Thursday, January 12, 2012

What started it all

What Started it All ...

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Role Playing Game

So, just what is this game and how does one play it? Without going into the details of what a roleplaying game is and the like (you can actually acquire the books and read about that) I'll just let it suffice to claim that this is the worlds first, and most prestigious, codified role playing game. By codified I mean that it has a set of written rules agreed upon by it's founders and the many that played in those early days. Though there were a few things the founder admitted he would have changed, the core of the game would have stood as is.

A Bit of History

Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren were avid wargamers in late 60's Wisconsin. Jeff had created a small set of rules for medieval mass combat for their miniature wargames which he shared with Gary. Gary liked the rules and ever the tinkerer expanded them to 16 pages. Gary's revised rules were very popular with their gaming group for awhile, but he took the game a step further to keep his friends' interest hot and the danger level high. Gary added a supplement to the rules to cover fantasy type figures, including heroes, magic users and dragons. Later he incorporated giants, elementals, ogres and more. He also included rules for single man combat, something that was unique and novel for wargaming at the time. Gary would later explain that he was trying to capture the feel of Robert E. Howard's Conan-style swords and sorcery fantasy. At the time JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was enormously popular so Chainmail Fantasy took off like wildfire.

Meanwhile Dave Arneson was using the Chainmail rules to run a sci-fi fantasy campaign called Blackmoor set largely in the endless catacombs and dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor. Dave would recall that he did this because it added an element of mystery and uncertainty. In a wargame you could see just about everything on the battlefield, but in a dungeon you never knew what was lurking behind a closed door or around the next corner. The Blackmoor campaign generated many of the early rules of Dungeons & Dragons because Dave kept copious notes on every rule-related issue that came up in his campaign. After playing with Gary one night, Gary was so excited about the adventure he asked Dave if he could have a copy of his notes. Dave obliged and Gary set to work organizing and filling them out into what would become he and Dave's first and only joint project. Dungeons & Dragons.

This early game was still very much in its infancy in many ways. It's loose organization and open-ended style required individual groups to navigate many as yet uncharted waters in relation to rules and situations that had not arisen. Early D&D play might vary tremendously between groups exactly because those early rules were so limited in scope. Many, however, liked this about the game, But Gary had bigger ideas.

By this time Gary and his friend Don Kaye had formed Tactical Studies Rules, which would later become known as TSR. Gary has begun his own fantasy campaign called Greyhawk and released it as a supplement for the early rule set. However, as the games literally flew off the shelves and demand continued to increase, Gary saw a potential problem developing. The early rules were so lightly defined that Gary knew if there was ever a hope of having uniformity of play he would have to revise and tighten the rules somewhat. Thus began his project, which used much of his own work and play in his home campaign of Greyhawk.

Others at TSR were excited about this new work, but as his home play notes unfolded they could see that this game was much more complicated than the previous version had been. Thus TSR began development of a simpler version of the game designed initially as an introduction to the more advanced game. A version that would be particularly appropriate for younger players. This would be called the Basic version of the game and would published in a box like the initial work had been. Basic Dungeons & Dragons ended up being something different from an introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In fact it was very closely related to the Original Dungeons & Dragons on the market at that time. This ended up being fortuitious as fans of the older version could transition to the Basic version with little confusion or translation. Both versions were released in 1977. The boxed set written mainly by Eric J. Holmes and Gary's Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Player's Handbook followed in 1978 and the Dungeon Masters Guide in '79. The curious thing that happened on the way to having the complete core rules for the Advanced Version printed were that many people came to the game through the Holmes Basic set. The version that was very similar to the Original version. The Holmes games were literally flying off the shelves and by August 1979 when the DMG is published 5 reprintings of the Basic set had already occurred. And the strange dynamic of version loyalty and preference for the rules lite Original style of play secured the Basic set in some peoples minds as the "way" D&D was to be played. It was most decidedly not considered a child's game, but a simpler, lighter more flexible game by those that preferred it. In their minds it was much preferred over the more technical and gritty rules presented in AD&D. This version of the game would eventually see four expansions. First with The Expert Set, then Companion, Masters and Immortals.

Not everyone felt this way however and AD&D was also a marvelous success and the preferred game of the majority of D&D players at the time. Throught the 1980's TSR would release numerous hardback supplements to support the game along with many adventure modules, rules supplements, Dragon Magazine articles, and campaign settings. The most well known of these would be Gary's own home campaign of Greyhawk, which bears more than passing mention here. As the game had initially developed in Dave's Blackmoor campaign it was natural that Gary would develop his own similar campaign for playtesting new rules, options and aspects of the game.

Begun as a small effort and first played in by his own children Greyhawk developed far beyond Blackmoor to contain some of the most defining adventures, magic items, spells and colorful non-player characters known thus far in fantasy role playing. Intrigued by all of these references player-consumers made increasing requests and demands to see this new setting. Now, AD&D was designed to be played in any setting designed by the DM. And at first Gary was surprised so many players would want to play the game in his home campaign. The first supplement had been released for the original edition in 1975 or so. But full development and release of his campaign wasn't acheived until 1980. And thus the default seting for many AD&D games became the lands of the Free City of Greyhawk. And it's influence can be seen throughout the rules Gary created.

New material and support continued being produced up to 1990 when the second edition of the game was released. Not much will be said here about the second edition. Unpleasant behind the scene business moves had seen TSR and the now very profitable Dungeons and Dragons line wrested from the hands that had made it what it was. Gary was increasingly sidelined from product development and from the creative side of the game. Sadly this spelled the end of the game as Gary's vision and transformed it into the vision of other men and women. The second edition was largely the same in mechanical execution, but the presentation was decidedly different. Numerous supposed "fixes" were implemented, some meaningless, others far reaching and varying in popularity. But the die was cast, and by the early 90's Gary had been shoved out completely and TSR was on the fast track to bankruptcy.

But the interim saw some of the most bold and colorful development of the game thus far. Many AD&D players chose to make the switch to the Second Edition completely, while others stuck with a strict First Edition mentality. The fact is this same furor has erupted when the original game was dumped for AD&D. The Basic version being the obvious salve that soothed the ache for many who preferred a lighter style of play. But there was no proffered salve for 1e players. However, 1e and 2e Dungeons & Dragons were highly compatible. Thus many gamers decided to pick and choose from Second Edition, freely mixing in these elements with their First Edition play. Sadly this bitter war of gaming words over Editions became known as the Edition Wars and still in many varying ways continues to this day.

For those interested in old school play with the original materials there are several ways to approach playing this game, that I see as three fold:

Original Edition Play: For those who like the idea of doing what Gary and Dave did and of creating not only your own world, but largely your own version of the game, I recommend running an original edition game. Please keep in mind that this version of the game is not completely defined and cannot really be run for very long with just these rules. You will need to "house rule" or create your own determination of rules that cover the myriad of situations that will arise in game. In this way you can take the foundational principles of D&D and create a solid, unique, and original experience of play. In the end you might have something like your own "Advanced" version.

If you desire to do this I recommend playing with either the original three little brown books or using a quality retro clone such as Swords and Wizardry by Mythmere Games that can be downloaded for free from the internet (see links section).

Basic Edition Play: This version is for those who like a stronger development of the system, where rules for most things are covered, but essential play kept simple and direct. There is not as much need to customize such a game, but it does offer that opportunity, more in terms of content that actual rules. This game though initially designed as an introduction to the Advanced version never ended up filling that bill. Instead it is a very respectable game in its own right, closer to the original edition but more thoroughly designed. For those who desire play in such a game, simple but not requiring lots of house ruling would be well served by either copies of the original works of a quality retro clone such as Labyrinth Lord produced by Goblinoid Games, also available for free download online.

Advanced Edition Play: And of course, one can play the actual game itself: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I highly recommend using the original source material to play AD&D.

There are three indispensibles upon which AD&D is based. The Dungeon Masters Guide, The Players Handbook and the Monster Manual. I highly recommend owning copies of each of these, as they so seminally influenced gaming to this day.


The important thing to note here is that this should be read by anyone desiring to truly understand RPGs, let alone D&D. Answers are contained in this work that would resolve 90% of the debates of modern game fora. Why hit points are not a reflection of physical damage, why D&D combat is abstract, why time is structured the way that it is in game, how initiative really works, and more. I have heard it said that the language these works are written in is too esoteric and unapproachable. I believe that is because Gary Gygax was a very intelligent and erudite man. He assumed those that would play such games were up to the intellectual challenge. High Gygaxian is truly a written tongue for those with sufficiently functioning gray matter to comprehend it. That many evidently did not is perhaps thorough enough explanation of why so much of todays games are second rate at best. The fact remains unless you come to terms with this masterwork --moreso than the two that follow-- you will never comprehend RPGs in full.


I like to call this work "just right". In composing a players handbook we don't want to give the player so much he might as well change places with the GM. It is not his job to be a master of the game. This slim volume strikes the perfect balance of giving the players just the right amount of information to play the game and still be very much in the dark as to what might be coming next. I also dare to defy anyone in the game creation industry to show me a basic manual for their game that doesn't essentially emulate this work. More should take note and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. This was the book that just begged to be played moreso than any other work published in the system. It had the mojo that was D&D in spades.


The first published volume of the original game and the one closest to my heart. I owned the one withthe first cover and it was that very book I pulled out and showed to my friends that fateful December day to get them hooked on AD&D. In a very real way it was the Monster Manual that found me my first real gaming group that I DMed. I will be forever grateful.

But for those either desiring a taste of this kind of play, or playing with a group that can not or will not go to the trouble of finding at least a Players Handbook, you can use The Old School Reference Index Compilation, commonly called OSRIC:

That is also available for free download from the internet. This wonderful work is the mastermind of Matthew Finch (who worked on the original PHB) and Stuart Marshall. The rules presented therein are, while very similar to AD&D, not exactly alike. This is not the authors' fault, but it is intentional. As an exact copy of the rules would have violated copyright laws. However OSRIC gives one the feel of AD&D play, and it does something else more important. Using these rules AD&D amateur designers can create new material such as modules, almost completely compatible with the old game. And this does not violate copyright. In fact they give detailed instruction on their site as to how to go about doing this using the OSRIC rules. Some might be tempted to use OSRIC alongside the original AD&D rules in play, but this does not work. The two are different enough that if some players have OSRIC and others have originals there will be sufficient discrepancies between the two to impede play. Either play OSRIC alone or play the original edition. In my opinion actual play should be facilitated using the original rules, and OSRIC should be utilized as a tool for publishing new and original works for the game.

There were several other works produced for the game, and I highly recommend The Acaeum for Original, Basic and First Edition Advanced product lists. And for the truly ambitious you might try downloading and perusing the TSR Product List from Dragonsfoot which includes all the products ever published from 1e and 2e.


Jeff_Grubb said...

Interesting article. I don't know if I agree with all statements and conclusions, but it offers a portrait of an era before I joined the company.

However, small errors can wound a total argument. Gary teamed up with Don Kaye, not Danny Kaye (who was in The Inspector General, among other films).

Also, Gary left the company in 1985, so while the statement "by the end of 90s Gary was forced out" is true but a bit of a stretch.

Good read,

Chris said...

Hey thanks Jeff! I'm humbled to have you stop by! Consider those changes made.

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