Reading Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Part 36.1 - Addendum: Comparing play style between first and third edition

Because I am sometimes a complete tool who spends money on things I don't need, I picked up the reprints of the D&D 3.5 books on Friday. Really, I wanted to support the effort of WotC releasing, well, anything not fourth edition.

I sat down to page through the DMG and noticed, to my surprise and delight, that the example of play listed in the DMG is the exact same scenario as the one in the first edition DMG. The major changes are the inclusion of the 3.5 iconics (Mialee, Lidda, et. al.) and the difference in rules.

I thought this would create an absolutely fantastic opportunity to highlight the change in style assumption between old school and later edition D&D gaming. I will attempt to do so without value judgement, just highlighting what I view as the difference in play style between the two editions, and hopefully explore how D&D has evolved from one to the other over the years. I should put forth the caveat here that while AD&D first edition is hands down my favorite version of the game, I also have had many, many years of fun playing D&D 3.0 and 3.5 and I think both of these editions are great games unto themselves.  Certainly I house rule out some of the more complex aspects of 3.x, such as the assumption of miniatures and tactical combat...but in all honesty, how many people actually play first edition by the book?  I have a 12-page house rule document for first edition as well.

So, without further delay, let's get into the comparison.

The example of play in question involves a group of characters going on their first adventure, to explore the ruins of an old monastery. They enter a room where they are attacked by a giant spider, follow a hallway to a room with a pond and stream, where they recover from a limed-over skeleton a scroll tube containing a partly spoiled map of the dungeon, and then into a large cavern where they discover ten feet off the ground, a secret door that (unfortunately for their thief) is containing a group of ghouls who drag the thief into their clutches.

 The first thing I noticed--and probably why it took me so long to realize this scenario is the same as the first ed. one--is that the 3.5 version has no map or map key associated with the example of play. I think this is a bit of a mistake, as the one in the first ed. book then allows the DM to actually use the scenario/sample dungeon to kickstart his own campaign with a strong guideline of how the game could (but doesn't necessarily have to) go.  In 3.5 it's simply an example.  There wouldn't be anything stopping a GM from constructing a map based on the descriptions in the example, but it doesn't serve as quite as good a campaign jump start.  However, it's likely that such is not the intent of the 3.5 one, which is located much earlier in the book and probably seeks to get new DMs into the spirit of things more than it serves as an example of how everything you've read thus far fits together.

The second noticeable thing to jump out is that the third edition example is far shorter than the one in the first edition book. This isn't because third edition is smoother or faster, but because the focus is on the rules rather than the story being told. There's a lot of skill checks in the third edition example, whereas the first edition example sees the DM describing in great detail what the characters see, and letting the players pick out what stands out, and acting via description rather than via skills on the sheet.  Here's an example:

First Edition (p. 98-99):
...The party has just forced open a door and a sudden gust of wind has extinguished their torches...

LC: Halfling and gnome, what do you see with your infravision!? Should we slam the door?

DM: It takes a few seconds for their eyes to adjust to the darkness and then they tell you that they can detect no creatures - everything appears to be the same temperature, cold.

LC: Cleric, it is time to use your light spell, for we'll never get torches lit in this wind. Cast it on your 10' pole. (there is a delay while the cleric complies, and then:) We are now poking the bright end of the pole into the place and looking; tell us what we see.

DM: The space behind the door is only rough-hewn and irregular. It appears to be a natural cave of some sort which was worked to make it larger in places. It is about 25' across and goes 40' south.  A small stream - about 15' wide at one place, but only 6 or 7' wide elsewhere - runs south along the far wall. there are 3 buckets and several barrels in the place, but nothing else.

LC: Check the ceiling and floor. No more nasty surprises for us! if we note nothing unusual, we will check out the buckets and barrels quickly. (Aside to the others:) This was probably the water supply room for the monastery so I doubt if we'll find anything worthwhile here.

OC: Where exactly is the wide spot in the stream? I think that I'll check out that pool. (The DM tells the player where it is....) Now I'm looking into the water with the bright end of my staff actually thrust into the liquid, what happens?

DM: First the others checking the containers find that they hold nothing but water, or are totally empty and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4 to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?

LC: Yes, let's get out of here and go someplace we can find something interesting.

OC: Wait, if those fish are just blind cave types, ignore them, but what about the stone formations? Are any of them notable? If so, I think we should check them out.

DM: Okay, the fish are fish but there is one group of minerals in the deepest part of the pool which appears to resemble a skeleton, but it simply--

OC: If the pole will reach I'll use the end to prod the formation and see if it is actually a skeleton covered with mineral deposits from the water! I know the Shakespearean bit about a "sea change!"

DM: You manage to reach the place and prodding it breaks off a rib-like piece. you see bone beneath the minerals. As you prod, however, a piece of the formation is caught by the current - a cylindrical piece about a foot long - and it rolls downstream." 

Edition 3.5 (p. 9-10)
...same scenario: the party forced open a door and the gust of wind extinguished their torches....

Tordek: Do I see anything with my darkvision?  

DM: Beyond the door is a chamber with rough walls, not blocks of stone like the room behind you. it's 25 feet wide and extends about 40 feet to the south. A stream spills through the room into a pool, carrying with it a cold, damp breeze. You don't see anything moving around, but some old barrels and buckets are here.

Jozan: I cast Light on a rock since we'll never get a torch lit in this wind

DM: Okay, now everyone can see.

Tordek: I look at the ceiling and the floor for any more nasty surprises.

Mialee: I look in the barrels and buckets.

Lidda: Jozan, bring your light over and we'll check out the pool.

DM: Tordek and Mialee, make Search checks. Lidda and Jozan, give me Spot checks since you can't "search" the pool without getting in, but you can look intot he water to spot anythign that might be there. (The players comply and tell the DM their results....) There's nothing alarming about the ceiling and floor, and the buckets are empty. The pool has some small white fish that look harmless - they don't react at all to your light. The pool looks to be about 4 to 6 feet deep with a rough and rocky bottom. Jozan, with your result of 17 you see that what at first seemed to be a rock formation at the center of the pool looks somewhat like a skeleton.

Jozan: Cool! Mialee, will you cast your own light spell so I can toss this rock down into the pool to get a better look at the skeleton? It might be something interesting.

Mialee: Okay, i do.

Jozan: I toss the rock that I've cast light upon into the water, toward the center of the pool.

DM: Your stone falls to the bottom of the pool, illuminating the center. The formation is clearly a limed-over skeleton - it must have been there for many years. Your stone impacts with it, striring up dirt and muck, and dislodges what appears to be a cylinder about a foot long. The current quickly begins to carry it away...

So there's a lot to be seen here. I should note also that earlier (and a couple times later) in the 3.5 DMG, characters make direct reference to the light not spoiling their low-light vision or darkvision. This is a direct note to players of older editions, for whom characters had infravision, which saw heat signatures and was spoiled by things such as heat and light--a torch negated infravision, whereas low-light vision and darkvision enable characters to see beyond the range of the existing light; the 3.5 versions of demihuman vision are superior in most ways to the infravision of older editions.

But getting back to the quotes at hand, you can see that the 3.5 version takes less time to play out. The text is roughly 25% longer in the first edition version (517 words, vs. 381 words).The third edition descriptions, while plenty detailed enough to paint a good picture, aren't quite as detailed as the first edition ones. There's a reason for this, however: the characters in the first edition version are far more reliant upon their players' decisions. Note that there is not a single die rolled in the first edition version of this scene, whereas in the third edition version, there are four. In the third edition version, had Jozan failed to roll a 17 on his spot check, he'd never have seen the skeleton. In the first edition version, knowing that the skeleton is important, the DM feeds the information to the character simply because the player states she's looking for something notable in the pool.

Again, I am not making value judgements about which style of play is superior, but the example presents a fine portrait of the very different assumptions between first and third edition D&D when it comes to actual play. First edition is more reliant upon narration, description, observation, and PC action, whereas third edition is much more reliant upon mechanics such as skill checks. I have heard many gamers argue that the third edition style is superior expressly because it helps to remove the "shitty DM" factor from play by covering situations such as these. I have heard first edition fans argue that first edition is superior because it's more open, free, fast and loose, and that no amount of rules can overcome a crappy DM, which is always a factor anyway.  Those who know me and who follow this blog can guess on which side I fall (though truthfully in a lot of ways I'm in the middle), but such a debate is not the intent or purview of this blog.  I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to actually lay out a comparison of different editions of D&D as written by TSR and WotC themselves. 

I could compare the entire sections line by line, but that would get tedious and frankly, I don't have the time to do so. But I invite others who have read both examples to chime in and discuss--just please keep it civil. And if you haven't read both examples, and wonder what this old school thing is all about? This is your best treatise right here--even better than the Old School Gaming pamphlet that has been distributed with Swords and Wizardry. I'd recommend a close reading of both sections to any gamer who is interested in the development and evolution of D&D. 

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  1. Also, the 3e dumbasses didn't bring a 10' pole so they wasted their light-rock on a wild maybe in the pool.

    1. Yeah, I always found it amusing that the 10' pole went the way of the dodo with 3.x (even by 2e, a lot of people had stopped considering it a must). This is kinda crazy--I mean, sure, a 10' pole is a bit cumbersome to carry around (unless you have a bag of holding), but a quarterstaff is 6-7' long, so that's still a decent substitute, especially for a light spell.

  2. This explains a lot. Yes, the difference is clear. Great post!



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