What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Time for another installment in the series of book reviews which I call "Books That are not Worth Reviewing" -- This time, it's a book all about the gaming craze that swept the world in the late 70s and early 80s -- a slim paperback titled What is Dungeons & Dragons? written by John Butterfield, Philip Parker, and David Honigmann.

The book is a 230 page paperback originally put out by Penguin Books in the UK in 1982.  I have the American version, which was published by Warner Books in 1984.  For some reason they chose to not use either of these covers:

 

 

opting for this fairly odd dripping green letter version instead.

 

It makes no sense at all!  The book also has a sticker applied to the bottom which reads:

Dungeons & Dragons is a federally registered trademark of TSR, Inc.  Use of TSR's trademarks and the contents of this book have not been approved by TSR.

The back is pretty great too:

I found this book at our local Salvation Army. In just one visit, I found this book, Science Fiction Stories, a copy of Studs Terkel's The Good War, and maybe one other book that I'm forgetting.  And I wasn't even trying! Had I wanted to, I could've picked up a couple dozen books from the Left Behind and Tribulation Force series, and used them to complete the coffee table I'm making out of Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Anyway, it was a strange place to find a copy of this book, given the general position of evangelicals on D&D. Perhaps, based on the cover, they thought the book was supposed to scare people away from D&D. After all, those letters are pretty creepy.

But instead of being a long-form tract, or some sort of collection of scary stories about the occult, What is Dungeons & Dragons? is a pretty straightforward introduction to the game and how to play it.

 

Backstory

 
As it happens, my introduction to D&D came when I was 8 or 9, probably a year or two after this book was published. For my birthday, or perhaps Christmas, I got a copy of Basic D&D - also known as "The Red Box" - and I fell in love with it. I had friends who were also discovering the game, but before I got too far with it, I was officially discouraged from playing, I think after one of my grandparents saw a crazy TV show about how awful and satanic the game was.  My Red Box was lost to time (well, lost until eBay came around).
 
There was a lot of hysteria like this at the time, almost entirely thanks to the work of Patricia Pulling, whose son committed suicide in 1982, supposedly because of the influence of D&D.  Here's the somewhat notorious story about D&D on 60 Minutes:

 

Watching this now, it's really hard to understand how 60 Minutes is regarded as a source for legitimate journalism.
 
There's also this gem of a novel and made-for-tv movie Mazes and Monsters, starring Tom Hanks:

Pulling spent years decrying what she saw as the evil influence of D&D on our children.  She was solidly debunked at every turn (even with Ed Bradley's total puff piece on her here). In particular, the article Game Hysteria and the Truth, by Michael Stackpole, is largely directed at Pulling's claims about the game, and is a devastating argument against them. The other famous attack on D&D is the Jack Chick tract Dark Dungeons, which is analyzed smartly by The Escapist.

Any time Jack Chick is on your side, you're in trouble.

When I was a little older, I managed to get a few D&D books, mostly for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I never had much opportunity to play -- my parents were divorced and I was never home on weekends. But when I reached high school, I was able to play again a little bit after school, and that was pretty great.  I think all told, I spent more time creating characters and coming up with interesting dungeons than anything else. I used to love coming up with crazy ideas for adventures, and sometimes I still do.

 

The Authors

The authors of this book were three students at Eton, who loved D&D and wargames, and somehow landed a book deal to write about it.  And this wasn't their only book -- after this book was published, they wrote a series of three novels known as the Cretan Chronicles, which were similar to Fighting Fantasy books.  Fighting Fantasy books were a little bit like souped-up Choose Your Own Adventure books -- you would choose your path through the book, but you also had several randomly generated attributes, and there would be combat and skill tests that were based on dice rolls. I think it's definitely worth mentioning that we're talking about a couple of high-school kids doing this.

There's not a lot of data on the internet about what else they may have done. In fact, there's no evidence of anything at all other than these books.

 

The Book

What is Dungeons and Dragons? is roughly divided into several sections -- the first part provides a basic overview of the game, and some details on the rules of the game, character generation, and random things like money, the height of your character, and how much stuff you can carry.  It discusses the setting of most adventures -- "lairs, often hidden deep below ground, in labyrinthine complexes full of twisting corridors, secret passages, and nearly always, traps."

At the core of D&D, if you set aside the setting, the imagination, etc, there are two main things that you'll see over and over again: rules, and dice.  Dice are central to almost every RPG -- they are used to generate your characters attributes, determine your success or failure when using skills or fighting, and for lots of other reasons.  There are a bunch of dice you need for playing D&D, and they were fairly exotic before the game became so popular.  Some wackos think that dice are evidence of the game's evil nature:

The dice in the game symbolize witchcraft in my opinion. One day I decided to research the origins of role-playing dice. They originated in mystic practices! Plato has an interesting theory about what he called platonic solids. He theorized a 20-sided platonic solid represented water, a 10 sided shape represent fire, a 4-sided dice represented earth, and a 100 sides shape represented air. These are all the shapes of dice used in Dungeons and Dragons. If you put these all together fire, earth, air, water, and the player has a human spirit. That makes up all the components to cast spells!

Since most people reading this book never would have seen dice other than the normal six-sided kind, the varieties of dice needed to play D&D are described in some detail, with pictures:

The book describes the different attributes a character has - Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc, and how they relate both to the game, and to real life -- for example, they tie Intelligence to a rough measurement of IQ.  There's a discussion of the different languages a player might know and how they relate to gameplay -- basically your ability to speak to other non-human races in the game.

One of the innovations of D&D, and one of the things that I think offers an opportunity to use your imagination in ways other than just pretending to be a fantastical hero of some sort, is alignment. The book describes alignment as "a combination of philosophy and a way of life." and calls it "one of the most important [choices] in the game." Conceptually, alignment is the worldview of your character, in a simple categorized form.  In the original D&D (and the system described in this book), alignment was very simple -- Lawful, Neutral or Chaos.  The book describes the three alignments as:

  • Lawful: "The Lawful character tends to view the group as more important than any of its individuals. He believes, therefore, that there must be rules... He will obey rules except when under extreme duress, and even then probably follows a personal code of conduct."
  • Neutral: "A Neutral person thinks solely of himself. In any situation he will act only if it is to his advantage. Remember, however, that this advantage may be long-term as well as short-term... He will obey laws if they do not really restrict him, but he will not feel any qualms about breaking them."
  • Chaotic: "The Chaotic character, in contrast, believes in the right of the individual and that the world is ruled by luck rather than by people's actions. He will break laws given any opportunity, and often without good reason. He will act unpredictably, carrying out his every whim, regardless of the consequences."

The book points out how this is clearly unrealistic and a "gross oversimplification" and points out several fictional characters who defy these simple categories -- for example, Robin Hood, who is clearly Chaotic but also good. Indeed, in later versions of the game, there was a grid with 9 different possible alignments, adding Good/Neutral/Evil to the three basic categories, so you could have a character who was "Lawful Evil" for example, and that character would be a tyrant, or perhaps someone who obeys the law but uses it as a tool for their own evil gains.

Alignment is interesting because it adds a system to the game that isn't just a collection of rules that are clearly to be followed. As a player, it gives you an opportunity to play a character with a different outlook than you might have in real life. And rather than being hard numbers like your primary attributes, it's only a guideline for how your character should behave.  D&D also has guidelines for changing your alignment -- the Dungeon Master can decide that a Lawful character who is breaking the rules too much is now Chaotic for example.
 
The book mentions that monsters have alignment as well, and it can be used for a guideline for how they will act during combat.  Lawful monsters tend to have a hierarchy and will work together, while Chaotic monsters tend to just attack without working together.  The book also mentions one of the random things about D&D, which is that "Members of each alignment are able to communicate with each other by means of an alignment language, a combination of speech and hand signals... These languages are very limited, however, the vocabulary restricting topics of conversation mainly to those of a religious or philosophical nature." This is just weird.
 

There are charts in the book for the height and weight of your character, and other random things like that.  You can roll some dice and do some quick math to generate the values.  I assume these charts are borrowed from the actual D&D rules.

The authors go into detail on the potential equipment a player can carry.  They have pretty clear opinions about possible weapon selection, and the other things you should be carrying:

Rope is another item no party should be without... some adventurers like to carry their own rope in case they get separated from their partners.  Other popular personal equipment includes holy symbols and mirrors... Many adventurers also carry iron spikes, which jam doors open or shut.  Many parties swear by the ten-foot pole, a piece of equipment which allows them to check for traps at a well-removed distance, but anyone who has actually carried such a pole in real life will realize just how cumbersome it is.  A six-foot poll is more maneuverable.

That's very interesting, but isn't it enough to just say that you have a long pole, and leave it at that?

Character generation is very naturally followed by a detailed chapter on dungeon design, which includes an entire dungeon known as the "Shrine of Kollchap", which is actually not too bad, and is referenced in a couple places online. Just for fun, I've reproduced it here.  The authors walk through the process of creating this dungeon as a way of learning about the design process, and while there are clearly different ways of doing this sort of thing, it's a good walkthrough of the concept.  First, they pick a basic setting - an abandoned temple.  Then they flesh out some backstory, and a goal for the players -- recovering a magical sword.  "The first step in any dungeon design, then, should be the choice of setting and scenario.  The technique of gradually expanding this, with one idea leading to another until you have a full-scale background."

After this, it's time to start fleshing out the details of the dungeon and the book covers this fully -- making sure that its possible to travel through, populating it with monsters and treasure.  They stress that the designer needs to strike a balance between keeping things interesting, but also making sure that the players can survive. There is a lot of detail here about making sure that everything is balanced and well thought out. The authors are clearly early proponents of a theory of game design now known as "Gygaxian Naturalism," which means, roughly speaking, that the environment built by the DM has a natural sense of balance. From Grognardia:

The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a "real" world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones. The implication is that monsters have lives of their own and thus go about their business doing various things until they encounter the player characters. Exactly what they do is described by reference to game mechanics, whether it be the numbers of non-combatants in a lair or spell-like abilities that help the monster do whatever it naturally does when it's not facing off against an adventuring party.

And from the book:
All that matters is that the DM should have some reason for choosing the monsters which he places in the dungeon... With larger creaters some regard must be given to the ecology of the dungeon. If it is filled to the brim with sabre-tooth tigers, the players might begin to wonder, with some justification, what the tigers are eating, not to mention how they got there... Granted this is a fantasy world, [but] the players still need some kind of logic to hold on to.
 
An example of what might be developed is as follows. The DM decides that in one particular area there are some Giant Rats which feed on small insects and vermin. Giant Rats are preyed on by Giant Ferrets, and so it is likely that in the same area some of these creatures would be found. In a nearby room, a man might have set up camp with the intention of snaring the ferrets and selling the skins. A group of bandits, hearing of this trade, could try to take it over, and so the DM might place some of these in the area. The Giant Ferrets and Rats might have been a source of food for some Goblins, who are now annoyed at the threat to their food supply. The list could continue, but the basic idea is that there should always be some reason, albeit perhaps a tenuous one, for a creature's presence in a particular place.

This is not a universally held theory. Plenty of game designers and D&D fans would prefer to have a dungeon where in the room next to the Giant Rats, you had some ninjas who just teleported in from the future. Debates about stuff like this continue today.

After the designer has a good idea of the details, it's time to map out everything, and the authors cover how to use graph paper and efficient use of pencils and erasers.  The book covers the basics of making sure your dungeon makes structural sense, and stresses balance issues again and again  -- "It is wise to design your dungeon so that it is constructed around corridors through which the inhabitants can reach the outside world or at least other levels. If this is not done, a situation will arise in which either monsters hardly ever leave their rooms to find food and water, or they must tramp through other rooms to acquire these necessities." Sounds like an apartment complex I lived in once.

There are some recommendations about placing monsters in a dungeon -- basically, don't kill the players right away, which seems sensible. When placing monsters that of the same type, consider how they are organized -- where does the leader/chieftain live? For some monsters, you need to consider storerooms, kitchens, etc. They really stress that dungeons should have this balance.

At the end of this chapter, there is a map of the dungeon, and a key of every room in it.  It's very detailed, and if you google Kollchap, it's obvious that people have actually played it, and have some fond memories of it.

The largest chapter of the book is devoted to a walkthrough of Kollchap by the three characters -- it's basically a dramatized transcript of an actual game, with commentary.  On the left page, there is a sort of fictional account of the course of the game with the players talking, interacting with the Dungeon Master, and working through the adventure.  On the right page, there's some commentary for what is happening.  The left pages read like scripted dialog and events, and the commentary covers which rules are applying at any given moment, what the DM is doing, times when dice are rolled, etc.  It seems sort of silly, but for someone who had no idea how to play D&D, or who lacked the modern context that I have, I'm sure it would be very educational.

After this, there's a chapter about acting as Dungeon Master.  The DM is basically the person who runs the game.  They act out all the roles of any non-players, they keep track of monsters, they know where the players are at any time, and they have all the knowledge of the environment the players are exploring.  The book describes the role as:

As a DM you may have to play any number of roles, from kind-hearted innkeeper to scheming guide; from paranoid Halfling to fearsome Dragon.  Be prepared for all of this, as the interaction with NPCs (non player-characters) can probe the most enjoyable and exciting part of an adventure, for the players.  The game revolves around the DM. It is not a straight competition between referee and players, but more a co-operative effort: the more both you and your players put into playing, the more you will obtain from it.

This chapter covers the basics of how to be the DM, with some extra tips tossed in that probably aren't in the manual.  For example, they recommend being present when your players create their characters, to make sure they don't cheat. They also recommend tracking a crazy amount of information, such as whether characters are right or left-handed, and where they stand when they open treasure chests.

There's a lot of advice about figuring out the right amount of information to give to players when describing the places they are exploring -- you need to give them enough information without boring them with detail.  You also need to be able to think on your feet, and not make it really obvious when something important is happening -- for example, your tone of voice or behavior shouldn't change when the players are walking into an ambush. There is advice about offering different options to players depending on what they want.  Not every player is going to want to hack and slash their way through an adventure -- some will prefer to negotiate or find alternate paths around problems. This chapter also talks about managing combat, handling traps and surprises that the players encounter, and dealing with rates of movement and other technical things like that.

This is followed by a pretty detailed chapter on the accessories you can get for D&D -- especially metal figurines to play the game, including some information on how to get them, painting them, and modifying them to suit your character's appearance.  There's also some information about pre-generated adventures known as "modules", and the assortment of gaming-related magazines which you could get in the early 80s.

 

The Future

The next chapter is on computers, and it is particularly ridiculous, since it was clearly obsolete before it even came out, and looks unbelievably ancient now.  In fact, in the few other reviews of this book that I've seen, everyone loves to poke fun at this chapter, and rightfully so.  Just to give you a taste, here's the first paragraph of the chapter:

While D&D was in its infancy, computers were reaching adolescence.  Over the last few years, computing has undergone a revolution, and one which is still continuing.  Space Invaders machines are just a visible product of this.  That computers should become associated with games, and used for them, was in some ways inevitable: games are, to a certain extent, to do with how well you handle information, and information-handling is what computers are primarily concerned with.  No matter how it has come about, there is no doubt that many D&D players are interested in computing (and vice versa); it is not surprising, then, that attempts have been made to computerize the game.  As the information technology era continues, other similar attempts will, doubtless, be made.

The chapter continues with a charming description of what a computer is, listing off the CPU, keyboards, screens ('Video Display Unit') and printers for output (this information is so dated that it talks about computers with printers for output but no screen). It theorizes that "It should be possible to play D&D with the computer acting as DM. In practice, though, there are constraints placed upon the computer's role, primarily due to limitations of time and space."  And while it's certainly true that computers of the time were limited, there were already several classic computer RPGs available, most notably Wizardry in 1981 and Ultima in 1980. There were even some before that, if you were willing to put up with interfaces like this:

 

 

 

The book extols the possibilities of creating characters with a computer program, although it admits to one problem: "you need to admit to yourself how much you normally fiddle the rolls."  A computer can also be used for tracking money, experience, equipment, looking up monsters, and all sorts of other housekeeping tasks.  The book derides games such as Adventure and Zork as "mere problem-solving exercises, interesting enough for hardcore computer freaks, but leaving us ex-wargamers longing for a bit of cold steel and some random violence."  This is sort of funny, since nowadays there's no shortage of random violence in modern computer games. They do however point out a fair problem with many computer games, which is that they are pricey, and once you have beaten them, there's not much left of interest.

The final paragraph of this chapter is almost as good as the first one, so here it is:

Computers have come a long way since the vacuum-tube days of the 1950s and they have a long way to go, both in terms of availability and power.  One thing that is certain, however, is that a lot of software is and will continue to be available dealing with Fantasy-related subjects if not with D&D itself.  Lots of people (Gary Gygax, for example) look forward to the day when games are played in real-time with 3-D graphics and so on, and the picture on the screen is what the character is actually seeing.  What lies in the future, only time will tell.

It's pretty safe to say at this point, more people play RPGs on their computer than they do around a table.  According to Wizards of the Coast, the current owners of the D&D franchise, "as many as four million people in the U.S. play each month, while millions more play worldwide".  It looks like there are around 11 million people playing World of Warcraft right now.  More people are getting their initial exposure to RPGs from computers than vice-versa.

I used to play computer games all the time.  My dad had an old Apple II, and on weekends I would play Zork and other Infocom games.  When I was 11 or 12 we got a Commodore 64 at home, and I played Telengard and Wasteland, and later the AD&D "Gold Box" games.  It was great fun for me, and I have no doubt that it pushed me into my current career of writing code, and occasionally writing games.

If you look at the History of Role-Playing Video Games entry on Wikipedia you can learn about a lot of the computer games that were available in the early 80s, as well as all the games that came after.  There are a lot.

Rules, Rules, Rules

There's a chapter titled "Further Complexity" which goes into detail on the assortment of extensions to Basic D&D.  In the 80s there was Basic, Expert, and Master D&D, and also Advanced D&D. There was even a rule book for becoming an immortal.  There are probably hundreds of rulebooks for D&D at this point.  AD&D became the official branch of the game in the 80s, and went through many revisions, and is currently in the Fourth Edition. This chapter discusses some of the differences between all these versions, and tells you what you get in each one.  There's some humor about the different rates of movement in each version of the game, and how the math doesn't add up.  They mention the assortment of bizarre weapons you can get in variants, such as Fauchard Forks, Becs de Corbin, Guisarmes, Lochaber Axes and so on. 

The authors seem to avoid expressing an opinion on how they feel about all these different rule books and extensions, but they do lash out at AD&D,calling it "suitable for those who wish to concentrate on running a rule system rather than a game.  Those who wish to ad lib and make up rules on the spot may find that they are discarding a great deal."  Ouch.

Other Worlds

The last substantive chapter is titled "Other Worlds," and it covers the assortment of other RPGs available in the early 80s.  The authors manage to cram quick mentions of over 25 games into just 8 pages of the book.  This chapter is interesting because it allows the reader some insight into the authors' feelings about games in general, and also because the authors' manage a pretty decent overview of the recurrent themes and systems of most RPGs.

Throughout the broad spectrum of role-playing games there are certain recurrent themes which are handled differently by the various games.  The most important of these are the character-generation system, the background, the combat system, and lastly, the objective or method of progression.

The authors discuss each of these in some detail, talking about all of the different sorts of dice rolls that can be used to generate characters, the use of interesting attributes such as "Luck" as opposed to the more traditional Strength/Intelligence/etc.

Their discussion of background splits games into three main themes with some exceptions: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Historical.  They provide a fairly predictable commentary on these different themes.

For combat, they divide games into those that have a fast-moving, easier system, and those having a more realistic but slower system.  In their opinion, D&D is basic, with single quick dice rolls to determine if an attack is successful, and another roll to determine damage, etc.  It's certainly not realistic -- as the authors' note, in D&D wearing better armor makes you harder to hit, instead of absorbing more damage.  More complicated systems tend to deal with issues like that, and also allow for damage to limbs, 'critical hits', etc.  In the authors' opinion, "The best combat systems, generally, are those that are quick-moving and fun but have an unrealistically low death total among the characters." Sounds good to me.

The final theme they discuss is that of an objective -- in D&D, you progress through the game by gaining experience points (XP).  You get XP by killing monsters, finding treasure, accomplishing tasks, etc.  Once you get enough points, your character "Levels Up", and with that you gain more skills and hit points.  The book discusses variants of this system.  Some games don't have XP at all, which tends to remove an obvious desire to play -- the desire to improve your character.  Other games allow you to increase your attributes -- i.e., you get stronger, smarter, faster as the game progresses, and in fact, newer versions of D&D have incorporated this idea.

Some of the commentary is fairly snarky and humorous.  For example, right in the introduction the authors' knock D&D by stating that the rules were often confusing and in some places contradictory, and that "Many people realized that there was great potential for similar products with comprehensible and better organized rules." There are other random barbs, for example when writing about the Science Fiction game Universe (which incidentally was designed by someone with the same name as one of the authors of this book, which caused me all sorts of confusion while researching this review), we learn that "Unlike most Science Fiction games, it has proper rules for robots and their use."  Well thank god for that!

We also learn about games with quirky rules -- like Villains and Vigilantes, which used "character generation by the referee assigning attributes based on his judgement of the players' real strength, intelligence, etc [which] can cause more than a little ill-feeling."  Or Boot Hill, which came with a single map which depending on its orientation could represent Texas, the Mexican border, or Colorado.

One of the most intriguing games mentioned is En Garde!, a game revolving around "dueling and social climbing in 17th century France."  This game clearly intrigued the authors, they spend more time on it in this chapter than almost any other game, almost two pages.  The game was published in 1975 and was apparently perfect for playing by mail -- you could write out what you wanted your character to do for the week, and the results would be mailed out to everyone. In fact, there's a list of currently running games that operate like this now.

The final game they mention is perhaps the most interesting of all -- it's Killer (or Assassin).  This is a game that is played in real-time, the players basically are their characters, and they try and assassinate each other via fake weapons, pretend poison, etc.  I played it in high school once or twice, in what seems like a different time, when you could bring a Nerf gun to school without getting into too much trouble.  There's actually some evidence that games like this were being played as early as the 1920s. So in some ways, it was a very early role-playing game. Anyway, the chapter ends with this summary of the game:

Killer, however, depends heavily on what you put into it.  At its best, with a variety of subtle and ingenious bombs in use, along with poisons of various sorts, not just the over-used contact poison, it induces a sense of collective paranoia that is marvelous to behold.  It is also as close to true role-playing as a game can get without being life itself.

The End

After this chapter the book has a list of publishers and model manufacturers, a bibliography, glossary, and index.  The index is slim.  The glossary is sort of funny and seems quaint, defining words such as "artefact."  The bibliography is a pretty good list of science fiction and fantasy books that are worth reading, and then a few gems of non-fiction related to D&D.  The first is called Fantasy Role-Playing Games, written by John Eric Holmes, who was a writer and worked on some of the rulebooks for D&D.  The second is called Fantasy Wargaming, by Bruce Galloway.  This book is actually not about RPGs, it is the rules for an RPG itself, and is notorious for being incredibly awful. They don't really have any reason for listing either in the book, but here they are.  It's sort of funny, because earlier in the book they mention that "whole books have been written on role-playing, most of them by psychologists, and this one chapter cannot rival those."  I guess those books aren't that interesting since they didn't make it into the Bibliography.

Finally they sneak in a mention of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which just happened to be published by Puffin, the same publisher as this book, and just happens to be the first of the Fighting Fantasy series which includes the Cretan books also written by the authors of this book.  That said, Warlock is supposed to be a classic and certainly does deserve a mention.

When I originally found this book, and considered it for the Books Not Worth Reviewing series, my original assumption was that it was a funny little book that would make a humorous review.  And plenty of things about the book are funny, given the authors' general level of snark, and quaint things like the chapter on computers.  But this is actually a really great book, a piece of history, in many ways very important to our culture.  Things that we take for granted now in the world of gaming and entertainment are covered in great detail in this book. The authors did a good job of summarizing Dungeons and Dragons, capturing some of the excitement around it, and looking to the future of games in general. And it reminded me of some of the favorite things from my childhood.

References

 

postscript: Special thanks to my awesome partner, who puts up with many long hours of me writing reviews for books that no one will ever read, and probably shouldn't read, and for being one of the few people who will make it to this sentence. xox

 

 

 

Filed under: Book Reviews