"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Friday, August 21, 2009


I have often heard (and have likely made the comment myself) that older versions of D&D are "grittier" than newer versions.

But what makes a game "gritty"? Is it lethality? Is it strictly atmosphere?
Some adjectives I have heard to describe a "gritty" game: realism, lethal, dark, sacrifice.

A few things that I think make B/X a gritty game:
1. The fragile nature of the characters.
2. The roster of monsters. The number of giant versions of normal animals, dinosaurs and bugs keeps things "grounded"
3. The focus on resource management - it is tough to feel really heroic when you are worried that you might run out of torches and be lost in the dark.

Is White Plume Mountain gritty? It definitely is lethal.

Is Dark Sun gritty? I would say yes.

What do you think? What is "gritty"? What makes a game gritty?


  1. Dammit, you just had to throw WPM in there, didn’t you…now I’m obligated to comment!

    American Heritage defines GRITTY as “showing resolution and fortitude; plucky” as well as simply “having grit” (GRIT behind defined as minute particles of sand, etc. or “indomitable spirit, pluck”).

    I like “plucky” for purposes of your question, but I think when most people are talking about early editions being “gritty” they mean “with dirt” as in “down in the dirt” or simply “dirty” and by association “mean streets level.” What they seem to mean is
    “coarse and unrefined,” un-finished.

    Whereas D&D3+ has been refined and finished down to a science. The earlier editions require a lot of help “finishing them” and therein lies much of their charm…the DIY appeal of the early games.

    2nd edition actually, was a real attempt to REDUCE the grit…that is by codifying and organizing (i.e. refining) the AD&D rules. In the strictest sense of the term, 2nd edition was the first non-gritty version of D&D…BY DESIGN!

    Now with regard to pluck, indomitable spirit, etc….

    Those early editions of the game WERE plucky. The designers had grit (this in the “true grit” sense of the word) to even invent D&D…they were pioneers. The characters of those early games (with their high mortality rates) had to have grit as well if they were going to survive. And the players had to have grit…resolution, spirit, pluck…in order to stick it out with those characters against tough odds, and use what imagination and luck they could muster to overcome sticky situations.

    Just ‘cause a game is “dark, realistic, or lethal” doesn’t make it “gritty.” Vampire the Masquerade has no “grit;” it attempts to be as slick as can be, though it is also dark. D&D 3 and (I’d suspect) 4E are not gritty. By design, the rules are smooth and seamless. Games are generally “death proof” (in the sense that they are scaled to challenge the players without destroying them) and thus facilitate enjoyment of low-level challenge and exploration without the need for “pluck, fortitude, indomitable spirit,” i.e. “grit.”

    Is White Plume Mountain gritty? Yeah. Figuring out how to fight a vampire in the dark, a giant crab in a bubble in a volcano, dealing with super tetanus traps and frictionless rooms? That tests a person’s spirit and ingenuity. You have to have “grit” to get through it.

    Is Dark Sun gritty? Well it has sand and particles and shows them off, so by one definition of the term, yes, it is “gritty.” But I haven’t played a Dark Sun campaign and don’t know if it resonates with the spirit of those earlier editions or if it’s just a pastiche of sentiment dressed up in a sandy cover.

  2. Um.
    My take on 'gritty' involves the bottom of the totem-pole; the often shady and desperate deals struck; the deeds that no one ought know of and that, if known, could undo the shiny prestige of a Name-level character years after they had been committed.
    --Low-level D&D of the Classic-Play era is inherently gritty due to the relative powerlessness of the PCs, but some folks but a happy/shiny spin on the deeds to mask the pale undebelly of the beast.

    Determining whether to slit the throats of the bound/sleeping residents of an isolated tower complex, simply because the PCs want to ransack it --that is gritty. Deciding to do it is evil, but considering it is indicative of the street-level savageness necessary to become the bigger fish in a very big, dark ocean filled with sharks.

    > flees from the Mixed-Metaphor Police <