Tag Archives: Dragon magazine

Gen Con 1981: From D&D Nerdvana to Stranded by My Lies

In 1981 Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next game session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” But Mike and I lacked the athletic prowess of the sportos and proved too mild for the freaks, so we kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high school circle, no parents objected to loosing unsupervised teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck my folks as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judgement of friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

ICE advertisement

Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if Dirty Harry had caught us punks at the scene of our crime.

Instead, Harold the custodian mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2019, Gen Con drew about 70,000 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

In 1976, after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, the most important person in roleplaying games was a Los Angeles woman named Lee Gold. She still contributes to the hobby and still runs a campaign using her Lands of Adventure (1983) game.

Lee who? And what happened to Gary’s co-designer Dave Arneson? Although Dave and his circle of Minneapolis gamers deserves the most credit for inventing roleplaying games, Dave’s passion centered on sailing ships in the age of Napoleon. He never matched Gary’s fervor or written output. In 1976, Dave would work briefly for TSR, but little came of it. See Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR.

Meanwhile, D&D’s popularity exploded. Nothing else like the revolutionary game existed and it proved irresistible to most wargamers and fantasy fans. See 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

In 1975, Hilda and Owen Hannifen told their friend Lee Gold of a wonderful new game called Dungeons & Dragons. “Hilda had made up a dungeon and she ran it for us. So you see our first experience was with a female game master. It was a lot of fun.” Lee’s friends gave her a photocopy of the rules, but not before they watched her post a check to TSR for an official copy. “I started making up a dungeon—and told our local friends that they could start coming over and participating in D&D games that I’d be game mastering.”

Alarums & Excursions issue 2

Even before Internet message boards and blogs, science fiction and fantasy fans liked sounding off. So they published fanzines, or just zines. To publish, fans typed their thoughts, printed copies on a mimeograph or an employer’s photocopier, and then mailed to friends. “A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable,” writes Lee. For efficiency, zine publishers started collaborating in amateur press associations, or APAs. These associations bundled collections of zines under a single cover to save on postage and to create publications matching the substance of a magazine.

Excitement in the new D&D game fueled so much discussion that it started to overwhelm the pages of the APA-L from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. To meet surging interest, and to the let APA-L refocus on literature, Lee Gold started a new APA devoted to roleplaying games. She named it Alarums & Excursions after a phrase Shakespeare used to denote a confused uproar in stage directions. Plus, a name starting with ‘A’ would appear at the top of any list of APAs. Pronounce “Alarums” as alarms. The first issue debuted in June 1975 as the first periodical devoted entirely roleplaying games.

For a standard APA, an official collator collects fanzines and then mails the collections to the authors. “I didn’t want anything that minor,” Lee explains. “I also wanted subscribers, and the subscribers would support the contributors. It was something that had never been tried before. Therefore, I wanted to have something where there would be lots of subscribers and then contributors wouldn’t have to pay anything for postage. This was a whole new thing that had never been done before. It was my entirely new and brilliant, I hoped, idea.” This model allowed Alarums to reach a wider audience than a traditional APA. Hobby shops stocked issues of A&E alongside magazines. As A&E gained contributors, the page counts burgeoned from 30 to 150, when the limits of binding and shipping forced Lee to hold contributions for future issues.

The shabby state of D&D’s original rules inspired much discussion, and Lee’s Alarums & Excursions served as the hub of this network. “All the role players I know, when we looked a Gary Gygax’s game with its “% liar” and all its typos said, ‘this stuff needs tinkering.’ Ken St. Andre looked at it an wrote Tunnels & Trolls, and the people in Michigan wrote their thing, and the people at CalTech wrote their thing, and Steve Perrin wrote his thing. Everybody tinkered with D&D because it needed tinkering to be playable. The nice part about D&D was that it obviously needed player help. Well, obviously to all the players I knew.” (The people in Michigan likely refers to Kevin Siembieda and his Palladium Books the Metro Detroit Gamers, who published the original tournament versions of the TSR modules S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and O1 The Gem and the Staff, and regularly ran conventions like Wintercon and Michicon. The thing from CalTech is the Warlock rules which came to influence D&D through J. Eric Holmes. For more on Warlock and Steve Perrin, see How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules.)

The zines that Lee published in A&E became profoundly influential on the evolution of role playing games. Lee says, “I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoire, Steve Perrin’s Perrin Conventions (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus’s discussion of Chivalry & Sorcery, John T. Sapienza, Jr.’s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson’s ‘character traits,’ a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&E zines.“ Other contributors included D&D Expert Set author Steve Marsh, third-edition D&D lead designer Jonathan Tweet, Vampire: The Masquerade designer Mark Rein-Hagen, fourth-edition D&D lead designer Rob Heinsoo, Paranoia and Star Wars roleplaying game designer Greg Costikyan, and more. Plus, a fellow named Gary Gygax contributed to issues 2, 8, and 15.

Alarums & Excursions issue 1

Soon though, Gary came to hate APAs like A&E. Partly, he seemed to see APAs as ringleaders for thieves, and not just the sort who—in Gary’s estimation—stole a ride on his coattales. Remember that Lee Gold started with a photocopy of the D&D rules. Early on, copies of D&D, especially outside of TSR’s reach in the Midwest, proved scarce. The $10 price of the original box struck many gamers as outrageous. In the first issues of Alarums & Excursions, some contributors argued that TSR’s profiteering justified Xerox copies of the D&D rules. Gary wrote a rebuttal and Lee told readers that Gary deserved to gain from his work and investment. Surely though, he remained incensed.

Eventually, all the discussion of D&D’s flaws and all the redesigns of the game wore on Gary’s pride in his creation. In issue 16 of The Dragon, he wrote, “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticize those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious.” For a rebuttal of Gary’s criticism, refer back to A&E’s list of contributors.

Meanwhile, Lee published A&E and began writing games. Much of her work showed an interest in history and particularly Japan, where she lived 4 months during A&E’s first year. Land of the Rising Sun (1980) extended the Chivalry & Sorcery system to Japan. Her game Lands of Adventure (1983) aimed for roleplaying in historical settings. Her other credits include GURPS Japan (1988) and Vikings (1989) for Rolemaster.

Men dominated the gaming community of the 70s, but Lee felt insulated from that culture because she came from science fiction fandom. “The SF fan experience was largely male when I entered in 1967, but it wasn’t male-dominated. SF fandom of the late 1960s had only a few women, but they were highly charismatic women—including women like Bjo Trimble—and they were not dominated by men. I entered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society as an editor and the leader of a sub-group that produced a fanzine, The Third Foundation.

“This pattern of female equality also held true for the D&D play and roleplaying that took place in SF fandom—and that’s where I did my roleplaying. Not at hobby stores but at the LASFS and at science fiction conventions, usually with old friends or with people I’d met through A&E. A&E started through people who already knew one another through APA-L or through science fiction fannish connections.”

Meanwhile, the men in gaming tended to suppose that only men contributed to the hobby. Lee remembers visiting the Origins convention and spotting shirts for sale that identified the wearer as a “wargaming widow.” Why else would a woman attend a gaming convention?

After Lee finished writing Land of the Rising Sun for Fantasy Games Unlimited, she met publisher Scott Bizar at a local convention to sign the contract. She recalls discussing the game’s credits.

“Do you want to say this game is written by yourself and your husband Barry?” Bizar asked.

“No,” I said. “Barry didn’t write any bit of it. He did the indexing, and I gave him full credit for that. I wrote all of the game. Just say the game is by Lee Gold.”

“Most female writers say they wrote a game with their husbands,” said Bizar.

“I don’t care what other people do,” I said. “Just say the game is by Lee Gold.” And so Land of the Rising Sun came out as written by Lee Gold.

Her one personal encounter with Gary Gygax revealed a similar bias. Early on, Lee sent copies of A&E to TSR. After a couple of months, she received a phone call, which she recounts.

“This is Gary Gygax,” said the voice, “and I’d like to speak to Lee Gold.”

“I’m Lee Gold,” I said. “I gather you got the copies of A&E I sent you.”

“You’re a woman!” he said.

“That’s right,” I said, and I told him how much we all loved playing D&D and how grateful we were to him for writing it.

“You’re a woman,” he said. “I wrote some bad things about women wargamers once.”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed,” I said. “I haven’t read them.”

“You’re a woman,” he said.

We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I told him goodbye and hung up.

Despite her design credits, Alarums & Excursions rates as Lee Gold’s most stunning achievement. Since 1975, she has sent the APA monthly with only two lapses: one during her stay in Japan and a second scheduled for health reasons. Today though, many subscribers take their copies through email.

The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

The Arduin TrilogyDave 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. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in his adventure collection, “Vaults of the Weaver”

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

Sometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated roleplaying game wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave 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,” Hargrave 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)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

‘Alliance’ from Arduin volume 3 and an advertisement in Dragon issue 30

Gary Gygax favored D&D parties where humans outnumbered the elves, dwarves, and other non-humans. Such groups matched the mostly human characters in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D.

Today’s D&D groups resemble the Star Wars cantina scene, where exotic species outnumber the odd human. Hargave encouraged similar, strange mixes. An advertisement for Arduin shows an adventuring party consisting of 4 unlikely companions:

  • a phraint, emotionless humanoid insects
  • a deodanth, undead elves from eons in the future, now lost in their past
  • a saurig, dinosaur-men from the distant past bred as killing machines
  • a masked, human samurai somehow somehow fighting alongside these gonzo creatures

Even now, this assembly seems stranger than the typical Adventurers League mix of, say, a tiefling, a tortle, someone with fire for hair, and a goblin named Percy.

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but…perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

Arduin Now and Then

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons may seem obvious. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume.

4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. A show with dragons became prestige television, and networks keep aiming to produce  the next Game of Thrones. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new, but in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, the game defied understanding. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairy tale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

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. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary Gygax’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, 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.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see But how do you win?

3. Only young children should roleplay.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the roleplaying game. Kids have always roleplayed; we just called it make believe. By spreading roleplaying beyond the playground, D&D alarmed parents, ministers, and other responsible adults.

When D&D first reached mainstream attention, reporters painted the game as a “bizarre” activity enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players.  Parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and folks worried that kids believed it. See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.

D&D’s revolution went beyond make believe. Much of the appeal came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a sprawling dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps and underground cities in a Conan yarn, and so on. Forget Indiana Jones; he came later.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

During the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley provided scientific explanations for fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.

Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I get it. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. For instance, I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming.

Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.

Ecology of the PiercerPerhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in the April 1983 issue of Dragon. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.

The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.

For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.

1. Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D head Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse. He tells how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”

2. Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot

Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?

3. Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.

When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.

In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”

D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away.

The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

Publicly, members of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons team never discuss sales numbers. Privately, they dispute the notion that the Pathfinder role-playing game ever outsold fourth-edition D&D. But at Gen Con, late in the short life of fourth edition, evidence of D&D’s collapse seemed glaring. Pathfinder players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space. To be fair, Paizo made a bigger financial commitment to the con, but Pathfinder players filled more tables. And Paizo boasted a long line of customers  waiting to pass the velvet ropes into the Pathfinder sales area.

If big-shot Hasbro executives had seen this difference, they would have rehired the entire fourth-edition team just to sack them again.

At Gen Con 2010, fourth edition seemed like a catastrophe, but the game’s designers deserved less blame then they got. They had simply created a D&D edition that tried to match the appeal of online role-playing games. During development, the edition seemed like a savior the D&D needed. Their plan had suffered some tragic, and unimaginable setbacks—and D&D designers boast pretty good imaginations.

Most of the blame for the collapse lay with the executives who needed to wring as much revenue as possible from the D&D brand. They had made the one decision that crushed the edition’s chance for modest success. Of course, these planners never imagined that their decision would lead to an upheaval. That came from unintended consequences.

And the decision proved lucky for gamers, because we benefited from the blunder.

Fourth edition’s chance of success died before the edition even reached stores. It died when Wizards of the Coast chose to prevent Paizo Publishing from staying in the business of supporting D&D.

Paizo started in 2002, when Wizards of the Coast decided to focus on its core competencies by selling its periodical business along with 5-year licenses to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines.

The new publisher endured a rocky start. When the harsh economics of magazine publishing led to the end of their Undefeated and Amazing Stories magazines, the cancellations forced layoffs. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens took the setback hard. “The people at Paizo are my friends. With just a few keystrokes on a spreadsheet, I was potentially destroying lives, or at least changing their trajectories forever. The stress took over while driving home and I had to pull over to the side of the road and started bawling. I knew in my heart that I needed to make some drastic changes to give the company a chance to survive.” (For much more on the history of Paizo, including the quotes from their staff in this post, see the series of blog posts called Auntie Lisa’s Story Hour.)

Paizo continued to build publishing expertise. In Dungeon, The Shackled City launched a series of multi-part scenarios that Paizo called adventure paths. The paths plotted an entire campaign, from 1st to 20th level, from a series of linked adventures. “The reaction to The Shackled City was nothing short of fantastic,” Stevens recalled. “Little did we realize that the Adventure Path would eventually become our flagship brand, and our salvation in our most difficult time.

In 2005, the company started seeing profits and won the silver ENnie award for best publisher. Stevens saw validation that Paizo had finally found the right course.

By 2006, the license to publish Dragon and Dungeon neared its end, but Stevens and publisher Erik Mona felt sure a renewal would come. “With subscriptions on the rise, and powerful wind in our sails from the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths, there seemed little reason for concern.

But Wizards made other plans for the magazines. Their fourth-edition business strategy depended on luring monthly subscribers to D&D Insider. Electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon would add value to that program.

On May 30, 2006, Stevens learned that she would lose the license. “After the call, I brought Erik in to my office and told him the news, tears streaming down my face.

I don’t think any of us ever really thought that this was much more than a remote possibility. Dragon and Dungeon were finally firing on all cylinders and were enjoying critical acclaim that hadn’t been seen in years. So this news struck us to the core. In one meeting, the last large chunk of the company that we started not quite four years before was going away. We were numb. How the heck were we going to cope with this? Frankly, it seemed impossible at the time.

I have to give Wizards of the Coast a lot of praise for how they handled the end of the license. Contractually, they only needed to deliver notice of non-renewal by the end of December 2006; without the extra seven months’ notice they chose to give us, I’m not sure that Paizo could have survived. Wizards also granted our request to extend the license through August 2007 so that we could finish up the Savage Tide adventure path. This gave us quite a bit of time to figure out how we were going to cope with the end of the magazines. It would have been very easy for WotC to have handled this in a way which would have effectively left Paizo for dead—all they would have had to do was follow the letter of the contract. Instead, they treated us like the valued partner we had been, giving us the ability to both plan and execute a strategy for survival. For that, I will always be thankful.

Paizo forged a survival plan based on replacing the magazines with monthly adventure path installments. If successful, the plan would save the jobs of all the company’s employees. “To transition the company into its new form in 2007,” Mona explained, “We needed all hands on deck.

Paizo’s new Pathfinder Adventure Path brought success. Sales were brisk, and the number of Dungeon and Dragon subscribers who switched to Pathfinder subscriptions surpassed targets.

But at Gen Con in August 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced that fourth edition D&D would arrive in 2008. Paizo’s plan depended on lines of products compatible with third-edition D&D. Suddenly these lines seemed doomed to obsolescence and obscurity.

After talks with our colleagues at Wizards of the Coast, we were cautiously optimistic,” Stevens recalled. “There was talk of getting together when we were back in Seattle and running through a playtest of the current rules. We were also promised that there would be a third-party license, similar to the OGL, really soon.

Meanwhile, Paizo employee and D&D freelancer Jason Bulmahn saw his assignments from Wizards disappear as the company turned to in-house development of fourth edition. Suddenly, he had free time. For fun, he wrote a set of revisions to the D&D 3.5-edition rules. “My first document had the title ‘3.75 Rules Set’ in the margin.

In the months after the fourth-edition announcement, Paizo anxiously waited for a chance to playtest the new edition, but the preview never came. Worse, the third-party license failed to reach publishers.

Inside Wizards, the D&D team wanted to launch fourth edition with something like the Open Game License, but they lacked the clout to get another generous license approved. In an interview, D&D designer Andy Collins summarized the situation by saying, “Legal opinions change; legal staffs change.

By the start of 2008, Paizo ran out of time to wait. “The lack of a firm commitment or any kind of schedule from Wizards was stretching our patience—and our deadlines,” Stevens wrote. She called a company summit to discuss options.

Bulmahn recalled the meeting. “We struggled most of that day to come up with a viable plan. I kept thinking back to my rules document, even though it was little more than a mishmash of rules ideas and notes. Late in the afternoon, I brought it up to the folks in attendance.” By the end of the meeting Bulmahn ranked as lead designer of Mon Mothma, the new code name for a potential Pathfinder role-playing game.

Wizards’ decision to end the magazine licenses had turned Paizo upside down and now made the company willing to explore a daring plan based on a mishmash of ideas and notes. “We were beginning to think that forging our own path forward might be a valid choice,” Stevens explained.

Nevertheless, we dutifully sent Jason Bulmahn to Wizards’ D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, Indiana that February. Jason’s mission was to learn as much as he could about 4th Edition, play it as much as he could, and report back with his findings. From that, we would ultimately make a decision that could make or break us. The tension was agonizing. I could barely sleep at night as my mind wrestled with the options. If we made the wrong decision, it could very well mean the end of Paizo.

From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The cheap hobby of table-top role playing makes selling RPG games a tough business, but selling print RPG magazines in the Internet age is even tougher. Still, Paizo had learned to thrive. By fourth edition’s announcement, Paizo stood as an experienced publisher with an expert team of D&D designers, including many former Wizards employees.

When Wizards chose not to renew the Paizo’s license to publish Dragon and Dungeon, they led Paizo to compete with fourth edition. Paizo combined a lower cost structure and the nimble size of a small company with the resources to win against a giant like Wizards of the Coast.

As a result, gamers benefited from a choice of games. When asked about the split between Pathfinder and fourth edition, D&D designer Andy Collins said, “I think they’re both great games, and if they were more similar the hobby would be worse for it. I think it’s better to have games that are more distinct from one another that gives people clear choices. ‘Well this is the style of game I want to play, or this other one is the style of game I want to play.’ Nothing wrong with that.

If you loved fourth edition, you can still play games based on a shelf full of titles released for the game. Wizards even continues to offer D&D Insider to ongoing subscribers. If you favor fifth edition, many of the lessons of fourth helped make the new game so good. And if you love Pathfinder, the game continues to thrive. Is it okay to love them all?

Gary Gygax Versus the False Deity (of Realism)

Dungeons & Dragons started with a laser focus on dungeon expeditions. Specifically, the game assumed multi-level dungeons with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die following orders.

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax crafted the original role-playing game, they focused on making dungeon crawls fun. Even when the rules strayed from the dungeon, they only served to build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.)

Although D&D’s rules kept a narrow scope, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured players’ imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. They could roam fantastic worlds. This potential invited players to stop seeing D&D as game about raiding dungeons. Players saw a system for simulating a fantasy world.

D&D made a poor simulation, so players decided to improve it. Instead of making the game more fun, most tinkerers aimed to make the simulation more realistic.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Folks considered how magic should work, and then fancied that spell points offered more realistic, imaginary magic.

All the criticism of D&D’s lack of realism rankled Gary Gygax. He and Dave had designed a game. “As a game must first and foremost be fun, it needs no claim to ‘realism’ to justify its existence,” Gary wrote. “D&D exists as a game because thousands of people enjoy playing it. As its rules were specifically designed to make it fun and enjoyable.” A game needed to be fun before it made offerings to the “false deity” of realism.

Gary made his defense in a 3,800-word article that appear in Dragon issue 16, from 1978. He took a justified stand. D&D continues to thrive because the game’s design values fun before realism. Still, his defense failed to win anyone, partly because Gary diluted his point by railing against unauthorized supplements to D&D and against APAs, which were a sort of stamps-and-mimeograph version of Internet forums.

Mainly, the defense flopped because Gary offered the wrong examples. Instead of choosing unrealistic rules that added fun, he cited rules that added no fun and that D&D works fine without. No one worries about wizards and swords anymore, because mages have better ways to contribute. Although fighters can use magic wands, the classes haven’t merged into a flavorless super class. Elves and dwarves no longer face level limits and the game works better for it. Critical hits never ruined the game; they add fun. (Although, to be fair, the maimings and sudden deaths featured in critical tables from 1978 never took off.)

Meanwhile, Gary’s defense fails to mention the brilliantly unrealistic rules that made D&D work.

Original D&D includes mechanics aimed at making dungeon crawling as fun as possible. In The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points, I explained how the game’s totally unrealistic system for tracking injuries supported dungeon delves and added fun. In The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold, I explained how the game built in a goal that rewarded successful dungeoneers with stronger characters. In When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons, I revealed how absurdly unnatural multi-level dungeons let players choose a difficulty level and encouraged them to delve deeper without pausing to rest.

Why didn’t Gary choose better examples to defend? Partly because he took pride in D&D, so he leapt to the defense of the rules that drew the most criticism. But I wonder how well Gary understood the advantages of the unrealistic rules that he never defended. In his article, he describes D&D as a carefully designed and developed system of cohesive parts. No one describes the original game as cohesive. But Gary and Dave lacked our perspective. When they created the original role-playing game, they lacked the current hobby’s decades of shared design experience. They could only rely on the shared experience of a small circle of lifelong gamers. Lucky for us, that proved enough.

Next: Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

D&D Adds Psionics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

While editing the third Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, Tim Kask developed D&D’s first rules for psionics. He loved psionic combat and threw his enthusiasm into the task.

His rules answered D&D’s biggest critics. First, they stood separate from unrealistic notions of class and level. Second, they adopted a point system similar to the spell points touted by critics of Vancian casting.

Kask balanced and tested psionics to perfection. But when Eldrich Wizardry and its new psionics rules reached fans, some liked the topic, but few liked the rules.

Few players cared to learn the intricacies of psionic combat with all its tables and charts. Some players liked adding the extra powers onto their characters, but hardly any DMs allowed psionic characters in their game. The new rules mostly ignored D&D’s system of class and levels. They unbalanced play.

Tim Kask balanced psionics for a setting where intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. He loved psionics and imagined a game-world that fostered mental duels against psychic creatures.

In practice, nobody played D&D Tim’s way.

Psionics suffered from more than imbalance. Psionics grafted an complicated new game onto D&D. Virtually nothing in the new rules resembled rules already in D&D. By creating rules that answered D&D’s critics, Kask created rules that failed to match the rest of the game.

Role-playing games without character classes and with spell points can work brilliantly in a game like Runequest (1978), but the incompatible rules fared badly in D&D.

Perhaps the failure of psionics taught Gary Gygax some things.

In the July 1978 issue of The Dragon, Gygax would defend D&D’s character classes from critics. “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character. Not only would this destroy the variety of the game, but it would also kill the game, for the super-character would soon have nothing left to challenge him or her, and the players would grow bored and move on to something which was fun.”

Gygax also defended Vancian casting against point-based systems. “Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.”

Now, game designer see value in keeping game rules concise and applying a simple rules broadly. Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls wrote, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.” But in 1975, folks were still figuring out RPG design. So designers like Kask felt free to graft a psionics game onto D&D. Whenever Kask talks psionics now, he explains that he would design them differently.

Even as Eldrich Wizardry went to press, I suspect Gygax understood some points he would argue later. So why did Gygax open D&D to a psionics system that ignored classes and that used points? Because during the development of Eldrich Wizardry, Gygax still held to his a long habit of collaboration. If a collaborator like Tim Kask felt passion for some addition to the game, Gygax opened the way. Many of these “official” rules never entered Gary’s Greyhawk game. Still, he welcomed other dungeon masters to pick and choose, to shape their own games. (Over time, Gygax would become more protective of D&D’s rules. For much more on his evolving attitudes, see Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions.)

Psionics became unpopular because it added 70s parapsychology and an entirely different sub-game onto D&D. The concept only lasted because the notion of psychic powers resonated with players.

In the years to come, designers found ways to make psionics at home in D&D. They would integrate psychic powers into settings like Dark Sun, and they would express psionics using D&D’s core rules. For example, when David “Zeb” Cook updated psionics for 2nd edition, he created a mental version of THAC0. Potential psionic rules for 5th edition use character classes and even revive the name of Steve Marsh’s Mystic class.

Gary Gygax experimented with psionic characters to offer players a defense against the terrible power of mind flayers. Eventually, his original justification for psionics moved from the real world into the game world. In 4th edition lore, psionics manifested in the prime material plane to help its inhabitants battle intruders from the Far Realm—intruders like mind flayers.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

Basic and Advanced—Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game? (Part 5)

Late in the spring of 1976, Gary Gygax started work on a complete revision of Dungeons & Dragons. In Gygax’s TSR office, he and collaborator Tim Kask cut up several old copies of the D&D rules—copies much like the one that recently sold for $22,100 on ebay.

“The first day,” Kask recalled, “We sat with legal pads and dissected the elements of the game into various categories: combat, characters, magic, monsters, artifacts, spells, abilities, and on and on.”

They tacked rules clippings to bulletin boards, sorting them by category. “Then, category by category, we examined the game,” Kask wrote. “We looked for loopholes, inconsistencies and instances of what I’ll call ‘game-illogic.’ We looked at balance issues.” As they tinkered with hit-point totals and with the damage inflicted by weapons and spells, they playtested hundreds of battles.

After seven or eight days consumed by the work, Gygax and Kask produced a plan for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

They planned for three AD&D books that roughly matched the three booklets in the original box set. Men & Magic became the Player’s Handbook, Monsters & Treasure became the Monster Manual, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventure became the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

To actually write the books, Gygax needed years. He wanted hardcovers, but the expense of printing just one title would stretch TSR’s resources. Sales of the first title had to pay for the second, and the second for the third. If gamers chose not to splurge on pricey hardcovers—if they kept photocopying the original rules or if they turned to imitators—then TSR might sink.

Gygax chose to write the Monster Manual first. He figured that current players of the game could use new monsters with few adjustments. Also, the book’s design made writing simple. Every day, between other duties, Gygax would write monsters and throw the stats into a box for employee Mike Carr to collect and type.

When J. Eric Holmes’ introductory manuscript reached TSR, Gygax faced another decision. The new Basic Set would only take characters to level 3. Where should they go next? “Sending them into the morass of ‘Original’ D&D put us back on square one, with all the attendant problems of rules questions, misinterpretations, and wildly divergent play,” Gygax wrote in the March 1980 issue of Dragon. “Would it be better to direct them to AD&D, even if it meant throwing out what they had begun with the Basic Set and making them start a fresh? Faced with a choice between chaos and a clean slate, we opted for the latter.” This explanation comes from 1980, when Gygax had other reasons for claiming that AD&D stood as a different game.

In the summer of 1977, when TSR had a manuscript for basic rules and just outlines for a Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, did Gary plan to create incompatible games?

He made a bid for compatibility. “Pieces and parts of the various components of AD&D were grafted into the Basic Set rules manuscript so that D&D would be more compatible with the Advanced game. Readers were directed to AD&D throughout the Basic Set.” His sales plan for the AD&D Monster Manual depended on players using it in their original D&D games.

But Gygax also expected differences. He and Kask had already tweaked some spells, damage, and hit point numbers. Because the Thief class highlighted the inconsistency where non-humans could treat their race as a class or could adopt a class, Gygax probably planned AD&D’s complete separation of race and class all along.

In a 2005 comment, Gygax wrote that he never intended the Holmes Basic Set to serve as in introduction to AD&D, and that he never intended to meld the two games.  But after decades of saying that AD&D was a separate game, perhaps his claim pushed aside any memory of his original plan. I suspect that if basic D&D had started as something more than introduction, TSR would have released an Expert Set in 1978. Instead, the expert rules came in 1981 when TSR needed them to bolster a legal case.

In the end, AD&D never proved as different as Gygax claimed. His new version of D&D remained roughly compatible with the original. Supposedly, AD&D featured strict rules while original D&D featured room for customization, but everyone—even Gygax—changed and ignored AD&D rules to suit their tastes. Later, Gygax wrote, “I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rules books except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

Next: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game