Here are my thoughts on the question of whether to use ascending or descending AC in Swords and Wizardry. To some, this probably seems like a silly question. After all, what difference can it possibly make? Both options are, as far as I can tell, mechanically identical. A 1st level fighter still needs to roll a 15 to hit an opponent clad in chainmail whether the opponent's AC is 5 (descending) or 14 (ascending). That said, however, I argue that the fact that the designers of SW decided to allow for this choice in the game rules suggests that that there must be something at stake in opting for one version as opposed to the other, even if the ultimate significance is minor. If ones choice really made absolutely no difference, then it wouldn’t make sense to offer a choice at all.
I am inclined to use the descending version of armor class rules because they are more consonant with the original rules of D and D as they existed in all the earlier editions of the game prior to version 3. As such, they seem to be more in keeping with the broadly defined “spirit” of old school play. It seems to me that much of old school play aims to recreate and recapture the feel of what it was like to play D and D in its heyday. Much of this “feel” derives, not simply from game mechanics, but from the details and peripheral material, the accoutrements, of older versions of D and D. These elements include things like the style of art work, the specific wording or phrasing of game terms, and the specific arrangement of details. I feel that the more of these original details that one includes, the easier it is to invoke the flavor of the original game.
Of course, some of these details, like descending armor class, are idiosyncratic and counter intuitive, and we might thus be tempted to reject them. I remember once reading a justification for the 3.0 rules that argued this very point, that the descending armor class system was counter intuitive. Higher numbers just feel better after all; a greater number should suggest a greater and more desirable value. Moreover, the argument went, the descending armor class system is inconsistent with the rest of the rules which more often than not associate higher numerical values with greater power or advantage. If a higher number of hit dice equals greater strength, shouldn’t a higher number armor class rating suggest more effective armor? This is a legitimate complaint. The descending armor class system is a little counter intuitive and stands as a potentially annoying inconsistency.
But this is precisely what makes the descending armor class system preferable to its alternative. Why? Paradoxically, the very oddity gives rise to its charm. This system, used in Oe D and D, was peculiar and weird from the outset, but then again, so was D and D. Simply put, throughout the history of its earlier editions, part of D and D’s flavor lay in the fact that some of its rules were a little quirky and arbitrary. While many later generations of gamers have come to regard these quirks as flaws, I see them as essential ingredients in the crazy mélange that is D and D. Early generations of gamers accepted these quirks, and as time went by, came to enjoy them. Sometimes people come to love a thing precisely because it doesn’t work the way one initially expects it to.
To illustrate by way of a non gaming example, let us take the case of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. That novel departs in many significant ways from how conventional wisdom dictates that a novel should work. Melville’s story telling is inconsistent; Ishmael is the main character in the beginning, but by the second half inexplicably dissolves into the text to become a virtual third person narrator. Strange chapters on cetology break up the flow of the narrative and really offer little to advance the plot. This is why abridged versions typically omit these sections. I don’t believe Melville deliberately broke with tradition in the name of artistic experimentation. I believe he just got a little sloppy and let his vision and his genius outstrip his literary technique and craftsmanship. But are these elements flaws? In one sense, yes they are. But these idiosyncrasies cannot ultimately be separated from the total experience of reading Moby Dick, a novel of undeniable depth and complexity. Over time, scholars have actually come to view these idiosyncrasies as part of this complexity. These “flaws,” in fact, are part of what makes Moby Dick such a memorable and unique work of art. As generations have gone by, Melville fans and scholars have actually come to love these aspects of the novel, because without them, it’s just not Moby Dick.
In a similar sense, the peculiar elements and inconsistencies of original D and D also made the game memorable and unique. I argue, in fact, that their very quirkiness actually helped to make them more memorable. The more of these elements that I include in my game, the more likely I am to recreate the vibe associated with the original game. When I first started playing D and D as a boy in the late Seventies, I too sensed something odd about the descending armor class system. But over time, this element, along with dozens of others came to characterize the D and D experience. It helped contribute to the gestalt of D and D for me.
In the final assessment, it probably doesn’t matter all that much whether I choose the descending version of the rule over its alternative. It’s just a minor detail. But I believe that good gaming results from the careful consideration and assemblage of such details.
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