Tuesday, October 4, 2011

D&D Unplugged: A Golden Age?

In his seminal old school Musings, Philotomy Jurament makes a strong case for why one should consider playing OD&D with only the three original 1974 booklets (plus the appropriate house rules, of course)—that is, D&D pre-Greyhawk, where all weapons do 1d6 damage (though Philotomy advocates tweaking this a little bit), ability scores have few explicit modifiers on combat, player characters and monsters use only a 1d6 for hit dice, and so on.  Matthew Finch’s Swords and Wizardry White Box and some of the White Box spin-offs like Ruins and Ronin track the same mechanic.

We might call it D&D Unplugged.

I find it very attractive.  A psychologist might say it satisfies my deep-seated bias towards minimalism or fundamentalism or whatever.  I don’t know.  And I’m not going to argue for the approach here.  What I am interested in is how well it comports with the actual history of the game.

Many people in the OSR are trying to recapture their first experiences with the game.  I’m 48 and started playing when I was 15.  That was the spring of 1979, I think.  We played using the AD&D Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook and various bit and pieces such as the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets and the Dungeon Master’s Guide “official” preview charts in Dragon Magazine.  As I recall, publication of the Guide was still a few months down the road while the original three-booklet box set and supplements were sold-out and hard to find.  There was the Holmes Basic Set, which in some ways was a cleaned up version of the three original booklets, but everyone I knew thought it was for babies.  It was what your kid-brother played with, or whatever.  Even then, though the game was growing by leaps and bounds, the market was still only 10%, or so I would estimate, of what it would become a few years later.  Things were still quite small.  Back issues of Dragon magazine from a few months before had a feature called “Mapping the Dungeons” where any Dungeon Master could get their name and address published in the magazine—there were something like eight DM’s in all of Massachusetts, and so on.  Many of the classic modules had not yet been written and Judges Guild had just published the first (and at that point only) city adventure.

Those who advocate D&D unplugged want us to go back five years before that to (I guess) the spring of 1974.  Now, if the three original booklets are to be the standard, they only lasted in their unmodified form for one year.  The first supplement, Greyhawk, would come out in the spring of 1975. This was before the first issue of Dragon Magazine and roughly simultaneous with the first issue of its predecessor The Strategic Review.  Now, Greyhawk would lay the framework for AD&D, and so (the hard-core purists might say) it was the beginning of the end in so far as it introduced Thieves, Paladins and all sorts of foofy inflationary elements like two-handed swords doing 3d6 damage and monsters with three attack routines.  Yet as far as I can tell from looking at the original sources, no one treated Greyhawk as heretical.  Rather it was regarded as a natural and perhaps even necessary improvement on the original game.  And again, it needs to be stressed—Greyhawk only came out one year after the first publication of the original booklets. The number of people playing Dungeons and Dragons at that time was very small.

So the question is, suppose its true that pre-supplement D&D really is preferable or superior in certain fundamental ways (as I think it might be).  If so, then it tracks a golden age that never existed.  Or at least if that golden age existed, it lasted for no more that a year for a very small group of people, few or none of whom (if the sources can be trusted) understanding it for what it was and who would thus go on to embrace the end of it when it came.

I find this fascinating and odd.


  1. It'd be interesting to try original OD&D with a group (kids or adults) who hadn't played D&D before. They would have no preferences such as variable damage. After a while you could "progress" to Greyhawk etc and retrace the evolution of D&D.

    Your post has me imagining a group of babies trying to play D&D with the Basic set. :)

  2. It sure is odd.

    I played D&D for years before I saw the OD&D rules. But I did play D&D using the Holmes basic set and the original supplements.

    I have played using just the OD&D rules and Swords and wizardry Whitebox since. I must admit I really enjoy the DYI feel to S&W whitebox that is evident in the original rules as well but actually edited to be comprehensible to normal folks who haven't buried their heads in game books for years.

  3. Do you heavily house rule S&W Whitebox? It seems to me that one point of tension in the OSR philosophy is whether minimalist rules are aesthetically preferable for their own sake or whether they're preferable because they encourage people to come up with their own additional rules.

  4. I started with the White box and the supplements. Even when we bought the AD&D books as they came out, we were still playing something a lot closer to White box than AD&D.

  5. I come down on the side of "simpler is better" instead of "older is better" although I am of course fascinated by the history of it all. I also sympathize with what I understand the style of play was like early on, no 20-page-long character sheets, more emphasis on planning and executing "smart expeditions" than on conflicted characters giving long monologues and getting XP for the "tears-per-second" they can generate.

  6. Generally I think the "Golden Age" has to do with perception and memory more than any tangible thing. When I was young, D&D was brand spanking new, and magical. No memorized ACs and weaknesses, no familiar monsters at all. If I never saw D&D before, and picked up a Monster Manual or DM's Guide today, I would probably be in that same childlike headspace of new and magical. Unless you are afflicted with amnesia, you're unlikely to get that experience back. However, that doesn't stop me from making house-rules, playing in other people's games, and just enjoying myself in general. Fight on!