Two good friends and I are doing occasional Sunday evening sessions of original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) over skype. I reported the first session here, and haven’t reported the subsequent four because … well, because there’s nothing to hang onto. Our second session ended with a TPK, but I think I didn’t report it, and since then we decided to move on to a different module, B1: In Search of the Unknown, which we have been slowly unpicking over three more sessions. We are following a pretty specific plan, which is to play the rules as they are written with no deviations. Basically, if it’s not in the Rules Cyclopaedia we don’t use it. So far we have tried two adventures, the one that came with the 1983 Mentzer Red Box, and B1. We have, to say the least, been underwhelmed, and at the end of the last session we stopped and had a solid discussion about what is wrong with the game and the system. Basically, we concluded that we’re really enjoying hanging out together (we live in different countries and regular skyping is fun) and the game is a good vehicle for that, and we’re having a lot of fun but mostly this fun has increasingly turned to taking the piss out of the game as we play it. This post is an attempt to summarize our complaints about Basic Dungeons and Dragons so far, and perhaps also a brief discussion of what it means that there is a whole movement (the OSR) that is evangelical about how good this stuff is.
So first, the problems we’ve encountered so far.
The PCs are all the same
Even with the Rules Cyclopaedia’s rudimentary skill rules, the PCs are all the same. If you’re not a Fighter, your attributes are basically only meaningful as an XP bonus – for example, intelligence doesn’t improve a wizard’s spellcasting at all, and dexterity makes no difference to a thief’s skills (which are, in any case, absolutely useless). So far our most entertaining characters have been the wizard with 1 hit point (because his death was so assured) and Lefto the Halfling, who managed to get enough hit points to survive a full power blow from a longsword (but still died because my wizard was conserving his sleep spell for when we really needed it). When you’re distinguishing PCs on the basis of their hit points you know you’re plumbing the bottom of the barrel. What reason do we have to keep any of these people alive? Why are they here? Why are we here? More diversity in PC choices and more effort in making them identifiably different at first level would make the game so much more interesting. I’ve heard the argument that in D&D you don’t invest your character with any special meaning at first level because you know it’s going to die, and you wait for its personality to emerge if it survives, but I don’t think the allegedly easy deaths are the reason (especially for fighters and dwarves, who don’t die); the reason is that the PCs simply have nothing to hook onto when you first make them.
The adventures are absolutely terrible
The two modules we have played so far have been, to put it frankly, terrible. The first, the adventure that comes with the Mentzer red box, is an absolute disaster that starts and ends with a TPK. The carrion crawler at the gates is such a stupid idea, it’s beyond ridiculous, but there is another TPK buried at the back of the first level of the dungeon, where your FIRST level characters can break into a room that holds two harpies. You get no warning about these beasts anywhere in the adventure, and for first level characters they are absolutely fatal. Even if your entire party doesn’t get caught by their siren song, their attack is way more than a first level party can handle. Now you could argue that this is just life as an adventurer, but this is meant to be the very first introductory adventure for people who have never played this game before and it is absolutely punishing. It is a prime example of what in Japan we call power harassment, in which the GM simply uses his power to bully the PCs brutally, and nothing they can do can escape it. I’m confident that a great many young people dropped out of this hobby after their first experience of it, simply because of this adventure.
In contrast, the next module we played, In Search of the Unknown, is tedious and stupid and not at all challenging. It famously comes unstocked, with a list of monsters and treasures that the GM is supposed to place at his or her whim throughout the dungeon, but the dungeon is huge and the treasures and monsters list small, so it ends up incredibly dry and boring – the classic endless series of dusty empty rooms. I bulked up the monster and treasure list and it’s still tedious. Furthermore, the dungeon setting is embarrassingly written in so many ways. The dungeon is the lair of two famous adventures, one of whom is called Zelligar the Unknown (even though we have all heard of him), and these two adventurers are incredibly arrogant and insecure – their rooms are full of murals of themselves, and statues to their own prowess, like cheap dictators. The rooms are terribly described, so that for example we learn in some rooms that the walls are carved in intricate detail, yet we are told nothing of what this detail is, while in another room we are given intricately detailed information about some random book (it was meant to be returned to the library!) or other object, ofttimes detail that is impossible for the adventurers to know. I’m told that the hand axe in room 34 has a split handle but I’m told the walls in room 33 have been carved in intricate detail that isn’t explained at all – this isn’t how GMing is supposed to work. This adventure is probably the first adventure that GMs will use to learn how to do this stuff, and it’s a contradictory mess of consistently bad lessons.
It’s boring for another reason too – D&D movement and combat is just not much fun.
The movement rules suck balls
Of course our fighters and clerics are wearing full plate – otherwise fighting would be randomly fatal rather than randomly easy, see below – so our whole party moves at 60′ per turn. That is, 60′ in 10 minutes. As I said, we’re following the rules, so we’re tracking oil flasks and movement and wandering monsters, which is relatively easy because we’re doing this over skype so we have a google doc. We don’t have a “caller” and a “mapper” because as soon as we saw that idea we laughed and decided to use roll20, so now we unveil sections of the map consistent with the lantern range, and avoid mapping. If we were mapping B1 we would be spending most of our sessions arguing about the mistakes in the map, because the dungeon is incredibly complex and hard to map based on a GM’s description, which is what we would be doing back in the 1980s when this game was released – another example of terrible module design, for the first independent module to be designed to be too hard for beginning (or even experienced!) players to map easily.
So we’re spending our time documenting these movements that take 10 minutes to move 60′, and trying to understand why. In a complex dungeon this means that you spend an hour retracing your tracks to explore a room that is literally just around the corner, and you have to go back to town because you’re out of oil. Of course this doesn’t really matter since this game is designed so that you go home as soon as your wizard has used his Sleep spell, but it hangs over us like this oppressive bit of pointless stupidity. Why did it take us 10 minutes to go around the corner, and why did we use an appreciable amount of oil exploring that room? This is even worse if you follow the original rules 100% precisely, which require one turn to explore a 10′ square. Module B1’s most famous room would take about 5 hours to explore, and would take two sessions since the PCs would have to return to town twice to get oil, if you followed those rules.
Speaking of which, Module B1’s most famous room – the one with the pools – is stupid. One of our players immediately thought of using the fish from the pond with fish to test all the other ponds, rendering all the stupid save-or-die traps immediately harmless, and turning the whole thing into an academic exercise.
Level-gaining is random and easy
If you read around the traps, you’ll find this general opinion presented that in original D&D you gained levels slowly after much struggle, and D&D is a low-experience, slow-reward game. Were this true it would be the textbook definition of bullying, since you have been given a completely cookie-cutter character with limited survival chance and been told that he has to go through a large number of near-death experiences at the hands of a save-or-die fickle GM in order to get that one more level that might possibly make him vaguely able to make it on his own efforts.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Because XP is gained from treasure and treasure generation is random, it’s actually really easy to gain a level by blind luck. We’re three four-hour sessions into B1 and we’ve hit second level, because we found a 1500 Gp dragon hide, a 1000Gp treasure horde, and a 5000 GP statue (actually the rules say at least 5000). And we were unlucky. We found a Green Slime, which has treasure type B – with a 25% chance of 1d6 items of jewellery, each of which has a 90% chance of being worth 2000Gp or more (incidentally, the Rules Cyclopaedia estimates of treasure average values are clearly wrong). This reliance on treasure for XP makes leveling up a completely arbitrary process, which either happens randomly and suddenly according to rolls on treasure tables, or is completely determined by GM caprice (but role-playing XP is a bad idea!)
Combat is boring and randomly fatal
Combat is heavily dependent on the position of the fighters when it starts and the initiative roll, which is completely random. If the party wins the initiative the fighters attack with a THAC0 of 15 (because of high strength and weapon mastery). If anything is left after they have done their job it attacks, usually with THAC0 19, unless it’s a TPK machine like a carrion crawler. Typically the enemy is AC 5-7 but we are AC 2-4, so the odds are stacked against the enemy. Occasionally an enemy gets a lucky hit and one of us dies, unless it’s Lefto the halfling who went through multiple attacks and who we left to die rather than waste our sleep spell because he was a henchman and we were going to get more xp if he died but if I cast sleep we would all go home with less.
This is not fun combat. Especially at early levels where everyone literally has one option – attack and roll damage – so combat is just a short series of hit/damage rolls with the outcome primarily determined by initiative. There is no choice of magic items or special abilities that would make your character have some unique contribution, nothing outside of the environment at all to distinguish between the vast majority of characters – at first level literally only wizards and elves have any unique abilities and they can’t use them more than once a day so they hold them back. And even then there is no wizard whose unique ability is ever anything except sleep (held in reserve for when a group of enemies appears) and no elf who hasn’t learnt charm person (because for some stupid incomprehensible reason they’re not allowed to learn sleep).
It’s also telling that the only time we bothered to not use combat as a solution to our problems was when we had an elf with charm person learned. There are no social skills, and all our enemies are evil, so why would we bother?
Important rules are completely missing
There are a lot of rules for basic things missing in D&D. The absence of these rules gives you pause to think, “Hmmm, we’ve learnt a lot in 30 years”. This absence of rules isn’t restricted to the rulebooks but also applies to the modules. For example, B1 is full of secret doors but doesn’t give any information about how they work or how PCs should find them or how GMs should manage them. Similarly, B1 has a couple of obvious huge treasure hauls but no information on how to treat them. The most egregious example is the dragonhide in room 26, which you are told is “immense” and has “brassy scales”. There are no brass dragons in Basic D&D, but the module gives you no information on what this hide might be worth. This same room contains a stuffed cockatrice and some dragon paws, but no idea of their value (consistent with my complaint above, other rooms give details about the monetary value of mouldy cloaks and component parts of beds). So I had to make this up (for those who googled “D&D value dragonhide” I went with 50Gp per hp of the original dragon multiplied by a third, and rolled hps for a large red dragon – the third represented the fact that the hide was incomplete). Why would you give the monetary value of a mouldy cloak but not a dragonhide? Ridiculous.
The most obvious example of this lack of rules is the problem of magic items. There are no rules on how to sell magic items, something that I have also seen presented as a plus about original D&D (who would sell a magic item!?) but this is something that makes no sense once you’ve played five minutes of the game. As soon as you get a magic item you don’t need that someone else obviously wants, you are going to want to sell it, but there is nothing about the obvious market that would result from adventurers surviving modules (except the introductory module, which is inevitably fatal because we want people to enjoy our game so we loaded it with TPKs as an advertising mechanism). Of course you could use the rules on the amount it costs to make magic items as a guide but – shock! – these rules are stupid. The amount of money required to make a magic item is completely out of context to its value. It’s as if there is no connection between the rules for magic items and how they are actually available and used in play.
Say it isn’t so.
Conclusion: This game is not an exemplar of its kind
I hate the Beatles, or rather, I hate the hype about the Beatles. This is the band that wrote Obladioblada, they aren’t good. But people mistake them for good because they were first. There is no song the Beatles ever made that compares with Stairway to Heaven or Child in Time (the video for which is a splendid piece of early musical beauty), and there is no sense in which the Beatles are as connected to the fundamental traditions of the English language as later metal bands are. But the Beatles get the attention because they were there first. I feel that Basic D&D has been treated the same, and just as there is a certain group of “connoisseurs” who have managed to convince themselves that bands like the Beatles were good, rather than just the first, there is a network of revivalists (the OSR) who have convinced themselves that D&D was somehow revolutionary for its content rather than for its timing, as the first. In reality subsequent generations of games are far, far better, and have added so much more to gaming than D&D. They have improved the rules (even AD&D did this) and added new elements of story, character development and GM skill and training to the gaming world. The truth is that gamers don’t want this mechanical dungeon crawl dice rolling stuff, they want story and character development and engrossing adventures with themes and purpose. That kind of stuff doesn’t emerge from crawling around empty, dusty chambers in the dark. It’s a purposive thing, that needs good rules and engaged GMing that is about more than setting up a bunch of rooms for hollow shell-people to die in.
I’ll keep doing my D&D skype thing with my friends, because they’re great and killing kobolds with them is fun. But exploring this game that was at the roots of our gaming experience has shown me that we have all grown since we started, as has the hobby, and we should respect original D&D for its originality and its explosive potential, at the same time as we should accept it for the stunted and narrow game that it was.