Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Life's Tour Through Dungeons & Dragons, Part 1.

I will never, ever forget that day in fourth grade. It was recess, and, as all the other kids ran outside to play, a few of the boys pulled out sheets of paper, some odd-looking dice, and a thin blue book with a dragon on the cover. I asked what they were playing. Something called Dungeons & Dragons. I asked if they would teach me. They said yes.

It was at that moment, to borrow a phrase from Stephen King, that I put my hands on the lever of my destiny and began to push.

(You may expect a self-deprecating joke at this point, something about how I played it until I discovered girls, or something like that. If you expect any signs of shame in my D&D obsession, you have come to the wrong damn blog. And I only dated girls who enjoyed playing the game with me, thank you very much.)

I almost never play tabletop RPGs anymore. I would like to, and my friends have been nagging me to run a game for years. But adult life, especially when you are a parent, is merciless. Happily, I will someday be retired, and then I can run all the campaigns I want for any D&D fans who are still alive.

The recent announcement that they were starting work on 5th edition D&D made me think back happily on all the different flavors of the game along the way. Come! Join me on a little tour through Back In the Day ...

Dungeons & Dragons (White Box Edition, 1974)

Never played it, as I was practically an embryo. I have read the rules, though, and they read like they were dictated during a fever dream.

First Edition (1977)

Which is to say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as opposed to the Basic Set, or the Expert set. Things got a little confused back then.

Old people like me look back with great nostalgia on early D&D. This is the version I've spent the most hours playing, and remembering how exciting and new it was tends to make us forget the problems the game had.

Enormous, epic problems, caused by the fact that its creators didn't have decades of RPG design to draw from. Don't be fooled by the mutterings of the grognards. First Edition was only playable with piles of house rules and plenty of spit and duct tape. Everything about it was rough.

What was wrong? Where to begin… how about that new wizard characters (called "magic users," in a glorious lack of poetry) could only cast one spell a day. These players spent the rest of their time running to the store to get chips and Coke for the kids who were actually doing things.

Or how, when a poisonous monster bit you, you had to roll a high number or your character just died. What? You rolled a 7 instead of a 12? That's it for you. It must suck to be such a terrible player.

Or how most undead, when they hit you, drained your levels away permanently. It was as dreadful as it sounds.

It was, in gamer-speak, super hardcore. And you know something? Sometimes I miss it. You were genuinely scared of monsters back in those days. It was exciting. And, now that I think about it, characters should die more often. It makes things more exciting, and you get to try lots of different classes.

In the end, after years of play and feedback, it was clear that much had been learned and that the rules should lead to a lot more fun. Thus, Second Edition.

(To be continued in the next post.)


  1. I didn't start until second edition and in retrospect I think even that was a little rough around the edges. I can't begin to imagine the headaches from original AD&D.

    Although in retrospect it did lead to a slew of house rules and some of the most memorable adventures we've ever had, so I can't complain.

  2. Often dying characters is a good thing. I miss permadeath. I remember Angband. I still miss my paladin who died on 50 lvl. You can get same feeling with gems like Dungeons of Dredmor but those characters luck personality and unique gameplay, you always get some jack of all trades.

    Of course, party-based RPGs like Avernum shouldn't have it. Or there should be big number of mercenaries.

  3. 1st edition, with some custom house rules like (mana pools vs spell memorization) was always the best in my opinion, and ultimately what we stuck with for the most part.

    It was simple for basic play in general, while being open ended enough, to have plenty of depth and interesting mechanical/rule combinations/exploitations possibilities for those that favor such things.

    Mind you it took a good and sadistic DM to deal with most of this.

    2nd edition, seemed rather bloated to me, especially once they started breaking up magic schools, and having a billion character/class kits.

    Things you once thought up/figured out yourself, or worked with your DM to do/have during character creation, suddenly became just basic choices. A trend that seemed to go on even more with 3rd/3.5.

    Suddenly you had tons of powers and feats with rules, where back in the day, I'd be playing with martial artists, and people would just describe/demonstrate what the heck type of attack they were going to try an do, and the DM would roll with it, and figure out how they wanted to handle it.

    We also had a whole lot of character death, especially since people that died, tended to get to than control monsters during any new combat encounters in a session. Player death always sky rocketed at that point, but made for some really interesting games.

    Of course I'm also coming from a big time BattleTech/Marvel background as well, a lot of D&D/RPers wouldn't like these type of game sessions probably.

  4. I didn't start until second edition and in retrospect I think even that was a little rough around the edges. I can't begin to imagine the headaches from original AD&D.

    In my opinion, 2nd edition was the worst edition because it was in this awkward transition mode.

    The early editions had this "by the seat of your pants" feel. Gaming was very much a narrative experience, and the rules (at least the part of the rules that people used) were very lightweight.

    2nd edition was as we were moving to the more complex, mathematical-style rule system that reached its peak with 3rd edition. The industry was trying to feel its way in this space at the time with the rise of skill-based RPGs like GURPs and Hero.

    Except that, bless their hearts, the designers of AD&D during second edition were clearly bad at math. The 2nd edition rule books have some really cringeworthy "what were they thinking" moments. The create-your-own class rule (even though optional) is great example; a quick glance through this system shows you can make a class with 0xp per level that has a wish spell. The scientific illiteracy at display in the section on night vision is another howler.

    The expansions in 2nd edition had major, major power creep and it was unavoidable because of how poorly designed the initial rules were.

    This was all done better in 3rd edition when you had more mathematically-oriented designers come in. I know that some people did not like 3rd edition for other legitimate reasons. But the underlying mechanics were much, much more solid than they were in 2nd edition.

  5. @Walker: "But the underlying mechanics were much, much more solid than they were in 2nd edition."

    But I don't want the mechanics to be solid! I want them to be easy! Remember, I'm drinking!

    - Jeff Vogel

  6. For me it was 5th grade, and the kids who played were part of the "smart kids" club who got to play D&D in the library while I was in Math. They didn't let me play with them at recess, but I made lots of maps for them which they did use.

    My parents later allowed me to play D&D... but not AD&D... because that game had demons. And as we all know, only kids who hung out in graveyards at night played AD&D.

    D&D on the other hand was somehow wholesome and heroic and full of Elmore art; when cleric women were hot even when they were fully clothed and all elves were fighter/magic-users who could cast their one spell and then use a longsword for the rest of the fight.

  7. I remember when our party was in a dungeon and we broke open a crypt. A creature stepped out - leathery and pale with a broadsword, white eyes and sucking the warmth from the room. We decided it was a Wight...and ran like hell, down the corridor, out of the dungeon and never went back. Because, seriously, FUCK losing a level.

  8. About 1980-81 I went to the school after-hours wargames club - which was basically an unsupervised classroom that no-one in authority had realised was being used after school. I was a 15mm ancients WRG taple-topper at the time.

    Saw some guys playing D&D and asked them about it - they were complete jerks acting like it was Fight Club and I wasn't worthy to know about it (though, to be fair - I was a 15mm wargamer, not even 25mm wargamer. Ha, at least I wasn't one of those microscale losers - I jest...). I waited until they were distracted and copied down the address on the side of the box, for the UK distributor and sent off a SSAE for some information. My geeky life at the time seemed to revolve around a lot of stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

    Then I found out what D&D gaming cost.

    Long story short, that's how I got into Tunnels and Trolls. Had a brief email exchange with Ken St. Andre a couple or few years back. Real nice guy - he was the T&T designer and also did some design work on a computer game you may have heard of called Wasteland.

  9. I cut my teeth on First Edition at about the same age. We weren't very passionate about sticking to the rules, the DM was always winging it. We focused on having a good time rather than nitpicking rules. The DM would craft up endless sticky situations and the players would be crazy creative in coming up with ways to fight/talk our way out of things. Endless good times, never to be had again now that life intrudes so forcefully.

  10. I know computer RPGs will never be the same as sitting around a table but I'm building a mobile game called Pocket Heroes that is trying it capture that questing with friends feel.

    We're hoping to release it this spring and we have a ton of info about it on our website and the TouchArcade forums. I'd love to hear what some of you think about it.

    F5 Games Blog Post with Video

    TA Forum Thread:

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. This is one of those games you get addicted to. I completely understand you, because I used to play it a lot with my friends and I still do sometimes. I really can't get why are you expecting fo someone making jokes out of your confession.
    Home Property

  13. Just found your blog while looking for old school RPGs for the ipad. It's funny, I'm 40 and have a 3-year old daughter and look forward to playing D&D and board games when I am retired one day too! I started playing D&D around 5th grade, but probably spent more time reading the books, modules and Dragon magazines than i ever did playing it. Now I am probably more inclined to play board games if I ever get any free time.

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