Sunday 29 May 2011

A comparison of old and new D&D

I was recently asked by the guy who's organising the con I'm running a game at if I'd like to write something about old-school RPGs for their blog. At first I wasn't sure what to write, as I'm not the great philosopher type, but then I thought I'd simply write about my own experiences with various editions of D&D, and the things I prefer about the older style. For the interest of readers of this blog, here's what I wrote!

(By the way, I just realised that this is probably my first ever "OSR philosophy" post on this blog! ;)

Back to the old-school!

A comparison of old and new D&D

As a long-time D&D player who has returned to playing a 30 years old version of the game, I thought it would be interesting to write a bit about my experiences with the venerable game, and why I'm now so much happier to be playing a very early incarnation of it.

A bit of background to my experiences with D&D: I started playing in the early 1980s, with the Basic / Expert sets. AD&D was also around at this time, and while I did buy a couple of the books I found them a bit overwhelming at that young age, and only got into AD&D when the second edition came out. I played "2e" a lot during my teens, and then gradually drifted away from roleplaying in my twenties.

When I returned to the hobby several years ago, D&D 4 was the big new thing. I duly tried it out, and also tried out the 3rd edition, and Pathfinder. The games I played were fun, sure, but somehow I found that none of these versions of the game really had that spark which the older editions had.

So here are a few thoughts on the differences I've found between the older and newer styles of D&D, and why my personal preference lies with the old. (I'm sure a lot of people prefer the newer style, and I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything here, just expressing my love of “the old ways”.)

The defining factor seems to be the terseness and sparsity of the older D&D rules, especially if you look at the original version of the game (OD&D) or the basic game which was released during the late 1970s to early 1980s. They don't cover very much, and rarely go into much depth. Later versions of the game progressively filled in these gaps (whether with the minutiae of AD&D, or the systemic rationalisation and "core mechanics" of D&D 3 / 4). However the early game solved the issue of "how to determine what happens in situation X" in a very different way: make something up on the spot! Need to know if a character can jump over a pit (there's no jumping skill)? – the DM has many options: just say yes, just say no way, roll vs DEX, give a 2 in 6 chance, etc. Completely dependant on the situation at hand.

There are many things about this system (or lack of system!), which create a play experience which I personally enjoy very much.

This is not a game of rules. The lack of specific rules and reliance on the DM to make improvised "rulings", rather than relying on pre-defined "rules", brings home an extremely important feature of old-school RPGs: the atmosphere of the game is far more immersive and mysterious if the players are thinking in terms of being their character, rather than in terms of what they're allowed to do by the rules. That's why in AD&D, for example, the players handbook only has rules for creating characters. All the other rules of the game are in the dungeon masters guide.

Improvisation. One of the things I enjoy most about the roleplaying hobby as a whole is the act of making stuff up on the spot with a group of people. It's much more fun than looking things up in books :)

Growing characters vs character builds. When the procedure for character creation is as simple as: 1. roll ability scores in order, 2. choose a class, 3. buy equipment, there's no room for the mechanical tweaking which has come to be known in later editions as "character builds" (which is, I believe, something of a game in itself!). This further brings home the fact that this game is not about rules and mechanics. Your character is differentiated from others by how you play him / her, and what experiences you go through with the character in the game, not by what numbers you have written on your character sheet. In effect you're growing or "building" your character as you play.

Less is more. Another effect of this lack of mechanically stated character options is that it actually in practice tends to give characters more options, flexibility and creativity. Characters are free to try things which, in more rules-strict editions of the game, they just wouldn't bother with, due to perhaps not having enough ranks in a certain skill, or not knowing a certain feat. As a result the game tends to feel a lot more open and free-form.

Saying yes. The lack of specific character abilities, in terms of “skills” or “feats”, has another, perhaps surprising, side-effect: it allows the DM to simply let characters do cool stuff, when appropriate. Can my wizard read the ancient magical script of the Zagdobar people? Of course he can! (As opposed to: well, let me see, how many ranks do you have in read languages?) Can my fighter do a spinning attack and try to hit the three temple guards surrounding him? He can try for sure! – make a DEX check, and if you succeed you can make an attack roll at -2 for each of them. (As opposed to: well, let me see, isn't there a feat for that?) This point can be especially relevant where success at a certain action is important for the progression of a story.

Saying no. Of course, the other side of the coin is that if a player hasn't got specific abilities written down, then the DM is equally likely to just say “no way”. Common sense generally prevails.

Making the game your own. When the "official rule book" is ambiguous and vague, DMs have a chance to interpret as necessary and as they see fit. This can give each campaign a unique flavour, as rules are interpreted in different ways.

Rules where necessary. The lack of specifics in the rule books allows the DM to expand them, if areas come up during play which are important enough to demand further rules. The end effect is that you're starting from a very rules-light system, and expanding it if needed, rather than trying to comprehend or cut down a very rules-heavy system. For example, the "official rules" for wizards creating magic items say little more than "it's up to the DM how much it costs, how long it takes, and what components or equipment are needed". If a particular group feels like this is too vague, then they can come up with something that suits their campaign. (Though I feel that this system is absolutely perfect as it is, as it allows the DM to suggest something completely tailored to the character in question.)

So that covers, in my experience, some of the big differences in style between older and newer editions of D&D. If anyone also finds this kind of style appealing, I'll be running a Labyrinth Lord game at BurgCon 20, come and join in!


  1. Very well summarized, I wholeheartedly agree with your points here.

  2. We'll try and make an appearance as well Gavin!


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