medieval melees but one and one combat as well.

Another part where his intended audience comes into play is that he doesn't offer anything like skills or general action resolution. Because he expect his audience to do the same thing they do in the miniature wargames they play. If something comes up that isn't covered by a rule or a chart, then you go back to first principles and reason it out based on how it  worked in life or in the case of fantasy in various movies and books. Something we know was common from the recent work documenting the early days of wargaming and tabletop roleplaying.

Gygax is consistent in spelling out the unique parts of the D&D rules, the parts that his fellow hobbyists would not know.

Monsters & Treasures

Then after Men & Magic, he launches into Monsters and Treasure. Which important details about two of the elements he outlined in preperation
  1. Monsters
  2. What treasure monsters have
  3. The available treasures.
The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures is where the rest of what outlined in preparation is broken down and reinforced by examples of play.

Starting from the first page.
  1. Gygax describes what he meant by levels of the "underworld" and give examples. (pg 3 to 5)
  2. Offers details on distribution monsters & treasure as well other things that can go into the underworld as well as tips for keeping things fresh throughout a campaign (pg 6 to 8)
  3.  Gets into the logistics of handling characters exploring the Underowold including encountering Wandering Monsters ( pg 8 to 12)
  4. Give an example of play. (pg 12 to 14)
  5. Presents an alternative to the Underworld the Wilderness. Like the details for an Underworld, he discusses how they are setup and the logistic of handling character exploring a wilderness.
  6. The above also touts the board for Outdoor Survival game by Avalon Hill as a useful aid as well as how to use it. Which to me echos the inclusion of Chainmail in Men & Magic.
  7. Then gets into constructing castle, undoubtedly something of interest to his player and his audience. (pg 20 to 21)
  8. And since we are on the topic of castle, he now talks about the troops and men a character could hire as well some of the logistics of being a lord. (pg 21 to 24)
  9. We now talked about castles, and troops lets talk about warfare in general including rules for stuff you wouldn't have (not found in  Chainmail) like aerial combat and naval combat. Again another example of where he writes for his audience. (pg 24 to 33)
  10. And since the last thing he wrote about warfare naval combat, here are some ideas for naval adventures (page 24 to 36)
Finally wraps it up with
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will often have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
And of course

Wrapping it up
To me the above looks like a reasonable way of presenting something as novel and different as DnD was at the time. The most serious issue, that it written for the audience of miniature wargamers  resulted because the idea outlined in preparation proved so compelling that it expanded far beyond it intended audience. One that didn't share the experiences and assumptions of miniature wargamers of the early 70s. This resulted in novices to the hobby confused about aspects of ODnD.

In addition Gygax could have written a better explanation with some of the unique details of ODnD like spell memorization.

It is evident that Gygax recognized these issue given the Holmes Basic D&D was commissioned within two years of ODnD release. Then later followed up with B/X DnD, BECMI, and ADnD.

But after looking at it again I feel the presentation is solid and explains fully the most important and unique concepts that made D&D different from the miniature wargame campaigns of the day. Concepts that propelled DnD and tabletop roleplaying into their own category of gaming.


Frank said...

I did start with Holmes Basic D&D, but had various wargame experience.

My memory from back in the day was there was a period where I was confused about "Dice for Accumulative Hits" and thought maybe that was the damage the character did. I must have reset myself straight from Holmes with a bit of word of mouth (we got introduced to D&D by my best friend getting Holmes for his birthday, his older brother was already playing D&D so I'm sure we learned some from him).

I didn't start running D&D seriously myself until I had the AD&D Players Handbook (I got it for Christmas 1978) and the DMG tables from Dragon (Issue #22 Feb 1979) and White Dwarf (Issue #13 June/July 1979). I know we did use Greyhawk for magic item tables before getting the DMG.

Looking back, I do see how D&D can be read as pretty confusing, and I still couldn't tell you how elves were supposed to be run. Even Holmes is a little spotty on that. But the Players Handbook is very clear, so by the time I had a serious campaign going, that one bit was certainly clear. On the other hand, with some knowledge of gaming, it's pretty easy to make out procedures of play and to play the game.

I think I was also confused by the alternate combat system (I think my friend did eventually get Chainmail but I never saw it in play), but again, Holmes and word of mouth helped.

So yea, in the gaming culture that produced the game, and was consuming things like Tractics, Chainmail, Angriff, and other miniatures games of the time, D&D would not really have been that hard to figure out how to play. Sure, due to some things being left implied, different GMs might run things a bit differently based on the other miniatures games they were familiar with.


Scott Anderson said...

He was writing an entirely new kind of game. With the 45 years and hundreds of thousands of minds working through things, we have come a long way knowing what needs explaining and how to explain it.

Structurally it’s fine work. It’s just primitive. Which is to be expected.

Compared to other stuff we have seen from the time and hobby, it’s above average in readability IMO.

Joseph said...

This was interesting reading to me because I was one of those Chainmail players who bought the original version of D&D you are talking about here when it came out. When it first came out those of us who were buying really kind of thought of it as an expansion on Chainmail. We didn't realize ourselves what was about to happen in the gaming world. The thing that surprises me most now is how many elements of D&D right up to 5e can be traced back to Chainmail, and most people don't realize it.

Baron Greystone said...

I came into the hobby like this:
- bought minifigs from S&T
- observed an "OD&D" game at a con
- bought and played the Dungeon boardgame
- read through Holmes, rolled characters, had combats
- joined a game that was run with the 1st ed PH and MM. Added DMG when it was released.
- started my own campaign using 1st ed PH, MM, DMG.

And still, looking back at those three booklets, I get confused. I think they could be better organized. But I'm a Gygax fan, and realize that I lack the grounding in miniatures wargaming and Chainmail, and I realize that it was a new thing. Certainly there were scads of players who managed just fine with those booklets.

Now if you want me to talk about what was a real struggle, ask me about trying to read the First Fantasy Campaign. Talk about frustration!

Phil Dutré said...

I think one of the reasons OD&D is so confusing, is that we look at it as a roleplaying game as we know roleplaying games today. But in my view, OD&D in essence still is a miniature wargame, albeit with some unique characteristics: one player = one character; character advancement; fantasy setting; DM to umpire tha game; game setup (map) as a dungeon.
But the focus when running of the game still is very much wargamey in nature. E.g. the use of a "caller" to communicate to the DM, and a strong focus on combat in the rules. The game itself wasn;t even called a roleplaying game, that term only came into existence several years later.

This is an aspect often overlooked (IMHO) when analyzing OD&D. The focus in rpg's during subsequent years shifted more towards story-based adventures rather than combat-oriented games, and that is how we think about roleplaying games today. When reading OD&D through the eyes of (miniature) wargaming, it all makes much more sense . The "real evolution" what would become roleplaying games as we know them today only happened during the years following 1974, IMO.

Ruprecht said...

They didn't have personal computers back then. Everything typed. And worrying about page count because of the way it was bound. What a nightmare. It's amazing the thing came out as well as it did.