DM Devlog: The Gauntlet of Evolution Part 1

Advanced D&D. Confusingly named, confusingly built, and yet, as I study through these hallowed pages, I can really see the potential for the game this would become. I can see parts of genius, some of which I wish was still in D&D today, and some of which really really had some serious problems.

This article is part of my DM Devlog for the Gauntlet of Evolution. If you don’t know or don’t care about what that means, all you really need to know is that I’ve been studying Advanced D&D First Edition (circa 1978) in preparation for a project. This is some of my thoughts about this older edition.

Everything starts somewhere. And, strangely, that somewhere was not First edition. Names of early editions are weird, but for the purposes of this discourse, we’re going to simply call what I’ve been studying “1e” and leave it at that. It’s not accurate, but it is much shorter to type.

1e is an edition that I knew I would be including, mainly because it is an early version of the game that I have a few physical books for. I have 2 printings of the PHB as a matter of fact, and while they are 3rd printing and the “10-” print run, I’m assured that the actual contents are the same. So, I’ve been going through and reading things. And boy, is it different than what I was expecting. Which is odd, because I don’t think I was really expecting much? I knew some things, of course, but figuring out how the disparate pieces of what I know fit into a whole is progressing differently than I had estimated. And I think tonight I figured out what the root cause may be.

But before I get into that, let’s talk about some of the differences.

The Past Is a Foreign Kingdom

Ability Score Modifiers. Such a simple idea, right? I mean, it’s still tricky to explain to people sometimes, but I think it’s easy enough to get people to understand “You take the big number, ask people nearby what the modifier it should be, and then do math with the smaller number.” Sure, I guess you could learn the formula, or find where the chart is to look up the different values, but the asking method really works well for a lot of new players. What’s the point of these bigger numbers, anyway, if we’re just going to turn them into a smaller number?

I don’t think there is much of a point anymore. It’s a vestigial part of the game. It’s there because that’s how D&D does things. And D&D does it this way because it did it like this in the past and they don’t want to change anything that they don’t half to. And, in the past, these larger ability scores made sense for a few reasons.

First, you could generate it pretty easy. 3d6 was not only quick to roll, but it also gave you a range that trended towards the middle. This meant that 10 could be an average score, and things could be built around that, rewarding characters who got higher abilities, and limiting those who got lower abilities.

Second, the larger numbers gave more granularity to attributes. If you’re walking around using modifiers, most people are going to have the same few numbers, and not really be able to stand out. But with the large score, you can have a difference between 10 and 11. It might not be much  of a difference, but the various edges and cutoffs make your character unique. It’s the flipside of smoothing things out for ease of use, you lose the character of the roughness.

Related to this, there really wasn’t much math in 1e. Maybe dealing with HP and EXP, but a lot of the gameplay seems to be “look it up on a table.” Stats working off of tables as well seems a no-brainer. Seriously, there’s tables for all sorts of things, including a lot of concepts that we don’t have in 5e. I’m not sure when they homogenized the base to hit of classes. Maybe for 4e? Not sure.

There’s a lot of differences that I’m just going to gloss over. Some I’ll discuss later. But I think it’s important to note that we’ve learned a lot about how to play D&D over the years, and that effects game design. Each rule that exists in the game was someone’s homebrew, once. The game is constantly evolving as people find things that don’t work with the game and then build their own thing. And, eventually, some of those people get hired by publishers, and their little homebrew idea gets to become a reality.

I’ve been asked a few times questions like “Why are there new editions for a game that is imagination based?” and I have answers now. It’s that people change, and gaming changes. Sure, the publishers want their pound of flesh and dropping a new game can be a boon for the bottom line, but there are times when the game *needs* a new edition. We learn things as time progresses, things about gameplay, mechanics, telling a story presenting information, so many ways to run the game better. We also learn things as people, as to how we have an impact on others, and ways we can navigate the complicated morass of society without causing harm.

Some editions can weather the changes better, but sometimes, the foundation is insufficient. And then it’s time for something a little newer, that takes everything we’ve learned and builds it again, better.

That is why there are new editions.

An important realization about Gygax’s work

There are large portions of this book (and OMG, the DMG!!) that bother me. Like, a lot. I’m having to make decisions about how true to this edition that I want to run things. There are already a few items that I think I’m going to gloss over. We’ve already fixed these issues in future D&D, and I don’t need to perpetuate the existence of some of this.

My study of 1e has my contemplating a scapel approach. What should I cut away from the core rules to make this game function? What even IS all this stuff?

At first, I thought it was setting lore getting all over the mechanics. Like, “Here’s how Druids for this unlabeled campaign setting work. Good luck seperating all of our stuff if you want to make Druids some other aspect of story in the future!” And then there will be a bunch of neat ideas that can make a very fun experience, but only if you were playing druids that fit that exact specific concept. Or Paladins. Or Clerics. And all of the races have limitations, requiring and limiting certain stats, then dictating what class combos you could be.

It felt like Gygax was saying from the pages of the past “Play it my way or hit the highway!” And boy howdy, that did not sit well with me and my modern D&D sensibilities, where while there are some wrong ways to play, the is no “Right” way. And I’ve spent a few days thinking about this attitude, and what it means for the game, and just tried to square it all together and it finally just clicked.

Now, I’m going to say something, and it’s going to sound dumb and memey, but I swear to Pelor, this is really profound.

When Gary Gygax wrote early D&D, he had never met a D&D player. In fact, he had never even played a session of it himself!

I am super, duper serious when I say this changes my whole understanding of how 1e is written.

First, there’s the obvious fact that everywhere he wrote, he was treading new ground. Sure, some gameplay was occurring, and games were happening. What he was writing was practical, and at the time, probably really good advice that reflected his experience and his players.

Probably one of the most important pieces of advice to give to baby Gamemasters is that RPGs are not supposed to have an adversarial relationship between the GM and the players. It’s all about communal storytelling, discovery, and everyone having fun. Not so, in 1e. The DMG is loaded with examples of how to punish players for trying to go outside of the lines, how to force them to play an alignment, how to trip up players who thought they had this dungeon game beaten. It is the Antithesis of the first rule of advice for the modern GM. So, what happened? What was different?

What was different is that this brand-new D&D was not being played by RPGers, it was being played by War Gamers. And that makes a big difference.

DISCLAIMER! I don’t mean to impinge on anyone! I’m about to make some generalities that explain how I have come to understand a confusing situation! I am drawing on incomplete knowledge and I’m kinda assuming that people don’t really change so that the people I knew in the 00’s are basically the same people from 1975. This is reductive of me, people are more complex than that, and thinking of people as nothing more than their stereotype is wrong.

D&D was spun up from wargames. It was a Chainmail variant, and from its deviation, kept picking up steam. But since there was nothing else really to fill that gap, it was filled by war games. People who had models of historical military units, moving them around a battle area, renacting history and simulating battles. Everything I’m saying here is just echoing a Zee Bashew video that I really love. Go watch that real quick.

People gravitate towards games that match their style and personality. Stereotypes, but with a bit of truth. Varying rules reward different styles of play, and those styles are derived from who you are when you game. If your style doesn’t work in a given game, you aren’t going to have as much fun, which isn’t necessarily saying you aren’t winning, but you probably aren’t winning.

I used to play a bit of Warhammer 40k. I wasn’t great at it, my brothers would routinely ground my precious vehicles into paste unless I managed to get lucky. I like to build things, to have fun progression. When I play Age of Empires, I tend to have a massive number of villagers and work on clearing my location of all resources, right about the time my brother decides to sweep in with 200 knights templar.

War gamers, to me, are people who are willing to win. They eke out every advantage they can, they learn the rules, particularly the rules that benefit their play style. They don’t often pull punches, and they are quite willing to debate rule interpretation if it means a small advantage for their side. They are natural power gamers, and love realism, as long as it’s mixed with victory. Players who were used to defeating hordes of enemies, all controlled by a mastermind who was the real opponent.

These are the people Gary would have been playing with as the game was being written. Really, they were his friends, the people who he wargame against. Imagine, a table full of people that were going to try and grab every advantage, who would argue about realism when it benefited themselves, and who, above all, wanted to win. A table full of That Guy. And behind his barbed wire DM screen, a lone That Guy stared back.

With this scenario in mind, the harsh, adversarial rules of 1e make a LOAD of sense. The harsh rules around the Paladin’s Lawful Good that chained not only the Paladin into playing Mr. Goode Two-Shoes, but also kept the whole group from stacking the deck and abusing the Paladin’s god given gifts. Of course there needed to be rules on discouraging players from trying to use poison without being an assassin. Of course a cleric needed to have some threats about playing too far out of alignment. Of course there needed to be reasons that the party couldn’t make nearly enough gold outside the dungeon, because the dungeon game would simply turn into Monopoly Simulator.

Of course, of course, of course, harsh thing, harsh thing, harsh thing.

It all makes sense.

Now, as per disclaimer, this wasn’t everybody. People loved their characters, loved the stories that began to be told. But D&D wasn’t about stories yet. But while the general folklore of the hobby sets the start of story to be with the release of I7: Ravenloft in 1983 as one of the first instances of D&D as a medium for telling stories, there would have been inklings of what the game could be. I can feel that in this game, behind all the rebar put in place to keep the game together, no matter what players would try to throw at it.

D&D is descended from this scenarion, step by slow step. Today is not then. We’ve learned, and we have a game written for RPGers. People who have stories and characters they want to explore. The Gamemaster is an ally, a friend, a fellow player, not the enemy.

Would modern D&D have been popular in 1978? I contend not. It would have been too different of an experience. How do you play a game with no winners? Who would willingly choose to “not play” while everyone else did?

1e was written for it’s time, and this great hobby came from those rules, from a battle of wits fought over every character. And that’s really important to remember.

<Tonal shift to happy and perky from the morose nature of this postulating and reminiscing>

But, while it’s totally important to know where we came from, it’s also important to know we’re in a much better place. Too different of a place. I have no intention of treating Mr. Gygax’s philosophies of “How to Run D&D” as anything serious ever again. It is not actual advice I have to pay attention to, and boy, that’s going to make it a LOT easier to get through the DMG.

Final Anecdote before I move on to a different thought: In my current Wuxia campaign, I wrote some factions at the outset with oaths the players had to take, which essentially was forcing their characters to be good people. It turns out, all I really needed to say was “Hey, I’d like you guys to try and play heroes with sort of an asianish tropes. Okay?” and I would have (and have) gotten a resounding “Woo!” No one has done anything that makes me question if my party are heroes. (Well, okay, there was one scenario, but the player is super young, and anyone who has run games for teens will know, all children under the age of 15 are basically feral in RPGs. (Some people grow out of it, eventually.))

Things I like about 1e

There are things I like about 1e! And I keep discovering more. I could really get behind some OSR. But let me list some thoughts.

  1. Built in Class Quests. Some classes, like Druid, have quests you need to do. Like, your magic is hampered unless you find a way to properly harvest Mistletoe. And if you want to become level 14, you have to challenge The Great Druid, the only level 14 Druid in the world, to a duel. The loser’s XP is reset to 750k, and needs to double that to try and challenge for the title again.
  2. Character Balance through Rarity. I mentioned that you have to qualify for Races, but I don’t think I mentioned for classes. Each class has qualifications. Like to play a Paladin, you need 17 Charisma. This means that Paladins are super rare and you probably don’t have one playing at your table. It also means that they can super charge the paladin, and at level 1, it is certainly a powerhouse of a class.
    Side note on Rarity: Bards weren’t rare, but were a lot of work so probably didn’t show up much. This means that class specific magic items, like instruments of the bards, could have been useless if they had been rolled. Which makes instruments of the bards a tease, almost justifying it’s existence.
  3. Henchmen and Hirelings! Like a wargame, you get extra dudes! And they could even gain levels. It makes me want to run Planet Mercenary again.
  4. Treasure is XP! I’ve always wanted to run a game that did this, but haven’t yet. The idea of the core game loop giving rewards of both XP and money is really clever.

And probably more!


Seriously, there’s some cool stuff, but this is long in the tooth. I’ve already gotten the big cathartic parts out of the way. If I come up with some neat things I like from 1e, I might make shorter posts. I also have a thing about math and statistics and how rare paladins actually are, depending on how your stats were generated.

Total time spent on the Gauntlet thus far:

  • Reading 1e: 10 hours
  • Writing reflections: 3 hours

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