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Comments on The Gray Book

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I mentioned a nice compilation of the OD&D rules here a few days ago (see The Gray Book: OD&D Compiled). I printed out a copy and the players at my Sunday Microlite74 game looked it over while we played.

The general consensus is that The Gray Book is the best "revised" version of OD&D and supplements yet. It is well-organized. While it incorporates a lot of text taken straight from the various OD&D booklets, it clearly written and easy to understand. Part of that clarity comes from having everything related to one subject in one place instead of scattered across many booklets, but the editor added additional text here and there which simply explains things better.

There is one major flaw with the system, IMHO, it uses the Dexterity-based initiative system from the Holmes Basic Set. I've never liked this as it requires the GM to roll (and track) each monster's dexterity. As far as I'm concerned, that's far too much work for too little gain. However, it is easy to substitute a different initiative system into the game.

The Monk character class from Blackmoor and psionics and artifacts(from Eldritch Wizardry) are missing from the rules, as are some optional rules that few people used such as weapons versus armor class and hit locations (from the Blackmoor supplement). Illusionists and Rangers have been added from OD&D supplements, and articles in the The Strategic Review and The Dragon. The Ranger also has a lower-powered version of spells for Rangers from AD&D. A few other minor things have probably been taken from AD&D as well, but for the most part The Gray Book seems to have drawn on OD&D. It take little effort on a DM's part to add material written for either OD&D, B/X, or AD&D 1e. This makes most of the material from early issues of The Dragon and White Dwarf or from modules by TSR or Judges Guild available.

This will probably be my "go-to" version of OD&D for the future. It will be easy for players to print out if they want a copy. It uses OD&D hit tables and saving throws. It includes the classes and other material from the OD&D supplements -- or at least most of the material in common use. It is well-organized and easy to understand. Unlike Swords & Wizardry, all the advice on creating dungeons and wilderness adventures from the third OD&D booklet is in The Gray Book.

While the original OD&D booklets cannot really be replaced, The Gray Book comes closest to being a usable replacement, at least in my opinion. Unfortunately, it's definitely a "gray market" item. It's free but it is a definite copyright violation as, unlike the retroclones, it is not covered by the OGL. However, as I said in an April post, since WotC pulled the legal PDFs of older versions of D&D from the market, I no longer feel the need to play unpaid copyright police for them at my game table.

16 comments:
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David Macauley said...
September 21, 2009 at 8:32 PM  

This has been on my list of things to print out for quite a while now, but just hasn't made it to the top of the list. After reading your thoughts Randall, I'll have to do so. Thanks.

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The Rusty Battle Axe said...
September 21, 2009 at 8:48 PM  

Yes, thanks. I just downloaded a few days ago.

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Matthew Slepin said...
September 21, 2009 at 8:51 PM  

I need to look closer, but at first glance, it does seem more AD&D than D&D to me.

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Randall said...
September 21, 2009 at 9:03 PM  

Matthew: OD&D with the Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry supplements was more or less a proto-AD&D. Most of the AD&D classes, but without the AD&D combat system (no AC 10 or the over-complex unarmed combat rules, for example), without the much larger AD&D spell lists with their longer descriptions (and without gestures and material components), etc.

This was one of the reasons that it was so easy to continue playing D&D while using the AD&D books (as they were published) as just more optional supplemental material.

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Joseph said...
September 21, 2009 at 9:04 PM  

"the over-complex unarmed combat rules, for example"

What was unarmed combat like in 0E? I confess it's been so long I don't really remember.

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David Macauley said...
September 21, 2009 at 9:34 PM  

I need to look closer, but at first glance, it does seem more AD&D than D&D to me.

I must admit that this had been my thinking too. Reading a 148 page pdf on the screen does my head in and so I have never given "The Gray Book" a fair chance, but it's rolling off my printer right now. :)

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Randall said...
September 22, 2009 at 8:13 PM  

Joesph asked: "What was unarmed combat like in 0E? I confess it's been so long I don't really remember."

That's probably because there is really nothing to remember. Other than the rules for Monks in the Blackmoor supplement, there really weren't any special rules for unarmed combat. Perhaps the closest thing to them were the rules for subduing dragons which many GMs I knew used for far more than dragons.

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Traveller said...
January 26, 2010 at 10:49 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Traveller said...
January 26, 2010 at 10:55 AM  

I know I'm late to the party, but I need to chime in since it is my name on the edit byline in the book.

The original idea behind "The Gray Book" was a "what if" question. What would the Holmes Basic Rulebook have looked like had it not been severely edited into the 48 pages that exist today? Holmes mentioned in his preface to that book that he used things from Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry in that book. However, with the exception of Greyhawk, I never found anything from either Blackmoor or Eldritch Wizardry in the book. As I note in the introduction though, as I worked on it it evolved from this idea into an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Light. This I don't feel is a bad thing, since with supplement I (Greyhawk) you get many of the tropes that made up Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition in the first place.

In the end, it's a lot easier to add to a set of rules than it is to take away from them, and that's what I did. This is the set of rules I would want to use, but I made it available for anyone to use if they wished.

Regarding psionics, they're coming in the optional rules supplement I'm in the process of editing. The reason why they don't appear in the main book is that psionics really destroys the feeling of being in a pseudo-medieval setting.

Monks and Bards also are to appear in the supplement. The reason these two classes do not appear in the main book is their narrowness of focus. The monk is an oriental character, and can sour the flavor of that pseudo-medieval setting. The bard I have never seen as a player character, but as a NPC class.

Artifacts don't have a place in the main book because of their power level and the simple belief that these should be found, not randomly rolled.

A few final things, and then I put down my pen for a while. Initiative is Holmes' based because I simply happen to like it better than d6 rolls. Plus, contrary to what many people think, Holmes' initiative is an individual initiative system. This means if units a and b get within ten feet of you, it's broken down into two separate attacks: you vs. a and you vs. b. So you get to attack twice, one attack at a, and one attack at b. I knew in putting it in how much extra paperwork is involved, but I believed the paperwork to be an acceptable trade-off for having a little more reality in combat.

I know this is a major copyright violation, and that is why it is on Mediafire. I will never upload this to my website because of the copyright violations and because of certain elements in the retro-clone groups that seem to believe their game is better than Ezra. If for some reason the link is no longer available on Mediafire, I can be found at the Troll Lord Games forums, under the moniker of Traveller, or you can reach me at my email address: strephon.alkhalikoi@yahoo.com . Put your request in the subject line and I'll send you the current copy.

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David Macauley said...
January 26, 2010 at 2:36 PM  

Holmes mentioned in his preface to that book that he used things from Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry in that book. However, with the exception of Greyhawk, I never found anything from either Blackmoor or Eldritch Wizardry in the book.

I wouldn't be so sure Holmes wrote the Preface, he certainly didn't sign it and we know that Gary made a lot of edits in an attempt to pretend that Holmes' version was AD&D compatible, for marketing reasons of course (Gary later confessed this in an article in the Dragon magaizine).

And while Holmes originally said his book was based on the 3LB's + Greyhawk & Blackmoor, he later said that he took nothing from the Blackmoor supplement. These statements too can be found in the Dragon magazine. Holmes is OD&D lite plus some unique Holmesisms.

certain elements in the retro-clone groups that seem to believe their game is better than Ezra

I tried looking up the definition of the phrase "better than Ezra" and all I could find was information about the band. Being passionate about the OSR and clone movement, I am very curious to know what you meant by this comment Steven.

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Traveller said...
January 26, 2010 at 5:20 PM  

There is bad blood between myself and fans of one particular retroclones, mainly because I called the legality of their game into question. One other reason was their presenting the product as the "salvation of AD&D" when it didn't need saving.

As a result I don't support retroclones and have concluded that retroclones are a solution in search of a problem. What sets the Gray Book apart from the retroclones is that it doesn't claim compatibility with D&D because it IS D&D. A similar argument to one in the early days of computers. Which would you rather have, an IBM compatible computer or an IBM computer?

I wouldn't settle for anything less than a IBM computer. So why accept a clone?

NOTE: While I don't support retroclones, I know people play them. Play what you like. :)

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David Macauley said...
January 27, 2010 at 8:56 PM  

Sorry to hear about the bad blood Steven and even sadder to hear that it caused you to not "support the retroclones".

I won't bother addressing the legality issue as that argument has been done to death and few take it seriously anymore.

I think the statement "retroclones are a solution in search of a problem" is both untrue and suggestive perhaps of a misunderstanding of the purpose of the clones.

First and foremost the clones seek to keep alive the older versions of the game in order to grow the old school niche. They do this by enabling product compatible with the original games to be legally produced and sold. And the "sold" part is extrememly important.

Having products in bricks and mortar gaming stores (as two clones currently are, not to mention other products based on clones) gives crediblity in the eyes of younger gamers, the target audience for the growth of the niche.

Until recently, old school forums were the haunt of a group largely 35-45 years old and getting older by the day, not to mention the fact that as time goes on, this aging group naturally shrinks. In the last 12 months there has been a great increase of younger members, people who haven't previoulsy played older versions of the game, but cut their teeth on 3e and even 4e. This is a direct result of the clones. Their testimonies on forums and blogs show this to be true.

It is important to understand the mindset of the majority - who are not interested in collecting old original copies (largely because they lack the nostalgia factor) - but want bright, shiny new materials. The clone movement provides that. And as a result, not only has there been an explosion of creativity in the last couple of years, but we're seeing the niche grow in numbers rather than slowly shrink.

And there are a bundle of reasons why the clone rule books themselves are a great idea, but they're such obviously practical reasons that I wouldn't bother explaining them here - which is where the IBM vs. IBM compatible comes in.

To simply blow all this off or try to cast it in a negative light would be a pretty sad place to be. These are exciting times and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

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Randall said...
January 27, 2010 at 9:27 PM  

"I wouldn't settle for anything less than a IBM computer. So why accept a clone?"

Clones were cheaper and eventually far better than IBM PCs. Retroclones are certainly cheaper than TSR originals these days. They also make it easy to create house-ruled versions as many retroclones have editable document version available for download.

I scanned and OCRed by OD&D books in the early 2000s, but not everyone has the tools to do that or the time to do it well.

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Traveller said...
February 1, 2010 at 12:34 AM  

David, I have a very clear understanding of what the retroclones are trying to accomplish. But with the original material still readily available through many channels (print via ebay or Amazon, PDF via torrent or direct download), that is one reason the retroclone game is a solution in search of a problem. In that light, the Gray Book is also a solution in search of a problem since OD&D sets are still available. Of course OD&D did have a problem in organization....

I've had this argument before on the Troll Lord Games forums, and there was a thread there I participated in where I made much the same statement about the clone games. I won't reprint it here because there's no real need to reprint it, but it can be found at TLG's site. When all is said and done, while the argument about "shiny new materials" is a new one, it changes nothing. Clone games are solutions in search of a problem.

Supporting a clone game means I support the mentality behind it. The mentality of game fans who have to make themselves feel better by trying to be a cyber-bully. The mentality of game designers who allow it and the mentality of message board owners who encourage it. Sorry, but I cannot support that kind of thing. If that makes me an Internet pariah, at least I will be one knowing I was steadfast in my beliefs.

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David Macauley said...
February 1, 2010 at 2:31 AM  

Supporting a clone means I support the mentality behind it. The mentality of game fans who have to make themselves feel better by trying to be a cyber-bully.

Sadly Steven you are making the classic mistake of judging a whole community by the actions of a very small minority within that community. Every community, movement or scene has a small but very loud minority who dominate the show by shouting down the more reasonable majority. That this minority doesn't reflect the views of the majority is often overlooked, and consequently the whole group gets tarred with the same brush. This type of thinking is very simplistic and unfair.

Within the niche of gamers who love the TSR versions of D&D are a very tiny group of hard core fundamentalists. In the past these people have shouted down all opposition on a handfull of old school forums, driving off many good people. But times have changed.

Over the last couple of years we have seen the rise of blogging and the growing popularity of PoD publishing. Many of the old school creative types found a new way of reaching out to the like-minded, one that doesn't involve running the gauntlet of the fundamentalists on the forums. This has coincided with the release of various clone games. Consequently there has been an explosion of creativity and a growth of the old school niche. New forums have started up where people can discuss the older games in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, leaving the loud mouths patting each other on the back and running around the same old ground in a couple of older forums. Good luck to them.

Most of us in the OSR are aware of the bitter feud that went on in the TLG forums in the early days of the clone movement, even though many of us weren't part of the scene at the time. It doesn't take much reading to see that there were bad eggs on both sides of the argument, and if you're honest, you'll admit we're talking about a very small amount of people actually directly involved.

The people who make up the core of the clone movement and the OSR are very different folk to the noisy minority. The latter rarely, if ever, seem to contribute in any positive way to any venture. They certainly don't represent the OSR. I'm sure the same could be said for some of the loudest of the anti-clone brigade.

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David Macauley said...
February 1, 2010 at 2:33 AM  

But with the original material still readily available through many channels (print via ebay or Amazon, PDF via torrent or direct download), that is one reason the retroclone game is a solution in search of a problem.

I totally reject your "solution in search of a problem" argument as short sighted. I'm probably wasting my breath here, as your mind seems well and truly made up, but I hate to see such tired, worn-out arguments presented (such as "there's plenty of originals available"), without being fairly countered in some way. As I said previously, there are multiple reasons why the clones make good practical sense. I guess to me they just seem obvious.

Here's some reasons from my own perspective. I live in Australia, not the US. We don't have gaming stores in every town and suburb selling used rpg materials. Ebay is the main market for such items here. We currently have a population of 22 million, back when TSR was producing D&D, our population was much smaller. D&D books go for ridiculous prices on Ebay Australia, with foreign postal and exhange rates making overseas Ebay just as bad. Collecting original materials for your gaming group is hideously expensive here. The clones allow me to play D&D with my group far, far cheaper.

I collect D&D stuff, I don't want to play with my original books, I want to keep them in good condition. My players all want their own books, but most can't afford the originals. The clones allow us all to play from the same page.

I'm not the most imaginative guy and have never been any good at writing adventures. I don't want to play the same old modules, over and over and over again. And to be honest, though there's a fair bit of free stuff on the net, there's not mountains of the stuff out there for older games, and what is there isn't always that good anyway. The explosion of creativity that surrounds the clones has seen some great writers come out of the woodwork. It's hard to keep up with all of the new stuff. Thanks to the clones, I now have plenty of new adventures to play with my group, and there's more being published all the time, keeping my old school gaming new and fresh.

And I've seen a growing amount of younger gamers discovering the older versions of D&D, and falling in love with them, because of the clones. These people growing the size of this niche.

Steve, there are so many reasons why the clones are a good thing. To dismiss all this because you've rejected the whole movement over the behaviour of a small group of arseholes, people who aren't even involved in the scene, really is a tragedy.

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