Sunday, February 03, 2008

Review: Original D&D Part 1 - Men & Magic

I promised I'd start doing this long ago, so I suppose it's about time that I got to it. This is the first installment in what is hopefully going to be a long series of D&D product reviews, starting from the beginning and moving through them chronologically. The first product is naturally going to be the original D&D boxed set, and the first review will be of the first book in that set - Men & Monsters.

I don't actually have a hard copy of this book. I'm working from a PDF of the Original Collector's Edition re-release, so if anything I say doesn't jibe with your own copy, that could be the where the discrepancy lies. And now, onward!

by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson

The original D&D boxed set is comprised of three booklets, each about 30 pages long. The first book, Men & Magic, is essentially what would later become the Player's Handbook. It contains everything you need to create a character, as well as a list of spells.

The initial impression that these books give is that of being gloriously unpolished. The cover is tan, with a servicable yet uncoloured picture of a warrior. And you have got to love the tag-line under the heading - "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures" It's a mouthful, and it's also something that would be anathema to a lot of gamers that I have met. But I love that in the olden days D&D wasn't trying to hide its war-gaming roots.

The book begins with an uh... 'Forward' that goes into a little of the history behind the game's development. It's a fascinating snippet that has kept would-be D&D historians chasing their tales for years. The gist of it is that a bunch of wargamers known as The Castle & Crusade Society (of which Gygax and Arneson were members) published their rules for medieval fantasy wargames as a supplement to the game Chainmail. Dave Arneson used the Chainmail rules to run a game where the players controlled one character instead of an army, and this became an ongoing campaign known as Blackmoor. Gary Gygax heard about the game, and from that he developed D&D.

This is followed by an introduction, which vaguely details what the game is about and what is involved. The requirements are pretty alien to me, it has to be said. Age level is given as 12 and up, which is probably fair enough - my friends and I started at 10 or so. The number of players is insane, though: "At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign..." Gygax ran a campaign where a lot of players were filtering through, forming various disparate groups all with him as the referee. I've never seen this type of game before, as every campaign I've ever been in has involved a solid group of 5 or 6 people that doesn't change much.

The recommended equipment is also important, as apparently you need a copy of Outdoor Survival (a game by Avalon Hill) and Chainmail, a medieval wargame designed by Gygax that was a sort of precursor to D&D. This is something of a fallacy - Chainmail is only necessary if you want more detailed combat rules, and Outdoor Survival is only needed for the game board, which can be used for ad hoc forays into the wilderness. I'll be covering both products in brief in the future, but for the moment they can be ignored.

And then we get to the important part: the rules. Even long-time D&D players will be surprised by what's here; or more accurately, what isn't here. For instance, there are only three classes: Fighting Man (no, not Fighter), Cleric and Magic-User. The Thief, normally considered to be one of the game's four essential classes, is nowhere to be seen.

The three classes are much the same as they were presented in later editions. Fighting Men have the pick of the crop when it comes to magic weapons, but use no spells. Magic-Users have a lot of spells, but can't use magic weapons or armour. Clerics fall sort of half-way, and use a different spell list then Magic-Users, more focused on healing. They can turn undead as well, with much the same rules as later editions. These classes run on strong archetypes, and they haven't changed much at all over the years.

Probably the most jarring change here is that every class rolls a d6 for hit points. The Fighting Man still gets the most, and the Magic-User the least, because the rate of progression is different for each class. It's a bit confusing, actually. At 1st level, the Fighting Man has 1+1 hit dice - he rolls a d6, and adds 1 to get his total. Then at 2nd level, the chart says he has 2 hit dice. Where does the extra +1 go? The chart is full of discrepancies like that. If I ever get to run this version of the game I'll be going with the interpretation that most favours the players. It's a deadly enough game as it is.

A lot of the class write-ups are dedicated to what happens when you build a stronghold and the like. I've never seen players get too involved with this stuff. There are also guidelines for Magic-Users to create magic items that are pretty useful in that they make simple items viable to create and powerful items not worth the time. It's exactly how I like my item creation rules.

It's interesting that at no point is there a list of what mundane weapons and armour the classes can use. We are told that Fighting Men can use all magical weapons, that Magic-Users can't use magic weapons and armour, and that Clerics can use magic armour but only non-edged magic weapons. By the book, the only restriction on normal weapons and armour is that Magic-Users can only use daggers. Otherwise, Magic-User in plate-mail? Done. Cleric with longsword? Go ahead. Presumably Gygax intended the restrictions on magic arms to include normal ones as well, but it's never explicitly spelled out.

The list of races available is similarly short compared to later editions, limited to Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Hobbit. Humans are the baseline, with no bonuses or limitations, but the other races get various abilities to set them apart. My PDF copy of the books has Halflings, but they were Hobbits in the earliest printings. Eventually the Tolkien Estate got wind of this, and the name was changed. Balrogs got excised from the game as well, and Ents became Treants.

Dwarves can only be Fighting-Men, may only progress to 6th level, and have a couple of other simple abilities related to finding stone traps and slanting passages. Hobbits are also limited to Fighting Man, and only 4th level at that! There's a certain level of veiled contempt in Gygax's writing whenever he refers to these little guys that I find amusing. He's on record as being no great fan of Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit race was included apparently to attract Tolkien's many fans to the game.

Elves in D&D are a story all by themselves. They are Fighting Men and Magic-Users, but can only operate as one at a time in any adventure. How this is supposed to work is left as a mystery, explained in only the most vague and contradictory fashion. The best thing to do is probably to check the next version of the rules (the Holmes-edited Basic Set) and see how they did it. I would certainly be interested to know just how groups back then handled the elf, and how those interpretations differed from group to group.

Alignment is also much simpler than it later became. Your character can be Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. That's it, no mention of Good or Evil is made. Alignment seems less like a measure of your character's internal qualities, and more of an indicator of what side you are on in the cosmic struggle between Law and Chaos. That's not explicit, though. The idea of alignment is just thrown out there and abandoned, and it's up to the referee to decide what is done with it.

Finally we get to Ability Scores, and it's the classic array of six: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma. Determination of these is brutal - you roll 3d6 in order - that is, first you roll for Strength, then for Intelligence, and so on down the line. But that's ok, because Ability Scores are nowhere near as important as they would later become. High Dexterity might give you a +1 to hit with missile weapons, and high Constitution gives you +1 hit points per level. Strength gives you no combat bonuses at all. Having a high score in the ability that's most important for your class lets you gain experience points faster. It's a refreshing change from the reliance on stats fostered by later editions. Besides, there are limited rules for raising scores by lowering others, so you can probably get the scores you need without a lot of difficulty.

Following a couple of pages on hiring NPCs and forcing monsters into service, there's a great section of PC relatives and rules for leaving them your stuff when you die. Not only that, but there are guidelines for what happens if the original character returns from the dead to claim his stuff! I can't wait to introduce this into a campaign.

Equipment is really basic, as you'd expect in a 36 page book. Nothing out of the ordinary in the list, and encumbrance gets only a cursory treatment. That's good - I've never paid too much attention to it anyway. Experience points also get the once-over, and it's interesting to see that XP gained is commensurate with the risks undertaken - a high level character on the first level of the dungeon gets very little. And in true bastard Gygax fashion, you can't get XP above a 1-for-1 basis, so if your 1st level Fighting Man somehow knocks over a dragon you're outta luck.

The combat system is the familiar one - you find your level on the chart, cross-index it with the target's AC, and find the number you need to hit on 1d20. That's how it worked until THAC0 came along, and even that was just a different expression of the same system. What you don't get is the details - there are no rules for initiative, or anything else. For that you need Chainmail. The biggest difference in combat is that every weapon deals 1d6 damage. A dagger does 1d6, a sword does 1d6, an axe does 1d6. It's great. I love the fact that any weapon attack can be deadly to a 1st level character. It would be hard for modern players to accept, though. They love their d12s. Also, death comes at 0 hit points. There's no hovering at death's door, you get pushed inside by a burly man with a pointed stick. PC fatalities must have been obscenely common.

The rest of the book is taken up by spells, and it's a damn good list. You won't find any of the named spells like Bigby's Crushing Hand, but you will find pretty much all the classics. Sleep, Charm Person, Fire Ball, Lightning Bolt. Cure Light Wounds. The only absolute D&D staple that is absent is Magic Missile. The Magic-User list only goes to level 6, and the Cleric list to level 5, but you could seriously run campaigns for years without ever expanding it. The loose spell descriptions are great as well. There are a lot of ways that a smart player could use them to his advantage, and I always like to see that.

Intriguingly, all spell-casters require spellbooks. That includes Clerics!

The art in these books, by George Bell, is infamous. To be honest, it's all bad, but there are some interesting pieces in Men & Magic. The bearded man standing next to a tree that comes up to his knee is nice, except that it is clearly labelled 'DWARF'. And what's wrong with the following picture?


But you know, some things can earn you forgiveness for any misdeed. Case in point:

Ah, it was the 70s alright. God bless you, George Bell!

So that's Men & Magic. It's vague in places, and confusing in others, but it crams the entirety of character creation into under 40 pages. The rules are so open-ended and just begging for DM interpretation that I want to play it - it's exactly the antidote I need for 3e's heavily structured and codified style. More than a historical curio, Men & Magic is the Player's Handbook in it's most compact form, and everything that made the game awesome was here from the start.


Carolena said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

The 1+1 is just as stated. Roll 1d6 and add +1. At your next Hit dice you will gain 1d6 and lose the +1 since you can't roll less than 1.