[Games Anatomy] The Original Dungeons And Dragons

For those who demanded more precision in identifying ‘the original’ Dungeons and Dragons, that’s Gygax, E. G. and Arneson, D. (1974) Dungeons and Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures, Lake Geneva, WI: Tactical Studies Rules. Three monochrome pamphlets and a pack of reference sheets. These ones, in fact:

The first curious thing I note about the Original Dungeons and Dragons is that, in the terms I’d normally use to understand these things, it’s a supplement to a wargame. Mr Gygax’s introduction doesn’t use the word ‘roleplaying’, or even the words ‘role playing’; it’s framed entirely as a spin-off or outgrowing from TSR’s previous outing, a more conventional medieval wargame by the name of Chainmail. What’s being offered here is in essence a kind of wargame which trades off the investment in space and materials (board and figures) for an investment of time (a great deal of map-drawing) and a corresponding reward in terms of sheer possibility compared to the conventional wargame. Furthermore, Messrs. G. and A. are very clear that what’s being offered here are a series of guidelines on running a campaign. They counsel taking it slowly and building naturally rather than rewriting everything from scratch, but also adding new rules and removing old ones as par for the course – never should these books be approached without a pencil in hand. That’s the second curious thing I note.

The third curious thing is the size of games that are being discussed here. At least one Referee and at least four players, but up to fifty players and a recommended 1:20 ratio of referees to players. That’s… a bit mind-boggling. Steam starts to come out of my ears when I have to deal with half a dozen players, never mind twenty – the granularity of many modern systems and the sheer amount of waiting one’s turn that’s involved don’t help matters, admittedly. Maybe this OD&D stuff’s a bit cleaner in terms of how things get done? The list of stuff you’ll need advises some wargaming equipment like miniatures and unit counters, as well as – crucially – a copy of the Chainmail rules, reinforcing the extent to which this D&D is embedded in its wargamy predecessor.

The key concepts of the game are staked out very simply; first, build a dungeon, then build characters to get yourselves down there. Pick a class, and if you survive, work upwards by gaining experience. There’s nothing in here about storytelling, nothing in here about theatricality, and suddenly I start to understand where the pejorative ‘story gamer’ comes from if this is the explicitly stated structure and purpose of the RPG that the earliest D&D-ers cut their teeth on.

Anyway. Those characters. You’ve the choice of Fighting-Man, Magic-User or Cleric; what we would later call ‘races’ are subsumed into classes, with the dwarf and hobbit existing only as fighting-men who can only advance to a set level, but receive a few nifty little bonuses concerning saving throws, combat effectiveness and language spoken. Elves are… weird, able to choose whether they want to be a fighting-man (of fourth level at most) or a magic-user (of eighth level at most) before setting off to adventure, and being able to switch back and forth between adventures. The classes are very endgame-focused, with fighters and clerics both being able to settle down and run a domain once they hit high levels, and wizards encouraged to spend their higher levels creating new spells and magic items. The non-humans are shut out of this endgame – one wonders whether elves or dwarves or hobbits actually have leaders or societies of a comparable type, whether you’re ever supposed to go there, or whether the game is meant to be embedded in a human society with these other chaps as hopeless and permanent minorities. Maybe that’s the first thing I’d pencil in… talking of which, there’s also a note to say “you can play any damn thing you like, provided it follows a progression of starting weak and levelling up.” That’s kind of awesome. Want to play a dragon, or a troll, or a cat-person from a distant and decadent empire? Go for it, provided your Referee can work out a level progression for it.

There’s the classic six-stat block of STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS and CHA to be rolled on the three six-sided dice, and it’s recommended that this be done by the Referee before you choose a class, rather than rolling up all “I want to play a Magic-User” and then getting pissy because you rolled INT 5 – although it’s also noted in the example character writeup that, while he might have made a better Cleric, the player preferred Magic-Users and so a sub-optimal Magic-User he shall be.

Something that interests me greatly about the stats, however, is that not one of them is a ‘dump’. They all have at least one mechanical purpose for members of every class. Strength may be the prime requisite of the Fighting-Man, the stat that awards them extra experience, and a spot of high Dexterity and Constitution may help with seizing the initiative and taking the punches, but Intelligence and Wisdom both award additional experience too (adding extra, imaginary points to Strength on a 3:1 or 2:1 basis when calculating the experience bonus) and Charisma governs how many henchmen can be hired by, or monsters bullied into serving, the character, not to mention how likely they are to stick around when the going gets tough.

Those henchmen and monsters, incidentally, are a pretty major part of the game; it seems expected that every player character will end up with a modest entourage of associates, and a high-CHA character could potentially be rocking a dozen followers. The expected length of each actual player’s turn creaks ever longer; I can only hope that things are very quick indeed to resolve.

Before we get to that, though, there are a few words on equipment and encumbrance – which is calculated in terms of coins, or weights equivalent thereto, so a helmet weighs ’50 coins’. Carrying more than 750 coins caps your movement at 12″, apparently; carrying more than 1000 at 9″; more than 1500 at 6″. I’m guessing that beyond that you can’t move under your own power or something. Then there are some experience tables – the rates of growth are different for each class, with Clerics having the easiest progression in the early game and Magic-Users getting a bit of a break around levels 7 and 8. It’s also noted that there is no upper limit to levelling – something I’d not been expecting from the discussions of ‘the old school’ that I’ve had so far.

Finally, there are the experience mechanics, in which the term ‘level’ is treated with a spot of multivalency, allowing experience awards to scale up or down depending on the relative levels of the character, the monster they’ve overcome, and the actual space they’re occupying in the dungeon, encouraging Referees to scale their deepest dungeon levels to be more challenging, but not putting them off scattering the odd more fearsome beast further up for variety’s sake or a tempting short-cut.

There’s a certain pleasing scalability about it all; it provides a metric for dealing with an eighth level character in a fifth level environment facing a seventh level opponent and ensure that they’re rewarded appropriately for the challenges they’ve faced. If a second-level character goes up against a seven-hit-dice troll, they’ll probably be mullered but they’ll get a whacking great shot of experience for doing it, while an eight-level character cruising through the second floor of a ten-level dungeon will gain next to nothing, as befits someone who’s enjoying the easy life. It feels balanced without the artifice of ensuring that second level characters only fight second level monsters; there’s always a choice to push your luck or take it easy.

How you actually go about doing that is a matter that we’ll discuss next time, as we’ve run to quite a lot of words so far. I think there might be a good few weeks of entries in this one – there’s a lot to poke about at and consider here. So far, I don’t hate it, although a lot of the actual metrics involve a little bit too much counting on my fingers – one thing the retroclones have done very well is eliminate the (Monster’s Hit Dice x 1000) + (Monster’s Hit Dice x 100) / (Monster or Dungeon Level / Character Level) number-crunching aspect, which might serve very well for mathematics students but which tends to grind at my sums-averse tables. We’ll see how well it holds up when we get into combat.

You may also like...