This article was first broadcast in Episode Forty-Eight on 7th November 2018.
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is arguably one of the most popular iterations of the rules, but it’s taken some time to get to where we are today. In honour of Art and Arcana, the book released October 23rd that showcases all the artwork and tells the evolving story of D&D over the years, we decided to take a look back at this hobby of ours ourselves and see where it started, and how it’s evolved over time.
By the late 1980s, D&D had become even larger but had also attracted some negative attention. News sources and rumor had associated two teen suicides with playing D&D, and one of the mothers had started a group that actively campaigned and warned against the game, citing the references to demons, magic, assassinations, playing as monsters, and sexual elements (several of the monsters in the monster manual were illustrated as humanoid females with bare breasts, for example succubi). Many monsters and creatures were also taken from real demonology and mythological sources, which were seen as negative elements in a very Christianized culture.
In addition to public opinion, back at TSR things weren’t looking so good either. In the early 1980s, Gary Gygax took a step back from helming TSR to oversee licensing for the new Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon, and was also looking to sell the rights to make a Dungeons & Dragons movie (which our research beholders say was never made, and if you think there was one you are experiencing nothing more than a fever dream). In stepping down, Gygax brought in two brothers, Kevin and Brian Blume. Things seemed to be running smoothly, but when it came down to the bottom line, without Gary at the helm TSR had sunk itself in $1.5m of debt. News then reached Gygax that the Blume Brothers were looking to sell their shares in order to get the company out of debt.
In an effort to save TSR, Gygax sought the help of a writer friend of his who he’d written a couple of choose-your-own-adventure books with, a man by the name of Flint Dille. Flint quickly discovered he was more of a writer than a businessman, but luckily his sister was incredibly business-savvy, and had a lot of experience in running a company. Unfortunately, Flint’s sister, Lorraine Williams, thought that gamers needed to grow up and get lives, and firmly believed that D&D was anti-Christian so didn’t want to invest in TSR stock, though she was hired as a general manager. In desperation, Gygax then attempted to wrestle control of TSR back from the Blumes, and fired them from the company. In retaliation, they sold all of their shares to Williams, in the process making her the majority shareholder. Gygax was reduced from CEO to nothing more than an employee, and despite trying to buy back enough shares, Williams wouldn’t relinquish them. Gygax then sold the rest of his stock in the mid-1980s and left TSR, starting his own games company. Williams then rushed through a new edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to stop Gygax from getting any royalties from the D&D product line, and thus 2e was born.
Lorraine Williams is credited for a series of moves that lead to the ultimate downfall in TSR, primarily by producing a collectible card game called Spellfire. That product was trying to compete with a product called Magic: The Gathering made by a company known as Wizards of the Coast, so you can see how well that worked for them. Unfortunately TSR also tried to publish novels and release a collectible dice game called dragon dice. This ended up being more products than distributors could shift, and the company lost millions. 11 years after Williams came to power, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast. On the other hand, due to her position as the IP holder for the Buck Rogers franchise, her influence got Spelljammer into D&D, so make what you will of her tenure.
Originally Gygax had planned second edition to simply be another collation of rules that evolved for the game, but the moral issues and a changing focus of the parent company resulted in a more comprehensive overhaul. 2nd edition began by assuming, or some would say ‘forcing’ players to play as good characters, removing some of the ambiguous player races such as half-orcs, and renaming classes like assassin (too aggressive), magic-user (suggests demon worship) and monk (too “eastern” since these were fighting monks, not the bald scribe-y types). On the monster side, terms like “demons” and “devils” were abandoned for more fantasy-sounding terms, and everyone got clothes.
Mechanically, 2nd edition introduced the now infamous THAC0 system. Standing for “To Hit AC 0”, it gave a formula that players would use when attacking to compare against the target creature’s AC. No one currently claims this is simple, but keep in mind it was simpler than what was going on in 1st edition, which used matrices. Critical hits were introduced, but as optional rules. Non-humans also acquired the ability to level up farther than they had before, although they were still banned from playing certain classes (Dwarfs still couldn’t be magic users, for example). Characters could also get proficiency in things other than weapons, a precursor to the skills that later editions would make standard.
The rules were introduced in the same manner as AD&D; hardcover printed books. Initially the monsters were released as a Monstrous Compendium, containing loose-leaf pages in a binder so that new monsters could be slotted in as they were released. Unfortunately the pages didn’t stand up to abuse well, and as they were printed double-sided, alphabetizing them eventually became an issue (if you had a gibbering mouther on one side of a page and a gnoll on the other and then D&D came out with a page on the Githyanki, you had issues). Eventually the more popular monsters were collected in a standard hardcover Monstrous Manual.
Once it got going, the second edition materials started looking like most of the D&D stuff we’re all used to seeing from wizards now. Full setting guides came out for campaigns in or around Ravenloft, Dark Sun, the forgotten Realms, and others. 2nd edition was also the first example of published materials with rules and mechanics for customizing specific classes (usually called “The complete <class>’s Handbook”). Those would have additional rules and advancement paths that could, for example, level your fighter into a Cavalier or turn your Priest (2nd edition’s cleric) into a Prophet. Some of these so-called “kits” allowed players to take their characters back along the darker paths removed from the core books. Also, many of the races originally removed from the core offerings snuck back in through some of the supplements.
2nd edition proved popular enough that people still swear by the rules and gameplay. The basic form of the rules for 2nd edition set the standard for gameplay and information up through modern D&D. The various class “kits” eventually became 3rd edition’s “prestige classes” and set the groundwork for the 5th edition archetypes we know today. Fully realized campaign setting guides are another thing 2nd edition set the standard for and they’ve carried throughout all subsequent editions of the game, with settings like Dark Sun and Spelljammer being officially created or homebrewed in every edition since. The number of specific game mechanics, like critical hits, that 2nd introduced first are too numerous to go over here. Fans of the system also claim that no edition before or since has put out as many officially supported rules that can be used to customize a character to do exactly what the player wants.
Still, detractors can point to some shortcomings. Despite the ability to gain proficiency in non-combat skills, many agree that playing a campaign that doesn’t primarily focus around dungeon-crawling, killing monsters, and getting loot requires extra work. There is very little rules support for non-combat activities so things either have to be house-ruled, homebrewed, or just improvised by the players and DM, which can tax the comfort and skill-set of players. Also, while the system was supposed to be more accessible than 1st edition, it’s only more accessible by comparison. As previously mentioned, few people were sorry to see THAC0 leave when 2nd edition did, and the multitude of rules and mechanics for character customization means DMs had to be hyper-conscious of powergaming attempts with character builds.
Despite those issues, many people point to 2nd edition as the actual start of D&D as we know it today, just because so many of the things 2nd edition did have endured through all the subsequent editions.
In our next installment, we’ll cover 3rd edition and the proliferation of d20s, but for now, let’s look into the scrying pool to see what our listeners have to say.