Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Functional Taxonomy of Old School D&D

At the outset, this may become a long essay. We'll see.

Let's take a look at one aspect of each of four editions (0e, 1e, 2e, and 3e).
0e: requires (ie, promotes) house rules, gives no guidance for house ruling, rules cover very few specific circumstances.
1e: Forbids house rules entirely (at the time it was written), thus gives no guidance for house rules, but rules cover many specific circumstances without a streamlined method of resolution hardwired into the character sheet.
2e: Encourages house ruling and provides lots of ways to personalize the character sheet. Rules cover roughly the same number of specific circumstances as 1e and still don't have a streamlined resolution method, but more methods appear on the character sheet (ie, outside the DM's purview).
3e: Encourages house ruling but the amount of specific methods hard-wired into the character sheet makes it more difficult to make rulings that don't impinge on the character generation system. Rules cover a very large number of specific circumstances, but this is done by giving characters a wide variety of generally-usable skills to address most circumstances (drowning, climbing, finding food, negotiation, appraising items, etc). The contrast to 1e (and a bit less to 2e) here is that in 1e/2e the rules were not linked to the character sheet, which reduced the chance that a DM deciding to use different resolution methods didn't mess up the results of character generation.

I'm indebted to Matthew Stanham for pointing out something that made this taxonomy come together; the fact that 2e encourages house ruling more than 1e did.

This all helps to explain why there were once savage edition wars between 0e and 1e, and also why those evaporated after a decade to be replaced by virulence between 0e/1e on one hand, and 2e on the other hand. The reason is that once 1e was no longer "official," those who stuck with 1e started to view it more like the 0e players had viewed 0e ... as a vehicle for house ruling. House ruling is easy with 1e because the extensive rules aren't hardwired into the character sheet -- they are still all within the DM's internal system. But the official word had been not to house rule. Clearly, people had been house ruling since the dawn of 1e, but the message of officialness was very, very strong from EGG and TSR.

Once 1e is seen as a vehicle for house ruling, the very fact that there's no advice for how to do it suddenly makes it a pretty open system for modification. It's hard to break the system with house rules since only the DM is really given much in the way of rules. All of a sudden, 1e is no different from 0e except in terms of complexity.

2e, on the other hand, even though it encouraged house rules and tailored campaigns, once it's also out of print can be seen as a bit more restrictive than 0e/1e precisely because at one point it embraced the concept. By standardizing (some) of the ways to personalize a character sheet, 2e no longer looks quite as freewheeling as 1e, even though at the time of its publication it represented a huge step away from standardized officialness and toward a more freewheeling style. The passage of time actually reversed the way things operated when read as written.

Then there's 3e. Here, although house ruling is definitely encouraged, the amount of hard-wiring into the character sheet becomes very significant, to the point that if a DM changes much, he'd be invalidating choices that the players made at the time of chargen. ("Wait, if you make all negotiation into roleplaying, WTF did I take "negotiation" as one of my skills?"). Personalization of a gaming table was encouraged in terms of new monsters and details WITHIN the system, but personalization of the system ITSELF suffered precisely due to the fact that the system was so unified, streamlined, and hard-wired into the character sheet (as opposed to having lots of disjointed rules residing almost exclusively behind the DM screen).

There are a lot of implications to the fact that there are structural differences between these editions. The disjointedness of rules as opposed to streamlining/unifying, their location on the character sheet (as opposed to behind the screen), and whether the rules contain official rules for house-ruling (ie, official options), are three structural axes around which D&D editions have shifted.

It explains why a divide between 0e and 1e suddenly disappeared once 1e was no longer the official version. It explains why the flexible character generation system of 2e had less difference with 3e, even though 1e and 2e shared lots of other characteristics -- why it seems that the 1e players are such a hold-out against "modern" games as opposed to 2e players, who already worked with a much more personalized character sheet. All that 3e added to 2e was a more streamlined (and more complex) method for personalization. This also explains why 2e DMs seemed to get more irritated with 3e than 2e players did. The players had more of the same, but the DM faced an entirely different structure (unified methods vs. disjointed rules that could be cut or altered without screwing with the game's hardwiring).

Don't know if any of this makes sense, but I think it's going to become very relevant now that 5e is trying to create a modular system. Who's going to like it best? It might be that 5e is the big gift for the 2e players, who are most comfortable with personalized character generation, but whose DMs are used to modular (disjointed) rules.


  1. Ironically, we played 2e almost by the book - using some of the rules options inside, but only having one modification of our own (concerning ability score generation).

    In the case of 3e, house-ruling is discussed by the books, but with time, a rather strong cultural bias has emerged against doing it, and this bias persists in our time.

  2. The contrast to 1e (and a bit less to 2e) here is that in 1e/2e the rules were not linked to the character sheet, which reduced the chance that a DM deciding to use different resolution methods didn't mess up the results of character generation.

    The more I have been reading old modules, the more I think this is one of the key differences between old school design and new school design. Old school challenges will often be totally unaffected by PC "build" choices (example: 1 in 6 chance of falling off a slippery beam), whereas new school design keys almost everything against something on the PC character sheet (athletics check, dexterity check).

    This is not a hard and fast rule; for example, the classic saving throw tables are sort of a hybrid. They are a characteristic of the PC, but they are not something a player can really influence via the character build process.

  3. The only thing I would take issue with is the idea that 0d&d didn't provide a lot of specific rules, I mean there are rules for naval warfare, shooting catapults at dragons, determining the loyalty, morale, and availability of hirelings and henchmen. If rules for making an "individual" snowflake character is criteria--then 0e comes up sparse, but guidelines and rules for actual play, there are more than in 3e and 4e combined.

  4. Interesting observations. We have played the heck out of second edition over the years, with numerous different optional and house rules in play, though now we largely play like we did when we first started out, with only the very minimum rules. Still, I was surprised by the results of some recent polls I took at Dragonsfoot as to just how prevalent non-weapon proficiencies are amongst AD&D players generally and second edition adherents particularly.

    As you say, the way the system interacts with the character sheet is a pretty revealing way to look at the complexity of the game. Mind, the proportion of times over the years we have picked proficiencies only to never use them must be very high if my recollection is to be trusted! The same cannot be said of D20/3E skills, that is for sure (though some were less useful than others).

  5. One interesting points is how many people see 2e as a turning point. The common place is to consider all the 'additional' facts that drove it away from 1e in terms of customization (kits, proficiencies, etc.) and/or focus (high fantasy, railroading, general tone, etc.) On the other hand, the core system (PHB, DMG, MM) remained a streamlined version of the original rules, not the one everyone agreed on ( is that possible?), but almost the same game as 1e

    Nowadays, being my tastes very close to OSRIC/1e in terms of flavour and tone, I still consider 2e core to be a very good iteration of the original rules (not only 1e, but original). Though I dislike the direction the game took from then on, the rules remain playeable and customizable in a way that is trying to be emulated in 5e design: do you want a core system, based on classic D&D, with most of 1e 'complexities' as optional rules? Well, sounds familiar, 2e reborn

    So, the point is that, at the same time that 2e starts a path that leads to 3rd edition (customizatiom, skills, approach, etc.), it builds a core that keeps the coe of the game and allows a modular approach to adapt it t your own tastes, in a way that everyone recognize as D&D

  6. Interesting post. It certainly jives with other "joint carvings." I've read others describe the knife cut as occurring along lines of "challenging the player" vs. "challenging the character" or "improvisational" vs. "predetermined" or "marketing to the DM" vs. "marketing to the players." Recently, I think it was FRDave who pointed out how later editions placed their emphasis on "character builds." That is, just like folks who play collectible card games (CCGs) will obsessively tweak decks by adding and removing options, recent editions of DnD place an emphasis on "exploring characters" via an optimized assemblage of powers, traits, feats, skills, etc. This began with 2e, so I think that you are correct to highlight the 0e/1e vs 2e+ as being the important watershed.

  7. You can go even further back than second edition and say it started with AD&D/1E, weapon proficiencies being a good example, but of course non-weapon proficiencies were introduced in around 1985. There are other items that we can point to, of course, but really it is degree of emphasis that we are talking about, rather than the start of a trend.

  8. I'd like to point out that somewhere in the 1e DMG (don't have my book with me) Gygax tells DMs that if we run into any situation that isn't covered by the rules, we should assign percentage chances to possible outcomes could happen and roll d%. So in a way, 1e has a very crude resolution system that covers every possible circumstance.

  9. Yeah, that is p. 110 of the DMG, and the same advice can be found in Holmes and B/X (if I recall), as well as the second edition First Quest boxed set. I once got the opportunity to ask David "Zeb" Cook why it was not included as an option in the second edition core books, to which he replied that in retrospect it probably should have been.

  10. Another structural axis is sheer volume of material. This relates to the house rule affordance axis, but is slightly different.

    As subsequent editions "baked in" content that was merely supplemental in a prior edition, different effects were created. The learning curve increased, the play-time cost increased (I used to have 12 options for 1st level spells to consider, and how I have 50!), and the implied setting changed, sometimes in major ways: Ease of healing; magic item identification; buffing; scrying + teleport; etc.

    Some people are attached to certain concepts that were only added as of a particular edition, and I think people gravitate to the edition that has most of what they're looking for, and then throw out other complexity from that version that they don't happen to like.

    Classic example: Some people like AD&D 1e for the variety of spells and magic items (compared to 0e or B/X), but might swap in a simpler initiative method, and ignore weapon vs. AC.

    There's probably also a factor of which systems are better for learning. That B/X has less stuff probably makes it a better learning tool than AD&D.

    So not only will 5e draw certain players (and fail to draw others) based on the fallout of modularity, but it will also draw certain players based on the "size" of the core module.

  11. Interesting thoughts.
    I see you didn't describe 4e, which is actually an interesting middle ground. Its core rules are quite easy to handle, and are far fewer and less pervasive than in 3e, and definitely more abstract (in many ways, even more abstract than 0e.)
    You could easily remove skills, feats, even magic items etc. and the game would still work, as it is built mostly around "powers" (spells/special abilities.) In the sense described here, the character sheet is loosely coupled with the DM rules.

  12. 1e doesn't forbid houserules; in fact, houserules are encouraged in the DMG and mentioned as likely in the PHB.

    What was envisioned was a game in which each campaign would have commonalities, although not necessarily the same commonalities. Doubt it? Reread the books.

    In a real sense, everything post-Gygax is just a set of houserules for 1e.


  13. There was a period, though, when Gygax in the pages of Dragon was rather stridently insisting that AD&D be played by the official rules ("or else you're playing a different game"). He even distinguished between the D&D and AD&D lines on this axis of encouraging modification vs. encouraging officiality.

    I suspect that is what Mythmere is referring to when he says that 1e in its time discouraged house ruling.

  14. Everyone I knew who played 1e house ruled their campaigns, and judging from Dragonsfoot and Knights and Knaves Alehouse, so did a whole lot of other gamers.

  15. One of the most useful edition taxonomies I've ever seen. Thanks for putting it together! The pre/post 2e character sheet difference is a key point that gets obscured by flashier arguments.