The Power of Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words. (Fred R. Barnard)

Pictures still speak the most universally understood language. (Walt Disney)

My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures. (Boss Tweed)

Yeah. So we all know how powerful pictorial displays are, but what I want to emphasize today (sort of on that last point) is the idea of a "CAUTION! SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTIBLE!" kind of power that you may have to watch out for. A picture can be so potent (specifically for our purposes, in the context of a game-rule manual) that it actually overrides a point you were trying to make elsewhere.

Here are three examples from classic D&D where the raw text said one thing, and the picture or table presented a special-case or variant way of doing it. In each case, I think that everyone I know remembers the picture, and mis-remembers the actual core rule from the text itself. 

OD&D Monster Reactions

The OD&D text says this:

Monsters will automatically attack and/or pursue any characters they "see", with the exception of those monsters which are intelligent enough to avoid an obviously superior force. [OD&D Vol-3, p. 12]
Further down on that page, there is expansion on this "exception" to intelligent monster reactions, in table form: 

Now, keep in mind that this table was supposed to be the "exception" for "more intelligent monsters". Presumably that's got to be a small minority of monsters -- in my reading, not just quasi-human intelligence like orcs and goblins, but special mastermind-level monsters like wizards, medusae, and vampires. And even then it was supposed to be applicable only in the face of an "obviously superior force". But generally folks forget about the original core rule (i.e., "automatically attack") and focus solely on the table.

In later editions, the reaction table was copied forward, but the default rule text was abandoned. The idea of a "random reaction table" became so universal that it was the very first thing the makers of Futurama thought to have the Gygax character do upon his introduction

AD&D Combat Progression

In an apparent change from OD&D, AD&D inserts a sequence of 6 "20"'s in the combat tables before a value of "21" is reached. The DMG notes:

A quick glance at the progression of numbers on the COMBAT TABLES will reveal that 20 is repeated. This reflects the fact that a 20 indicates a "perfect" hit. It also incidentally helps to assure that opponents with high armor class value are not "hit proof" in most cases. [AD&D 1E DMG, p. 82]

Notice what this does not say: there's no special treatment of those 20's, no special way of calculating the attack total, no discounting of bonuses or magic. That comes later:

Should any DM find that this system offends his or her sensibilities, the following modification is suggested: Consider the repeated 20 as a perfectly-aimed attack which does not gain any benefit from strength or magical properties of any sort - spell, missile, or weapon. That is, the 20 must be attained by a roll of natural 20... Thus, the COMBAT TABLES could be amended to read like this:

Again, lots of people overlook the fact that the AD&D core rule allows you to hit any "20" (or more) by any means that you can add up the numbers, including bonuses and magic. What folks remember is this modified/"amended" table with its stipulation of "20 (natural)" in most of the cases. And that's the kind of thing that got translated to later editions as the "natural 20 always hits" rule. 

AD&D Random Dungeon Generation

The back of the DMG has a nifty section titled "Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation". Among the introductory paragraphs, it says this:

The first level of the dungeon is always begun with a room; that is, the stairway down leads to a room, so you might go immediately to TABLE V. and follow the procedure indicated or use one of the following "starter" areas. Always begin a level in the middle of the sheet of graph paper. [AD&D 1E DMG, p. 169]

So notice what the primary rule is: "go immediately to TABLE V" (i.e., a list of different chamber/room sizes, from 10'×10' to 30'×40' or more). Or, here is the secondary possibility, the pregenerated "starter" areas:

As you might guess, because it comes in highly-memorable visual form (and assisted by the non-qualified title in the figure), I think that most people wind up using these "starter" areas over and over again, repetitively starting random dungeons with these same recognizable shapes, even when the core rule is actually to do something different (namely, go to Table V. and roll a random probably-rectangular room).

So in conclusion: Only use a picture or table when you really want that element to be highly memorable. Probably you don't want to use an illustration for a variant that's at odds with a core rule communicated solely by text! For clarity I present this point in picture form:


  1. That is crazy that you included the 20s-on-the-combat-tables thing. Two nights ago I decided that I needed to refresh in my mind how that all works in 1e and went over it several times. I came to the conclusion that "Wow--that progression is a MODIFICATION to the combat tables, not an explanation of how they were meant to be used."

    Back in the day, we always used that progression with natural 20s required after the first 20. But we won't be doing so in our new 1e campaign.

  2. Great analysis. Regarding reactions, the info in Vol 3 may have also been ignored because there's an expanded version of the table in Vol 1, page 12, but without the same guidance. Presumably to streamline the material, Holmes brought only the expanded table forward into Basic and just introduced it with "Obviously, some of these creatures will not always be hostile. Some may offer aid and assistance. To determine the reaction of such creatures, roll 2 dice:".

  3. And as converse example, I think the rather unique Oil & Holy Water combat rules in Holmes Basic are often forgotten because there was no corresponding table.

  4. Lord Kilgore: Awesome, I should've made this into a "Sunday Serendipity" column... :-)

    Zenopus: Certainly agree with all of that. The other thing is that the Vol-1 (p. 12) version of the table has lead-in text saying that version is just for monetary offers of employment to monsters (possibly after morale surrender in combat), which seems even more limited.

  5. My reaction to these examples is mixed. I agree with you about monster reactions; it's hard not to, since there's the evidence of what later editions did. On the 20s issue, I can only say that no group I ever played in mistook the "natural 20s" rule for a core rule instead of an option. Lord Kilgore's comment shows that his group did, though; perhaps this is widespread and my own experience is anomalous. The starter room issue seems iffier to me. I'll grant that people seem to use the rooms in the picture rather than randomizing on Table V, but I won't grant that such use represents an option displacing a core rule. The rules say "you might go immediately to TABLE V. and follow the procedure indicated or use one of the following "starter" areas." Both methods are presented in the same sentence, and neither is subordinated to the other; in fact, using Table V is presented as what you might do, not what it is assumed you will do. The rules here seem to support both options equally.

  6. Maybe Gygax was assumed to be a creature of high intelligence but low HD, which means his encounter with Fry was one against an overwhelming force, or else Gygax was a creature which might aid the party.

  7. Follow-up: Review of a new book on the history of cartoons confounding tyrants and propagandists, e.g.: an enraged Hitler publishing a book of opposition cartoons, with lengthy text dismissals. Napolean saying caricatures "did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.".

    Final quote: "You can’t defeat images with words."


  8. Another follow-up. Lindsay Ellis has a three-part video essay of feminist theory vis-a-vis the Transformer movies.

    Her final observation: "Framing and aesthetics supersede the rest of the text. Always. Always. Always."


  9. More follow-up: In video gaming, consider the case of the Atari "Paddle" controller, as used for Pong and similar games. In the text documentation, these were officially called the "standard paddle controllers", or "controllers" for short. But the devices themselves had a sticker with a picture of table-tennis paddles and the single word, "Paddle", which is therefore the name that stuck in people's minds.


  10. Re: AD&D combat progression. I've never used--nor seen others use--that natural 20 amendment, not back in the day nor in my 21st century forays into 1e. You roll a 19 with a +2 battle axe, you hit the jerk that you needed a 21 to hit.

    I invoke the caveat that if there is already a table that makes the point reasonably clear--in this case, the combat matrices--then the amendment table that refines/complicates the matter stands a good chance of being ignored.

    1. Thanks for that experience! I did enforce the option myself, but I'm always the outlier. :-)