As I write, it's a sunday morning and I'm digging back into a glimmer of a thought I had.
It's just a feeling on the edges of my consciousness.
I'd like to say that I am super genius boy, but I'm not. I keep learning things from the guys: Ara Winter, Dan Boggs, Michael Wittig, and the new guy Michael Calleia.
The research team that has been working to make sure Secrets of Blackmoor is factual, has extensive conversations about game theory. They end up being these expansive email chains that are difficult to keep in your head. Sometimes these email chains last for months, there may be one or two that have lasted years now.
Most of the discussions revolve around the concept of: How Did We Get Here From There?
The feeling I have and that is repeating in my mind is triggered by a comment Ara Winter made during one of our extensive discussions several months ago.
It was something like: Armor Class is a Saving Throw.
For those who are not analyzing games in great detail this may not seem like much, but it is a very profound concept. It gives great insight into how Dungeons & Dragons became what it is, even today.
From the very beginning of the game, player enjoyment was critical to the evolution of the published rules of the game. In 1971 Bob Meyer complained about being killed by a troll with one blow. That was likely the first ever play test response for what would later become D&D.
It set the stage for player expectation. Players need to feel like they get more than one chance. In fact, players want to feel lucky!
As always, I like to remind you that one concept is to be kept in the back of your head, as it's the core of the discussion here.
Well, in this case it's sort of two concepts: Saving Throws and Player Experience.
The role playing method itself is such an exhilarating creature that everyone who has learned the Arneson RPG method has gotten a desire to attach the perfect set of rules to it. When Gary Gygax learns how to play from Arneson, he launches on his own interpretation.
Sure, Gary and Dave worked together on D&D, but much of it is being filtered through its editor, Gary Gygax, and the end result is actually a real mess. But it is a beautiful mess. I am so glad it did not get cleaned up too much.
OD&D cemented a lot of core concepts that are later either abandoned, or perhaps, never fully understood and changed.
My feeling about how the rules are designed can be summed up by examining mechanics, but it's how the mechanics change our perception of the in-play experience that I may not be able to fully explain.
It's just a feeling.
The greatest, and to my thinking, oddest change within the game is any direct application of Attributes to Mechanics. OD&D has a concept of Prime Requisites, or Attributes, yet they are barely used within the game system during play. I feel like Gygax had the glimmering of half of an idea here, and then somehow lost the thread. I think this one concept is a truly different idea and Gygax should be credited for its level of abstraction and elegance as part of the Class System he devised, and yet, he later abandons it for a much more linear line of thought.
When we discovered the Spanish Royals Character Matrix we felt we'd unearthed a Rosetta Stone for how Arneson ran Blackmoor before it became D&D.
If you look at the sheet you see an entire group of characters. This grouping, or CLADE as Ara would probably call it, has one thing in common which is the Attribute categories along the top of the list:
A casual observation reveals that we have two sets of traits. A set of values that are active values. And then the dates, which although passive, or static, indicate the presence of some kind of narrative, or story that exists in a temporal reality. While some may doubt the purpose of this list, to me, it is clear that here we have the oldest example of Characters in an RPG. Even if Arneson absconded with this idea from somewhere else, he is the one who uses it in an RPG, and then we see it appear in D&D and everything else from then on.
Inside the matrix are what we can only assume are the actual values of the attributes.
Since the cross indexed values on the grid are all different yet fall within a very small range, we can know these values are rolled on 2 dice, perhaps with modifiers for age.
Of those top six attributes, something else is very compelling. Most RPG's use a six trait attribute list and that is what we see here in 1971. This will expand and contract over the next few years. In the end, D&D uses only 6 as well.
We asked several of Arneson's players from his napoleonic campaign about this sheet, and they all say that Arneson would use these character attributes to determine events for these characters. Sure enough in Corner of the Table Top one can find an update of events within the game that describes personal events such as marriages, offspring, and illness.
This indicates that the HEALTH Attribute was likely used as a Saving Throw vs. getting sick and dying at the beginning of each campaign turn.
I don't want to go into the details of what each attribute represents for the Nappy Campaign, or how it evolves into other parameters in D&D. I'll save all of that for another discussion, and to be honest I feel Michael Wittig has done so much work on the Attributes that he should publish first.
The main point here is that Arneson saw Attributes as being an active component in both his Napoleonic Campaign, and then not long afterward in Blackmoor.
Arneson was partial to mathematical equations for mechanics as opposed to using charts. This likely comes from his long exposure to Totten's: Strategos via David Wesely. Letters exist where Gary Gygax is telling Arneson that mechanics should rely on a chart, as that is what most gamers are drawn to and can understand easily. Thus one can also see that Gygax is writing OD&D toward a particular audience based on his experience as a game publisher; this preference will continue throughout OD&D.
A MECHANIC FOR OD&D REFS
For those who still play OD&D, I suggest adding Attribute Saving Rolls back into your game, as that is the one missing element which leaves a huge hole in the rules when it comes to resolving many of the unwritten situations that can arise during play.
Make sure to keep it simple. I do a d20 roll of equal, or under your attribute.
I won't cite any sources here, but one should also consider that Arneson was likely not using hard binary rulings, but rather modifying his responses based on how well or how badly one rolled vs. an attribute. This again is a concept coming from Totten's Strategos.
These variable result rolls are something I refer to as a GREY ROLL.
SUMMING UP ATTRIBUTES
As they are, Attributes seem to be a fixed element for characters in OD&D. They never change regardless of how weak or powerful a character gets. For a gamer who is coming back at OD&D from later systems this will seem very strange and illogical.
In order to understand what Attributes represented one needs to drop all their bias and just look at how they affect a character mechanically. This is where you see several approaches already emerging out of OD&D that contradict each other to some extent, or perhaps indicate what direction the combat system design is going to go in future iterations of the rules.
Here is the chart for Charisma. It has a modifier that relates to the probability of getting a high or low attribute. This is what I like to describe as a Linear, or Literal, interpretation of an attribute where the precise value will alter a Secondary Die Roll.
A high Charisma character gets bonuses due to having a greater social power. This is similar to the direction Greyhawk supplement, and later editions of D&D, follow when using attributes to modify die rolls as a representation of greater or lesser force.
CLASSES AND PRIME REQUISITS
Since there are only three Classes in OD&D, we have the three Class related Prime Requisites, or Attributes:
-Strength for Fighters
-Intelligence for Magic Users
-Wisdom for Clerics
There are small hints that these attributes also impact undefined saves, or checks.
"Strength will also aid in opening traps and so on."
"Intelligence will also affect a referees' decisions as to whether or not certain actions will be taken, and it allows for additional languages to be spoken."
"Wisdom Rating will act much as does that for Intelligence."
OD&D booklet 1, Men and Magic, P10
These are vague comments that point to different ways of representing, or simulating reality within the game mechanics themselves.
-Charisma is covered in its own section and relates to how many hirelings a player may have
-Constitution is described in the same section as the Prime Requisites as far as the mechanical properties of the attribute are concerned
-Dexterity too is described as a mechanical element along with the Prime
Constitution has a direct impact on hit points, as it gives a -1, 0, or +1 bonus to one's hit points. Once again we're seeing one set of values modifying a second die roll. It also makes reference to an unclear Survival Percentage roll, and or Adversity.
Dexterity affects how well one uses Missile Weapons much in the same way as Constitution affects hit point rolls. Again, we have an Attack Bonus as a clear indicator of how Attributes will directly corellate to combat later on in Greyhawk supplement.
With OD&D a Prime Requisite does not have any effect on die rolls within the game. Where you see it having an influence is how a character accrues experience points - BIG FLASHING LIGHTS - this is THE CLUE!
My conclusion is that what we see in OD&D are many different design paradigms. I also feel that Gygax left all the concepts in the rules because all of them are interesting in their own way.
Thank you Gary!
At this point I see four core themes in the use of attribute values:
- An attribute can be used as a value to roll a saving throw against, per the unwritten Arneson play style
i.e. A direct roll vs. the value of the Attribute
- An attribute has a direct impact on the tallies for secondary die rolls via bonuses
i.e. Modify secondary die rolls: hit points, hireling loyalty, and missile accuracy
- An attribute is an abstract concept that applies to ones advancement in ability*
i.e. as one gains levels, one gains greater fighting ability, greater magical ability, and better saving throw odds.
For Combat try to remember to think Abstractly. A fighter's attack probability goes up slowly at +2 per 3 levels, yet the Secondary Saving Throw, or Hit Points, goes up roughly one hit die per level.
-The rules for Magic Swords reveal yet another system I won't go into here as magic swords have an extra attribute called Ego.
*Intelligence has a dangling rule for the number of known languages that does not relate to any other rule for Attributes. it is an anomaly, perhaps the use of a fixed value of 10+ for number of languages was an incomplete idea relating to the combat system. Or, is this a fifth Attribute Theme? We certainly see something similar in later games.
IN OD&D ATTRIBUTES REPRESENT POTENTIAL
The concept of innate potential or affinity for certain skill sets is built right into the Class System.
In OD&D a character's Attribute's are being used as a function of innate talent, thus if you are a more talented fighter you will gain levels faster if your Strength score is higher. Here is the Abstraction I keep trying to define. Think of these potentials as both mental qualities as well as physical.
Yes, this is kind of weird to think of a dual purpose behind an attribute.
I am a strong warrior but I got this way because I am inclined to want to do strong warrior things and am good at strong warrior things.
I suppose an apt semantic difference is the meaning behind the word Talented vs Skilled.
Where Talent is an aptitude that a person is born with, Skill comes through training and experience.
It also points to another way the attributes are being perceived. The value is a break down of probability into low, normal, high, and exceptional. One is not supposed to look at this value as a number, but rather as a probability range that results from 3d6.
This is a very nuanced abstraction for how one should think of their Attributes, yet it is a real world kind of thing. We all know someone who seems to do a particular task seemingly effortlessly, while the rest of us have to struggle to learn it.
This difference in how Attributes are being applied creates a difference in the game that is reflected in how one feels about the system. Does this feel right or wrong?
In the end, my conjecture is that how the mechanics feel is ultimately the most important element. I highly favor attributes as the abstraction that is presented within OD&D -- It just feels perfect.
A lot of people are not comfortable with thinking abstractly, I suspect that the reason that D&D ended up moving toward linear and literal machanical concepts, is because the people using the game demanded it, thus Player Expectation was the ultimate driving force once again. This is not a judgment of the changes in the system. I think it is relevant to consider just how the game could have evolved if it had stayed with the original concepts for Attributes and Classes.
I will end today's discussion here, then follow up with part 2.
In Part 2, I will talk more about the awkwardness of having so many different design concepts within one game system and how it ends up leading to some really crazy mechanics, where several concept are working at odds against each other.
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