Last week, I talked a little about the corporate same-y-ness that overtook later editions of D&D, and how it differed from the kitchen sink, anything goes weirdness of 1st Edition AD&D.
That post was written largely in response to a recent episode of Geek Gab, in which guests P. Alexander and Jeffro Johnson discuss some of the stranger, more overlooked aspects of the game. Once again, I recommend checking it out. The discussion is fascinating, lively, and in-depth.
One of the meatier subjects they breach is the idea that AD&D's implied setting is inherently post apocalyptic.
I had to spend a little time chewing that over, largely because I'm fairly new to the 1st Edition ruleset. I never had much exposure to it as a teen, aside from one group I played with after High School. Even then, it was just a handful of optional rules cribbed from Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, bolted onto a 2nd Edition chassis.
In a nutshell, the argument is that—independent of campaign setting—the rules of AD&D imply the game takes place in the wake of some unspecified, civilization-ending cataclysm.
For what it's worth, classic sword and sorcery fiction tends to make this same assumption. Conan's Hyborian Age is perhaps the most famous, taking place thousands of years after "the oceans drank Atlantis." Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique tales are more properly classified as Dying Earth stories, but the effect is the same: the last vestiges of humanity cling to superstition and sorcery on the Earth's last remaining continent. Not to mention The Dying Earth itself, where technology and magic are both remnants of long dead empires, and are completely indistinguishable from one another.
Simply put, without the collapse of some ancient civilization (or several), the landscape wouldn't be littered with ruins for the characters to go dungeon-diving in. But that assumption can hardly be called unique to AD&D. Later editions still feature plenty of ruined temples, lost cities, and dungeon delves, even if they are significantly less lethal than the old school variety.
So what was unique to AD&D that made it inherently apocalyptic? What was missing from the later editions that pointed to a post-cataclysmic world?
According to Geek Gab host Daddy Warpig, the answer is domain level play.
For those of you weaned on newer editions, a quick definition: "Domain" was a word that had nothing to do with the Cleric class back in the day. Rather, it referred to the fact that at 9th level or so, characters would begin to attract loyal followers and build a base of operations.
Furthermore, these weren't just optional rules, buried in an Appendix of the Dungeon Master's Guide. These were class features, listed in the Player's Handbook under each character class' description.
At first glance, that might not seem too apocalyptic. But the rules for Territory Development by Player Characters (found on page 93 of the DMG) are written assuming a vast, sparsely-populated wilderness as the default setting. A wilderness controlled by monsters, and littered with the ruins of countless, long-dead civilizations.
According to these rules, characters building a fortress go through considerable time and expense, selecting a construction site, clearing the area, paying and staffing a garrison, and conducting regular patrols to sweep for monsters. Once construction is complete, these strongholds attract settlers looking for safety and security.
In Warpig's opinion, this doesn't just represent a post apocalyptic style of play. It represents a specific kind of post apocalyptic play. The AD&D apocalypse isn't Mad Max, Warpig says, with humanity dropping into savagery and barbarism. Rather, it's at the point where humanity is climbing out of savagery, retaking and reestablishing civilization in a monster-infested wilderness.
Interestingly enough, I made a nearly identical point a few weeks back in my review of Rutger Hauer's The Blood of Heroes. In fact, a new DM trying to figure out domain play could do much worse than to look at that movie as a blueprint. The sparsely populated desert wastelands. The clumps of agrarian survivors gathered in Dog Towns. The powerful, governing elite clustered in the Nine Cities, demanding tribute and loyalty. The Juggers traveling around, engaging in ritual combat, and scouting new recruits.
Add some roving monsters and some dungeon-diving, and you've got a pretty good representation of what the world looks like according to domain play rules.
Domain play was still around in 2nd Edition, though I vaguely remember the rules for it being a bit more generic and simplified. I can't speak for 3rd, 3.X, or 4th Editions, having never played them. But in 5th Edition, it's entirely gone. Which means in terms of game mechanics, a 9th level character doesn't have any more responsibilities to his community than a 1st level one.
In that sense, it's easy to see Warpig's point. 5th Edition doesn't presume the characters need to establish safe areas, because it assumes there are already enough safe areas. Whatever near-extinction event caused all those ruins the PCs are exploring, 5th Edition's rules imply it's far enough in the past that humanity's overall survival is no longer in question.
But the argument for an "apocalyptic AD&D" doesn't stop there. The Geek Gab folks also spend a good amount of time on Vancian magic.
I've written about the subject before, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say, the Vancian Magic system might be the single strongest argument for an apocalyptic D&D setting. But not in the sense of "fire and forget" spells.
In AD&D, the only way for a Magic-user to learn more spells is to find them, typically by recovering old scrolls or spell books from dungeons. Even then, there's a chance the character will completely fail to understand any spells they do manage to find.
In other words, AD&D Magic-users are a cargo cult, parroting scraps of mostly forgotten spells they barely comprehend, and risking life and limb in the ruins of lost civilizations to find more.
Granted, the "classic" Magic-user still exists in 5th Edition, as the Wizard class. But it exists alongside Warlocks and Sorcerers. And therein lies the difference.
Vancian Magic implies a lot about the setting, but only if it's used in isolation. If an accident of birth or a demon sugar-daddy can grant the same powers as those lost scraps of magic, how lost were they? How fantastical and rare are they now?
In the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, Gary Gygax spends several paragraphs stressing the the scarcity of magic spells, and how difficult it is for the Magic-user to obtain them. NPC spell casters should be reluctant to divulge their secrets, demanding exorbitant fees, rare magic items, and quests in exchange. It's advice that makes sense, but only if magic is a forgotten art from a lost golden age.
And that's the thing.
That lost and forgotten nature was a base assumption about magic in 1st Edition. Taken along with domain play, the sparsely populated wilderness, and the sheer number of ruins players were expected to encounter, it's obvious the core rules had an apocalyptic setting in mind.
It's interesting reading through the AD&D rulebooks now. Like I mentioned last week, I don't have any personal nostalgia for this edition. So it's not like I'm viewing it though rose-colored glasses. Even so, it's hard not to come away with a feeling that something incredibly cool was lost in the transition to the slicker, more polished game I grew up on.
Thank God for reprints and second hand stores...
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