Classic RPG Review #1: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeon Masters Guide and Players Handbook
by Gary Gygax
TSR/Random House 1979

Yes, I am speaking of the first edition here. Probably no one had an inkling then that a fourth edition game would be upcoming now, nor that it would become such big business. The Dungeon Masters Guide is heavier and twice as thick as the Player's handbook, and it looks more like a mysterious spellbook than most game books look nowadays. It lacks gloss, the artwork is not as slick yet, and the small typesetting looks a bit as if it is a 1920's book about the Assassins and the Knights Templar. And yet there are small comic strips that indicate otherwise. It looks like something you could find on a dusty shelf in an antique bookshop. There are indexes and glossaries, but neither makes it more insightful to what the book is about.

The same goes for the Players Handbook. It is hard to make out what a game of Dungeons & Dragons must be like just from gleaning these pages. No wonder that many students used to say that you must be a genius to play Dungeons & Dragons. This may of course explain the high percentage of nerdiness of the game too.

But both books are extremely intriguing too, and once you kind of know what the game is about, they become treasure troves of possibilities. The Players Handbook is full of magick spells (not real ones, despite the rumors), and the Dungeon Masters Guide is full of descriptions of magick items and tables full of attributes of relics and artefacts. Monsters you have to find elsewhere, in the separate Monster Manual. It may be that I do no longer have the wish to learn a game by heart as I did with this one, but this is one of the very few games with such a strong treasure trove feeling. Only Talislanta and the older editions of Traveller have the same effect on me. Every page may hold something new, a new bizarre idea, a something that could have come from Jack Vance's Dying Earth.

My favorite from the books are the Random Dungeon Generation Tables. These you can even use when you are stuck alone, and you can run your own party of adventurers against the dice. Nowadays we have computers to do this for you, with graphical interfaces galore, but it still holds its charm. For some time at least, because to be honest, my gaming also evolved.

Dungeons & Dragons then, yet more than it is now, was about campaigning. Every adventure in D&D is a small scale “search & destroy” mission. Find the subterranean network (called Dungeon), seek out the monsters, slay them and take their treasure. As the personae of the players gather more experience, the missions become tougher, the traps more deadly, the monsters more vicious and the value of the loot more capable of destroying the local economy. And basically that's it. No storytelling, no character development as you might find in a novel, no more social interaction than “hey, that's my treasure!”. Yet as I remember it, it used to be fun while I was a teenager.

The rules of the game are somewhat obtuse. But once you get the hang of them, they are not too difficult. It's just that there are quite a few possible modifiers to every die roll, and quite a few exceptions to the rule. Most Game Masters (Dungeon Master in this game) thus ignored these. The game is fairly well balanced throughout the mid-levels, but the game breaks down with beginning heroes and high-level campaigns. This goes especially for the wizards. A beginning magic user may feel like a one shot pea shooter who can be wiped of this earth by a mosquito bite. A high level magi however, bores the rest of the party to death as he fireballs all dangerous foes to oblivion with the flick of his wrist, leaving nothing for the others to do.

The D&D priest class is fairly unique, as many games avoid religion altogether. D&D just avoids the big three monotheistic ones in name. But considering the description of the average priest in the game they are pretty much Christian. Even the supplement Deities & Demigods could change little in this. Priests have to stick more to behavioural codes than others, and they are the only ones capable of actually curing wounds, diseases and insanities. They are the only ones capable of scaring the undead such as vampires and ghouls away. But priests may hardly use violence, and must be goodie two shoes all the time. In practice this makes the priest indispensable in a game, and no one wants to play one either.

Another near unique feature is the “alignment”. A behaviour code to which the player has to stick. Alignment may vary between “good” and “evil” and between “law” and “chaos”, with “neutral” in between on both scales. Players can choose an alignment mostly freely, but Chaotic Evil seldom works in a group. And what does “lawful good” mean exactly? One paladin in our game argued that he was “good”, so anyone who opposed him was automatically “evil”, and he could murder them wholesale. Probably such silly logic led to alignment being skipped in other games.

All in all though, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a beautifully crafted, highly inspirational game. Even if the rules are not state of the art anymore, and never were balanced or clear enough in the first place, the wealth in ideas and the treasure trove feeling of the books well make up for this. Also this is the full fledged version of the game that laid the groundwork for all other role playing games. It may be worth a place on your shelf for that fact alone.

RULES 3/5 
(rules are neither especially elegant, flexible nor realistic but they set a fair standard between game masters)
(one of the few true treasure trove games, supplements were available galore, and the game fit well in the traditions of Conan or Fafrd and the Grey Mouser)
(the game is almost impossible to learn without outside help, once learned however – when most exceptions are ignored – it's fairly fast to play, the game itself is limited to search & destroy military style missions )
(fantasy with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings – i.e. Non-copyrighted hobbits, class based, progression in general levels by gaining experience points, d20 based combat, separate roll for damage, fatigue and health are measured in the same “hit points”, spells are memorized in available slots giving a Jack Vance feel, behaviour codes called “alignment” and some strict rules for possible weapons and armour for each class – i.e. Profession)


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