The One About Dungeons and Dragons

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons back in 1981.  I hadn’t heard of the game before then but a friend at school highly recommended it.  I’d been doing a bit of board wargaming, cut my teeth on Avalon Hill games where hundreds of tiny cardboard counters fought hundreds of other tiny cardboard counters over a map printed with hexagons.  I had originally wanted to take up wargaming with miniature figures but it was proving more difficult than I had imagined:  You had to find the figures, then paint them, then get hold of lots of model terrain, then find a table big enough to play a game on and even if I did succeed in all that, there were the grumpy adults who looked down on 13 year old wannabe gamers and their collection of crudely painted plastic Airfix figures and wouldn’t let me join in their games.

So this school friend invited me to play D&D; it was just him and me…no group…and I remember what struck me most at the time were the dice.  I’d seen classic six sided dice and percentage dice but here were Euclidian shapes with numbers on them and…apparently…they all had a use.  I say “apparently” because my very first experiences playing D&D set the tone for almost every single game of it I have played in since:  The referee (Dungeonmaster) only paid lip service to the rules.  This chap resolved everything on a single roll of a D20.  To hit something and damaging it were done with a single roll; the higher the roll, the more damage you did.  And in defence he would arbitrarily ask “do you want to take the hit on your shield?”  If you said yes, then no damage.  But he would only ask you at random moments in the combat, not every turn.  When I asked about the uses of the other dice he would say “that’s for another rule somewhere else” but never elaborate on that.  Another thing that impressed me was the whole dungeon layout aspect of the game and working my character (an Elf…I had to be an Elf.  The ref said there wasn’t any point playing anything else because Elves were the best) through a maze of corridors and rooms, not knowing what was going to happen next.  A far cry from wargaming with the omniscience of tabletop generalship.

I was intrigued enough by my first couple of gaming sessions to go and buy my own set.  It was then that I discovered that the rules were totally different from what my friend had told me they were.  Turns out he never really read them and that he learned how to play off someone else but that someone had either not read the rules either or had rejected them for his own.  That’s something that is a persistent theme when it comes to D&D and it’s bigger, bulkier brother; Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  The rules are cursorily read and huge chunks are discarded because referees and players can’t be bothered with about half of them.  Encumbrance, weapon speed, flank attacks, charges, building your castle at 9th level, henchmen, weapons v armour class, weapon proficiencies, identifying magic items and material components for spells….all listed in the rules, most of them ignored.  House rules for D&D are rarely added, they’re usually official rules taken away.

When 2nd edition came around, it discarded some but not all of the bypassed rules.  3 and 3.5 effectively rewrote the game and ditched a great deal whilst replacing things to make the game more streamlined.  There was little to discard and gamers became better at reading rulebooks and adhering to them than their 1980s counterparts.  4th edition came along and it was barely recognisable as D&D.  It was impossible to discard any rules as the whole game was made to run like a computer game sans computer and a missing rule was like a missing game data file.  I haven’t played 5th edition but I fancy it will continue with un-discardable  rules much like its two previous editions.

A couple of years ago, I dusted off my old set of 1st edition rules and tried them out…partly out of nostalgia but partly because after 30 odd years of playing and owning the game I had been as guilty as my role playing brethren and not actually read all the rules.  So I did, and then ran a game using all of them.  Would the game be playable or unplayable if I stuck to the rules?

Surprisingly it was very playable…although VERY clunky.  It’s not streamlined by any stretch of the imagination.  The rules veer from being anecdotal (much of the magic and adventuring sections) to being abstract mechanisms about how to do stuff that is neither realistic or conducive to actual role playing.  For example, the pummelling table which can turn a bar room fist fight into a handbags at 10 paces bitch slapping session that never ends.  Of course 3.5/Pathfinder has rules for doing things that makes some sense, given the theme and setting of the game, but that’s not to say 1st has no charm or advantages of its own.

The first big advantage 1st has over all its successors are the random tables.  At the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide are random tables for generating lands, terrain and dungeons.  The dungeon generator is worth having on its own as you can design dungeons on a sheet of A4 graph paper and fill them with randomly selected monsters and treasure.  In this way not only can you get a bit of inspiration for a game, you can also run a solo game just using the random tables.  In cities, you can roll for urban encounters and come across anything from street pedlars to vampires via a mellifluous list of ladies of the night (slovenly trull and brazen strumpet are two of that category). 1st edition is a true sandbox type of game that provided the biggest array of monsters to fight and treasure to win.  It’s surprising the other editions haven’t kept these tables, given their usefulness.

However, there are other advantages 1st edition has over the other incarnations…or should I say “perspectives”?  You see, in 1st edition money actually means something.  Since 3rd/3.5 edition, treasure in the form of gold, silver and gems has lost its value…pardon the pun.  I’ve played many games of these later incarnations (and 4th) and monetary treasure just isn’t a big deal at all.  It hardly gets mentioned, monsters don’t discard it anymore and chests are more likely to contain clues to a mystery or maps than piles of gold coins.  What money does appear vanishes into something called “party funds”, which mainly consists of one player whose taken on the role of being group accountant and who parsimoniously dishes out just enough money for your character to get his sword fixed or find a bed for the night.  Even referees aren’t interested in money in D&D.  The phrase “you have all the basic gear for adventuring automatically” is heard at the start of every campaign.  Torches never need replenishing, rations are just there, whatever item you require (within reason and on the “basic items” list) is in your copious backpack which never gets full.  Oh, and all this equipment doesn’t weigh anything.

Contrast this with 1st edition where money’s a big deal and it’s absolutely needed.  Buried somewhere in the rules is a small, blink and you’ll miss it, sectionette on the differences between a hooded and bullseye lantern and why you need to be prudent about which one you buy.  Armour costs, good armour costs more.  Oh and new spells for your spell book costs money if you don’t find a suitable scroll lurking in a dungeon.  And that sage with the ability to identify magic items you chance upon costs as well.  If you stick to the rules, no longer can a character waft a sword around and say “does it feel good?” in order to discover it’s a +2 sword.

But the two biggest areas of expense in 1st edition are a) building castles, strongholds and thieving centres once you reach 9th level and paying for training to level up.  Yes, going up a level costs money and the higher you go, the more you need.  This is a rule which I have never seen used in any game of D&D I’ve played in 30+ years, other than my own.  Instant levelling up is the universally accepted house rule.  I’ve heard many gamers make the perfectly decent point that paying to level up doesn’t make a lot of sense and paying some city guild of senior level non-player characters for the privilege of going up a level that was earned through hard fighting and experience makes even less sense.

And yet if you remove the need to build a stronghold and you automatically level up for free then piles of silver, hoards of gems and as much gold as you can eat becomes largely irrelevant.  After playing a published adventure or two (or using the random encounter tables) you’ll have enough money to max out on everything you’ll ever need (remembering that the referee has already gifted you most of it) and you can have the best armour and weapons.  After that, gold coins just take up space.  So refs have taken this to the full extension; money is irrelevant.  Even magic items feature on something called a “wish list” in later editions:  You want a magic bow?  Put it on your wishlist and at some point in the game it will be something you find.  This is an anathema to 1st edition, where a hard fought combat might net you a periapt of something-or-other which no one can find any practical use for.

This creates something of a political dichotomy between 1st (and in some ways, 2nd edition) and the rest.  1st is somewhat capitalist with more emphasis on chasing monetary reward which in turn will net you power, abilities and finally social position as you set up your own fiefdom, get your own small army and wield power.  Subsequent editions and the house rules see the characters as quasi-socialist justice warriors.  You don’t need wealth or visible symbols of success or power, your basic needs are catered for, your desires will eventually come to you if you stay the course and your job goes from fighting monsters for profit to just fighting monsters so the good folk of the land can live in peace.  You level up purely by wiping out enough enemies of the good folk.  What’s your job?  “To smite evil!” Anything else? “erm, no, why should there be?”

Now this approach isn’t bad, but for me it misses out something from the genre.  The quest for wealth is a common theme in fantasy literature.  It’s the reason why Bilbo is in for the quest, it’s what Faffyrd and the Grey Mouser want and it provides the Lannisters with their motto “A Lannister always pays their debts”.  The hoard of monetary treasure is a common motif in fantasy adventures but that treasure must have some meaning otherwise it’s worthless.  1st editon had a solution; pay to level up and eventually build a castle for yourself.  It’s not an ideal solution and it contains a conceit you have to buy into but without it players are stuck bashing baddies over the head purely because they’re baddies and they need bashing over the head.  It strips characters of a source of motivation and a “pull” to draw them into a quest.

In the end I found  1st edition AD&D to be the most satisfying version of the game despite it having the 2nd worst set of game mechanics (4th wins that title) and that’s because it offers the most role playing potential and variety.  It’s the version where anything can happen for a multitude of reasons and I’m not stuck playing a wonderfully balanced character who is hacking down the forces for evil for no other reason than it’s what characters are supposed to do.

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