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What we can learn from the re-issued first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule books

What we can learn from the re-issued first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule books

Wizards of the Coast has re-released the first edition rule books for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; the set of hardcover books with gilded pages includes the Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. These books were once hard to track down, and could be prohibitively expensive if any collector decided to sell their set but, while I expected to read them as something of a novelty, the rules and notes about running a game included in this collection read like a look back in time to role-playing’s infancy. I’ve spent a few evenings reading through each book, while also talking to people who have played, or continue to play, first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This is a game that has shaped how we role-play, in sometimes surprising ways. While I expected to find history in the first edition AD&D rule books, I instead found a blueprint for how Gary Gygax and company expected the game to be played.

The influence of first edition's rules… or lack thereof

“I am who I am today in no small part to 1st Edition AD&D,” Rob Daviau told the Penny Arcade Report. Daviau is a board game designer who has worked on games such as Risk: Legacy and Heroscape, and he recently ran a first-edition AD&D game for friends, revisiting the rules for the first time in decades. “So I dragged out the original version from my basement and looked it over. It didn't seem to make sense any more and yet it still seemed awesome.” The rules can, in fact, be frustrating. “I think that is my take on 1st Ed AD&D. It really makes little sense. The rules fight each other. Most of the rules are unusable or nonsensical,” Daviau said. “It looks like a collection of disparate rules jammed together that would only make sense to the people who were writing them. I suspect there was a lot of weed involved, too.” The images included in the book, including some bits of nudity, date the material almost as much as the rules themselves. While they're interesting from a historical standpoint, the images often look like doodles from the notebook of an Iron Maiden fan. Creating NPCs was also a chore. “The first one or two I spent a lot of time trying to figure out movement rates and encumbrance and surprise, etc. Either they seemed irrelevant or were so dense as to be useless. I challenge anyone to explain surprise rules to me,” he explained. “By the end, the character sheets were nothing more than a few key stats filled in and some spells and a magic item or two. Even the spell descriptions are vague when you dig right in.” These frustrations, combined with the lack of cohesive rules… were awesome. “Yet…the tone is right. Something is right. The less-is-more feels right. With most rules being useless, the DM (or group) finds the bare essentials of what they need to tell the story. If something unexpected comes up, they make it up,” Daviau told the Penny Arcade Report.

The Dungeon Master held the keys, and kept the players out of the treasure trove

The rules themselves were always to be left up to the Dungeon Master, and the preface to the Dungeon Master’s Guide warned against players reading that particular rule book. The Dungeon Master’s Guide was for Dungeon Masters, and if you were player, woe be unto you if you were caught peeking. “You must view any non-DM play possessing [the Dungeon Master’s Guide] as something less than worth of an honorable death,” Gygax wrote. “If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting ‘sages’ and other sources of information, not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge which could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment—insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.” Penny Arcade’s own Mike Fehlauer role-played both the original rules for Dungeons & Dragons, and later first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and his admiration for the Dungeon Master’s Guide is clear. “AD&D was significant in that it broke out the rules into the Player’s Hand Book (character generation, core rules), Monster Manual (foes), and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is most significant: an entire book on how to create and manage a successful campaign,” he said. “The role of Dungeon Master expanded from ‘rules arbiter’ to ‘enjoyment manager,’ responsible for creating a campaign in a viable world.” The Dungeon Master’s Guide didn’t just explain the rules, it taught you how to manage your players and to make sure they had a good time. “The job went from that of a producer running discrete scenarios to that of a creator responsible for narratively linked adventures,” Fehlauer explained. “As a businessman, I find it interesting that the rulebook contained useful advice on running a meeting (essentially), fostering productive decision-making, prepping material to a specific audience, and driving toward objectives. Someone could reasonably write a book titled Everything I Needed to Know about Management I Learned from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” The Dungeon Master’s Guide itself warned against letting the rules stand in the way of your game. “It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important,” the book’s Afterword stated. “Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the intent of the game… Be certain the game is mastered by you, and not by your players.” Jason Wilson, a role-playing devotee with a long history in the enthusiast press, also believes that modern players can learn from reading the first edition source books. “The first edition rules are important for showing modern players that it doesn't matter how loose or restrictive a game's rules are. It's up to the players to take these rules and fiddle with them in a way that works best for their group,” he said. “Making the game's rules work for you, instead of rules holding you back, is the key. Today's players may think first edition's lack of character classes or races may seem restricting, but it's what you do with those choices that make the game fun.” “When I run a group, I never tell my players that they can't do something,” he continued. “I always let them try, and I do my best to make the rules fit our group and the situations they face. Always give your players a chance.” Daviau agreed that the looser rules are a good thing. “If I tell you your character can do nine things, you will only look at the nine things on your list. If none of those work, you either shrug and say you can't do it or you try to force one of your powers to the situation,” he said. “But, in both cases, you are unconsciously restricted by what the sheet is telling you. We've moved from role-playing to a board or miniatures game where constricting choices is necessary. Here, it is an obstacle.” The newly minted first edition characters didn’t have that issue. “I didn't see that with these characters, who were loose outlines of later edition player characters. The players got smart, got clever, came up with interesting ideas. We had no way of adjudicating things so we just made something up and moved along.” The player has almost all the control over their character in later editions of the game and, with rules spread across multiple rule books, it can be impossible to keep everything locked down. “This led to power gamers having their hands on the wheels. Until then, the DM decided how much power to introduce to the group. With character powers spread across dozens of books, the dedicated player could “win” by finding the best combo,” Daviau said. “The DM would argue. The player would argue his case. You are no longer playing a game, you are playing the metagame. Which sucks.” Fehlauer also brought up the differences in how classical and modern Dungeons & Dragons handle characters. “Compare to modern D&D, where player-characters are exceptional at 1st level, inherently superior to the common man thanks to ability scores being 4d6, drop-the-lowest. They are literally superhuman right out of the gate; born heroes. Instead of survival and wealth being the goal, the player expects his character to be nothing less than the fulcrum of a cosmic struggle,” he said. “I prefer the old school approach of a character being exceptional BECAUSE he's ordinary, and even though he's ordinary he chooses to embrace the unknown. I also enjoy the free-form approach of old school D&D, where you can do anything unless there's a good reason you can't.” Oddly enough the hobby may have been a little bigger, or at least more mainstream, in the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “When I went to visit cousins and friends in other towns I would often bring whatever system I was feeling for at the moment, they would invite some friends and we'd play,” role-playing enthusiast Erik Lag said about his youth spent playing the game. “It was as easy to get someone to play a round of Dungeons & Dragons as it would be now to get someone to try out a video game.”

What we can learn from these re-issues

The re-issued books feature new covers and a note about the Gygax Memorial Fund but, outside those two updates, the content and images are nearly exactly as they were upon original publication, this story has some details about what has been added. There are many reasons to stick with the newer rules, no one mourned the loss of THAC0, but what's important is the ability to read some of the older texts to learn how the game's original writers meant for the books to be used, and how the game has changed as the rules evolved, grew, and were adjusted. The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gave much power to the Dungeon Master, and invited you to use or throw out any of the rules as long as the core game remained mostly consistent. That consistency allowed players to move from game to game, and for fan-made material to be easily inserted into your adventure. New Dungeons & Dragons fans are faced with a wide variety of books, much power in the hands of the player, and systems that tell you what you can do just as much as they say what you can't do. The first edition materials come from a simpler time and, while better is an arguable term, it's very much worth reading this books and learning from them. The most important thing to take away from the re-issued books, and even this article, is that it's always a good time to get together with some friends, some flexible rules, and some dice.