Friday, September 7, 2012

AD&D vs. 4E

I started a new 4th edition campaign for Wednesday nights (first session should be done and over by the time this sees print) after a year's absence. After three Pathfinder campaigns all reaching high level play, with two of the three now effectively concluded, I am ready for 4E again. I have been reminded of what I liked about 4E and what it did to repair or fix issues with 3rd. I'm also ready to play 1st edition again, and even 3.5, but more on that later! For now let's just say I've had an epiphany that I happen to really like each edition on their own individual merits, and find it very hard now to play favorites.

As I am also busy reading AD&D again, its impossible not to compare where 1st and 4th edition are philosophically and ideologically different, as well as where they are occasionally united. I'm one of very few people out there who feel that 4E was a good spiritual successor to classic D&D, and as I read through the AD&D tomes I can see both why I feel that way and also see compelling reasons for why so many find them to be diametrically opposed. Anyway, I'll have to give it some thought, starting here and with more to come.

A few minor observations so far about points where the two editions diverge wildly:

1. AD&D was very much opposed to experimentation with non-human races (while still leaving such decisions to the DM). 4E embraces this and empowers and encourages the player to experiment (while also discouraging the DM from limiting race options).

2. AD&D focused tightly on keeping the mechanics on the DM's side of the screen as much as possible, to the extent that no single rulebook gives you the whole story (PHB vs. DMG). 4E is the opposite, placing a great deal of mechanical control in the player's hands. The DMG provides building tools and advice, but doesn't contain any play mechanics (to be fair it's been this way since 2nd edition).

3. AD&D has a lot of randomization and probability at play. 4E is generally focused on precision and a design that encourages specificity; encounters are built, items are chosen according to what works best for the players and not randomly (for the most part), and so forth.

4. AD&D's randomization can lead to swingy characters; you can theoretically roll up an amazing PC, get lucky and gain psionics, and get even luckier with high hit points. 4E contrasts with precision in numbers: you rarely have uncertainty in the values of what you're about to attain. In exchange, however, the system practically guarantees a decent character...effectiveness is baked into the rules.

Now, to be fair 4th edition can support (and even offers rules for) some randomization, as during its development cycle it became clear that many people wanted an element of chance in the game. You can still roll for stats, you can use randomized treasure parcels, and you can build wandering monster tables in 4E just fine (and the rules provide for it). However, 4E's nature by design encourages structure within those random limits: your character's random stats can be re-rolled if they fail to meet certain minimums, treasure parcel rolls still lead to item selections within level and party appropriate suggestions, and wandering monster charts are more complicated in 4E if only because the rules assume you will try and build challenge-level appropriate random encounters. You don't have to by any stretch, but the game's focus on scaling means a more holistic old-school approach can lead to some messy TPKs (or even worse, prolonged battles of attrition).

You can also view player vs. DM agency in 4E as being about "the DM is in control" but with the caveat that, "the rules provide for all, and are meant to be understood by all." In contrast to AD&D this is remarkably different. I think 4E (and 5E when it arrives) are by virtue of D&D's ubiquity in today's gaming culture forced to adopt this posture, because players and DMs alike are all too savvy, too familiar with the mechanics and structure of RPGs today. AD&D was unique in its power to separate player understanding from DM control, because back then the hobby was young and many, many people played the game straight up and without a good understanding of what was going on behind the DM screen.

I like to always drag out Call of Cthulhu as my example of a game that has fundamentally changed over time not due to edition changes (as it has changed little over six editions) but because everyone is either familiar with it or has read Hello Kitty meets Cthulhu. Or, to put it another way, in 1983 when I discovered Call of Cthulhu I could run games that shocked and surprised my middle school cohorts. Even in 1990-1995 in college it was possible to do this. Today, it's actually kind of difficult to find people willing to play CoC who haven't either drunk from the Lovecraft firehose or who think they know what Cthulhu is because they shopped at Shanna Logic once or played CthulhuTech.

So put another way, D&D's current editions can't separate "what the DM knows and controls" from "what the player does and knows" anymore...or at least not easily, and not in a "forbidden knowledge" way like AD&D did it.

The 4E conundrum in item 1 mentioned earlier is an interesting one, and I want to talk about more at length in the next column, but I'll put it this way:

AD&D has expectations for what it's world looks like (which is very Tolkienish, even if Gary doesn't like to admit it in the text). A great deal of work goes into enforcing why this should be so, and the discussion of alternative player races pulls out my favorite straw man argument (player who wants to play a dragon or demon) to suggest that no player wants to be a monster for purposes other than power. It says a lot more about Gary's games and players, I think, as well as the notion of power gaming back in the late seventies than it does about role playing games and D&D as it was shaping out to be. But beyond that Gary does aknowledge that some players may just be experimental, and wraps up with a "it's your table, you decide" approach.

Cut forward to 2008ish and 4E arrives, acknowledging the endcap of what's been going on since Unearthed Arcana in the 1st edition era, the Complete Humanoids Handbook during 2nd edition, Savage Species in 3rd edition and is more or less baked in to the PHBs in 4th edition: players like playing weird things. 4E's philosophy of "a universe where all races are permitted" is a flaw, however, which vexes DMs aiming for specific flavor. But that's another issue entirely.

What's interesting about 4E is that it allows for a range of races, which on the surface seems contradictory to AD&D's premise of "don't let them do it," but that's only half the story. AD&D's actual suggestion is more correctly, "Don't let them do it to be power gamers, but if you've got players who are genuinely curious about running creature X feel free to let them do so and see how it feels for your game." Which is actually exactly what 4E does, ironically. And in fact 4E designs race building in a fashion that both encourages experimentation and prohibits power gaming by design. So...maybe #1 is out the door, after all...

Then again...

My latest 4E campaign has the following lineup: a gnome artificer, shadar-kai spellsinger, shardmind blackguard, dragonborn hybrid paladin/sorcerer, dwarf runepriest, and satyr skald. Not one human among them. I was joking with the group that the only plot lead-in I needed was "the circus has come to town."

It's not hard, I suppose, to imagine why some people might look at their 1E AD&D experience, contrast it with the average 4E experience, and find it difficult to draw comparisons!


  1. For now let's just say I've had an epiphany that I happen to really like each edition on their own individual merits, and find it very hard now to play favorites.

    I see a lot of edition warring on the internets, but this is basically where I stand. I like several different systems and editions for different reasons.

    Also, I'd say your analysis of 1st versus 4th edition is spot-on.

    1. I get nervous when I talk along lines that tend to be fuel for edition warring on sites like I really do like "D&D" for all its facets, we'd be a more relaxed hobby if we could all just get along and "live and let play."