Holmes Basic Set (1977)
The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To 99% of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?
Players who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.
Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.
Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.
So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.
As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.
For more, see 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.
City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)
When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map boxed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.
So when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.
The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.
Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.
For more, see A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord.
Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.
In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.
Dave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)
He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.
For more, see The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis.
Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)
Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.
Game designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.
In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. (Melee and Wizard would become The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game.)
I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.
The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.
I failed to realize how much battle maps would transform the game. Without a map, players struggle to follow the action unless things stay simple. In virtually ever fight, players just opted for the front, swinging a weapon, or the back, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”
Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.
For more, see Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.
With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.
Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, The Perrin Conventions, at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.
Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.
Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points and The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.
However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier D&D editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.
Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.
- prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
- unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
- ability scores for monsters
- 1 in 20 hits are crits
- ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
- a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
- armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
- creature templates
- faction affiliations
- hardness for objects
- chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
- iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
- rules for PCs making magic items.
Most of my house rules come from Melee and Wizard. I LOVE RQ! Their current edition in the system I’m currently running.
Very interesting summary. All of those were published before I was born, so I could only experience first-hand the echoes of their impact. I had no idea that those MicroGames by Steve Jackson were a big influence to RPGs!
As a reader of your blog, I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Melee and Wizard rules guy! This entry, though, I think, reflects the more typical approach of actual old-time players than the new-school called “Old School” recognizes. As you say, lots of other rule-sets mattered, from the ’70s onward. They often mattered much more than D&D. It seems that only late editions of D&D pulled large crowds back to D&D. I’m sure there have been some D&D-only-ever players, but even they have house rules. If you ever want to tell the tale of how you returned to D&D, I’ll be interested. It sounds as if it was the third edition that did it.
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This maps, almost exactly, to my own path of discovering D&D. I lost my City State materials years ago and have been looking for them ever since!
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