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Review of Dungeons & Dragons (White Box Edition)

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 rules

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.

Character Creation

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.

Gameplay

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!

Review of Aberrant

For the inaugural game, I chose White Wolf’s 1998 superhero game “Aberrant.” Despite owning the game for years, I never had a chance to play it and for some reason, it never really took off despite a fairly promising idea behind it.

My main criticism of the game is that the core book is very poorly designed and laid out. It has the typical White Wolf oversaturation with story and metaplot as told by multiple unreliable narrators. The first half of the book is all metaplot and backstory, told mainly in posts to what 1998 thought a website would look like in 2008. Often, it was fun to read and poke through, but the text tended to be very dense, small and hard to read: particularly the text that was overlaying the colored image backgrounds.

Once we get to the second half of the book, where the rules are found, the disorganization becomes maddening. In order to run the game as a one-shot, I decided to create a batch of characters to hand out beforehand. Due to the disjointed layout and sprawling character creation rules that cross reference back and forth between chapters and the lack of clear character creation examples, this was a much less fun task than I had hoped.

The biggest sin of the book—and of the game in general—is that the combat rules and information on how to actually play the game is tacked on as an afterthought. There is a lot of character generation, backstory, and detailed information on powers: but how to actually run a game, and what sorts of stories you can tell with it is sorely lacking. And when the rules do appear, they aren’t in a coherent order and often embedded into the character generation system, rather than explained on their own.

Take, for example, trying to figure out how a Nova punches someone (a feat that is pretty much required for any comic book hero). The general combat rules start on page 239 (out of a 296 page book). Punching is defined as part of “close combat,” which means you roll the number of 10 sided dice equal to your Brawl or Martial Arts as a standard action. Any additional successes rolled go into your damage pool, up to a maximum of 5 dice (something mentioned in passing here and nowhere else in the book). You determine your damage type (typically ‘bashing’ for a normal punch) and roll the specific damage dice for that attack, which are found on a chart on page 250. Unless you have Mega-Strength, in which case you need to remember to go back to page 156 and see how many auto successes you get. Which is ambiguously written and could be construed as either auto successes or as extra dice to add to the pool (5 per level of Strength). So, a 5 Mega Strength punch, based on these three pages separated by 100 pages, Does 25 auto successes (or possibly dice) + regular Strength (rather than the Mega-Strength attribute, which is separate) +2 + rolled successes (up to 5) dice of damage. Most characters have 7 health levels. Ah! But there is soak as well. You take a certain number of dice away based on Stamina, Armor, and Quantum powers, such as Mega-Stamina or a Force Field. Each point of Stamina removes 1 die, and each point of Mega-Stamina removes one die from the damage roll. The Armor Power can remove 3 dice per point spent in it (up to 5, each point being spent in armor costing 3 out of 30 Nova points to buy all of your powers with at character creation).

So, lets see that punch in action. The Green Monster (Strength 4, Mega-Strength 5, Brawl 3) throws a punch at Brickhouse (Stamina 5, Mega-Stamina 3, No armor). The Monster rolls 7 dice to hit, looking for a 7 or better on a d10 and gets 1 success (roll 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 6, 8). His damage pool is 25 auto successes to damage plus 6 dice of damage (Strength +2). Brickhouse has a soak of 8, which removes 8 automatic successes from the pool. The Green monster doesn’t even have to roll damage because he’s killed Brickhouse in one shot. Bashing damage rolls over to lethal on a 1 to one ratio after all the health levels are gone. If he had Armor 5, he would have removed an extra 15 damage, thus having a soak of 23, meaning he’d only take 2 health levels automatically, plus whatever damage is rolled on 6 dice. Strongmen are ridiculously lethal in the game, unless facing armored opponents as the automatic successes on damage far outstrip the ability of most anyone to soak the damage. The same problem occurs in a lot of the blast powers as well.

Another unbalanced power difference comes in the various types of ‘blast’ powers. The standard Quantum Bolt does [Quantum x 3] + (Power Rating x 4) + number of additional successes (up to 5) dice of bashing damage (as a note, the damage listed in brackets apparently are automatic successes of damage, which is briefly touched on once in the combat section as an aside). Your basic newbie energy blaster with a Quantum score of 3 and Quantum Bolt rating of 3 would therefore do 9 automatic levels of damage + 12 rolled dice of damage on a hit. If you had taken the power as part of the more expensive ability Elemental Anima which admittedly allows you some more flexibility with your powers for an increased overall cost, you would do a Blast of [Quantum x 2] + (Power rating x 3) damage, which for the same power level would be 6 automatic levels + 9 dice of rolled damage. Suppose you want to use your mind for a Mental Blast instead: your damage is only your attack roll successes on a resisted roll: Intelligence + Mental Blast vs the Targets Willpower (and soak 2 dice per level of Psychic Shield if the defender has that). A 5 Intelligence, 5 Mental Blast character would have 10 dice to roll vs the standard Willpower of 3. A mental blast might do 4 damage per blast, and be soaked down to 2 or 3. This power costs the same as the Quantum Bolt power above to buy.

The system is a mess, and the game is difficult to play. I did enjoy the one shot session, mainly because the players were awesome and really got into it. At least until we had to interact with the system, at which point it came to a grinding halt. I found quickly that there were a lot of “traps” in the system that meant that an improperly built character (ie, one that didn’t spend a lot of points in armor) was super easy to accidentally one shot, despite being thematically consistent and having powers that looked, at first blush, that they would prevent such an occurrence.

The game wanted to be a simplified superhero game, with defined powers and an emphasis on role playing people who could and should change the world by their very presence. It misses the boat mainly because its a muddled mess, hard to follow and unbalanced. Additionally, there’s no real game in it; or at least no explanation of what type of game it wants you to play. It reads like it wants you to play comic book superheroes, but the rules are punishing and the themes it emphasizes are the dark conspiracy theories that so many of the other White Wold games abound with.

As much fun as I had during the game, I would not want to run this system again.