Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Evaluating Editions by their Spells

First off, this is not, despite the tag I'm sticking on the post, an "edition war" post. Those are dumb and a waste of time. Liking certain editions is an opinion. A matter of taste. Like whatever edition you like for whatever reasons you like. I'm done edition warring. I still may slag on 4E from time to time, but I won't slag on YOU for liking it, if you do.

A friend who's been running a 1E AD&D game on RPOL for the past many many years and I were chatting. He's spun off an OA game as a separate section of his main game, and I have characters in both. He wanted to attract more players to the OA part of the game, but someone else told him something to the effect that he should just be running 5E since that's where the players are. This person told him that the differences between 5E style games and AD&D 1E style games aren't that big.

My friend then asked someone else about the differences in 1E and 5E. That person gave him a long 5-point list but I'll condense each point rather than cut and paste since I don't know who was writing this originally.

1. 5E rules are streamlined, but feel less organic/streamlined than AD&D
2. 5E has a shallow power curve -- start more powerful, end up less powerful compared to 1E characters
3. Negative consequences are reduced in 5E (see my recent post on energy draining in my 5E converted to Classic post from the other day)
4. Constant choices and new abilities in leveling characters makes "how my PC develops" the story arc of the game in 5E, compared to 1E where most choices are made at char gen and development depends on in-game events
5. 5E's flavor is video game/CGI action movie where 1E's flavor is pulp/Tolkien

My response to my friend when he shared this with me was that the first guy was off base. You CAN play 5E in an old-school style. I was doing it (until I decided to just use an old school rule set after all). It takes some tweaking, but it's possible. But it's not as simple as the first guy seemed to think it was. This will be addressed below and is the "meat" of this post.

The second guy, I think, was overall correct. And he approaches discussion of different editions the right way. Say honestly what the strengths, weaknesses, and differences that are neither better/worse ARE, and leave it at that.

Then I added what I think is a 6th point of departure. By looking at the spells available in 5E, I get the impression that the designers intend for almost every combat in the game to be a hit point attrition slog. Seriously, there are how many spells that deal damage in 5E compared to other editions? Yes, many of them also have some nifty side effects. But the main point is to deal damage. How many save-or-die spells are there in 1E and other old school games? Lots. Very few (if any) in 5E. Instead, as point 3 above says, many effects are save-or-suffer-temporary-inconvenience.

Expanding this idea, I've got an idea that one can get an overall, impressionistic evaluation of how an edition of D&D will play by its spell lists.

OD&D has relatively few spells (LBBs only). The parameters of each spell are loosely defined. Not many do direct damage. Many are for non-combat purposes. Lots of higher level spells are save-or-die. Judging by this, the implication seems to be that Gygax and Arneson intended for spell casters to be creative problem solvers, applying spells in non-standard or unusual ways by using logic and creativity. From this, we can assume that magic is often going to be a trump card that allows a party to easily "defeat" an encounter. Casters don't get many spells per day, but the duration of spells are long enough that many spells will last for more than one encounter.

Classic D&D (Holmes, BX, BECMI, RC) over the course of time adds more details and qualifications to spells. Each spell is more defined. But the basic balance of direct damage, utility, and save-or-die spells is the same. The people making the rules are not letting you be quite as creative with your magic, but spells are still there to bypass the hit point slog or for clever solutions to problems.

OD&D with supplements leads into AD&D 1E, which has even more definition of spell effects and parameters than in Classic. But it also has a lot more spells, period. There are a lot more damage-dealing spells in the lists, but still the expectation of how spells are applied seems to assume that magic will often allow you to "win" or bypass encounters. There may be less creative use of spells, however, as many of the spells now are explicitly worded to disallow abusive tactics.

AD&D 2E has pretty much the same spell lists as AD&D 1E, although some UA spells make it into the basic PHB lists. This means that there are even more spells to choose from. Spell descriptions and parameters are now even more rigidly codified to prevent "abuse" (creative winning of encounters) but it's still possible. There are still save-or-die spells aplenty. And there are still plenty of spells without direct combat use.

3E/3.5E has a list of spells similar to 2E in number. However, spells can now be categorized as combat, utility, or buff spells. There are so many spells in 3E that exist to tweak the numbers on your character sheet. And plenty of direct damage dealers. There are also still save-or-die spells, but most of them have a handy counter-spell easily available. Suddenly, magic not just for winning encounters, it's for the PCs to win encounters. If the monsters/NPCs try that stuff on you, you often have a handy way to negate it. Spells are becoming just another tool to help win encounters, rather than the occasional "get out of jail free" card they had been in previous editions. And the increase in buffs and direct damage spells tell the spell caster that their job is to be an active participant in EVERY combat, not just waiting around to try and win key encounters. The duration of many spells is reduced from being counted in Turns (10 minutes) to being counted in Rounds (10 seconds) so that casters need to keep casting.

4E doesn't even really have spells. Either that, or EVERYTHING is a spell. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers each class have mimic spell use. And even the ones labeled as "utility" powers are really most useful in combat, not out of combat. In this edition, spells are all about combat. I don't know/remember the edition well enough to say if there were a lot of save-or-die powers at high level, but I'm guessing there are not.

And finally, 5E. As mentioned above, I agree with the anonymous poster that 5E wants to eliminate permanent negative consequences from the game. Death is easy to avoid. What used to be encounter-winning spells now give the victims a saving throw every round to avoid the negatives. There are still a fair number of counter-spells, and in fact many have been condensed into a handful of spells so that players don't need to waste a lot of their spell capacity on a bunch of random heal/counter spells just in case. They've got one-stop shopping. But the biggest change is that (as I mentioned above) there are SO MANY damage dealers on the spell lists. Why get creative when you can just blast a creature or three for more hit point damage? Slog away!

Obviously, there are plenty of other differences in each edition. Some are deep differences in mechanics and philosophy of how the game should work. Others are fairly minor or cosmetic even. And again I'm not trying to say one is better than another. But the above impressionistic reading of the spells available and how spells are detailed in each edition does seem to give insight into how the designers expect play to go.

Gygax and Arneson were onto something new, so they had an anything goes attitude. Spells were there to win encounters, and often in creative/unexpected ways.

Later, probably after seeing the same exploits (creative uses of spells to 'win' encounters) used ad nauseam, Gary decided to better codify spells. This made it a bit more challenging for players, but it's still possible to find creative new uses for old spells.

When WotC got their hands on D&D, they fundamentally shifted the game. The expectation that all PCs pull equal weight in combat, experience with designing "balanced" play mechanics most likely brought over from Magic: The Gathering, and a mistrust of DM fiat in the game led to a sort of standardization and blandification (did I just coin that word?) of the magic system.

And that's why it's hard to get 5E to play the way old school games do. Or at least one of the reasons why it's hard. You can play 5E in a more old school fashion, but the spell lists are working against you. They demand hit point slogs. They disallow many creative uses of spells before they're even used. Yes, the mechanics are consistent and clear, but I'm not sure that makes up for what's lost in creative spell casting.


  1. Good post. I'd say not only are the spell lists different in flavor, but the class abilities mentioned in Point 4 match those flavors. That is, OD&D class abilities rarely have much to do with combat slogfests, while later versions of D&D become increasingly combat-focused.

  2. Unrelated to the post-- do you have Flying Swordsman on lulu or someplace similar? I'd love to pick up a print copy.


    1. I don't. My agreement with Daxiong to use his art on the cover was that Flying Swordsmen would be a completely free product. And even if I put it up "at cost" at Lulu or DriveThru, they're actually making a profit on it. If I can't make any money off of it, neither can they. So PDF only.