Monday, November 20, 2017

Monsters as Player Characters - OD&D vs. AD&D

I don't know - it looks good to me

I'm taking a three-day break from demons to talk about something I rediscovered while looking for demons. I'm sure what I'm about to point out has been mentioned before, though I don't have a reference.

In Men & Magic, after detailing the three character classes and three additional races, Gary Gygax wrote:
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee (p. 8).
Now I have no idea how many referees back in the day were coming up with stats on the fly for players who confidently announced they wanted to play a non-standard character, but I think it's indisputable that from the very first many were experimenting with creating their own new character classes, races and types to supplement the ones in the text or customary rules. Arneson's Blackmoor campaign had a Balrog player-character, and Gygax's reportedly also allowed such variations in Greyhawk (which is presumably why he wrote the passage above).

The author of the Dungeons & Dragons "Basic" set, John Eric Holmes, apparently also enjoyed running adventuring parties of non-standard classes or creatures. And he implied as much in the text of that game:
At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man (p. 7).
However, now consider this passage (also written by Gygax) from the AD&D Dungeon Master Guide, six years later:
On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind...
The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded.
The later Gygax is of course contradicting his earlier self. Playing "monsters" as characters is now no longer recommended. Indeed, someone who pushes for it might even have psychological problems!

In fairness, Gygax does temper things a bit. He's against doing it, but such a decision should ultimately be left up to the referee - "As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign." And it is preferable to find ways to discourage the practice rather than banning it outright:
Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign - and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off (p. 21 for all references).
Of course during this quasi-concession Gygax takes the opportunity to further put down players who might have such a desire - unless the goal is purely experimental, then they either have a will to dominate or are relatively stupid and inept. This might be characterized as one manifestation of what has been called High Gygaxian style. Here an air of wisdom is coupled with silly insults. That's not a criticism (of the style). In fact it's quite entertaining.

It sure beats "In creating the story of your character, work with your DM. Talk to them about your ideas, preferences and feelings."

Is it evil to contradict one's earlier self? Of course not. And for all we know, Gygax had learned from the previous six years of play that people playing dragons or demons was simply more trouble than what it was worth. But it's also an example of how, as the universe of Dungeons & Dragons was in most ways expanding (in terms of text or ruleset length if nothing else), there were walls to that universe that were simultaneously being erected or reinforced. All things being equal, I think that's something to regret.

Now I confess that in saying this I feel like a hypocritical politician. When I played D&D back in the day, I never ran or played non-standard player-characters, and since my rediscovery of the game and subsequent determination that I was now firmly in the more open-ended OD&D camp, I still haven't done so. But let's just say I philosophically or aesthetically favor an approach that leaves open the possibility. Or at least I like to think that I do.

If you want to play a dragon, that's fine. Just give me a few minutes to come up with something.

But don't tell me about your feelings.


  1. It's droll that Dr. Holmes lumped samurai with centaurs and with Lawful werebears. Gah! Foreigners! Avast!

    1. Not when the context of the time is considered.

  2. There's also the possibility that there was a commercial aspect to this too.

    Early on, everything was wide open. Imagination's the limit because there wasn't the thought about "what do we do next."

    Success begets a bit of conservative thinking -- how do we keep milking the cash cow?

    Later on, books were being planned, paths were being set. If one encourages out-of-the-box characters, then there are the accompanying house rules. That would mean books like UA would be less desirable. If you stick to the official classes/races, then you'll be more willing to buy the books offered for such.

    Of course, it's a theory only, hard to know exactly why Gary changed his mind.

    1. You should try asking someone who might know...

  3. I can answer this question from personal experience: " many referees back in the day were coming up with stats on the fly for players..."

    All of them.

    Not that the stats were good, but, hey, it was the wild west in those days.