Wizards of the Coast is all fired up about D&D Next. So excited, it would seem, that they can’t get enough of our opinions, as evidenced by the endless train of polls on their official site. They claim that they want to capture the D&D experience for everyone and they hope to bring in fans of all editions. Perhaps the most important step in their minds is asking, ‘What makes D&D, D&D?’
This question goes back to the games roots. There were several versions of what is now called Original D&D, starting with the very first in 1974, continuing with he ‘blue box’ of the late 70s, the Tom Moldvay version (Basic and Expert sets) of the early 80s and culminating with the Frank Mentzer version of the mid 80s. While four different editions of the D&D game were produced (outside of Advanced or AD&D, which includes the more recent 3E D20 game and the current 4th Edition), the ones most recognizable to many players are, arguably, the Moldvay version with the Keep on the Borderlands module and the Mentzer version that included Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals. The latter had various supplements and gazeteers, not least of which was the fabulously original Hollow World campaign.
But what was it about that system that evoked such wonder? Is it mere nostalgia that makes it seem so grand?
The best part of Original D&D was its ability to instill a sense of wonder without slowing down play. While later editions did a better job of emphasizing role-playing vs. roll-playing and introduced a great deal of character customization, there was something elegant in being able to sit down to a session of the original game and explore room after room, level after level, all without getting bogged down into minutiae. Gone, it seems, are the days when a party of 6-8 PCs could go through several cave complexes of the Caves of Chaos or several wings of Castle Amber in a single game session. Gone as well are the simplistic party resource management and combats that take less than an hour and a half to complete.
Simplicity can be taken too far. The game considered Dwarf to be a character class, for example! Surely, there is room to allow race and class combinations, and perhaps even some secondary skills or weapon proficiency/mastery customizations. But the ridiculous wealth of classes in 3E and 4E with the various builds can be too much detail. Second Edition hit kind of a sweet spot with this by allowing for custom Priests spell lists and Wizard schools, though the edition would have benefitted from certain simplifications like the Will, Reflex and Fortitude saves/defenses and AC increasing from 10.
Multi-classing is another ticklish issue. In Original D&D, Fighter/Magic-user was implied for Elves. First and Second Editions had a pretty workable system that 4E tried, miserably, to recapture with hybrid classes. In 1E and 2E, a multi-class character with two classes would lag one level behind the single-class members of the party while a multi-class character with three classes would lag two levels behind. This was fine, and though the dual classing system felt tacked on, it showed how to do hybrid classing properly. As for adding classes beyond first level 3E did a pretty poor job by diluting the classes as the character level outstripped any one class level, but 4E did it much better with feats (which, in retrospect, was a lot like taking just one level of a class in 3E).
Even the monster entries were simpler, then. So much more seems to be necessary just to have an encounter these days that it’s almost not worth getting started. While the game balance that went into 4E is admirable, the injection of some of that into OD&D would do wonders for the system. And a little bit of the survivablity that 4E characters enjoy, without overdoing it (as 4E did), would do greater wonders still.
There are many other aspects of the game one might debate. AC vs. damage reduction and Vancian casting are just two major points of contention among gamers. But one thing that Original D&D did right was to make the game move smoothly and allow for a great deal of action and story in a small amount of time. And that’s a win.