27 February, 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part III

Comparing the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 2nd Edition game to the first edition (now over 15 years old!) is like comparing a Porsche 959 to a Model T Ford.  Both are great cars for their times, but which would you want to drive in the 1990s?
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview, Dragon #142 (February 1989)

In parts one and two I covered the evolution of the adventure module and the changes brought about by the introduction of skill systems and universal task resolution to D&D.  By this point I hope it's clear that, regardless of (and indeed, in spite of) the rules framework the game was operating under, by 1989 the supported playstyle at TSR had moved in a very different direction from where it began in the early 1970s.  We can't actually know to what degree this reflected the desires of the player base for something different after years of the original style and to what degree it was pushed by the designers and editors themselves, who oversaw TSR's module and rulebook output and selected what appeared in its house organ, Dragon magazine.  All available information indicates that TSR's game-related sales began steadily dropping after 1984, but how much of that was widespread dissatisfaction with D&D abandoning its roots and how much of it was the natural collapse of what was to some degree a fad we can't know.[1]

This week I want to tackle 2nd edition itself: what the new edition was meant to be and what specific changes were made in that ruleset that moved it from 1st edition's old-school foundations.

Dragon #142    

The New AD&D 2nd Edition is a giant stride forward from the first game.  Experienced players will find all the rules they've grown accustomed to.  New players will discover a more complete and easier to understand set of rules.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview, Dragon #142




There are many changes between 1st and 2nd edition, many more than is usually noted.  At the same time, many of them are subtle ones.  Ultimately, this is an article focusing on the shift away from the old-school playstyle, and as such I'm going to detail only those rules changes that affect that.  So while, for example, the alteration of the bard, or the removal of artifacts from core, or the elimination of the monk and assassin are all notable changes, the game isn't any more or less old school because of them.  If you want just a changelog, I've assembled one over the years compiled from various sources and my own observations: you can get it at this link.

Flavour and Guidance

The Dungeon Master's Guide, of course, contains extensive articles on how to conduct a game (2nd Edition is a major improvement over the first edition in this regard)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

Over and above rules changes, there is a strong flavour argument to the 1st vs. 2nd edition wars.  A common charge is that the 1st edition ruleset is more evocative than the 2nd edition.  In the new DMG, David Cook, Steve Winter, and Jon Pickens (the main developers of 2nd edition) wrote in a far less evocative fashion than Gygax.  I suspect, however, that they would have worn this as a badge of pride, in that crafting accessible rules requires accessible writing, and ease of access was clearly one of 2nd's goals.  For every player I have seen complain that the prose of 2nd is bland (comparatively or otherwise), I've seen another grateful that they can parse a rule quickly in mid-game instead of wading through statements like "perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life forms for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal."

But while one's preference for the functional vs. the evocative in rules text is subjective, there is a certain amount of crossover into content.  On page 7 of the 2nd edition DMG was a section titled "The Fine Art of Being a DM".  

Being a good Dungeon Master involves a lot more than knowing the rules.  It calls for quick wit, theatrical flair, and a good sense of dramatic timing, among other things.  Most of us can claim these attributes to some degree, but there's always room for improvement.

Fortunately, skills like these can be learned and improved with practice.  There are hundreds of tricks, shortcuts, and simple principles that can make you a better, more dramatic, and more creative game master.

But you won't find them in the DUNGEON MASTER Guide.  This is a reference book for running the AD&D game.  We tried to minimize material that doesn't pertain to the immediate conduct of the game.

From certain perspectives the decision made sense, in that it kept page count down and led to the book having a tight rules-based reference focus, which the Dragon preview revealed was a core design goal.  It was also likely felt that the existence of Basic D&D freed the Advanced line from having to worry about foundational play guidance (as the DMG section on page 7 references).  However, this was the period in which Basic was rapidly on the way to extinction, as more and more players decided to start immediately with Advanced and TSR shifted to match, and so while an approach that made sense in 1986-88 when the new edition was being prepared, this plan was rapidly obsoleted by market trends and matching TSR priorities.
As such, and despite the statement given in the Dragon preview that 2nd edition would be "a major improvement" over 1st edition in terms of help on how to conduct a game, this choice meant that an element the book itself admitted was essential was cut because it didn't fit the design framework, and the new DMG was in fact a major step back in this regard.  A lot of what people perceive as "flavour" in the 1st edition DMG comes from this material: on the surface somewhat fluffy, but key in conveying the sort of game Gygax intended and providing advice and inspiration to support it.  The original D&D game knew what it was and what it wanted to facilitate, even if it didn't always communicate that well.  While some of its decisions can be said to be just plain strange with almost 50 years of hindsight and design evolution,[2] there are more that are frequently labelled "stupid" or "pointless" by modern readers only because they lack the appropriate context for rules that make perfect sense in the context of old-school play.  The loss of this material in 2nd edition, either in the name of leaving out DMing principles or removing "pages of type [dedicated] to topics that no one understands or uses" (2nd Edition Preview p. 5) resulted in the emphasis on heroic play already seen in late-1st edition modules being picked up in the new ruleset as well.  The new edition had no section laying out a clear statement of purpose, but the Player's Handbook did state at one point that "the AD&D game is a game of heroic fantasy."[3]

Much of what's relevant to running an old-school game is found in the 1st edition DMG's "Campaign" chapter.  Portions of that chapter could still be found scattered throughout the 2nd edition DMG, but much of it was cut, and the 2nd ed DMG has no dedicated campaign-running chapter of its own.  Some of the key 1st edition "flavour" material that was removed was:

1st edition DMG's sample dungeon
1) A Sample Dungeon (pp. 94-95): The 1st edition DMG has a brief (three-room) sample dungeon.  It's so short as to be of limited usefulness, but it does have a full-page 39-room map to go with it, encouraging the DM to create their own room entries.  The 2nd edition DMG has no sample areas.

2) The First Dungeon Adventure (pp. 96-100): Immediately after the above is a lengthy example of play, and notably it's centred around dungeon exploration.  It explains such vital concepts as adventure setup, NPC roles, and how to describe things as a DM.  It breaks out key concepts into subsections (Movement and Searching; Detection of Unusual Circumstances, Traps, and Hearing Noise; Doors).  It adds a "live" example of play, written in narrative voice, in which a DM and a party engage in a game, with march order discussion, searches, and a combat all occurring.  There is a much smaller (not quite a page) and simpler equivalent in the 2nd edition PHB, but, appearing as it does in that book rather than the DMG, and at the very start (and so by necessity quite simple), it's nowhere near as useful for a DM aiming to figure out how to run things.

In neither DMG is there an encouragement to tightly restrict the movements of the players to best suit the story the DM is trying to tell.  However, the 1st edition version, through its example of play, describes how the ideal DM is prepared for the example scenario it helpfully lays out:

Before you are three maps: a large-scale map which shows the village and the surrounding territory, including the fen and monastery, the secret entrance/exit from the place, and lairs of any monsters who happen to dwell in the area; at hand also is a small-scale (1 square to 10’ might be in order) map of the ruined monastery which shows building interiors, insets for upper levels, and a numbered key for descriptions and encounters; lastly, you have the small scale map of the storage chambers and crypts beneath the upper works of the place ... likewise keyed by numbers for descriptions and encounters.  So no matter what action the party decides upon, you have the wherewithal to handle the situation.

A proper DM is thus shown to be one who has prepared enough material ahead of time to allow the players to wander to some degree.  Both editions emphatically insist that a DM must be prepared to wing it, but only the 1st edition version provides the foundations of dungeon crawling the game was originally built to enable, and emphasizes player freedom in this particular fashion.

Today this shunting of advice off from, say, an OSR rules reference makes more sense, in that there's a mountain of third-party advice—primers, blogs, forum posts—available online (although I think a clone should at least include advice about how to accommodate it and its changes specifically with the wider world of old-school play, but that's a topic for another time).  But in 1989 (unless you were one of a handful of people able to access Usenet), your advice was limited to whatever your local fanzines and the Dragon magazine Forum column—if you could get these—were discussing this month, and so this choice was crippling if you were in search of specific playstyle guidance.  You had the rules, but large parts of how to apply them were missing.

With the 2nd ed DMG lacking these key avenues of advice, new readers picked up tone and guidance from fellow players ("We always urge newcomers to learn from experienced players": 2nd Edition Preview p. 6) and, of course, TSR's wider world of support materials.  In terms of adventures, as we've seen, this support was almost entirely directed at heroic plot-based play.  In terms of more direct advice, according to Shannon Appelcline the DMG was originally intended to contain 100 pages of advice (which might explain the apparent contradiction between the Dragon preview's claim that it would be providing "extensive" support and the DMG introduction statement saying it wasn't needed).  Ultimately, however, it was decided to cut this due to space concerns.  Buying 1990's DMGR1 (Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, where this cut material wound up) and 1993's DMGR5 (Creative Campaigning) plugged much of this gap, but that was two more sourcebooks that people were much less likely to buy and several years of wait, and the specific dungeoneering advice and examples were entirely of the naturalistic Dungeoneer's Survival Guide school rather than rooted in fantasy and useful examples of play.  These books also added some decidedly non-old-school advice besides:[4]

keep in mind that the PCs are supposed to be heroes.  They are unusual persons whose skills and abilities stand head and shoulders above the normal man (figuratively speaking in the case of dwarves and halflings).
       They should be able to perform heroic actions without worrying about the fussy details of their activities.  They should be concerned with finding lost artifacts, slaying horrible fiends and saving the world; not cleaning their swords after each battle, counting the arrows in their quivers or telling the DM exactly how they prepare for sleep each night. (DMGR1 pp. 36-37)
If the DM can bring himself to think of his campaign as a story with an unwritten ending, he has made the first logical step in successful campaign design.  Players, regardless of type, want to do more than just slay endless streams of monsters or loot bottomless treasure hoards.  They want to be heroes who perform legendary deeds like the characters in fantasy fiction or film. (DMGR1 pp. 85-86)
Eventually, the encounters should serve to point the adventurers towards what the DM has determined to be the climactic encounter of the adventure. (DMGR1 p. 90)


While the 2nd edition rulebooks cut key bits of old-school-related guidance, there are also noticeable drifts away from the older style of play of a mechanical nature.  Some of these are small.  The default roll to find secret doors was left out (1 on 1D6), which along with the absence of the ten-foot pole from the equipment list may suggest how much dungeoneering was done during playtesting.[5]  Encumbrance was made an optional rule (it already was in B/X, though that was an introductory-level game, and in any case it wasn't optional in the equally introductory BECMI), but even then, there's no weight value for a week of rations, an essential for wilderness adventuring.

Others were more important.  The movement rate inside dungeons became ten time greater (from 120 feet per turn to 120 feet per minute), which made the exploration and clearing of dungeons a much quicker thing, while at the same time the recommended wandering monster rate dropped from 1 in 6 every 3 turns to 1 in 10 every 6 turns: about a two-thirds decrease (and when coupled with the fact that a group now raced through a dungeon ten times as fast, resulted in an even greater effective decrease).[6]  Non-weapon proficiencies were included in core (albeit still optional), as I covered in part two.  And for all that 2nd edition has a reputation of streamlining material, the Reaction Table (as I explored previously) was only made clumsier in 2nd, expanded to a 2D10 4-column monstrosity.  The table also rewards an aggressive style of play, by assuming that hostility is the "good" result.  That is, hostility is the highest result, so that any positive table modifiers (except from Charisma, which was reversed) the party manages to accrue leads the players towards it.  This is true even if the players want to be friendly: a friendly approach only reduces the range of possible hostile results.[7]

The most significant change by far, however, was the shunting of gold for XP to optional status.  What causes a PC to level up is the fundamental driver of gameplay across the board, and thus shapes the entire game.  A great deal of 2nd edition was optional, so this change is in part deceptive (as I covered in Part II, one of the major design directions of 2nd edition was to make as much optional as possible, to enable a DM to built their own game out of a toolkit).  However, the game does list a number of default, official methods of earning XP.  Defeating enemies is the one most clearly articulated,[8] but this is supplemented by a bewildering array of additional approved methods: a variable story-based award arbitrated by the DM, an award for surviving, and awards for making the game fun, creating magic items, and for player (not PC) improvement.  An optional individual XP award system was added as well, which if used could give awards for behaving in a class-appropriate way, good roleplaying and so on.  Amongst all this was the gold-for-XP option, for the group as a whole and/or for rogues at a double rate (2 XP per 1 GP), as the DM felt appropriate.  In terms of actual support for the game, things proceeded along the primary lines suggested in the DMG, and while plenty of 2nd edition products awarded handsome treasure hauls, I'm aware of only two products—1995's underworld crawl Night Below and 1999's deliberate throwback module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands—that suggested XP be earned from gold, in keeping with that rule's optional nature.


A recent poll on 2nd edition XP awards taken on the Dragonsfoot forums.  Though from a limited sample base and taken twenty years after the end of 2nd edition, it's interesting to see what DMs use.  Combat and then the story award, the two methods most strongly emphasized in the DMG text, have the most votes.  Click to enlarge.

The "story award" was nebulous: all the DMG really suggested was that it be for completing the adventure, and that it shouldn't outweigh what was earned by defeating foes that adventure, emphasizing the primacy of combat.  This story award was implemented in a spotty fashion in official modules (as were all the non-combat methods, official or not).  It's difficult to examine the 2nd edition module lineup as a whole: well over 100 modules were released in its 10-year lifetime, so I hope you'll forgive my random cherry-picking (and feel free to point out anything interesting you notice in one).  In some cases the story award was used: for example, in 1993's GA3 (Tales of Enchantment) we have elaborate guidance at the module's conclusion:

Any solution that leaves Gwellen and Barens together deserves some award.
Any solution that returns Barens to Jareb deserves some award, as that was the PCs' mission.
Any solution that allows the pixies' harassment campaign to continue should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that doesn't return Barens to Jareb should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that starts a war between the pixies and the "large folk" deserves no award or a negative award based on the other circumstances.
Any solution that pleases everyone deserves at least 10,000 XP, and even more if the players are particularly creative or role-played particularly well.
Any solution that allows Gwellen and Barens to marry and live together happily as man and wife deserves a bonus award of at least 10,000 XP.
WGR6 (The City of Skulls) had a similar set of rewards, but overall this level of specificity was the exception, rather than the rule.  The predecessor module in the GA series (GA2 Swamplight), released the same year as GA3, had no such awards stated, merely a quick note on the first page that "the PCs should get additional experience points if they find the real menace in the adventure and defeat it.  The amount of experience awarded is left up to the DM."  1999's Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff gave a simple 25,000 XP award for completing the story goal.

Many modules did not bother awarding the story award at all.  This includes most of the modules released in 1989 to support the new edition.  1989's FRE 1, 2, and 3 (the godawful Godswar trilogy for Forgotten Realms) had none.  The infamous initial Greyhawk trilogy of 1989 (WG9, WG10, and WG11) were refashioned older RPGA modules, but they had no awards added as part of their polishing up for wider release as part of the new edition.  1990's WGA1 (Falcon's Revenge) and WG12 (Valley of the Mage) and 1991's WGS2 (Howl from the North), all-new Greyhawk works, also had none; neither did 1990's LNA1 (Thieves of Lankhmar) or 1992's LNQ1 (Slayers of Lankhmar).  Again returning to the GA series (and also 1993), GA1 The Murky Deep gave no special awards or even the suggestion of them.  Leaping forward, 1998's The Shattered Circle and The Lost Shrine of Bundushatus worked the same way.  While the RPGA generally emphasized role-playing, its 1997 module The Star of Kolhapur and its 1999 module The Wand of Archeal (to pick a random pair) also had none.

More often seen was the individual XP award, despite it being optional in the DMG.  For example, while FRE3 had no story award, it does suggests an unspecified XP award for any character who can "orate exceptionally well" in front of the master of the gods (the players can have no effect on what happens at that point, regardless of what they say, but that's neither here nor there).  1995's The Return of Randal Morn grants a mighty 100 XP bonus if the party attacks a catapult as their first target in the climatic scene (but has no story award, despite being the culmination of a linked module trilogy).  In 1998's rework of Destiny of Kings, the character that defeats the enemy in a joust to conclude the adventure receives 1,500 XP.

For all that old-school D&D is often depicted as a hack-and-slash game, gold for XP produces a clear gameplay incentive based on wealth, not slaughter.  Combat did give XP in 1st edition and Basic, and was often the gateway to the treasure you needed, but the main avenue of advancement was loot, which—when coupled with the dangers inherent to low-level combat especially—often inclined players to avoid battle, not seek it.  With 2nd edition, power instead was best earned at the point of a sword.  There were other means of gaining XP, as we have seen, both standard and optional, but combat was suggested as the best source and the one actually implemented in 2nd edition products; the clear itemized XP awards for combat laid out in the Monstrous Compendium entries were simple to use, vs. the "figure it out yourself" approach of the other awards.  Wealth as a major aspect of D&D gameplay in any fashion increasingly became vestigial.[9]


I hope these first three articles have managed to explain how D&D changed by the time 2nd edition launched and, from there, why some people don't consider 2nd edition to be properly old school.

For those coming to D&D long after the fact, there's little on the surface to differentiate 1st from 2nd, and this is the source of a lot of the confusion over 2nd edition's status.  Broadly, those who were around for 1st edition's original lifecycle are the ones most likely to consider 2nd edition not old school,[10] while those who started with 3rd edition or later are separated from the controversies and arguments of the time and also have such a radically different starting point that they're more willing to accept 1st and 2nd as two sides of the same coin.  This is why you find the old school defined as both "pre-1984 D&D" (a date chosen due to the year Dragonlance came out and the lack of anything exceptional released otherwise; a definition focused on playstyle) and "pre-3rd edition D&D" (1974-2000; a definition focused on mechanical compatibility).

If your sole criteria is the core ruleset (i.e. leaving out the later support materials, which of course no one need buy or use), then it's easy to consider 2nd edition just as old school as 1st, as the differences are seemingly minor if your starting comparison point is a later edition or something non-D&D entirely.

But if considering playstyle (which is fundamentally shaped by a few rather specific and important ruleset changes), it's clear that 2nd edition offers almost nothing along old-school lines, and in fact a decent amount that runs counter to it, especially if you take into account the edition as a whole (its supporting materials).  If you're attempting to develop an old-school style of play on your own, you might be able to do so reading 1st edition and earlier (might: the vagueness on this core subject even in the original rulesets means you can easily wind up developing alternate styles as well, as so many did back in the day).  However, you'll almost certainly never develop such a style if starting with 2nd edition, because that edition had almost no interest in teaching or supporting an old-school style of play.

That having been said, can you run an old-school game using 2nd edition?  Absolutely.  Fold gold for XP back in, reduce combat XP to compensate, fix a few minor rules holes, and draw on the vast OSR/old-school knowledge base for how to run that style of campaign that the 2nd ed DMG fails to give you, and it can be accomplished with absolutely no difficulty.  The vast majority of 2nd edition's rules changes are matters of taste or mechanical tinkering, not of style, and there's clear improvements (in some places, anyways) in terms of accessibility and overall layout.  That it doesn't support an old-school game as well as 1st edition doesn't mean it can't be made to support it at all, and if you prefer its layout or enjoy the rules tweaks it made, it makes perfect sense to make some simple changes and run your old-school game with it as you normally would.  And as the old-school isn't the be-all and end-all of D&D, you can still get an enjoyable heroic or other style game out of 2nd edition: as I've mentioned previously, this isn't a series intended to delineate right vs. wrong (though I do feel rather strongly that 2nd edition does feel comparatively directionless, not attempting to do something other than "be a fantasy game" with an implied shift to the heroic but next to no rules changes to actually facilitate this).[11]

Even for an old-school player, there's lots of decent material that came out during 2nd edition that is of use.  The long-running Monstrous Compendium series offers mountains of additional monsters.  The Diablo II: The Awakening supplement and the mammoth Encyclopedia Magica series gives you thousands of magic items to play with, and the four-volume Wizard's Spell Compendium and three-volume Priest's Spell Compendium are similarly authoritative.  For more niche play, the Castle Guide is excellent for those interested in the domain game, while Of Ships and the Sea expands the game into the nautical realm.  I've always found the three-book Forgotten Realms series on deities—Faiths & Avatars, Powers & Pantheons, and Demihuman Deities—to be far more useful to steal from (even in non-FF campaigns) than the comparatively tepid Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore, bound as the latter were to real-life pantheons.  And there are even some fun adventures in the period: Night Below is remembered by many as largely offering an excellent underdark crawl.

Overall, I think 2nd edition could be said to be at once both the last of the old-school editions and the first of the modern ones.  Committing to neither wholeheartedly, it's prone to being lumped in with—and at the same time disappointing—fans of both playstyles.

What we have in this new edition is a better version than the first one.  It is a new version that can provide even more fun and excitement.  It is also a smoother flowing game that can work to stimulate the player's own imagination in even more new and exciting ways.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

I see no need to delve into 3rd edition and later in any deep fashion: I think by this point it's clear that by 1989 the game had firmly moved away from its original base in numerous ways large and small: staff, support materials, rules framework, and general design intent.  Insofar as 3rd edition matters specifically, we'll cover it in the next post, when I examine the birth of the OSR itself.


[1] Accurate sales figures for TSR are notoriously difficult to come by, and it should be cautioned that there are numerous contradictory figures out there, likely a product of the various lawsuits TSR was involved in that relied on how much money the company was making, as well as the degree to which TSR worked at times to conceal these figures and whether one is looking at core book sales or sales overall.  Additionally, it is easy to lose sight of game-related sales amongst the larger sales volume of TSR as a whole, which came to include things like novels.  Benjamin Riggs posted some relevant information on Facebook back in 2019, and this Jon Peterson article and his book Game Wizards takes a close look at the matter as well.

[2] The raging arguments over ascending vs descending armour class aside, the observation that, were negative armour class not in use at the game's start, no one would have ever seen the need to invent it, has always struck me as a powerful one.  Steve Winter explained that "We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armour classes going down instead of going up?’  People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us.  We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

[3] Page 47 (1989 version).  "Hero" appears seven times in the 1st edition PHB (mostly with regard to heroism effects from potions), 38 times in the 2nd edition PHB.  At the same time, the 1st edition DMG's beginning does speak of populating "imaginary worlds with larger-than-life heroes and villains", so certainly there are hints of such behaviour even there in the 70s.

[4] Besides the DMGR1 quotes that follow, see also Jonathan Tweet's "Freestyle Campaigning" chapter in DMGR5.  Also, I'm not clear on why DMGR1 a) is called the Catacomb Guide rather than the Dungeon Guide, and b) has no catacombs, strangely enough.

[5] Or it was just lost in editing.  It's always dangerous to speculate on these things without adequate information.

[6] The DMG did offer a DM the opportunity to declare an area "particularly dangerous", raising the encounter rate to 1 in 10 per turn, which is notably higher than 1 in 6 per 3 turns.  However, as the movement rate remains 10 times as fast, even with this change the overall result taken as a dungeon whole results in markedly fewer encounters, since you're clearing a dungeon far faster.

[7] The effect of Charisma is only explained in the PHB, in natural language on the page before the Charisma chart,
while the section in the DMG doesn't mention Charisma modifiers at all, strangely.  As such, how Charisma modifiers were supposed to interact with the chart was easily missed (as I did for quite a while).  Neither Sage Advice, the errata, or the 1995 re-release ever bothered to address the issue, perhaps an indicator as to how few people were bothering with encounter reaction by this point: between the cumbersome implementation and the general incentive to kill things, why would you?  However, the Complete Wizard's Handbook (of all books) did contain a clarifier.  Regardless, the table is still structurally inclined to aggression as a whole, by having any other positive effect push the result towards a Hostile result.

[8] Though the section at times reads as though two different sections were glued together somewhat haphazardly.  Page 45 lists character survival as a primary criteria for XP gain, stating that "Although having a character live from game session to game session is a reward in itself, a player should also receive experience points when his character survives."  However, page 47 then deals with survival awards again, stating "Finally, you can award points on the basis of survival.  The amount awarded is entirely up to you.  However, such awards should be kept small and reserved for truly momentous occasions.  Survival is its own reward."

[9] The complete removal of training costs and the domain game in 3rd edition core was a major shift in this direction, though the commodification of magic items in that edition somewhat compensated.

Late 2022 postscript: Melan has a succinct summation of how many old-school fans perceived 2nd edition over at Beyond Fomalhaut:

Old-school gaming came not to praise 2e but to bury it; it quite clearly got established by guys who hated 2e’s guts as much or even more than they did 3e’s. More than this antipathy, old-school gaming is a deliberate rejection of the 2e legacy, a style and school of thought which set itself up as its polar opposite in aesthetics, focus, design principles, and GMing style.  Its advocates saw 2e as a corrupted, bland, corporate husk of the original D&D spirit, and thought it was like a swig of clear spring water when they could finally get back to what they saw as the buried genius of those creative origins.  This is why it is named old-school after all: from the vantage point of 2022, all TSR D&D might seem old, but for those in the early and mid-2000s, the 2e era was still kind of a fresh wound, and in no way was it considered worth preserving.

[11] Interestingly, "soul" was literally forbidden from 2nd edition TSR products, but I'm sure that's a coincidence.

20 February, 2021

2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium Template

I want to do some more research for the next OSR History installment, so the series is on hold for a week or three until I acquire some materials I need.

In the meantime, a while back I thought of making a sort of Monster Manual III for private use comprised of all the creatures from the kajillion Monstrous Compendium releases that weren't already in 1st ed and were salvageable for a broadly vanilla campaign (i.e. no giant space hamsters, as cuddly as they are).  As part of that, I decided to follow the 2nd edition formatting, as I like what they did there.  But since there was no template for that existing, I had to make my own.

Some notes on its composition: 

  • The blue creature name font is Fritz Quadrata Bold EXCEPT for any punctuation in that name, which is Copperplate Gothic Bold because the FQ punctuation doesn't match up to what TSR used, somehow.
  • Body text is Zapf Calligraphic 801.  Note that while it's available to download for free, many of the fonts labelled "Zapf Calligraphic 801" online are actually Zapf Calligraphic BT; this is similar, but not identical.  I can't embed them in the Word document because their licensing forbids it, but I've collected the proper ones together and you can download them here.
  • In case you can't find this in the document, the blue is RGB 40/100/165.  You may want to print a sample out and compare it to a real MC page to see how accurate it is: I don't have a colour printer at home so I just eyeballed it on the screen.  Even then, there's at least two different core blues (a lighter shade in earlier prints, and a deeper one in later reprints of the same), plus an alternate one seen in the City of Splendors box set sheets.
  • There is no universal shading and layout format for the initial statblock in the official Compendiums (compare the statblock shading on MC1 vs MC3, or look at how MC7 tosses shading altogether and adds more subdivider lines instead).  What I've made is a compromise between variations.
  • I know the text and creature title don't match up in the sample.  The title is there so you can see punctuation in effect, while the body text shows how subsections are done (Noble Asperii).

For paper, I'd recommend skipping the tedious and ugly punch-reinforcement stage and getting this:


It's slightly thicker than standard 20 lb paper, and the entire ring edge comes pre-reinforced as well, so tearing is minimal.

EDIT: Updated Nov 2022 to adjust some header font, colour, and spacing issues.  I still need to get a colour printer to check that blue though, so once I do I'll almost certainly be updating it again.

Have fun.

13 February, 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part II

Dragon #22 - nothing to do with this article
In my previous post in this series I examined the evolution of the 1st edition-era adventure module, with a view to exploring how the design and play philosophy of old-school D&D moved away from its origins. While I plan on continuing to follow the adventure module into 2nd edition, for this post I want to primarily focus on rules.

While it might appear to be a no-brainer, I think an essential—and often overlooked—element of game design is asking the question, "what sort of gameplay does this rule actually create?".  The answer always trumps what the rules text actually says or the intention behind it, and is why so many apologist arguments based on "but that's not how it's supposed to be done!" fail to convince despite the empirical truth behind them.  When faced again and again with the natural outgrowth of a rule, at a certain point the logical response is to acknowledge that that's the reality, regardless of intention, and either reword the rule to better get what you originally intended, or acknowledge how it's actually being played in the wider environment and reinforce that.  I'll be returning to this point throughout the text.

Fanatical game hobbyists often express the opinion that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will continue as an ever-expanding, always improving game system.  TSR and I see it a bit differently. … Americans have somehow come to equate change with improvement.  Somehow the school of continuing evolution has conceived that D&D can go on in a state of flux, each new version “new and improved!”  From a standpoint of sales, I beam broadly at the very thought of an unending string of new, improved, super, energized, versions of D&D being hyped to the loyal followers of the gaming hobby in general and role playing fantasy games in particular.  As a game designer I do not agree, particularly as a gamer who began with chess. … As all of the ADVANCED D&D system is not written yet, it is a bit early for prognostication, but I envision only minor expansions and some rules amending on a gradual, edition to edition, basis.  When you have a fine product, it is time to let well enough alone.  I do not believe that hobbyists and casual players should be continually barraged with new rules, new systems, and new drains on their purses.  Certainly there will be changes, for the game is not perfect; but I do not believe the game is so imperfect as to require constant improvement.

Gary Gygax, Dragon #22 (February 1979)

True to this pronouncement, once AD&D’s last core volume—the DMG—was released in 1979, support for the game focused primarily on adventures, with the occasional other item such as DM shields, monster manuals, geomorphs, official beach towels, and so on.  It wasn’t until 1985, when TSR’s dire financial straits combined with Gygax’s accumulated backlog of Dragon magazine articles to produce Unearthed Arcana (UA), that we saw a major new rules supplement.  This sourcebook introduced a host of changes, mostly dubious, but while the material within it was perfectly capable of unbalancing campaigns,[1] it was not due to an alteration of the game's central design philosophy but because much of the material was poorly playtested.  In other words, most of UA is perfectly old school in tone, just bad.


The Decline of the Old School — Skill Systems


More relevant for our purposes than UA is the other hardback rules volume of 1985: Oriental Adventures (OA).  Following close on their heels was the 1986 duo of the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides.  Collectively, the effect of the sudden appearance of these four new rules-laden hardbacks six years after the last official AD&D rules release, plus the marked drop-off in module quality in 1984 (typically exemplified by Dragonlance) and Dragon’s insistence that all material going forward would use the UA rules when relevant,[2] eventually led players to refer to this late period of 1st edition’s life as 1.5 edition (or 1.5e).[3]  A major element of this "new" quasi-edition was that the three non-UA books all fielded D&D’s first (non-thief) skill system: the non-weapon proficiency (NWP) rules.[4]
System-wide skill systems (as opposed to those associated with a single class, like skills for the thief, which debuted in 1975's Supplement I: Greyhawk) were an early game design innovation.  They first showed up in 1976 in FGU's Bunnies & Burrows game, but are better known to most through their implementation in Chaosium's popular BRP rules system, starting in 1978 with RuneQuest.  Skill systems have some core downsides.  They add more rules to the game, imposing a comprehension tax that makes it take longer to learn (and to leaf through the book during the game when you're in search of a rule).  And, as with any character option added, they make characters take longer to create, as players want to go through everything available and make informed choices.  All the same, there are numerous games that effectively utilize skills, and if done well skills can provide a useful means of differentiating characters and defining their capabilities: this is not an article claiming that there is no role in game design for skill systems.
But to understand why they matter from a specifically old-school perspective, it's important to realize that, when a player wanted to do most anything in the game prior to this point, they usually had to negotiate with the DM for how to do it: was it possible, if so what would it entail, how long would it take (for time was a vital currency in old-school play) and finally, how would it be resolved mechanically (e.g. roll 1D6, 2D6, 1D20; Gygax favoured percentile).  A player would a) in general have to describe what they were doing (even if often this was just a very brief description), and b) tend to leave things that were assumed to be outside their grasp to NPC specialists (“why would I know anything about alchemy?”).  Tasks were arbitrated on the fly by the DM, with those that came up often enough typically given answers that progressed to the status of house rule.  Each group could handle things in their own preferred fashion.  With skill lists, even if optional, players tend to look to these as official implementations and want to use them in that fashion, greatly reducing the scope of rulings.
OD&D Vol. III p. 13.  Click to enlarge.
Skills also almost inevitably shift the playstyle to what one might call button-based gameplay.  Players no longer feel the need to describe what they’re doing, because the relevant skill check (or its kissing cousin, the attribute check) allows a shortcut.  To pick one example, every old-school ruleset back to OD&D had a basic X-in-1D6 roll search method for secret doors, but this existed side by side with a narrative (i.e. investigative) approach to actually finding the door that could entirely obviate the need for a roll
; see p. 13 of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures and pp. 97 and 99 of the 1st edition DMG for a good example.  Both existed, and the DM could use either as desired.  As time went on, the roll aspect came further to the fore, while the narrative angle retreated to the background.  B/X was happy to run with a declaration of intent followed by a roll (pp. B21 and B60), as was Mentzer, largely ignoring the narrative element.  Eventually we wound up with a universal application of “I make a Search check”, with the narrative element abandoned entirely.[5]  This broad tendency is so powerful that even with there being a caveat right in the rules of “X roll shouldn’t take the place of roleplaying or logic”, you still have people just shortcutting to rolls, because people are naturally lazy.[6]  To return to the question I opened with, "what sort of gameplay does this rule create?"  Here we see a mechanic slowly but surely changing the face of play.

Good or bad effects on play by the concept aside (and there is certainly a school of thought even amongst old-school players that there's nothing wrong with just rolling for searches rather than wasting an enormous amount of playtime pixelbitching your way across a room), this all assumes that the skill system was well constructed.  However, in these early days of RPG design, the pitfalls of these systems were easily missed, and mistakes were made.  There is a sort of cobra effect present in many skill systems, in that rules designed to increase variety and player options actually wind up reducing them.  Before NWPs, a general principle of D&D might be termed “assume competence”: it was presumed that players could survive in the wilderness, ride a horse, start a fire, and other typical adventuring tasks.  Generally, there was a broad swath of everyman knowledge and abilities related to adventuring (the PC realm) and then everything else (alchemy, deep lore, crafting, etc), which tended to be shunted off to the NPC realm.
Under the Oriental Adventures rules, however, Fire Building and Survival became barbarian-only skills.  These weren’t exotic implementations, either: Fire Building allowed one to literally start a fire, with the natural follow-on assumption that if you did not have that skill, you couldn’t start a fire—otherwise, what’s the point of the skill?  For the general skill list, Cooking, Dancing, Fishing, Gaming, Horsemanship, Hunting, Small Water Craft, and Swimming were some of the skills listed.  Very few of these offered anything interesting (one was Horsemanship, which was not about mere riding but allowed a few interesting tricks).  Swimming was simply “the basics of swimming”; Cooking, Dancing, and Fishing were the same.  Small Water Craft allowed you to make a raft or row a boat, or hide them if needed, while Gaming let you cheat, abilities no DM would have previously ever imagined reserving to the specially trained.  Now, however, all of these were locked behind a skill wall, and sometimes a class wall on top of that.  While the occasional genuinely interesting (if niche) skill was presented, like Falconry or Tea Ceremony, broadly a system designed to increase PC competence wound up dropping it: the average OA character used more rules to be less capable than ever before.[7]

Of course, this was just for Oriental Adventures.  For non-OA AD&D campaigns, NWPs came into the ruleset via the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides.  Each had a variant of the OA system, with more focus on the environment under consideration; each was expressly optional.  While these books are generally considered the nadir of 1st edition, to their credit the designers did correct some of the mistakes of OA.  There was a specific statement that "Under normal circumstances, there is no chance of failure involved when characters attempt to use most nonweapon proficiencies".  The NWP writeups reflected this.  For example, fire-building now allowed one to start a fire without flint or a tinderbox; if you had these, you started a fire twice as fast as normal, which is a clear advantage if you actually cared to time firestarting.  Boating, Foraging, Mountaineering, Hunting: all these skills were mostly worded so that you were better than the average person at these things, rather than being allowed to do them at all.  Nonetheless, a wider tendency developed that restricted anything interesting along these lines to holders of the relevant skill, leaving the everyday adventurer less capable than in pre-skill days.[8]  Again, another clash of intent versus actual play appears.

The Oriental Adventures implementation gave fixed chances of success based on the skill (e.g. all characters succeeded at Hunting on a base roll of 16 or less).  The major issue that ran across the Survival Guide implementations, by contrast, is that they were tied to attributes.  For 1st edition specifically, the classic "3D6 straight down the line" rolling method for generating attributes was noted in the DMG as suboptimal, and Method I (of the four suggested, which did not include 3D6) was 4D6, drop the lowest, arrange to taste.[9]  But even this improved method only produced an average result of 12.25.  A system based on attributes for the average PC thus only meant success a base 60% of the time.  Additionally, regardless of stats or modifiers in your favour, the Dungeoneer’s Guide had an automatic 15% chance of failure (any check result of 18-20 auto-failed, after consulting Dragon #118 for errata), while the Wilderness Guide had an automatic 10% (any check result of 19-20 auto-failed).  There were some selection pressures in favour of success that are not immediately obvious when you look over these systems, in that players will tend to pick the skills their character class makes them already inclined towards, and thanks to the assumption that you can arrange your stats to taste and then pick a character that best suits those, you’re liable to have a slightly better stat forming the basis of the skills you bothered taking.  But all the same, failure rates beyond the basic tasks that auto-succeeded tended to be rather high.  You could improve your chances by investing more slots into the same proficiency, but as slots were quite rare (about 3 to start, plus 1 more every 3-4 levels) and the improvement created by repeat investment small (two points), this was not a popular option.  Some NWPs had innate check bonuses (e.g. Healing was two points easier than average; Fungus Identification was six points easier), others negatives (Airborne Riding was ominously two points harder), and situational modifiers were encouraged, but either were just as likely to be negative as positive.

Outside the realm of the player character, skill systems can also have a major effect on adventure design.  When implemented intelligently they increase scenario complexity in entertaining ways, offering varying approaches to key problems.  When handled poorly, however, they can literally cripple an adventure.  The most common such design error is “roll to play”.  If the players don’t make their Etiquette skill check, the key NPC won’t help them; if they fail their Lockpicking roll, the door to the dungeon won’t open.  While some might find it hard to believe that anyone would write such a scenario, a quick glance at adventures reviewed at tenfootpole.org makes it clear that this longstanding issue continues today.[10]

Issues or not, the NWP system began seeing implementation outside the new rulebooks.  The first ever appearance of skill use in a D&D adventure comes in 1986’s OA1 (Swords of the Daimyo):

In addition to these items, there is a beautifully done sutra scroll in the library worth 500 tael to the Konjo Temple.  However, only characters with religion proficiency are able to identify the true value of this scroll.

This is also notable in that up to this point, under our “assume competence” mantra, PCs were assumed to be skilled appraisers of all things lootable.  Here, however, we have gold (and thus XP) locked away behind a skill wall.  It’s only a small and isolated amount, but notable all the same.


D&D’s first ever skill check appeared in a random encounter in 1987’s OA3 (Ochimo the Spirit Warrior):

These sea spirit folk are intrigued by the Kozakuran ways, in particular such arts as calligraphy, poetry, noh, origami, and tea ceremony.  A character proficient in any of these peaceful areas may attempt to impress the sea spirit folk’s daimyo to allow safe passage.  Base chance of success is a roll of 11 or less on 1d20, modified by the number of proficiency slots taken in the appropriate area.  If a spirit folk PC performs the task, add a +1 bonus to the roll, while a sea spirit folk PC who performs the task gains a +2 bonus.  Success indicates that the sea spirit lord is impressed and allows the ship to pass without further incident.  The individual who demonstrated the proficiency is awarded 100 XP and a point of honor for his actions.  Failure indicates that the sea spirit lord was unimpressed, and the character loses a point of honor.


If no one has any of these peaceful skills (or will not admit to them), the sea spirit folk, sullen and disappointed, grant the ship passage for twice the normal tribute.  The next day the ship is becalmed in addition to any other event.

In terms of non-Oriental Adventures modules, 1987's The Grand Duchy of Karameikos Gazetteer introduced limited skills to BECMI, including D&D’s first proper social skills (Bargaining and Persuasion), while that same year's H3 (The Bloodstone Wars) was the first non-OA module to make the assumption that the group was using proficiencies:

Please note that characters without swimming proficiency should have substantial penalties when fighting submerged.

Such an implementation was actually more interesting than the standard approach, which typically would have just applied the substantial penalty to everyone in the water and called it a day.

The Non-Weapon Proficiency system having been pioneered by David Cook, it is no surprise that it became core in 2nd edition, for which he was the lead developer.  The skills used there largely follow their form in the Survival Guides (including being based on ability scores).  The system as a whole remained optional, like so much content in the system, as Cook saw 2nd edition as a modular ruleset: continuing in the DIY spirit of early D&D, he wanted to permit DMs to assemble their own personal ruleset out of the toolkit the official books provided.  Following from this admirable approach, allowances were made for people to continue playing in the old, “make it up as you go” fashion, with some notes on the advantages and disadvantages of such:

The biggest drawback to this method is that there are no rules to resolve tricky situations.  The DM must make it up during play.  Some players and DMs enjoy doing us.  They think up good answers quickly.  Many consider this to be a large part of the fun.  This method is perfect for them, and they should use it.


Other players and DMs like to have clear rules to prevent arguments.  If this is the case for your group, it is better to use secondary skills or nonweapon proficiencies.

But skills as a whole were by this point firmly embedded in RPG culture, and so you would see NWPs steadily employed in official D&D materials going forward (including an optional "General Skills" system in 1991's Rules Cyclopedia, the last major core rulebook for Basic D&D).  The extremely popular Complete series embraced them from day one: PHBR1 The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, debuting alongside the 2nd edition core rulebooks, made proficiencies mandatory if you wanted to use its contents, as did 1990's PHBR3 (for priests).  PHBR2 The Complete Thief’s Handbook “highly recommended" them.  By the close of 2nd edition there were some 150 General NWPs in existence plus dozens more that were setting, class and race specific, including such adventuring stalwarts as Cobbling, Cheesemaking, Flower Arranging, Pest Control, and Pottery.


By the time NWPs (rebadged as skills) were made both core and mandatory for the release of 2000's 3rd edition, they were already a widely accepted part of the D&D landscape.  The new edition's more important change was in how it expanded the skill realm.  Specifically, 3rd edition introduced the concept of the social skill to mainstream D&D.  Other games, such as Champions, had long used skills that helped arbitrate social interactions, but until this point D&D had shied away from such, featuring only a few of these, and only in supplements.  Now, however, Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, Innuendo, Intimidate, and Sense Motive became core skills, offering core-gameplay interpretations of how to handle interactions.

Supporters of such implementations argue that, just as there are rules to govern combat and other physical activities rather than roleplaying it all out, so should there be for social elements.  Just as a player probably isn't particularly skilled at melee combat but can create a character who is, a player who may be terrible at smooth-talking in real life should be able to play a suave trickster and have the rules back that up, rather than being always condemned to fumbling whenever it's time for negotiation because the DM doesn't think much of their real-life abilities in that regard.

While I can understand that line of thinking, there's no doubt that the overall effect to moving social interaction to the realm of rules does remove a lot of the freewheeling nature of such.[11]  It also further shifted gameplay to the button-pushing mode I referenced earlier.  Instead of “I approach the guard with a friendly look on my face.  I sympathize with him about the cold and the job, then slip him ten silver and ask if he’ll let us pass”, you tend to get “I use Diplomacy to bribe the guard”.  It's easy to sympathize with the designers, who likely never intended for this to happen, but at this point we once again go back to the game design question I opened this post with.  "What sort of gameplay does this rule actually create?".  The answer always trumps what the text actually says or the intention behind it, and in this case, I think the result at the table is clear, based on the many, many complaints this aspect of 3rd edition has generated over the years.

Third edition also had some rather awful implementations of specific social skills.  While it was smart enough to make them untrained skills (meaning that anyone could attempt them, skill or no), Sense Motive in particular was obnoxious.  "Use this skill to tell when someone is bluffing you. ... A successful check allows you to avoid being bluffed....  You can also use the skill to tell when something is up (something odd is going on that you were unaware of) or to assess someone’s trustworthiness."  In actual play, this very quickly became Detect Lie.  There was also a "hunch" aspect to the skill that theoretically allowed a DM to convey imperfect information ("You can get the feeling from another’s behavior that something is wrong, such as when you’re talking to an imposter. Alternatively, you can get the feeling that someone is trustworthy"), but in practice it was merely a slightly vaguer lie detector: while the DM didn't have to tell the player that their check succeeded, there was not really any grounds for giving false hunches as the result of successful checks, so "you get the feeling that he's lying to you" was usually just a longwinded way of the DM saying "he's lying to you".  The skill even let you detect if someone was under the influence of enchantment magic.
Similarly annoying was Gather Information, which in its most basic form needlessly replicated the standard old-school rumourmill but with mechanics ("Use this skill for making contacts in an area, finding out local gossip, rumormongering, and collecting general information.")  In its advanced form (higher difficulty), it allowed one to serve up whatever piece of vital information was required.  This sort of metaskill, which boiled a non-linear, non-standard yet broad task down to a simple roll that bypassed problem solving, would be implemented in an even more obnoxious fashion in 4th edition's Dungeoneering skill, which allowed one to "remember a useful bit of knowledge about an underground environment or to recognize an underground hazard or clue"—only a short distance from a catch-all "Adventuring" skill.

While not social, 3rd edition's skill list also introduced the notorious Search skill, which governed finding secret doors and traps.  By this point I think the central complaint about such a concept from an old-school perspective is clear (interrogative play vs. roll to solve the problem), and so there's no need to belabour the point.

The Decline of the Old School — Universal Task Resolution

One of D&D's few outright design failures is in its attitude towards ability scores: that it has always warred between having attributes randomly determined in some fashion and the vital importance of attributes in general.

It was not always this way.  OD&D core (1974) placed very little value on attributes.  No class or race required a set score minimum to play.  Only Charisma, Constitution, and Dexterity had any class-independent mechanical effects at all, and these were weak compared to modern effects, as you can see.

Ability score effects in OD&D

The other scores only mattered in terms of determining bonus or negative XP earned, if one of them happened to be the prime requisite for your class: you could gain up to 10% bonus XP, for example, if you were a Magic User and had an Intelligence of 15+, or lose up to 20% of all earned XP if your prime requisite was 6 or less.  Otherwise Intelligence didn't officially matter one way or the other.

With such comparatively weak effects, what would become the old-school standard of 3D6 to determine attributes worked fine, and there was nothing unusual or especially difficult about playing a character with average or even low ability scores.  From the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) onward, however, attributes starting granting higher bonuses to more things and being required to access more of the available classes.  In Greyhawk, Strength and Intelligence received non-class dependent effects, to match Dex, Con and Charisma, while the effects of Constitution were increased.  The supplement was also the first to introduce demihuman level limits based on their attributes.  For example, Elves, originally limited to 4th level as Fighters, could now become 5th level if they had Strength 17, and 6th level with an 18.

It's not necessary to detail every change in the old-school rules that increased the importance of ability scores: it's enough to understand that ability score creep started early, culminating in AD&D.  This led to increasingly convoluted rolling methods to “randomly” generate scores while still ensuring high enough values were generated to keep players happy, Unearthed Arcana's infamous Method V being the best example.[12]

But while the above illustrates the steadily increasing importance of ability scores, this only shows how the design intent behind the game shifted in its first decade.  To some degree this sort of progression was natural: if you're going to bother having ability scores, they might as well actually do something in game terms, after all.  Other than inviting stat inflation and an encouragement to cheat during character creation, this evolution didn't really change the fabric of old-school play much.  Where this matters is more in what this set the stage for.

The ability score check, where one tries to roll equal to or under their ability score to succeed at something, was first seen in proto-form in Dragon #1, in an incredibly convoluted fan article that was promptly ignored forever.  In official terms, the AD&D spells Dig and Phantasmal Killer were the only core points of that ruleset to employ such a mechanic, in one-off fashions: the core manner of resolution for any given task was "figure out if it involved an element of chance, and if so, figure out some odds for it on the spot, applying modifiers as the DM deemed necessary."  Of course, officially this is pretty much the way most every RPG is handled.  The key difference is that most games come with a standard method by which this is done: a core mechanic that handles such situations.  As per the opening of this article, for old-school D&D, there was none.  If it wasn't specifically covered by the rules, you made it up how to resolve it entirely, including the roll (if any) or other resolution method involved in resolving it.  Lest we get too revisionist, rolls still occurred all the time to resolve matters: every DM formed basic assumptions or principles to guide their decision-making process, and this often defaulted to the dice (as suggested by the DMG, p. 110).  The importance here is not in some sort of idea of dice versus no dice, but in the fact that there was no assumption in the rules that dice were required for such resolutions, let alone that everything could or should be resolved that way and that there was further a pre-defined, "proper" way to do so.  This may sound like splitting hairs, but the actual effects in terms of gameplay are enormous.

Moldvay Basic, 1981
A system-wide D20 ability check mechanic first appeared in 1981’s Moldvay (p. B60), tucked away in the DM section as an optional method called “There’s Always A Chance”, and in that same year's Cook (p. X51), which featured the same rule but called it "Saving vs. Abilities" and expressly badged it as optional in a way that was only implied by Moldvay.  From the two oddball spell implementations in AD&D mentioned above, the mechanic next began slipping into AD&D support products: first in I3 Pharaoh (1982).  The issue was revisited in Dragon #67 in an article by Katharine Cook (Dec. 1982), which, following the general 1st edition love of percentile checks, multiplied your ability score by 5 to arrive at a percentage chance of accomplishing tasks related to that score.  Even Gygax eventually used a form of it: 1982's WG4 (The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun) called for a check to dodge a net by rolling 4D6 and trying to get equal to or less than your Dexterity.  The popular Dragonlance modules from DL2 (1984) onward used such checks--called a “Characteristic Check” there--introducing the concept at the start of each volume as a required mechanic.  In 2nd edition AD&D, ability checks were included in core, but like Moldvay in a vague manner: "ability check" appeared in the Player's Handbook glossary and was not mentioned as being optional, but the rules themselves did not employ it beyond this.[13]

Ability score checks are simple, intuitive, and quick: it's no surprise that from such ad-hoc beginnings they grew to become the favoured task resolution method of many groups and then systems.  Third edition made ability checks an unambiguous core rule: anything that was not resolved via skills (which were modified by attributes) was to be handled via ability checks.  Their elegance conceals several dangers, however.  For one, as written above concerning the Survival Guide ability score-based proficiency system, there's little granularity to such checks unless you are very free with modifiers: players with high stats almost always succeed, and players without very often or almost always fail.  Secondly, everything written above about the button-pushing tendency created by skills applies twice as much to the ability score check: whereas a skill is by its very nature bounded to a specific area, even if a broadly applicable one like "Search", the ability score check marks the arrival to D&D of universal task resolution.  Anything could, and eventually was officially required to be, adjudicated using it.  Rather than challenges being solved via the interplay between player and DM, ruled on an ad-hoc basis, the first few rolls a player made during character creation determined much of their success rate at almost any given activity in all the weeks or months of play ahead, and the dice were first and foremost the means by which you mechanically interacted with the world--and now there was a mechanical interaction for almost everything.  The entire core resolution methodology of the game became, in some fashion, button pushing.

Again, while one can argue that the negative gameplay results of such were not intended and are by no means completely necessary, the obvious differences between the play style of old-school D&D versus third edition and later are, I'd argue, no coincidence.  Though the official ability score generation rule for AD&D and its successors largely remained Method I from edition to edition (excepting 2nd and 4th ed, though even in 4th it was one of three available methods), ever-escalating ability scores became the norm, until the very idea of playing with scores that applied negative modifiers was often seen as ridiculous.  More importantly, a clean, fair, consistent, easy to use system wound up smoothing away a kludgy, improvised, inconsistent, occasionally abused, and extremely interesting fundamental element of the old-school playstyle, and the result was that the emphasis on player creativity over what was on one's character sheet swung decidedly the other way.

I am writing in opposition to all of these new nonweapon proficiency rules.  They are boring, damaging to campaign balance, and simply don’t belong in AD&D games.  They are boring in that they slow down play and give players a whole new set of statistics to worry about.  They damage balance in cases such as when a fair-size party covers almost all of the best proficiencies; situations that normally require thought and problem solving are easily taken care of.  For example, in the AD&D module WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, there is a scene in which the PCs are forced to either have a desperate battle in the dark or hold off a demon until they can find the secret of lighting the area.  Thanks to proficiencies, the local barbarian could blind-fight the thing to death, and the party could figure out the lighting at its leisure.  If you want proficiencies, there are plenty of games out there loaded with proficiencies; play them.  The AD&D game is one of DM’s judgment and improvising.

Bahman Rabii, Dragon #137 (September 1988)

Next time I'll be focusing on the broader changes introduced by 2nd edition, to explore how that edition is commonly charged both with being too similar and too different to what had come before.

[1] See, for just one example, Len Lakofka’s article analyzing the new weapon specialization rules: “Specialization and Game Balance”, Dragon #104 (Dec 1985).


[2] “The Transition Starts Now”, Dragon #99 (July 1985).


[3] The first reference to 1.5e I can find is from 1995, in the rec.games.frp.dnd usenet group.


[4] I'm not including the 1st edition DMG's Secondary Skill system here.  This system, which gave a character a pre-adventuring career (e.g. farming, sailor, teamster, hunter, trapper), and a broad knowledge base derived from this, featured no rolls or special abilities.  It was "up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character."  This system would be featured as an option in 2nd edition as well, alongside the NWP system.


[5] The common OSR approach to secret doors, as epitomized in Matt Finch's influential A Quick Primer, largely follows the AD&D and earlier approach, but as we have seen, it was not the only method used in old-school play and there has been some pushback against Finch's depiction as overly reductive or even anachronistic.  See this Alexandrian article for a 2009 example of such.


[6] Another good example of such includes the D&D/AD&D thief, whose skill-based set of abilities lent itself well to button-based gameplay ("I search for traps"*rolls*).  See also this article on "hidden skills" in B/X, and Grognardia's overview of the thief's role in D&D.  At the same time, for those who find the traditional OSR interrogative approach to be an exercise in pixelbitching, cutting to the chase with a simple mechanical solution can be very freeing.  Similarly, placing the burden of estimating risk vs reward and the mechanical execution thereof on DMs relied on the DM being good at doing that on the fly, and many were not, easily leading to frustrated players and relief at having something codified by professionals (though one look at the procedures in the Survival Guides made it clear that professionals did not always get it right).  Again, we’re largely speaking of how approaches can differ and change, rather than always contrasting right vs. wrong.

[7] Looking back on nonweapon proficiencies in 2008, in a thread on Dragonsfoot Cook wrote, "I think they were a good thing.  One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.  This gave players a way to create a more culturally informed background for their character.  Well-used and applied, proficiencies were a way to say things like "This is the result of being raised by farmers/wolves/priests/pirates."  It got people to think about their characters as something other than being sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.  Now proficiencies didn't work as well when they just became excuses to do special things in combat.  At that point they lost the sense of making your character more than a class and became another way to munchkinize him."


[8] As an example, the very first non-OA skill check in D&D—1988's I14 (Swords of the Iron Legion)—appears in a scene where a horse breaks free and runs wild in the streets.  Unless someone has Speak with Animals, only a character with Animal Handling is permitted to deal with it in a fashion besides just killing it.


[9] 3D6 down the line was used in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, BECMI, and AD&D 2nd edition; 1st edition was the outlier in this regard.  Note that several of these had "hopeless character" clauses that allowed you to discard PCs who had very low scores.  I think the popularity of 3D6 down the line in the OSR is one-part the dominance of B/X over AD&D and one part "hardercore than thou" zeal of the converted exhibited by some of the OSR's adherents.


[10] Another issue is the quantum skill check, where a skill check result is delivered regardless of player actions.  For example, “If the party fails the check, an NPC just points the fact out.”  In these cases, pass or fail: the result is the same.  This however just tends to signal a certain pedestrian strain of design rather than actually ruining the adventure.


[11] I also find interesting 2nd edition dev Steve Winter's notion that "The counter argument, which I seldom hear, is that relying on a numerical system to resolve skill use rewards players who are good number maximizers at the expense of those who are not.  By favoring one approach over the other, aren't we just swapping one type of player talent for another?" 


[12] For a statistical analysis of the standard old-school ability score rolling methods, see this Dragonsfoot thread.  Note that its Summary 3 has a couple of minor errors.  For a magic-user using Method 0, the chance is 70.64%, not 74.07%, and for an illusionist using Method 0, the chance is 0.43%, not 1.50%.  Additionally, I think all the Method 3 values are wrong, not that anyone generally uses that method.


[13] According to Daniel Boggs over at Hidden in Shadows, Arneson employed a version of attribute checks in the 70s, though as with so much related to Arneson the details are a bit vague.