It's far from the case. I couldn't give a monkey's how you, the gentle reader, play the game, and I certainly don't think that the game designer's word is Holy Writ. My position is much more reasonable than that, and is as follows: the designers of D&D are not stupid people. In fact, they are intelligent, thoughtful and creative people. This is true whether the year is 1974 or 2011. The things contained in the game manuals are there for a reason and deserve exploring.
Two such things are the declaration of action before the initiative roll, and forcing spell-casters to have a full night's rest in order to have a clear enough mind to memorise spells. These serve as useful examples, because they are rules that are commonly ignored (or Piledrivered) and they illustrate my wider point, which will become clear at the end of this post (yes, the suspense is killing you). Let's explore each in turn:
1. Declaring actions before rolling for initiative
In AD&D of either edition, the combat round has three steps. (We'll ignore the DM and focus on the players.) Step 1, all the players declare their actions. Step 2, all the players roll initiative. Step 3, their actions are carried out. What are the implications of this and why is it so?
- Most importantly, it's intuitively "true". Fights in the real world occur in real time. You don't take things in turns in real life, and although turn-taking is inevitable in a game there's an argument to be made that this should be reduced as much as possible.
- Second most important, it's fair. Everybody states their actions and then the person with the highest initiative roll is rewarded by being the person who can act first, in knowledge of what everybody else will do, rather than being punished by being the person who declares their action and then acts first, and thus cannot respond to what the rest of the combatants do. Perhaps this requires unpacking: the "Piledriver" way of resolving combat is for everybody to roll initiative and then go from top to bottom, with everybody stating and performing actions in turn, so that Step 1 above becomes folded into Step 2. So initiative is rolled first, then everybody states actions and carries them out in initiative order. What are the consequences of this? Arguably, in many situations it makes losing initiative advantageous, because what are the disadvantages to coming last in the round and being able to see exactly how the melee has panned out, where everybody's position is, what their weak points are, and what they are doing, before you decide how to act? But similarly, in some circumstances it also makes life even harder for the slow than it should be: picture the following scene. Bob the wizard has terrible DEX and rolls poorly for initiative. Everybody knows he will move last. So, the enemy concentrate their attacks on him, knowing that they have a good chance of killing him before his player can even state what he is going to do. In what sense is this better than having everybody declare their actions first, thus forcing people to act with caution rather than direction mass pre-emptive strikes at the slower characters, since they don't know what initiative order will be?
- Third, it allows for a more subtle approach to spell-casting. In every edition of D&D, the complaint has always been that spell-casters are too powerful and at mid- higher- levels come to dominate even combat, making it pointless to be a fighter (your niche isn't even your niche any more). But if you use the correct procedure for combat, this is much less of a problem: spell-casters have to declare their action first ("I'll cast fireball") and then wait their turn; if their concentration is ruined in the meantime (rather likely in a chaotic melee) their spell fizzles. Suddenly fighters are important again - they protect their allied magic-users' concentration and also try to disrupt opposition spell-casters before they can cast. Their role is vital even at the highest levels. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid.
- Instead of just camping wherever, players have to think a little more tactically about where they set up camp and how their sleeping arrangements are. Suddenly, something which players take for granted has to be carefully thought out. Do we want to risk sleeping in the wilderness, or push on to see if we can reach a settlement and possibly not find anything and get no sleep at all? The players' choice about where to camp becomes meaningful, and we know that giving players meaningful choices is always interesting and one of the key characteristics of good play.
- The magic-users, who are important, have to sleep. They can't be disturbed by, say, wandering monsters. What does this mean? Players have to get damn good about picking places to rest if they plan on staying longer than a day in the dungeon. Goodbye 10-minute-adventuring-day, where players explore a bit of the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, explore the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, etc. Wasn't this cited as being one of the huge problems of D&D that the 4e designers were going to solve? Had they actually read their AD&D texts properly?
- Coming back to the old "magic-users are too powerful" discourse, the full-night's-rest rule obviously makes magic-users less all-powerful at higher levels and reliant on the rest of their party for protection and aid. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid.
[I]t is strange how a bunch of mostly non-communicating non-overlapping groups all over the world all changed the same rules.
I agree with this, but what is really interesting is the question why. The simplest response would seem to be: it's because those rules were stupid or poorly explained. I'd like to suggest something different: the vast majority of people start playing D&D when they're, like, 12 years old and frankly not able to take in a big book of rules originally written by grown-ups for grown-ups. Because they're 12, they're not able to think very deeply about things, they find it difficult to speculate in a calm and orderly fashion about the underlying reasons for the way things are, they have very little patience for reading rulebooks carefully and looking things up in charts, they have short attention spans, and they act impulsively. They also, crucially, find it difficult to order each others' behaviour; managing the 3 steps of a combat round I outlined above is kind of hard when you're a 12-year-old DM and your 12-year-old players want to keep things moving. In fact, it's a rare 12-year-old DM who would think about things deeply enough to want to use the proper 3 step sequence anyway.
These things have a momentum of their own and once the Piledriving has started it's difficult to stop. This is why these misunderstandings persist until adulthood - that, and because even with bastardised rules D&D is still fun. Many of my readers will have been thinking, reading this, something along the lines of, "Who cares? We roll for initiative and then everybody states actions and performs them in turn, and it works." Yes, it does work, and this is why it doesn't get corrected. The question whether the standard rules may work better is never explored because the habit is too ingrained.
I'm not the first person to argue this. Faustusnotes, who often disagrees with me, seems on exactly the same page. And here we have Malcolm Sheppard saying something very similar:
I’ve really grown to love AD&D1e as a game of its own, however, and understand it now much better than I did when I was a child, playing Dragonlance or running my own game world hacked together out of Dragon Magazine articles, canned modules and seat-of-the-pants improvisation. AD&D1e is a grownup game, believe it or not: an RPG that requires a slow, deliberate exploration of your options, plenty of discussion and a willingness to look up fiddly bits.
I like this very much and think it an appropriate point on which to close.