Wednesday, February 20, 2013

So I'm Re-reading Part of "What Is Dungeons & Dragons"

and I get to this little gem that Butterfield, Parker, and Honigmann bury on page 185 of the U.S. edition:

The AD&D rulebooks are long and more than a little expensive, each costing roughly twice the price of Basic or Expert D&D. Their arrangement often leaves a lot to be desired, as, in certain places, important rules are swamped by a mass of detail. The artwork and presentation are, on the whole, good, while the amount of information presented makes it admirable if not perfect in every respect. They are suitable for those D.M.s who wish to concentrate on running a rule system rather than a game [emphasis added]. Those who wish to ad lib and make up rules on the spot may find that they are discarding a great deal. There is also a slight problem when progressing from Basic to Advanced, in that, although both are essentially the same game, there are several areas of contradiction.

What I love here is how the authors praise 1e AD&D for its completeness and then turn around and slam it for its completeness. That's pretty damn ballsy. And it made me stop and think and ruminate for a bit, so please allow me to ramble without a shred of evidence to back up my claims.

That bolded section in the quote above is dead-on correct. 1e AD&D is a complete rule system that we happen to use to play a game, while B/X is simply game rules.

There is a distinct difference. A set of game rules explains how to play a game; a rule system explains how a system functions according to a set of rules. And there is nothing more complex than the rules that govern a universe, which is exactly what 1e AD&D eventually became. If we consdier all the original hardback rulebooks that were produced in the 1e era (including the four "adventures" hardbacks), it's pretty clear that in 1e AD&D we get a complete world-building kit plus four universes to play in--a rule system with enough material to construct imaginary universes in all their considerations, from villages to kingdoms, from gods to religions, from whole worlds to whole alternate planes of existence. Plus four examples of how these work.

But Basic? Early Basic—Holmes & Moldvay/Cook/Marsh—offered nothing beyond how to build dungeons and how to run a wilderness campaign. The rest was up to us. It wasn't until BECMI/RC that we had a complete set of world building rules, and even then, they were simplified versions of what we already had in 1e, and even then, official Basic D&D material was limited to the single setting of The World of Mystara. But at the time D&D was grabbing the public consciousness, it was AD&D that offered more than just a game.

Consider: how many non-gaming licensed or tie-in products from the TSR-era used any Basic rule set as their rules basis or The Known World/World of Mystara as a setting? According to the Vaults of Pandius there were 10 novels and 4 video games. That's it. Now, how many non-gaming products where there that used the AD&D rules or the world settings initially developed for 1e? Yeah. Shit tons. Even the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show was really 1e AD&D-based (just look at those character classes).

So why didn't B?X take off as more than game rules?

Yes, there is the whole "Gygax trying to cut Arneson out of profits" thing. But I think the answer is even simpler and it's a very, very familiar argument to anyone who likes to play the B/X game.

The one great complaint against B/X is the whole "race is class" thing.

And while "race is class" isn't a big deal in terms of the game itself, it is a big deal in terms of how we envision heroic fantasy in all other forms of media.

The pre-Mentzer B/X rules explicitly do not reflect one of the core principles of heroic stories in most mediums (and one that is even embraced by the concept of the American Dream): that anyone, regardless of birth circumstances, can become anything they want on their path to heroic status. That's not to say B/X doesn't allow a character to follow the hero's journey adventure arc—just that many folks couldn't get past this rules quirk and embrace the game rules as more than just game rules. When my Elf can't be a ranger, when my dwarf can only be a fighter, when my halfling can't be a thief, it doesn't ring true to the fantasy mythos that is familiar from other media, most notably fiction.

The AD&D rules, however, lent themselves to not only game play, but to heroic mythbuilding and the creation of multiple imaginary worlds. They are on par with these Writer's Digest Books in that regard--and they are more fun to read, too! It's all right there in the first edition hardbacks in a familiar fantasy milieu mined by fiction writers over generations.

Now before you start posting angry comments let me say that my preferred games are the variations of Basic--the first D&D I owned was the Mentzer Red Box, afterall. The Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X rules (and its clone, Labyrinth Lord) are my favorite version of the game, with OD&D (and Sword & Wizardry Whitebox) being my second. Why? Because I do like it when DMs ad lib and make up rules and rulings on the spot. It keeps the game moving, living, exciting.

But I play a game, not run a universe that must adhere slavishly to rules. Games, not rule systems. My campaign world isn't wholly imagined from top to bottom before I sit at the table, but evolves from the game being played. I don't need my game to be a simulacra of real life--it's a game, not an alternate reality that must adhere to knowable rules of physics. There's great fun in imagining such worlds and reading about them (I love gazetteers and almanacs and "ultimate guide" type of things), but at the end of the day, my 2nd level dwarf doesn't really need to know all about the political structure of the kingdom next door or about the infighting among the immortals. He just needs to survive to fight another day.

Game rulings, not rule sytems. That's how I roll.

Yeah, this is rambley and unfocused. I'm okay with that.