Over my gaming career, I’ve played every edition of Dungeons & Dragons: except for one. For over 35 years the white boxed original version of the game sat on my shelf unplayed, and other than a few flip throughs, mostly unread. Why would the 11-year-old me want to play an older, and shorter version of the game when I had a perfectly good Basic Edition D&D? Once I grew a little older, why would I deign to play anything less than Advanced Dungeons and Dragons? Did I look like a baby who didn’t understand High Gygaxian and would play a game without the word advanced in the title?!
As time wore on, the white box set sat on my shelf as a trophy. A sign that I had been playing long enough to have the original edition and thus elevating my nerd cred. I wasn’t one of those posers who came along and picked up the game in Second Edition AD&D with its new dangled THAC0 and its first tentative steps at being organized and readable. No, I knew the old ways.
Well, that was always a bit of an exaggeration. I never actually played the original, or even given it an honest read through until last month. Having just run my first game in the old system, rules as written, and trying to forget everything that came after, I regret not doing so earlier.
The three books are short, disorganized and poorly written. They assume a lot of specialized knowledge, refer to unavailable books outside the game for important rules, offer little to no advice on how to actually play the game, and have some of the worst scribbles of artwork ever published.
The books are also implicitly sexist. While it doesn’t have any penalties for playing a female character, like some future editions of D&D added in, that’s mainly because it has a baseline assumption that only guys will be playing and that they will only be playing male characters. The art reinforces this, since the only women depicted are bare breasted seductresses or damsels in distress.
Despite all this, somehow it works. When the rules are unclear, there is usually enough there to interpret that ‘it probably means this…’ and encourages you to try it out. The books are short, and give just enough detail to make you want to figure out. It offers a puzzle, and the idea that this should be much clearer if you just play it.
Surprisingly, it is. Once everyone is assembled, the rules just sort of flow. It is missing a lot of the diversity and options that the later editions of the game bring, but there’s a freedom in that which was refreshing.
The rules give options for three classes: Fighting Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics, who can be Human, Dwarves, Elves, or, if you insist, Hobbits (changed to Halflings in later printings after a suit by the Tolkien estate). The authors tone regarding playing any fantasy race other than human is weirdly dismissive, and their class and level options are very limited compared to humans, particularly Halflings, whom I assume were added with only great reluctance on the part of the author to appeal to Tolkien fans in his friend circle.
The combat rules are light to the point of being nearly missing. It assumes that you’ll want to use the Chainmail Miniatures rules and refers to these, but then, almost grudgingly gives you some alternate rules to use. This alternate rules set became the basis of every edition of Dungeons and Dragons after this one.
The books themselves were obviously written for the authors friends, rather than for a general population. People who played with him already and knew how this worked without the books, except as reference to the charts. Reading the books, interpreting them, and somehow being able to figure out how to play a game from them, is an initiation into a secret club. The necessity of unlocking the code to play the game is most likely the secret to its early appeal.
Making characters was simple and fun. Roll 3 six-sided dice, add them up and put the number in Strength, then do the same for the other five statistics. Roll three more dice, add them together and multiply by 10 and you have the gold you can spend to outfit your character. Give him a name, choose from the three classes, roll one more six siders for your hit points and you can head off for adventure.
If you play a Magic User can choose a spell he can cast.
In the rules, there’s no difference in the damage different weapons do. You roll a 20-sided die, check a table to see if you hit an opponent’s Armor Class, and if you did, you roll a six sider to determine how much health he loses. Different classes are better able to hit monsters as they gain experience and levels, and only some of them can use different types of magic weapons or armor they find along the way.
Once the characters are made, you can get down to the game play itself. The Dungeon Master makes a random, or semi-random dungeon, populates it with monsters and treasures, and the occasional trap, and sets his mind against the players.
This game isn’t written as a cooperative storytelling experience. It seethes with adversity between the DM and the players, encouraging tricks and traps and outwitting your friends, but always trusting the rules and the dice as the arbiters of justice.
This goes against pretty much everything modern role playing games tell players to do, but because of the simple system and the focus on the game part of the role-playing game, it works.
Playing the game was simply fun. Players in our group had a vast age range, with a middle schooler, two high school teens, and the rest in their 30s to 50s. characters weren’t taken seriously, but in being silly, they were impactful and fun. The setting and the dungeon became the story, with no elaborate backstory or motivations needed. For a longer-term game, I think more focus on why each character was down there, and what their plans were would be needed to be satisfying, but for a simple dungeon crawl game, anything other than ‘going to kill monsters and steal their treasure’ would be a superfluous distraction.
Mapping the dungeon was hard. Not the drawing of the map initially—that part is pretty easy just grab a piece of graph paper and start drawing lines. Communicating map directions to the players during the game is difficult, and requires a lot of practice to get right. It’s also an essential part of the game since the players need to decide where they are going, figure out if they’ve missed something or doubled back, and to help find secret doors and other treasures hidden along the way.
The game also encourages players to run away, or otherwise avoid combat encounters as best they can. Experience points, and thus increase in power, in the game is not based on killing monsters, but rather on how much treasure you can pull out of the dungeon. There were very few actual combats in the game we played, as many encounters were run away from, or were talked through instead. Because there was no complex skill system in place to do this, putting the ability to negotiate or intimidate, or otherwise avoid an encounter into the hands of one skilled player, it opened the game up to allow anyone a shot at doing so if they wanted. Rather than limiting the games options, by not giving explicit rules, it increased them. One of the players avoided a combat encounter by challenging the monsters to a dance off. It came down to a good idea and a very lucky roll of the dice.
Would I play this game again?
Absolutely! Although if I were to play this edition again, I’d like to add to it some, with the rules booklets that came out later, adding new classes like Thieves and Paladins, as well as some additional world building and class differentiations, and I’d probably have to rearrange the book to make it easier to find the rules, but this game was solidly fun.
Does it get to stay on my shelf?
Definitely. It keeps a play of honor there. Now not only because it’s the first RPG, and therefore a historical treasure, but also because it’s fun to play!