Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Completeness

A question on the Dragonsfoot OD&D forum recently asked of the forthcomimg print re-release: "Is it complete?"

My answer is no - and for all the best reasons.

OD&D was never intended to be a "complete" game. It had only the bare sketch of a combat system, and simple rules for dungeon and wilderness exploration. The three booklets barely reach a hundred pages, and spend a great deal of their time detailing the fantastic, from magic spells to aerial combat. It ends with the exhortation - "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" More and more I think that's a philosophy.

I've been looking at versions of D&D because I want to sit down and design a megadungeon on the lines I have been discussing here lately. That's mostly meant B/X D&D and Rules Cyclopedia, both of which I find I like. Particularly the Rules Cyclopedia does some nice things in terms of finishing the OD&D encounter charts - the ones in chapter 7 of that volume echo back to the ones I consulted in building my OD&D-based setting.

Yet after all, I still find myself compelled by OD&D for two reasons. First, its tables and charts and rules are free of dozens of revisions and sanitizations; they are methods for resolving things that were close to actual play and game design. Second, it's not complete. It doesn't have the neat little step-by-step methods of doing everything that Moldvay, Cook and Marsh worked out in their Basic and Expert books. Ultimately that stuff should be training wheels for the referee, to be taken off when the skill is learned.

The filled-out nature of B/X and RC D&D is something that I think manages to polish out a lot of the rough appeal of OD&D. I think it's clear when you consider the elf. OD&D had rules that don't really quite jibe with each other about the elf acting as a magic-user or a fighter depending on the adventure, which some people do straight up and others as a kind of multiclass, and so on. B/X solved it by making "elf" a class and requiring 4000 XP to get to second level. There's an elegance there but without charm. I don't really care for race as class, and prefer OD&D's flexible ambiguity.

One quote I like in Dune is: "Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife - chopping off what's incomplete and saying: 'Now it's complete because it's ended here.'" OD&D didn't express everything Gary and Dave wanted to put forward in a ruleset; but the need to get the game published forced them to move and put it out as it was.

In a way, that makes OD&D as complete as it should be. It's a complete game because it was chopped off where it needed to be, and what was essential was there.


  1. It's a complete game because it was chopped off where it needed to be, and what was essential was there.

    Amen, brother.

  2. I totally disagree. Compare OD&D with Empire of the Petal Throne, a game that was written less than a year after OD&D. EPT is complete, there are no ambiguous rules or missing sections. But lacking charm, no freakin' way! OD&D is incomplete because it was rushed. There's no logic to what is or isn't included.

    Take, for example, the elf rules. The playtest version had clear elf rules. Nothing ambiguous. When an elf reached the maximum level of his class and he had a 13+ in the other class (fighter or MU depending), he'd start advancing in the second class and could use the abilities of both at the same time. Just because Gary decided to rewrite that section and have it not make sense doesn't mean that the game is somehow better for it.

    1. I'm specifically talking about OD&D versus what is today called "classic" D&D - B/X, BECMI and RC. I prefer the open nature of OD&D, which was forced by circumstance - hence the Dune quote. A lot of the time a first piece of art has great elements that are there purely by circumstance. It doesn't invalidate that work.

    2. It seems that in the earliest days, their was no distinction between D&D and role-playing games in general. So a game set on Barsoom and a game set in a robot-infested post-apocalypse were simply different variants of D&D, not, as it would turn out, completely different games.

      This attitude is where I see OD&D getting it's openness. Not from it's crappy rules editing. IOW, OD&D would be just as open if the rules were playable out of the box.

    3. EPT has gaps as well, like how do you use those lovely skills you have on your sheet. There's nothing about how to determine success or failure -- a pretty big ambiguity. And it's organization is only thought to be good when you compare it to D&D. It's not well-organized.

      Now, EPT is an amazing game, with a fully realized world described in a pretty small number of pages. Really the gold standard for settings.

  3. I think that the fact that OD&D makes reference to Chainmail tells me that it's not "complete" without it. We had Chainmail to access back in the day, and it's a shame that the new boxed set will lack this booklet.

  4. Well said Wayne. I like the attitude of OD&D, how the gaps and inconsistencies encourage examination of alternate interpretations and different ways of running the game. It's great as a tool for DMs.

  5. Personally (just me, I am *not* trying to start a fight) I find the lack of cohesive design and editing rather distracting. I know that this is exactly what some like best, but to me that's mostly a form of esoteric mysticism: fun to dabble in every now and then, not fun to actually use at the table.

    I mean the most effective way to force people to house-rule with their own creativity would be to publish "The Role-Playing Game" and that's it, not a sentence more, just a title. Then people sit down to play "The Role-Playing Game" and make things up as they go. That's great for a bunch of game designers who want to spend time debating and trying out new mechanics, but not for people who want to have a fun time looting a dungeon or saving a princess.

    Note that this is my opinion *despite* the fact that I *really* enjoy OD&D as an artifact. I like its history, I like the warts, it's a fun thing to debate and explore. It's just not a real game for me. Or the other way around: I don't find it "complete enough" at all, but rather a "most fascinating draft" that should have seen at least another six months of design and editing.

    I realize that all of this may simply go back to my binary programmer brain: I like to have consistent rules spelled out clearly, not vague rules that conflict with one another and are shrouded in implicit references to yet other rules or (even worse) shared experiences from 40 years ago that nobody now has a good handle on.

    Sorry for the rant. Really, I am not trying to fight. Your post just triggered some backed-up thinking in my brain about what OD&D is for me and now it all spilled out.

    And you actually made me take decisive action Wayne: After reading your post and thinking about it for a bit, I cancelled my pre-order of the WotC OD&D reprint. I'd rather support smaller projects like Delving Deeper that try to stay really close to OD&D for the most part but also exhibit a good deal of creativity in the process. WotC is doing nothing but reprinting stuff they happen to have legal rights to, but they certainly have no moral rights to make more money from what Dave and Gary cooked up 40 years ago. I'll reallocate those $86 to supporting OSR stuff instead and I'll feel much better about it than I would about owning a fancy wooden box. :-)

  6. After reformatting the three volumes into one several years ago, I changed my mind that the game was incomplete. Badly organised yes, but incomplete no. I also came to the conclusion that Chainmail was completely unnecessary, despite the small number of references to it. It's now my preferred version of the game.

  7. I don't think the RC is more complete or finished than it's predecessors, it has just a broader scope. Which is, because of it's implications for the setting, problematic in it's own right (but could be useful when designing a megadungeon, I guess). The rules are also not necessarily more than guidelines, with some rushed ideas in the mix (Weapon Mastery, the Druid, to name but 2). It's nonetheless my go-to version of the game, because I believe there's still enough room to make the game your own and it's more than I might ever need compiled in one book. Anyway, either version is good for looting ideas and I'm looking forward to read more of your thoughts about megadungeons (enjoyed them quite a lot so far).

  8. How complete OD&D actually is depends on whether you're using Chainmail for your combat rules or the alternative combat system provided in Men & Magic. If you're not using Chainmail you have the following problems.

    *No initiative rule.
    *Certain spell effects (cf. haste, slow) require Chainmail to determine their effects.
    *Monster movement rates are determined in inches.

    No initiative is rather self-explanatory. OD&D doesn't have an initiative rule, relying on Chainmail. It's also necessary to refer to Chainmail to determine the effects of haste and slow, both of which affect the target's movement rates: the spell descriptions in Men & Magic don't have any information a referee can use to determine these effects without Chainmail. Monster movement rates in Monsters & Treasure are given in inches, but there's nothing that specifies what 1 inch is equal to. You have to look in Chainmail to find out that 1 inch equals 10 feet.

    The system, despite the presence of the alternative combat system, assumed that the referee had a copy of Chainmail and that all combats were conducted using those rules. The alternative combat system was more of an afterthought. The fact the reprint set isn't going to include a copy of Chainmail is bothersome only from a historical and collector viewpoint. People who actually use the system to game with, if not using Chainmail, have already devised solutions to the missing items.

    1. The assumption of Chainmail seems textually evident, but it doesn't square with descriptions of how either Dave or Gary actually played the game. Neither actually used Chainmail when they played. I think to a significant degree the expectation was that the audience was wargamers, and if they didn't have access to Chainmail specifically they would have a way to figure out these things on their own, and would probably make hacks to the system much deeper than we would think.

    2. The problem I have with statements such as the one by Traveller above is that it ignores the last word in the 3LBB, the final paragraph of the third volume, which encourages the reader to fill in themselves any perceived gaps in the rules:

      "There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing."

      The framework is there, everything needed to play the game is in place. If you want to add to "the essentials", such as by bringing in elements of Chainmail or other such "trimming", then do so. But such personal preference and inclination doesn't mean the game itself is incomplete. It's obvious to me from the above quote that Gary believed, at the time of writing it, that the game was complete.

  9. OD&D is a best-possible depiction of "hey, look what we thought up!" Most of you forget that this was First -- and that nobody knew whether it would be a passing blip (to be ignored a year later like many fads). Nobody knew that it would spawn an entire industry and tilt the entire field of media (TV & film). And nobody knew Computers were coming.

    After 40 years of evolution, we now have Preferences. Fine. If you seriously believe that They Should Have... (insert modern preference), you're unable to imagine these beginnings. Immerse yourself in AH & SPI wargames, sand-table miniatures, and the like for, oh, a year or so -- no internet -- and then you MIGHT be in the right mind-set to appreciate what OD&D represented.


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