Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Elements of a Classy RPG: Dungeons & Dragons (BECMI)

This post is part of a series concerning Class within the context of Role-Playing Games.  For an introduction to the series, see The Elements of a Classy RPG: Introduction.
Dungeons & Dragons:
Basic Set (1977-1983)

Dungeons & Dragons has a strange history.  Although the game first appeared in 1974, written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, would eventually be divided in 1977 into two different games: Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  The “basic” form of the game would eventually be released from 1977 to 1986 in several boxed sets with multiple revisions, labeled as Basic (Red Box), Expert (Blue Box), Companion (Green Box), Master (Black Box), and Immortal (White) sets.  These would eventually be compiled into the Rules Cyclopedia in 1991, corresponding with several mass market items, including the “Big Black Box” and its progeny.  The interesting consideration is that for nearly two decades, Dungeons & Dragons had two distinct forms with contradicting rulesets and approaches to play.

My first Dungeons & Dragons set was the BECMI Basic Set, a system of sometimes questionable acceptance in the greater D&D world. I really liked it at the time and I thought it was a great way to learn about the game. The rulebook had a solo adventure to show you how things worked and it provided content to unleash upon your unwitting friends. To this day, I rarely see role-playing game products that introduce players to the game quite like the old Red Box did. There is something about thrusting a potential player right into it through a solo adventure that so many games fail to do. When they created a new mass market product, the “Big Black Box,” they made an even bolder attempt at the solo adventure concept.  It used a map, paper stand-up characters, and an involved packet of tabbed pages.  However, outside of those products, I did not see that kind of introduction to a role-playing game until the new D&D Essentials Red Box and the Pathfinder Beginner Box.  What sets the old Red Box apart for the discussion here was the way that edition of Dungeons & Dragons approached the concept of class.

The "Big Black Box" of the early 1990s.
Out of the box, the base game had seven classes.  Character creation was an extremely simple affair.  Although the game lists twelve steps, that may be something of an exaggeration.  [Note: This twelve step process was taken from the 1991 TSR publication D&D Rules Cyclopedia.]  Step 1: Roll for ability scores. Step 2: Choose a character class.  Step 3: Adjust ability scores (lowering some to raise your “prime requisite”).  Step 4-6: Roll for hit points and money, buy equipment.  Step 7-8: Computer other relevant numerical data (saving throws, ability score bonuses, etc).  Step 9-11: Choose alignment, name, height, weight, and other “background” elements.  Step 12: Earn experience (seriously a step of “character creation”).  The whole process probably took less than 15 minutes.  The only real choices involved in making your character that had mechanical result were rolling ability scores and choosing a class, with the potential option for tweaking ability scores to better prepare your adventurer.  So, class was an extremely big deal in this edition as it said mostly everything about your character.

This guy is a Fighter.
The four Human classes ran the standard D&D range of “core” classes: Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, and Cleric.  If you picked a Fighter, your character was a Human Fighter.  There were no Elf or Dwarf fighters in this edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  The same was true of the other three core classes.  However, the class you chose said a lot about who your character was and how he interacted with the world.  Did he wield the powers of magic?  Did she invoke the gods?  Could he sneak about, undetected by others, and gain access to locked and trapped spaces?  Honestly, given the few choices you had in character creation, your class said more about who your character was than any other choice you made.  There were no subtle distinctions and no real variants.  This Dungeons & Dragons had no Paladins, no Rangers, no Wardens, no Duelists, no Barbarians, and no other sorts of nonsense (at least not as a basic class choice).  This was Original Dungeons & Dragons.  You picked one of four classes and you filled in the rest on your own.

What do you mean Halfling is
a "class" in this edition?
One peculiarity of this system was the presence of three demihuman classes.  To play an Elf or Dwarf in Dungeons & Dragons, you chose that as your class.  They occupied a space somewhat different than the Human classes.  The Elf was a sort of Wizard/Fighter, allowing strengths of both classes to shine.  The Dwarf felt like a Fighter but with unique traits or characteristics unique to a non-human race.  The Halfling felt like a very different kind of special fighter, acquiring different abilities that made him more capable in woodland settings.  By the Expert Set, they had a different advancement system and very different rules, but in the short term they felt a lot like unique or interesting variants on the standard Human classes.  All around, the idea that the fantasy races were described using class felt like a really peculiar choice but it worked in the context of making a game easily approachable by new players.  That said, it did result in one peculiar element: all Elf, Dwarf, or Halfling adventurers were very similar to one another, potentially even exactly the same.  An astute player may wonder: what about Dwarven Priests or Elven Thieves?  As far as player characters were concerned, there was no such thing.

Hey!  These guys are Fighters, too.
This way Dungeons & Dragons handled class is interesting when compared to other games.  Your class says everything about you character mechanically.  It says a lot about his place within the world yet it leaves a great deal of room for you to fill in the blanks.  Was your Fighter a brave, stalwart knight, clad in the shiniest armor in the realm?  Perhaps your Fighter was a dueling swashbuckler, fighting off enemies with a deft blade and clever wit.  Maybe that Fighter was a wild tribesman from the Far North, clad in hide and swinging a mighty axe at his foes.  They were all Fighters and, to that extent, all the same.  Yet, by not saying much about the character, it did allow you, as the player, an opportunity to fill it in as you thought relevant.  It just so happened that any choices you made about your character would not mechanically impact your character unless your Dungeon Master wanted them to (and made up some rule to provide for it).
The Druid, relegated to
level 9 Cleric upgrade.

At later levels, the core classes began to see some variety in the options available.  Fighters could choose to become Paladins, Avengers, or Knights.  Clerics could choose to become a Druid.  Wizards and Thieves would have to choose whether to become free agents or lords.  Although available, these options to further customize your class were few and far between.  In fact, most characters would have roughly one or two choices to make throughout the adventuring career.  They usually amounted to choosing between a traveling lifestyle or that of a landed ruler.  Would you have a stronghold or would you become an agent of an existing lord, guild, or priesthood?  With all that being said, the mechanical elements were light compared to later editions of the game.  It made character advancement simple but not terribly enthralling.

It seems very strange to look back on so definitive a game and realize that it did not provide a great deal of options for players with respect to character advancement.  A player could make two Fighters, creating one as a fur-clad barbarian with axe and the other a dashing swashbuckler with rapier, and both would function identically outside of their randomly rolled ability scores and weapon choice.  Maybe this dearth of features or options are why an Advanced version of Dungeons & Dragons felt so necessary for some players.  Perhaps this fundamental lack of options, features, or interesting things to meddle with is why so many people who played the game began making up their own rules.  Class provided you only the most limited framework with which to build a character.  It was up to you, be it player or Dungeon Master, to fill in the interesting details.  Maybe wearing lighter armor gave your swashbuckler a bonus in a way that an armor-clad knight would not have.  Maybe your group felt the need to create your own classes to fill the holes.  Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel like it would have been nice if the game gave players something to make each character feel unique from another character of the same class.
Madness? No, this is Dungeons & Dragons!!!
It is a strange thing to look back at a game system I loved so much as a youth and find that it no longer feels welcome amongst my stable of interesting role-playing games.  It had its interesting points, to be sure, but that old systems sits in a weird place in the modern game world: it is too complicated and fussy to fit in with modern story games but wholly unsophisticated (complicated?) enough when compared to modern tabletop RPGs.  The game’s use of a class system is so encompassing yet so fundamentally uninteresting as to give a player like me pause.  Unlike a game like Rifts, this original Dungeons & Dragons does not supplement its simple class options with a vast range of selectable classes nor does it allow the mixing of different classes in unique ways like Final Fantasy.  The class system presented here, outside of its bare simplicity, does not bring much to the table when it comes to looking at class within a RPG.  As it stands, this Dungeons & Dragons serves best as a gateway game, introducing players to the concept and then quickly turning them to more sophisticated options.

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