Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Division of Labor, Distance, and Time #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 |

This post covers three topics, but the division of labor is short.

Division of Labor

Wizard GIFs | Tenor
I’m a controller!

Over on Facebook, someone replied to one of my 1e posts with the following:

“I find the biggest difference in 1st Ed is how essential the thief class is, because there is no option for anyone else learning their skills. In later editions, it was relatively easy to work rogue skills like stealth, climbing, and trap detection into other classes.”

— Rick

That’s the entire quote, and I didn’t think to ask whether he’s saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it’s a good thing. I also suspect Rick has never played 4th Edition D&D (“4e“). 🙂 4e went out of its way to make the division of labor clear by identifying each class as a defender, leader, striker, or controller. 1e inherently did the same because there were only a few classes (some with subclasses) that were noticeably different. I prefer this because in order for a character to shine, a character needs a specific set of circumstances that it, and not others, was well suited to address. A clear division of labor inevitably leads to moments where one character has a chance to shine above all others. That’s the very essence of heroism. Bravo, 1e, but for systems with far more classes, expressly stated categories may be helpful.


And now it’s time for something completely uncontroversial: 1e was a tangled mess of confusing units. In combat situations, a character with movement rate of 6″ could move 6′ in a segment.

Wait, what? Why? Why not just say 6′? I’m pretty sure I know the answer. These guys were used to using rulers to measure distance on their dining room tables, and as RPGs evolved, the terminology didn’t. Maybe 1″ grid maps didn’t exist yet, but damn that was confusing to 9-year-old me, and why would the nonexistence of 1″ grid maps matter for theater of the mind anyway?

Next we get to outdoor movement. There, a movement rate of 6″ meant that a character could could move 6 miles in “one-half day’s trekking.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-7.png
Kirk could trek faster.

Okay, this is exposing an elegance in the math, so Lord Gygax is pulling me back in. The same movement rate is applied in a uniform rate to different situations even if the precise choices defy logic.

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Spock does not approve of defying logic.

That makes things easier but still doesn’t justify using a quotation mark instead of an apostrophe. We’re bound to associate the movement rate with what we expect the character to move, rather than what we expect the player will measure with his ruler. Not that it would matter, because indoors, 1″ = 10 feet, whereas outdoors 1″ = 10 yards (PHB, page 39).

Wait, what? Why? You’ve lost me again, Lord Gygax. I get it. You want to say that the range of a bow is always 210″ even though the indoors made archery more difficult, but handling the numbers this way is counter-intuitive. Just say that the range of a bow is 210′ indoors and 630′ outdoors, because that’s exactly what you mean. Even wargamers shouldn’t have a hard time adjusting to this. By converting everything from inches to feet, what do we lose? We lose a uniform statement as to distance. That is, 210″ will no longer be the range of the bow in all cases. However, I could live with that. There’s a reason this was abandoned by . . . everyone, I think.


In adventuring below ground, a turn in a dungeon lasts 10 minutes . . . . In combat, the turn is further divided into 10 melee rounds, or simply rounds. Rounds are subdivided into 10 segments. . . .

PHB, page 39

I really don’t miss this. When you ask the DM whether it’s time for you to go, what do you say? “Is it my turn yet?” How about we just call each time a player acts as its turn (an abstraction), and, since we’re going around the table taking our turns, a full set of turns a round (6 seconds, because in truth they’re all going at the same time, so it’s all crammed into 6 seconds)? Ah, but then we’d have to call 10 minute periods 10 rounds! It appears Lord Gygax didn’t believe we could multiply or divide by 10 in our heads. Well, we can, so now we do. Besides, who cares about 10 minutes when you’re in a battle that usually takes less than 5 minutes to resolve?

Nevertheless, as I’ll discuss in my next post on 1e, segments are deeply embedded into the fabric of the game. We can’t get rid of them without a major rewrite of the rules. I, for one, am not willing to do that, and they don’t ruin the game for me.

Gratuitous Star Trek >> Star Wars image.

This post was clearly about weaknesses of 1e rather than its strengths. It’s impossible to write or talk about any system without landing on its weaknesses. 1e clearly had more of the former than the latter, but that’s exactly what you should expect from a pioneer.

Thank you, Lord Gygax, for running those bases.

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