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Ascending AC is Old School: A Rant

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Different Worlds #7 cover scanI've never understood the hatred some old school players have for ascending armor class any more than I understood the hatred some non-old school players have for descending armor class and/or THAC0. Ascending AC, descending AC with hit tables or descending AC with THAC0 are mathematically equivalent. That is, they all give exactly the same chance to hit for a given class, level, and target's armor class.

I saw all of these methods (and others) used back in the 1970s and early 1980s via house rules. However, I sometimes have trouble convincing people that ascending AC and attack bonuses were ever used back in the days when "old school" was the only school in town. Yesterday I was going through some old RPG magazines and I happened to look at the second part of a variant D&D combat article by John T. Sapienza, Jr. in Different Worlds #7 (the April/May 1980 issue). The first part of the article in the previous issue had tried to regularize the combat charts by using 1D100 instead of 1D20 for attack rolls, as it would allow fighters to improve their attack roll every level -- yet another example of the many different systems different campaigns used.

The second part closed by trying modify the d20 tables to provide at least some of the benefits of the previous issue's D100 system for those who wanted to continue to roll D20s in combat. The article provides such as system then goes on to say:

In fact, under this system it is possible to eliminate the Armor Class number system entirely. You would refer to your armor by its Armor Number: Clothing 10, Padding 11, Leather 12, Cuirboilli 13, Chainmail 14....

Do those Armor Numbers look familiar? They should as they are the same numbers used for Armor Class in the 3.x ascending AC system. Hits were determined by rolling a D20 and added one's Combat Class number to the roll and comparing it to the Armor Number, if the modified number rolled was greater than or equal to the target's Armor Number, the attack resulted in a hit. This "Combat Class number" and the Base Attack Bonus of 3.x are simply two different names for the same thing.

Sapienza even pointed out that this system was...

...a more rational system, since its numbers are directly related to combat function, and its pluses and minuses are actually added or subtracted (respectively) to or from the Armor Number, unlike the Armor Class system (in which a plus is actually subtracted from the Armor Class number, and a minus is actually added to the Armor Class number).

There you have it. Whether you like ascending AC or hate it, ascending AC really isn't a 3.x invention given that the basic system was printed in an article in a professional RPG publication in 1980. The point of this rant isn't that ascending AC is old school so old school players should not object to using it, but that there really was a huge variety in variant D&D rules in the first ten years or so of play and that claiming that ascending AC, spell points, or whatever else you do not personally like would have been considered badwrongfun/"not really D&D" by most D&D players back then simply is not true. Very little was considered "not really D&D" by most players at the time. Trying to claim otherwise is just as much revisionist history as 4e players trying to claim that OD&D combat was fought on grids with minis by most players.

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Chad Rose said...
March 23, 2013 at 5:32 PM  

I was just asking myself recently when the first instance of ascending AC might have shown up and literally days later your blog post shows up. So, at least as of 1980 someone had the idea.

I, myself, really like ascending AC with old school D&D. It just works a little more fluidly with the +/-'s in the game. But hey, if some people prefer THAC0, thats fine too.

Rachel Ghoul said...
March 23, 2013 at 6:34 PM  

I maintain it's also more intuitive in general, but that could just be me.

Hedgehobbit said...
March 23, 2013 at 9:13 PM  

Dave Arneson used ascending AC (going from 1 to 8 for plate) before he invented the alternate combat system. So ascending predates descending. He also used armor as a saving throw. To hit chances were based on comparing level vs HD, so characters got harder to hit as they leveled.

Anonymous said...
March 23, 2013 at 10:36 PM  

My favorite thing back in the day wasn't so much the up or down of it. The tables meant you just needed to hit a target number, with less addition of bonuses involved.

Dreamscape Design said...
March 23, 2013 at 10:47 PM  

I personally think that OSR has nothing to do with the time in which the original rules were set, and those who dismiss rules because they think (rightly or wrongly) that they weren't used in the day are missing the whole point of old school play. To me it's much more about minimalist rules, an emphasis on ruling-on-the-fly, amongst other things. Ascending AC is consistently the number one choice when you see those threads, "what part of d20 would you use in OD&D / CD&D / AD&D?".

Although I've kept descending AC for BLUEHOLME 1st edition in order to allow it to stand as a true simulacrum of Holmes, I will be releasing a 2nd edition that has ascending AC (amongst other tweaks).

Original rules are not sacrosanct, and there's no reason not to use something new that comes along if you think it improves your game. *That* is a core value of OSR, not descending AC.

Gordon Cooper said...
March 24, 2013 at 11:43 AM  

Honestly, I wish all OSR games used both ascending AND descending AC in their descriptions of monsters, NPCs, etc.

Randall said...
March 24, 2013 at 2:48 PM  

@Gordon Cooper: My next project, Lords & Wizards, will use both ascending and descending AC. For only slightly more writing effort, both camps can be happy.

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