Wednesday, May 10, 2017

[D&D] The trick to really understanding the AD&D rules

Gary Gygax's rules-design style was situational, descriptive, and instinctive. In the traditional of "Free Kriegsspiel," when a situation would come up in the game he would apply his judgment and experience to come up with some means (most often an ad-hoc die roll, probably with some modifiers based on character abilities) to resolve it. If this ruling seemed applicable more broadly than the single situation where it first appeared then it became a precedent and was written down for future reference. The AD&D rules are, in large part, just a collection of those rulings and precedents from 5+ years of heavy playtesting.

The rules aren't systematized - different dice are used, ability scores and other modifiers are applied in different ways, sometimes a high roll is better and other times a low roll is better, etc. - and they're not necessarily consistent with each other (two similar types of effect in two different dungeons (or caused by two different spells or magic items) might require completely different rolls to resolve), and in the published rulebooks they're not really organized except in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way (for example: where is the rule for whether a character inadvertently catches the gaze of a monster located? It is, of course, in the second paragraph of the Dracolisk monster description on page 55 of the Monster Manual II!).

The ad-hoc nature of these rules, and the haphazard organization of them, has been one of the main complaints about AD&D (and D&D before it) since day one, and almost every other rpg that's ever been published (including the later iterations of D&D) has approached things more systemically, to make them more consistent and elegant. I can understand that impulse - the size and chaotic organization of the AD&D is unquestionably intimidating to new players, and if you're the kind of player (or DM) who worries about following the rules exactly as-written it could well drive you crazy, as you continue to discover new hidden rules years or even decades later. Something like RuneQuest or GURPS, where you have to keep track of 75 separate skill values but you know that every time you use one of them in the game the roll will be resolved exactly the same way (the same die roll, the same modifiers, the same consequences for success and failure), seems simpler because it's more elegant and more predictable and easier to grasp conceptually, whereas AD&D feels messier and more confusing. In other words, AD&D feels more like real life.

There are two approaches you can take to the AD&D rules. One is to try to memorize everything, or at least memorize its location within the books so you can look it up quickly. Lots of people over the decades have tried to do it (many of whom can be found still debating the minutiae of the rules at the Dragonsfoot forums), but it's really a fool's errand - because there are so many rules, and so many of them have such narrow applicability that the payoff of knowing them will never balance the investment in effort of learning them, and because something you learn pretty quickly when you get into the detailed weeds of the AD&D rules is that all of ad-hoc special case sub-systems don't really work together - there are things that flat out contradict each other, and things built on different enough assumptions that trying to meld them together produces weird or bad results in play. But mostly trying to memorize the entire AD&D ruleset is a bad idea because it misses the entire conceptual point. The rulebooks are a massive pile of precedents and examples of how Gary Gygax ruled on things, the point of which isn't for you to follow his lead exactly, but to understand the gist of what he was doing - the type of gameplay experience he was trying to achieve - and then use that understanding to make your own rulings in the same spirit.

There are some core concepts at work in AD&D: Gary wanted a game with high stakes so that both victory and defeat feel meaningful; he wanted a game where there's a tangible relation of risk to reward; he wanted a game that encourages heroic action where bold, decisive action is a better route to success than cautious timidity; he wanted a game that always moves quickly and maintains a level of tension and excitement; he wanted a game where players to have to think tactically, strategically, and creatively (and to do so quickly and under pressure) rather than just relying on math; he wanted a game where smart decisions generally trump luck but there is almost always at least a small chance of both success and failure; he wanted a game where no single player can do everything so teamwork is important; he wanted a game where the players can feel their progress over time as they improve their skills; he wanted a game with a neverending variety of fresh challenges to keep players interested even after they've mastered the basic paradigm. Once you understand all of those concepts, you can see how they informed his decisions in the rules and adventures. And once you do that then you realize that the specific rules - whether something gives a +1 or +2 bonus, whether something is resolved by rolling a 6-sided or 20-sided die - don't matter. What matters is the feel and tone and shape of the game. If you're achieving that - if the game "feels like AD&D" - then it doesn't matter whether the roll required to lasso a stalagmite while you're being carried off down a swiftly-moving subterranean stream is consistent with how a similar situation is handled in rulebook X or module Y.

The point of the AD&D rulebooks is to help the DM achieve a particular mindset and attitude by way of a lot of examples, but once that is happens the examples themselves are no longer important and can mostly be set aside. A DM who understands the concepts underlying the game will always be better off making a judgment call on the spot than pausing the game to look up in a rule book how Gary recommended handling a similar (but probably not identical) circumstance.


  1. Creating a system where DMs felt free to make off the cuff rulings at will using assemblies of random dice and modifiers covering many common and repeating game situations guarantees that when gaming groups change the players and DMs will be subject to System Shock over he different ways those common situations are handled.

    AD&D's crazy patchwork of roll high or roll low for success with wildly varying dice and modifiers, plus an absence of common mechanics for general situations, and a few nigh-well incomprehensible systems (I'm looking at you, Surprise), means the game was plagued with issues of just how well anyone did, or could, understand the game.

    AD&D was a grand triumph of its time. However, people have come along with better systems over time. While I have great nostalgia for my days of yore playing a first level magic-user who was only slightly more useful than a bucket of warm spit, I still have all my 1e and 2e game products, I would never play either system again over 3.0, 3.75, and Pathfinder (4.0 does not exist for me and I'm not really liking 5.0).

    1. We're not really disagreeing. Later editions (and even other contemporary or near-contemporary games like RuneQuest and The Fantasy Trip) are definitely more elegant and consistent and easier to grasp conceptually. The trade-off (at least in those games I've experienced) is that you get either a LOT more record-keeping (the need to track dozens upon dozens of different skill values and situational modifiers and such for every character - including NPCs and monsters) or you get a "simple" version that usually feels (to me) like it's constantly forcing square pegs into round holes for the sake of an elegant and consistent system. And both of them feel constraining to me as a DM - that I'm expected to depict everything "correctly" in terms of the system rather than just being able to say "roll a d6 and tell me if you get a 1 or 2" when a novel situation comes up.

      You're right that there was a lot of inconsistency between AD&D groups (which seems ironic considering Gary's claims in the DMG intro how AD&D will create consistency - but that just shows how much MORE inconsistency there was between D&D games pre-AD&D) and that there were a lot of bad DMs, and that we have better understanding of these sorts of things now, 45 years into the rpg hobby, than Gary did at its dawn. Where we differ is that that understanding led you to different games, but led me to look at AD&D from a different perspective and better understand what Gary was trying to do in the first place.

  2. I understand where you're coming from on this, Foster. But you might be meta-streamlining to say that all the flavor is just contradiction because after D&D died in the mid-80's all these other "evolved" games arose from the shadows. I feel sad for all the Gygax era TSR competitors including later D&D and even Gygax himself as he took the brunt of the shadows his own success. There is no way to get the feeling of Gygax era AD&D into other games. On one hand, its representative of the genre including Conan and you just can't get that Howardian tightened fist situation by situation feel into the players. I had this guy in 2002 who had only played non-D&D games since the beginning of the 80's and he said he was going to walk out of the room and wait in the hallway until the fight was over because he "knew they could handle it". That encompassed the mentality of the smooth game to me to a "T".

    1. AD&D definitely has an "it" factor that other rpgs don't, which is why I'm still thinking and talking about it now while countless other games are just distant memories. I was just packing stuff for my move and came across my boxes of RuneQuest and Traveller stuff. I still have good memories of playing those games, but seeing those books didn't give me even a slight urge to "get back into them" the way that the AD&D books always do. I can't quite grasp it firmly enough to put it into words, but it's definitely there.

    2. OK, here's a (probably half-baked) theory I came up with about the "it" of the AD&D books and, by relation, why revisiting them is inspiring in a way that other books aren't:

      Because the AD&D rules aren't really systematized and everything in them is "bespoke" and modular, all of it fits exactly with what it was designed for both flavorwise and in terms of possible outcomes, so everything feels tied to the imagined space - nothing ever feels like disconnected math, or like a square peg and a round hole. This makes the imagined scene feel richer and more immediate. This happens in play, but it also happens when reading the books: every time you come across a rule, you imagine a scene in play where that rule applies - whether it's someone being chased by a monster through a dungeon-maze, throwing out food and treasure to try to distract the pursuers, or someone who's fallen overboard in stormy water and has to try to remove their armor before it pulls them under, or someone who's removed their helmet to listen at a door and then been surprised by a monster and has to fight bare-headed, or somebody who's trying to hire henchmen and is trying to decide whether the best way to advertise is to post notices, hire the town crier, employ an agent, or just make the rounds of local taverns.

      The books are filled with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of examples like this - many of the monster, spell, and magic item descriptions include their own little "mini-scenarios" in the form of special case rules - how long do you have to escape or be rescued if you're swallowed whole by various creatures, how fast can a levitating person pull themself along a wall, what happens if you put too many sharp objects inside a bag of holding, etc.

      Every one of these little special cases makes you visualize a scene in the game, and makes you (or at least me) think about what you would do in that situation. In that way, just perusing the rulebooks, spotting a few of these little bits, and then imagining the scene around them, is kind of like playing the game.

      A more elegant and systematized set of rules is easier to explain and easier to use, but it doesn't have that same immersive feel, and doesn't get your blood pumping. Or something like that...

    3. I think another major facet is the Gygax persona in the AD&D text was so magnaminous and filled with wonder that he was often perceived to be the opposite. Especially with the abrupt end of his creative flow. He was probably the only designer in history prohibited from letting us hear further ideas. So AD&D is a sort of rhythm that was discontinued. You just can't patch it with what other rpgs did because its the heavy duty groundbreaker. You have to get in there and speculate as a DM always and that is a big draw.

    4. The immersive-ness and inability to "look behind the curtain" and see the game mechanics (because of of their disparate randomness) it definately the beauty of the OD&D and AD&D experience. If you are the "right" kind of person, you just suspend disbelief and experience it just as you do reality---where the physical rules are also convoluted and difficult for the human brain to parse in real-time.

  3. Great post, you put down in text something I've felt and understood for years, without being able to really explain it.

  4. Yes, this is great. I think it probably takes a passion for the game to reach the understanding of AD&D that you have and is presented here. Yet, that passion does not undermine the objectivity of what you are presenting. I think it's a credit to how you are communicating that you didn't state or even indirectly imply the what I'm about to say. A big part of the magic of AD&D is that it doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator. It assumes the game's players (DM esp.) will have and/or will develop the good judgment and intuition to effectively run the game. It doesn't cater to those who do not, will not, or cannot -- and that's the struggle for so many. For me, I have never and will never need another fantasy rpg.

  5. "The point of the AD&D rulebooks is to help the DM achieve a particular mindset and attitude..."

    AD&D has something that is hard to explain. It is the Blues Brothers of RPGs, both in its tone and to a certain extent in play at the table. The party is on a mission from god (perhaps literally, but usually figuratively - the rule sets don't teach waiting for someone to tell you what to do) and myriad sorts of improbable shit stand between you and victory as the party has defined it. Can you handle it? We're all going to laugh at the crazy hijinks that ensue, and if you're not decisive and willing to take smart risks then only failure waits.

    I like that AD&D challenges the players, and yet counterbalances that with multiple essays to the DM advising wisdom and mercy from behind the screen. While so many RPGers mock the idea of keeping players out of the DMG because so many necessary rules are there, I think the rule placement was kind of happenstance or timing, and the admonishment to keep players out was much more about the peer advice from DM to DM remaining opaque (which ironically was hardly ever absorbed anyway, given the community conversations that re-occur over and over)

    To the players: Can you (the player) be great? Not "tell me how you envision your inevitable greatness". I don't get that same vibe from other games. I know a lot of B/X-BECMI enthusiasts get offended about the kiddie stuff, and in defense they'll point to the complexity of the rules, or their greater consistency/coherency, or what have you, but what makes them "kiddie" to me isn't the rules at all - it's the different vibe: "we're here to be heroes". Well, every kid knows that heroes win in the end. AD&D doesn't promise that at all. The most "heroic" class, the paladin, has an iconic picture conveying almost certain doom. Nobody thinks that paladin is going to conquer hell. But he's going to give 'em hell until his last breath.

    To the DM: Can you fairly challenge without loving the power necessary to do so; loosen up and entertain; command the room when necessary for the good of the game session; have the wisdom necessary to understand when mercy is better than consequence, and vice-versa; and, be willing to give more than you receive for a chance at magic. I see all of those undercurrents in the advice in the DMG. In the edited classic D&D games I see a lot about: stronger immersion as a benchmark for quality; games are like novels; strict character play is very important; no one ever loses; everything should be balanced; etc. Each of these themes are presented in a couple of sentences without any further explanation - just as a parent would present something to a 10 year-old when the parent's in the middle of doing something else, need to get kids to play without squabbling as an immediate outcome, and they need the kids to do without knowing why. Or when these basic rules may be grown out of, or should in fact be broken. In other words, it does not come across as written to a peer, or perhaps an apprentice in whom great things are expected.

    AD&D: It's got a cop motor, a four hundred and forty cubic inch plant. It's got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It's a model made before catalytic converters, so it'll run good on regular gas. It's the best.

  6. I can easily add 15 or more henchmen to a party if the situation calls for it. AD&D is one of the only games that I know of which allows for the creation of a game and world, planned or on the fly, that is not discouraged because of heavy rules. AD&D strength is it's freedom in game play.

  7. I first heard your take on this (using the AD&D rules to cultivate a Gygax-like mindset) in your podcast interview with Settembrini...and I thought it was rather brilliant. This is a nicely written synopsis of that brilliance. Very useful.