Sunday, May 6, 2012

Unwelcome Side Effects -- or Why Do Old School Players Reject So Many "Obvious" Improvements to D&D?

Old school D&D players are often accused of being against even "obvious improvements" to D&D rules like unified experience tables and ascending armor class. Often the reason they are against a "obvious improvement" change is assumed to be something like blind stubbornness, nostalgia, or some other equally "irrational" reason.

While it is true that some old school players reject all such changes out of hand because they are "different", many player reject some such changes because they end up changing game play in ways they do not like. These unintended effects that come with some of the rules changes that modern players often think are irrationally rejected are what actually cause many old school players to reject them. What appears at first glance to be a minor or even cosmetic change actually ends up having effects that make old school style play harder -- which is the real reason many old school players end up rejecting the change -- even if they are not good at articulating those reasons.

For example, more than descending/ascending numbers actually changed with the switch from descending AC to ascending AC in WOTC D&D. With descending AC, the game rules greatly limited the bonus applied to the to-hit rolls -- modifiers more than +20 or -20 were generally confined to the worst of Monty Haul campaigns. Once the switch to ascending AC was made, all limit on bonuses seemed to disappear which tended to make playing real "old school play" hard. While this is a separate issue from ascending AC (as games like my Microlite74 show one can have ascending AC and limit bonuses to TSR era levels), it is not immediately obvious that it is.

The change to 3.x style saving throws had a similar side-effect. While the three saving throw classes might have been accepted by many old school players if the saves otherwise worked like TSR D&D, the changes that went with the new saving throws made things like saves versus magic harder if one was saving vs a high level caster broke many old school assumptions (e.g. that a high level character -- especially a fighter -- had the same great save vs spells whether the opposing caster was a first level magic-user or Elminster himself). Those side effects had major effects on play -- helping to create the godlike high level casters.

One of the things that would make using one unified XP advancement table unacceptable to many old school D&D players is the expectation that all characters in the party need to be the same level all the time which seems to come with it. This silly (to the old school mind) meme seems to have become the common expectation with 3e -- when the single unified experience table appeared. If you can't have the single XP table without many players -- and lazy module designers -- expecting the party to therefore always level up together/always be the same level, then many (perhaps even most) old school players will reject the single XP table idea because it ends up changing the game in ways they find unacceptable.

A single XP table also changes the way designers tend to construct classes. Old school class construction tends to be "organic" in that one writes up a list of things the class should be able to do in the campaign world and designs the class around those abilities with little regard for level by level balance with other classes. When the class is designed one then looks at it in comparison to the other classes and creates an XP advancement table (and -- if needed -- some class limitations) so that is is somewhat balanced vsrsus other classes across the campaign. When there is a single XP advancement table, class design tends to change as a level by level comparison of the new class to other classes as people tend to feel that classes should be about as powerful at the same number of XP points. While some people think the new school style of level by level balance is better than the old school "across the campaign" balance, there can be no doubt that classes are designed differently old school vs new school an that the way XP advancement tables are handled in the rules contributes to this difference.

So next time you think people who prefer older and less intuitive rules to newer and supposedly "better" rules are simply being blind or stubborn, look beyond the actual rule to possible side effects of the rule. It's possible that there are less than obvious side effects to the new rule which result in changes to game play that make the style of play the objectors enjoy harder to do with the newer and "better" rule. The new rule may indeed be better by itself, but its side effects may simply be unacceptable to the "old school" style of play.


  1. The 4e "improvement" of spells becoming powers per day and the rise of many standard spells becoming 30-minute rituals also killed creative casting.

  2. Great post! Excellent summary! Thank you!

  3. Good post, Randall. An important point, well stated. I think your three examples are representative of the issue and therefore well chosen.

  4. This is a good point, and I think it reflects those who were originally excited about 3e and then went back to pre-d20 after realising what those unwelcome side effects were. I had so much to complain about with AD&D 2e that I was completely excited for 3e, and all the changes made sense. But then those changes came along, particularly with 3.5. 3e was at least basically AD&D 2e with the different mechanics, but roughly working the same way and roughly being designed to convert from 2e to 3e. It still had organic class design, and the power creep wasn't that obvious with the 3 core books. 3.5e made it more about balance and less about concept, and power creep became a much more real thing, so the unwelcome side effects became much more prominent.

    And if anyone needs proof of these unwelcome side effects, just look at all the fixing that 4e did for them, to only introduce some of its own unwelcome side effects.

  5. I remember all my friends and I being excited about changing from 1e to 3e. "Higher armor class is better? That just make sense!" was something we all said. Then we played 3e for awhile and the classes weren't properly balanced against each other; they were a mish-mash of the organic class design you speak of versus the new design method of balancing classes against each other level-to-level. So when 3.5 came out, we thought it would fix those issues, however it just exacerbated them. Eventually I got tired of it for the reasons pretty much laid out in this post while they all moved on to Pathfinder, a game I just can't get seem to enjoy and am therefore left without a gaming group!

  6. A good post, but you may simply be preaching to the choir. Not sure any "new school believers" will buy in.

  7. @JB, even if new school players don't think those side effects are unwelcome, they'll understand that the resistance isn't to the ascending AC itself.

  8. Good post, very well presented, sir. I agree completely, and touched on a similar thought in my blog. LBB D&D was very well balanced and internally consistent. It wasn't until "improvements", which incidentally almost always take the form of some sort of power creep, that D&D started having problems, as a system. I don't even like to house rule too much anymore. I mainly do it for campaign specific flavor or to smooth over some rough spot.

    But, I digress. Thanks for articulating so well what can be a misunderstood aspect of being true old school.

  9. @JB: I'm not trying to convince "new school" players that "old school" is better, just that there are reasons other than blind stubbornness or nostalgia for refusing to adopt what appear at first glance to be obvious improvements to the game.

  10. *slips into his devil's advocate robes*

    Of course some of the points that you consider "unwelcome side effects" are things that new school games think of as "fixing other problems." For example, I do think that a spell from a master wizard should be more likely to affect somebody than a spell from his 12-year old apprentice.

    Some of the unintended effects you mention aren't inherent in the rules, they are part of poor game management on the part of the game master. As you mentioned, you can have monty haul games in the old school. Likewise, if a new school GM allows his players to be munchkins, then he is causing his own problems.

    Another issue is that all of the problems that you mention are based on assumptions that aren't tied to the changes you mention. As you said, Microlite74 has ascending AC without unlimited bonuses. I can easily see fortitude, reflex and will saves without allowing the caster to affect the save DC. You can still design a class organically and figure out where those benefits would go on a unified xp table.

    *Goes back into normal clothes*

    Naturally, I don't see all of the old school movement as having the same reasons. There's a wide variety of reasons, and a lot of them are well thought out. Over the last year or so, I've learned a lot more about why old-schoolers like what they like. I may not prefer the same things, but I see why others made their choices. But I hope you see that some of the new school players have thought out their reasons too.


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