Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: “Level” @DelveRPG #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes by me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

Homonyms Suck

We all know the problem caused by having multiple uses of the word, “level.” Surprisingly enough (to me, at least), this was acknowledged by Gary Gygax in the 1e PHB.

It was initially contemplated to term character power as rank, spell complexity was to be termed power, and monster strength was to be termed as order. Thus, instead of a 9th level character encountering a 7th level monster on the 8th dungeon level and attacking it with a 4th level spell, the terminology would have been: A 9th rank character encountered a 7th order monster on the 8th (dungeon) level and attached it with a 4th power spell.

PHB, Page 8

Before I compliment this idea, I want to pull back a little bit. First, observe that it reads “to term character power as,” and then concludes that “power” would have been the term used to refer to spell level. It also refers to monster “strength,” which could be confused with the ability, but that’s not my point. I’m noting how interchangeable these terms are. If the ability, Strength, were instead labeled, “Might,” then strength is another reasonable substitute for level. There were a lot of options. Moreover, it introduces another term, “complexity,” that would certainly fit as a replacement for for a spell’s “level.” That’s more an observation than a criticism. Second, I don’t even see the need for “order” as a replacement for monster level; in fact, I’d advise against it. Characters and monsters are using “level” in the same exact way both semantically and mathematically, so there’s no need to use different terms for their “level.” This makes it even easier to clean up this linguistic shit pile with a result that’s a slight bit easier to memorize.

What’s done is done, but I’m not one with much love for sacred cows of game design. They impede its evolution and probably result from a fear of experimentation, or at least a perception of too much experimentation. So, I wish game designers, including Wizards of the Coast, would show a little more courage and abandon this ambiguous terminology. We clearly have several options, each of which would remove any ambiguity from the game, and in some cases would actually sound better.

So what happened? Why did D&D keep the ambiguity and doom us to this confusing terminology for decades? Because of this “logic.”

However, because of existing usage, level is retained throughout with all four meanings, and it is not as confusing as it may now seem.

PHB, page 8

I have two problems with this statement. First, “existing usage”? By whom? Wargamers? Gygax, et al. must have known that they were on to something different, and this was the very start of it. This is the precise time when you should make changes. Only the established players, which you know you’re going to play anyway, will have difficulty making the switch, but they’re expecting differences, so they’re prepared to do so. New players won’t know what they’re missing, which is good, because what they’re missing is ambiguity that would drive them nuts for decades. Sadly, that’s exactly what everyone got and are still getting.

The second problem with the statement is that the claim that it isn’t as confusing as it may now seem. Who is Gygax trying to convince here, you or himself? He clearly knows it’s exactly as confusing as it seems, which is why he has to address it. What he’s really saying is that he doesn’t want to have to learn new terminology, and he knows that eventually it won’t be a big deal … because it isn’t. I’m overstating how confusing this is. It’s not that hard to keep track, especially after you’ve gotten the hang of the game, but it is a potential barrier to entry, and all those small barriers add up. Those barriers don’t affect a trailblazer, but it does affect the decisions made by current game designers, so it’s relevant. The issue therefore is where to strike the balance between ambiguity and volume. In this case, I think having to learn a couple extra words is easier for a new player than having to keep track of different meanings of the same word, which can always create mild confusion even after everyone is used to it. If I were wrong, comic strips wouldn’t still ridicule it to this day. Either option is ultimately okay, but I stand by my request of game designers. My personal choice would be:

A 9th order character encountered a 7th order monster on the 8th (dungeon) level and attacked it with a 4th [either power or complexity] spell.

Sure, it sounds stilted today, but once we’re used to it, it would actually sound cool. That’s why I referred to courage above. A designer would have to weather that initial storm of complaints. By the way, I didn’t choose “rank” for characters or monsters because that could be confused with a “fighter’s” military rank. There’s no need to muddy the waters even further. I admit, however, that this shows that there will always be at least a small amount of ambiguity, especially when comparing mechanics with story elements (e.g., the Order of the Gauntlet). Certainly power wouldn’t work in 4th Edition D&D (i.e., “A power of 4th power”). I concede this inevitability, but my opinion on this particular issue in this particular context stands firm.

Tomorrow, I take things to a new level . . . and pick on a friend.

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