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Actual Play: AD&D 1st Edition
Last Sunday I had rheall over for a solo game. Having recently acquired a nearly-complete set of 1st ed AD&D books, and knowing that it's simple (and familiar) to run and create characters for, I proposed running that. It wasn't a long session (three and a half hours, one and a half of that for character creation), but it was a great session and one that taught me a lot of things I'd forgotten about how to enjoy roleplaying.

Rolling up a druid, setting out on a mission, and a solution to the Encumbrance Problem

Rolling up a character took longer than I expected, mostly due to unfamiliarity with the race and class choices available. We ended up with Darondar, a 1st-level Druid of the Great Forest, with a whole 2 hit points. Clearly, combat was not going to be a desirable event.

Darondar was sent by his superiors to perform the harvest rites for the farming community of Sandell, located north-west of the Sacred Grove, on the road that passes between the Great Forest and the Lochamar Forest (aka The Crowwood, for its many blackbirds). The trip was expected to be a three-day walk and Darondar prepared well, carrying about 4-½ stone of gear.

Oh yes, encumbrance, that awful time-waster that has given so many D&D players such headaches. I'm using a suggestion from Delta's D&D Hotspot (actually the revised version in Delta's AD&D houserules, but that's a DOC file) and using stone (about 14 pounds) as a weight measure. A suit of leather armour is 1 stone, a bow and a quiver of arrows is together 1 stone, a sword is ½ stone, and smaller stuff like torches are only counted if carried in quantity. At 4-½ stone (more than the 3 stone limit for no encumbrance, not more than 6 stone limit for light encumbrance) Darondar is moving at 3/4 full movement. The numbers are small, easy to assign to things, and quick enough to compute that it was the quickest part of character creation! If you've ever faithfully tracked encumbrance in (A)D&D, you'll understand how incredible that is. Yeah, I'm happy with this system.

First events, and infravision is awesome.

Moving on, around evening Darondar finds a number of boot prints in the muddy bank of a stream, and a poorly-dug firepit that by all rights should have started a forest fire. The dim-witted birds flitting about aren't going to be much help, but as night falls a chance encounter with an owl gives Darondar the chance to ask about the booted intruders. Turns out they're also heading north-west, according to the owl. Darondar makes camp under the ground-sweeping branches of a fir, and is cozy and dry when it starts to rain later that night.

There's an interesting point about the system in that last scene. In 1e, only rangers can track. Having experience mostly with 3e and 4e in which footprints usually mean a skill check to track them, Rheall defaulted to solving the question of where the boots' owners went by looking for more tracks. Playing a 1e druid, this just didn't work. The druidic solution, to gather information from the forest itself, quickly worked though. In some ways these rule features seem very confining, but the very same rules do promote distinctions in how characters of different classes (and alignments, but more on that in a minute) work within and interact with the fiction. I like this effect, but I can't help chafing at the limits that make it happen. I'll have to run 1e more to see if I can reconcile that.

Tucked under the tree, a noise wakes Darondar around midnight. It's dark as pitch, but Darondar is a half-elf and so can see into the infra-red. This was interesting because, in 3e and later, infravision was removed from D&D. Being able to see in low light (what half-elves got instead) was never of much interest or impact, I found. Certainly, it didn't have the imaginary impact that seeing the body heat of creatures did. Rheall didn't even know about this ability of her character until I pointed it out. As an old-time player and GM, that was odd to me because it was always such an iconic ability of demi-humans. Her being exposed only to 3e and 4e meant that what I considered a pivotal part of a half-elf's relationship to his surroundings wasn't even on her radar.

Kobolds in the night, and a surprise alliance. Saying Yes is more fun than saying No.

So it turns out that it's a group of four kobolds. I didn't plan this encounter at all, I just rolled for wandering monsters and then rolled on a table for temperate forests to find out what sort of monster had come near. I set the number of kobolds arbitrarily at four. What are they doing in the forest at midnight? Bedding down for the night in the bushes, I figured. Rheall suggested a weeping birch for them to be sleeping under, which I thought was a great detail. With his mere 2 hp and (me rolling for surprise behind a screen) having noticed but not been noticed by the kobolds, the druid opts to wait for them to finish bedding down. When they do, out comes entangle to hold them fast. I completely forgot to roll saving throws for them, but in retrospect I think that it was a perfect place for me to Say Yes instead of Rolling Dice. What happened next only could have happened because they weren't busy killing each other, and I'm glad that I didn't force combat out of GMing habit.

With the kobolds at his mercy and hanging upside-down in the branches of the weeping birch, the first thing that Rheall has Darondar do is ask them who they are and what they're doing. Very in line with the druid's role as the guardian of the forest, and the Neutral alignment of druids, and yet it took me by surprise. I'm just not used to PCs parleying anymore, so there's another lesson I re-learned thanks to a new system and a new-ish player. Not sure what to do with the parley, I figure that leaning on the randomness of the 1e rules has worked well so far... a roll on the encounter reaction table gave me the highest result possible, Friendly and Helpful, but I adjusted it down to just Friendly because the kobolds were just (non-lethally) attacked in their sleep. What the heck do I do with friendly kobolds tied up in a tree? I let Rheall lead.

It's beautiful when players take the game in unexpected and interesting directions. Rheall wanted to know what they're doing, and I was ad-libbing. I figure, let's tie it into the tracks, so they say they're following the "biggers". Why? Um... because they stole our tribe's most sacred totem, and the shaman sent us to get it back! Darondar, also wanting to find these "biggers", offers to help in exchange for a truce and following his orders. The kobolds (and here I checked their alignment of Lawful Evil) are cagey, and counter that if Darondar is helping them, he's not giving the orders. It's a bit tense, and Darondar accepts this modified deal. The Lawful kobolds are good on their word, but (being Evil) are ready to exploit any perception that the druid is reneging on the deal or trying to order them. I'd forgotten how useful the ninefold alignment system was. Darondar arranges to meet them a half-hour after dawn and leaves, covering his trail, to get some more sleep.

So I had a druid and four kobolds, heading toward a farming settlement and following the trail of totem-stealing orcs. We were a single encounter into the game and already awesome and unexpected things were happening! Did I mention that I'd had no adventure, map, or plans at all until Rheall had decided on a druid?

More wandering monster–table goodness. Saving a griffon and not letting the kobolds eat it. AD&D is ironically rules-light for non-combat.

When I rolled that wandering monster, I'd also rolled an encounter for the morning. Rolling for a specific monster gave me a griffon. Fuck, those things have 7 hit dice! Okay... well, not every wandering monster is a combat encounter, so I don't reroll. The unlikely quintet hears struggles and eagle-like cries, quickly sourced to a maple tree. The griffon is suspended 40 feet up in vines with blood-sucking thorns, which are growing up the maple and hanging from its branches.

Rheall drew a blank on what to do about this, which turned out to be in part because she'd assumed her character couldn't climb the tree. The difference between 1e and 3e/4e struck me here again. The elaborate skill system of later editions really shapes players' ideas of how to approach challenges in the fiction. In 1e it's just assumed that you can do common things and anything that would be normal for your class and race. In 3e/4e, the Climb skill is used by everyone to climb anything steeper than stairs. In 1e the only climbing skill is the exclusive domain of Thieves, but it's only for extraordinary feats "that would normally be impossible", such as scaling sheer walls or clinging to ceilings. (Yeah, a 1e 1st-level thief has an 80% to cling to the ceiling. Sweetness.) I figured a half-elf, and a druid to boot, would be able to climb a good sturdy maple. I say Yes, and we get on with having fun.

Darondar gets up on a level with the griffon, and it's struggling and bleeding and eyeing him with the resignation that comes from knowing your death is near. He climbs up another ten feet and hacks at the vines where they drape over the maple branches. Out of habit I call for a to-hit roll, and Rheall gets a natural 20! I thought that was very auspicious for the first roll of a new campaign. So whack goes the scimitar and the vines fall. A few more rolls and the vines that still hold the griffon break under the weight. The griffon plummets to the ground at the feet of the whooping kobolds who have decided that this is breakfast. Conflict!

AD&D doesn't have any rules for non-combat conflict. As a GM I'd decided that the kobolds are hungry and opportunistic. It's also a great chance to explore the strain on the armistice between the druid and the kobolds. There's some tense moments as the kobolds remind Darondar that the agreement was for him to aid them. Actually, I don't quite remember how it worked out, but the kobolds did back down. Darondar approaches the wounded beast, who is too exhausted to do more than squawk a bit and stare with a dinner plate–sized eye at the half-elf. Darondar has no magical healing to offer, and there's no single significant wound to be treated, but the gesture is made and the griffon permits the proximity. The party leaves the creature lying in the forest. I figured nature will take its course one way or the other, which is appropriate for a druid-centric game. It was a good scene.

Dénouement and musings

And that's where we finished up. I briefly noted that they stopped at midday, since that's a nice neutral place to park the game. Two encounters, three if the boot prints are counted, and no combat at all. We had a blast, and we're keen to keep playing.

I was particularly pleased with how interesting play emerged from creatively interpreting a few mechanics (i.e., wandering monsters) and relying on the fiction for the resolution of non-combat actions. AD&D 1e relies on adjudication of actions on-the-fly based on the fiction, which is opposed to later editions that appeals to the fiction to establish how to handle such actions from the outset. That is, in 1e you look to the fiction (a character's class, race, and background) to decide what makes sense at the time, while in later editions the fiction is written up as a set of skills that it makes sense for the character to have. The skills system of 3e, and especially 4e, are vast mechanical improvements on Nonweapon Proficiencies, but it does have some undesirable effects on player expectations and unnecessarily mechanises parts of the game that are more fun roleplayed without mechanical resolution. (For me, at least; I know everyone enjoys different aspects of the game.)

Earlier this year Mike Mearls (designer of the 4e Monster Manual, among other things; also at mearls) wrote about the difference between old-school and new D&D after running some white-box original D&D. In particular, he noted that "The players reacted more by thinking 'What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?' rather than 'What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?'" As a GM and roleplayer I get a lot of enjoyment from engaging with the fiction (which is apparently called kenosis), so how 1st edition AD&D promotes thinking in terms of what makes sense for the character to do is a huge part of its growing appeal for me.

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I still have LOTS of my 1st ed AD&D stuff that I would happily part with to somebody I know would take good care of my stuff.

I have my BROTHERS first edition copies of PH and DMG and a few other keepsakes that I would keep. As young men lazarus7 and I used to run a lot of Neutral Monty Hall type adventures, so the wandering monster/treasure type/misc magic tables in the DMG are so worn to be almost unreadable! Most of the other stuff is around somewhere. Perhaps I could bribe you with dinner and offer you some of my old treasures.

Dinner and treasure both? Twist my rubber arm.

Apparently I should have asked the LJ Oracle where to get 1e stuff before I went to eBay. Doh.

Do you have a 1st or 2nd printing of Deities & Demigods? It's the 144-page version with Cthulhu. Another PHB is always useful at the table (I have two now, and a third would be perfect to have enough to go around). The other stuff I'm still looking for is the Manual of the Planes, and any campaign setting books/boxes.

You don't happen to have any 2nd edition stuff that's looking for a good home, too, do you?

Re: Dinner and treasure both? Twist my rubber arm.

All of it.

I am far too busy with my magickal studies now to roleplay anymore. My library has grown so dramatically it is hard to imagine me ever reading all the books.

Lets make tentative plans to get together this weekend and I will make an effort to go get the stuff from storage.

Re: Dinner and treasure both? Twist my rubber arm.

My brother had the FIRST edition Deities and Demigods with the purple cover, and the original Fiend Folio with the Githyanki on the cover. Alas these were lost in his house fire.

They were in FANTASTIC shape. I had some of the collectable stuff, but not much.

Re: Dinner and treasure both? Twist my rubber arm.

This weekend we're going to be in Mission at the folk fest, so that would be quite the trick to arrange.

Damn, a first printing Deities and Demigods. I actually have an original Fiend Folio though, and I'm mighty pleased with it.

Darondar was able to keep the kobolds from killing the griffon by reminding them that he was the one who freed it, not them, so its fate as in his hands alone.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your write-up; it was such a fun game, and I remarked to fimmtiu afterwards that, while I haven't played a lot of D&D at all, this felt a lot more like how I thought D&D was supposed to be than most of my previous games.

Can't wait until this evening!

It was fun today!

Could you do me a favour? Would you mind writing up a game summary of tonight's session in your own words? I ran into much fewer GM insights today (because our contact with the rules was virtually nil), so I'm much more interested in how it was as a player.

"Dragon attack!"

Re: skills limiting what players can do: That argument goes both ways, and I haven't decided where I stand on that yet. Consider the case (real, not hypothetical) of a player who's not very bright and not very good with words, playing a character who's intelligent and has a ridiculously high Bluff skill. The system allows him to play a character he could never play in a rules-light setting, because there are mechanics to handle the parts where he's personally lacking as a player. On the other hand, things like Climb are adversely affected by systematization. Maybe the answer is to learn to only use the rules when it would be interesting to do so.

The ninefold alignment system is a much, much more useful tool for players & GMs than 4E's anemic good/evil continuum.

Hahaha, he's so blowing in the wind. All the "problems" with infravision are what makes describing it in game OMG SO AWESOME.

Also, he makes a distinction between heat energy (molecular agitation) and infrared energy (very low-energy electromagnetic energy) in the preamble, and then throws away that distinction when it would answer his questions about force effects, illusions, and invisibility. He also adopts a conveniently-dumb interpretation of faerie fire in order to use it to make dumb conclusions about other spells.

Yeah, there aren't and AD&D rules for the difficulty of tracking heat prints, or for how long they last. There aren't any rules for how long normal footprints last either.

On the silver-lining side, that it an awesome page for inspiring the imaginative DM's descriptions of infravision, and for outlining some awesome ways of making infravision more interesting than just "seeing in the dark". Hiding in "shadows" by hugging the outside wall of a lava tube, risking continual scorching damage for it, while trying to get that damned iron golem to backlight itself against some of that heat so it stops being invisible against the cold cavern walls = SO MUCH AWESOME.

The one valid criticism he has is the range (to which I say at first "um hello, faeries, dragons, and wizards? science is not the answer"), but my real answer would be that individual DMs can figure out if this is a problem, if it ever becomes a problem in their game. A lack of "infravisual acuity" past an arbitrary distance doesn't break the whole concept for me.

Finally, he's talking about magic, expecting it to make perfect Earth-world scientific sense, and furthermore expecting a game book to concern itself with being the authoritative source on How It Makes Sense. That's his first mistake. ...Everyone knows that the Dark Elf trilogy is the infravision textbook for AD&D. ;)

I agree that he talks a lot of bollocks here, because loud and opinionated is what Reynolds does best. Just thought I'd point out the line of reasoning that led to infravision being dropped in 3E.

There are a few points I agree with him on; being in a room with lava would be completely blinding, and anyone with infravision going to the Plane of Elemental Fire would be fucked right good. And while darkvision is a much less flavourful alternative, it is a lot simpler and more elegant from a mechanics perspective, which is what WOTC is increasingly oriented towards.

[BTW: Objects at the same temperature as the room, such as an iron golem, wouldn't be invisible to infravision; if that were the case, dark elves would walk around bumping into walls all the time. Which would be rad.]

You're right; a better example of possible infravision-invisibility would be a gelugon in an ice cave.

Lava would definitely be blinding, but not because of the infrared rays so much as the normal visual-spectrum light glowing rock gives off wrecking the infravision. Re the Elemental Plane of Fire, the fact that visible light turns infravision off would make seeing "too much heat" a non-issue.

Yeah, I can see why it had to go for 3e, since 3e was about establishing programmatic rules that didn't need (in theory) interpretation.

That's something that I feel D&D suffered for between 2e and 3e, though. I'd rather start from fiction as the first principles of interpretation ("infravision lets you see heat radiation") and go from there into Improv Coolness, rather than making a rules system the first principles from which the fiction is interpreted ("Fighters can't use bows effectively because its more balanced this way" or "there's no such thing as enchanters anymore, nor are there fighter/wizards that can actually do a damn thing well").

Edited at 2008-07-24 01:35 am (UTC)

You realize that everything you said about the arbitrary rules influencing fiction applies to 1E as well, right? Dwarves can't go past 9th level as fighters. Nobody but rangers can track. Only thieves can decipher unknown scripts. Why? Because that's just how it is!

I think, of all of them, 3E was the edition most free of arbitrary restrictions on the fiction. 4E is a step backwards in some ways.

There has never been an edition of D&D where fighter/mages didn't suck, out of the box, and have to be fixed by later supplements. It's comforting to know that some things never change.

4e fighter/mages suck especially, though I take your point.

The difference, as I see it, is that the majority of the built-into-the-rulebooks fiction in 1e and 2e was fiction-before-mechanics, while a minority (like level caps and arbitrarily-restricted abilities) were were mechanics-before-fiction. Level limits could easily be (and frequently were) dispensed with or altered without mechanical consequences, only fictional consequences that were desired by the group.

The trouble with 4e, and to a lesser degree 3e, was how much the rules-before-fiction interlocked. That minority of rules-before-fiction in 1e and 2e could be spindled without much mechanical consequence because there wasn't much balance riding on them anyway and they weren't tightly coupled. (Except for magic, but that's always been the way.) Making mechanical changes in 3e has far-reaching effects on other mechanics. It's downright prohibitive to even try in 4e.

The freedom in 3e was a blessing and a bane. It certainly made the rules depend less on limits (since there weren't many limits to hang rules on), so fiction-appropriate limits could easily be added. In practice it doesn't sound like that ever happened, though, except to limit which supplements were permitted.

That said, games like BFRPG and Castles and Crusades are examples of hacked-up 3e rules that do introduce limits for flavour and play-style purposes, so it wasn't entirely absent.

Edited at 2008-07-24 02:31 am (UTC)

Yes, making mechanical changes to 3E is tricky. The core problem, I think, is the change in mindset between 2E and 3E about "game balance". In 2E there was no problem with stuff like "linear warriors, quadratic wizards", which, combined with the useless skill system, effectively meant that nobody in their right mind ever played a single-classed fighter. Ditto for races -- humans sucked. In 3E, on the other hand, they introduced the notion that suddenly all the classes & races have to be roughly equivalent in power, and then you have to actually start giving a crap about the mechanical aspects. This is not a bad thing, in my eyes. For instance, suddenly it's feasible to do things like "monsters as PCs" without having to make up a dozen house rules to naively balance it.

I think 4E pushes this a little too far; the ranger, rogue, and warlock all do basically the same thing, but with different flavour.

True, game balance moved to centre stage between 2e and 3e. I don't think it's true that nobody in their right mind played a single-classed fighter, though. It would be correct to say that no centrally-gamist player played a single-classed fighter, and 3e was rewritten on the assumption that such players are the relevant audience for D&D.

For someone like me who is really uninterested in optimal builds, or even caring about better-than-average builds, putting that stuff centre-stage is a pain in the ass and gets in the way of what I'm trying to do with my character/campaign. My long-running 2e game was two fighters and two rangers, and it was hella fun because we all enjoyed those roles and how they fit into the world. Fighters being sub-optimal never entered into it.

Monsters as PCs was famously broken, though. The level-munging math apparently (from what I've read on design blogs) worked only with low adjustments and at low PC levels. At high levels it didn't matter that the monster PC had monster abilities that were awesome at 1st level, they sucked at 10th and everyone else was more powerful because the monster PC was still paying the linear level penalty for useless abilities.

Edited at 2008-07-24 04:54 am (UTC)

My objection is less about gamist optimization and more about not wanting players to be left out. In 2E combat, higher-level spellcasters have dozens of interesting options; the fighter, by comparison, can do little more than say "I hit it" every round. Even outside of combat, spellcasters have all kinds of neat supernatural abilities, but high-level fighters are still just ordinary guys. I worry about the "sidekick" phenomenon.

And let's not even get into how much it sucked to be a low-level mage in 2E. Narrativism isn't fun if you can't keep a character alive.

"Monsters as PCs" worked in a lot of cases. High LA races always sucked for PCs, but low LA plus racial hit dice worked pretty well.

Edited at 2008-07-24 05:12 am (UTC)

The boring-fighter phenomenon can be tackled a few ways. 3e/4e handled it with system, 1e/2e left it to the DM to handle with good choreography that made the story told worthwhile.

I mean, some people want to play that fighter that gets by with a sword and a strong back, "keep yer fancy-pants spellslinging thankewverramuch". A game where a fighter is constantly in the narrative shadow of wizard is probably a game that needs to be narratively restructured: either have the two go their own ways and run them in different games, retire one or the other, or turn the focus onto areas where the shadowed one can shine more frequently.

An example of the latter is moving to a game around the management of a keep and fief, where a pet magician just can't solve all the problems that need to be faces, or would undermine the fighter-now-lord's authority with their subjects. A player who's chosen to play a fighter and wants to continue with them at high levels is signalling that they want fighterly challenges.

Another way of rejiggering is to plant the responsibility for a decent quest squarely on that fighter's shoulders. "Only Grimhelm can wield the Demoncleaver into battle against the forces of the Abyss!" and so on. Though the mechanical advantage would still be for the wizard, the story is revolving around the fighter.

Different strokes for different folks can be exploited to avoid congestion within any one reward-space. Assuming that all the players are jockying for the same gamist rewards misses a lot of options for players and for GMs.

Edited at 2008-07-24 05:45 am (UTC)

Any player can reap narrative rewards. Why should only some players be allowed to reap gamist rewards?

It's not a matter of "allowed", but that not every player values all the different rewards the same. There are different reward spaces, and they're weighted differently for each player depending on what they like about roleplaying.

(Hence Rolemaster. People still play it.)

If the gamist reward space is the only one recognised, then it's going to look like the linear fighter is getting a raw deal and the quadratic wizard is getting all the gaming rewards. If the DM is actively managing the rest of the reward space and knows what the players are each looking for, some of the players can be given a larger slice of the mechanical-rewards pie, commensurate with the ratio between the players' desire for that kind of pie.

Why else did people ever play bards in 3e? They were going after something different than combat effectiveness.

The old wisdom on how to handle social interactions where the character was more adept than the player was to just scale the player's roleplaying to the PC's adeptness. Of course, that only works when charisma is the ruling stat. Wisdom and Intelligence are harder to do, but still possible. Handing out clues differently, using literary techniques to flag things and connect them together, can make things easier to pick up.

That's all a lot of work on the GM's part, granted, but it did work. Plus, it's great practice for those players who lack those skills.

However, using rules only when it's interesting to do so definitely helps. 1e assumes the opposite by providing ability checks (remember those?) for times when mechanics are interesting and roleplay isn't, but the in-play use could certainly be increased so that it's the exception to not use them. If they were used that frequently, some ability check houserules would be in order, and probably develop spontaneously.

It's also worth noting that the gamist aspects of early D&D weren't located in the interaction between the players and the rules. AD&D doesn't even give the players access to the numbers that govern their hit rolls! It's all DM-side as it's written.

The gamism of early D&D was rather located in how well the players, as players, could navigate the game world's fiction and interact with it to the advantage and survival of their characters. The problem of low intelligence and high INT wasn't really a problem, because the disconnect wasn't as relevant as we take it to be today. It was more important to play an high INT character in a way looked like what an intelligent fictional swords-and-sorcery character would act in a story. Even the most academically challenged troglodyte can put on airs and create a facsimile of a hoity-toity brainiac.

The disconnect was still there when speaking in character, in a "your character wouldn't say that!" kind of way. Translation from that-dumb-thing-you-just-said to the effect of the same basic message said in a smart way could be handled by the suspension of disbelief (the same way a deep male voice can be translated in the imagination to the high lilting tones of the dude's female elven character). Or, there's always the DM fiat of "you don't say that. Try again", which was much more common then than it is now.

The disconnect between a high INT character and a stupid decision wasn't a problem, so much as an expected feature of the game. That's what separated the good and bad players, as well as the quick and the dead.

On a whole other note...

I never ever liked 2E or any of the permutations of it.

Once the system got to the point where the players could specialize their characters beyond the rules already known to the DM then it became stupid. All the rulebook add ons for each individual race and class just made it SO HARD to keep things realistic. I played with a bunch of min/maxers, and once 2E came out they always knew more about the rules applying to their characters than I did. Sucked.

I ran 2e for many years, so I have a lot of love for it. I have a 2e DMG (not the black-border reprints, yech), and just the smell of it makes me want to run it again.

I think what I would end up doing with 2e books now is house-ruling 1e and 2e together until I had the best of both in my game.

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