Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Why D&D has Hit Points per Level for the Acquisition of Gold

The hard-working Hit Point remains one of those aspects of D&D that its players continually debate. It's not just what hit points represent. It's also how they increase per level. This post is about the latter factor.

In D&D, the older a character is, and (in most cases) the more injured the character has been through trials, traps, and monster attacks, the more resistant to further attacks the character will become, because surviving bloody injuries implies success and, indirectly, leads to leveling up.

That's how D&D has always worked: characters who have been beaten within an inch of death come back not with permanent injuries, but even harder to kill because they level up afterwards, which is normally what happens when you survive in D&D. (Yes, I know of many house rules that introduce permanent injuries, but hit points still go up per level.)

It's as if serious injuries just make you healthier. Anybody who has spent time in a hospital knows otherwise.

In early D&D, it was weirder, and it still is for those who like old ways: the more you get gold coins, the harder you are to kill.

How did ballooning hit points come about?

A prolonged side-remark: defenses of inflating hit points and early alternatives

The standard reply to the objections to the lack of realism in hit points began soon after D&D's publication. Gary Gygax explained that hit points are partially metaphorical (AD&D Players Handbook, p. 34, 1978). They represent stamina but also, "at higher levels," other factors that go into avoiding injury. They represent a mixture of "skill, luck, and/or magical factors." A character's level gains give more hit points because higher-level characters are better at avoiding injury.

The same thing goes for gold giving more hit points: there are explanations on offer. Some people like those explanations, and others don't. The main argument in favor is that it's fun to motivate players to seek treasure (and I have no argument against fun). But there was another, earlier reason that acquiring gold converted, in effect, to hit points. That's what I'm discussing below.

Before getting into that, I want to say again that there are a lot of situations in D&D where the explanation for hit points as avoidance capacity doesn't work even within the fantasy verisimilitude, as I wrote about once before. If two characters are hit by surprise arrow attacks--hit mind, you, not avoiding the hits--why should the young and hardy 1st-level adventurer die immediately while the elderly, seventh-level wizard, who was hit by an equivalent attack, have no chance of dying? Neither one saw it coming. Stuff like that disrupts the game rationale. For Gygax, it was because hit points may represent "luck."

Most D&Ders are content to hand-wave those problems. Almost fifty years on, the hand-waving still works.

It has never satisfied everybody. It was one factor that led many early players to develop alternatives to D&D, starting in 1975. Hit points per level was a feature not replicated in most other early RPGs: Tunnels & Trolls, Boot Hill, Bunnies & Burrows, The Fantasy Trip, Traveller, RuneQuest... The list continues and it is long. These games all have numerical scores representing how much damage a character can take, and they include ways to increase that number somewhat, but you don't get hit points per level that increase so directly as in D&D.

Other rules were created to circumvent the effect that hit points had. Critical hits, for example, meant that a high-level character was not apparently immune to the first three sword blows.

The games that began as close adaptations of D&D (like Empire of the Petal Throne and the Palladium Fantasy game, the latter of which evolved out of Siembieda's house rules for D&D) retained leveling and increased hit points along with that. Such games are very much a minority of the systems out there.

As far as I've seen, there are very few role-playing games that lack rules for quantifying injuries numerically. Even early divergent games like Ars Magica (1987), with its descriptive levels of woundedness, still treat injuries as countable (numerical) steps that have numerical ramifications on the dice rolls which give numerical results. As long as dice are used to resolve uncertainty in RPGs, it's hard to imagine that a purely descriptive, unquantified system is possible. (This excludes freeform and diceless games, by definition.)

The rejection of the rule that says that treasure gives experience and power-ups was equally widespread. Even the current edition of D&D emphasizes only giving XP for defeating monsters, not for finding gold. The insistence that GP = XP, once standard, has become reactionary and "old-school." But the "old-school" gamers have not had to fight to retain hit dice because the latest versions of D&D still depend on it. I have argued that hit dice are the main feature that makes D&D what it is. So let's look at the origin of hit dice.

The roots of hit dice: military ranks

Most readers probably know that D&D's immediate antecedent was a set of rules for miniatures wargaming on a table to simulate "medieval" warfare called Chainmail (1971) and that a "fantasy supplement" included as an appendix to those rules gave guidelines for using magic and fantasy monsters. This was not the first set of rules to inject fantasy into the reenactment and simulation of historical warfare, but its impact would be the biggest.

In the Chainmail rules, miniature figures normally represented units of several men of the same type. Alternative rules for "Man-to-Man" fights were included by which each figure represented just one man, giving skirmish rules. There were also individual Heroes, with a quadruple fighting ability, and even Superheroes, "double heroes" who therefore had eight times the normal fighting ability of a man.

The rules for combat were modeled on earlier wargaming rules in which missiles (guns and artillery) played a large role. Attacks were taken in turn: alternating shots, as with artillery. You roll to hit and if the piece on the board was killed, it was disabled or removed. Then your opponent rolls to hit with the remaining pieces. D&D combat is a series of alternating shots because its unseen, submerged template is missile fire in miniatures battles. (There are other ways to do it.)

The use of individual miniatures with higher ranks who were harder to kill was modeled on games in which military ranks played a role. This was a factor in tabletop wargaming for many decades prior to the development of Chainmail, as elucidated by Jon Peterson in his magisterial Playing at the World. You don't need to digest that encyclopedic book to get the point, though. Think of the successful pawn that gets "promoted" in chess for crossing the board, or the way pieces in the board game Stratego are numbered by rank, always defeating the lower-rank pieces they meet. (See Peterson, PatW, 341-352).

The Hero miniatures in Chainmail, representing individuals, were harder to take out than ordinary fighting men. This simulated their heroism. A Hero, having the fighting ability of four men, had to get hit or "killed" four times in one turn to be killed actually. Otherwise, he shrugged it off.

The rare Superhero needed to get hit eight times in a turn to be killed.

The idea that certain special individuals needed to be hit more than once in rapid succession to get killed is the root of D&D character levels, hit dice, and hit points all at once.

Granular "hit points" to increase uncertainty

Arneson's Blackmoor campaign used house rules based partly on Chainmail. His campaign was the petri dish for D&D. It was the game which first included dungeon adventures, as far as anybody has discovered. The dungeon setting took those wargame rules to a smaller scale. Already it had been popular among wargamers to use a 1:1 ratio for miniature figures (one miniature = one man). Similarly, in the dungeon each individual fighting man was tracked with one miniature, each with its own stats tracked on a separate card or paper.

Instead of letting each fighting man get taken out with one successful hit, however, the innovation was to scale those individual hits into 1-6 fractional points: hit points. This innovation, modeled on rules for naval battles in which sea vessels could absorb a fixed quantity of damage before sinking (as shown by Jon Peterson, PatW, p. 337), created greater individuation for characters on this smaller, man-to-man scale and also made the outcome of attacks variable. You might not lose a fighting-man character to any single hit, which would have been assumed with miniatures battles. Luck with the dice became a bigger factor. More dice rolls led to the feeling of higher stakes in individual personas. The playful narration of the outcomes of blows that did 1 damage versus blows that did 6 damage became more exciting, something for the referee to relish and to entertain the players.

An ordinary character's capacity for taking hits was scaled 1-6, and attacks did damage on the same scale. Now modifiers could be added, too. And the way would be opened soon for using dice to track damage and hit point scales beyond the six-sided.

A Hero now didn't simply need to get hit four times to die, but had a new figure, the sum of 4 six-sided dice rolls (Hit Dice!) that gave these more granular hit points. Still, on average, four hits would take a Hero out, but these no longer had to be simultaneous strikes. A Hero could take, on average, four hits in a whole expedition.

Hit points (rather than a capacity to take a fixed number of unqualified hits) introduced a new layer of uncertainty into combat, and uncertainty is one of the prime sources of fun in games. (See Peterson, PatW, p. 338, and Costikyan's Uncertainty in Games.) A lucky hero, whose player rolled high for hit points or whose foes rolled low for damage, might suffer well more than four strikes before dying.

The timescale of Chainmail was a big battle, but for dungeon adventures, it was a prolonged expedition, which might take more than one session. The use of hit points and longer sessions came with the idea that damage became cumulative, unlike the Chainmail rules, in which a hero must be hit four times in one turn to be killed, and healing after the battle was assumed.

Once the Hero (taking 4 hits to be killed) and Superhero (taking 8 hits to be killed) were scaled like this with hit points, and allowance was made for cumulative damage, it was an easy development to create the intermediary steps on the scale: a two-hit-die fighting man ("Warrior"), a three-hit-die fighting man ("Swordsman"), a four-hit-die fighting man (a Hero), a five-hit-die fighting man ("Swashbuckler"), etc. In D&D, the levels came with titles signifying not just potency but also prestige. Tracking hit points meant keeping records, but for small parties of individuals already outfitted with personalized statistics written down on cards, that was easier to do.

And so there were character levels, an outgrowth of military ranks in wargames. With D&D, individual characters could gain levels, and continuity of characters from session to session became vital to building up your forces for the next battle with experience. This was one of the essential innovations of miniatures wargames, whereby characters who survived one battle would increase in ability in the ongoing campaign (the word still used, increasingly idiosyncratically, for an ongoing series of adventure sessions in role-playing games).

Monsters and other foes had hit dice, too, depending on how hard they were supposed to be to defeat in combat. And then the clever idea was born that those monster levels corresponded to the level downward in the subterranean dungeon. Players could choose the level of risk they undertook.

D&D became a story of early-career individuals increasing in rank, instead of the wargame in which the story was about armies led by high-ranking heroes.

Why gold for experience points and level gain?

There are lots of intelligent "old-school" essays that attempt to justify giving power-ups (level increases) in return for treasure recovered, valued in gold pieces. The justifications are usually clever, but they are mostly retroactive, concocted long after the rule they justify was coined.

Blackmoor's dungeon expeditions were the first of their kind, as far as I know. But why were parties of individual characters going into the many levels of dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor?

The reason was particular to Arneson's campaign. This was an ongoing wargame campaign with many serial sessions simulating a medieval-style fantasy battles. Arneson's rules for this campaign (some of which was eventually published in 1980, in sloppy presentation, under the title First Fantasy Campaign) make it clear that this wargame was all about financing the construction of forts and fleets of ships, raising armies and paying for them, and developing one's "area of interest" in a long-term war against an evil opponent, the leader of the "Baddies" to the North, named the Egg of Coot. (This conflict is also part of the roots of D&D alignment, which I discussed previously.)

Heroic characters involved in the great war needed cash to support their war effort. Arneson mentions, though, that he encountered a problem with motivation. He says he "solved" this (FFC p. 3) by giving out experience points not for gaining gold, but for spending it on the development of the character's established area of interest. This might be the capacity to make war, but it might include "wine, women, and song" (suggesting a real degree of player immersion). The more you spent, the higher in rank your character went. Your character could store gold, but if it was ever stolen from its hidden cache, you might lose levels!

One of Arneson's most important innovations, therefore, was to create a scaled-down special game session in the dungeon not focused on battlefield maneuvers, but in which individual heroes of varying levels looked for treasures for their war effort, effectively cash bonuses beyond what their lands produced. The dungeon was initially an experimental side-venture. The ones who got treasure (valued in gold pieces) could finance their own war efforts better. The campaign--a military campaign--required cash.

This also explained how heroes got to be leaders, the original link between collecting gold and becoming a significant figure in the wargame, becoming an individual of note. Heroic leaders got that way by spending cash to finance their wars and to develop their territory. The story of how they gained cash was also the story of how they came to be heroic leaders.

This is also why the goal of early D&D was to become powerful enough to build your own castle (temple, wizard's tower, domain, etc.). Originally, in the transition from wargame to dungeon exploration game, it was not that the dungeon led to domain-level play. The game started with what we today call domain-level play; the dungeon explained how they got there and facilitated bonus cash for this purpose.

D&D evolved as a way to explain how the heroes in the tabletop wargame got to be heroes that were hard to kill in war (had more hit dice) and that had special properties, and got more attention, as miniature pieces.

In a way, D&D evolved as a way to create background stories for heroes, those beloved individual miniatures in wargames.

It soon outgrew its origin, however. Instead of being an opportunity to build resources for a wargame, it became a new kind of game in its own right: the hidden-map dungeon exploration game. It became a story about lowly characters risking their lives for treasure and power, not for the defense of their domain. And what caused them to become heroic? They became harder to kill. They acquired more hit dice, more hit points, just as in the wargame.

These rules were developed to explain and elaborate wargame mechanics. They were not invented from scratch to represent dungeon adventures as a new idea. Many oddities and expectations of D&D's rules are holdovers from this stage of development.

Arneson's alternative to hit point inflation

 Arneson developed his rules over time. In First Fantasy Campaign, Arneson mentions that characters who advanced did not receive more hit points, but became harder to hit. When struck, characters made saving throws to avoid the damage. Fighters' saving throws against strikes improved faster than those of Clerics and Magicians (sic).

In other words, Arneson's campaign (eventually or originally, it's not clear to me) had defense rolls against attacks. This is rather like other well known rules from other games: the contest of dice pools in Tunnels & Trolls and Fighting Fantasy, the "soak rolls" in Ars Magica, defense rolls in GURPS, etc.

D&D got stuck with hit points per level, one short step from being a Chainmail mechanism for miniatures warfare.

Another "hit point" alternative to consider: Flip the hit point/level ratio.

In real life, young and healthy people are more physically fit and more likely to endure and heal from physical hazards. Injuries leave lasting effects on the body, diminishing physical capabilities for those who suffer them. Middle-aged athletes and soldiers get hurt. They become less effective. They retire.

In D&D, characters start off comically fragile. It's even a trope of the game. They get more powerful and seldom retire.

What if you flipped this? What if first-level characters were given a large number of hit points (or Endurance, or whatever), and serious injuries shaved those off permanently, little by little, until it was too risky to continue adventuring? This solves the problem of super-fragile starting characters, for those who don't like that aspect of D&D, and has more verisimilitude.

Well, a lot of games do it like that, in effect, already. But if we insist on D&D, what if we give high hit point values to level-one characters, and stipulate the conditions under which hit point loss is permanent?

It could be fun. Give each starting character twenty hit points (or however many you think is fair). Every time the character's HP fall below a certain level (say 5), take two hit points away permanently. Certain kinds of attacks (like "level drain" or acid attacks or whatever) give permanent HP losses. Only rare magic, blessings from the gods, and the like, can increase hit point maximums permanently.

I'm just throwing this out there. Adjust to taste.

Advanced characters become better at fighting, magic, etc., but they do not gain hit points per level. Advanced characters who have been beaten up one too many times decide when to bow out, as in life. Picking a fight is still really risky and may reduce your PC's long-term playability. Instead of having lots of PCs die off at first level, you'll have players who want to ditch the PCs who got badly hurt too soon, because they know that they have a more limited duration of play.

What is a D&D hit point?

Hit points are a way of simulating significance in a story. Significant characters don't die easily. We want to see them continue. The more time we invest in a character, the more endearing and enduring the character becomes. The death of a higher-level character means more.

In this way, every edition of D&D, including the "old-school" varieties, is about story mechanics. It's a "storygame" in which the drama is expressed through hit points. One score, hit points, indicates more than any other, without any verisimilitude, how much risk a character can take and how important a character is by virtue of the character's likelihood to continue to appear in the game and the story it generates.


Tabletop wargames simulated battles between armies featuring high-ranking individuals that were better fighters and harder to kill. These high-ranking (high-level) figures were represented by special miniatures. The heroes, who may have castles and led armies, were there from the start, leading low-ranking fighters and managing fortifications. The heroes were valuable assets, a focus of special attention.

On this front, the innovation of Arneson's Blackmoor, and of D&D, was to tell the story of how low-ranking fighters got to be heroes. The goal of the game now, in effect, was to become the kind of figure that had castles and led armies. To finance fortifications and armies, gold was required. Gold granted leadership status. The dungeon was initially a diversion, a chance to find extra caches of gold, beyond the finances provided by the produce of one's domain. Gold in the dungeon was initially a means to an end: to fund a war effort and the construction of a domain involved in a long-term war. This was the initial rationale for granting experience for gaining gold. Gold made low-level characters into high-level leaders because gold paid for the greater campaign efforts.

Soon enough, however, the focus of the game shifted from the great war to the lively tales of quirky individual characters who preferred to spend their time risking their lives in weird and wondrous dungeons. Arneson began to grant experience points when PCs spent gold on their specific interests. This was a secondary development.

In the ways described here, the most basic components of a D&D character were established in wargame antecedents. D&D told the back-story for potential heroes and wizards on the battlefield.

This matched the fantasy fiction that players were consuming then. Whether it was the humble hobbit Bilbo who risked adventure and made it there and back again with a pack full of treasure and a ring of invisibility, or the barbarian orphan Conan who eventually trod the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet, or the villager Ged of Gont who became a mighty wizard of Earthsea, tales of ordinary individuals who became mighty heroes were the fandom model for the shift from the battlefield to the dungeon excursion.

Yet unlike those fantasy heroes who were mostly loners, the ordinary individuals of D&D now adventured together in bands, like a small miniatures battle squad, making for a more lively and social game in which each player character's function was ideally complementary with those of the others. Even here, there were fantasy fiction models, such as the Fellowship of the Ring, in which one of each kind of character was recruited for the mission.

Gold granted levels because heroes used it to finance wars as leaders. In effect, gold made a character significant, a hero, and so harder to kill as represented by more hit dice.

gold > heroic rank > hit dice > victory

Then add the initial steps that made D&D distinct:

dungeon > survival > bonus gold > heroic rank > hit dice > victory

Monday, August 15, 2022

Starting Equipment Packages in Older Games

When new D&D characters are created, you know how the players can be stuck for a long time shopping for starting gear. Yes, that is a drag, especially for new players who often have little idea what each new piece of equipment is for. What are iron spikes for? The delay to the beginning of play can be boring for players expecting to dive right into adventure.

The Prismatic Wasteland blog has an interesting post about different methods for determining starting equipment expeditiously.

P.W.'s post also gives a link to Necropraxis' post from ten years ago in which an excellent table is provided for determining starting equipment packages for OD&D characters. The higher you roll on 3D6, the better the package of gear, with one column per character class.

Inspired by Prismatic Wasteland, this post is just an addendum about the rules lineage of "starting packages" of equipment. I have some notes about earlier RPG rules that addressed the problem of starting equipment by assigning packages.

Maybe new attention to old models will inspire new approaches. It also illustrates how many early games that are not D&D provide much of the basis for all kinds of RPG play today including what is current in D&D 5e. Again and again, you can find that games other than D&D blazed a trail for practices that are mainstream today. The history of D&D can't be told only as the story of D&D editions in series.

Equipment Packages for New PCs in Early RPGs

Early D&D tournament modules often included pre-generated characters. Some of these had assigned equipment lists, especially when pre-generated characters were higher than level 1. I'm not talking about pre-generated characters here, but equipment packages made for starting PCs.

The earliest equipment packages by character background I can think of are from RuneQuest 1e (1978), one of the most successful early alternatives to D&D. In RQ 1e, if your character is a peasant, townsman, barbarian, poor noble, or rich noble (randomly determined with a percentile roll), you started with slightly different basic gear. To give just a few examples, barbarians would have "riding gear" whereas peasants had a "drinking skin," among other items. These bits of gear were just as much for flavor and characterization as utility, it seems, and they were not complete lists of equipment. It was simple, but this seems to be the start of this sort of equipment allotment by character type.

RuneQuest was also the root of "slot-based encumbrance," as JC pointed out to me here (in the comments).

In RuneQuest 3e (1984), the starting packages were developed further to correspond with culture (Primitive, Nomad, Barbarian, Civilized) + profession (which varied by culture). Examples are "Farmer, Barbarian" and "Thief, Civilized." With this edition, each Cultural Occupation had a detailed equipment list of its own. The appearance of a separate equipment list for each character sub-type has proved to be influential until today.

In 1985, Dragon Warriors did something similar to RuneQuest 1e, but even simpler. For example, Knights and Barbarians (two of the character classes) have different starting gear. Little variations give flavor: Knights start with plate armour whereas Barbarians start with chainmail armour.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1e) in 1986 had "Trappings" that went with each starting profession, which was determined randomly. Even within the lists of Trappings, some items were randomized. For example, a character who is a Bodyguard has a "50% chance of shield." The idea that fantasy characters started from humble professions that they left behind took off in RuneQuest 3e and in WFRP, a model still emulated today.

(The idea of background professions and trade skills in character creation goes back to The Empire of the Petal Throne, published 1975. This feature was already in the original manuscript circulated in Spring 1974. These backgrounds did not confer starting equipment but implied skills. If your character was originally a baker, grocer, or sailor, that implied certain kinds of in-setting knowledge. AD&D 1e emulated this background profession table.)

The Talislantan Handbook did like WFRP in 1987. Here we see dozens of fantastic "Character Types," which are basically race/ethnicity + profession bundles as character templates. Each comes with a list of "Equipment/Possessions" and "Wealth." Manra Shape-Changers and Sauran Dragon Riders and Danuvian Swordswomen each have distinct lists of Equipment.

I'm sure I'm leaving other examples out, but this is the early rules lineage of starting equipment packages and random equipment such as we find in Into the Odd and its offshoots like Maze Rats and Cairn. Electric Bastionland's starting "Failed Careers" are a parallel with the earlier Character Types of Talislanta but, in tone, more like WFRP 1e.

Necropraxis' more recent innovation (linked to above), with the OD&D revival of the last decades, was to randomize equipment lists within each class, instead of the original D&D practice of randomizing cash to be spend on custom equipment lists.

The makers of D&D 5e surely knew RuneQuest, WFRP, etc., when they created personal backgrounds that came with starting equipment packages.

Anyway, starting packages have their roots in the late '70s and took off in the mid-'80s.

Alternatively, make your own equipment cards

One fun method of randomizing starting equipment, particularly in classless character creation, is simply to make cards representing individual bits of equipment. You don't need anything fancy. Just write the names of articles of equipment on blank index cards. Throw a few really special or precious items in there, like single-use magical gizmos. If that's too much work, have your players take a few minutes with you to make such cards quickly together on the basis of published equipment lists. Then the players draw a certain number of cards as the Referee decides. You can even randomize the number of cards they get to draw: 1D6 equipment cards, for example. The players write the items they draw in their equipment list, or just hold onto the cards for starters, and you start to play.

Random equipment lists are raw material for background stories. Why does your character have a shovel and a bucket and a blast of wind magically trapped in a glass bottle? Players can have fun making sense out of random gear.

You could just write whole packages of equipment on individual cards. Players draw one card each and that's their entire equipment list. Then you dive right into play.

By this method, players select equipment cards and avoid duplication of rare or unique items or gear.

Using cards to distribute starting gear avoids the need to have everybody share an equipment table for reference, like that one page in the rulebook where all the equipment costs are listed.

I never read it, but it looks like the Index Card RPG has a similar process.

If you know of starting equipment packages in RPGs prior to RuneQuest 1e in 1978, or if you have other early examples that I'm forgetting or overlooking, please leave a comment.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Commodification of Fantasy Adventure Games

Commodification Signifies Value

My son recently introduced me to some card games that he learned from friends this summer. He taught me the rules orally on the spot, and then we played; he had learned the rules orally from friends; his friends who taught him had learned the rules orally. There was no game book to study, no examples of play to read. It was just rules transmitted as folklore and a deck of cards. We didn’t need to buy a rulebook to play. (He easily beat me every time.)

Now imagine these two different attempts to recruit young players to fantasy role-playing games.

In one attempt, you pass around colorful, glossy D&D books and tell them you are going to play Dungeons & Dragons, a game played by millions of players over the last fifty years. The new players see and appreciate the fantastic art on every page of the lavish hardback books. They see that you have invested at least a hundred dollars on these books. The art communicates genre expectations to them faster than you can speak. Even though it is so complex that they can’t understand it all at once, they see that rules are codified in a system attempting to accommodate whatever they might meaningfully attempt to do in the game. They trust that the rules are legitimate as they are in print. The character sheets themselves are commercial products with fancy computer-designed layout.

In the other attempt, you hold up a notebook and tell the new players that they are going to play a fantasy role-playing game, something you designed in line with a gamer subculture. As with a card game, there are no books to learn from. This is a game you imagined, with rules you wrote yourself, and you will have to teach them what they need to know. The only codification is the notes you wrote in a notebook and what is in your head. You have no artwork to show them. They rely entirely on your oral description of things in the setting to assemble any genre knowledge that they might apply. You drew a map of the imaginary world by hand, and you show them your amateur design. They know that the peoples of this fantasy world are just things you made up. The rules are apparently your arbitrary fabrication.

In the former situation, your purchase and use of a commercial product inspire trust in the players. They know that they are participating in a large culture associated with a flourishing entertainment company supported by many, many other enthusiasts. The larger the subculture, the less stigmatized it is likely to be. The game cost money and its physical and artistic production required effort, and has been tested by others, so it must be valuable—regardless of the quality of play.

In the latter situation, the players must trust that you, somebody they know personally, made a good game. It cost nothing and looks like nothing, so its value is inherently dubious. It seems weirder and more private. You’re asking the players to make a big investment of time on something that may turn out to be less than fun. There is no commodification to signify that it will work.

I can tell you from experience that kids new to fantasy role-playing games will choose, every single time, to play D&D, with its shiny books, over my scribbled house rules, with my lone testimony that my rules are better.

Even if it wasn’t fancy Dungeons & Dragons books, but some other obscure FRP book publication, new players will choose the published item over an idiosyncratic, personal game every time.

That is the power of commodification of games and fun experiences.

When I played cards with my son, all we needed was just a cheap deck of cards. It was almost free. The only way we could have made the game more expensive would be to gamble over who would win. That would literally add value to our play and raise its status.

Yet I remember my friend Ben and his own fantasy role-playing game. He had own rules, drew his own maps and pictures, and not one single commodified article in his game. We played in it for well over a year and it was one of the freshest games I ever enjoyed as a player.


Copyrighted Subculture and Marketed Sociability

When Daniel Dayan wrote a review essay of Gary Fine’s now-classic RPG study Shared Fantasy, appearing in the American Journal of Sociology in 1986, he addressed the matter of commodification of fantasy.

The essay is entitled “Copyrighted Subcultures.” Dayan had a lot of interesting things to say.

The essay as a whole shows that Dayan did not quite understand fantasy RPGs. He was pleased with Fine’s book (the occasion of the essay, a positive review) but complained that wanted to know more from the book about the contents of the role-playing fantasies, which he calls “its modalities.” He recognized that the popularity of fantasy RPGs had something in common with “recent Hollywood productions,” referring to Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, in which “one notices over the last 10 years a consistent reorientation of interest in accordance with the demography of a new film-going public, largely composed of adolescents and young adults,” “made very deliberately with such a public in mind.”

“One wonders,” he adds, “whether the games and films draw from the same sources, or whether the films are transpositions of the themes proposed in the games, that is, translations of the games’ ethos into mass culture.”

I think at the time he wrote that, it was a matter of common sources, but that the history of RPGs since then has made the ethos of the games the source of mass culture. This deserves more study and comment, but not here.

I’m focusing here, instead, on what he has to say at the end of the essay, with boldfaced emphasis added by me:

two last remarks, which have to do with the stereotyping of fantasy worlds, that is, with the fact that the various gaming communities have to rely on predesigned fantasy sets. First, a player must choose from the line of products available in a given fantasy store. The possibility of shopping for one’s fantasy world is particularly interesting and paradoxical. The world of fantasy usually appears as private. Here, not only is it made public by being shared within a given community of players, but it is somehow legitimized by the fact of being displayed. Fantasy thus acquires some currency, a degree of social dignity. It is less an escape or a deviation from social life than a new basis for it.

The second remark concerns more specifically the possibility of commercially acquiring the ingredients of a “subculture.” The sale of fantasy games accentuates a movement that has already affected interpersonal relationships, since for some time these relationships have been mapped in an increasingly complex system of greeting cards, joking cards, or even semihostile cards, covering almost all occasions of everyday life and offering to an ethnographer (under the brand name Hallmark) an extraordinary insight into the models that underlie this mass-produced “etiquette.”

What is particularly noticeable in both cases is the marketing of forms of sociability. If indeed it is a subculture, fantasy role playing displays a striking anthropological originality: its modalities are copyrighted.

With the creation of fantasy RPGs as commodities, players began to participate in a public fantasy that was legitimized by its display in stores and in catalogues. The more commercialized RPGs have become, the more “social dignity” they have acquired, as Dayan put it, shifting from a weird and intensely private hobby of mostly male misfit dreamers to an entertainment industry sold to a broad, eager public with spare cash to spend on fun pastimes.

When games are commodified, the money they cost means that they are valuable socially and trustworthy as recognized sources of enjoyment. The more money involved, the less the stigma is likely to be. If they cost too much money, however, they will lose adherents. It is always a matter of setting the price just right.

At the time he wrote this, Dayan was a visiting faculty member at the University of Southern California. He probably did not realize that one of his colleagues at USC was Prof. J. Eric Holmes, the editor (author) of the first D&D Basic Set, published in 1977. I wonder if he would have seen things differently if he could have talked to Holmes.


Consumers or Creators?

Tim Kask was Gary Gygax’s early editor and amanuensis, the first employee hired on at TSR, where he worked from 1975 to 1980. He was instrumental in the production of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In 1981, in issue 5 (page 4) of Adventure Gaming, a journal he edited after leaving TSR, he published an editorial with the alarming title, “Is Imagination Dying?”

He had a problem with commercially produced adventure modules and settings.

During the last couple of months I have begun to notice something that I find vaguely disturbing. If my observations are representative of the hobby as a whole, FRP is losing something. More and more FRPers have never played in any adventure other than a commercially produced one.

He understands that commercially produced modules and settings do save time, but he thinks they have lost their function as mere examples and models that would give incentive to make one’s own, which is what he says he considered their primary purpose to be.

He complains,

Every game store that deals in FRP games is overrun by commercially produced modules. All too many of them are prepared to too great a degree. Too many of them have already set out the goals and determined the rewards before a single adventurer sets foot in them.

He asks,

If we have become a group of consumers where will the creators come from?

FRP has always been an exercise of imagination, creativity, and extemporaneous thought, but I feel that the first two are diminishing. Granted, many who play today might not if there had been no pre-prepared adventures in which to get their feet wet. But how many of them now realize that there is another way to go?

He ends with an exhortation:

I urge every GM to try his hand. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t feel that your effort will compare to a professional one. It doesn’t have to, you’re not a pro. The only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it. Designing your own adventures will provide you with a level of insight into the game that you will never truly experience by merely moderating somebody else’s operation.


These days, it seems that everybody wants to sell their house rules, or their home-made modules, even for just a few bucks. The quiet pleasure of home-made adventures for home use inherently keeps a low profile. Partly, I think, it’s just that we have the internet now. Even the laziest adventure writers can publish a pdf without so much as a spell-check. Publishing one’s stuff signifies that one is a creator instead of a consumer. You might enjoy the privilege of seeing your lovingly-designed fantasy game stuff dismissed in one of those blog reviews (sometimes brutally... or praised if you are their friend), even though the reviewer will never actually play what you published. And, who knows? You even might get interviewed in a podcast! And there is also the endless dream of living as a full-time hobbyist (even though game designers often do not get to play). But generally, putting a price tag on a game makes it socially real and legitimate in the ways described above, not just for others but also for ourselves. Only with $$$ does the fantasy of today become more than private. It became a part of mass culture when it cost money, a shared medium of exchange. Somehow, that is disappointing to a dreamer like me, as it was to Kask in 1981, yet one must acknowledge that the hobby would be much, much smaller and lonelier without this system of valuation of fantasy.

The only cure is actually to play, and (again, with Kask) the only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

On RPG Play-sytles, Part 3: Classic Playstyle versus Trad Playstyle versus OSR?

In April 2021, a fruitful essay appeared called "Six Cultures of Play," by blogger Retired Adventurer, receiving a lot of deserved attention. It seems to have established some terms for further and ongoing discussion since then.

In this entry I address the distinction construed there between the earliest two "cultures of play" and how they differ from what is known as the OSR (Old-School Revival).

The essay rightly calls the OSR "a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition." For some reason, this instance of the claim (which is true) seems to have registered with gamers who read this essay while earlier, similar statements did not.

One reason for the growing acceptance is that gamers who care about these things have begun to digest Jon Peterson's book of late 2020, The Elusive Shift (which I reviewed here). This book is leading even the most dogmatic and grumpiest OSR-aligned players to admit that the neat "old"/"new" distinction to which they have laid claim, in favor of the "old," is mostly spurious. The distinctions between the play-styles called "old" and "new" today were drawn already in the 1970s (not by those names and not so neatly), but simply forgotten since then, only to be reimagined as a new issue in this century.

Another part of the success of the distinction in the case of the "Six Cultures" essay is its simultaneous coining of two other non-negative terms for older styles of RPG play: "Classic" and "Trad(itional)." This gave substance to the distinction: there were two old ways to play that were not OSR. They could be named.

What were the two old styles, then? Retired Adventurer calls them Classic and Trad (Traditional).

He describes Classic play as challenge-based:

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly."

He states that Classic play was articulated around 1976, when Gary Gygax began to define modes of D&D play, revising his previously expressed idea that it was essentially a free-for-all, do-it-yourself game. He did this as he developed the idea of tournament-style, competitive D&D.

Retired Adventurer describes Traditional play, which he says came into being in the late '70s, as about narrative (story):

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision.

 I have encountered discussion in forums since this essay appeared trying to parse Classic and Trad play-styles and to come to grips with them. They sometimes seem to treat them as two mutually exclusive approaches to RPGs.

My conclusion is that, although it's useful in principle to distinguish challenge-based play and play motivated by a GM-authored background or story framework, the distinction of these two play-styles is not valid for the '70s (the period when it allegedly came into being). Retired Adventurer is definitely correct about the OSR (it really is a romantic reinvention), but Classic and Trad are not so easily distinguished at any time, least of all the 1970s. They coexisted inseparably because they designate activities connected to two simultaneous pleasures of RPGs.

In fact, players were interested in emotionally satisfying narratives from the start, and DMs were expected to be leading creative agents in the generation of an epic tale, with players also having a large role in that. How would I know? After all, I started late, in 1981. Well, we can listen to older gamers and what they have to say.

Take this recent interview, posted by Matt Thrower interviewed Stephen R. Marsh, who contributed to OD&D, AD&D, and the X of B/X D&D. The interviewer's article is written in roman type, and Marsh's words are in italics.

B/X as a system is still played today as part of what’s become known as the Old School Renaissance or OSR. It’s an approach to adventure role-playing that frames it as much as a challenge as a story. Character creation is fast and players are encouraged to enjoy the difficulty of weak stats and come up with clever solutions to traps and combat encounters. The DM, in turn, has to run the game as a fair adjudicator.

For Marsh, this is partly a question of practicality. ‘The actual old school way of play was so varied that it pretty much can encompass just about any style of play,’ he recalls. ‘At the same time, the Renaissance tends to be purer. That is, people tend to be much more likely to hold to the rule set rather than mix and matching, which was more common back in the day.’

Notice the discrepancy between the point of the article and the point Marsh is making.

The article is trying to make a point about the OSR, I suppose to distinguish it from 5e play at large today. The OSR is characterized here as being about challenge more than story. This is a distinction that is drawn today, but Retired Adventurer locates it as having emerged in the 1970s as Classic versus Trad. But if we look at what Marsh is quoted as saying, it contradicts this very point in the article in which it appears. Marsh said that there was no distinct "actual old school way of play." The OSR, he rightly notes, tends to focus on rules purity, but that does not reflect just how it was done in the old days. (This also underscores the truth that the OSR is new.) He says people played in all different ways in the old days. This seems to be in response to the proposal he was asked about, that old-school play was supposedly specifically challenge-oriented. The interviewer seems to have gone looking for support for the new "OSR" idea, got a polite "no such thing" in response, but used the statement, regardless, to support the point that it's not how most people play today.

The article continues with a quote from Dave "Zeb" Cook, the third full-time game designer hired at TSR.

Cook agrees. ‘I'm not sure anything is genuinely old school unless it is arguing about the proper way to play the game, he laughs. ‘Ever since the start of RPG's, groups have played the game differently. Everything from style to interpretations of ambiguous rules and homemade rules for all those holes created a range of different flavors.

There you have it from somebody who was there: nothing is genuinely old school, not even style of play. Only debates about play-styles are old-school, he quips--but those debates have never ceased, so they can't be merely old-school.

These remarks, coming from early player-designers who worked at TSR during its "Gygax years," should carry more weight than the internet musings of relative youngsters about what's really "old-school" or the romantic back-projections of the guys who were (like me) munchkins in those days.

 An early Classic/Trad distinction?

If there was no distinct old-time play-style, what about the Classic/Trad distinction? The idea that storytelling, characteristic of the alleged "Trad" play-style, was a later priority seems to be contradicted by other testimonies. Let's look at just a few.

One is a recent interview with Lawrence Schick, author of the fan favorite AD&D adventure module White Plume Mountain (S2, 1979). Schick reminisces about playing back at Kent State with Tom Moldvay (responsible for the 1981 Basic D&D set). Schick describes how he and Moldvay were increasingly interested in collaborative storytelling after spending hours preparing each session. He said,

One thing Tom and I discussed more and more as our campaigns evolved was the collaborative nature emerging from RPGs. The more we got into storytelling, the more we noted that the game story wasn't complete without the contributions of the players. We spent more time thinking about how to draw them in, get them invested, make them actors rather than reactors. These were lessons I carried with me to TSR, and on after that into video and computer game design.

Several of the characterizations of their play in the '70s described here run counter to the common conception of the OSR as well as an alleged early discrepancy between putative Classic and Trad styles of play. They conceived of their games as including storytelling, plain and simple. Referees painstakingly designed their worlds in advance, plotting ways to draw the players in, in the style of now-derided "auteur GMs." This is what Retired Adventurer calls "Trad," but here it occurs seemingly earlier, not in the wake of Dragonlance (as OSR-oriented D&D fans sometimes allege), but arising spontaneously among players who were engrossed in their games.

We can go back farther than that. A few months ago, I corresponded with a senior GM who began playing D&D in 1974, a few months after the game came out. He was a big part of the early West-Coast scene. (I leave his name out because I didn't ask for permission to cite him.) He ran games two nights per week straight from '74 onward, wrote a continuous stream of D&D 'zine articles, and eventually designed some RPGs himself.

I asked him specifically whether his games evolved gradually from games about challenges into storytelling. He told me that the story or background narrative and the idea that the campaign was an unfolding epic was there from the start:

I always had a background to my campaign.  As the players advanced, they started getting involved more and more in the politics and economics of the [dungeon name] area. The long-standing "bad guy" ... turned out to be the brother of the king who ruled [dungeon area] ... The players didn't find out about this until a good 5-6 years into the campaign, when they finally managed to capture [the bad guy] and turn him in to the [king's representative].  The epic tales were there from the beginning with mine -- and while I don't recall the details of them, just about every one of the other campaigns I ran in had their own backstories, legends and myths (either nearly from the beginning, or becoming clear to the players by the end of the first year or so).  It was a time of great adventure and creativity; it still exists, but the totally creative worldbuilders are a smaller percentage of the DMs now (there are probably just as many of them, but the total number of players has gone up so much, that they're a smaller percentage and perhaps harder to find as a result).

In light of these testimonies from players who were in college when D&D first came out and playing soon thereafter, and who played a large part in the early development of D&D, I think we cannot posit a historical distinction between "Classic," challenge-based play on the one hand and "Trad" play aimed at an emotionally satisfying narrative on the other as historically distinct schools of play, social groups, or modes of enjoyment. The two were not distinct.

It seems, rather, that all early D&D players were prone to discover emotionally satisfying narratives through the initial framework of a dungeon adventure that soon blossomed into a bigger campaign.

These were not separate or distinct cultures.

I suspect that players who experienced D&D solely as a series of challenges (if they existed) were ones who didn't play with one group for long, not an otherwise distinct social group. Early DMs normally designed settings for their games, spending many hours on their development.

I'm not saying that it's not useful to distinguish the cultivation of challenges in play from the cultivation of satisfying narratives. I'm saying that they were never separate. I think that the variety of enjoyment deriving from these games explains why they caught on as they did. It's the power of these games to please individuals in so many different ways that turned it into a thriving subculture phenomenon. And to this day, players debate peevishly, and short-sightedly, about which kind of fun is original or "right." Of course, there isn't any such thing.

In my view, the multiplication of RPG styles of play was immediate. That is, no two groups played D&D the same way, from 1974 onward. Yet they all blended different components inherent in the new kind of game. The first effort to regulate play-style for D&D was Gary Gygax's. It manifested as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Here I agree with Retired Adventurer, as I do about most aspects of his essay. But it's pretty clear that the characteristics of what he calls "Trad play" were simultaneous with the beginnings of D&D and didn't appear late in the '70s. The two were not separate.