Role Playing Games

Dungeons & Dragons

Original Dungeons & Dragons
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Original (Gygaxian) Edition

Original Dungeons & Dragons

In 1974 Gary Gygax (and Dave Arneson) invented Dungeons & Dragons, the first pen & paper role playing game. It was based on interactive rules he learned in miniature war gaming (Chainmail, Gygax's predecessor of Dungeons & Dragons, 1971). To me it's very obvious that Gygax and the concept for Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by the radio play "The War of the Worlds" (originally narrated by Orson Wells in 1938, re-enacted in 1968). This purely oral narration of fictional events, just the way it is done while playing pen & paper role playing games, scared a lot of people back then, in a time before television (originally). The panic that ensued in listeners who thought that these were real events being reported, demonstrated the power of the "Theatre of the Mind" (a fantasy that is not seen, but only heard through narration. The "Theatre of the Mind" is the basic concept or idea for Dungeons & Dragons and most pen & paper role playing games. The medieval fantasy setting of Dungeons & Dragons was very clearly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's book "The Lord of the Rings" (1955).

Original Dungeons & Dragons was a relatively simple role playing game, compared to later, much more complex games, and once Gary Gygax realized what fun the game is, he knelt down and got even more serious and created a much more sophisticated, elaborate and powerful version of the game which he called "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons".

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Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Original (Gygaxian) Edition

To me, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition (AD&D 1E) is the "mother" of all role playing games and it still holds a lot of values that are unsurpassed and have never been reached or attained by any other edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike other role playing games, especially also later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it was not just developed by adults to be "played" among themselves, other adults, but also officially, and primarily aimed at adults. Quote, Gary Gygax, Players Handbook, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1'st Edition, 1978, page 7: "The game is ideally for three or more adult players [...]".

Today, most people who play Dungeons & Dragons, or even role playing games as such, most likely play Wizards of the Coast's 5th Edition. That's a good game, no doubt. I enjoy 5th edition. It's a lot more like first edition AD&D than any other Wizards of the Coast edition! Finally! Some people finally noticed a few things! It certainly has very slim and "sexy" streamlined rules. At least in comparison to the lumbering "monster" of AD&D 1E's rules.

But then, when I think of role playing games, I don't just want to play a game. Like maybe monopoly, or chess or some other kind of game. Well, sometimes maybe I do, but not always. Sometimes I want more. Sometimes I want to dive into a different world! And despite its sometimes clumsy rules, AD&D 1E is better at offering that than D&D 5E. Why? Plausibility! Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition, in my view, is not just a game. Unlike 5th edition, it's more, much more in my opinion. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons original Edition is a "as-realistic-as-possible", "playable" simulation of an alternate (fantastic!) plausible reality, and within that, almost any kind of imaginable and feasible fantastic adventures. To be enjoyed mutually by anyone willing to indulge in it.

Where's the difference you may ask? Besides the rules that are less concise and streamlined, less "aerodynamic" or sexy to learn? And besides the artistic makeup that is not just "older" in the original edition, but more geared towards adults, more humble and modest, almost secretive, with it's sparse use of color and special effects in images and print?

The difference is in plausibility. Fantasy, not just in role playing games, but in any novel, movie, crime story or science-fiction, lives from plausibility! When we watch a movie, read a novel, or listen to play, we know that we are being told lies. Fiction! Things that are clearly not true. Yet what makes it pleasurable to be told such lies, is our mind playing with, or being played with the fact, that those lies appear plausible! If we ignore just for a moment that we are hearing lies, hey, maybe we got it all wrong, and maybe it's really quite true? And the more plausible the lies are, the more our minds are tickled. In part, this explains why most people like good special effects in movies. They make lies look real, and thus more plausible. But fantasy role playing games are creations originating from a time before CGI and elaborate special effects in movies. Like in J.R.R. Tolkien's middle earth novels or Orson Well's 1938 radio play "The War of the Worlds", they rely on the so-called "Theatre of the Mind". Or they should, as 5th edition rediscovered. The listener must imagine things him- or herself. And the tools of plausibility are not visual effects, like in modern movies, but the rules. Rules geared towards plausibility, not "sexiness" or aerodynamics.

We like plausibility in fiction, and that's exactly where AD&D 1E shines. Plausibility, simulating a Tolkien-esc fantasy world as plausible and realistically as possible, that is AD&D 1E's main goal. Not being a simple to master, or a well-rounded, aerodynamic and streamlined game that suits all ages and everyone in the family. I think Orson Well's 1938 radio play "The War of the Worlds" was extremely inspiring to Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons. And just like "The War of the Worlds", AD&D 1E strives to be as believable, and as plausible as possible. That is its unsurpassed quality. Admitted, it does so with often utter disregard for being a simple, or easy game to learn, let alone master. As long as something seemed most plausible, complexity didn't matter too much. Plausibility in other words, was AD&D 1E's main goal. And in terms of Tolkien-esc fantasy worlds, AD&D 1E, in my view, still does the best job at this.

Streamlining rules like Wizards of the Coast did in it's 5th edition of D&D, and making the experience of learning the rules as simple and pleasurable as possible for everyone has an impact on plausibility and realism. In part, because simple, "sexy" and streamlined rules often just aren't as realistic, and feel more like the rules of some simple board game for children or families, than an explanation of a plausible alternate reality. But even more importantly perhaps, streamlining and simplifying rules taints, and puts a squeaky plastic flavor on all parts and aspects of the game. Even if a particular streamlined rule might still be plausible, such as armor class going up instead of down in 5E, the games priority of being simple to learn and master for everyone, not foremost as plausible and realistic as possible, that priority shines through in all aspects of Wizard's of the Coast's 5th edition. They did a good job in streamlining the rules, not doubt. But instead of playing a great and easy to learn game, I prefer to dive into an alternate reality! And if learning complex, and sometimes even contradicting rules is the price to pay, as is the case with AD&D First Edition, then so be it.

Being designed and developed for adults is reflected by all aspects of AD&D 1E. For instance in the humble, but artistically good graphics. They sometimes depict mild nudity and are by choice only simple black and white sketches. That's not lacking effort, but intention. They are meant to be, in order to invigorate adult fantasy and imagination, not to anticipate it, or worse, replace it! Not like full-color (quasi-) realistic images of later editions that, much like special effects in movies, are designed to entice children and teenagers.

In AD&D First Edition, the rules are complex and sometimes even contradicting, with little or no respect or consideration for consistency or ease of understanding. Well, it never said it's for kids! While not purposefully complex, 1E rules are like the tools in a toolbox of a medieval surgeon, each tool developed independently, to fit some particular kind of malady or illness. Each rule was or is designed to best simulate, not in the blandest and most simple manner, but in the most plausible, "realistic" manner, some particular problem. Gary Gygax carried plausibility miles higher than Wizards of the Coast, and even 2nd edition did. And just like the tools of a medieval surgeon, the use of AD&D 1E's rules are always fully explained, or not at all. Why? Because it's not just a game, let along for kids, and nobody expects laymen to be handling them, or even to get their hands on them in the first place. AD&D 1E rules are not like the toy box of preschool child. And they are arranged just as helter-skelter, as if that medieval surgeon's toolbox had been snatched right out of his hand on his way from one patient to the next. There is some order to them, but it's a working order, from a doctor on the run! That order might not agree to everyone's preferences, and besides, the doctor was busy that day! Just consider what Gygax accumulated in his life!

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons goes back to the Gygaxian rules of First Edition AD&D like no other Wizards of the Coast edition did. Particularly in regards to Theatre of the Mind over mandatory use of miniatures. With good reason.

All the same, in my view, not 5th edition does not go far enough. Unlike in First Edition, there is no real ANGST of players in 5th edition that they might actually loose their characters and die when embarking on an adventure. And that, anxiety and a *real* threat of danger, not just of temporary loss of hit points, but of loosing a character is an essential part of a realistic and plausible reality. Just as essential as punishment is in training or raising a child or animal. Nobody ever dies anymore in 5th edition. Consequently, unlike in AD&D 1E, there is no ANGST, no real threat anymore of losing a character, as is fundamental and essential in a realistic Tolkien-esc fantasy world. In a world where "normal" little nobodies face not just fun when they go out adventuring, like immortals or chess players pushing around pieces of chess, but the very real prospect of, for instance, being killed and eaten by primitive, towering trolls.
Because Character creation is so elaborate, and the prospect of loosing realistically weak beginning characters is so real in AD&D 1E, it has much more elements of anxiety, fright, and, when played out right, even horror, than perhaps even games like Call of Cthulhu.

AD&D 1E places much more responsibility on the Dungeon Master and demands much more adult ability for judgment from the Dungeon Master than later editions. Distribution of gold (and magic items) being a good example. Many people who played AD&D 1E criticize that there is too much gold (and magic) items for players, and indeed, that can happen easily in AD&D 1E, like many other misfortunes, if the Dungeon Master is not careful in passing it out, or just thoughtlessly follows what is written somewhere. AD&D 1E doesn't work like that. Or, it does, but indeed, not well.

The same applies for high and low fantasy, the amount of powerful fantastic things such as fantastic monsters, magic spells and magic items. Low fantasy is next to no fantasy, and we all know what that is like. Either from our own dull lives, or from studying medieval or other times. AD&D 1E expects Dungeon Masters to judge and decide themselves, how much fantasy he or she wants to sprinkle in his or her world. And because we all know one extreme, no fantasy, AD&D 1E just lists the other, "extreme high fantasy": I literally lists hundreds of fantastic creatures, hundreds of spells, and hundreds of magic items. The idea however, is not to have dragons of every hue and make standing in line for magic item garage sales, as many people who played AD&D 1E back in the days mistakenly thought (not always excluding myself here), but merely to give the competent and able Dungeon Master more power, a maximum amount of choice.
People often thought, well, if it's listed in the book, why, it needs to be in the game, right? And consequently, refused responsibility for their game's balance and setting. Wrong. And what better way to teach maturity and responsibility to Dungeon Masters, than, like Gary Gygax, to refuse to hold their hands? Perhaps Gygax's obscure manner of explaining the AD&D 1E rules really is much more a strike of genius, and much less an accident?

More than in other editions, careful judgment by the Dungeon Master plays a paramount role in AD&D 1E, in whether or not a game becomes good or not. That's because AD&D 1E takes its Dungeons Masters (and players) very serious, for adults, and requires from them and takes for granted what its creators had: Namely, the ability for correct, mature, and responsible judgment. For instance, as an obvious example, which rule to use, and which one not. That puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of the Dungeon Master, and less in the hands of the game creators, and that's exactly what AD&D 1E, and I believe what Garry Gygax intended. He never wanted to take Dungeon Masters by the hand like Wizards of the Coast later did with its juvenile target audience. AD&D 1E takes its players seriously, as adults who can (and enjoy to) make their own judgments.

Learning to become a Dungeon Master for AD&D 1E, is a bit like studying magic scriptures to become a magic user under a master who expects you to be self-motivated, and who has no intention of holding your hand. I don't think that's an exaggeration, because AD&D 1E and its rules is that powerful. At least when seen from within the game and the worlds that the Dungeon Master is responsible for. Playing AD&D 1E is not your proverbial afternoon at the pony farm, and it is not meant to be. And that's what most people don't like about it. But if you do, like me, there is nothing like it.

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Under Construction To be continued... (under construction).