Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"I'm writing this essay to set the record straight."

Over at Grognardia James Maliszewski recently noted that OD&D was not written for general consumption, but primarily for an audience of wargamers. A big conceptual leap from OD&D to Basic and Advanced is the assumption that the people reading the text might not know anything about inches of movement and initiative and crap like that. I pretty much agree with Jamie Mal on this one. But one commenter disputed whether being a hex-and-chit wonk really helped make OD&D more understandable:
- Oh yeah, and I don't think people 'just got it' because of the common culture either. Ken St. Andre wrote T&T because he couldn't even figure out the rules, just the idea of dungeon crawling, and he was a fantasy wargamer of the time.
Now, I don't disagree with the general point that it was possible to be a wargamer and not understand D&D when it came out. Clearly there were plenty of misunderstandings. Anybody got a handy link to the early review where the dude thought it was played over the phone or something? I can't find it at the moment.

But I want to protest against the notion that Ken St. Andre wrote T&T because he couldn't figure out the rules to D&D. I've heard that one before and I don't think it holds up. The title of this post is the first line of a short essay written by St. Andre and appearing in Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (Prometheus Books, 1991). Here's a lengthy quote:
Someone brought a copy of the original boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons to a gaming get-together in Scottsdale. No one knew how to play it. The owner was off playing some Avalon Hill wargame, so I sat down with his rules and began reading. I read for about an hour and a half, alternating between feelings of "this is nutty" and "this is great." There was much I did not understand. For example, why have both inteeligence and wisdom? Weren't they pretty much the same thing? Why bother with all these many-sided dice? How was I, or any other normal human being, going to acquire four-, eight- and twenty-sided dice? They didn't exist!

Yes, I was pretty confused that April evening, but there were a few things that had gotten through. You described your player characters by rolling three dice, you could arm them with weapons that also rolled dice, and you took them into a hole in thr gound to fight monsters and collect treasure. I couldn't play Gygax's game, but I could write one of my own that would make more sense.

Since I was both out of school and out of work, I had time to do it. For the next three days I worked feverishly to put together a rough draft of my version of Dungeons & Dragons. It was written largely as a revolt against Gygax's game. First to go were the funny-sided dice--my game would use all six-sided, which can be obtained from any old Monoploy or Yahtzee game. Next, let's get rid of clerics. Religion was not very important in my life, so why should it clutter up my game? Next, I changed Wisdom to Luck. I didn't understand the function of Wisdom, but Luck was something that everyone needed. Next to go was alignment. Why should characters be Good, Evil, Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral? In the real world people made their own choices and characters. Hit points? Why bother? Characters already had an attribute called Constitution that would do just as well. Armor class making things more difficult to hit? I didn't understand that at all. Armor obviously would take a fixed amount of damage depending on how good the armor was. Magic? Yes, there must be magic, but I really didn't get into Gygax's magic system.
I know he explictly says "There was much I did not understand." and "I was pretty confused", but he also criticizes specific mechanics. That doesn't sound to me like a fellow who can't make heads or tails of the rules. What I see is someone who has digested the game sufficiently to question specific design decisions. In terms of the ongoing 'grand debate' regarding whether OD&D sucks or not, St. Andre's grasp of the rules back in 1975 is a trifling point. I just wanted to lay my position on the table because I think the other interpretation sells Mr. St. Andre short. The dude was smart enough to spend 90 minutes with OD&D and then crank out a nifty rpg like Tunnels & Trolls over a long weekend. Everyone should give the guy a little credit.