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Old-School vs Modern D&D: A Matter of Perspective

Ah, tabletop gaming. Nothing beats the sound of a heavy 20-sided die landing on its maximum value in the heat of an intense battle. The gentle scratches of pencil meeting paper, writing down important campaign notes or updates to the character sheet. The feeling of accomplishing the impossible in a fantasy realm. Today we'll go over a brief history of Dungeons & Dragons, and why some players seem stuck in past editions while others can't understand why anyone would want to play 1st edition in this day and age. Warning: this article is rather lengthy!

  • Once upon a time (1973 to be exact), there lived a company named TSR. They published the 1st and 2nd editions of D&D. They were mighty in the land. Many dared to challenge their hold on the hobby, or imitate them, but none could beat them. Then one day, a powerful group of Wizards (of the Coast) came along. Seeing TSR in a financial state of weakness, Wizards attacked and took full control of their old dominion. TSR was no more. Wizards said to themselves, "The 2nd edition was great, but we can make it greater!" And so they set out to make 3rd edition. There was much rejoicing in the land. Many fans converted, liking more the way 3rd edition played. New players came in droves again. To this day, they continue to make new editions of D&D. And they lived happy ever after.

For those not in the know, it might be easy to think each edition of D&D is just a rehash of rules updates and polishing of the previous edition. Each edition has its own place, its own niche, its own style, that is very different from other versions before it. Perhaps that can be covered in another article. The biggest change to the game by far was when Wizards of the Coast took over. It changed the way players looked at role-playing forever. The TSR versions of D&D is what we'll call the old-school design, and the Wizards versions of D&D is what we'll call the modern design.

"Where's the map? Wait. You want us, the players, to map out the dungeon ourselves? Yeah... I'm out."

Earlier this year, I got to try my hand at running a relatively new role-playing system called HackMaster (5th edition). This system was made by Kenzer and Company for people that love old-school role-playing, but want the polish that modern systems have. At its core, it's a very modified version of 1st edition D&D. I tried a few sessions with a group that mostly prefers modern D&D, and a few sessions with a group that has never role-played before. The results were quite surprising!

The first group, used to the way modern D&D handles social interactions, was caught quite off-guard at the lack of a "Sense Motive" skill. Introduced in 3rd edition D&D, it is a way for players to roll in order to read the body language of an NPC and see if the guard they are talking to is lying or not. HackMaster 5e goes out of its way to get rid of this mechanic. In fact, the Game Master's Guide even has an entire section dedicated on it. The players were confounded. How are you supposed to have a fair chance to tell the true intentions of the NPCs then! Why on earth would a company do such a thing? Frustrated with the complaints, I eventually made a hacked in Sense Motive mechanic just for that group, so that we could continue playing.

"Okay, rolling for Sense Motive! Does my character believe the vampire lord when he says he's not going to kill us?"

I scoured the web, confused on why one group had hang-ups with the mechanics while the other group was moving along just fine. In particular, I wanted to understand why modern D&D players feel the need to roll for things like reading body language or what their character learned while on their travels. Do they just like rolling dice? Are they just not capable of role-playing it out? I continued my research: reading blogs on role-play design, checking out forums, asking other players about it, looking at the history of D&D. What I found out was the problem isn't with myself or the players. The truth might even surprise veteran D&D players! It is simply a matter of perspective.

The key to understanding the problem of wrong perspective all comes down to what the different editions of D&D expect from the player. In the old-school systems, players are not allowed to know the rules. "Consulting the sages", as it was called, was a meta-gaming offense that could even cost you experience points! This gives the Dungeon Master, the person running the game, a lot of power while limiting the power of the players. More than that, the players are forced to rely on their own skills as they play. Without rules knowledge to help them along, it is up to the players to find effective means of negotiating with NPCs through role-playing and how to safely maneuver through dungeons. Through trial and error, players learn strategies on how to approach each situation. The eyes of the action are a first-person view. You are the character. Your skills as a player have more weight than anything you put down on your character sheet. If your character dies, maybe that's an indication that you need to learn better playing habits.

When Wizards of the Coast took over, all of that changed. Now players have full access to the rules. In fact, knowing all the rules is a very important player skill in its own right. The game mechanics ensure that your character isn't going to suffer just because you aren't the best role-player or dungeon crawler. Gone are the prudent steps you need to take to explore a dungeon. Now it's about how your character approaches the situation, not you the player. After all, your character is the one who lives in this game world and interacts with it on a daily basis. Certainly, your character knows a lot of things that you, the player, couldn't possibly know. The only way to measure how much your mage knows about the approaching werewolf is by making a relevant skill check. The eyes of the action are a third-person view. You are simply the avatar controlling your character. The character sheet represents every ability, skill, knowledge, and resource your character has. If your character dies, maybe that's an indication that you need to learn how to build better characters.

Old-school players like to call the modern way of playing as "roll-play". It's a matter of perspective!

Let's revisit the scene again. The players in the first group, conditioned to think of their character in the light of modern design philosophy, are irritated because there is no game mechanic to read an NPC's body language. Why? Because their character is at a disadvantage if the player misreads the situation or role-plays carelessly. Coming to this realization, they feel in the back of their minds that the hours they spent on creating a character were meaningless. What difference does a 17 charisma on the character sheet make if the whole affair is going to be based on the player's real-life charisma of 9?

On the other side of that coin, I wish they could fully understand my equally justified frustration. Role-playing is a lot easier when you can just act out what your character does and apply some common sense. It can be incredibly rewarding when you become your character and act only on what you know and your own gut instinct, instead of just relying on what number comes up on a piece of plastic. Nuances are lost, narration loses its weight, when players know without a doubt that the innocent-looking cleric they just came across is hiding something. (Perhaps a body.) Is rolling for NPC interactions necessary? After all, people were playing D&D for years and years, and never once had to make a Sense Motive check in their games. It didn't exist.

"You rolled a 5? Let's see. Yes, your character is fairly certain that this is a meeting of friendly minions over the financial crisis that plagues the nearby city. Perhaps your bard can discuss various economic strategies with the evil wizard."

If you're an old-school D&D player, why not try out the modern style of thinking in your next game? Instead of complaining about all the tedious skill checks, just think about the game in a third-person view and see if that makes the experience more fun for you. And to all the Wizards D&D fans out there, especially the 3rd edition and Pathfinder crowd: if you get the opportunity to join an old-school campaign, try to become your character, think like your character, and develop good playing skills. You already do this in a way. It takes incredible skill to build a strong character in D&D, taking the right feats and putting the right stats in the right places. All you have to do is look at it from a first-person view, and focus on doing the right things at the right times. Give it a try!

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