Monday, September 19, 2011

Obey the Rules!

This summer I had an interesting discussion with a poster on one of the more grognardy D&D forums out there. The poster seemed shocked that I suggest he change certain rules in his AD&D 1st edition game. I argued that he should change that particular rule because I thought the rule in question was stupid. Interestingly, he did not do what I thought he was going to do, which would have been to argue that the rule was not stupd. In fact he seemed to admit that it was a rather silly rule. However, he protested wildly against changing it. Why? Because it was written in the rules. And he assumed that since the rules then must have come from Gary or possibly one of Gary's friends or even Dave Arneson, it would be wrong to change the rule.

The idea that he could be trolling did occur to me, but he did seem genuine about it, and the fact that there are entire forums dedicated to By The Book play means that there are probably more people in the Old School community sharing that opinion.

But what could be less Old School than By The Book play? Dave and Gary were both constantly changing the rules when they were DMing their early games. Many times suggestions about which rules needed to change would come from players. Like the time when the players suggested to Dave that their characters could maybe survive more than one hit, thus resulting in the creation of hit points. Other times, the DMs would figure out these things on their own.

Not that constantly changing the rules is a good idea. I often argue for sticking to the rules as written, especially before you know the game well enough. Some of the GMs I play with using non-D&D systems often seem eager to fiddle with the rules after a few sessions. I have found that this is often a bad idea since changing a tiny thing can have greater consequences than you know if you dont really understand the ideas behind the game. But after having played D&D for decades, I feel like I can do whatever I want with it.

Are you a BTB man?



  1. Seems a very strange argument from an old schooler, to be sure. Especially considering everything we know about the way those early groups played. It's well documented that Gygax never used weapon speeds and hated psionics, for example.

  2. I'm not a BTB person in general. While I keep most of the rules intact I have changed many of them to fit what I like in my game.

    For example, I am getting an AD&D2e game ready and have switched it to Ascending AC, added spell points and make Thief skills work like NWPs. I have also done away with the different weapon damages based on size.

    BTB play was never intended for the game and you can glean that from many comments made by the creators and developers of the day. The funny thing is that BTB only comes more out of games from 3e on than from games made before 2000.

  3. No - and when I write material, I sometimes forget that somebody out there will take those words on the page as some kind of gospel. Weird.

  4. Wholehearted agreement my friend, but maybe its not so mysterious why there's still a thriving BTB crowd. Remember that back in the 1e heyday TSR beat us over the head through dragon mag, the book intros by Gygax and the whole product line, that any straying from the AD&D "official" rules was wrongheaded and bound to end in doom and suffering. Classic D&D OTOH, seems to have been mercifully free of that, and 2e was much more flexible in attitude, at least at first.

  5. There was actually no "beating over the head." There was a single Dragon Magazine editorial that most people forget was addressing tournament play specifically.

    It makes no sense that Gygax would beat the fan base over the head with BTB, when he himself didn't play BTB.

  6. While I think its great if you experienced none of that Jason, there certainly was repeated messages and subtext from TSR and from Gygax also, that AD&D was a perfected and superior system and not to be messed with. The pressure to conform to the rules is all over the place in TSR material starting with the preface to the DMG: "Returning again to the framework aspect of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, what is aimed at is a "universe" into which similar campaigns and parallel worlds can be placed. With certain uniformity of systems and "laws", players will be able to move from one campaign to another and know at least the elemental principles which govern the new milieu, for all milieux will have certain (but not necessarily the same) laws in common. Character races and classes will be nearly the same. Character ability scores will have the identical meaning - or nearly so. Magic spells will function in a certain manner regardless of which world the player is functioning in. Magic devices will certainly vary, but their principles will be similar. This uniformity will help not only players, it will enable DMs to carry on a meaningful dialogue and exchange of useful information.
    ...The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign. Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far desire is to issue a death warrant to a campaign, for it will either be a one-player affair or the players will desert en masse for something more challenging and equitable. Similarly, you must avoid the tendency to drift into areas foreign to the game as a whole. Such campaigns become so strange as to be no longer "AD&D". They are isolated and will usually wither."

    Two of the three DM's I played with in college (86-90) had taken exams from thier mentors to become DM's. There was one other player in our group who was "allowed" to substitute DM because he recently passed the test our DM had prepared. Such was thought of as a good thing because it shortened the rules debates between rules lawyers and DM, when chapter and verse could be called in quickly. Another group I played in didn't have an exam requirement, instead they constantly passed around a worn out and coverless copy of the DMG (fondly know as "the paper") and always followed it to the letter.

  7. I think there is value to getting the rules "locked down", to a certain extent. My constant experiments with house rules can start to drive my group nuts from time to time.

    But having a locked down set of rules and playing by the book are two totally separate things. So I put my house rules to paper, more to keep myself in check than anything else.

    I am turned off by the tone of AD&D as well. I much prefer a game that is like, "Here's a starting point. Go play it and make it your own thing." OD&D and B/X are clear about having this attitude.

    That being said, AD&D can certainly be done that way, but I agree with DH in that the text certainly doesn't encourage it.

    Besides, playing strictly by the book encourages metagaming and munchkinism, which can be fun and rewarding for players, but is not my preferred style. I prefer to see players exercise creativity rather than rules mastery.


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