Thursday, May 26, 2016

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 10: Finishing Early D&D

Last time, we discussed the Greyhawk supplement to Original D&D - the supplement that made OD&D into something that players of later editions would much more readily recognize. We closed with a discussion of the race/class rules that Greyhawk introduced, focusing in particular on the level limits for non-human races.

To modern players, level limits of 9th level and below probably seem extremely low - especially to those used to computer RPGs. Classically, though, D&D was largely played at such low levels. Indeed, in his article "D&D Is Only As Good As the GM" (The Strategic Review, April 1976), Gygax wrote that 
"It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play."
And that last bit is important - character mortality was quite high in older versions of D&D, especially at low levels! A typical 1st level character would be killed by one or two hits from a monster. In the AD&D1 DMG (1979), he wrote:
"The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level."
This would seem to indicate in turn that the rules for higher level characters in OD&D and AD&D1 had not been well playtested, if indeed they were playtested at all. For example, judging by this, no PC in either campaign had yet become capable of casting 7th level cleric spell, nor 8th or 9th level magic-user spells... even those had been introduced three years previously, in Greyhawk.

We can also see the focus on low level characters in the level titles of OD&D and AD&D1. A fighter becomes a Lord at level 9; a magic-user takes a bit longer, becoming a Wizard at level 11. Moldvay's version of Basic and Expert D&D similarly covered levels 1 to 3 (in Basic) and 4 to 14 (in Expert). A "Companion" set was promised to cover levels 15 to 36, but this would not be released until after Basic and Expert were revised a few years later.

My own experience with first edition AD&D was similar, with us considering "low levels" to be 1 to 4, "mid levels" 5 to 8, and 9th level and higher to be "high level" characters. We considered the "sweet spot" for adventuring play to be levels 3 to 8. Below that, characters were too easily killed, and above that, they should be settling down and beginning to establish their own domains. Such high-level characters we would usually retire, to bring out for rare "high level" adventures.
Thus, the level limits for non-human characters didn't seem so onerous; they were within the "sweet spot" that we considered to be D&D's best play experience, and thus, didn't really feel limiting. We also kept Tunnels & Trolls style "stables" of characters. Before starting a new adventure, the GM would normally announce what level range it was for, and players would either use existing characters they had of those levels, or, if they had no character in that range, would create one. The fact that a dwarven warrior couldn't get above a certain level thus wasn't a problem - it just meant you'd have to play a different character if your dwarven warrior wasn't high enough for a particular adventure.

The Rest of OD&D: Blackmoor and More

While Greyhawk brought D&D into the same basic form it would continue to have until around third edition AD&D in 2000, it was not the last of original D&D. Blackmoor came out in 1976, but most of its bulk was devoted to an adventure, and new 'things' - the Monk and Assassin classes, new spells, new monsters, and new magic items. Its expansion of the rules in general was smaller and less successful. Six pages were devoted to a hit location system, which was not carried forward into any future version of D&D. Seven pages in the rear gave brief rules for underwater adventures, diseases, and NPC specialists.

Eldritch Wizardry  came out later in 1976, and added Druids as a class, along with spells for them, more monsters, and more magic items. Artifacts were introduced here, but the only additional rules for them consisted in the idea that their powers should not be known by players, and so various lists of possible powers were given instead of set powers for them.

The largest rule addition in EW was psionics - but while the various psionic abilities introduced were carried forward into future editions of D&D, the methods used for determining what abilities characters have changed greatly between EW and AD&D's Player's Handbook, which came out two years later.

A Dexterity-based initiative system was introduced as well, which cut the one-minute melee round into six "segments" of ten seconds each. As with the hit location rules introduced in Blackmoor, however, these initiative rules were not carried forward into future editions of D&D.

Lastly came Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes, which gave game statistics for various gods and monsters, but added no new rules of significance, and Swords & Spells, which brought D&D full circle back to Chainmail, as it was a D&D-based system for conducting fantasy battles. While S&S introduced a large number of new rules for this, most of those were either straightforward extensions of what already existed in D&D (for example, units did damage computed from their chance to hit, number of attacks in D&D, and how much damage each of their attacks did in D&D), or were carryovers from Chainmail. In any case, S&S did not sell well, and its rules were not carried forward into future versions of D&D either.

Finishing Up

This concludes our coverage of "official" OD&D. Next time, we'll be looking at The Perrin Conventions, a set of early 'house rules' for OD&D that were highly influential, and at Melee, initially released as a combat system to use with other RPGs, but which formed the basis for another early fantasy RPG, The Fantasy Trip.

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