Bonuses and Penalties Due to Abilities p.6 Basic D&D, TSR 1977
This is part 2 of a lengthy discussion about how OD&D works.
The previous section can be found here:
The last installment seemed too long, I have decided that I will attempt to limit myself to smaller bites and present something shorter. Let me know what you think.
Abilities, Penalties, and Bonuses
My last post was on the subject of Classes and Attributes.
I covered how there are at least 5 different methods for how stats, or attributes, impact other mechanics, from how many hit points you have, to how well you hit, and even for how many languages you can know.
The one missing application for attributes in OD&D is the use of die rolls for determining things like how well you spot something, or jumping over a pit. This is the Arneson mechanic from the Napoleonic character sheet. I also proposed putting that back into OD&D when needed, but using them as a non binary ruling which I called Grey Rolls.
Be careful on using Grey Rolls as for the most part, I feel that any rolls that take agency away from both players and Refs are a bad idea. If you are a ref you are there to make judgements that fall outside the rules but fully within the story. You should be making a lot of calls based on reasonable outcomes.
This is perhaps a primary difference between what OSR players prefer and what newer edition players are used to. Play went faster because there was less die rolling and a DM would simply assume that it was reasonable to either see something, or not see something based on a player's described action.
No need to attack me, as I am merely making an observation. I do invite people to come play with me some time, as having played many different systems I believe the experience is entirely different.
As with all my articles I want readers to take away an essential concept. Last time I highlighted player experience or expectation, and the concept of saving throws, but really I was playing a trick on you and the whole discussion was on attributes. or was it?
Matrix for Men Attacking p.19 OD&D, Tactical Studies Rules 1974
Combat in OD&D
The reason for confusion about how OD&D is designed is because the combat bonuses are what I call Back Loaded. If you consider the sequence of events for combat as a front to back, or beginning to end process, the bonuses are all on the back end of the sequence for combat.
Step by step OD&D combat:
1. ATTACK ROLL TO HIT -- This is based on experience level for players, and hit dice for monsters, and is compared to...
2. THE PRIMARY DEFENSIVE SAVING THROW -- This is the defender's AC, the fixed value of armor class for everything.
3. A ROLL TO INFLICT DAMAGE -- A successful roll to hit causes damage points in the form of a die roll for damage.
4. THE SECONDARY DEFENSIVE SAVING THROW -- Damage received is subtracted from Hit points; a pre- generated type of defensive die roll.
A player feels active during their own die roll phase, or steps 1 and 3, because they are literally rolling a die to affect combat. You roll to hit and maybe you also roll to do damage - YAY!
Consider that all of their real bonuses reside in their defense, when they are not rolling dice. Players do not feel active based on their armor class, or how many hit points they have. Both these values are determined before play actually happens. they feel like fixed values.
If you look at the chart from Basic D&D there are no attack bonuses except for missile weapons, and the juicy bonuses go to hit points, it was the same for OD&D.
Additionally, the mechanisms for player uniqueness and heightened ability are hidden in the experience points in OD&D. Stats are mostly having an impact on how slowly or quickly players move up in levels. A character having high stats advancing faster in experience is such an odd approach that a lot people who played, either discarded the rule once the supplements came out, or felt that their stats weren't really doing anything for them at all. Interestingly the rule for Prime Attributes is still used, although expanded, in the Basic D&D set from 1977 and on.
Do you feel any better knowing this as a player?
Probably not, back loading is kind of weird.
Most players were not aware that their special combat bonuses existed in terms of defense rather than offense. Additionally, the attacker side Attack Bonus only came about upon reaching 4th level! Woot, you get a 10% better chance of hitting things.
There's more, the entire concept of THAC0 could not work perfectly in OD&D because the combat chart skips from +10% per 3 levels to +15% between levels 7-9, and then back down to +10% per 3 levels, and then again back up to 15% in the last column. It's not like an equation of +10% every 3 levels for fighters, it's quirky.
So what is the magic word? Player experience and expectation. Ok, it's several words.
Players wanted to feel active during a game and feel like they could get bonuses on attack in order to be more special. It didn't take long for them to get rewarded in the form of a strength based chart for attack, damage, and even door opening ability.
Matrix for Monsters Attacking p.19 OD&D, Tactical Studies Rules 1974
Fairness in OD&D
Players also want fairness. OD&D although a brutal combat system with high mortality rates, is very fair.
Players back in the early days of RPG's were more often than not coming from a War Game background. Their expectations were much different for how an RPG should work and what they could expect as a green troopie, or cadet. They didn't expect to be able to do much as a novice wizard either. What they really wanted was an even playing field. Thus 1 man fighting 1 orc has a 50/50 chance of winning, or losing.
This is how the fairness is built into the brutal OD&D combat system. In OD&D everything gets a certain quantity of d6 as hit points; roughly 1d6 at each level. All weapons do 1d6 damage. In each combat round all things happen simultaneously. I know this because I made recordings of Bob Meyer running a Blackmoor game and I was watching closely to see if he used initiative, or parallel actions. Since Bob is trying to preserve Blackmoor, my hunch is that Bob is ref'ing in this way because he learned from Dave Arneson way back before D&D existed.
There is no initiative, or getting a killing blow in before the bad guy hits you. Both sides of a combat get to do their thing and then everything is resolved. Once again, this is a war game concept; each side gets to attack and do damage. In fact, just as in real combat, it is possible for two adversaries to kill each other in the same round!
I know, you're probably saying - What The Heck! This is a crappy game, where is my DX for initiative, where is my STR bonus for attack, where is my STR bonus for damage, where is my INT based skill for special attacks?
All I can say is that although Gygax and Arneson were fully aware of the player experience as a game outcome, they were also probably very much obsessed with the idea of a simulation.
I cannot speak to Gygax's game knowledge as I am not a Gygax historian.
Arneson was certainly very aware of player expectation because he had been designing games since the mid 60's. If one reads his First Fantasy Campaign book, he speaks about having defensive saving throws in his Blackmoor campaign as a way for players to avoid hits. He also says that these die rolls made combat last longer, so he stopped using them in order to speed up play. Consider that play speed is a really important factor in player enjoyment.
I hope you enjoyed these observations and learned something about OD&D.
Next time I will talk about how even OD&D is NERFed in favor of the players and how we eventually arrive at the major change in attributes, classes, weapons, and combat.
Or, -- How the Wizard gets the short end of the stick.
Thanks for reading, Griff
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