Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Agency and OD&D's Forced March...

Yesterday our friend Mark Hunt reminded us of this gem from OD&D (specifically, Men & Magic, page 10 for those wishing to follow along).  It reads as follows...

"Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll
three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them
in selecting a role."

That's right, Gary expected the DM (referee in those days) to roll ability scores for the players, which probably seems wrong to our modern sensibilities.  It's the player's character for Pete's sake; they should roll their own abilities.  We happen to agree and, luckily for subsequent generations, so did most everyone else - and right away!  But this early way of thinking wasn't limited to ability scores.  It was implied (when not outright mandated) that the DM should roll dice for the players in many other areas as well.

In these modern times we have all sorts of ideas about player agency and what people should be able to do in a game.  And we’re not being unreasonable here.  If Joe’s the one creating Borg, then Joe should roll for Borg’s abilities.  And when Borg swings his trusty battleaxe, Joe should be the one rolling.  Otherwise Joe's just a spectator who maybe gets to tell the DM he’s opening a door or swinging said weapon.  But when the rubber meets the proverbial road and it’s time to physically act, he’s as inert as a rock and all the action is done behind a figurative curtain.  It didn't take long for folks to reject this approach.

So here’s at least one instance where the hobby took off not because of its founder's assumptions but despite them.  And it bears examining why things began this way and why they eventually (hell, almost immediately) changed.  Here's our take... 

Fantasy role-playing evolved from historical wargaming, and history imposed some serious constraints on player agency.  William, Duke of Normandy couldn't build catapults for the Battle of Hastings because that's not how history says it happened.  Ditto for Roman chariots or Greek fire.  Players understood this and accepted the need to color in the lines for the sake of historical accuracy.  In short, wargamers were conditioned to limited agency within a narrow scope.  What forces they played, how they deployed, was all imposed by someone else; in this case, history itself, and no one expected anything more at the time. 

Even David Wesely, founding father of the hobby and creator of Braunstein (precursor to Blackmoor) created and assigned characters to his players.  The idea that anyone could or should expect more wasn't on the table.  But the seeds were planted...

Enter Blackmoor.  It wasn't a historical setting, so there was no official word on what was done and how it eventually turned out.  More than ever, players were writing history as they went along; and since they were playing individual characters in a realm of pure fantasy, coloring outside the lines was finally an option.  But the impositions of wargaming persisted because the games were still seen as wargames - old habits and all that jazz. 

And so Gygax wanted DMs to roll ability scores, among other things.  But it couldn't possibly last.  Once people started running individual characters they named, nurtured, and started to identify with, everything changed.  And then the non-wargamers arrived with expectations of greater agency for the reasons we all agree on, and this quickly ushered in a new age.  Oh, and we're sure most DMs didn't want to roll for everything.

Sure, the hobby was born from specific rules, created by specific people with specific assumptions about how things would work.  But they couldn't have anticipated the power of legions of others, laboring in isolation from one another and shaping the industry through their expectations and experiences of what actually worked at the table.  In this way, gaming was a free-market economy full of entrepreneurs.  A system where the so-called market decided best practice.  It's a tradition that continues to this day to the good of all...


  1. Very interesting. Wasn't aware of this.

  2. If you haven't yet, check out "Playing at the World" for its (lengthy) descriptions of various wargaming antecedents of D&D, many of which had an impartial referee who did all the die rolling and table lookups to determine the results of orders given by players (spoken or in writing).

  3. I've always wondered about this and my first thought was that polyhedral dice were still quite rare and that this could have been a way of circumventing the need for everyone at the table to have their own dice. Also, if you're playing with miniatures there's probably not a lot of room on the table. And what's the big deal anyways? When we play a video game we don't mind that the computer inside the console is running random functions to determine our actions. We just tell it what we are doing and watch what happens on screen.

    Well. The big deal is called Cleromancy, divination by the casting of bones or lots, an endlessly ancient precursor to dice. Whether we know it or not, subconsciously we feel a connection to those little random number generators and to a degree personally responsible for the numbers they turn up.

    If you ever get the chance do a search for the superstitions surrounding the game of Craps, which as far as we know is one of the oldest known games in existence. If I remember right, they all center around physical contact with the dice, as if your touch is actually bringing something to the roll, that it is a sign of divine judgement on the roller when the dice turn up a favorable number.

    It could be that the revulsion to letting the DM roll the dice for you comes from the subliminal notion that you are letting someone else's luck decide the fate of your character.

    1. Interesting insights! The fact is, swinging a sword is a physical act and so it rolling the dice, and I'm convinced that rolling reinforces some sense of the player actually, physically participating in a heroic act...

    2. I think the physical act of throwing/rolling/casting dice feeling like you are responsible for the result, because with practice you could probably learn to toss dice in a way that it has a particular result, with a lot of practice you might even be able to hide it. Even thought it would defeat the purpose of using dice, there's a tactile sense that it is possible.

  4. This comes up periodically. It was a new game, it makes it easier to teach if the DM rolls up your first character. Plus it's still done with every single pregen character.

  5. Interesting. In addition to the questions of what can and can't be done in a historical game that you mention, we could probably also add that some historical wargames have counter-agency elements baked into the rules, in the form of morale and other factors. You may want your little lead men to charge up that hill, but if they fail their pre-charge morale check, they're not going anywhere. Or you might want your knights to simply sit where they are for now, but if they're impetuous, they may charge in without your orders. So these things, too, put a natural crimp in agency that players may have been quite accustomed to.