A Draconic Autopsy

Histories of D&D and TSR have become thick on the ground. Representing the gold standard – in terms of completeness, standard of scholarship, and avoiding a slide into hagiography – are the works of Jon Peterson, such as Playing At the World (covering the design and initial publication of OD&D), The Elusive Shift (digesting the early fan discourse within the RPG fandom), and Game Wizards (covering TSR in the years under the control of Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers).

Peterson’s books hit the high standard they do largely because he primarily bases his research on surviving contemporary documents, which aren’t prone to the misrememberings, mythologisings, evasions, and other inaccuracies which creep in when you’re looking at statements made by participants, especially long after the fact. On the other hand, relying on witness evidence offered up decades down the line can often be more fun; Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series might be much more reliant on such recollections, but some of the material it is able to dredge up is pretty juicy.

Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon takes a bit of a middle route here – Riggs admits his reliance on interviews with a good many of the primary actors in the story he’s telling, but he does a good job of flagging where this is the case, noting where he wasn’t able to talk to significant actors who might otherwise have given a different perspective, and even points out instances where he double-checked claims with other interviewees to corroborate some testimony. In addition, he is able to make some significant coups in terms of turning up documentation, and flags when he’s able to rely on that information in order to present his narrative.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Riggs extends the story into a period which has so far been poorly served by existing work. So far, most of the histories out there have tended to give a lot of attention to the Gygax-helmed era of TSR, and comparatively little to what came afterwards. Peterson and Kelly’s histories haven’t advanced the timeline past the Gygax era, but at least have the excuse of covering it in sufficient detail that giving a similar treatment to the Williams years would be a major undertaking in itself. Some of the more hagiographic treatments of the story have tended to either sing the praises of Saint Gary (a term Riggs uses here in jest – he doesn’t buy into the whitewashing of Gygax’s reputation) or maximise the role of Dave Arneson. (Riggs takes the position, which I think is the most reasonable one, that OD&D was the sort of thing which needed Arneson to come up with the seed idea in the first place, but Gygax to turn it into a product that could actually be sold to an audience and give them a faint hope of replicating something approximating similar gameplay.) Other, general histories like Shannon Appelcine’s Designers & Dragons have given broad overviews but haven’t gone into depth.

Slaying the Dragon, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. It dispatches the Gygax-helmed era in some 61 pages, and spends over 200 subsequent pages going into a deep dive on the next phase of TSR – the era which would see its critical and artistic zenith, its decline and fall, its purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, and the initial phase of repairing burned bridges which Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens of Wizards had to undertake.

In other words, this is the first deep dive into the Lorraine Williams era of TSR we’ve seen.

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Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave

When it comes both to the designers writing the game materials and the publishers releasing them commercially, Dungeons & Dragons is in a Ship of Theseus situation: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR as a whole ceased being involved in the game’s publication decades ago, and have ceased participating in mortal life in general for a good while at that (setting aside recent attempts to revive the TSR name, with varying levels of personal dignity and good taste involved).

However, whilst companies cease to exist once they have been dissolved as legal entities, human beings often kick around for much longer after you’ve dismissed them. After he was turfed out of TSR in 1985 and control ended up in the hands of Lorraine Williams, Gary Gygax saw to it that his version of events was promulgated far and wide. Years later, when the Internet was a thing and when forums like Dragonsfoot, through their advocacy of pre-Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D, were laying the foundations of what would later become the OSR, Gary was only too glad to make posts further pushing his recollections, fuzzy though the passage of time may have made some of them.

Dave Arneson, by contrast, was a somewhat quieter figure for the last decade or two of his life. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the aftermath of his departure from TSR, he would vociferously promote his own version of events, especially when his years-long dispute with his former employers over the D&D royalties situation kicked into high gear. Even at this early stage, Dungeons & Dragons was already the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG market, with success of orders of magnitude greater than its competitors, and TSR had a tendency to throw that weight around; this created enough resentment that Arneson found many willing to accept his side of the story.

Such situations where competing narratives about an event obscure the truth are far from uncommon in history, and it’s the mark of a good historian to be able to pierce through them and provide an account supported by the facts and dispelling the misconceptions generated by years of gossip and rhetoric. Game Wizards, published as part of the Game Histories range from MIT Press, is Jon Peterson’s latest attempt to do exactly that.

Continue reading “Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave”

Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.

TSR Editions of D&D – What Are They Good For?

So by now, it’s looking like 5E is going to be my preferred edition of Dungeons & Dragons for the foreseeable future, and it doesn’t look like I’m alone in enjoying it. In fact, perhaps the best sign of 5E’s success is the extent to which it seems to have taken the heat out of the edition wars – even if older versions of D&D will always have their advocates, there really doesn’t seem to be many people who display mortal offence 5E being the official face of D&D; compare this to the 4E era, when in some quarters of the Internet you’d be forgiven for thinking a holy war was taking place.

In particular, 5E seems to have reached an audience of players – and I include myself in this audience – who found the previous Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D not to our liking, presenting a refreshing simplicity and a tone which captures the atmosphere and style of the best of late-period TSR-era D&D whilst providing more rigorous and unified game mechanics and taking the best ideas from 3.X and 4E whilst avoiding the extremes of either of those editions.

This being the case, it’s a good time to take another look at the various TSR-era D&D editions and see whether there’s anything they’re particularly good for, especially if that involves a game experience that 5E either can’t deliver or is less convenient for.


Let’s address the elephant in the room first: yes, the three little brown books of OD&D really don’t explain themselves very clearly at all. Whilst they aren’t completely oblique, even a cursory read-through will find points where, if you are just running these three booklets to run a game, you’re going to need to make a judgement call on just how a particular part of the game works. (For me, the big thing is how elves are supposed to work – on the one hand, they are described as acting as either fighters or magic-users and having to choose which before each adventure, but at the same time they also enjoy the benefits of both classes. Just how you reconcile this – and how to handle their experience progression – is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Then again, Gygax and Arneson shouldn’t be slammed too much for not explaining themselves with perfect clarity. You have to bear in mind what audience the game was written for, rather than the audience it actually found. Textually speaking, it seems obvious to me that Gygax and Arneson were addressing themselves to experienced wargamers of the freewheeling DIY age of the 1960s and 1970s, when cobbling together a bunch of rules and elements from diverse sources and mashing them up on your gaming table to suit the needs of the simulation you were after was par for the course. Referees are advised to look to Chainmail for the full combat system  (the familiar target number-vs-descending AC system being presented here as an alternative) and to Outdoor Survival for the wilderness map, and so on. Accounts of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign (as well as other Twin Cities area games, such as MAR Barker’s Tekumel campaign) suggest that tabletop RPG rules were only one of many tools used in the campaign, with Arneson and Barker’s games shifting almost seamlessly from RPG sessions to handle individual-scale events to various breeds of wargame to settle larger-scale matters, and I rather suspect this closely resembles the sort of thing Gygax expected D&D would be used for – the individual-scale component of a broader fantasy campaign, rather than the single game system governing an entire campaign.

Written as it was as a toolkit for folk who could be expected to know what they were doing and who could also be expected to look to other game systems or homebrew something themselves to settle matters beyond the scope of the rules here, and also burdened with the task of describing an entirely novel gaming format and structure, I think OD&D can be forgiven for being a little obtuse. What’s more, it’s entirely possible to overstate just how oblique it is – yes, you have to fill in the gaps, but the dramatic spread of the game in the 1970s (to the extent that TSR could barely keep up with demand and pirate copies circulated as a result of the shortage) demonstrates that there was an active, imaginative audience out there who were more than happy to fill in those gaps, even if what they filled it with varied radically from table to table.

That, right there, is the unique selling point of OD&D. Everything that has followed it – whether it’s been an official D&D edition or a retroclone, has intrinsically been an exercise in expressing the designers’ particular way of filling in the gaps in OD&D. Some of them might capture the nostalgia of the dungeon-and-wilderness exploration gameplay emphasised by this edition, but none of them quite capture the experience of interpreting the thing for yourself. Sit down and play OD&D, keep a record of your rulings and apply them consistently, and soon enough you and your group will have developed your very own homegrown D&D – indeed, you’ll be well on the way there before you even finish character generation. This is doubly true if you set aside the assumptions you’ve inherited from subsequent editions and let your imagination run wild when coming up with your own interpretation. Some of the OSR people like to refer to their preferred style as “DIY D&D“, and OD&D pretty much offers the epitome of that experience. Level progression runs up to 9-11ish depending on class, so there’s scope for plenty of play to take place whilst at the same time the whole “linear fighter/quadratic wizard” thing, whilst still a thing, doesn’t run as completely out of hand as it does in some editions.

Use This When: You want to yank the DIY dial to 11 and get the authentic mid-1970s experience. Adding on subsequent supplements gets you something increasingly close to AD&D, to the point where unless you’re taking a particularly idiosyncratic selection of options from the supplements rather than the usual bits you might as well just be playing AD&D or B/X or BECMI; trying to play from just the three core booklets and the products of your imagination both requires less work (in terms of deciding what to implement from the supplements) and works better as an exercise in reconstructing how things went down in 1974.

Holmes Basic

The Holmes-edited Basic Set rulebook is a weird beast, not quite matching up either to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (which it appears to have been designed as an introduction to, since the text regularly suggests people consult the then-unpublished AD&D rulebooks to cover topics not detailed therein) or to the subsequent B/X and BECMI lines. Its main historical importance is that it’s the first time TSR published an “official” interpretation of OD&D, with the gaps filled in and clearly explained in the text. Granted, some official rulings on rules questions had appeared here and there, but it was Holmes who was tasked with sitting down with the OD&D books and supplements, plus the rules guidance issued, plus Gary’s work on AD&D to date, and come up with a simple introduction to the game that made an easier point of entry for D&D‘s increasingly younger audience than the OD&D booklets.

Since it isn’t quite 100% compatible with any later extension of D&D – neither B/X nor BECMI quite followed its lead, and AD&D went through a number of changes before it finally hit the streets – Holmes has always been the odd one out of the TSR-era D&D lineup. Some of the OSR crowd have tried cooking up extensions of the Holmes game to higher levels – the upcoming Blueholme Complete is intended as a retroclone version of Holmes that extends it to 20th level – but I actually like the idea of a version of D&D that only goes up to 3rd level, and which doesn’t have a developed version of the higher level rules to couple itself to. A D&D campaign where you limit yourself to three levels of play and no more can be nicely short and self-contained; alternatively, a game where you only gain levels through XP up to third and then after that all improvement hinges on getting better gear, uncovering hidden magic, devising better tactics or undergoing unique and secret processes of elevation would be very different from D&D as she is usually played.

Use This When: You want a basic D&D game where things work a little differently from the way many those who cut their teeth on later editions remember, where player characters are always vulnerable and where the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing never kicks in.


By 1981, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was out of the door and TSR noted a curious phenomenon – namely, that their audience demographic was broadening. Whereas for much of the 1970s people tended to get into D&D and other such tabletop games when they were around college age and maybe a bit younger – and the AD&D books were written with such an audience in mind – suddenly the zeitgeist had shifted and they discovered that a younger generation was expressing an interest in the game, perhaps helped by the Holmes version of the Basic Set. Holmes Basic, however, had a very major problem  by this point – it had never been compatible with OD&D, and it wasn’t quite compatible with the final form of AD&D either – and neither the OD&D booklets nor the AD&D tomes were really written in a style that a 12 year old could easily follow.

Not only was a new Basic Set needed, then, but it would also need to be the gateway drug to a new Dungeons & Dragons – a version of the rules set that combined the clarity of writing that Holmes had demonstrated could be accomplished with sufficient meat on the bones to be a fully-functioning and satisfying RPG. It fell to Tom Moldvay to produce the new Basic Set and David “Zeb” Cook and Steve Marsh to produce the Expert Set, which together cover a level progression from 1-14.

Although people refer to this version of the game as B/X, references in the Expert Set make it clear that a progression to additional sets – which would see the light of day later as the BECMI range – was always envisaged. That said, these two books constitute a complete game in themselves – in fact, between the dungeoneering focus of Basic and Expert‘s coverage of wilderness adventures, building castles and establishing domains, B/X actually covers pretty much the exact same ground as OD&D‘s core booklets whilst adding in the thief from the Greyhawk supplement.

Indeed, like both Holmes Basic and AD&D before it, B/X is effectively an exegesis of OD&D, with its ambiguities and gaps filled in and explained clearly. Unlike AD&D, however, the team of Moldvay, Cook and Marsh don’t try to incorporate everything that was on offer in the OD&D supplement line, instead mostly sticking to the core of the game – and giving themselves the freedom to occasionally come up with different answers to Gary’s when handling ambiguous area of the rules, when doing so will simplify matters. This is most evident in their treatment of nonhuman PCs, in which “elf”, “dwarf” and “halfling” are treated as character classes in their own right rather than separating race and class. This isn’t quite how it’s handled in OD&D, but since the core OD&D books didn’t give any alternative class options for elves, dwarves and halflings the end result is much the same, without the added complexity of separating out race and class.

One major strength of B/X is its eminently sensible refereeing advice – including a down-to-earth suggestion that if you don’t know how to adjudicate something you can just assign an odds-out-of-six chance to it and let the player roll – coupled with its economy of rules. Those rules it does present, it presents clearly and with more or less all of the gaps in the OD&D rules filled in. At the same time, it doesn’t follow the lead of AD&D in offering fiddly little rules to deal with finer points of the simulation or to handle unusual cases, and as such it’s a very bare-bones framework for a game. I suspect that this is why a lot of the modern wave of OSR games, particularly the more divergent ones rather than deliberate retroclones, end up riffing on either OD&D or the various Basic versions of D&D, as opposed to 1E AD&D; if you aren’t working in lots of precise little rules for edge cases and special exceptions you’re not really capturing the spirit of 1E, whereas it’s much easier to take the massively simpler frameworks of OD&D or the Basic versions and adapt them to different purposes.

Use This When: You want to recapture the classic, nostalgic D&D style with a system that gives plenty of scope for houseruling and adaptation and covers everything OD&D offers whilst not having as many gaps to fill in as OD&D.

BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia

I have to confess to a smidge of bias here; the Rules Cyclopedia is the first RPG product I ever owned, so the odds of me slamming it are remote in the extreme simply thanks to the sentimental value.

Nonetheless, I think it remains the best statement of the BECMI line of the game. It doesn’t include the “I” part, beyond rules for ascension to immortality – the Immortals rules being revised and presented in the separate Wrath of the Immortals boxed set – but the Immortals game was effectively a whole distinct game from the rest of BECMI, with Immortal characters effectively being designed on a whole different basis and scale in order to account for their supreme power and the cosmic scale of their adventures. Since only the most long-running campaigns could ever expect to see a single PC ascend to immortality through playing from level 1 in the first place, its absence hardly cramps anyone’s style, and indeed I suspect most Immortals games were played by folk who specifically planned from the get-go to play an Immortals game.

The Rules Cyclopedia, then, consists of Aaron Allston taking the BECM boxes and a pinch of I and integrating them into a cohesive whole. The BECMI boxed sets – Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal – were designed by Frank Mentzer from 1983 to 1985. The latter three sets were original to this edition, and as well as the aforementioned divine ascension and immortals rules included detailed rules for mass battles, domain management, and a range of optional bits and pieces derived from the broader OD&D range; the Basic and Expert sets were complete revisions of the Moldvay-Cook-Marsh sets with an emphasis on tweaking the math to better fit a progression to 36th level and an even younger reading age.

The thing about BECMI is that by the time you have five boxed sets of stuff, including bits in later boxes that add new options suitable for the level tiers of earlier boxes, it’s downright unwieldy to juggle that many books. At the same time, if you just limit yourself to the first couple of boxes or something then you may as well just play B/X, especially since BECMI does rather screw over some character types if you don’t allow options from the later sets. (In particular, thieves get boned at low level in BECMI on their skill percentages due to the need to stretch their skill advancement out over 36 levels.)

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t distinguish between which rule goes in which set, but integrates them into a seamless whole and clearly flags which rules are optional, in a presentation very reminiscent of Zeb Cook’s work on AD&D 2E. What you get out of that is a system clearly distinguished from AD&D by decisions like race-as-class and paladins as a sort of early prestige class that high level fighters could qualify for and other such distinctions, and also offers far superior support for domain management, mass battles and sieges than any other edition of the game has ever offered, whilst at the same time being simple enough to encapsulate in one book.

On top of all that, the Cyclopedia also throws in an introduction to Mystara, the BECMI campaign setting developed through modules and the Gazetteer series of setting supplements and which would see subsequent development in the Poor Wizard’s Almanac series. Whilst Mystara doesn’t often make sense by Earthly logic, it is a campaign world built from the ground up to reflect the distinctive BECMI rules, and the setting material here offers plenty of seeds for further development. Guidelines for conversion to and from AD&D 2E are given, but whilst some Mystara products were made for AD&D after the basic line was retired for good it’s a better fit for BECMI, the setting that shaped its cosmos in the first place.

Use This When: You want a D&D that covers lots of options in a single book, or when you want to run a game with a significant domain management or mass battle aspect, or if you fancy exploring Mystara.


It’s become a well-aired fact by this point that the intention behind Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to provide a coherent, consistent set of rules for the purposes of tournaments and other types of organised play, as well as to improve consistency of experience and dial back the wild degree of local variation in interpretation of D&D that characterised the OD&D era (and to hopefully ease off on the number of rules queries pouring into TSR!). This is no great insight; Gary Gygax makes this point explicit from the get-go. What it also provides, as part of that, is a heaped spoonful of insight into why TSR-era D&D is the way it is.

One of the things a lot of people come away from when they read these core books – especially the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, which are much less straight-down-to-business than the Monster Manual – is how intensely waffley they are, with Gygax offering mini-essays on all sorts of topics. (He begins the Dungeon Master’s Guide by offering the reader an honest to goodness mini-lecture on die roll probabilities.) Some quarters of the OSR love this “Gygaxian prose” for its own sake, almost to a point of fetishising it, but I think there is an extent to which it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can have the unfortunate consequence of obscuring some rules and cluttering up the presentation of the rulebooks, which could be much clearer. (Indeed, 2E would accomplish a much more easily understood presentation of AD&D and 90% of that involves rewriting the whole text to much better communicate the rules concepts.) On the other hand, it’s also immensely valuable as an explanation of why various parts of the game are the way they are – for instance, there’s a section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide which explains how demihuman level limits are applied because the game is conceived of specifically as being a humanocentric game.

This is a boon to anyone who wants to understand the design of the game, and is especially useful to anyone who wants to actually houserule TSR-era D&D, because it helps to flag what effect a particular rule is intended to accomplish, allowing you to both judge whether you’re applying it right, whether the rule actually is having the effect it’s supposed to have at your own table, and what unexpected consequences might arise from changing it. The player advice in the Player’s Handbook is invaluable for setting expectations if you’re going to be playing in a consciously “old-school”-styled game; likewise, the refereeing advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is extremely useful if you want to run the game as Gary envisaged it, and if you don’t want to do that it’s still useful in working out what you need to change to make the game work the way you want it to.

In this respect, I think Gary managed to pull off a very sly trick, though there is ample room for debate as to whether or not it was intentional. On the one hand, these books provide a useful amalgamation of OD&D and supplements which largely sets aside the need to puzzle out just how some of the moving parts are meant to fit together, and provides a clear model for the sort of standardised gaming the AD&D project was supposed to promote. At the same time, Gygax’s tangents provide the reader with a deep enough understanding of the system to go decidedly non-standard if they have the desire to do so. In other words, it’s not so much like learning how a car engine works by reading the manual yourself and more like an avuncular engineer opening up the bonnet for you, taking you through the different parts of the engine, and explaining what each part does and why it’s designed that way.

Of the three books, the Monster Manual is a particularly useful one for any incarnation of TSR D&D, since aside from mild conversions needed (such as the differing armour class scale between OD&D and the various Basic incarnations on one hand and the Advanced line on the other) the monsters can be happily dragged-and-dropped into any other version of TSR D&D without trouble. (Indeed, you don’t necessarily have to bother with the conversions – the AC adjustments will only make a difference of one point either way, after all, which does have some small effect but is “close enough for government work” in my eyes.) It’s even useful if you have 2nd Edition, since it details the various devils and demons with many more options than the tiny selection offered in the Monstrous Manual. It also provides a nicely sparse baseline for monster descriptions, so it can be handy to use if you want to deploy these monsters but come up with your own interpretation of them based on the central premise offered here rather than following the more expansive treatments they get in the monster books of later editions.

On the other hand, the Player’s Handbook adequately covers character generation, equipment purchasing and spell selection, and it provides a reasonable set of rules for half-orcs (for those who want to, for instance, use those in 2E without resorting to The Complete Book of Humanoids) and assassins (which to my eye look better than the assassin thief kit from The Complete Book of Thieves in 2E), it is missing some significant features. For instance, the combat matrices and other significant tables and details are all in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, leaving players mostly reliant on the Dungeon Master to tell them when they have or haven’t hit. Now, to be fair this is entirely consistent with Gygax’s reported refereeing style, in which largely players weren’t expect to engage too much with the fine details of the rules in favour of declaring their intentions and rolling dice as directed, and if you want to run a game in that style it’s just fine. On the other hand, if you want to run a game in that style you can still do it whilst giving the players a full overview of the combat system by simply not telling them what the armour class of the enemies they are facing is, whereas if you want to run a game where the players have a fairly good idea of what the rules are and are able to shoulder part of the burden of working out whether they’ve succeeded or not then the Player’s Handbook by itself doesn’t quite give you those tools.

Speaking of tools though, the Dungeon Master’s Guide for this edition is a true masterpiece, offering not just an in-depth discussion of the system but also an incredibly deep grab-bag of information, random tables, and other guidance for subjects ranging from stronghold construction to filling out city encounters to generating dungeons and more besides. It also provides the best overview of artifacts you can find in the TSR D&D range outside of 2E‘s separate Book of Artifacts, and in general manages to cram in more material in its pages than any subsequent Dungeon Master’s Guide, making it a useful resource to keep on hand to dip into even for post-TSR versions of D&D. (The random prostitute table might be a step too far for most games, mind.)

And really, one of the things this version of the game is best for is dipping into. Whilst some old schoolers out there take pride in playing and running 1E as-written, many others confess that they never actually did that – instead, they just used it as a source of monsters, items, spells, and character creation details and used rules procedures inherited from OD&D or Basic. To be honest, there’s a lot of material in here which even Gary himself admitted he never used in his own games but included for a sense of completeness – the optional psionic rules are a major example there – and still more stuff which few people have the patience to use in practice (such as adjustments for weapon speed and weapons vs. armour types).

Use This When: You want to really get under the hood of TSR-era D&D and see how it works, or you want to have an especially deep and varied toolkit of resources to draw on.


“Zeb” Cook didn’t re-invent the wheel with the 2E core books, but then again that was never the purpose. Whilst the total re-organisation and rewriting of the rules could be interpreted as a cynical bid to deny royalties to Gary Gygax, it was also unquestionably needed, particularly with the shift that had already begun with people diving in straight to AD&D as a starter game rather than the BECMI line, which TSR had just begun to neglect at around this time and ended up walking away from entirely midway through 2E’s tenure.

The major gear shift between this and 1E is TSR stepping away a little from standardisation. Whilst organised play and tournaments are still a consideration – there’s even an advert for the RPGA at the back of my copy of the Player’s Handbook – a wide swathe of rules in both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide are tagged as being optional. In some cases, multiple different options are presented – for instance, when it comes to skills going beyond your immediately obvious class powers, you can go the old-school route of rolling up a secondary career and having your character be broadly good at the sort of stuff members of that profession would be good at, or you could use the non-weapon proficiency rules (a cleaned-up version of the rules which had crept in in the late 1E era), or you can not bother at all and just wing it.

The Player’s Handbook also brings in the split of spells into wizardly schools and priest spheres, as was previewed in the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover, allowing for the portrayal of a range of specialist wizards straight out of the book and pointing to how speciality priests could be implemented. Indeed, a major part of the 2E project seems to have involved adding extra flavour to the character classes, though a large part of this would be through the use of class kits in the Complete (Whatever)’s Handbook series of splatbooks. I intend to look at those in a later article, but my major thought about the kit mechanic is that it’s a clunky solution to a problem that 5E solves much more elegantly with its Backgrounds mechanic, but if you want to implement the 2E versions of kits then you really need to be running 2E to do it, since a lot of their differentiation arises from the nonweapon proficiency rules presented here.

Another thing the 2E Player’s Handbook does is provide a far larger proportion of the system than the 1E book did – 2E players are equipped to understand what is going on in combat far better, in particular. This makes sense partly as a reflection of shifting priorities in gaming, partly because the old 1E combat system just wasn’t a mystery any more – keeping secrets is all very well, but there’s a statute of limitations on these things.

Unfortunately, the shift of material to the Player’s Handbook from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, whilst it does mean much less cross-referencing when you want to figure out how a bit of the rules works, isn’t accompanied by a commensurate increase in fresh, new material on offer in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In fact, the 2E Guide is downright sparse, offering useful advice on implementing the system and a few things like treasure and magic item descriptions and rules for awarding experience points and class design that are of use, but presenting nowhere near the encyclopedic range of tools and useful bits that the 1E Guide did. Whilst subsequent supplements would meet the gap to a certain extent, I’d still suggest anyone looking to run a 2E campaign to have a copy of Gary’s original 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide to hand simply because of all the useful stuff in there which isn’t replicated here. There are those who consider the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide to be the worst Guide of any edition, and I can’t really disagree there – it’s not that the material here is bad, far from it, it’s just that there really isn’t that much of it.

The monster book for 2E went through a couple of incarnations. Initially, TSR tried to push the Monstrous Compendium on us – a big fat ring binder of monsters, with specialised appendixes (like compendia for specific campaign settings) sold as bundles of extra sheets to go in the binders. This was a fun idea that rapidly became irritating when it came to its logistical implementation and was scrapped in favour of more conventional monster books, with the new Monstrous Manual being the core one.

That said, a happy side-effect of the ring binder format was that each monster needed to fill an entire sheet of the book (unless several closely-related monsters could viably share a sheet). The way the writers padded the material out was to provide discussions of the ecology, habitat, and – for those monsters that exhibited it – social behaviour of the monsters in question. This is an absolute boon for world builders. Whilst the 5E Monster Manual is very, very good at giving you enough detail on a monster to have a solid idea of how to deploy it in an adventure, the 2E Monstrous Manual shows you how a monster fits into a world, and so referees very keen on constructing vivid settings with a sense of verisimilitude could do a lot worse than use the 2E Monstrous Manual as an aid in this.

So, a solid Player’s Handbook, a weak Dungeon Master’s Guide, a monster book which is pretty damn good but took a couple of tries before it found a useful format, and a rules system that resembles 1E with all the bits people couldn’t be bothered with brushed under the carpet: all very well, but what’s the unique selling point of 2E? Many would say the campaign settings. Whilst some settings have seen the light of day in subsequent editions – GreyhawkForgotten Realms, DragonlanceRavenloft and Dark Sun all got at least some love after 2E – in many cases fans consider the 2E renditions of those campaign settings to be the definitive and best versions thereof. (Even in the case of Greyhawk, whose heyday was arguably the 1E era, there’s a faction of fans who consider the 2E era From the Ashes boxed set to be their favourite presentation of the setting.) Still more settings never saw the light of day after 2E – PlanescapeBirthright, and Spelljammer were 2E exclusives, whilst Mystara – previously the setting developed in the BECMI Gazeteer series – had a late renaissance under 2E, especially when it came to the 2E-exclusive Red Steel campaign setting.

Whilst it is entirely possible that 5E versions of all these settings will eventually see the light of day, odds are that some of the less well-celebrated settings will remain as legacy products generating a trickle of PDF sales on dndclassics.com, and given the sluggish pace of Wizards’ 5E publication schedule it seems doubtful that even flagship campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms will get as broad and deep a range of products for them under 5E as they received under 2E. Whilst conversion from 2E to 5E is far from difficult, it can still be useful to have the 2E books on hand to perform such conversions – and if you just run the settings in question in 2E, you save yourself the job of conversion altogether.

Use This When: You want to play a version of AD&D which is much easier to navigate than 1E, or if kits and/or proficiencies really appeal to you, or when you want to use one of those classic campaign settings.

And What of the Clones?

Retro-clone RPGs arose for two reasons. The first and more obvious one is to use the D20 OGL to craft games which allow people to play old editions of Dungeons & Dragons without scoring second-hand copies of the books. The second reason, and the primary impetus behind the completion of OSRIC (the primary 1E retro-clone and the first game to kick off the flood of them), is to provide a way for people to publish support materials for old versions of Dungeons & Dragons – say that your product is “compatible with (retro-clone)”, and customers in the know will be able to tell that it’s also compatible with the appropriate edition of D&D.

The first purpose is basically redundant, for the time being – Wizards of the Coast seem to have decided that, in retrospect, pulling all the D&D PDFs from DriveThruRPG was a daft idea, and dndclassics.com seems to have been a reasonable success for them. Although in principle they could pull the PDFs all over again, in practice this would be utterly pointless – they know full well that all this would accomplish would be to drive customers to the retro-clones, so in a situation where they can’t stop people putting out PDFs of their old rules (or simulacra close enough as to make no difference) they might as well sell the PDFs themselves and get some scratch out of it. Of course, the OD&D booklets aren’t on dndclassics yet, so I suppose until that is the case there’s still a space for Swords & Wizardry, and even once those PDFs are out Swords & Wizardry may have a place in the ecosystem since it’s much better organised than the OD&D booklets and does a lot of the heavy lifting of interpreting them for you – but as I’ve argued above, doing an exegesis of OD&D is part of the point with engaging with OD&D in the first place, and B/X already provides a perfectly good interpretation of OD&D – whilst it does differ from OD&D in some respects, these are so slight that only people who get really intensely nit-picky about very minor details of the rules could possibly consider that a deal-breaker.

For the most part, then, the purist retro-clones are semi-redundant: they’re still useful as tags to put on a product if you fancy churning out products for TSR-era D&D, but actually using their core rulebooks isn’t actually that much more convenient than using the actual editions they’re mimicing, particularly since aside from OD&D most TSR versions of D&D are available for decent prices second-hand if you really want hardcopies of stuff. This is presumably why the OSR scene is moving away from straight clones; Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘s successive releases put increasing emphasis on its particular aesthetic and the conceit of setting the game in 16th Century Europe, for instance, whilst Sine Nomine’s Scarlet Heroes is interesting more in the way it tweaks TSR-era D&D to better support games with only 1 player character than in its emulation of any particular edition of TSR-era D&D.

In general, I find that I’m more interested in D&D-alike OSR games the further they drift from traditional D&D fantasy. Adventurer Conqueror King System might have an interesting domain management system attached, but I don’t really fancy investing in yet another presentation of B/X basic principles just to get my hands on those domain rules. Conversely, I very much see the point of a game like Stars Without Number, which adapts old-school D&D to support a game much like old-school Traveller. It’s not for me – I already have a game which covers that type of play perfectly well, it’s called Traveller – but it feels like a more worthwhile idea for a project than yet another restatement of old-school D&D.

Dragonlance – Quintessential 2E?

So far, Wizards haven’t offered that much in the way of setting material for 5E, but with the release next week (or this week if you happen to be close to one of Wizards’ favoured shops) of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide that’s rather changing. On top of that, Wizards evidently intend in the long run to explore more settings than just the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms; there’s an appendix at the back of the Adventurer’s Guide giving guidelines on using the information in there in EberronDragonlance and Greyhawk, and I can’t believe they’d have gone to that effort solely to to please fans of old settings – particularly considering that two of those haven’t had any official love from Wizards since the 3E days (and they farmed out the development of 3E Dragonlance materials to third parties).

The thing is that, in between the safe harbour of the OGL and the fact that IP protection for game rules tends to be quite weak, Wizards must know that they can’t keep 5E ahead of the pack forever solely on the strength of its rules. It makes sense that the second prong of their strategy for 5E, after presenting a solid set of rules that brings together the best of all past editions whilst reversing the tendency towards ever-increasing complexity that the 3E and 4E eras saw, is to use those rules to leverage the potential of their various settings as much as possible. After all, you can retro-clone old editions of D&D as much as you like, but there’s no open licence to go and revive Birthright or Ravenloft if you take a fancy to it.

This may be part of the reason why 5E aims to combine its 4E rigour with a 2E feel; whenever I see people discussing what they like about their favoured editions of D&DAD&D 2E‘s supporters tend to make a big deal about the setting material put out during that time period, and with good cause: at no point in the game’s history did the official publisher support such a numerous and broad range of campaign settings. Of course, trying to support all those lines at once is part of what buried TSR in the first place, so a full return to that model almost certainly isn’t on the cards, but 2E fans aren’t just fond of the number of settings on offer – lots of fans of the settings in question consider their 2E incarnations to have been their best and most interesting eras.

This may particularly be the case for Dragonlance, since it’s been argued that the particular style of Dragonlance in itself predated some of the stylistic changes that 2E would exhibit. Moreover, Dragonlance as a setting seems to have hit its peak sometime during the 2E period; once it was a sufficiently prominent game that it ended up getting a whole game system of its own for Dragonlance: The Fifth Age, but as mentioned during 3E its development was farmed out to Margaret Weis Productions and during the 4E period it laid fallow entirely.

If Wizards want to bring Dragonlance back for the 5E treatment, their best bet is probably to look at its presentation during the 1E and 2E eras, during the peak of its popularity. As it happens, I recently scored some old Dragonlance core materials at a steal, so what better time to review it?

Dragonlance Adventures

This was part of the distinctive orange-spined hardbacks that comprised the central pillar of the AD&D line from 1983 (when the previous hardbacks – except for the Fiend Folio – got reissued with new cover art and the orange spine treatment) until the release of 2E. In fact, when Gary Gygax returned to TSR HQ from his stint in Hollywood in order to put the house in order, one of the moves he mandated was the release of a stream of new orange-spined hardbacks to set up a continued revenue stream.

The end results were decidedly mixed – Unearthed Arcana and the two Survival Guides in particular get a lot of stick – and whilst some books seemed intended to provide an expanded core for AD&D, others were much more setting-specific. Dragonlance Adventures, for instance, was intended to provide a definitive core sourcebook for the setting, with authors Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis compiling a range of material published in a slew of earlier products and filling in the gaps.

However, although published for 1E, the end product actually works in many of the distinctive features of 2E. Part of this was down to the inclusion of nonweapon proficiencies, which had been introduced to the game in prior orange-spines, but that’s not the whole story – on top of that, the book provides a preview of the sphere/school breakdown of cleric and wizard spells which would be one of the few major additions 2E would make to the game. The authors thank Zeb Cook, who was working on 2E at the time, for keeping them up to speed with the revisions to the system, and the end result is a book that works equally well for 1E or 2E, and indeed which if run as written will feel a lot like 2E anyway.

Structurally speaking, Dragonlance Adventures tends to be weighted towards material for players. You get the full lowdown on the races and classes unique to the world of Krynn, often with expansive essays going into their histories and cultures in great detail, along with lots of attention given to how some classes are affected when travellers from other realms end up visiting Krynn.

Compared to this, the DM-facing materials here are comparatively sparse. There’s a brief monster listing that doesn’t offer very much beyond the truly iconic monsters of the series, and likewise the NPC and magic item listings can be a bit thin (particularly if you don’t want to use the stats for the heroes of the Dragonlance novel series presented, which tend to reflect them at the end of their adventures and therefore are a bit overpowered). Whilst some notes are given about the lay of the land both just prior to the Cataclysm that shattered the world some 350 years before the events of the novels and the state of the realm just after the War of the Lance, offering two distinct and interesting time periods to set campaigns in if desired, setting detail given in these sections is actually incredibly sparse, with the nations of the continent of Ansalon not fleshed out at all beyond being summarised on a table. It’s almost as though Weis and Hickman started with the races and classes, realised they’d not left space for the DM’s information, crammed in a contracted skeleton of what they intended to fill the rest of the book with as a placeholder, and then had TSR rush the book to print before they could do the necessary revisions to rebalance it.

In addition to this, I kind of have to address the elephant in the room here: Dragonlance as a setting includes a whole bunch of stuff which, whilst intended as whimsical comic relief, I personally find incredibly irritating, and which so far as I can tell I am not alone in despising. All of it is here, extremely prominent and not even slightly toned down. Fizban, the infuriatingly fake-senile wizard who acts as one of Paladine’s avatars (because dementia is so gosh-darn funny), appears in a cameo to personally introduce you to the setting. Gully dwarves are prominently featured; they are effectively dwarves with profound learning difficulties, again played for comic relief.

Dragonlance is notable for kicking off the portrayal of gnomes in D&D as being tinkers who create outrageously fantastical technology. The implementation of the tinker gnomes here, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It seems that Weis and Hickman liked the idea of tinker gnomes but were petrified of players injecting masses of modern technology into the setting and completely warping it. As such, they end up providing an extensive system for designing gnome contraptions but throw in stern guidance that all gnome devices should basically fail in practice, making the tinker gnome a class with precisely one power which they are never allowed to effectively use.

To be honest, I think they are missing a trick. Technology as such doesn’t necessarily have to transform a campaign world into something like Eberron; mass produced technology will, but mass production requires a very particular set of social and economic and demographic conditions to function so if you just say that the gnomes don’t have that and don’t want it then you’re good. Make them emphasise exclusivity and craft mastery: each device is a work of art that demands high training and precision and a long time of labour on the part of its owner, each device is unique in some way because there’s no artistry in cranking out the same model twice. Even if you understood how that gnomish airship worked in principle, you couldn’t mass produce it because you can’t afford to staff a factory entirely with extremely trained artisans, and if you try making it with less trained people they won’t apply the precision and skill necessary to make it work. The ancient Greeks were able to invent a mechanical computer without it changing their world, after all.

To be honest, the tinker gnome is perhaps kept as an NPC-only character concept, like sages or the various experts hired in the building and management of a castle. The other infuriating character type in Dragonlance is the kender, perhaps the feature of the setting that most people have a problem with. Kender are what Krynn has instead of halflings, despite being extremely similar aesthetically speaking bar for the fact that they wear shoes and are more slenderly built. The big thing with them is that they are ridiculously cutesy in their depiction, they’re deliberately written as being infuriatingly annoying to the point where they have taunting as a racial power, and they’re also raging kleptomaniacs, though they don’t consider it to be stealing so much as “borrowing” and “handling” stuff they find to be of interest. They have no sense of personal property and are basically either ragingly culturally insensitive or have some sort of learning disability which renders them unable to understand why other people don’t find their bullshit stealing and their bullshittier excuses to be at all endearing. Frankly, entire communities of kender should be walking around without hands and the prisons of every town should be filled to the brim with the little bastards.

When you take all of this shitty comedy and add to it this whimsical cutesy demeanour that the series often takes when addressing its more comedic or cheerful aspects, Dragonlance risks turning into the fantasy setting equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting – all kitsch coziness and warm glows and no spontaneity, teeth, or anything resembling actual fun or genuine amusement. So, why care about Dragonlance in the first place?

Well, for one thing despite all this it’s a historically significant campaign setting in terms of the development of AD&D. As much as the super-linear, railroady series of adventure modules that kicked off the setting might be derided these days, they were hits at the time, as were the novels, making Dragonlance one of the first major crossover hits to come out of the tabletop RPG hobby. It was also the first campaign world to see official support from TSR that wasn’t Greyhawk, and as such it presented an ethos that (when not ruined by stupid comedy) tended more towards high fantasy with a touch of romance than the sword and sorcery D&D had previously leaned towards.

Above and beyond all this, though, there’s just a lot to like about the series. I dig the Knights of Solamnia as a model for an order of paladins, I like the idea of alignment-coded Orders of High Wizardry whose magic is tied to the phases of the moons, I like the idea of a world with armies of dragons threatening to snuff out all that is good, I like Lord Soth and I think he makes a great villain (and I also dig Raistlin, though not as a PC – remind me to tell you about my nerdy headcanon about Raistlin being the link between Dragonlance and Ravenloft).

I particularly like the way the setting handles its deities. Having the gods represented in the night sky by the moons and the constellations is neat (as is having constellations disappear when the gods are walking the world), and the idea of the gods turning away from the world during the Cataclysm and only recently returning opens the door for all sorts of fun cleric-focused adventures. The dogmatic presentation of the nature of Good, Neutrality, and Evil here might be hard to reconcile with people’s personal sense of morality, except that if you read the background the three are distinguished by what intentions they had for the souls of the peoples of Krynn and what gifts they gave mortals when they first gave the souls bodies, so you can kind of see them as political parties (and I would be personally tempted to jazz things up a little by renaming them accordingly and perhaps tweaking some alignments here and there). For instance, the Neutral gods gave people free will and maintain the cosmic balance, and it’s made explicitly clear that if the cosmic balance is wrecked then the universe will utterly go to crap – but if that is the case, then aren’t the Neutrals essentially being Good on a cosmic scale, seeing how they’re doing what is required for anything and anyone to exist in the first place? It’s easier if you see the Good deities as being more like interventionist utilitarians, Neutrals being libertarian sorts who are generally against intervention unless not intervening would lead to greater damage to the cosmic balance than intervening would. and Evil as being social and cosmic Darwinists with a might-makes-right, proto-fascist attitude.

Yes, as I mentioned in my review of the movie there’s some odd racism here and there in the setting that seems to be derived from Mormon ideas, like pseudo-Native American characters with white European features, but this doesn’t seem to be hardwired into the setting itself – it all comes down to how you portray the culture in question at your table. Likewise, in principle it should be possible to run a kickass Dragonlance campaign by toning down or editing out the silly bits (“kender don’t exist in my version of the game world”) and emphasising the awesome. It’s just that this hardback kind of does the reverse.

On top of that, it also has a rather sternly dogmatic take on the setting that seems designed to prevent players from throwing it too out of whack in people’s home campaigns, a motive which is frankly baffling. For instance, there’s a rule that says that once characters get past level 18, unless there is a special destiny for them the Gods of Krynn banish them to some different world. (Naturally, several of the exceptions to this rules are characters from the novels.) This is a particularly pointless rule for a whole bunch of measures:

  • If it’s intended to make Krynn a world of more low-powered heroes, it’s immediately subverted by having a bunch of characters walking around who break this rule.
  • For that matter, the epic scale of Krynn doesn’t really scream “low-powered, less superhuman heroes” in the first place.
  • On top of that, if you’re going to set a bar to limit AD&D characters’ power to keep things a bit more low-key, 18th level is a ridiculously high place to set the bar – it doesn’t even block off access to top-level spells, for instance. If excessively powerful characters are really a problem in your Dragonlance campaign, you’re going to be dealing with that problem for a good long time before anyone gets beyond 18th level.
  • If you start at 1st level – or any reasonably low level at all, for that matter – it’s going to take a very long time to get to the threshold of 19th level, so the limit will be purely theoretical for many campaigns anyway.

The combination of this, plus the awkward implementation of a bunch of ideas which would get a much smoother implementation in AD&D 2E, plus the way all the worst bits of the setting get the most spotlight time, means that Dragonlance Adventures is one of the less essential of the orange spine volumes of latter-day 1E. It’s not quite as altogether useless as the two Survival Guides, and it’s a little bit less overboard on the nitpicky rules and overprecision compared to Unearthed Arcana, but it hardly shows 1E at its best.

Tales of the Lance

By 1992, the orange spines were being retired and the time had come for a new Dragonlance core set – particularly since a number of contradictions and inconsistencies had come to light which could do with addressing. Doug Niles took on the task, and this boxed set was the result. As well as including a set of lavish maps, a DM screen with a trippin’ balls illustration on it, and a collection of cut-out components including index cards for significant Dragonlance NPCs, trifold stand-up minis to represent them, and a set of cards useful for IC fortune telling and for adventure construction alike, the Tales of the Lance boxed set also came with a thick softcover book that resembled a reorganised, revised, and in some portions substantially expanded take on Dragonlance Adventures.

Some bits of Adventures don’t make the cut, mind. The invention creation system is gone, meaning that there is even less reason to play a tinker gnome, but the fact that they are tucked away under a subcategory of “normal” character classes for nonadventurous noncombatants (along with the equally suboptimal Commoner class) rather suggests that they are intended for NPC use in this version, even if it doesn’t state this explicitly. Kender are still here, though since there’s even more race and class options available this time they’re even easier to ignore entirely.

On top of that, Doug Niles not only does an excellent job of rearranging the components of Dragonlance Adventures to a more logical order, he also trims them back and works in some alternate viewpoints and allows the referee a bit more scope to decide what’s true for their campaign. For instance, in discussing the Cataclysm, Niles addresses the mild theodicy involved in the whole thing – namely, if the gods of Good were truly Good, why did they a) allow things to get to the point where the Cataclysm was considered necessary in the first place and b) willingly take part in the withdrawal of clerical power and divine contact from Krynn, even though this would inevitably result in numerous people who had nothing to do with the Kingpriest’s usurpation of power from the gods being punished for his sins. (They did Rapture away a bunch of Good clerics before the Cataclysm hit, but that still left a whole bunch of Good people in the lurch.)

This is the sort of thing which might not cause you too much trouble if you are also willing to consider the Old Testament God to be inherently good by definition and are therefore fine with Sodom getting nuked or the entire antediluvian population of the world being drowned except for Noah and his family – except, of course, those narratives make it absolutely explicitly clear that everyone who dies was utterly corrupt and evil, whereas this transparently isn’t the case in the narrative given in the Dragonlance timeline for the Cataclysm. This is one bit where thinking about the three blocs of gods in the setting as being political parties who aren’t necessarily aligned the way the books say they’re aligned actually makes helps you make sense of it; as part of usurping the Gods the Kingpriest was doing stuff like making non-Good thoughts punishable as thoughtcrimes and so on, so if you see the Kingpriest as a “Good” extremist and see the “Good” gods as representing a sort of interventionist utilitarianism this ends up making total sense – the Kingpriest was being just as interventionist and greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number as his gods wanted him to be, the Cataclysm was necessary to save the cosmic balance from being destroyed, and the gods of Good had to withdraw from the world because they were being punished too, either by a coalition of the Neutral and Evil gods or by the Highgod who rules over all of the deities. If you don’t want to go in that direction, though, Niles has your back – offering a bunch of different rationales for why the Cataclysm ended up panning out the way it did which don’t require you to decouple the gods from their alignments.

On top of that, the wider range of character races/cultures and classes presented, and the revised takes on the setting and history which tone down some of the more whimsical and silly aspects of the setting (the story of the Greystone, for instance, whose passing caused many transformations in the races of Krynn, is here presented without the overtly goofy elements of the original rendition), this is a rendition of Krynn that I can get behind much easier than that of the previous book. (For instance, it’s even easier to ignore Kender or Gully Dwarves when there’s so many other PC races available in the book.) Niles also redresses the balance between player-facing and DM-facing material, with more magic items, NPC descriptions and monsters provided and actual details on the nations of War of the Lance-era Ansalon. (There’s even a better-realised description of what the pre-Cataclysm world was like, so whilst the focus of the set is the War of the Lance era it actually provides somewhat better support for running games set close to the time of the Cataclysm than Dragonlance Adventures did as well as vastly improving on its support for War of the Lance stuff.)

The descriptions of the gods have been tweaked to fit better with the 2E-era practice of not statting up the gods themselves directly but giving stats for their avatars, who act much like high-level characters, rather than providing direct stats that present ridiculously high-level capabilities for the gods themselves like 53rd level whatevers. (Not a joke – there is at least one 53rd level character in Dragonlance Adventures.) Thus, Niles is even able to improve on the presentation of bits of the previous setting guide I actually thought were quite good.

The character cards provided in the cut-out section offer decent stats for the protagonists of the novels at earlier stages in their level development, making it more viable to use them as NPCs without overshadowing the players, and the provided card deck and associated card-based adventure construction system represents an early experiment with card-based randomisation in RPGs which would reach a culmination in a Dragonlance context in Dragonlance: the Fifth Age, using TSR’s short-lived card-based SAGA System.

Although that game and subsequent releases have offered updates to the setting taking it beyond AD&D 2E, it feels to me as though the Dragonlance setting, at least as presented here, is perfectly pitched for 2E. With the setting’s focused on tightly plotted sagas as opposed to a more freewheeling sandbox style of play (and more idealistic characters than the mercenary types earlier editions of D&D seemed to cater to), Dragonlance seems to have tapped into trends which would later inform the development of 2E, and in that sense what you get here can be seen as the quintessential 2E setting. As such, were I to get the urge to run or play some Dragonlance, it’s likely to be my preferred starting point, unless Wizards are able to bring out a 5E version of the setting which outshines this rendition.

Leaves From the Inn of the Last Home

Emerging in 1987 alongside Dragonlance Adventures, this was part of a range of Dragonlance materials aimed more at fans of the books than gamers. It consists mostly of a mixture of essays that would be reproduced in Dragonlance Adventures, short stories by Weis and Hickman, and more whimsical entries like Krynn-themed recipes, notes on herbalism and astrology, runic fortunes told for the characters, and a whole bunch of songs (complete with stave notation). Perhaps some parts would be useful for a LARP based on Krynn, but the cover art rather says it all – this collection leans sufficiently heavy on the Thomas Kinkaid and comic relief aspects of Krynn that I personally can’t stand it, and I suspect that if, like me, you enjoy the Tales of the Lance incarnation of the setting more than the Dragonlance Adventures one odds are you will feel the same.

Atlas of the Dragonlance World

Another part of the wave of Dragonlance material put out in 1987 to try and crossover between the gamer audience and the novel series’ readers, Atlas of the Dragonlance World provides both an atlas-style overview of the continent of Ansalon and heaps and heaps of maps of more specific locations like cities, the Inn of the Last Home, and other iconic locations from the series. These gorgeous maps were produced by Karen Wynn Fonstad, who used her rigorous academic background in cartography to produce a successful series of atlases of fantasy worlds in the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with the well-received Atlas of Middle-Earth; engaging her services for this product was a really clever move by TSR, because not only did this naturally help to elevate Dragonlance alongside Lord of the Rings and the Pern series simply by being part of Fonstad’s series, but it also yielded heaps and heaps of excellent maps which they could reuse in subsequent products, though Dragonlance Adventures and Tales of the Lance both only comprise a fraction of the material on offer here. The utility of this book in a gaming context is obvious, and it’s perhaps one of the best map supplements ever produced for a gameworld.

Time of the Dragon

This is a bit of an oddity, since it’s a Dragonlance product which takes place away from the continent of Ansalon and instead details the continent of Taladas, which is way off in the northern hemisphere whilst Ansalon is off in the southern hemisphere and partway around the world. When the Cataclysm happened, whilst Ansalon had a bunch of meteors dropped on it, Taladas was hit by one single meteor which smashed its way through the planet’s crust itself, with only the power of the gods stopping the entire world from exploding. The modern continent of Taladas is a big circular set of land masses surrounding the hellishly hot lava ocean at the centre of the continent, which is a massive gateway to the lower planes, where the assumptions underpinning life on Ansalon come into question and a range of novel cultures exist.

This product was designed by David “Zeb” Cook and came out in 1990 – close enough to the release of AD&D 2E that the cover proudly proclaims that it is compatible with both 1E and 2E (a statement which could probably apply to most products from those two editions given how similar they are). In fact, it’s so close and there’s enough material in here that Cook must have either been working on this stuff during the process of putting 2E together or knocked it together at breakneck speed once the project was done, and I’m not entirely sure which is the case.

On the one hand, the idea of expanding the Dragonlance setting beyond Ansalon and detailing other continents of Krynn probably seemed like a good idea at that time, and in principle I can see its merits. Setting aside a portion of the world where the same underlying principles apply, but which is distant enough from the action of most of the novels that home groups can feel like they can really make the territory theirs without paying any regard to ongoing canon feels like it could have been a sensible way to expand the setting and counteract the perception that Dragonlance was all about the War of the Lance and the heroes of the novels.

However, aside from this supplement, a brief storyline in the Dragonlance comic book to promote it, and a trilogy of novels in the mid-2000s set in Taladas (plus the bug-ridden PC game Dark Queen of Krynn), Taladas didn’t get that much love, and has rather faded into obscurity. Whilst this might have been partially planned if the intent was to keep Taladas as mainly being a place for home groups to set their own homebrewed stories, at the same time I can’t help but think that this is due to three major problems with this supplement.

The first problem is that it’s boring as shit. The guidebook that gives a rules-free overview of the setting mostly consists of long, dense writeups of the local cultures, with little regard paid to working in useful adventuring opportunities or interesting conflicts. Perhaps the most interesting culture here is the League, a Roman-inspired empire ruled by minotaurs, but they’re a rare gem in a series of utterly dull riffs on real world cultures.

The second problem is that it doesn’t feel like Dragonlance any more, with Cook working in ambiguities into the setting which were not there in Ansalon-based materials. Whilst there is a certain extent to which this was probably necessary to differentiate Taladas from Ansalon, at the same time too many of the things Cook contradicts or questions were previously presented as defining axioms of the setting, without establishing new and similarly compelling axioms to take their place. The result is a setting where, whilst each individual culture has its own flavour, there’s no overarching tone or flavour to the whole thing. Whilst I know what a by-the-book campaign set on Ansalon would probably feel like, for better or worse, I have literally no idea what Taladas is for.

The third problem is that where familiar elements of the setting are addressed, seeing the Taladas perspective on them doesn’t give us an interesting alternate take on them so much as it just complicates things needlessly. For instance, we learn that the goddess of healing secretly kept her cult going on Taladas whilst the gods were supposed to be leaving Krynn alone because she didn’t believe the people of Taladas deserved to be punished for the sins of Ansalon. This sets up an impossible paradox: if she is not justified in doing this, how can she be said to represent unstinting cosmic good? Conversely, if she is justified in doing this, how does she justify punishing the innocents of Ansalon for the crimes of the Kingpriest?

Ultimately, whilst Time of the Dragon is a neat idea in theory, in practice if you want to play Dragonlance you kind of want to play in Ansalon, or at least a place similar enough to give the same sort of feel, whilst if you want to play in a setting that doesn’t resemble Ansalon you probably don’t want to play Dragonlance in the first place.

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.

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