Definitions & Demonstrations: TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons and Related Games

So, as promised previously, I am going to look at definitions of roleplaying and examples of play in RPG core rulebooks.

To be clear about what I mean by examples of play: I don’t mean the sort of examples you have covering how the rules are applied (“Player 1 fails his saving throw, so he loses 20 hit points and has to roll on the critical injury table”); I am talking about the sort of dialogue-based examples which are intended to demonstrate the flow of actual play. Given that the game is driven by dialogue, an example which makes that dialogue crystal clear is, I would say, downright vital (or at least very, very useful) in communicating how a game session actually works. A potential new player can puzzle this out without it, or indeed sit in on a session or track down an actual play podcast, but a good example of play means they don’t need to – and that helps smooth out the learning curve and help them quickly assess whether this is something they even want to try.

I’m going to kick off by looking at TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, and a couple of the games TSR produced which essentially used retooled versions of the Dungeons & Dragons system. TSR were both the first outfit who were lumbered with the task of providing explanations of tabletop RPGs in printed products (rather than demonstrating the idea in person), and also one of the most wildly successful companies at getting people into the hobby in the first place, with various Dungeons & Dragons basic sets being many gamers’ first point of contact with the hobby. Was this success because of their explanations of how RPGs worked, or despite them? Let’s see.

Original Dungeons & Dragons

The original Dungeons & Dragons game doesn’t contain a section entitled “What is roleplaying?” because the term “RPG” hadn’t yet been settled on as a name for this type of game – and indeed, the first booklet in the box (Men & Magic) opens with a Forward which consists of Gygax gushing more about how cool the game is than what sort of game it is, and then just launches into the rules, declaring that the best thing to do for beginners is just follow the booklets step by step until they get a handle on what’s going on. That said, once you’re several pages into the third book, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures – which covers the general procedures of actual play – there’s an honest to goodness example of play (bottom of page 12 to top of page 14, entitled Example of the Referee Moderating a Dungeon Expedition).

The interesting thing about this one is that it presents the idea of the players nominating one of their number as the “Caller”. This is a weird little idea which only TSR seems to have pushed in its books, and almost nobody has used in an actual game; the concept is that the Caller is meant to be the person who primarily speaks to the referee and relays what the characters do. I suspect that these days a lot of people would chafe at the idea of passing their character actions through the Caller to the ref. Firstly, there’s the obvious concern about the Caller misinterpreting, misreporting, or overtly distorting or overruling other players’ decisions, and certainly it isn’t a role I’d advise assigning to anyone that the other players aren’t very, very comfortable with giving that authority. (The potential for a Caller-tyrant is only underscored by the fact that this example of play solely consists of a dialogue between the Caller and the referee, with none of the other players even speaking – presumably, before each of the Caller’s statements we are meant to assume there’s a player huddle, but that isn’t stated directly,)

Thirdly, you could also make the point that the role of Caller implicitly assumes that the players will collectively agree on a course of action and no player will ever have their PC take a course of action which the other PCs (or at the very least other players) haven’t given their consent to – a concept which also seems to come through here, since all the actions relayed by the Caller seem entirely co-ordinated and the Caller never says anything like “Oh, and I guess the halfling tries to run away because he’s a big coward or something”.

Thirdly, even if you discount dysfunctional situations where the Caller is either crap or dictatorial, and even if you assumed the Caller was willing to  you could make a strong argument that in an awful lot of groups the role of Caller simply isn’t necessary. This is the most convincing point for me: a Caller being a douche or people not agreeing with each other as to whether the PCs should be in lock-step co-operation all the time are issues which can be resolved through the age-old expedients of not inviting douchebags to your game, and not assigning responsibilities to people you don’t trust with them.  What you can’t get around is the fact that the office of Caller adds an extra layer of complexity to the group structure which most groups simply don’t need.

If, as is often said, in old school games the “GM is God”, then the Caller is kind of like a priest and the other players are laypeople – and many players would, with some justification, get rapidly annoyed in a game where they’re not allowed to address the referee except through the Caller. The only benefit the position provides is that it means the referee can devote most of their attention to the Caller. Consequently, the only reason to have a Caller in the first place is if the group is too large for the referee to handle the more customary format where all the players talk directly to the referee and the referee divides their attention between the players evenly.

Now, this makes sense if we are looking at Dungeons & Dragons as Gygax was playing it at the time. Gygax ran games for a legendarily huge number of players, and when he was writing Dungeons & Dragons his weekly campaign had swelled well beyond a dozen players; indeed, eventually you had over 20 people showing up to play in his basement and he had to take on Rob Kuntz (don’t laugh, that’s the dude’s actual name) as a co-referee simply to cope. Under such circumstances it would obviously cause massive delays in the game to go around the table and have everyone player tell the referee what they are doing, and no surprise that the Caller role was brought in.

But outside of Gygax’s circles, the role didn’t catch on. Dungeons & Dragons as it was played once the books were released into the wild soon took on a slightly different cast from Dungeons & Dragons as pioneered by Gygax and Arneson, and part of that shift from the game as proposed to the game as she is played was the contraction of group size. Gygax himself seems to have embraced it – in Role-Playing Mastery, a long spiel on how to be a better gamer he wrote when his public profile was at its peak in the late 1980s, he suggested that the optimal size of a group was 3-4 players per referee. Different referees have different comfort zones, but they usually pitch their comfort zone to be the number of players they feel comfortable with dealing with directly at once; if the group swells to a little bit beyond their comfort zone, most referees of my acquaintance gird themselves for the challenge and take it as an opportunity to stretch their skills, but once it goes substantially beyond that they typically propose splitting the group rather than appointing a Caller.

That’s the other reason why I don’t think the Caller caught on – whilst most players of my acquaintance would much prefer to address the referee directly, equally I suspect most referees would prefer to address their players directly. I think the job of Caller still has some merit in some situations – in particular, if someone wanted to try GMing but found it very difficult to juggle several different people addressing them at once, using a Caller might be a way for the players to help that referee keep it together, and equally if I had to run a game for 12 or more people I would certainly give consideration to the role.

The other thing I noticed is that the referee’s descriptions are extremely sparse most of the time, only offering the bare minimum information needed for accurate mapping (“10′, 20′, 30′ – a 10′ square landing – steps down to the north and curving down southeast”) except when the players get to a particularly interesting room. This is possibly just a factor of the generally quite terse style of the booklets, but equally it seems to me to be an interesting counterpoint to the usual complaint about how Gygaxian dungeons are mostly empty – yes, they are, but at the same time it appears from this that Gygaxian refereeing favours rattling through the exploration process nice and quickly unless and until the players run into something interesting. Either way, it feels like an extract of actual play – a bit sparse, yes, but something I can see happening at the table – so I think it does the job, though it could do with being substantially earlier in the set.

Holmes Basic Set

This was the first Basic Set for Dungeons & Dragons, released as an introductory product from which players could either graduate to the original Dungeons & Dragons box or the (at the time yet to be published) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system. (Eventually TSR decided to discontinue the original box, at which point the Tom Moldvay/Zeb Cook Basic and Expert sets were brought out to essentially present a vastly tidied up and more accessible version of that game; these in turn were replaced by the Frank Mentzer Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal boxed sets which were in turn replaced by TSR’s final Basic Set and Aaron Aalston’s Rules Cyclopedia, the final expression of the original Dungeons & Dragons lineage.) Dr Holmes relied a lot on the original boxed set but slipped in a few nascent concepts from the Advanced game, though with some interesting twists. For instance, there’s only five alignments – Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil, Chaotic Good, and True Neutral – because Gygax only added in Neutral Evil, Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral later in the development of the Advanced game, which is why the original Monster Manual doesn’t actually include any creatures of those alignments.

So, Holmes here produces a recapitulation of the original boxed set material but equally kind of makes it his own. Indeed, several people like the distinctive flavour of this book that they’ve made Holmes Companions – yes, there’s multiple ones out there – projecting the level progression of Holmes Basic forwards to make it a more fully supported game. Holmes was, of course, working to a brief – create an introductory product for the game – so it’s no surprise that Holmes kicks off with an attempt to explain what the game is about:

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing for adults 12 years and up. Each player creates a character or characters who may be dwarves, elves, halflings or human fighting men, magic-users, pious clerics or wily thieves. The characters are then plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and caverns run by another player: the referee, often called the Dungeon Master.

And so on. It’s interesting that although Holmes says that the game is “limited only by the inventiveness and imagination of the players”, he implicitly assumes both here and in the rules he chooses to present to assume that the game constitutes entirely of dungeon adventures, with no mention of wilderness adventures, sea or aerial voyages, stronghold-building and so on of the sort the original boxed set presented. This is probably deliberate, since the subsequent Basic Sets also concentrated, at least in their core rules, on dungeon adventures, with wider expanses being saved for more advanced sets or being presented in prewritten modules.

Holmes also provides an example of play, and interestingly he also includes the Caller role, though he does include a couple of minor interjections from other players (both of which seem to involve them talking in-character). Holmes also allows himself to spice up the descriptions the referee offers (or DM, since already the Dungeon Master terminology was in place). As well as still feeling like an example of actual play, this example also does a slightly better job of conveying the fact that people are having fun – the DM sounds genuinely excited, as does the Caller, and the in-character interjections make the game begin to resemble game sessions I’ve actually been in somewhat more.

1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

In principle, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be a product for advanced participants – a standardised system which brought things together in a coherent system which was offered as an alternative to the wooly mass of house rules a lot of Dungeons & Dragons home campaigns had begun to develop into as individual groups parsed the materials in different ways. This bears out in Gygax’s prose throughout the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, where he goes off on all sorts of interesting tangents and gives all kinds of advice but doesn’t necessarily arrange the materials in the most efficient way.

In particular, the core 1E books display a stark division of information between the players and the Dungeon Master. In keeping with this, Gygax offers an overview of the concept of RPGs in the Player’s Handbook, but keeps the example of play to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Here’s the basic definition (to which Gygax appends a fair amount of discussion):

Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about, for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality.

As a role player, you become Falstaff the fighter. You know how strong, intelligent, wise, healthy, dexterous and, relatively speaking, how commanding a personality you have. Details as to your appearance, your body proportions, and your history can be produced by you or the Dungeon Master. You act out the game as this character, staying within your “god-given abilities”, and as molded by your philosophical and moral ethics (called alignment). You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic! The Dungeon Master will act the parts of “everyone else”, and will present to you a variety of new characters to talk with, drink with, gamble with, adventure with, and often fight with! Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by – and you will acquire gold, magic items, and great renown as you become Falstaff the Invincible!

This game lets all of your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!

As well as being in a weirdly Shakespearean mood, Gygax is here giving his best carnival barker’s spiel for the hobby, and I think the best thing about this section (and the subsequent mini-essay) is its infectious enthusiasm. It might not nail down exactly what goes on in a session, but it conveys the basic idea and then goes all-out to explain why it is enjoyable. Gygax here hypes up the portrayal of character as the point of the exercise – if you want to troll a grumpy grognardy forum with a lot of hostility towards story games, indie RPGs and narrative mechanics, you could suggest that the portrayal of character is identified here as being the game’s “creative agenda”. Note also the bit about “you will become a master thespian” – in keeping with the ideas about “mastery” he expresses in Role-Playing Mastery, Gygax sees participation in tabletop RPGs as a skill to be learned and honed, but he’s also expressing confidence in the reader’s ability to accomplish this rather than hyping up what a challenge it is.

As I mentioned, the example of play is in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s slightly buried there – page 97, in the middle of a section discussing the process of dungeon adventures, but it’s a fairly expansive one – it extends for nearly three pages, which is a heck of a lot  if you consider how dense the text in the Guide is. It also backs away from the concept of the Caller; there’s a “lead character” who seems to be taking the Caller role, but other players regularly both make interjections and take actions in their own right.

Gygax clearly recognised that incorporating this sort of example of play is important – if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have devoted so much space to it in the book – and he also seems to have given some thought to its content, because there’s a lot of good stuff in there. He incorporates things like the DM asking the players the rationale for decisions that the DM doesn’t understand (such as the party marching order) to get a handle on their rationale for doing this and how they expect it to work, and when the players give their reasoning the DM expresses agreement with their logic. Presumably, if the DM didn’t agree, he or she would say “You do realise that that means….”, and indeed here the DM points out that the players are going to wreck the demihuman PCs’ infravision by using torches, to give the players a chance to either reconsider or accept these consequences as a price they’re willing to pay to allow all the party members to see. In short, Gygax here is establishing that part of good DMing is making sure that you understand why your players are doing what they are doing, and that your players understand the consequences of their actions which they IC would be aware of.

This is an aspect of play whose importance people continue to stress to this day, typically because people keep making this mistake to this day: there’s no glory in screwing over the PCs because the players made a decision they didn’t know the consequences of, especially since their ignorance of the consequences stems from you not giving them the tools they need to understand them. Here, Gygax is giving an unambiguous pointer against such gotcha-DMing in the example of play, so not only is it an example of how actual play may flow, but it’s also a crash course in good play. Again, actual game mechanics are demonstrated and the flow of the action is a believable edited extract of actual play.

2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

2E came out at around the time that TSR was side-eyeing the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal line and thinking “you know, does it really make sense for us to split the game line like this?” but hadn’t quite yet taken the decision to axe it. Thus, the Advanced tag is still there, but at the same time the organisation of the books is tidied up substantially, a lot of 1E systems are made optional or outright changed to make them resemble the Basic game a bit more (1E combat, via rules as written, is absolutely crazed and very people went RAW on that front as a result, defaulting to assumptions derived from Basic), and both the “What is roleplaying?” section and the example of play are placed towards the start of the Player’s Handbook. Zeb Cook introduces people to the concept through an interesting analogy where he starts with a simple board game and starts adding and removing factors until you get to something resembling an RPG, which is actually quite a good analogy if the reader follows the thought experiment presented.

He follows this up quickly with the example of play. The example illustrates precisely no rules concepts – fair enough, since the reader hasn’t actually been introduced to any rules yet – but it does foillow the evolution of these examples from the original set to Holmes Basic to 1E: although one character is designated as the leader, there’s even more interjections from the other players and even more in-character talk, including in-character exchanges between the players that don’t directly advance play but do established that the characters are spooked by the wererat lair they’re exploring. Again, it feels like an edited example of actual play rather than some idealised game made up out of whole cloth.

Rules Cyclopedia

This compilation of the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master rules (and the bits of the Immortals set which didn’t actually involve playing gods) doesn’t include an example of play – fair enough, it’s not a product pitched to beginners – but does include a definition of gaming. It’s one of those definitions where you say “It’s kind of like (other medium), only you play the characters”, which I tend to find a bit useless, but in this case it’s kind of inspired because the specific medium they compare it to is radio theatre – which is, of course, an intrinsically dialogue-driven format, so fair play to them in terms of choosing a medium which is less distant from the actual play experience than those people usually choose for this sort of example.

Empire of the Petal Throne

The first attempt to express a really distinctive and detailed campaign setting in an RPG product gives a fairly terse description of what roleplaying is, working on the assumption that a sizable number of its players will have had prior experience with Dungeons & Dragons.

The game requires a group of players (from one up to any manageable number) and a referee. The latter takes pencil and paper and, using the information presented here as his base, prepares his own terrain map[s], city map[s], etc. of any area he chooses. If he desires, he can also draw up a map for an underground labyrinth (the “Underworld,” a section of creature-haunted tunnels, tombs, temples, and treasure troves) on a sheet or sheets of graph paper. He then “sets the stage” for his players, describing the scenario to them, locating them on his maps, telling them what they see, whom the encounter, etc. etc. It is then up to the players to use their wits and intelligence to deal with the challenges laid before them.

The players, in turn, must establish a character, using the tables set down here, and maintain this character’s records, keeping track of his experience points, wealth, possessions, magical acquisitions, etc. etc. The player must furthermore keep the statistics for any non-player characters in his employ. He makes his decisions on the basis of the information supplied by the referee, and it is his task to progress his character to ever higher levels and to greater and greater powers.

This is a little terse, though somewhat more readily comprehensible than the explanation offered in Dungeons & Dragons, the only model available to Professor Barker when he was penning Empire. Barker also gives an example of play at the end, which follows the precedent of Dungeons & Dragons by assuming the use of a Caller – indeed, sections of the example have the exact same brevity of description as the original description did. (“Ten, twenty, thirty feet down. Stairs end. Door to the north.”) Aside from a bit with the GM gloating in an over-the-top fashion towards the end, it’s kind of a dull example, though it does at least illustrate the flow of play and give some examples of how the rules are applied. It doesn’t quite feel to me like an example of actual play, though this is mainly because the dialogue in question is a little stiff and might just reflect on Barker’s writing style. (Notably, he does use the term “actual play” in relation to this, which I think might just be the first use of the term in an RPG rulebook.)

Gamma World, 1st and 2nd Edition

Gamma World  1st Edition opens with a fairly evocative piece of history, telling the backstory of the setting, before it launches into a brief description of what a “role-playing campaign game” is. Interestingly, its discussion of actual rules begins with pointers for the referee to design their own setting, going over bits and pieces which should be placed on the map in order to provide a sufficient variety of interesting stuff to explore, and only then does it go into character creation and the rest of the rules. The example of play not only includes a little dialogue, but also covers the referee designing the campaign setting in the first place and providing the starting scenario, Jim Ward apparently putting as much stock in explaining how to get the game started as well as explaining what to do once the game starts. Again, this being an early TSR effort, the dialogue assumes the presence of a Caller – including not just notes of where the players confer, but one bit where several players propose leaving the ancient complex they’ve discovered only to be overruled by the Caller!

The game’s second edition opens with a much terser background section, being both less tied to the previous game’s background and more reluctant to overload the reader with unnecessary information quite so early on. The “How to play” section gives a reasonably quick explanation of RPGs of the standard “players play their characters, referee runs the world” format, and the example of play at the back of the book includes a Caller and is in a somewhat similar style to the previous example, although there’s a bit more emphasis on demonstrating how some of the rules work and they make sure not to depict the Caller overruling the other players this time.

What have we learned?

Early TSR seemed to have a fairly clearly delineated house style for this sort of thing. The examples of play all assume either the presence of a formal Caller, or the dominance of one player as party leader, which doesn’t really reflect how a lot of groups work but does simplify the writing of examples of play somewhat. On top of that, the examples all feel like real examples of play, though edited and simplified – random table chatter and so forth is absent, but you can imagine these things being said at the table.

Of course, it’s notable that in early TSR several of the games were either designed or edited by Gary Gygax, or the designers were either following Gygax’s lead in terms of what to include in their games. I am reasonably sure that Gygax was responsible for the example of play in the original Dungeons & Dragons books since Playing at the World fairly clearly explains how Dave Arneson generated a bunch of ideas but didn’t actually contribute very much to bringing them together into a commercially viable format. I also think that Gygax’s inclusions of examples of play from the very beginning of the game confirms the impresison I got from Playing at the World‘s idea that whilst Gygax might not have personally invented tabletop RPGs single-handed, his major contribution was in finding ways to  communicate the idea to a wider audience.

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