Days of High Adventure
Gamers on Their Own: The Challenges of Early D&D

Monte Cook | 3 Sep 2009 21:00
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A great many authors have written at length regarding the origins of Dungeons & Dragons - who wrote what, and which edition came out when. While fascinating, there's an aspect to those early days of the game that is just as interesting from our distant viewpoint of today. Being an "old" gamer myself, I remember those early days.

I started playing in 1977 with the so-called "white box." But, being nine or ten years old, my friends and I didn't have any access to or knowledge of what was going on in Lake Geneva, the town where Gary Gygax lived and the birthplace of D&D. We hadn't even heard of a game convention and didn't know about Dragon Magazine (then called The Dragon, of course). We had nothing to go on but these strange little booklets, so we had to figure it all out on our own. And we weren't alone. At the same time, all across the country (and to a lesser extent, the world), the game spread like a virus and people tried to master this strange new hobby.

But what a challenge! First off, D&D itself was designed not as a game, but as an adjunct to another game, the miniatures rules system called Chainmail. Further, players were told they needed the game board from an Avalon Hill game called Outdoor Survival if they wanted to play wilderness adventures. Yet most were lucky to have the D&D rules at all, let alone these other games. The game's popularity spread much faster and farther than the actual rulebooks would allow. Many early gamers possessed only photocopies of photocopies of the rules. Others had to share rules with the other players in their game. It's no wonder that TSR's printings of the game sold out immediately each time they were completed.

And don't get me started on the difficulties of finding polyhedral dice. At the risk of sounding like a story involving walking uphill both ways through a blizzard to get to school every day, two game groups might have only one twelve sided die between them that they would have to share. Others didn't have dice at all, but bowls full of numbered chits...and they had to fight a bear every time they wanted to roll percentile dice. Maybe.

It is generally acknowledged that it was just this side of impossible to learn how to play by reading the rules in the white box (or the faux wood grain box, or whichever printing of the original rules you had), particularly without a background in miniatures games. You needed someone to teach you to play-to show you how it was done. Thus, the game spread virally, as players splintered off from their college game club, boy scout troop, or older brother's game group and started their own campaign with their own brand new, wide-eyed players.

Further, while unquestionably a work of innovative genius, that very first product called "Dungeons & Dragons" was not always entirely satisfying in its ability to cover the various situations that would arise in the game. What if a player wanted to use a weapon in both hands? What if he wanted to wrestle with the orc he faced? The game didn't tell you. Certainly a good referee (the term "Dungeon Master" or "DM" was yet to come along) could answer such questions, but most were still only getting used to a game in which the players could do anything they could imagine and judgment calls were a necessary and common part of gameplay.

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