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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D&D, of course, saw much of its growth in popularity on college campuses. But when students went home over the summer break, they brought the game with them and created new groups and came into contact with other players. Thus, when they returned to school the following autumn, they had new ideas and new rules. This began a long history of cross-pollination of game ideas, as each group found they didn't have to play in isolation (although many did). Networks of gamers arose to trade ideas for dungeon rooms, monsters, new rules and so on. Most of these networks were fairly regional. For example, a document that was essentially an entire revision of the D&D rules passed around in photocopied form in California in the 70s. Small, local conventions strengthened these networks-sometimes having been created for just this purpose, while others were wargaming gatherings essentially taken over by role-players, much to the chagrin of some of the wargamers who saw this influx of young, enthusiastic gamers talking about trolls and charm person spells as the ruination of their hobby.

Other networks were created through publications. TSR's own The Dragon, initially created to support all sorts of games, became more and more "the D&D magazine." While it often offered new rules or game materials, many of the early articles were just discussions of what happened in last week's game among the players in Lake Geneva. Eager D&D players, hungry for anything related to the game, ate it up. Because the game almost couldn't be learned correctly by reading the rulebooks, these descriptions of game sessions became valuable material for understanding how the game was meant to be played.

Other publications were entirely unofficial, whether it be the coop-fanzine Alarums and Excursions or so-called knock-off publications like the infamous (and wildly creative) Arduin Grimoire. These products continued to spread more game ideas, some good and some bad. (Arduin amusingly perpetuated and reinforced the %Liar confusion.) But D&D players were starving for help in controlling, if not taming, this wild beast they'd unleashed called roleplaying.

The wild-and-woolly, fast and loose, we're-in-charge-not-the-rules attitude the original game required (and encouraged) defined the play style of the game for the vast majority of players. One could argue that if original D&D had been clearer and more codified, perhaps the very nature of role-playing games would be different today. More than clear and comprehensive rulebooks, it required a strong (and fair) referee and an understanding (and imaginative) group of players. Characterized not by its rules, but by its lack of rules, D&D challenged gamers like no game before it.

Monte Cook is the co-designer of D&D 3rd edition and 20+ years of other game stuff. Currently, he's hard at work on www.dungeonaday.com, which offers new game content every weekday.

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