Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ruminations on OD&D: Nostalgia or Just a Good System?

When my mind returns to OD&D, I get caught up in this sort of duality conundrum. On the one hand, I am constantly drawn to OD&D out of nostalgia. It was my first RPG. I actually started gaming with Avalon Hill wargames (Tobruk and Third Reich being the first), but that's another story. I still remember buying my white box, mail ordering Eldritch Wizardry and a set of dice (the soft ones that saw the d20 turn into a ball after some steady use). Hell, when I started there were no d10s, the d20 was numbered from 0-9 twice. All the d20s were like that, there weren't any numbered 1-20 back then.

I have a lot of extremely fond memories of those times. There's a part of me that turns to OD&D in an effort to recapture the sense of those games. That part of me doesn't want to change the game, at least no more than we did back then. So, I don't want a lot of house rules or "outside influences", beyond what we may have been using in 1976-78. This included Greyhawk, pretty much whole clothe, but very little from Blackmoor or Eldritch Wizardry. We had zero access to Strategic Review, Dragon, or Judge's Guild materials.

Then there's the other reason I turn to OD&D. It is simply a damn good system. It does what it intends to extremely well.

(An aside: It never ceases to amaze me when people compare OD&D to other games on the basis that OD&D is all about killing and looting and doesn't promote role playing at all. "There's nothing in the rules to support role playing and the only way to improve your character is by killing things" is the common refrain. Then they will point to systems, usually skill-based, as champions of "role playing not roll playing". Funny thing is, these systems all rely on die rolls to adjudicate skill use, and the skill lists are usually quite detailed, as are the rules governing their use. OD&D has no skill lists, relying instead on player skill and role playing. Players are encouraged to role play their characters' actions, rather than rely on "skill" rolls. Bizarre.)

I'm honestly not sure how much of OD&D was intentional design and how much was serendipity. We all know it was born out of a miniatures wargame. There are references to Chainmail throughout the LBBs, and it is in fact required for complete descriptions of some of the monsters. So, essentially, the LBBs were house rules bolted on to Chainmail to turn a wargame into a roleplaying game. By all rights it should have been an odd fit, to say the least. Especially with so many artifacts from a 20:1 scale miniatures game making  their way into a game about 1:1 conflict between "characters" and creatures. Yet, somehow it works, and it does so in an almost transparent-to-the-user fashion in many cases.

Take for example the simple, yet profound, relationship between armor, HD, and weapon damage. In Chainmail a  standard figure was killed by a single hit. In order to score that hit a target number, based on the target's armor and the attacker's weapon, must be met. (In a sense, armor reduces damage, as a hit roll that wasn't sufficient to kill the figure is ignored. Only enough damage to kill is considered.) In OD&D this was translated as a standard figure having d6 HD and all weapons doing d6 damage. Thus, we set the standard that a normal man may be killed in a single attack. But, I digress.

My main point here is that for all the nostalgia that may fuel the OSR engine, OD&D is a fine, fun game on its own merits. It may seem antiquated to some, but I am very comfortable with its practices and forms. I have my LBB pdfs printed and spiral bound into a single volume and spiral bound. In that minimal 114(ish) page tome is all the gaming I need.

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