A brief history of Dungeons and Dragons (being an eventual review of D&D 5e)

What Am I Reading: Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition

Part One: Making History!

The Dungeon Master looked up from his notes and pushed his glasses further up his nose. “The tunnel finally ends in a huge cavern – you can’t see very far. But before the entrance to the cavern there is a crack in the ground making a huge hole blocking your way.”

“How far is the gap?” A player says.

“About thirty feet – you can’t jump it.” The player checks his character sheet.

Another player asks, “I look above the gap to the ceiling, what do I see?”

“Several bleached white dangling roots – some are thick as tree trunks, some as thick as a person’s arm, some very thin.”

“Are they within reach?”

“No, you’d have to jump.”

“Can I make a running jump and use the vines to swing to the other side? I promise not to yell like Tarzan.”

“Roll …”

This blog started off as a simple review of the new Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (Fifth Edition), but most of the changes made in this edition required an explanation of what went on before. The review turned into a history of the game itself.

Like the archaeological City of Troy, the information at the top of the site was built upon a lower city with its own information. This was built on the city before that, which was built on the city before that.

To explain the good and bad of Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (Fifth Edition) and to really appreciate or discredit what they had done, I had to dig into the treasure and trash of its past incarnations.

It started with miniature gaming – those fellows (let’s face it, miniature gaming – especially in the 1960s and 70s – was a y-chromosome activity) who would lay out model train terrain on a huge table or piece of plywood in a garage or basement and place small-scale soldiers in Napoleonic or Civil War gear and equipment, take out their tape measures and rulebooks and become omniscient generals of historic battles.

Sometimes the gamers would take medieval troops or earlier-era figures for their miniature battles. Instead of Waterloo or Gettysburg, they would re-enact Bosworth Fields or the Battle of Alesia.

chainmail_2e_maine_front

Rulebooks for these types of game were plentiful. One such rulebook published in 1971 was called Chainmail by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perrin. It did well.

D&D1

The authors wanted to have some fun and added fantasy elements to their medieval miniatures. Instead of Charlemagne and his troops, elven soldiers took the fields. Wizards blasting bolts of fire took the place of ballista. Dragons flew overhead instead of boulders. Rules for such magical beings were informally written out.

D&D2

But what if the gamers wanted to storm the keep? What if they wanted to go after that dragon in his lair – deep within the bowels of the earth? Mass miniature battles were joined by individual characters exploring caves and castles. More rules were to help move groups of individuals instead of a mass of armies. Sometimes the gamers played the individual characters while the miniature figurines and terrain stayed in their cases.

spartan-aug70-gygax-medieval-s

The individual rules took on new type of game and required a new game system. Gygax and friends called it Dungeons and Dragons (“D&D”). D&D had simple rules that were easy to follow. With some dice, a piece of paper and a pencil, you could imagine playing a Lord-of-the-Rings elf or wizard (called a magic-user) or a Conan-esque or Fahfrd-and-The-Grey-Mouser-like fighter or thief. You could wander castles and its dungeons or deep into the bowels of the earth to root out a dragon’s lair. You could use miniatures, true, but you could do without them as well!

D&D3

Your character was based on the following attributes – basic physical and mental abilities – strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma. You rolled three dice and the total was your level of that attribute – 3-18. The higher the roll, the better the attribute. Fighters needed high strength, Magic Users, not so much – they needed a higher intelligence to cast their spells. Thieves? Dexterity.

And to add to the Tolkien flavor you could also become an elf or a dwarf. If you played a human you chose which class you wanted to play – the aforesaid fighter, magic user, thief, cleric (a holy healer/ fighter – think Knights Templar). Elves and dwarves had no classes – you either played an elf or a dwarf.

D&D4

                In 1977 or so, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) debuted. It was had new rules and changed bits of the original. It wasn’t a different, improved edition to the original. In fact for a time it was its own game. But it expanded the basics: any race (elves, human, dwarves, halfling – non-copyrightable hobbits – half-orcs, gnomes) could be any class they wanted with some limitations. Elves can be fighters and magic users now. Dwarves can’t be magic users or clerics, though. They can be thieves! Anyone can be a thief.  AD&D had its own Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and book upon book of extra rules, stats on monsters and other characters one might meet in their imaginative play. It added monks for the ninja-wannabes, rangers for the Strider-ites, and bards so one can be a wandering minstrel, I …

This is about where I came in. I learned of D&D and AD&D through, of all places, church camp. I learned the basics without actually playing the game. That came in 1981 when our high school science teacher started a Dungeon & Dragons club. There I played the game for the first time – a human wizard named Mylock. The group even made the yearbook!

The game was still basic and had lots of role-play. Theater of the mind, so to speak. But the dice were still important. Let’s go back to the opening paragraphs.

“… your Dex,” says the DM (meaning roll the dice and if it is less than your Dexterity score you can, indeed, swing across on a vine).

{Roll} “Made it!” says the player.

“I throw a rope across to him,” another player says, “and tie it to the Magic User. You’re next.”

The player playing the Wizard rolls. He has a low Dexterity and the odds of him rolling below that number is smaller than the others. “Missed it!”

“You fall into the chasm, but you are tied to a rope and splat against the wall for {roll} 2 hit points (you also roll a certain amount of “hit points” – this is how healthy you are and how much damage you can take before your imaginary character dies. Magic Users don’t have a lot of hit points – fighters do to help them survive all those sword fights).

“I pull him up,” says the first player.

“Make a strength roll,” the Dungeon Master says. (Note: the Dungeon Master – DM – is the person who oversees the players, sets up the scenarios, arbitrates the rules, etc.).

{Roll} “Argh! I have a 17 Strength and rolled an 18!”

“Those are the breaks – the Magic User dangles above the abyss! But no other harm comes to him.”
“Get me outta here!” shouts the Magic User.

“I swing across,” the second player says. He also has a high dexterity and is not too worried about his odds. “Made it. I help pull up the Magic User.”

“With both of you working together, you don’t have to roll Strength, the Magic User is out of the crack and standing beside you.”

The first player says, “I throw the rope across the chasm – let’s get everyone else across before something bad spots us.”

“Too late for that …” mumbles the DM to himself, who rattles his dice and smiles.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

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3 thoughts on “A brief history of Dungeons and Dragons (being an eventual review of D&D 5e)

  1. Pingback: Dungeons and Dragons and Caving – a look at 2nd Edition… | Currytakeaways

  2. Pingback: (Task 1) (In Progress) 2 Main Ideas Research – William Marshall's Blog and Idea Pool

  3. Pingback: (Task 3.2) Bibliography for Entire Project – William Marshall's Blog and Idea Pool

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