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Comparing the Editions: Principles

Posted in Principles, Games

I’ve tried to extract Apocalypse World-style Principles for three distinct editions of D&D. How do they compare?

Below I’ve compared all the principles I’ve drawn from Moldvay, 3E, and 4E. Principles are listed in the order I originally posted them (more or less the first time they are mentioned in the book), no effort has been made to correlate them. The only significance of the ordering is where in the text they are presented.

Moldvay to 3E

Moldvay 3rd Edition
Give the players a reason for adventuring, give yourself a reason for placing monsters Provide a world, you create everything but the PCs.
Map the dungeon, leave blanks Determine a style, the way the game is played.
When you don’t know what to place, use a random table Adjudicate the rules, you are in charge.
Describe to the players what their characters see, hear and do. Keep the game moving
Be flexible, don’t panic Use props
Be fair, the game is not a contest between you and the players Keep the game balanced using DM management and Player-DM trust
Make up (rules) details as needed to keep the game moving Modify the rules
Always allow a chance to do something nearly impossible Know the players, PCs, adventure, and rules
You are the boss. The final decision is yours, not the players’ not the rules’. Set the pace
Make the adventure as real as possible. Ask questions
Move along with humor and excitement Determine the outcome of every event using rules or your own judgement.

I know this comparison is a bit skewed, since the comparison ignores the several versions that fell between Moldvay and 3E, but the differences are astounding.

Both editions share a strong, central GM role with explicit power over everything that happens. From there, they diverge pretty sharply. Moldvay assumes that most rules issues, like balance, knowledge, style, and pacing, are all already resolved. 3E tries to be a toolkit, to be all things to all people, which in turn requires GM advice about tone, pacing, modifying the rules, and all kinds of other junk.

Sure, Moldvay is more restrictive, but it’s also a more practical guide to actually playing the game. I ran 3E for years, and if I had actually read the GM section thoroughly (which I didn’t) I might have been too intimidated to even start.

Moldvay to 4E

Moldvay 4th Edition
Give the players a reason for adventuring, give yourself a reason for placing monsters You and everyone else are responsible for the fun of the game together
Map the dungeon, leave blanks Identify your players’ motivations
When you don’t know what to place, use a random table Build a party with the players, use it in the creation of the story and world
Describe to the players what their characters see, hear and do. Mediate between the players and the rules, but you don’t have to know all the rules
Be flexible, don’t panic Choose a style and tone of game, share it with the players
Be fair, the game is not a contest between you and the players Set table rules
Make up (rules) details as needed to keep the game moving Prepare as much as possible
Always allow a chance to do something nearly impossible Move between the 5 modes: Setup, Exploration, Conversation, Encounter, and Passing Time
You are the boss. The final decision is yours, not the players’ not the rules’. Narrate with brevity, atmosphere, and style
Make the adventure as real as possible. Find the fun. Gloss over mundane details, never make players search for the action
Move along with humor and excitement Use props: maps, minis, illustrations, handouts, objects, music
  Tell the players everything they must know, and everything they should know within the limits of the rules and their abilities.
  Say “Yes, and …”, improvise
  Keep the action moving forward
  Add complications
  Failure isn’t an endpoint

I love this comparison, since it essentially shows how far D&D has come, from (nearly) oldest to newest.

First, the most obvious thing: 4E has more to say about how to run it. 4E aims for a broader game type, but in my experience only excels closer to the traditional Moldvay mold, so at first I was skeptical of the longer list. Looking closer, the things 4E adds to the Moldvay list are actually pretty great, “Yes, and …” being the standout, as well as notes about collaboration and the DM as an equal in the creation of story.

I think it’ll surprise no one that 4E doesn’t keep Moldvay’s admonition to make adventures seem real. Real was probably too loaded a word to use; sure adventures should seem concrete but they should be fantastical, not real.

4E and Moldvay also share a similar confidence in the rules. Moldvay suggest making up minor rules when needed, 4E says that you can make a call and just move on if you don’t know the rule (but doesn’t suggest that a rule may not exist). I’m actually glad to see 4E drop the idea that you should override the rules whenever.

3E to 4E

3rd Edition 4th Edition
Provide a world, you create everything but the PCs You and everyone else are responsible for the fun of the game together
Determine a style, the way the game is played Identify your players’ motivations
Adjudicate the rules, you are in charge Build a party with the players, use it in the creation of the story and world
Keep the game moving Mediate between the players and the rules, but you don’t have to know all the rules
Use props Choose a style and tone of game, share it with the players
Keep the game balanced using DM management and Player-DM trust Set table tules
Modify the rules Prepare as much as possible
Know the players, PCs, adventure, and rules Move between the 5 modes: Setup, Exploration, Conversation, Encounter, and Passing Time
Set the pace Narrate with brevity, atmosphere, and style
Ask questions Find the fun. Gloss over mundane details, never make players search for the action
Determine the outcome of every event using rules or your own judgement Use props: maps, minis, illustrations, handouts, objects, music
  Tell the players everything they must know, and everything they should know within the limits of the rules and their abilities.
  Say “Yes, and …”, improvise
  Keep the action moving forward
  Add complications
  Failure isn’t an endpoint

I’ll admit, my entire interest in comparing this lists boiled down to comparing what 3E and 4E have to say about running the game. At least in some of the gamer groups I frequent, 3E (Pathfinder) vs. 4E is still a hotly debated topic, so I wanted to see what changed on the DM side of things.

So, what changed?

First of all, the 4E rules place much more trust in the assumption that the rules are solid, complete, and balanced. 3E dedicates a significant part of an early section of the DMG to how and when to make up new rules (classes, spells, monsters, or something bigger). I guess you could read that as 4E taking away your ability to be creative, replacing it with premade monsters and spells and classes so you don’t have to think about making your own, but that’s a pretty shallow way to read it. I think 4E’s lack of need for rules based advice points to how the game is structured, the mindset that the game will provide you tools and you can use those creatively. 3E assumes that to be creative you have to change the rules, that the rules are just another target for you to change with your creative instinct, 4E assumes that you want the rules to help you be creative, not just to be an outlet for your creativity.

The other clear shift is in the DM role. 4E says nothing about DM primacy, instead talking about shared collaboration, freely given information, and a game that everyone contributes to. 3E clearly places the “onus” of fun on one person. I think at this point in the development of RPGs it’s been pretty clearly resolved that the strength of the medium is in collaboration, not the ability of one person to entertain a group, and 4E reflects that.

Of course this is a pretty narrow comparison of 3E and 4E, but based on what they tell the Gm to do, I’m clearly in favor of 4E. 3E expects me, when DMing, to know everything, resolve everything, make sure the rules work, add my own rules, and create everyone’s fun. 4E expects me to work with other people, within a solid ruleset, to prepare and improvise communal fun, which for me is certain progress from the 3E model.

Now I just need to find the Pathfinder GM section and add that to the matrix…

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and senior test engineer at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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