Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition: The Apology

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

Part Five: Now, where were we?


                I started to write a simple review of Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, but it grew into a series of blogs about the history of the game itself! Refer to my previous blogs for some of the terms if you are confused.

                We’re sorry, really really sorry. We won’t do it again. Can we go back to being friends?

                This is what WotC seems to be saying with its 5th edition. The Player’s Handbook is out now and the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual are coming in the next few months.

                When they realized that, good or bad system notwithstanding, their 4th edition was failing, they had to decide what to do. Should they scrap everything they have done? Yes. Should they just go back to 3.5? That wouldn’t be a bad idea, but Pathfinder has filled that niche now. Not only as a game, but their Pathfinder Societies has created gaming communities. Not only is Pathfinder a game, but it is something like a club – GMs and players can accumulate points as they play. They can get free stuff. It’s like the Boy Scouts or the Illuminati.

                Let’s go way back, they may have said, go back to first edition – really make it rules light. No, there are plenty of companies that do that already. Pits and Perils (http://www.oldehouserules.com/), Labyrinth Lord (http://www.goblinoidgames.com/labyrinthlord.html), and (my favorite) Basic Fantasy Roleplaying (http://www.basicfantasy.org/).

                Let’s keep the d20 system, WotC said, but make it lighter than Pathfinder. We’ll find our niche there. Something for the non-number crunchers. We’ll streamline 3.5 and they’ll forget all about 4th edition.

                They’re off to a good start.

5th ed players handbook


                Now I can finally begin my review of Dungeon & Dragon Player’s Handbook for 5th Edition. It’s a beautiful book solidly bound – beautiful art, excellent layout and easy to navigate. I would expect nothing less from D&D – the bar is raised higher for them than, say, an upstart retro-clone. There I expect cheap …  and am usually not disappointed.

                The book starts with a lovely explanation of role playing – what it is and how it works. I usually skip over this part – the necessary intro to any RPG. It’s boring and repetitive to me (“…this is a movie in your mind … you help write the script…”), but if this is your first foray into tabletop role-playing, this has a solid intro.

                The races are more or less back to the basics – Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc. From 4th edition they kept the Dragonborn (the whiners who demand to be able to play a dragon as a player-character is too large a lobby group to ignore) and the Tiefling.

                The classes are back to those listed in 1st edition AD&D with some Unearthed Arcana thrown in (although the revised names are used): barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue and wizard. They also added sorcerer and warlock.

                Backgrounds are added – you could call these character kits harkening back to the class kits of 2nd edition. Did your character start his adulthood as a soldier, an urchin, a sage, an artisan? If you do, you have some ready-made skills, tools, and traits and flaws. I like the traits and flaws – it helps with role play, not roll play. It’s there for flare.

                The usual equipment lists are canny and necessary for any game. I skimmed through that part.

                The combat hearkens back to oulden times. Nothing new here – I mean that in a pleasant way.

                Skills are down to 18 in number. Wow, 18 – and each are limited to certain classes. If you are proficient in a skill, you get +2. No slots, no purchases, +2. The idea of a proficiency bonus is a nice, slimmed-down touch. If you do anything well, if it is your proficiency, you get +2. Class or race attributes (Rogues use Dexterity, Warlocks use Charisma – smart move there. Unless you played a Paladin Charisma was always the low-roll dump of attributes) or skills – +2. Simple enough.

                Feats are down to 42 in number. Still too much, but at least it’s lost some weight. As with 3.5 you only gain a feat every three levels. A player is given an interesting choice – every third level you can either pick a feat OR increase an attribute by one. Hmm … some of the feats are pretty tough – you can reroll damage and pick the higher roll, you can increase your hit points to the same number as twice your level. Some of these feats will be huge at higher levels!

                A minor quibble: the XP needed to level is ridiculously low. 300 points to make second level?  The XP value of creatures and monsters must have suffered quite a bit of deflation since 3.5…

                WotC did a smart move by frothing up support and buzz for 5th edition through their Adventurer’s League: a structure of organized, public play sessions. Encounters is a short, weekly session at local game stores, Expeditions is for regional conventions – usually an all-afternoon event and Epic for major cons lasting days. For Encounters players meet at a game store and play a pre-set module sent to the DM directly from WotC. Both the DM and the players receive points for their play. Eventually, the gamers will run through the entire adventure path (another name for long module that will get you to the highest levels). Pathfinder has the same thing with their Pathfinder Society. The exact same thing. I wish WotC luck in this – but it seems no business gets ahead by copying its competitors. Pathfinder copied 3.5, true, but only after WotC abandoned it.

                The expunging of all things 4th edition is underway. The gaming community is starting to forgive them.

                I’m too far away from any game store to do the Adventure group thing. And with my baby girl I doubt my wife would let me run off once a week to play anyway. Maybe when she is old enough to entertain herself.

                To say that 5th edition is weighed down by what has gone on before is an understatement. But they should look on it as a legacy, not a burden. Embrace and respect the past. But note the future. Right now they are copying Pathfinder – with their lighter version of the rules and their Society-like Adventure teams. When you are in a parade – you never march behind the horses. But D&D is in a position it had never been in before – an upstart follower instead of a leader. They may still claim to be the premier world leader of RPGs, but the Sumerians were the premier world leader of … um … world leaders. You see where Sumer is now … or isn’t. As with any upstart, they’ll have to fight their way up. They may never make it back on top, but at least they are on their way to giving it a good try!

                And I think they are on their way. If Player’s Handbook is any indication, they can create their own niche of a Rules-Light d20 game. They are already past the point of being completely “rules light” with their skills and feats – diminished as those are. Leave that to the retro-clones (and I hate that phrase as being too negative, but it seems to have caught on without a taint. Those companies use the phrase as a badge of honor).

                I’m already looking forward to playing a Tiefling Warlock with the Great Old One patron…

                Happy gaming!

Cthulhu DM shit

Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

A History of D&D: 4th Edition – Wow, Just … WOW…

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

Part Four: WOW…

5th ed 1

I started to write a simple review of Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, but it grew into a series of blogs about the history of the game itself! Refer to my previous blogs for some of the terms if you are confused.

Just like everything else in the world, D&D was suffering from poor sales during the economic depression of the mid-2000s. Gamers were leaving the tabletop games in droves to play online. Neverwinter and World or Warcraft (WOW) were the dominant games in the sword-and-sorcery genres. This fit into the isolationist mode most of us were going into with the invention of smart phones. Instead of rows and rows of kids sitting on the benches in malls, now there are rows and rows of kids sitting in coffee shops texting. Probably texting the kids sitting right next to them. Zombie apocalypse indeed…

Sitting at a table with dice and paper was passé; why imagine attacking an orc compound when you can see it in 3D on your computer screen? Wizards of the Coast realized they were losing their gamers. So in 2007 it was time for a new edition of D&D. A version that would attract those gamers back! They couldn’t beat the electronic games … so what do you do if you can’t beat ‘em?

4th edition gets a lot of bad press – has ever since it came out. Once something is pronounced a bomb – whether it be a movie, a TV show or a game system – it cannot recover even if it really isn’t so bad. Go to your favorite browser and type “4th edition D&D criticism” and look at the topics: link titles include “What Went Wrong” and “It’s Awful” -and these are dated 2008 and 2009 when the game had only been out a year or less! I won’t add to the chorus of contempt except to reflect what I have already blogged before.

4th ed 2

                4th edition isn’t a bad system. Some bloggers said if it wasn’t called D&D it would not have lasted. That’s true, but that is the case with MOST non-D&D RPGS.

If done correctly and with players acclimated to the system, 4th edition might even be fun. But it was so vastly different from anything before it … it was hardly D&D at all! It was a table-top version of a video game. WOW on paper. Ironically, WOW had its own tabletop version of itself – with a hardback guide, etc. Its tabletop version of D&D did just about as well as D&D’s tabletop version of WOW.

The basic classes and races are the same – although it took three Player’s Handbooks to get all the classes listed (Barbarians, Monks, etc.). Later Player’s Handbooks added tieflings (a race with a demonic taint), dragonmen, crystaline beings, angelic Devas, etc. It kept the 3rd edition’s Prestige Classes but called them Paragon Paths.

And the role-playing aspect of the game is still there, albeit it is made secondary to combat. From the few modules I read, role-playing is set way back on the list of things to do while playing the game. Way way back.

The biggest changes are in the way 4th edition handles combat. Remember, we’re talking about a table-top MMORP (massively multi-player online role-playing game).

Play with miniatures is encouraged. Some scenarios/modules seem to require it. For the first time since the D&D Basic Set, back when it was a spin-off of Chainmail, players are encouraged to dig out their miniature figures and terrain, whip out their tape measures and roll play. Miniatures never went away, strictly speaking. Gamers could use miniatures throughout all the editions – but 4th edition made it a necessary part of combat. Without miniatures – using a power that pushed back an opponent one square made no real sense without something on the table to help visualize it. How can we know if the push-back pushed the orc back into the waiting arms of an assassin’s blade? Make a luck roll? Miniatures take the guess work out of it. And takes the imagination out of it, too.

Powers? Oh yes, perhaps the biggest change in 4th edition, and the one that makes it seem more like a table top MMORP than anything else.

Each class and race was given powers. These are abilities one can use in combat. At-will powers could be used every round (portion of combat) – Healing Surge can heal you for 6 points – keeping you alive to swing your mace at least one last time. Per-encounter powers can be used only once during combat – and you cannot use it again until the next mob of bad guys come around the corner – Flurry of Blows might give you two chances to hit in a round. Per-day is just that. Until you sleep and recover, you can only do this power once per day – Knock throws everyone to the ground.

It’s like the cool-down period for abilities in WOW – you have some buttons to click that gives you an arcane blast or sword swipe every few seconds, some you cannot use for ten or more seconds, come only once every few minutes.

Even the terminology and class “assignments” come straight out of a MMORP. Rogues are attack dogs – nicking and cutting opponents. Fighters are referred to as “tanks”. There’s a Warlord class that gives other characters plusses just by standing in the midst of combat – there’s no other real reason for the class. Combat combat combat.

With this, were I to play 4th edition, I would like to have all my powers laid out before me on cards. My at-wills to the left, per-encounters in the middle and per-day on the right. Other stats would also be available. That way I can keep track of what I used and when it will be available again. Just like on my computer screen. I go from playing on my desktop to playing on my desk top.

Stats for abilities became uniform. Before, if you had 14 Strength, it would give you a +1 on “to hit” rolls, damage, opening doors, etc.  A 14 Dexterity gave you +1 on initiative, “to hit” rolls for ranged weapons. Now a 14 in any stat gives you a +1 benefit on anything involving that stat. No more lists – if it involved Strength, you get +1 to your roll. I like that. (remember that I am winging it on the numbers here – don’t tell me “a 13 gives you +1, a 14 is +2. Cool, but regardless, if you get my point, let’s move on…).

With 4th edition, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) went with the nuclear option. It stopped producing anything remotely to do with 3.5. It left that to Piazo. Piazo was the company that published Dragon and Dungeon magazine. WotC cancelled both magazines – no one will care about 3.5 once 4th edition debuts!

“Um,” Piazo said, “would you mind if we continue with the 3.5-style game system? We’ll call it Pathfinder and it will be completely different from your new edition.”

“Of course you can, you little upstart, we’re too big to worry about such small potatoes as you…”


                I usually end these blogs with our little troop of characters trying to swing over a chasm. Just use the same ending as my last blog. Since it has nothing to do with combat combat combat, the roll play of swinging over a chasm is unchanged.

But that brings up one of my biggest criticisms – roll play vs. role play. In previous editions, I am a thief named Visilai; in 4th edition, I am a rogue/assassin hybrid with the invisibility character build!

Pathfinder started beating D&D in sales. Bad. Then the Star Wars Role Playing game started beating D&D in sales.  D&D was third overall. From the only game in town to third place. Something had to be done.

They quickly created a 5th edition.

They called it D&D Next. I call it D&D: The Apology.


Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

Continuing my history of D&D with 3rd edition – this changes EVERYTHING!

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

Part Three: You Turned My Game Upside Down …


I started to write a simple review of Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, but it grew into a series of blogs about the history of the game itself! Refer to my previous blogs for some of the terms if you are confused.

In 2000, Dungeons and Dragons, now owned by Wizards of the Coast, released a 3rd edition of the game. They referred to the “core books” – Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual but over the next seven years added dozens upon dozens of supplemental books and modules.

The biggest change was the d20 system.

3rd ed

                The d20 system turned dice rolling on its head. Instead of rolling lower, I had to roll higher! Not necessarily higher than my Dex, but higher than a fixed number that was based on what I wanted to accomplish. 10 is an easy task, 15 more difficult, 20 still more difficult. Tasks were given a Difficulty Class (DC). Remember the scenario from prior blogs…?

“I try to grab the vine and swing over the chasm.”

“That has a DC of 15,” says the DM.

{Roll} “8!! Finally! I beat my Dex! It’s about frickin time – after twenty years! Woohoo!”

“No, this is 3rd edition, you have to roll higher than the DC now. You fail. Your character plummets to his death. Mage?”

{Rolls} “I got an 18,” says the mage.

“You swing across safely,” says the DM.

“I hate this game…” mumbles the poor roller.

The people I have gamed with for nearly twenty years had a very hard time adjusting to d20. My wife suggested we look at it as an entirely new game system. We are no longer playing D&D; we are playing something like Rolemaster or Chill. That helped a little. Switching to Pathfinder definitely helped with the “it’s a different game system” mentality – primarily because it WAS a different game. But I am getting ahead of myself.

“Remember – roll higher,” is the 3rd edition mantra. Armor Class and Difficulty Class are similar. Before, the lower the Armor Class the harder it was to hit it. Now … roll higher. Someone with an AC of 18 is harder to hit than someone with an AC of 12 – in the older editions there was no such thing as AC 12. The limit was 10 going down to negative infinity, presumably … although negative five and lower were usually reserved for gods and unbeatable demons…

Classes and races remained unchanged. Thieves were now called Rogues. Bards were given their own class instead of a Thief sub-class. Half-orcs, removed from 2nd edition to appease the Bible thumpers, returned. Sorcerers were mages who cast spells without the aid of studying spellbooks were added as a class. That always smelled like an appeasement for whiners to me (“Why do I hafta study?” “That may work on your mommy, but not the DM! Study!”).

Experience points (XP) changed. As a character wins battles, solves puzzles and gets treasure, he gains experience. After gaining so much experience, he gains a level. This adds to his hit points, increases his ability to hit or avoid magical damage (called saving throws) and otherwise makes him more powerful. Different classes had different XP – a first-level fighter became a second-level fighter after accumulating 1000 XP. Magic User’s had to get 2000 XP to level up. Now it is all uniform – no matter what class 2000 got you to second level, 4000 to third, etc. (those may not be the exact numbers, but you get the idea)

Initiative was changed. Initiative is the term used to determine who goes first. “I hack at the ogre with my sword!” “Sorry, the ogre goes first.” “Who says?” “The initiative roll.” At the beginning of combat, each player rolled initiative on a dice (some used d6, some d10); the DM rolled for the bad guys. In the old system players or the DM who rolled 1s went first, all the way to 10. If you had a high Dex score you could subtract from that roll. If you were dexterous, you could go faster you see. When everyone was done, everyone rolled again.

3rd edition changed that. Those who rolled HIGHER went first. Once you roll, that was it until you were done with combat. “I go last AGAIN!?” “You rolled a 3; you go last until combat is done.”

Now there are Prestige Classes. These are class kits you can take at higher levels to make your specific character different from other players of the same class. Instead of just a cleric, you can be an undead slayer. Instead of a thief – er – rouge, you can become an assassin (brought back from 1st edition) or a dragon-horde stealer. As you go up in levels, you must pick certain skills and feats to give you the abilities to become a prestige class.

Leveling causes quite a bit of rule-hunting. In 1st edition, if you went up a level, you’d role more hp and find some new spells and that was it. In 2nd edition, you have more non-weapon proficiency points to increase your ability to Jump or Appraise. Now, along with the above, you may also get to increase a stat, or gain a skill or feat.

There I go again with the skills and feats, what are they? Oy. The optional non-weapon proficiencies of 2nd edition are the mandatory skills of 3rd edition. But now skills include, for example, what was once the domain only of thieves. If your wizard wants to learn pick-pocketing, he can get that skill. If he wants to wear heavy armor and use a sword, he can get that skill. Some skills have prerequisites (the wizard will have to learn the light armor skill first, for example). As with 2nd edition, some skills have levels, or slots. You get points to spend on skills when you create your character and when you level up. If I have two slots in the Jump skill, I can add +2 to your jump roll. At least they whittled the skill list down to 47 skills. Some of the rest were turned into feats.

Feats? They are harder to explain. These are bonuses you can choose to improve a character’s abilities and stats. These are real bonuses – not just for flare and role playing like a white scar down the cheek. A Feat can be, for example, Toughness, giving you two extra hit points; or Quickness, giving you +1 on initiative (I know there is a feat called Toughness; Quickness I made up as an example).In 3rd edition you had 60 feats from which to choose. You gained a feat every three levels. Not a lot, but when you could choose, where do you begin?

Thus now with feats and skills, the designers have finally closed the mouths of the whiners. Or have they?

“I try to snag a rock on the other side of the chasm with my rope,” says Mr. Poor Roller.

“You don’t have a rope. I took it when I picked your pocket,” says another player.

“You’re a gnome cleric!? Why are you picking my pocket?”

“It’s a skill I wanted.”

Sigh, I try to grab a vine to swing across, I have the Jump Skill, 2 slots.”

“I have the Empowerment Feat active, so you get plus one,” says the gnome.

“I’d rather have my rope.”

“Your Dex gives you another +2,” says the DM. “This is DC 15”

“I cast Helpful Hand,” says the mage,” that’s another +1.”

{Roll} “Carry the five, cosine of the two vectors … 45? Do I do it?”

“Damned if I know,” says the DM.

“I hate this game.”

There was a 3.5 edition released shortly after 3.0. It cleaned up some of the inconsistencies, but it was otherwise the same game with no major changes. It’s what a new edition should do…

Said major changes would come in 2007 with the 4th edition. It was to 3.5 what 3rd edition was to 2nd and changed the entire dominance of the roleplaying game business. So much so the D&D label has yet to recover.

3rd ed books


Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

End note: I made up the names of the “feats” because, frankly, I’m too lazy to look them up myself and I wanted this to come from my heart, but the rulebook. So ease up on the “that feat doesn’t exist” because I do not doubt you, I just wanted to give you the flavor of what a feats can do. If those are actual feats, I simply made a good guess…

Dungeons and Dragons and Caving – a look at 2nd Edition…


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

Part Two: Dungeons, Dragons and Caving …

I started to write a simple review of Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, but it grew into a series of blogs about the history of the game itself! If you are confused about some of the terms and initials – I define them in my previous blog: https://michaelgcurry.com/2014/09/03/a-brief-history-of-dungeons-and-dragons-being-an-eventual-review-of-dd-5e/

I pick up in 1982 …

The game in both its versions – D&D and AD&D caught on among us nerds like the plague! We played and played and bought supplement after supplement and module after module. Modules were scenarios and maps of a complete adventure the DM’s could use for their game sessions. I still love reading modules and imagining characters going through the game. It’s like reading the outline of a book and coming up the details on my own! Much like a ghost writer for most celebrity fiction…

New classes were introduced – the barbarian and the thief-acrobat. There was a Saturday morning cartoon.

D&D cartoon

                There were also complaints.  Lots of them. “I have an 18 Dex and I can’t roll for squat! Why should the Magic User make HIS Dex roll of 9 when he jumps and I can’t with my 18?”

“That’s the way the dice rolls,” says the DM.

“It’s not fair!” whines the poor roller…

And then there were the Christians…

Jesus D&D

Since neither D&D nor AD&D mentioned Jesus every third sentence it was deemed Satanic. They said the books taught youngsters how to actually invoke devils and demons – which of course explains their proliferation in the skies of the mid-1980s. D&D replaced Judas Priest as the chief cause of teen suicide. “That’s cruel, Mike.” True; and I apologize. I shouldn’t make light of such a serious subject – but to use D&D or Judas Priest as the straw man is also unfair. Those kids needed help from the adults around them and didn’t get it.

OK, back to the Christian nonsense: read Dark Dungeons – I’ll wait. http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.ASP

So between the whiners with bad dice and the kooks with bad divinity, TSR (the parent company that published D&D and AD&D) came out with a Second Edition in 1987. It came with a new Player’s Handbook, Monster Manuals (several of them) and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The classes and races were toned down to satisfy the kooks (like you can ever satisfy the kooks) – Magic Users became Mages, Assassins were removed altogether. So were any references to devils and demons. Some changes weren’t so puritanical and made a bit of sense – Rangers became a sub-class of Fighters. Druids became a subclass of Clerics.

2nd edition introduced THAC0 – “to hit Armor Class Zero”. Players and monsters had armor classes – the thicker your hide or armor the better your armor class and the harder it is to take damage. Too much damage and you die. Fighters clad with metal plates ala Ivanhoe and King Arthur had ACs of 1 or less. Magic Users – er – mages in robes has AC 9 and were easier to hit – if you could get around the fighter in plate mail. Dragons had ACs in the negatives. A particular goblin had a THAC0 of 18, say. A player with a fighter with an AC 1 would be hit if the goblin rolled a 17 or higher (18 – 1) – not too good. The fighter had a THAC0 of 14 and this goblin had AC 7, so he could hit on a roll of 7 or better – which has pretty good odds of succeeding. This won’t be much of a fight…

I have yet to mention the dice used in the game – it started with what the rest of the world calls dice – a six-sided cube with dots on it you found in all the board games and in every scene of “Guys and Dolls”. D&D and other role-playing games use a lot more than those. There are 4, 8, 10, 12, 20, and even 30 and 100-sided dice available. You can always tell a gamer by the way they refer to a standard dice with the dots on them. We call them “six siders”. By the time I got into the game – d6s (six-sided dice) was used for rolling stats and some hit points – mostly the d20 was used. If I had a Dex of 15 and had to “beat Dex” (see my previous blogs), I had to roll a 15 or less on a twenty-sided dice.

Anyway, back to THAC0: once you got used to it, and you used your fingers and toes, it wasn’t so bad.

Magic and Clerical abilities were divided into “spheres” – your character concentrated on only a few spheres. You couldn’t cast just anything. Whether this is good or bad is an individual choice. Personally, I think we should be leery of any rule that limits play. On the other hand, it makes for more of a challenge in selecting how best to overcome a game’s obstacles. “Blast the orc with a fireball!” “But I’m an illusionist! All I can do is turn him purple!’ “What the hell good is that spell!?” “You didn’t mind when we hid in front of that purple tapestry!” “Shut up!”

They also added proficiencies. A fighter could no longer just pick up an axe dropped by that ogre and use it to slice necks. He had to be proficient in the weapon. The character learned proficiencies as he got higher and higher in level (note: as a character plays, he gains experience points and goes up in levels – this means he can gain hit points, gain more spells, gets tougher and better at what he does, etc.).

There were also non-weapon proficiencies. Here is where the rot set it, in my opinion.

Remember the scenario from Part One?

“I try to grab the vine and swing over the chasm.”

“Beat your Dex,” says the DM.

“I have the Jump Proficiency, so I can subtract one from my roll. {Roll} Good thing, I just made it!”

“It’s about time, Mr. Poor Roller. Now the Magic User – er – Mage, sorry, you roll your Dex.”

“I only have a Dex of 9…” {Roll} “Made it!” says the Mage.

“You always make it,” says Mr. Poor Roller.

“Whiner,” mumbles the Mage.

The Jumping Proficiency. Jumping. Anybody can jump! My grandmother could jump! Roll your Dexterity – if you roll shitty, you fall, if you roll low, you make it. You don’t need to be proficient in jumping…

And Jumping was only available to the Rogue class. If you were a Rogue, you got a plus to jump if you selected Jumping. The rest of us had to rely on our die roll. Between the four base classes there were about 68 skills to choose from.


It gets worse.

But in the meantime 2nd Edition was an even better success that 1st! Character kits were introduced – there are different types of thieves (an urban pickpocket vs. a Robin-Hood-esque-good-guy) and with the different non-weapon proficiencies you add lots of different flavors to the basic classes. Classes had their own supplements. A mage could be a chronomancer and cast spells based on time. Different worlds and venues developed – Aztec-like rules and scenarios to play along with the Oriental Adventures (a 1st edition supplement); Dark Sun – set in a ecological-disaster-desert world; Ravenloft – a gothic horror setting, Spelljammer took the players into outer space: all were available as 2nd edition play.  The supplements filled the shelves.


It was huge. Huge! So huge the fat and bloated company that was TSR sold the company lock stock and dragon hoard for $25 million to Wizards of the Coast.

And WotC took the game and changed everything…



Copyright 2014 Michael Curry


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


                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.


Copyright 2014 Michael Curry