Days of High Adventure
A Different Perspective

Monte Cook | 15 Oct 2009 21:00
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It's fun to look back at the original Dungeons & Dragons booklets. It's a nostalgia trip to be sure, and sometimes when I'm not feeling inspired to work on my current game design project, Dungeonaday.com, I'll pull out those books (or flip through a few early issues of The Dragon) and I'm suddenly motivated to create all manner of cool dungeon encounters.

However, when I look at them now, I do so with distinctly different eyes than I did 30+ years ago. Not just because I'm older (although you can't dismiss that factor), but because I've been working as a professional game designer for more than 20 of those intervening years. Now, I look at them as a game designer. And I think that allows me to put myself in Gary and Dave's shoes a bit. Not that I would ever claim to match their genius, but I can see why they did what they did, and probably even why they didn't do what they didn't do.

To be clear, I'm not referring to judging or even reviewing the original game. I'm just approaching this from the point of view of understanding. To also be clear, while I had the pleasure to meet and chat with both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson multiple times before they passed away, little or none of that chatting involved me asking them, "so why did you do Armor Class that way?" I probably should have. But I didn't.

Frankly, they probably answered those types of questions and told and retold all those old war stories so many times that I'm not sure how much was entirely accurate and how much was hindsight, nostalgia, modesty, and simple human forgetfulness mixed with a generous helping of stories-grow-in-the-telling. And, again, I mean no disrespect. I know if someone asked me about something I wrote thirty-some years ago, my answer would likely be as much fanciful as accurate. For that matter, I'm sure some of my own stories about the creation of 3rd Edition D&D might be that way already, and that was only 10-12 years ago. Maybe I just have a low opinion of humanity's ability to accurately remember exact details over time.

But I digress.

...and I'm going to digress a bit more. It actually has always struck me as bizarre that after the creation of D&D, which is to say, after the creation of role-playing games, Gary and Dave both simply became game designers. Their products would be shelved right there next to everyone else's. Their new creations (both created non-D&D roleplaying systems later on, as well as adventures and other products) were treated pretty much like any other that appeared in ever-increasing numbers throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even today. But they weren't just a couple of designers of RPGs. They invented the hobby itself. That's just always seemed very strange to me.

Okay. Back to the topic at hand.

The original three D&D booklets have an approach which I'll call the "you know what we mean" approach. The text is spare and concise to the point of aggravation. It's as though the authors assume that you pretty much know how to play and they're hitting the highlights. Or at the very least, they assume that the audience is extremely well educated, intelligent, and more than capable at inferring what needs to done in places where it's not spelled out at all. There's much that's just understood. For example, we're told in the forward (sic) of Men & Magic that we'll want to get some miniatures for the battles. So, there's fighting in the game then. On the next page, in the introduction, we're advised that campaigns start slowly. Campaigns? The "Recommended Equipment" list is nice (dice, graph paper and whatnot) but then we're immediately told that the Referee will have to draw out a minimum of six levels of his "underworld." What does this all mean, a new player will wonder.

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