Reading OD&D in 2023

Sam W

Home | Blogroll (opml)

So I got the original booklets for OD&D, and some supplements, including Philotomy’s excellent suggestions. I have been reading them… and wanted to analyze them in the context of the much more modern games I have read.


It’s struck me how relaxed the original game takes itself. It portrays itself as “guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.” It’s not serious about how it should be played, and doesn’t enforce hard and fast rules – instead it reminds you that what happens at the table is of prime importance.

Many of the rules follow in this fashion. There are rules for all sorts of random things: relatives and inheritance, jousting, naval combat; all of which have no explicit design purpose and do not really come together for a coherent game, but are evidence of play, rules made up on the fly, and fun. Of course, I’m not Gygax or Arneson and may not have the same values or type of fun as them, but it is still a way to design a game that communicates, most of all, the desire to play and have fun.

This can cause some confusion, though. Readers might see all the rules with dice rolls and think the game centers around actions requiring rolls. However, you should remember the introduction and see that you should play this in a way that is fun. This may mean diverging from the perceived intent or a close reading of the rules – but don’t forget, these are guidelines.

Another interesting part of this passage I’ve been harping on is that there isn’t a distinction drawn between the rules and the play. Both are “the game,” which I take as synonymous with a “campaign.” I appreciate the idea that your rules and your play are inextricably bound. My justification of this point (though not said in the booklets), is that your mechanics should be thought about how they reflect the fiction of a situation.

Overall, I really like the sense of imaginative freedom these booklets encourages you to have. It’s one of the few systems that makes me feel like I can do anything in a game.


I really appreciate Philtomy’s Musings because they show me how to interpret the rules as a representation of the in-game actions. They show me that the rules need to retain abstractness to have in-game meaning. The two examples I’ll explain are combat and gold for XP.

Philotomy explains combat as an abstraction. The attack roll, for instance, is the culmination of all the missile or melee attacks made during a round, not individual shots or swings. He then derives from this interpretation that called shots are not included, because an attack roll doesn’t represent an individual attack and thus a successful attack only loosely correlates to a successful strike.

Gold for XP is explained not as “I spend money and this directly increases my abilities as an adventurer,” but instead as a marker of good adventuring done well. Every adventure ends up paying something, so if you don’t have gold, you haven’t been adventuring! It’s a progress meter, not a direct mechanical effect. It is analogized to HP, which do not reflect some literal in-world condition, but instead are just indicative of your ability to keep standing and fighting.

These two explanations of abstract mechanics reveal to me that there is 1) a clear, though abstract, relationship between the in-game actions and the mechanics implemented, and 2) very simple and straightforward ways to implement complex in-game content as simple mechanics. This has opened my eyes to “the OD&D way:” in a complex in-game situation with high variability, you may introduce abstraction to resolve actions. It may be criticized as unrealistic, but you can make sense of it through the lens of abstraction.