Thursday, February 4, 2016

oD&D (1974 Dungeons & Dragons) v. Pathfinder

Six weeks ago I joined an ongoing oD&D campaign. We’re three sessions in, and I’m having a blast. In some ways, it’s very different from the D&D I’m familiar with (which is largely 3rd Edition derivatives, with liberal portions of AD&D and 4th Edition and a dash of 5th for zest). I thought I’d put together this table to illustrate how it’s different from my current squeeze, Pathfinder.

Character Creation
Super simple. Done in 10 minutes. What distinguishes one Magic-User from another is his/her personality, loot, and motivations.

The negative is that there aren't many crunchy options. You get one spell as a level one Magic-User, determined randomly, and you probably only have 2 hit points. Good luck.

Complex, but the process is very rewarding. I love building characters that can do interesting tricks with the game mechanics.

On the downside, my friend's latest character (Sorcerer 10) can cast 31 different spells. While that could be seen as a plus, he's never played a Sorcerer before, and printing off a spellbook for handy reference is kind of a pain when it's that thick and detailed.
DM Prep
I haven’t prepped an oD&D game myself, but there’s a big difference between this stat block:

Werewolf: Move 120, AC 5, HD 5 [hp 20] 2 attacks [1d6/claws]. Only hurt by silver or magic weapons.

That said, having a highly detailed and descriptive system isn’t bad, but it does dramatically increase DM prep time.
Lethality and challenge
Crazy lethal. No negative hit points—you hit zero hp, you die. Cure Light Wounds only heals 1d6 and doesn’t show up until level 2. Pray you never fail a saving throw.

That said, it is amazingly satisfying to roleplay your way out of a combat encounter you have no chance of winning with force, and it happens pretty often in this system.
In my experience, Paizo published material isn’t terribly dangerous. It's designed for Society play (ie. pick-up groups full of characters that aren’t likely to have good synergy), so to be fair, it can't just be hard-mode all the way through.

Homebrew campaigns can ratchet up the lethality by tailoring fights to fit the party, though, in my humble opinion, the Challenge Rating system is utterly unreliable.

Rules are tersely written and require deep reading, not skimming. Upside: They’re short. The layout of the old books is just awful, though, but if you simply can’t tolerate the bad layout, good news: Swords and Wizardry did a great job of  (essentially) re-packaging it for visually oriented people like myself. If I ever DM an oD&D game, I'll likely use S&W.

Pathfinder can overwhelm new players with choices. Hell, it can overwhelm seasoned veterans with choices. Modules are also very densely written. Honestly, It’s probably better to come to Pathfinder after you’ve already played a couple different systems.

What do I do with all this gold?
Since you get XP for acquiring gold, everyone’s a treasure hunter. Of course, spending your gold is tricky, since there are no magic item shops per se. Instead, you can get lost in the minutiae of building castles and strongholds, or figuring out how many mercenaries to hire this month for your conquests. I personally enjoy this kind of thing, but I can easily see where other people would find it dull. A good DM needs to know the in-game options available to his players and be able to deal with greedy players (like myself) who want to set up trade caravans, rob topaz quarries, and offer competitive banking options to the oligarchy.
So you’re level 5 and have 11,000 gold? Here’s a long list of magic items with price tags attached.

Some people hate the idea of commoditized magic, but I’m not one of them. I think it’s a reason to have your character loot those golden idols and trigger the boulder trap, because there’s a Phylactery of Negative Energy Channeling waiting for you back in town if you can only scrounge up 2,000 more gold pieces!

It does, however, mean you’re likely to have shopkeepers that are 15th level wizards with iron golem bodyguards, just to keep greedy 2nd-level rogues from looting the +3 longsword of haste he’s got on the 20% off rack. (Or you could just let them steal it and make it a plot arc, which has worked well for me in the past).

Or you just have players who will happily wander through your game world without questioning any of your conventions, but unless you all agree to play blissful naives who are too fragile for this world, that’s never going to happen. (Amazingly, my current group elected to play Lawful wunderkinds, so I'm actually living the dream.)

The Endgame
The endgame is running a kingdom, your thralls worshipping at your feet, reciting litanies of your legendary deeds. You can still die to a spider bite, but you have a dozen heirs and retainers ready to take your place. You’re a mortal with a fascinating legacy.
You’re a superhero. You summon angels, fly all the time, travel across dimensions in the blink of an eye, and assassinate the gods themselves. Even if you could be killed, you’d just come back as a clone, buy some new gear, and retrieve all your old gear once you’re through meting out vengeance.

Sandbox v. Railroad
Sandbox: (copied from Alex Schroeder) Dangers are not adapted to the strength of the party. Generally speaking, it’s safer near civilized settlements. The further you move into the wilderness, the more dangerous it is. That’s how players control the risks they want to take....The actions of your characters determine the direction the campaign will take. There is no planned ending for the campaign. As long as you keep investigating rumors, exploring locations and following quests, [the DM] will keep developing the game world in that direction. The harder you look, the more there is to see.

Railroad: In this context, I'm using railroad to mean, "A game with a structured, linear plot in which the characters are expected to take on the role of protagonist or antagonist." There's probably a better word for this idea than 'railroad' but I can't think of what it is.

This game is designed to be a sandbox. Monsters get harder the further away from town you travel, so if you morons want to kill the Dragon of Doom at level one, you should have just told me you didn’t want to play and we could’ve all gone to a movie. 

Conversely, if you don’t want to go to the Forsaken Temple of Linear Progress that I’ve spent hours prepping, well, there’s no way in hell I’m getting you through those (obviously trapped) front doors.
Pathfinder is great for running challenging yet balanced encounters in a linear fashion. Some of the modules/adventure paths make BIG ASSUMPTIONS about player motivations (Hell’s Rebels, I’m looking at you. You had so much potential! Grr!) and that can be frustrating both as a player and a DM. If you’re running a homebrew campaign, most of those issues disappear, but then those ugly, multi-page stat blocks show up and make on-the-fly DMing feel like a chore.

So, I guess, Pathfinder is better suited for linear gaming, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad, choiceless railroad devoid of player agency. It’s just much, much harder to run a sandbox game in Pathfinder than it honestly should be.

So there you go. It’s a biased, far-from-comprehensive list, but it gets the point across.

As an aside, I must admit I had some misconceptions about playing oD&D. I played a game (Castle Zagyg) at GenCon last year and loved it, mostly because of the quirky people at the table and the excellent DM. I learned that lots of people still played oD&D and that the old stuff was getting harder to find, which I found really intriguing.

Then someone told me about the Old School Renaissance. 1974 D&D was still alive and well and hey, you should check it out, there are a lot of indie gamers making new and cool stuff. I didn’t go too deep, though, mostly because my next foray to OSR was through Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Lamentations doesn’t skimp on the horror, gore, and sex (which is fine, it’s a game for adults, but reading spell effects in the core rulebook that talk about gang rape or genital mutilation was like, “Nope, pass.”) Lamentations also uses THAC0 and AD&D conventions that I find obtuse, but again, like it says in the header, I don’t hate on systems. If you’re playing LoFP and loving it, shine on you crazy diamond.

(Despite the assertions I’ve made in the preceding paragraph, Scenic Dunnsmouth and A Red and Pleasant Land are both LofP products and incredibly fascinating reads. I doubt I’d ever use them exactly-as-written, but they’re inspiring material for any game that makes use of weird horror.)

That said, my current oD&D game is set in the marvelous Yoon-Suin, which the author describes as "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks." It's a trip. You should check it out.

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