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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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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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