Days of High Adventure
A Different Perspective

Monte Cook | 15 Oct 2009 21:00
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This is the way one might explain to an intelligent friend how to play the game quickly, and assume that the newcomer will pick it up during a game session from context. Or perhaps, in large part, the approach is even designed to speak to someone who has played the game already, but just doesn't know the rules. Which is fine, of course, but it assumes somebody in the given group has actually played before, or at least had heard it described by a friend.

There are no definitions or flavor included in these rules. On page 6, we're launched into character classes, but Fighting-Men, Wizards, and Clerics aren't defined. We're told that fighting-men can use all types of magical weaponry, but not what a "fighting-man" actually is or, for that matter, what magical weaponry is and why we'd expect that they couldn't use it. But that's not necessarily negative criticism. The name of the class is pretty self-defining, as is "magical weaponry," (more or less) and by stating that they can use all of it, we can infer that not only is it the kind of thing that's going to come up in this game, but that not everyone else can use it, and that tells us something about the importance of both fighting-men and magical weaponry. As long as we hang on for dear life as we ride through these rules, we do learn a lot about the game.

Most of the rest of the book is like that, as are Monsters & Treasure and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. It's almost as though each word in the book cost them, so they used as few as possible and spared none for explaining the definition of the word "cleric" to a poor 10-year old boy (that's what dictionaries are for, right?).

The "you know what we mean" approach leads to some poor organization. The definition of hit dice is in the Fighting-Man description. We're told how much an x-ray vision ring costs and how long it takes to make it before we're even told what a cleric or a dwarf is. Despite this, I don't think it's an indicator that Gygax and Arneson didn't know what they were doing. Instead, I think their brevity was intentional. They simply didn't realize what they were unleashing upon the world. They seemed to think that Dungeons & Dragons (or rather DUNGEONS and DRAGONS) would be a quick, little one-off product for a few thousand fantasy enthusiasts and that would be that, rather than the beginning of a whole new hobby that would appeal, eventually, to millions. They didn't want to bore the reader with a lot of explanatory text he or she probably already understood. The rules got right to the point as quickly and concisely as the authors could manage.
Even the strange requirement that one needed the game Chainmail to play D&D makes sense in this context. Looking at it today, it would seem to have been a small matter to include the tables and information from the fantasy supplement of Chainmail needed for the game, but what would have been the point when surely everyone who had this game already possessed Chainmail? D&D was just a fun little add-on to a "real" miniatures game.

Those of us that look back on these original rulebooks and reflect upon the way in which the rules are presented usually fall into one of two camps. The first discounts the books as primitive and quaint, at best, and nearly incomprehensible and unplayable at worst. The second believes every word and sentence to be the work of near perfect genius, and the tendency of more modern RPG books to explain and describe and organize is in fact a devolution of talking down to the reader. The truth, as it always seems to, probably lies somewhere in between. Witness the change in rules writing style found in future versions of the game. Even most modern "old school" emulator games don't really take the same approach to the rules, recognizing the value of explanation and organization for those who have never played a roleplaying game before.

The three original rulebooks, then, were never meant to set the stage for the way rules should be presented in years to come. The style in which they were written was hasty and assumed a great deal of intelligence, insight, and knowledge and the part of the reader. Rather than organization, comprehensiveness, or clarity, their most enduring legacy is simply the concept that the rules themselves were wrapped around: the very idea of a game based entirely on the imagination of the players involved. Which remains the reason why we're still playing this game today.

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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