Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Devolution of Combat in D&D (a prelude)

Started writing a post about combat in The Grind (maybe I get that one finished the next few days, too) and this issue popped up when I started thinking about the reasons behind writing new designs for combats in role playing games. Paused, came to the conclusion that it's worth a post of its own and here we are ...

This is about many things

Devolution can mean several things, depending on the context. It could mean giving away power when talking about governments/institutions and it could mean a form of degeneration or even regression of sorts when talking about, say, a neighborhood that changes from thriving to drug-ridden (I go with the Merriam-Webster definition here).

I'd argue that both (all?) dimensions of the word apply to D&D combat. Most of us are aware that D&D combat started out quite easy:
Roll d20 to beat the armor class of your enemy and deal damage, repeat until combat is decided. Type of armor and ability to hit others (in form of bonuses) may be factored in, attack order may be randomized and the use of miniatures is optional.
End of story.

At least that is what you will find in those first D&D books. But the truth is, that's only half the story. I've just yesterday read the great article A History of D&D: Made by Fans by Paul Mason about how the fans of D&D had to  bring innovation to the game and those who somehow succeeded to monetize their designs would be called game developers from then on. But they all started as fans.

That article is worth reading for several more reasons than I'll discuss here, so you should definitely check it out.

There are three aspects in this piece, though, that really resonated with me: (1) the movement started within another hobby that had been at its peak at the time (war gaming) and full with creative people who must have been very able to improvise rules, (2) OD&D was never considered to be a complete game and (3) it must have been quite expensive for the demographic it appealed to.

The mixture of those three aspects made D&D spread like a wild fire, with just as many uncontrollable excesses. People started to fill the gaps they found themselves or recreated the rules from hearsay. No game of D&D, as the story goes, was alike. Then the codifying started, again first at the fan base. But TSR would soon go and fill those gaps themselves, which led, of course, to splinter groups. And those led to new games like Metamorphosis Alpha or Runequest. Innovation, diversification ... evolution.

So in a way, as this line of thought shows, it's the evolution of the hobby that started the devolution of D&D or, specifically as we are talking about this, the combat in D&D. How is that?

1. Codifying means taking control (away)

So in the beginning of D&D, everything had been D&D. Whatever you did it had been as intended by the rules. Need proof for this? Here is an excerpt of this first tome of role playing games, written by the man himself:
"SCOPE: With the various equippage listed in the following section DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored." (D&D Vol. 1: Men & Magic, p. 5, written by Gary Gygax)
D&D was, in its original intent, a guide to do it yourself. But maybe the game grew to fast or the call for guidance grew stronger as the game spread outside those war gaming circles that had been so used to the idea of tinkering that the need never occurred to anyone until it did. If you read the introduction to Men & Magic you will see that they assumed that you'll only have to invest into those three booklets. Little did they know ...

That famous first edition, in a museum [source]
Anyway, the game grew and got codified because the need for guidance became an issue (let's say for several reasons). More levels, campaign settings, adventure locations, they basically just expanded on what was there and it actually took quite a while before they started tinkering with combat. When they did, it came with huge changes.

This happened for the first time during the transition between D&D and AD&D*. At that time we already had several other, quite popular role playing games out there that did the same but with different rules. Lighter, streamlined variants, like Tunnels & Trolls or crunchier variants with hit locations and endurance rules, like Runequest, to name only two. So making combat more complex was, in a way, just a reaction to what was demanded by what had been perceived as a market by then.

In a way it's a logical consequence to what Gygax formulated in that excerpt above: the rules will get more complex as you keep playing. It's just not the DM who's doing the expanding, it's a company. And that's where you take away the control over the game. Fun fact: there are anecdotes about Gygax playing a very different D&D to the one he published**.

True or not, I think it's only natural to house rules a role playing game and to write something for publication will always come with different considerations (you know, like what is popular with the kids, what have other rpgs done ...) than just sharing how you love to play it yourself. But with the need to make the game a "brand" and with the decisions you make to keep it that way, you take the game away from the gamers.

So instead of giving the players a bare bones system they can use to build their own game, you tell them what to do. This has actually no other considerations than commercial ones. Check the history of D&D for proof, if you want. AD&D 1E was a response to what other publishers did, AD&D 2E was a response to kicking Gygax from the team, D&D 3E was a response to Wizards of the Coast buying the brand, 4E a logical consequence of the idea to milk the WoW crowd too and 5E is the flimsy (?) attempt to get the very productive old gamers back into the warm embrace of the corporation***.

So you see, it's never about making the game "better", it's about taking control away from those who play it, those who made it before and those who do something different. You play the game long enough, you'll start seeing it. Wait for the 6E marketing campaign to start in a couple of years. You'll see.

Anyway, knowing what D&D intended to do and where it ended up, you understand now that allowing others to tell you how to play it and you actually doing it (defending it, even), well, that's devolution for you.

2. Expanding without changing is also devolution ...

And yet, there is another aspect to the whole thing and, honestly, the reason for me to write the whole post. It's about that other dimension of the word: degeneration. We have the same starting point here and the same developments are the source of the problem, but the perspective is very different. Instead of looking at the whole affair from the control angle, I'd like to look at it from a system angle now. The questions here are, how is the game played and why?

So in the beginning we had a bare bones system as described at the very top of this post in italics and the advice to make it your own (as discussed in that article linked to above). That means players will have expanded on this as needed.

It's not about what is already there,
it's about what you add! [source]
Interesting story there, the combat system for Runequest (as one of the games that became a very popular alternative to D&D) was written by guys who game from a LARPing background, not from a war gaming background****, so their ideas of man to man combat had been very different from what D&D described. Hence Endurance and hit locations and so forth. It completely changes the focus of a combat on the system side of things, so there is that.

But you also have the "freedom" of winging it instead. Less rules will mean more wiggle room for players and DM. This can be a good thing, a great possibility to open combat up to the narrative and away from the strict adherence to movement rates and boards abstracting environments. Theater of the mind instead of all the war gaming trappings that are still pretty present in that fifth edition of D&D.

That lack of rules back then brought options and options had been explored. Check out this timeline of the hobby and you'll get a glimpse of what happened at tables all over the country (and beyond, but to a lesser extent and way later). 1976 already saw 10 publications very different from D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies & Burrows, Tunnels & Trolls and Metamorphosis Alpha among them. The Arduin Grimoire, published in 1977, is another famous example and maybe a better one, at that, because it could be seen as exactly the kind of expansion to D&D I'm talking about here: completion with house rules.

But making my point with publications is just showing the tip of the iceberg and way before something like market saturation would have been achieved. Meaning: this happened everywhere. There are still bloggers around that will tell you how different their campaign had been compared to the original game. Without something like the internet to connect and interact with others, it's only natural to get isolated developments like that.

The kicker here is, that's just background noise. It's important to see those connections and that there's a long DIY tradition in our hobby, but I'm aiming at something different here. It's before that very background that the people working on the next generation of D&D had to decide where to go with the rules. Very well aware that they couldn't change the core of what made D&D and always with one eye towards making a buck or two with expansions, they decided to expand the frame without actually adding to it.

Compare that initial premise for combat as I formulated it above with D&D today and you will see what I mean. It's all still there, down to the use of miniatures. Parameters may have changed over the years (ascending vs. descending AC, more hit points for beginning characters and so on) but that basic formula is still very present, 42 years after that first edition saw the light of day.

That's not a bad thing, mind you, and it more describes a state of stagnation than devolution. So where is the problem, you might ask. Well, the thing is that an incomplete system (a frame, to be precise), meant to be interpreted, completed and expanded upon individually, was made the default game mode. This got canonized so hard that people to this day argue that it was complete to begin with and that every iteration of this, every change of it, is sacrilege.

You'll read every now and then in the blog-o-sphere or on forums that D&D combat, played by the book, is static. It's something my players also told me repeatedly and the main reason for them to play anything but D&D was exactly that.

This is my conclusion: every combat option, feat, prestige class or whatever you'll have in D&D, did expand on an incomplete frame and not only without solving the initial problem, but also obstructing the original intend to a point where changing it would mean writing a new game. And that process of obstruction can be described as devolution.

So that was just a prelude?!

Yes, it was. The Grind will feature a new combat system. The train of thought you just saw crashing above describes my reasons to not necessarily avoid the D&D combat system, but to take that initial premise and develop it into other directions. In a way it's all still D&D for me or at least that old school mindset running so strong in our DIY community and was the original intention of that famous first set role playing books.

Innovation is what brings our hobby forward and to achieve that we'll have to think outside the borders corporations artificially build to limit us down to being nothing more than consumers or (at best) contributors.

What I'm not saying here is that D&D is a bad system or that it doesn't work. I've had lots of fun with several editions in my life and I believe I will have some more before I'm done. But when I DM it and especially when it's about combat, I will house rule the hell out of it. So, again: this post is about why I go and work on completely new takes on combat (and why I think that most big corporate game designs suck dice).

At least I try and trying is half the fun ;-)

* [Edit because +Tag Schatten  is right and AD&D did happen way earlier than the RC. Thanks for pointing this out, man] AD&D 1E and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia did not happened at the same time, but this is about what started in the end of the first edition and got started in the second ... the D&D RC in this case with its (optional) weapon mastery rules or AD&D with weapon speed and whatnot. But it's save to say it happened at this specific point in time.

** And it needs to stay anecdotal as I can't find where I read this ... maybe someone helps out in the comments?

*** Not even talking OSR here (although that's a big part of it, too), but HackMaster, as a revised 2nd Edition became popular enough to get killed because it threatened 3E and Pathfinder as a revived version of 3E is still earning a lot of money and was the main reason for the failure that is 4E ...

**** The history of Runequest is an interesting topic all on its own. The information I use here is from this entry. Enjoy that specific rabbit hole, if you dare :)


  1. Good post. It probably could have been two separate ones but I have the time this morning. The phrase that comes to mind is "idiot proofing" and it's the idea that the user is the weakest link in the chain and will screw up whatever they can screw up, as well as somethings you never imagined anyone could screw up. This is why instruction manuals are so god-awful to read, it's all the idiot-proofing you need to read around to figure out what needs to be done.

    For me, that is one thing that needs to go. Not only does idiot-proofing make the games blah to read and a chore to run but they also cast a negative light on the people who play them. You can't idiot-proof something without imagining your users as a bunch of idiots. Personally, I think games should be written with the idea that the user is of above-average intelligence, enough to realize that the game can be broken but shouldn't be broken because then it will cease to be fun.

    AD&D as idiot-proof OD&D? Yes, there is definitely some of that in there, but I think AD&D was scarred by the popularity of competition games held at conventions. I think the underlying desire was to create a game where a player's performance could be measured and used to tell the convention who the greatest player of the all was - something that everybody wanted to be at the time.

    AD&D was great in that it cleaned up some of the clutter of OD&D and presented it in books people could be proud of, but there also appears to be a hidden agenda to turn it into a sport which did the system no favors.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, totally forgot about the (failed) attempt to make AD&D a tournament game. Idiot proofing is a good one and you are absolutely right that it needs to stop. That and the bloat. 350 pages for a set of rules that would need 60 all in all? No, thanks. I think some of the popularity of the OSR and DIY movement is that people appreciate to be treated exactly like you describe.

      Yeah, should have done two posts, should have proof read it ... I have the delusion that I try to finish the things I write in one sitting. This is wrong and I work on it, but if I'm not done with something the day I started it, I'll most likely not finish it or postpone indefinitely. Stupid, I know.

  2. Did I write users? I meant players. I think all that talk of idiot-proofing switched me into website design mode :-)

    1. Good one :D Means the same, though, in this case.


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