To honour today's opening of Gencon 2014, next week's official release of the 5th Edition Player's Handbook, and the 40th anniversary of D&D we will be featuring several articles regarding the good old pen and paper role playing. Today we are presenting you with a brief history of Dungeons & Dragons and feel free to share your personal experiences with D&D in the comments.
I would have dalliances with other lovers over the years, there were the dark and seedy GURPS years, my angst laden metal years playing Rifts, the eyeliner and clove cigarette World of Darkness years, the angry Cyberpunk and Shadowrun years spent raging at the man, and the spiritual Star Wars years spent focusing my Force in to bringing down the Empire. Often these periods would overlap, but like any wayward hound I would return home at the end of the day to comfortable and friendly Dungeons & Dragons.
You have to remember this was a different time. There was an entire supplement back then telling you how to play in real life ancient settings like Greece or Egypt (but also rules on Christian and Jewish priest classes). That time was the wild west of role playing with Mazes & Monsters sowing fear and the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and breakfast cereal imbuing the power of sugar fuled fantasy in the minds of young children. It wasn’t until high school that I found a group to “run” with regularly. By this time we had Unearthed Arcana, Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia an attempt at once again compiling the rules in to something less sprawling (this time combining Basic, Expert, Companion and Master rules in to one set). For the record my DM was a purist, at Kingsley's table we were only allowed AD&D, Unearthed Aracana and select supplimental rules. May DM have mercy on your soul if you wanted to play a Bard under his watch!
TSR, the publisher of the original Dungeons & Dragons, did not age well and in fact was struggling in the 90s. Despite its hallowed place in the annals of Geek history it was, in fact, falling on rough
times. The Collectible Card Game world had taken over the minds and pocket books of the geek community and TSR were facing serious financial troubles. Wizards of the Coast, a group of young upstarts who woke up one morning and found their little game Magic The Gaterhing had made them millionaires decided to buy up the company they loved rather than see it fall apart. In 1997 WotC were bought out by Hasbro (who saw the value of the Pokemon and Magic IPs that WotC had been handling) and shortly thereafter in the year 2000 WotC released the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
With the third edition WotC were trying something interesting, embarking on the “Open Gaming License” they created a universal tool set for companies to build their games around. All games published under the OGL D20 System license would be able to use the D&D rule set as a basis only having to refer back to the WotC source material. Soon dozens of game companies were creating their own D20 System games, World of Darkness, Call of Cthulu, Cyberpunk, Spycraft… a million worlds opened up and each of them required the Wizards owned rule books to play. In a strange way WotC had created the Linux of the pen and paper gaming world.
The evolution of a brand moving in many ways full circle.
This starts to get confusing at higher levels, let’s say instead of regular leather armour my opponent has enchanted elven chainmail (-1 AC). The target to hit would now be 10 – (-1) making it a target of 11 (remember BEDMAS is your friend). Now let’s say my target had an enchanted ring of protection adding another -1, a spell was cast on them by one of their companions adding another -2 to their AC so now it’s 10 – (-1) – (-1) –(-2) making my target 14 and the permutations with buffs and debuffs could go on forever.
In 3rd edition it was streamlined. A regular nude person had an AC of 10 and each piece of armour you wore added to that AC so now instead of complex math it did away with THAC0 all together. To see if you hit you would look at your opponant's AC generated with straight addition (so using that example of the enchanted elven chainmail, a magic ring and a buff from a friend the math becomes 10+1+1+2 still equaling the same 14). To attack I roll a d20 add my Base Attack Bonus and relevant bonuses and see if I beat AC that target.
While this may not seem like much it applied a standard system that could be used not just for combat but for any feat. If I want to climb a wall, trick a border guard in to believing the forged papers I'm presenting show I'm the Duke of Earl, or walk a tightrope the DM figures out the challenge (instead of AC). I roll a D20, add my relevent ability bonus and any skills I have in related skills and bang I get a result. If I beat that Difficulty Challenge (or DC as it was called) I was able to climb that wall, bluff the guard, or walk that tightrope.
WotC and Hasbro released supplement after supplement and despite a revised “3.5” edition being released in 2003 after a time they saw sales declining. Reviewing the market they saw in the time since the launch of D&D 3rd Edition the rise of MMOs and the insane growth of video games. In a move widely debated in pen and paper gaming circles they re-launched D&D with the 4th edition doing away with many of the core systems that had been present since the first book penned by Arneson and Gygax. A strong focus was put on tactics and combat with the 4th edition being considered by many too “video gamey” by many players. In some ways it was closer to the original wargame source material Chainmail that D&D was first based on with its heavy reliance on miniatures and tactical maps.
Now, every class was given a host of at will, encounter and daily powers. These powers allowed the player to perform certain feats sometimes multiple times an encounter and the more powerful abilities only once per day before resting. This streamlined much of the structure of the game but many felt it came at the expense of nuance and flexibility.
Further with 4th edition it was felt by some they were “beating a dead horse” for example there was not one or two but three handbooks spread over the course of years (the first being released in 2008 and the third in 2010). This split races, powers, and classes over three books some of which were world shaping! For example the third Player’s Handbook “Psionic, Divine and Primal Heroes” gave rules for psionic abilities and classes, rules that had been included in early
supplements of third edition. People playing monks or psionic characters had basically been without their character for two years. On top of spacing out these releases and heavily modifying the play cycle they also split off the D20 System. The Open Gaming License continued but WotC were no longer a part of it, if you wanted to base a game around their 4th Edition rules you had
to use the 4th Edition System License.
How many are too many?
the traditional D&D sales putting it at number one in the heap. All these OGL licensed content creators could spend money converting their product over to the new 4th Edition or they could reprint the same content with a slight modifications pointing to the Pathfinder rules instead of the D&D rules and keep on with the same product.
In 2012 WotC decided it was time to start again and began the D&D Next initiative, a massive public play test that started in May of 2012 and ended in with the last pack of rules going out in September of 2013. This newly reinvigorated rule system felt like a breath of fresh air to some and the return of an old friend to others. The rules themselves feel like an amalgam of the best parts of all of the different generations of Dungeons& Dragons, the flexibility of 3rd edition returns with many of the “theatre of the mind” elements of earlier versions. Structure and encounter building remain clear and easy like in fourth edition and easily scale to your party’s experience.
Another interesting aspect is WotC have released a free version of the rules on the internet. You can get the “Basic” set with full rules creating and leveling right from the Dungeons & Dragons website free of charge letting you play this game without ever paying a penny. Of course that would mean you wouldn’t get any of the amazing material that comes with the release of the game but if you are a player you don’t have the crunch of having to buy two or three 40 dollar books.
The Starter Set is a solid product, very rules light but in combination with the free basic download it is everything you need to play from level 1 to level 20. The Starter Set on its own will only get you through to level five 5 and only provides rules for pre-made characters but it is really geared towards the new player or a seasoned player looking to get a taste of the flavor of the new
A picture of things to come.
The starter set very much has the feel of the old Red Box re-release. It’s not something that you really need, it’s certainly not as comprehensive as the 4th edition boxed set which came with a giant blank tactical map and a bunch of cardboard punch out tokens for combat but it is still a fun release none the less and for a person new to the game far more welcoming than the massive tome that players guides often represent.
This is an interesting time for D&D, there is a renewed interest in D&D and with the rise of the “Geek” lifestyle and a free basic rule set WotC appear to be willing to take some risks. Now might be the time to check it out and at 20 dollars for the starter kit or free with a download, what’s there to lose? I still have one of those dice from that little red box left almost thirty years later. The points are worn and the crayon has faded, some of the numbers are now hard to read but I’m looking forward to taking it for a roll with these new rules.