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Astrojive: Happy 40th Birthday, Dungeons & Dragons

Richard Lee Byers contemplates the evolution of the world's premiere RPG

    I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when it was just three beige pamphlets, a few reference sheets and a set of polyhedral dice packaged in a white cardboard box. Production standards were modest compared to those that prevail in the gaming industry today. You had to take a crayon and black in the numbers incised on the dice if you wanted to read them easily.

But the semipro quality of the product didn’t bother my friends and me. We became instant converts, and for me at least, it proved to be a permanent addiction -- I’ve played ever since. Ultimately, I even started writing novels set in the Forgotten Realms universe associated with D&D. But it would be crass of me to use this article as an excuse to plug them by suggesting you can find them by looking me up on Amazon. So I won’t do that.

Now, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. I’ve played every edition of the game, but somewhere along the way, I lost those original beige pamphlets. Fortunately, though, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the game, Wizards of the Coast has reprinted them and the four supplements that followed in a collector’s set, thus affording me the opportunity to reread them. It’s interesting to rediscover what elements were present from the beginning and which developed over time.

All the basics are there. The player controls a character defined by six stats (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, charisma and constitution), race (human, elf, dwarf or halfling) and class (fighter, magic user or cleric.) Characters battle monsters, seize their treasure and gain experience points. Over time, experience increases a character’s innate abilities.

But there’s also a lot that isn’t there.

A player’s options for character creation are sorely limited. Fortunately, E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s creators, recognized that early on. Starting with the first supplement, they and their collaborators, Rob Kuntz, Brian Blume and James Ward, offer at least a few alternatives in the form of half-elves, thieves, monks, druids and assassins. (Each supplement provides new monsters, spells and magic items, too, because as Dungeon Masters know, such things help when you’re trying to keep a campaign fresh and exciting.)

In many respects, the original rules strike a modern player as crude and full of holes. It’s not until the first supplement that different weapons do differing amounts of damage, and the idea that high dexterity makes a character harder to hit never comes in at all, a shocking omission for those of us who like agile, lightly armored characters.

It’s notable, too, how few mechanics there are that cover anything except combat and powering up a character, perhaps by attracting followers, building a stronghold or creating a magic item. There’s no rule for climbing a wall, following tracks, bartering with a merchant or bribing a turnkey.

That, I think, is because the guys who created D&D were war gamers, and in its earliest version, D&D is a war game, pure and simple. That’s clear from the notes on character creation, which focus solely on combat capabilities. It’s evident, too, when the booklets coach the DM on how to run a campaign. A campaign is simply the characters encountering monsters, rubbing them out and looting their stuff. Then, on to the next room in the dungeon. Or, if you’ve completely plundered one dungeon, on to the next orc-infested cavern, haunted tomb complex or what have you.

How things have changed!

Through subsequent editions, options for character creation and development proliferated. We got new classes (ranger, bard, paladin, sorcerer), new races (half-orc, gnome, tiefling, dragonborn), feats (quick draw, alertness, cleave, two-weapon fighting) and prestige classes (acrobat, swashbuckler, loremaster, shadowdancer). Old restrictions that prevented certain races from mixing particular classes disappeared. The guidelines for character creation discussed the desirability of defining an adventure’s background, quirks and personal goals. The thrust of all this was to promote the invention of unique player characters and encourage roleplaying.

At the same time, campaigns became more sophisticated and more closely resembled the fiction of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, the guys who inspired Gygax and Arneson in the first place. Campaign settings evolved from expanses of generic wilderness dotted with dungeons to complex worlds with rich histories and cultures and detailed cities. Adventures had goals above and beyond killing any monsters that crossed one’s path and grabbing loot (rescue the princess, unmask the assassin who killed the duke) and recurring non-player characters who might be friend or foe. As a result, scenarios felt like short stories or even chapters in a novel building toward a grand finale.

Bottom line, the D&D experience became something significantly different and, I think, richer than the simple dungeon crawls of the early days, fun as those were.

The catch is that richness requires complication.

Expanded character options necessitate more rules for players and the DM to learn and keep track of. This can slow play and make refereeing a chore.

The expectation of deep world building and scenarios plotted like fiction requires the DM to spend more time in preparation. For those unable or unwilling to do so, the recourse is to buy a canned universe like the Forgotten Realms and the adventure modules set there. Many people do and are happy with the results. But D&D becomes an expensive hobby if you’re constantly buying products above and beyond the core rule books. A proliferation of sourcebooks (regional guides, guides to the pantheon, guides to individual races) can even make a DM despair of comprehending the canned universe well enough to run it as knowledgeable players expect.

You can see these two competing wishes, the desire for detail and elaboration and the desire not to let things get so complicated that they become cumbersome, reflected in various ways through the evolution of the game.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the first successor to the original, is a little more complicated, but still a pretty streamlined system. Its era, however, was the great era of Forgotten Realms products. There were hundreds of them, and they described the setting with a depth of detail exceeding that of any other imaginary universe in any medium.

The rules for D&D 3.0 and 3.5 brought character feats, dozens of prestige classes and significantly more complicated rules for adjudicating actions in and out of combat. At the same time, though, the flow of Forgotten Realms products slowed. The company was still publishing plenty of information about the setting, but not as much as before.

D&D 4.0 dialed back the complexity of the rules, and in the process, made the tabletop RPG experience feel more like a computer game. There were only two sourcebooks describing the Forgotten Realms, while other settings (DragonLance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Mystara) languished altogether.

Each edition has its fans. I suspect that for many of us, the basis for our preference lies in our sense of how much detail and complexity is enough and in what kinds of detail and complexity we want. (Although nostalgia can play a part as well. It’s natural to be fond of whatever form of the game you discovered first.)

D&D Next, the newest incarnation of the game, drops this summer. Nobody outside Wizards of the Coast knows exactly what it will look like. But if you check out the beta test materials, you can see the developers still searching for that elusive sweet spot where every character is unique and the system allows for a wide range of actions, yet the rules are easy to grasp and play is quick and intuitive.

I hope they find it. But even if the new rules are imperfect, I bet the new edition of the game will still be fun. All the others have been, starting with the great original, even if high dexterity couldn’t save my character from taking a goblin’s scimitar in the gut.

So happy 40th, D&D! Thanks for the countless hours of enjoyment you’ve given to so many of us. Long may your funny dice clatter!

About the Author

Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than 30 fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. Look for his eBook supehero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all the rest of his work on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+. Follow his blog here.
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