Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Taxonomy of Old-School D&D

As a hobby for nerds, there's a strong appetite among D&D fans to make lists and categorize things, and this extends not just to elements within the game but to meta-level discussion about the game itself. The most obvious breaking point is TSR-D&D (1974-97) and Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro D&D (1998-present), with the 1998-99 period (after Wizards took over but before D&D 3.0 was released) as a transition period.  The next most obvious is the various editions: Original (1974-77*), 1st Edition Advanced (1978-88), 2nd Edition Advanced (1989-99), 3rd (2000-2007), 4th (2008-2013), and 5th (2014-present) editions. Neither of those really work for me, because my interests D&D-wise are sufficiently narrow that finer distinctions are warranted in order to pinpoint what I consider to be "the good stuff" vs the other junk.

One common taxonomy, as proposed by James Maliszewski at Grognardia (the influential, long-dormant but possibly newly revived "OSR" blog), divides the TSR/1st Edition era into a Golden Age (1974-83) and a Silver Age (1984-89), a distinction largely based on trade dress (but also perceived attitude changes that occurred in conjunction with the slicker and more professional upgrade in production values). The other common one differentiates between the Gary Gygax era (1974-85) and the post-Gygax or Lorraine Williams era (1986-97). I definitely buy into the latter, but even that is not a granular enough distinction for me, because it glosses over the difference between what Gary was doing himself and what the design department at TSR, the group originally led by Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay (who had been friends and collaborators before coming to work for TSR) that starting in 1980 reported to Brian Blume instead of to Gary, were doing at the same time. And that's not even to mention TSR-UK, which was a mostly-independent subdivision with their own writers, artists, and a subtly distinctive voice and style that's now commonly referred to as B-OSR and seems to have more kinship with what other UK game publishers were doing than what TSR in the US was.   

And it gets even more complicated because Gary himself did a "soft reboot" on his approach to D&D c. 1975 when he handed the core of Greyhawk Castle over to Rob Kuntz and effectively started over with the Hommlet/Temple of Elemental Evil campaign.  So even "Gygaxian" means different things at different times. I've seen a an explanation attributed to Gary that because Greyhawk Castle had been used for so much intensive play testing with a deliberately "anything goes" approach that it had become too sprawling and inconsistent and Gary wanted to separate that element (and the veteran players who were accustomed to that style) and keep the sub-campaign more grounded and structured and "pure" - developing what we eventually saw in AD&D, the modules, and the World of Greyhawk not just as an outgrowth from but in some sense also a repudiation of the earlier, more freewheeling and gonzo, Greyhawk Castle paradigm. 

Take all of this together and by 1983-84 (the time that's most interesting to me because it's when I first discovered and got into the game) you've got a half dozen different takes on D&D with some degree of official support (not even counting all the other ways third party publishers and players out in the wild were drifting and modifying the game to their own ends):

1. Original Greyhawk Castle "we made up some shit we thought would be fun" style (also includes Blackmoor, Tunnels & Trolls, Arduin, Grimtooth's Traps, and most early Judges Guild)

2. Post-reboot "structured campaign" Gygax style (AD&D, World of Greyhawk, B1-2, D1-3, EX1-2, G1-3, L1-2, S1, S3-4, T1-4, WG4-6; IMO the Jennel Jaquays Judges Guild stuff (Dark Tower, Caverns of Thracia, etc.) also fits pretty solidly within this category)

3. Moldvay-Schick "customer-facing" style (less sandboxy and wargamery than #2; more focus on set-pieces and less on behind the scenes depth; more consumer-oriented as stuff to pull off the shelf and play through rather than stuff to add to your world - the B/X sets, Deities & Demigods, B3-4, X1-2, A1-4, C1-2, I1, O1, Q1, R1-4, S2)

4. TSR-UK "almost satirical" style (broadly similar to #3 but with its own distinct voice and aesthetic feel - White Dwarf magazine, Fiend Folio, U and UK series, O2, X8, Fighting Fantasy books, Citadel minis)

5. Tracy Hickman/Douglas Niles "I'm working on my novel" style (B5-7, X3-5, I2-6, N1, DL series, Ed Greenwood's articles in Dragon magazine)

6. Shovelware "going through the motions/paint-by-numbers crap" style (AC1-5, B8-9, X6-7 & 9, BSOLO, XSOLO, XL1, M1-2, CB1-2, MV1, N2) 

#1 was pretty much forgotten by the time the 70s rolled into the 80s (and as an accident of fate is better represented and was preserved longer by third-party publishers, because TSR had already mostly repudiated this style by the time they ramped up production in the late 70s) so it felt like a genuine rediscovery when people found and embraced this stuff ~15 years ago, but I feel like that has since morphed into fetishization and groupthink, and refusal to acknowledge that this approach eventually grows stale.

#2 is my favorite and IMO the one worth preserving and emulating. It's what I've been talking about here for the last 3 years and in other places online for the 15 years prior.

#3 and 4 are what seems to be the most popular, both at the time and among the "grognards" at, in "1E" oriented Facebook groups, etc. This is probably because this style a little more accessible (and also a little bit easier - as in more carefully balanced and less deadly) than the #2 stuff. However, these fans either don't recognize (or do, but don't care) that it's also shallower and more limited than the #2 stuff - it's not as expandable, doesn't exist in a larger context, doesn't feel like something that might exist in the game-world whether or not the PCs are interacting with it, and so on. 

#5 and 6 are, of course, what TSR fully embraced from 1986 until Wizards of the Coast took over and brought back a little bit of flavor from #2, a little more flavor and structure from #3 (i.e. a "story" built of strung-together but individually free-standing set-piece encounters), and a whole lot of deckbuilding and "rules mastery" mind-poison.

"Era-based" taxonomies (like Grognardia's) never really distinguish between #2-4 because they were all roughly synchronous with each other in the so-called "Electrum Age" of transition between the Golden and Silver Ages. Most fans even within this "old-school" niche-within-a-niche seem to engage only with the surface and are blind to anything but trade dress, cover artist, and logo. Module S4 obviously (at least to me) has much more stylistically and game-design-wise in common with G1, EX2, and WG6 (fellow "category 2" products with different trade dress) than it does with A4, B3, or X2 even though the latter all have the same yellow corner-flag trade dress, "face" logo, and Erol Otus covers. But if you try to bring this up to most fans, you're almost invariably going to get back something along the lines of "all I know is we had a great time playing through A4 - [insert favorite set-piece: the myconids/the cave fisher/the final battle on the docks] was awesome!"

Like everybody else who started playing D&D in the 80s I owned and played stuff from all of these groups (except #1, which I only discovered later) side-by-side and although I instinctively turned up my nose at the group 5 and 6 stuff even then, it was only long after the fact, looking back on all of it from a different perspective, that I also perceived the difference between #2 and #3/4, and realized that my interest and sympathies were really only with the former, and that that position puts me outside of the "mainstream" of even old-school/retro/OSR/grognard/whatever D&D fandom pretty much everyplace except The Knights & Knaves Alehouse, the seemingly one-and-only active online refuge of the hardcore Group #2 Gygaxians. But hey, at least I've got my tribe, small as it may be.

*of course some version of original or "classic" D&D remained in print through 1996, the D&D Basic Sets of 1977, 1981, and 1983 were, by all accounts, TSR's all-time best-selling products, and the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia is Wizards of the Coast's current pdf/print-on-demand bestseller at DriveThruRPG, so defining the "Original D&D era" as ending in 1977 is unfair and not technically accurate. Nevertheless, from the time of its release AD&D always received the lion's share of attention both from TSR and the public and the non-Advanced version was mostly an afterthought, something mostly targeted at kids and beginners who were expected to "graduate up" to AD&D in fairly short order. There's a reason why 5th Edition is numbered that way - it's effectively the 5th version of AD&D. The widespread embrace of the "classic" version of the game and the way it's come to eclipse the popularity of AD&D even among "old-schoolers" is entirely a phenomenon of the 21st century - people who played AD&D (1E or 2E) as kids looking back and realizing that they now prefer the version they dismissed as "kid stuff" the first time around.


  1. Holy smokes! Trent you nailed it (for me at least).

    As a player in the 70's, our group was firmly in the #1 camp --- Everything Goes. We even felt that most folks playing "standard (A)D&D" were getting it wrong. Things were deadly but also gonzo. While I (as a player) had all the big three 1e books---and thought that's what we was playing---it was, as you say at the end of the article, true that we were mainly playing a modified OD&D that was closer to the Holmes Basic or original three-booklets than anything else. Our DM also forged his own path, going so far as to print (on a daisy-wheel printer!) a modified PHB back in 1981.

    Rediscovering the hobby as a DM, I gravitated to a #2-style campaign-world, and have stayed happily there---riffing off a brief starter in B2+T1---for the past seven years of play. It's a good place, and I find myself accidentally treading down some of the original paths blazed at the start of the hobby. Every time I see those small parallels (say in a Dragon article or a paragraph in the 1e DMG), I take it as a sign I'm getting it right.

    I skipped over the #3-#6 era...having been totally uninterested in what was being published. Like you, I can't quite communicate to others why all of that feels so wrong. Glossy, but hollow. Off-putting, and not what D&D is to me...instead, some other "sugar coated" or lesser version of the game.

    There is a kernel of great quality tucked in there, but it takes work to sift out the chaff. Gygax was on to it as he tried pulling together AD&D for the first time. But I think, in the end, it was too much for him---just too hard to counter-act all the disparate forces pulling things in odd directions.

    Great article. Resonated with me. Thanks.

  2. I think the whole thing is well put as sequentially falling apart. Its almost like the flow of a river with all the changes coming from without and within then diluting too much with a waste dump. ;) Sometimes I imagine some of TSR adventures (#s 4-6) as a certain way before the package was open and many being let downs. I like the Gygax stuff (#2) the most because he seemed to be the only one who could give excellent examples of play. I honestly spent 15 years making my D&D campaign run without much product being an influence besides that solid #2 feel.

  3. This is a great piece - a helpful way to think about those eras. When I see polls they tend to subdivide by a) OD&D, b) Basic D&D, c) AD&D 1e, d) B/X, e) BECMI/RC and f) AD&D 2E (at most granular - often some of these are lumped together. What would you think about where those map to this taxonomy?

    1. The edition-based taxonomy doesn’t map very well to mine because most of the editions crossed multiple of my categories. OD&D started as #1 but the later TSR supplements (in 1976-77) were moving towards #2. Basic D&D is also transitional between my #1 and #2. AD&D started as #2 but eventually also incorporated all of #3-6. BX D&D is squarely in #3. BECMI/RC D&D is a mix of #3, #5, and too many of the adventures for that version fall into #6 (but there was also some well-regarded #4 stuff - Night’s Dark Terror (module B10) most famously). AD&D 2E was fundamentally #5 but had a lot of #6 as well, especially in its early years.

  4. Nice distinctions here (sorry, I'm only now reading this post, 2.5 years later). A couple quibbles:

    - I would not put WG5-WG6 into category #2, despite being penned by EGG himself. They may not properly fit into any of the latter categories being "throwbacks" in many ways, but (to me) they still show a marked departure from Gygax's earlier style and priorities, with an emphasis on narrative and if the man was trying to fit his earlier work into the (then) contemporary expectation of the time. Regardless, I hold them in much lower regard.
    - Some (well, two) of the adventure modules from category #3...specifically X1 and I1...could, I think, slide rather easily into category #2, despite the former adventure being written specifically for B/X and the latter's origin as a tournament scenario. Both provide rather large areas for exploration, fewer set-pieces, and more "behind the scenes depths;" both provide opportunities of things to add to one's campaign.
    - I wonder a bit about the categorization of EX1 and EX2...but that is based solely on reading reviews of these adventures. I have zero experience with either, having never owned, read, or played them.

    Regardless: I agree with everything you've written here, including category #2 being the most worthy of preservation and emulation.

    1. No worry about the late response. I wish I got more of them, and the possibility of people reading and responding to stuff long after the fact is one of the big reasons it's posted here instead of (or in addition to) more ephemeral forums (or, even worse, social media) where stuff permanently disappears down the memory hole almost immediately.

      I can see WG5 being categorized as #1 instead of #2 (Rob Kuntz never really seemed to make the transition the way Gary did). WG6 is tricky, because I always tend to think of it in terms of my idealized "fixed" version of it (mentioned in my post about it here, as well as in the comments to Prince of Nothing's review of it) rather than the actual published product which is admittedly a big mess. The huge multipage boxed-text intro is a disaster, and the whole frame of a group of 18th level PCs being sent on a fetch-quest and the scripted final battle aren't far behind, but the stuff in-between - the sandboxy island map and the way the native tribes are described - I really like (and I don't think it's any coincidence that those were likely the parts that were written first and used in actual play in the 70s, with the bad stuff at the beginning and end tacked-on for publication, likely at the urging of Frank Mentzer and Penny Petticord to make it work like an RPGA tournament (which is how it was run - it was used as the first RPGA "AD&D Masters" tournament at GenCon '85). So we're left with an awkward mix of a category 1 core (you're fighting King Kong!), category 2 expansion, and some category 3 or 5 junk glued on top.

      EX1-2 also awkwardly straddle the line between categories 1-3. The core, again, is very category 1 (you're going to Wonderland) but the way it's expanded out (especially in EX2 with Murlynd's mansion) feels more like category 2, and (alas) it's structured in a linear set-piecy category 3 style that undermines what should have been a fun sandbox.

      As for X1, I put it in category 3 mostly because I don't like it very much - structurally it's a nice example of a sandbox, but content-wise I think it's bland and weak and half-assed and I honestly don't understand why so many people hold it in such high regard (absent the nostalgia factor of it being included in the Expert Set so it was one of the first things they played as kids). I1 I should probably take another look at sometime - my memory of it is that the first section (the part that was run as a tournament at Origins '80) is linear and set-piecy and feels of a piece with the A series, and that the later part (the city itself) was kind of sketchily defined, throwing ideas out but not really developing them with the sort of depth and interconnectedness that characterizes category 2. But maybe I'm wrong about that, or being overly uncharitable because I don't think much of Zeb Cook as a designer in general (that he could do set-piece scenes but not really tie them together), and it's better than I remember.

    2. I have very little experience with WG6, having read it once maybe (??) but the impression it left was not good. I am aware of its history; I'd certainly be willing to throw the core of the thing in category #1.

      On the other hand, I am VERY familiar with both X1 and I1. While I certainly have some nostalgia for X1, I am not a fan of it either; for me, it is far too scattered in scope and design to hold much appeal. As a child, I enjoyed it for the ability to roll cyclopses as wandering monsters (just like an old Sinbad movie!) and eat PCs with dinosaurs. As an adult, I've found that the treasure take to be fairly poor, considering how much one has to invest in outfitting a ship/crew, etc. just to get to the place. As an EXAMPLE wilderness adventure, it would have been well served to provide a built-in patron/hook, but Moldvay likes his pulp stuff, and secret maps leading to mysterious Lost World islands is right in his wheelhouse.

      THAT being said: an enterprising DM could certainly structure an entire mini-campaign on the island [perhaps some day I'll try]. And while much of it IS "bland" and "weak" it and I do NOT hold it in "high regard," I still think it fits your category 2 more than category 3. It is far more open-ended with plenty of potential for the DM willing to make the logical extrapolations (for example, it could very well become "wargamey" as PCs make alliances with native or humanoid tribes and go to war with the various factions on the island).

      With regard to I1, I always have to be careful because of nostalgia bias when talking about it: I groove on lost jungle cities filled with snake men and fantastic treasure. Leaving aside the tournament scenario (a very small part of I1), the Forbidden City is largely unfinished and bereft of solid player hooks...much the same as Vault of the Drow. Vault is better, of course, having more evocative description and specific wandering city encounters...but as a poor man's Vault, it has plenty of potential in the "alien city for exploration" category. And it definitely has potential for being worked into a campaign.

      [I've played it 4-5 times through the years, mostly as a one-off; however, it occupies a more prominent place in my current campaign, and I am hoping to introduce my players to it in the very near future. They just need a couple more levels]

      Anyhoo, that's why I think it's a better fit for category #2, despite being something that "needs work."

      RE Zeb Cook

      Once upon a time I found Cook to be a fairly good designer when it came to the intermediate (4-7) level range. Thought I1, X4, and X5 were were pretty good. Find Blizzard Pass to be a highly useable little side adventure (and very atmospheric). Sure A1 was a little dull (as was X1) but the former was a constrained tournament module and the latter...well, who can tell which of the two authors are responsible for the cat-riding cat-creatures and prehensile-tailed ewoks?

      [CB1: Conan Unchained also had some very interesting Hyborean rule changes and some cool encounters]

      These days, however, my judgment is harsher. X4 and X5 are good, but too linear (as are CB1 and BH2). The Veiled Society is interesting and evocative but a terrible, gimmicky railroad. And it's just damn hard not to denigrate the lead designer of Planescape and 2nd Edition.

      For a long time, however, I still gave the guy some props for the Expert set and (especially) I1. However, I then heard an interview where Cook stated the idea for Dwellers came from a completely different person...I think there may even have been a map and half-written adventure that he simply re-purposed/re-packaged!

      [plus, in the same interview he stated that 2nd edition is still his fave version of D&D. Um...]

      So, yeah. I can see how your opinion of his stuff might not be very high. Some flaws there.