Dungeons and Dragons’ sell was simple and appealing. You were the hero in a fantastic world – you could star in an epic saga of your very own. Set against this was the fact that Dungeons and Dragons was a game, and moreover had been put together by hardened wargamers. This meant rules, and lots of them. What’s striking to me now is how TSR (the publishers) hit quite by accident on marketing gold – an endless series of rulebooks and expansions, each minutely detailing a different area of gameplay. I don’t remotely think this is because Gary Gygax planned a gotta-catch-em-all strategy; I think it is because he kept thinking of new rules and wanted somewhere to put them.
Adding to the lunacy was the game’s split into D&D and Advanced Dungeons And Dragons. The former was hardly simple – the latter yet more complicated, and apallingly structured. Even so by the standards of the emerging RPG genre AD&D was only averagely hard to grasp – some games carried more fearsome reputations. The character generation process in Chivalry And Sorcery, a medeival stickler, was reputed to take six or more hours.
Players of D&D split into two groups – those who cared about the rules, and those who didn’t. A referee from the former camp mixing with players from the latter was a recipe for a short, and possibly tearful game. But even a referee who believed in the ‘spirit, not the letter’ – like me, for instance – would find themselves in difficulty when a player turned out to be a ‘rules lawyer’. It’s hard to keep a game flowing when every decision requires endless cross-referencing and justification. To make matters worse, Gary Gygax himself had a firm and oft-stated position on the use of rules: they mattered. All of them. ALL. OF. THEM. If you were ignoring – or worse, modifying – a rule, what you were playing was not D&D.
The result of this forest of rules was that the AD&D gameworld evolved a logic of its own which took it well away from any book or saga any of its players might have encountered. Heroic fantasy rests on its sense of mystery, magic, the inexplicable. Wargaming rests on its internal consistency and statistical simulation of likely events. The two don’t naturally mix. As we’ll see in the next post, D&D’s attempts to quantify the fantastic resulted in a game of often bizarre implications.