This article was first broadcast in Episode Forty-Four on 10th October 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 honor of the upcoming Art and Arcana book, releasing 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.
Late in the year 1970, Gary Gygax and Jeff Perran completed their work on a new project — a set of tabletop wargaming rules for medieval miniatures that they named “Chainmail”. Then, as an afterthought, Gygax created a 14-page fantasy-focused supplement that dealt with “Heroes, Wizards, dragons, elves and various other fantastic creatures and people”, and it’s from this humble afterthought that Dungeons and Dragons was eventually born.
Three years later, in 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arnison are putting the finishing touches to their rules for their newest product: Dungeons and Dragons. Although these initial rules use the Chainmail system as a basis for the rules, for the first time the players play as individual heroes rather than armies or units, and must band together with other members to form a party. Chainmail provided the basic rules, such as Armour Class, and attributes such as Strength and Dexterity, but the Dungeons and Dragons rules contained everything needed to take the game from tabletop wargaming to tabletop roleplaying.
If someone picks up a Bible and it says “King James” on it or if you grab a copy of Canterbury Tales, when you open it up there are a lot of “thee”s “thous” and other language quirks we’re not used to seeing in modern English, sometimes including those “s”es that look like “F”s without the line in the middle. Many people refer to that as “old English”, only to have literary scholars scoff at them and go, “hah, that’s not *old* English”. If they pull out an actual copy of old English, it’s barely comprehensible, some of it looks like German, and a lot of the letters are used in odd ways. The Original edition D&D is sort of like that. The basics of the system are there, and you can find familiar touchpoints that have carried through and into modern editions. All six dice types are used, there are classes, hit points and attribute scores, magic and monsters and crawling through dungeons. Once you start digging, though, things get odd and unfamiliar very quickly.
People who were aghast at the classes or races left out of first printings of fourth or fifth edition would be horrified at the original edition. There were only three classes: fighting-man, magic-user and cleric. Magic-users got spells up to 6th level, and Clerics got spells up to 5th level, and (unlike later editions) *everything* did 1d6 damage. There were also only four races: human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit, later renamed to “halfling” when Tolkien Enterprises came and had two strong words with them, namely “cease” and “desist”. These characters only had three alignments to choose from as well: lawful, neutral, or chaotic.
As mentioned, most of the gameplay centered around killing monsters in caves and dungeons and getting treasure from them, which could then be used to hire helpers or set up baronies and castles. If you wanted to explore outside, in addition to the base Chainmail rules and the D&D supplement, you had to have a copy of another game: Outdoor Survival by Avalon Hill. The person running the story was called the “referee” rather than the DM, and the recommended play group was four to fifty people. Yes, fifty, five-zero. No, we don’t know how that worked either.
Once the game became popular, several expansions were released that fleshed out the rules and started turning the game into more of what we recognize today. Greyhawk was the first and arguably most significant of them because it codified D&D specific combat rules, removing the need for the Chainmail game rules and assigning damage to different weapons. It also added thief and paladin classes, spells above 6th level, and some more iconic monsters, including beholders. Despite being named after a location, however, the book had nothing like what we would think of as campaign setting information, apparently because Gygax didn’t think he could get proper worth from including the material (Greyhawk was his personal campaign setting) and he thought people would much rather create their own anyway.
Further supplements followed. Blackmoor added the monk (originally a cleric subclass) and The Temple of the Frog, the first campaign setting. Rules were also added for fighting underwater and targeting individual body parts in combat. The Eldritch Wizardry expansion could arguably be called the Pandora’s box of D&D. It had a lot of good things like the Druid, artifacts, and the introduction of the Illithids, or mind-flayers. However, with the mind-flayers, of course, came psionics. Yep; all our problems started here, folks. This expansion also introduced the oft-bemoaned random encounters system for wandering in the wilderness. So if someone has a time machine and wants to go “fix” D&D; this is the thing you have to stop. The last two official expansions don’t contain much that made it past first edition. Gods, demi-gods, and heroes provided stats for many mythical gods and figures from real mythology, and Swords and Spells took the game full circle, providing updated rules for holding large-scale battles like what Chainmail had allowed but using characters and monsters from D&D.
Unlike most other editions of D&D, you very rarely hear of devoted die-hards clinging to original D&D. Copies of the rules can be found online as archived documents in places, but physical copies of the books are more likely to be collectors items. A limited run of the “white box” or collection of all the material mentioned above, was reprinted by Wizards in November of 2013, but even then our research beholders didn’t find many people saying they got a copy to actually play the original.
Still, despite very few examples of the game being played today, it was the original, and it’s easy to trace where some of the iconic D&D elements we know and love got their start from these odd, semi-familiar rules. Gary then decided to work on the next iteration of the rules in the form of “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, though whilst they were busying themselves with that, a sci-fi and fantasy writer by the name of John Eric Holmes was reworking the original rules to clarify them for beginners. Holmes’ version was then edited by Tom Moldvay, and later Frank Mentzer joined and between them all released a series of books that built on top of each other, collectively known as the BECMI series, standing for Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal. Basic covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14, Companion 15-25, Master 26-36 and Immortal covering, well, to use our favorite quote our research beholders found on the topic “for when levels mean precisely [censored] all”.
The BECMI set introduced a few… peculiarities to D&D, the most jarring of which is that races and classes were now pretty much one in the same thing. The Basic set featured classes including Fighter, Cleric and Magic-user, but also Thief, Dwarf (which using 5e terms would be a “fighter with darkvision” and overpowered saving throws), an Elf (fighter/magic-user multiclass combo) or the Halfling (a sorta kinda proto-Ranger). The Expert set allowed characters to advance to level 14, but after that any non-human class was unable to gain levels, although their hitpoints and saving throws did increase so they weren’t totally worthless.
Eventually, the BECMI set was further refined into two publications entitled “The Classic Dungeons and Dragons Game” (yep, that’s the title), and the “D&D Rules Cyclopedia”. The Classic Dungeons and Dragons Game now covered levels 1-5, came with dice, maps, and guided you through character creation through a short adventure named “Zanzer Tem’s Dungeon”. The idea was that once you’d bought The Classic Dungeons and Dragons Game, you’d also then buy the D&D Rules Cyclopedia to continue your games.
Now, we do want to take a moment here and discuss edition numbering. So far, none of what we’ve discussed is known as “First Edition”. First edition is, in fact, what was originally published under the name “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, which Gygax and Arneson were working on whilst Holmes & co were solidifying the rules. Because both BECMI and AD&D were available for purchase at the same time, and because BECMI was a forking of the Original D&D, the BECMI series is also known as “Basic D&D”, “B/X”, “Holmes D&D” and, incorrectly “First edition”. Incorrect, because, as we’ve just discussed, first edition is actually Advanced Dungeons & Dragons… which is the topic of next week’s entry.