Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – System Mastery 50


Fifty episodes in and it’s time to be confused by the grand pasture where every weird sacred cow in this industry was calved.  We go looking for answers to the great mysteries of gaming?  Will we find them?  Or will be be stymied by clumsy vocabulary and bizarre decision making?

15 responses to “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – System Mastery 50

  1. “Hit points may look like they are a measure of your health, but in actuality they are a vague mixture of luck, morale, fatigue, sunspots and other random bullshit” is the worst thing Gary ever wrote. It would have been better if he just said that a 20th level fighter is literally as durable as a battleship instead, because that would at least represent something concrete in the game world. Unlike hitpoints, which represent nothing and give me as a DM no useful information whatsoever on what’s actually happening in my game world.

    “Don’t sweat it, it’s just a game” – no, I HAVE to sweat it, because I have to keep coming up with hundreds of descriptions for every single thing that happens in every session, and your stupid luckfatiguemorale points give me no goddamn information on what gaining them or losing them actually means in the context of the game world! You’re not fucking helping me!

    I hate Gary and I hate you. Love your show.

    • One thing I’ll say for Gary is that he was very straightforward in making his opinions known. He was very clear on the fact that this was a game first and foremost, and that many of the rules work the way they do because of that fact. If you try to approach it is a simulation or an exercise in immersive play-acting, then you’re going to be disappointed.

  2. AD&D was a great game! I never saw it as complex and I was running adventures with it in middle school. You guys would probably prefer something rules-lite like Risus or FATE, though.

    • Actually, I ran a few games of this as a freshman myself! It’s a fine game, I think we both agreed we’d play it if it was being run. Mainly our big concern is a lot of weird, unanswered questions. Questions we hoped this book would answer. Like, I get that demi-humans multiclass and humans dual-class. But why? What about the human brain stops it from processing simultaneous levelling? Is it because of balance issues with the level cap? Then why does that exist? That’s gotta be the dumbest idea to ever survive an edition! Where did it come from? What the heck does an alignment language represent? Why can the monk talk to animals? Why, if you’re naming the category yourself, would you call a category that has goblins in it “Giant-type”? These sorts of things are mostly answered in the book with “It is assumed that …” and I was hoping for some sort of game-world cosmology reasons!

  3. Great review!

    1) Regarding the general human favoritism in the game, one of D&D’s dirty little secrets is that Gygax actually disliked Tolkien. His nerd-boner was reserved for Vance and 1930’s pulp fantasy like Conan and Elric. He only included elves and dwarves and the like on the insistence of his players, because in the 70’s Tolkien was The New Hotness. But in classic passive-aggressive fashion, he did what he could to gimp demihumans to dissuade new players from making them.

    2) Much of AD&D’s weirdly specific rulings against stuff it allows, like poison, is the result of Gary doing what he could the counter the tactics used by the same group of players he ran D&D for over a decade (you might say they achieved… System Mastery…). One example is the ruling that Charisma limits the amount of henchmen you can acquire, done because his players got into the habit of sending hordes of henchmen into dungeons like lemmings. He probably made such a beef about archers with poison arrows because it was a tactic one of his players figured out. (“Poison is wrong and bad and bad wrong and you were a cool guy you would never use it!…. I’m looking at *you*, Rob! We all *know* what you DID!!!”)

    • When I was a kid I found AD&D incomprehensible, and for comparison, the games I was playing were early 90s Palladium, Middle Earth Roleplaying, and Red Box D&D.

      AD&D always came off to me like Gygax expected us to already know how to play AD&D when we picked up the Player’s Guide. It read like “We’ve all been playing AD&D for years, and we all know exactly how it works, but here are some notes I made on house rules I use in my AD&D game, and you, the experienced AD&D player, might enjoy using them.”

      And it’s interesting, because the assumptions Gygax assumes we all share have actually largely fallen by the wayside as the hobby has changed, and they’re harder to recreate than they should be working only from AD&D.

      PS – This is a DMG thing, but it always deeply confused me that monster movement was expressed in inches, because different maps were in different scales, but the monsters would move an inch on a scale map, no matter the scale. I mean, it doesn’t sound that complicated when I say it, but it was explained much more confusingly.

  4. If you guys want, I may be able to dig up the rules for what the military calls a “Kriegspiel” (German for “wargame”). Not sure how old it is, but when I went through it it was pretty fun – or would have been if the game controllers had stuck to the rules. We simulated the battle of Antietam.

    • Nice. Old school. We’ve talked about doing the H.G. Wells book sometime just for a lark, but Kriegspiels got started in like the 1810s, which would be crazy to try and review in a modern context.

      • I will see if I can get the materials for you! Thought it might make a good subject for your “1960s Radio Show” episode idea.

  5. Also, regarding hit-points being an abstraction, I remember distinctly a paragraph in the D&D 3.0 Handbook that said basically the same thing – that as a Fighter goes up in level, his increase in hit points amount to a little bit of getting tougher, but most it’s that he’s getting better at rolling with hits and ducking at the last minute. I can’t find the old book, but the internet has provided:

    “What Hit Points Represent: Hit points mean two things in the
    game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going,
    and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one. For
    some characters, hit points may represent divine favor or inner
    power. When a paladin survives a fireball, you will be hard pressed to
    convince bystanders that she doesn’t have the favor of some higher

    Okay, so not QUITE as spelled out as Gygax did it, but the idea seems to have survived somewhat. 2nd edition, I remember, kept the abstraction of a single attack roll for multiple feints and thrusts and such over the course of 6 seconds.

  6. Like with BECMI I took show notes while listening to this. First off, a reiteration, the original D&D was 1974, this was 1977-1979 (Blue box basic was 1977), and even that was based on a combination of a hodge podge of rulings Arneson made up on the spot, as interpreted by Gygax based on a 1 shot he played that Arneson ran (and Arneson complained even in 1973 that it was drifting from his vision. Edition wars predates OD&D’s release itself!)

    For the clerics, it says somewhere that dwarves and elves have their own religions, and thus their own clerics, but they would be made available for PCs at a later date (presumably he wanted to make them vastly different). They were made available in unearthed arcana, but they didn’t expand the classes at all like what was obviously intended.

    Demi-Humans are considered too strong by most ongoing players. They were obviously all intended to be used as multi-class centric (so single classed were pushed towards the more intuitive humans. Gygax probably felt demi-humans would be roleplayed drastically different than just a different culture of human they are now roleplayed as.) Remember, rules support falls out at about level 12 (fighters get their cap stone double attack at 12, paladins at 13, clerics get lvl 6 spells at 12 and nothing until 18), with only wizards getting real gains between 12 and 18. So either wizards sucked up to the rest of the adventuruers, or they solo’d dungeons after that point, or most likely, they were retired with the fighter (fighter’s 9th through 13th level are just about castle building, clearly setting up his retirement home, and likely not hitting 13 until you’ve done a fair amount of castle management, likely with low level characters adventuring in between). So when your human paladin is level 6, the elf being a level 5 fighter and level 5 magic user is really really good. When the fighter hits name level, the game is already telling you to think about retirement.

    Also, in defense of level caps. Something that bugs me about 3rd edition, is why is it that when you walk into an elf village filled with people hundreds of years old, are the majority of them still level 3 or 4 at most. Why are the majority of high level NPCs not elves and dwarves? 2nd edition settings made good use of the level cap to allow these cities to have all these level capped demi-humans without breaking the lore of the game wide open (1st edition didn’t care so much about the setting).

    3d6 down the line was the default way of rolling in OD&D, back when the stats didn’t matter at all (not even as much as they do in becmi). They were roleplaying guides and so lows and highs and averages were better as roleplaying guides. Once the stats mattered, then being above average was more important.

    There were stronger poisons in the DM’s book that Gygax wanted to make use of. Also Blackmoor had assassins that Gygax wanted ported over, and because Gygax wanted the assassins to still get poison, he wanted the NPCs to still get poison, and it never occurred to him that he could just say “these are restricted to the DM and assassins, don’t use these.”

    Mapping by hand allows you to hide secret rooms (basically impossible if the DM gives you the map), allows the party to explore and get lost. and allows natural winding caves to be their own danger. Remember, Gygax’s AD&D 1st edition was about going into dungeons, staying alive, finding and getting a big haul of treasure, and getting out. There was no goal of clearing a dungeon, and usually no goal of stopping the big bad evil guy. so locating a treasure and backtracking was very much part of the game.

    Barbarian as in Unearthed Arcana (along with the cavalier and the paladin being converted over). So it was in 1st, but not as a core class.

    There is nothing evil about a merchant responding to inflation. If more gold is available in the town, it isn’t worth as much because you can’t just drive over to a metropolis and redistribute it into various other kinds of wealth, this meant gold was less valuable, and everything else was more expensive. This also encouraged not spending a huge amount of time in any given town unless it was the size of the city of Greyhawk. Since it was the DM’s call on when those effects happened, it meant the DM could go “hmmm, I don’t have much more room on this minimap, so I should encourage them to go to a new location where placing dungeons will be easier”. (also, towns were usually ruled by a name level PC classed NPC, who protected the town, so a player couldn’t just rip off merchants). Sell price ripoffs were just stupid (especially since gems could just be kept as currency). However, it really didn’t matter since after lvl 1 until lvl 9, all your cash was either being horded or spent on training and automated monthly expenses. The prices for petty goods was pretty insignificant.

    On the lack of editing, the publisher said they would edit it. However, when they got the manuscript, they couldn’t understand ‘Gygaxian prose’ so they just left it completely unedited and published it rather than risk messing with something they didn’t understand.

    Also, it is interesting to think of what the two creators thought of the game as. Arneson’s adventure was a defense of the town wargame scenario, with a lot of players playing NPCs with their own motivations mixed in. The dungeon under Blackmoor was so they could collect artifacts without leaving town (and this proceeded to be too alluring, as everyone went down and left the town undefended, and thus destroyed). He also saw himself as a referee arbitrating between players themselves, and players with the environment.

    Gygax on the other hand, clearly inspired by the one shot Arneson ran, and likely still viewing the game as a variant or spinoff of chainmail (the evidence of this is lacking, and mixed), saw it as a 1 character per player cooperative wargame, with the dungeon as the main fixture (especially the mega dungeon, like Gygax castle had.) As such, it was built clearly with wargamers in mind. There were fixed victory points (gold value), fixed victory conditions (name level, with some after game stuff). There were constraints (there were monthly expenses). There was a caller as your ‘army’ coordinator (I already said in BECMI I still use this. DM has far far more stuff to keep track of than players do. Having 1 central caller saying what were ideas and what were just suggested options and reporting it keeps things focused and organized, especially in the 8 player games of 1st edition [caller reports what players do, does not decide for them]). You were meant to operate as a group while adventuring (divisions of an army don’t have different goals in a battle).

    For that matter, even out of adventure stuff was hyper focused on things that mattered to adventuruers, clearly having a wargamer this matters this doesn’t approach. The rules of “you can’t build a castle before this point” is a game rule, like “armies can’t march faster than this”. so “what if they do” doesn’t apply, in the wargame context. Also, virtually all of the actual gameplay rules are in the DMG as it went with the standard for refereed wargames of “your army can try anything, the ref has to use their judgement and tools”

    Time was also the key enemy for lack of an active antagonist. So healing times mattered, and most players had multiple characters (even if you stayed healthy with clerics, your character still trained for a long long time). Monthly expenses were substantial (150 gold per month per level, I think. high level characters were expected to live like a high level character, otherwise they wouldn’t get tips about high level treasure). Time passed even when characters weren’t around, as there were likely 12+ players for 1 DM, with conflicting shcedules, and so an ongoing world was always ongoing.

    Things that you missed. Combat was a horrible mess (you can’t move and attack without charging, charging goes to the longest weapon, all other times it goes to initiative, with tied initiative going to speed factors with multiple attacks possible in some cases if initiative is tied, weapons each had their own modifiers for every armour class TYPE which was not the same thing as the armour class. All weapons had width which determined how many people could be in front in a narrow hallway). and the ridiculous prices on training (2000 gold per level you were leaving. which meant level 1 thieves could not level up until they had substantially more gold. Training times were 1 week per level you were. no xp gained until you trained). The game expected you to write a will to a future character. (remember when talking about death. Making a new character for a 1st edition game takes less than 1/4 the time it takes for a 3rd edition or later game. Exponential xp meant low level characters got up to level much faster when grouped with a high level character. So death was less meaningful of a penalty, and so could afford to be more plentiful. 1st edition was probably overboard on how much death, but later editions are probably too far the other way, with players doing dumb things because “it would be funny/my character would totally do this in a life threatening situation” because they know out of game, there is a very low chance they will ACTUALLY die from it, so it isn’t REALLY a life threatening situation until multiple things go wrong. They had to be less common about deaths because making a 3rd or 4th edition character takes 20 minutes at the fastest, with an hour more likely (and some taking 3 hours) 1st edition takes 20 minutes at the longest, with 10 minutes likely average.

    No one is going to read all this, but I wanted to give you all historical notes and gameplay notes.

  7. 1E was phenomenal for its time. Gygax was big on making house rulings and homebrewing. You just hand wave the stupid crap. The game is clearly a patchwork of rpg ingenuity.
    Just cause i found the declaration jarring, taking a share of the treasure you didn’t work for is socialism not capitalism. Redistribution of treasure regardless of effort is welfare.

  8. Thank you for reminding me about alignment languages! Amazing!

    My own two favorite terrible rules were the Potion Miscibility Table–which determines what happens if you happen to be under the influence of two magic potions at once, because of course they can’t just both work. WE NEED A PERCENTAGE CHART WITH LOTS OF OPTIONS! And then there was the Object Saving Throw Table. Whenever characters were engulfed in some effect–a fireball, swimming, even a petrification spell–you were supposed to roll a separate saving throw for EVERY SINGLE OBJECT A CHARACTER POSSESSED to see if your healing scroll got burned up or your material components or magic sword washed away.

    I understand why you didn’t mention it, but Illusionists had their own set of spells! And they were so shitty!

    Final note: The thing that strikes me the most when I look back at 1e is how freaking obsessed they were with randomness and uncertainy. If you summon a creature, you don’t know what you’ll wind up summoning. There’s a chart for that. If you cast Prismatic Spray, there’s no telling which colors of beams will hit which people. There’s a chart for that. Will a dragon be asleep? Thank goodness we know the odds!

    And oh my god! Wandering monsters! Treasure types!

    I would LOVE to listen to an actual-play RPG podcast where they play 1st edition and use ALL the rules.

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