Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Remember when D&D Combat was "Simpler" and "Easier" to Understand than 5e? Me Either. Part 1: Some Initial Thoughts

GamerGrls by Jody Lindke ©2011
Back in September of 2019, Cam Banks wrote a brief response to people who argued that they missed the "good ol' days of gaming" when combat was easier to learn and play than the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Cam's response was direct and to the point.

My response was a little snarkier than Cam's and included a reference to the Weapons & Armor chart in the 1st Edition AD&D Players Handbook (sic).

The point that each of us was making was that it is a myth that older versions of D&D were "rule light" that were easier to learn for newer gamers, or were somehow superior to more recent versions of the game because of their ease of play. Dungeons & Dragons has always been a complex game with arcane rules for combat that could be intimidating to new gamers and veteran gamers alike.

I've been a fan of every edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I've had the pleasure of playing. Yes, I even LOVE 4th Edition D&D. I think it has a nice balance of tension at the heart D&D system, whether to focus on role playing or on tactical combat. Each edition of the game has tried to fall somewhere in the middle, allowing for players who favor each kind of play to have a good experience, but I think that 4th Edition hit an almost perfect balance between the two. I would also argue, and this might shock some people, that it was less a tactical combat game than most of the editions that preceded it. This is especially true of 3rd Edition, which is the most granular simulation of tactical skirmish combat ever designed. 

There are so many sub-systems in 3rd Edition that you can essentially solo-play "SIMTavern" by using the skill rolls and random encounters without the need of a DM. I'm not writing that as a critical statement. It's a remarkable achievement that appeals to a sizable group of gamers that includes me as a card carrying member. I've spent many an hour using GURPS and Hero System to do exactly this type of gaming, and prior to 3rd Edition I never thought D&D was a good "SIMCity" rpg.

But this post isn't about the underlying skill system and how well it can be used to simulate day to day activities in a Bayesian's Daydream of game play. This post is the first in a series of posts about D&D combat and how complex it has always been. This series will cover Original Dungeons & Dragons, using both the Chainmail and Alternative Combat System variants, Basic D&D (Holmes, Molday/Cook, and Mentzer), AD&D 1st Edition, and AD&D 2nd Edition.

Today's post is just an overview regarding the motivation for the series of posts, which is a desire to argue that there never has been a truly simple era of D&D combat. As Cam stated above, each edition has its problems and gamers have adapted to those problems. Smart people have been confused by D&D from the beginning. If you read the first few issues of the famous Alarums and Excursions fanzine (you can order them from the source here), you'll see that some early gamers misinterpreted the spell system and Lee Gold initially thought that saving throws were based on rolling 2d10 and adding them together.

Lee Gold Discussing Saving Throw Probabilities Based on Assumption of 2d10 Added Together

While modern gamers may wonder how a game designer like Lee Gold could have this assumption, one need only look at the older twenty sided dice to see that they were numbered 0-9 twice. Thus it seems natural to infer that the alternative combat system and saving throw system were based on a roll of two of these dice added together. Later editions discussed this more expressly and included recommendations for how to convert these dice to "true" twenty-sided dice.

Modern gamers have the advantage of beginning play upon a foundation of norms established over decades. Early gamers didn't. This made early D&D even more confusing than today's game. Though I will argue in the next post that using the Chainmail system for D&D combat is even more confusing than today's game, even for a gamer with strong foundations in both role playing and modern miniatures games. Had I not played Warhammer I would have been in the dark on how to play Chainmail, even having read the rules several times. Though after examining those rules, rules it seems no one actually used for D&D, I think they would work quite well and eagerly want to try my hand at them.

Tomorrow, I'll delve into D&D Chainmail. For now, I'd like to know if any of you have tried it.

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