Recently I started reading in preparation for an upcoming 80’s nostalgia D&D night event the 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books. Although I had played the game years ago, moved to 3rd edition, 3.5, and then pathfinder until I finally came to the 4th edition crossroads, I kind of had a revelation from reading these classic books. I have sort of became enamored with some of the design changes ideologically between the many editions and I thought it might be interesting to open a discussion about the difference in design concepts and see what everyone’s take on it is.
The basic discussion is, how has D&D progressed since its 1st edition and which parts do you think are for the better or for the worse in newer editions, in particular 4th edition.
One thing I noticed right away, or I suppose I was simply reminded of it is how Tolkeinish the original 1st and 2nd edition versions of D&D where. In particular how little focus their was in the mechanics themselves, balanced or not, and rather the mechanics being influence on story where the core influence was middle-earth and the sort of fantasy version of Middle Ages of Europe. I have to say that as I re-read the books and started fiddling with character creation and in particular started reading the Dungeon Masters Guide and some of the classic adventures immediately I thought to myself how valid the game still was. When I conceived the 80’s nostalgia event, I thought it would just be a funny romp through classic game-play, something to break up our regular gaming sessions which consist of mostly Pathfinder and 4th Edition D&D, but now I have to admit that there are many concepts I actually really miss a great deal.
I think the big fundamental change between 2nd and 3rd edition was that in 2nd edition the GM was king and rules where considerably less defined and favored the organizer, something that intentional or not gave extraordinary creativity to the GM and in a way freed up the players to allow them to role-play in a more dynamic environment. For example when it came to spell research or item creation their where few core mechanics (at least not in the core rulebooks) but rather more descriptive advice on how to handle such things. While in 3rd edition we simply had a feat that defined to the player exactly how he could go about doing it. Naturally the GM could still turn down item creations by simply creating some story driven way to prevent them from getting components or what not but in all, since the player took the feat as the GM you were kind of obligated to let them use it, otherwise the feat is useless and the player is effectively cheated out of it. In this way I think that 3rd edition and 4th edition are in sense more mechanically driven and the power of mechanics rules the game considerably more than previous editions of the game. This method is used in a lot of areas in 2nd edition and in most cases feats or special class abilities clearly defined them in 3rd and 4th acted as replacements.
I think both methods have their usefulness but looking back at 2nd edition I sort of have to side with it mostly because of the role-playing implications. By having a more dynamic and less defined system, players are forced to say “I want to do this” and there are no rules for them to look up, in most cases just a story driven explanation. It sort of creates a sense of wonder and unknown, where the player is doing something that he will discover as the story progresses, rather than a simple act of execution of a mechanic. There is no guarantee’s for the player, each act represents a generally undefined action and the GM is not obligated to make it work the same each time, but rather is allowed the flexibility to apply logic and his own vision, but most importantly he can apply it as part of the story rather than just a role.
I have always had a hard time explaining or even making sense of why in newer editions of the game with increasing volumes through each new edition, role-playing took a back seat to ROLL playing. Then a friend of mine kind of summed it up and looking at the second edition in comparison, as well as other classic role-playing systems it clicked for me. My friend said that “If you give your players a hammer, every problem they encounter starts to look like a nail”. That made a lot of sense because in 3.5 but more so in 4th edition combat and combat oriented skills, abilities and spells became the focus not so much because the games don’t have other mechanics but more because combat is so well defined and clear. The greatest clarity in particular in 4th edition is combat resolution so of course players try to solve their problems with combat and the game effectively becomes a combat romp. As odd as it may seem given the vagueness of many rules in AD&D and that by design it was a dungeon crawling combat romp, it was this vagueness and lack of definition that drew out the dynamics of role-playing… aka players didn’t have a hammer, they didn’t have much of anything just the imagery and story that the GM presented. Their characters where more ideas then mechanical machines and so the problem solving and approach to the game was in a sense more versatile. In newer editions of the game, because mechanics are so well defined when there is a problem people tend to start thinking in terms of “what abilities do I have to solve this problem” and when you look at a standard 4th edition the ratio of combat oriented abilities for the most part defines the character.
I don’t know how anyone else feels about it, despite this sort of revelations I still really love newer versions of D&D, in particular Pathfinder but I enjoy the 4th edition rules as well though as I read more and prepare for my nostalgia event I can’t help but think about how some of the concepts from the original D&D that really made it such a great game have wandered off and I guess the conclusive question is why? Why have we as role-players come to a point where every concept, idea and imagery has to have a mechanic that defines how it works? Isn’t this a game of imagination? Dynamics? And most importantly role-playing? Why does every action of a player can do have to be defined in mathematics where in they know in advance their odds of success?
What do you guys think?