Gamers on Their Own: The Challenges of Early D&D


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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And of course, there were simply holes in the rules and the occasional error or typo that made things more difficult. It’s not easy to see many of the holes today, because our RPG-saturated brains automatically fill in what’s missing. But back then just trying to understand what a “hit point” was could be difficult and the poorly described (or downright absent) rules for surprise and combat round order made playing the game a real challenge. The designers assumed a background in miniatures games, but if you weren’t fortunate enough to possess such experience, even simple concepts like time, movement, and distance in the game were confusing.

But D&D players of the time were more than up for the challenge. The lack of concrete answers led many to develop their own rulings, some of which were codified into notebooks filled with house-rules. Frequently, decisions were made by group consensus, ensuring that everyone was more or less satisfied. So-called “rules lawyers” were a phenomenon of later versions of the game, but there weren’t enough rules to lawyer in those early days. Instead, players often got traction by simply making a good case. Debating skills and persuasive speaking helped convince the referee and the other players that whatever the player was attempting at the time would (or at least might) actually work. Bags of flour to find the invisible foe, kamikaze mules laden with barrels of lamp oil and a long fuse, and trap-finding rats on long leashes were just some of the creative strategies players developed.

Groups found that not every ruling by the referee or every developed house rule was a good one. Trial and error was the only method they had at their disposal, but learning what didn’t work was sometimes more valuable than what did, because they discovered a true understanding of the game. A poor decision now could create a bad precedent in the future. Things that worked for the characters could work for the monsters, and vice versa. All old hat to GMs today, but these were new concepts then.

And sometimes, players and referees trying to understand and enforce the rules that were provided simply made mistakes. For instance, throughout the booklet, monsters are assigned a stat labeled “% in Liar.” This is meant to be the chance that the monster is encountered in or near its lair, but the word is misspelled. Many referees took the “% in Liar” stat at face value and decided that it meant that such was the chance that the monster, if spoken to, would tell a lie. One such referee even applied it to the non-human henchmen following the PCs. A player would ask his followers if they had enough rations with them before mounting a long wilderness expedition. The referee would secretly roll dice and then answer for them. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the player would discover some of his henchmen dead of starvation.


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, which offers new game content every weekday.


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