Basic and Advanced—Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules (Part 2)

In 1976, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax realized that the appeal of D&D reached beyond wargamers to “almost anyone with an active imagination.” TSR’s first full-time employee, Tim Kask wrote, “Gary and I, and probably Gary and others, had often discussed how to broaden our market.” But unless players understood miniature wargaming with its inches, attack rolls, referees, and so on, they had little hope of understanding the original rules. D&D defied popular assumptions about games and fantasy. People wondered where to find the board, and how you won.

Despite being an avid wargamer, Kask struggled to learn D&D. “Had I not confidently announced that my club was going to have a go at this new game I was so enraptured with, I might not have spent three weeks trying to grasp enough of it to begin. And I had the benefit of having played it twice.”

Gygax and Kask saw D&D lure a new generation of players to wargaming conventions. Also, parents of potential players contacted TSR. Kask remembers, “We were starting to hear from parents that had bought the game as a result of their child’s cajolery, badgering or whining, only to find that it was too complex for their precious darlings to jump right in.”

The game’s supplements also caused confusion. After learning that a book called Greyhawk featured higher-level spells, I cajoled my parents into driving me to the store. Later, back at home, I learned of even more booklets.

Tunnels & Trolls

During D&D’s early years, D&D spread through the game table. Players started at Gen Con in Wisconsin or at Origins in Maryland. They brought the game to friends who taught their friends. But in the western states, the books reached folks before any gamers who had seen D&D played.

Far from Lake Geneva, confused but eager players created a market for games like D&D that featured clearer rules. In Different Worlds issue 1, Arizona gamer Ken St. Andre tells of reading the D&D rules in April 1975. He concluded that “as written the mechanics of play were nearly incomprehensible. I stood up and I vowed that I would create my own version.” By July, St. Andre began selling copies of Tunnels & Trolls.

California Neurologist J. Eric Holmes also found the original D&D rules incomprehensible. In Dragon issue 52, he writes, “There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.”

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

To make sense of D&D, he found a set of rules circulating Los Angeles called Warlock, subtitled “How to Play D&D Without Playing D&D.” By using the combat table and spell point system from Warlock, Holmes could start playing.

Warlock came from a group of Caltech students. The game’s introduction tells a common story for the time. “When our group first started playing [D&D], our overall reaction was that it had great ideas, ‘but maybe we should change the combat system, clarify the magic, and redo the monsters.’”

In August 1975, the group published their new rules in a zine called the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal. The new rules took 33 pages. The introduction explains, “Warlock is not intended to replace D&D, nor is it intended to interfere with it. All we have tried to do is present a way of handling D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules. We spent a considerable amount of time working out a solid combat system, a coherent magic system, and a more flexible way of handling monsters. We have been (rightly) accused of making D&D into a different game altogether, and we think a slightly better one.

“We recommend that you at least have access to a Dungeons & Dragons game, for the simple reason that we lack the space to go into some of the detail used in their three volumes. The D&D books are a good place to get ideas from. They are not a complete set of rules. We have completed them in our own.”

For more, see the Zenopus Archives post, “WARLOCK or how to play D&D without playing D&D.”

The threat of D&D offshoots like Warlock grabbed TSR’s attention. In the August 1976 issue of the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal, TSR published an ad for D&D urging readers to “TRY THE REAL THING!”

In December 1977, Gygax shared his feelings for such D&D “parodies” in the pages of The Dragon. “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt. For saying so we are sometimes taken to task quite unjustly, but I suppose that is to be expected from disgruntled persons prevented from making a fast and easy buck from our labors—or from those persons responsible for cheap imitations whose work we rightly label as such.”

Gary understood that the fight against D&D’s imitators required a new set of rules.

Next: Campaigns, tournaments, and consistency

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7 Responses to Basic and Advanced—Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules (Part 2)

  1. Steve says:

    “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt.”
    Funny, I’d always heard EGG was basically an asshole. That pretty much proves it. (Not to mention presaging neatly the sneering, quasi-intellectual narcissism that would so characterize so very much nerdwars between game systems later…)

    D&D was a great “idea”, but the rules WERE poorly written, the mechanics poorly conceived and described EVEN BY WARGAME STANDARDS OF THE TIME.

    Just to be clear, around the *same time* that the kludgy, amateurish D&D rules were coming out, you had products like Squad Leader and Panzerblitz…it’s not like people didn’t understand how to write very complex game rules in a clear, concise fashion.

    • Beoric says:

      Yeah, I find it hard to love Gary, having read his editorials.

      RPG publishers still suck at explaining their games to outsiders, BTW.

    • David Hartlage says:

      During late 70s and early 80s, when Gary perceived his game, success, and company threatened by the imitation and criticism, he showed an ugly side. James Maliszewski from Grognardia calls this persona “TSR Gary.” During this era, TSR Gary became a shameless promoter of TSR interests, a scornful dictator whose proclamations often defied common sense. I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory may be off, but I heard the imperial march play as they went.

      In his later years, Gary grew open and generous. Despite his standing, he always gave time to interact with gamers. On enworld he humbly acknowledged every grateful fan and answering every question. At Gen Con, I spied him at an open table, behind the DM screen, taking fellow gamers into a dungeon. The man even invited random gamers from the internet to drop by his house to game.

      Sometimes, when I feel cynical, I suspect that people never really change. But aside from working with Dave to give D&D to us, the thing I like best about Gary is that he changed. For the better.

      Dave

  2. > “I cajoled my parents into driving me to the store. Later, back at home, I learned of even more booklets.”
    I remember feeling the same frustration. Did the Grenadier miniatures come out before the AD&D Dungeon Masters guide? I remember seeing the miniatures at a hobby store and that confused myself and my ever patient parents even more.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    One similar thing that came out of those inconsistent early rules was the Judges Guild Quick Ref Sheets. Which also was an attempt to make sense out of the rules as presented.

  4. I’m enjoying this series. Glad the Warlock info has been useful. It deserves more attention as one of the first published D&D variants.

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