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A friend shared a video with me reviewing First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (“1e”). It’s one of many out there, so watching this particular video isn’t what’s important here. Something the speaker said struck me as odd. He referred to 1e as “rules light.” I know this isn’t a popular position, but I disagree.
In game design, there’s always a push and pull between abstraction and reification. Is what happens governed by rolling dice or describing the setting and negotiating what makes sense? In this respect, the differences between games are twofold: 1) Which rules are abstracted v. reified; and 2) in what proportion (i.e., how often is abstraction chosen over reification)? That is, with respect to #1, one game may abstract initiative to a die roll, whereas another game may base initiative on how the encounter and character actions were described. With respect to #2, if a game has 10 rules, what percentage of those rules are abstracted?
I suspect that the reason 1e players see 1e as rules light is based on what they take for granted about the system. They see the complicated rules governing combat and spellcasting and say, “Well, of course those rules exist, but that’s it. Everything else is negotiated.” However, those rules, deeply layered with intricacies, are what make 1e as rules heavy as any others, just in a different way. You can pore over my posts from the past several weeks to see what I’m talking about, but as an example, the distance between the parties at the instant combat begins is largely determined not by a negotiation between the players and DM, but by a die roll. That’s a rule that’s been abstracted by every other game I can name, but in 1e, roll an X on a 1d6, and you start Y feet apart. That doesn’t sound “rules light” to me. Here’s a new one: Sure, on the surface, 1e doesn’t seem to have a system of skills to govern how well a fighter can pick a pocket, but in fact it does have such a rule. They can’t do it. You have to be a thief, assassin, monk, or thief acrobat (I think) to do that. The rules on class abilities define that. Just because the rule isn’t stated expressly in the fighter section doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. No one has ever credited 1e’s rules as “well-organized.”
I don’t mean to overstate the argument. Overall, 1e may be rules lighter than, for example, 5e, but I’m not sure the difference is as great as many may think. If 1e is truly “rules light,” it may be because players are choosing to play it that way through house rules and ignoring rules they don’t like (I’m looking right at you, armor type adjustments). That’s fine of course, but the point is that players can do that with any system. That doesn’t make the system rules light per se.
Whether a game is “rules light” is defined by what’s in the sourcebooks, not by how you choose to play it.
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