Speaking the Cant – Terms and Concepts from D&D’s Past that You Might Not Know

I had a fun conversation with one of my players last night. To him, D&D begins and ends with 4E; he never played an earlier version of it. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I mentioned something about my hopes for D&D Next…specifically that “Speed Factors”, if they came back at all, would be part of some crazy alternate module that I could ignore.

He kind of blinked at me. “What’s a Speed Factor?”

In no time, we were pulling out old D&D books, showing off charts, and talking about things like Racial Level Limits, Saving Throws vs. Petrification & Polymorph, and the Grand Master of Flowers.

He grinned at me. “I think you know what your next GeeksDreamGirl article should be about. You need to educate people like me, because this is fun stuff to know about.”

So here we go. This article will be about some phrases, concepts, and terminology from D&D’s past that you may not be aware of if you only came on board during 4E…or even 3rd edition. And for those who know D&D’s past, maybe you’ll read, get a nostalgic smile on your face, or say, “Hey, I think System Shock rolls got a bum deal!”

Speed Factor

It only seems fair that we begin with the inspiring piece. Once upon a time, gentle readers, it was apparently not “realistic” enough to simply roll dice to see who goes first and add a Dexterity modifier. Actually, as I recall, Dexterity had nothing to do with how fast you went in combat. Instead, what you were doing determined how quickly you did it.

Every weapon, spell, and some actions had a Speed Factor. When you rolled the D6 for your party’s Initiative (yes, that’s right…1 D6 roll for the whole party), and you tied with the monsters, you used Speed Factor to determine who acted in what order. Someone with a dagger went faster than someone with a longsword. Someone with a longsword went faster than someone with a flail, and so on.

Second edition brought the die roll for each side to a d10, and also added an optional rule. With this rule, for more realistic individual initiatives, you added the Speed Factor of your weapon or spell to your initiative roll, as well as modifiers for things like size, whether you had a Haste spell cast on you, and so on. The DM would then go through the various segments of the battle, figuring who was acting in which order. So you might have everyone going on different segments, much as the DM counts down the initiative today. The trouble was, if you switched weapons or cast a different spell, that changed everything, so there was often new initiative rolled on every round of the battle.

Think your battles take a while now? Yeah.

D&D Immortals Rules

So you probably know that D&D was once called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, or AD&D. There was a reason for this. When D&D got its first major face-lift, going from the small brown chapbooks to the original hardcovers, there was a concern that the new game would be too hard for first-time players to penetrate. It was decided that they would have Dungeons & Dragons, a boxed-set, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or AD&D), which would be what people would graduate to.

This proved popular, but it had some flaws, for a very odd reasons. The two rules systems didn’t actually agree on certain things. For example, in D&D, if you were wearing no armor and had no benefit or penalty based on your Dexterity, then your Armor Class was 9. In AD&D, it was 10. Not a major difference, but odd, you must admit. The original “Basic” D&D Boxed set was only for levels 1-3, and folks seemed happy to graduate thereafter.

A little down the road, however, something odd happened. After the re-released of “Basic” D&D, TSR released an “Expert” boxed set. This followed the same rules system as “Basic”, but extended the levels limits up to 14. So now…wait…which is better, Expert or Advanced? To compound this weirdness, they followed up with Companion D&D (levels 15-25), Master D&D (levels 26-36), and Immortals…rules for characters who have literally transcended into Immortality and become gods.

So now what’s better? A game that didn’t limit your levels, like AD&D, or a game which culminates in you becoming a God, like Immortals D&D? I played AD&D, but my friend Joe liked Immortals. We used to debate about it endlessly, even as we played each others’ games. In a way, it was D&D’s first Edition War!

Ironically, in 3rd Edition and 4E, we seem to have come full circle, as Epic play allows players to get up to Godlike powers, even while maintaining levels.


Okay, it’s the elephant in the room…something you might well have heard of but have no idea of the meaning. Allow your GGG to explain.

In original D&D and 1st Edition AD&D, you had to consult a table to figure out what number you needed to hit any given Armor Class. Because AC started at 10 and went down as it got better (an AC of -3 was really quite good!), you would consult a chart based on your class and level, roll your attack, and, based on what you rolled, be able to tell the DM what AC you would hit…or, well, you could’ve if all the combat charts hadn’t been in the DM’s Guide. The DM actually would have to hear your number, then look at the chart and figure out if you’d hit his monster or not.

Thankfully, this was revolutionized in 2nd Edition with the concept of THAC0, which stood for To Hit Armor Class Zero (0). You would have a number, based on your class and level, as well as factors like your bonus for high Strength or Dexterity, whether you were using a magic sword, and so on, that would be the number you needed to hit AC 0. You could then roll a D20, consult your THAC0, and figure out what AC your roll would equate to hitting. For example, if your THAC0 was a 19, and you rolled a 17, then you’d know you hadn’t rolled high enough to hit AC 0, but you would hit AC 2. Man, this made it so much easier for the poor DM!

Ugh. Seriously. Ugh.

Whether you love 3rd Edition, Pathfinder, 4E, or whatever, let us all bow our heads in thanks for a moment, for the concepts of Armor Class numbers that represent what you actually need to roll to hit, and for numbers that go up instead of down. These are things I take for granted nowadays, and I can’t help but chuckle ruefully when I look back on how tightly TSR clung to its sacred cows. Thank goodness WotC held a sacred cow barbecue with the advent of 3rd Edition.

Alignment Language, Druidic, and Thieves’ Cant

I can’t resist slipping this in, because it’s one that I just can’t believe ever existed. Against any logic, it was decided that there were languages for every alignment…secret languages that everyone of that alignment shared. So if you were Chaotic Good, you could drop a few words of the Chaotic Good alignment language and, if anyone understood you, know they were on the up and up.

Well…unless they were that stomper of alignment language collusion, the Assassin. The Assassin, once he reached a certain level, could learn the languages of other alignments. It’s a shame, really, since Assassins are exactly the sort of people you’d be trying to screen out by dropping words in your alignment language.

Besides your alignment, another factor might influence if you knew a super-secret language or not: your class! Certain classes had secret languages of their own, specifically Druids and Thieves (the precursor to Rogues). Druids spoke Druidic, naturally enough, presumably to keep people from learning their awesome recipes for beer, and Thieves spoke Thieves’ Cant, presumably so they could plan their operations in public.

I actually remember an article in Dragon, many years ago, where they came up with a little pull-out section in the middle that folded down into a lexicon of Thieves’ Cant. I loved it, and I used it with the Thief in my game, making him scramble to look up words. It was very funny.

Vancian Magic

Ah, Vancian Magic, the main reason that D&D parties used to have a “Five minute work day”. There are still elements of Vancian magic in D&D today…in fact, every character in D&D 4E owes a little something to Vancian magic.

Sci-fi and Fantasy author Jack Vance wrote a series of books referred to as the “Dying Earth” stories. In these books, wizards would memorize spells from their spell-books at the beginning of every day. When they cast these spells, the spell would erase itself from their minds, forcing them to re-memorize their spells the next day.

Sounds familiar, yes? Yup. Daily powers.

Originally, all spells for clerics, wizards, druids, and so on, were good for only 1 casting. When that spell was cast, the spell was gone until the next day. This meant that, every morning, a cleric or wizard would look through the list of spells they had in their spellbook (or their deity granted them access to), and decide which ones they would memorize (or pray for) for the day. At mid-levels, this wasn’t a problem, but at low and high-levels, it created some oddness.

In the early days of the game, a 1st level Wizard…errr…Magic-User…would be able to memorize one spell. Seriously. One spell of 1st level for the whole day. This literally meant that in every combat, the Magic-User would have to decide if this was the combat to throw his Magic Missile spell in to unerringly do 1d4+1 damage to a single target. Also, his combat tables were the worst of all characters, so his options outside of that spell were essentially to stay back and not get killed, or run in, make a single attack with his staff, and then get killed by a kobold with a stick, since the 1st level Magic-User had 1d4 hit points.

So what would happen quite often is that a party would charge in, unleash all their spells, and then rest. They’d explored 1 room, but they weren’t going any further, because they were probably still wounded (since the cleric was likely to have only a couple of healing spells…at least they got bonus spells for a high Wisdom), and now their Magic-User was essentially useless.

At high-levels, the trouble was that, even though the odds of them needing to cast 1st level spells when they had access to 9th level spells was pretty low, they’d still need to decide what they were memorizing. And the party would have to wait while they decided which spells to take. And that could be literally dozens of spells. A 29th level wizard had 59 spells to decide on, and a 29th level cleric had at least 61, and probably more due to high Wisdom, even if the odds stated they would only need the top few levels worth of spells.

This lasted all the way through 3rd Edition and only went away with the idea of At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers for every class. Now everyone made their decisions as they leveled and worked with what they had til they leveled again.

I am *REALLY* hoping there’s going to be a module for D&D Next that sticks with the At-Will, Encounter, Daily structure. I don’t want to go back to the old days.

In Closing

This nostalgic look back is really a nervous look forward. There are sacred cows of D&D that I hope stay well and truly slaughtered, or, at least, are left optional. I’m sure there are people who love the realism of Speed Factors, but I’m not one of them. I’m sure some folks would love to get back to Vancian magic, but having played a campaign up to level 20, I can say that I’m happy with what 4E changed. And while even I would prefer a return to the days of 9 alignments, there are more rules than not that I’m happy to see stay in their crypts.

Your Turn

What’s your favorite crazy old term or rule that I missed? Do you think there’s a place in D&D Next for THAC0? Am I off-base on Vancian Magic? Let us all know what you think.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

Speak Your Mind