Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Some More Classic D&D Trivia

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 24, 2012

Inspired this time by one of CRPG Addicts’ recent (and hopefully not last) posts about 1970s era CRPGs, I hunted down a few links about the really, really old-school dice-and-paper games.  I’ve written once about Original D&D Trivia, as seeing how the game has evolved and changed over the years is fascinating to me. How did RPGs come to be, anyway? Yes, I know how it happened, I was there to see some of it, but it’s the little details and stories that excite me.

I discovered a page collecting several quotes from one of the guys in many of the original campaigns. There’s plenty of fascinating trivia to be discovered here, including these little tidbits:

  • The amount by which characters “scale” (mainly in terms of hit dice) came about directly from a combination of wargaming and favorite fantasy books. As the players decided they wanted classic fantasy heroes like Conan, Arigorn, and Elric in the game, they figured these guys ought to be much tougher than an average warrior. So they took the easiest approach and made these heroes equal to four regular warriors and could therefore sustain four times as many hits before dying. Then they added a new “level” – a Super-Hero – that was the equivalent of two heroes.  Then as they moved from wargaming (Chainmail) to what is now closer to an RPG campaign with Blackmoor, they thought of how a character might “grow” to be a hero… becoming the equivalent of two warriors, then three, then four, etc…

    And thus we have had the really massive low-level “jump” in power levels at low levels in D&D and D&D-inspired RPGs for decades.

  • Players originally played both the good guys and the bad guys, with the person eventually called the “Dungeon Master” acting more as a neutral third party – referee and scenario builder. Eventually the “evil” players defected to the “good guy” side, leaving only Dave Arneson (the referee) to play all of the bad guys as well.
  • The cleric class originated as nothing more than a counter to a player-character vampire who had gotten to be too powerful as they started giving him Hammer Film-style vampire powers when he leveled up.  That explains the Christian priest style archetype (also a la Hammer films) that they’ve tried for decades to generalize.

All good stuff. Why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. But I like knowing why things are the way they are (or were), especially as a designer who may want to check the underlying assumptions before he goes around changing things.

This was before my time (thankfully) so I only experienced an echo of it in the 1980s as played by other kids who had no other resources than the books and magazines. One thing that does strike me, which I’m trying to verify, is how much less the old-school games were about “hack-and-slash” than they are usually given credit for.   I think it is the computer-game imitations that really took the combat parts through the roof.  But looking through some of the very old OD&D and early AD&D modules of the era, there’s really a lot more emphasis on exploration and problem-solving.  Role-playing (according to the above-quoted player, Gronan) evolved naturally as an extension of these aspects of the game. But going through many of the old modules, the combat set-ups are often pretty boring (with some set-piece exceptions), and there are lots of “strange things” players have to figure out, and well-hidden treasures to find.

These are exactly the kinds of creative, interesting things that are more challenging to plug into a computer game, while the nuts-and-bolts of a cyclical, repeatable gameplay like combat are easy to do.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Very interesting! I’d never heard the story about why characters have levels in D&D before. And it makes sense from a wargaming perspective that players would control bad and good guys alike.

    I think how much the old-school games were about “hack-and-slash” depends on the people you played with. The rules themselves were certainly very “hack-and-slash” oriented, perhaps again because of their recent lineage from wargaming. Nothing in the rules really emphasized role-playing or making characters unique.

    Instead you had very set classes with strict restrictions on what they could use and do. There were no skills, and adventure modules were mostly dungeons or towers to navigate in search of the most treasure (which was then the same as experience points), all the while having random encounters with monsters that you had to survive to press on.

    There was a lot of emphasis on balanced parties, with everyone playing a fairly mechanical role necessary for success.

    There wasn’t even a lot of focus on player’s surviving to have other adventures, instead, perhaps due to the wargaming influence, it was a lot more about getting as much treasure and success as you could by the end of the module. Elves couldn’t be resurrected, there was a lot of instant death traps, a lot of the random encounter tables had a least one monster on them that would kill some of the party if it was rolled, etc. I remember a few modules even had suggestions like, “This NPC can be taken over by one of the player’s if their own character has died.” It was pretty well excepted that you’d just roll up another character and shrug it off if things went south.

    I don’t think D&D really started emphasizing roleplaying in the rules themselves until AD&D, with it’s proficiencies for characters, packages and prestige classes, and numerous handbooks for each class to make more unique characters. The modules also started to emphasize adventures other than dungeons, and the system had a lot of optional rules that a gaming group could use or ignore as they wanted.

    AD&D 2nd Edition is when my group really started role-playing characters over long campaigns. In fact it became our favorite part of D&D, far more than combat.

    I still remember one gaming session where the players suddenly stopped and remarked, “You know, we haven’t gained a level in 3 months.”

    Our DM blinked. “Wow, you’re right. You guys haven’t been getting a lot of experience points.”

    We nodded. “Yeah, we haven’t gotten in many fights.” (At the time you could only gain experience points in D&D through combat. The treasure rule had been dropped and awarding XP for roleplaying wouldn’t be suggested until 3rd Edition.)

    Our DM started shuffling through his notes. “I’ll have to try and get you all in some combat this session.”

    “Well you can’t just spring it on us now because we said something. It wouldn’t make sense!”

    “True. We’ll let it come up naturally then.”

    “Sounds good to us. We weren’t complaining, we just thought it was weird.”

    Fact is, we would often play 14 hour AD&D sessions with no combat. Instead we would be investigating a mystery in a small town, or arguing court cases before kings. We would deal with spy work, or navigating a kingdom’s politics to raise funding and support for the army ahead of an invasion, etc. Eventually our DM came up with house rules for awarding XP for roleplaying before it was suggested in the game itself, just because with our play style we were never gaining levels.

  • EHamilton said,

    It’s a little like paleontology, isn’t it? You know quite a bit about dinosaur skeletons, and very little about their skin, and even less about their behavior. But if you encountered a real life dinosaur, the skin and the behavior would be critical aspects of the experience, and probably make a much more immediate impression than the skeleton inside.

    When we study the “combat system” of a RPG, we’re studying the bones, the bits that are most easily preserved because they depend least on the unique dynamics of a particular group of living players. That doesn’t mean that they were ever the most important part of the experience. That’s just a paleontologist’s bias. We pretend that relevant facts are the ones that we can most easily study, years later.

  • jzoeller said,

    @LateWhiteRabbit – I totally agree.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Besides the books and stories from people who were there, I look a lot at the “modules” such as they were. Primarily the Gary Gygax modules, the Blackmoor supplement, and the old Judges’ Guild modules, and the very few Dragon Magazine adventures from that early era (before they created Dungeon Magazine). Many appear to be far less combat-oriented than I think most gamers would expect. In computer game terms, they seem to be a pretty even mix between adventure-game style problem / puzzle solving (alas, sometimes in the realm of “guess what the designer was thinking” styles of puzzles), and combat.