The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally posted in 2011 on my Wotc blog)
Several months ago I was at my favorite local gaming shop and I happened to see a copy of the magenta/purple box of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. This was the version I started with. I picked it up. And when I got home, turning it around in my hands and slowly opening it up to look upon its old contents, I had this great flood of memories.
Those memories continued to stick with me the next few weeks. With all the talk of Red Box I decided to buy the original one, which came out after the magenta box and was thus the 4th version. (OD&D is the original White Box, after which TSR created both a Basic and Advanced game. We consider AD&D and various Basic sets to all be 1st Edition but give those Basic boxes versions to keep them clear.)
And then I just kept buying the versions I didn’t have or no longer had, like the cheapest copy of OD&D I could find, the Expert Set, the Rules Cyclopedia, and so on. Like a sage within the game, I poured over the tomes. I found a lot of reasons to laugh, a lot of memories, and a clear desire to run the games again.
At around that time, something unexpected happened. Like a hobbit would, I may have been preparing tea when it happened.. though it was more likely coffee.
You don’t have to be a hobbit to desire adventure, nor to be more than a bit worried about what change will bring. The last 15 months have involved a lot of change for me as a gamer, and I’m immensely thankful for all that has come.
Becoming an admin for the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign has been an incredible opportunity to pay forward the countless benefits I’ve received through RPGA/Organized Play. While I’m a bit closer to insanity, I have also been overwhelmed by good feelings as I get to work with my fellow admins on the vision and then see so many enjoy it. Partly because of these efforts I was also asked to write for DDI. Being able to do something lasting in Dragon and Dungeon is a kid’s dream come true.
Nothing prepared me for this past December, when I was asked to visit the offices of Wizards of the Coast to discuss Organized Play. I’m a consultant in my mundane life, and an opinionated fool by choice, so this was just about as incredible an opportunity possible. And then we were brought into a different room and I was asked to try D&D Next (Edit: the name for what would become 5th Edition). Wow.
The way an NDA works is that we can’t disclose confidential information until it becomes public, so I can’t share details you don’t already know. What I can do is say that the group that was called together to provide feedback was a great group. You likely recognize many by name and we all took the task very seriously and with gratitude. We realized how fortunate we were, we knew others could have been here in our shoes, and we worked to speak for the community as a whole.
I’ve now been able to playtest the next version twice before its public playtest. I can only say that the positive playtester comments on Forbes, Escapist, CNN, NY Times, EN World, Critical Hits, and other sites mirror my own. And I’ll be running D&D’s Next version at the upcoming D&DXP convention. (And, I’m already hard at work on the three awesome Ashes of Athas 4E adventures premiering at the con).
But I can share that when WotC says the goals are to create an edition that speaks to the soul of D&D and that takes the best from every edition, that is absolutely the goal I saw in play.
I opened that old white box cover not as someone seeing an old friend, but as Indiana Jones, discovering finally what I had heard of in rumors and read in places as obscure as musty listservers from eras long past. Within I found… well, some of it was pretty cool. And some of it was downright laughable. I mean, seriously, every weapon does a d6 damage? So what if the wizard can only wield a dagger… d6! For hit points, a “magic-user” and a “fighting-man” both roll d6, but the fighting-man gets a +1? As for initiative, I don’t know… does everyone go at once if I don’t use Chainmail?
The list of outdated stuff is extensive, including in adventure design, since I wanted to run the very first TSR adventure of Temple of the Frog, included in Supplement II: Blackmoor. The temple is more of a setting, except the intention is clearly for PCs to explore this place… and yet it has things like 500 guards/soldiers on just one level. I think one room has 250 soldiers in it. And that’s still kinder than the other obvious way in! As I prepared for this I found myself very proud of how hard we’ve come in adventure design. I’m not even going to mention the space stuff, like how the main bad guy came from another planet and wears absurdly powerful “power armor”. Not going there.
There were many positives in OD&D. It was cool to see just three classes (the third is the Cleric) and just Dwarves, Humans, Hobbits (or Halflings in later prints), and Elves. It was cool to see these old spells that so closely resembled AD&D. And very quickly Supplement I: Greyhawk and Supplement II: Blackmoor add lots we recognize: different dice for HPs by class, different damage by weapon, bonuses to hit from abilities, corrections to spells, monks, druids, thieves, etc. But I wanted the raw experience. There are those, after all, that claim OD&D is only Original if you use the first three books (there are also those that play a third-party revised OD&D version called Swords & Sorcery*, and then Wee Warriors was the Paizo-like company that published the first OD&D self-contained adventure before even TSR… why does it feel like history repeats itself? Ahem. Anyway.).
So, here we are before Next has been announced and I’ve got this copy of OD&D. I gathered my gaming group together. Most had started on 4th edition. A couple had tried 3.5. Several had played Pathfinder. I alone had played AD&D and Basic. Two were women, both often finding issues with 4E’s emphasis on crunch. Three guys that really like to optimize. Okay, two guys that really like to optimize and a third that does it unconsciously while selecting languages including Esperanto, Flumph, Balrog, Pig Latin, and because he had to, Elf.
We began with character creation. We stuck to the rules as written, but in the case of any questions I, as master of the rules (ha!) made up a ruling to great fanfare. (This was part of the fun: to point out how often this was necessary, and it was very often).
In true old school fashion, I rolled a character to use as their hireling. The human hireling Cleric, Falath, had the following stats: Str 7, Int 10, Wis 8, Con 5, Dex 13, Char 10. Awesome. I don’t think anyone really fared that much better, though the next night my two children (ages below 8) would roll up characters with far better stats. The future is clearly in our children’s hands.
We chose spells. I delighted in letting the two other clerics know that at level 1 they get 0 spells. Ha! The wizards chose their one spell. Elf was clearly identified as obviously broken (cast spells in armor, wield weapons, gain languages, spot secret doors… wow!). We wrote down our saves against things like wands and breath weapons. We bought equipment (and it really felt like it mattered).
Character introductions took us straight to the issue of player “ingenuity”. Ian of the Going Last podcast, largely held to be a cheese monkey, cast Charm on my hireling. He then told my hireling to kill himself. Checking the rules, they had not yet added the errata to stop this. Ok, I figured I would let this one happen. Now Ian asks about XP. Sure. They get 100 XP, plus 100XP more for his equipment (since in these editions you get XP for gold). Well played. I made a note for later.
To begin play we began by having a random encounter. Given how hard Temple of the Frog is, I thought this might be a good slow start. Ha! I rolled on the table in volume 3 and came up with Nixies. Here’s all it says in volume 2: “will always seek to lure humans beneath the waters to enslave them for one year. For every 10 Nixies that appear there will be one Charm Person spell being cast at any person within 3″ of their lair. Any charmed character will immediately proceed underwater and remain there until the year is up when he is freed.” Oh, and there are 10-100 Nixies (I went with 10) and if in water (when aren’t they?) they are accompanied by a school “of the largest and fiercest fish”… 10-100 of those… (I went with none).
We began with a single Nixie sunning herself upon a rock in a tranquil pool. She said hi, and began to talk. When Ian’s PC kept walking forward, she hit him with Charm Person. He failed his save against Spells, so he was gone from combat and began walking into the water (I made a ruling he could now breathe underwater). We did, of course, keep up the RP with him during this time. Then we had combat, with a lot of missing. We had some fun ideas, like two PCs using rope to try to lasso Ian’s PC.
With five PCs (one charmed) and 10 Nixies, the result was a TPK. And yet, we were all laughing and having a blast.
Remember that thing about DM control? The PCs became conscious underwater, in an air pocket in the Nixies’ lair. After some fun interaction they allowed the PCs not to serve them for one year, and instead they had to go to the Temple of the Frog and end the threat. They were given magic rings to get past the worst of the wards and told of a secret entrance. (After all, I had to give them a way past those 500 guards…)
We ran out of time at this point. I asked the players what they wanted to do. Move on to the blue box, for the second version of AD&D? No way, they said. Both women said it was the most fun they had ever had with D&D! The optimizers, used to crunching lots of numbers? These guys also wanted to keep playing and experimenting. These are guys that before the session said on their podcast “I expect to not enjoy the game at all“. They were amazed by how great a time they had. So, yeah, more White Box this week! After that, my hope is that we can continue to climb the version and edition ladder.
We had gone from expecting to just ridicule OD&D to actually having a lot of respect for how D&D started. More incredibly, we wanted to play more. Some of the playtesters have been allowed to share that they see the versions of old in D&D Next. And they are having a lot of fun. I can say that I had a lot of fun playing this next version.
And as I look at my bookshelf I see tons of old friends. How cool would it be to easily run the Desert of Desolation series for my group with D&D Next? I have a number of classic adventures I never ran. Will D&D’s Next edition let me do that? Will it give me the best of open play while allowing for 4E’s great innovations? This is what D&D Next could offer that would be incredibly compelling to a lot of players – even new ones. They just don’t know it yet – until they walk through that door and onward to the Next adventure.
The AoA admins will have more to share later, but you can expect that Ashes of Athas will remain on course this year and into 2013. 4E will, by all accounts, be getting lots of support in 2012. Hey, I’ve seen Heroes of the Elemental Chaos… and all I can say is you want it! 4E remains what I will be playing this year, as often as I can get it. I’m excited for the future but I’ll be writing 4E DDI articles, adventures, and playing 4E as often as I can. After all, I’m playing 4E and OD&D – surely I can enjoy 4E while playing the next version!
One last comment. My sincere thanks to everyone that helped me have these amazing experiences. You know who you are. I can’t thank you enough.
This series is continued:
* = As clarified by Specterofmarx on the WotC Blog, “OSRIC is a clone of the AD&D 1st edition rules. Swords & Wizardry most closely mimics OD&D and Labyrinth Lord is closest to the magenta box Basic D&D set. There are lots of others as well.”