Book Report: Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons

This is an expensive, enormous, gigantic, medieval scribe sized tome, absurdly heavy and dense, thick, glossy paper, color print. Almost 5cm thick, does about d6+2 damage in mêlée, with 4 colored ribbon placeholders. Each section has a colored bottom border. Blank spaces are often filled with hex or grid patterns, bits of text, pictures of more polearms (goddamnit, Gary), and blood spatters(?).

The majority of the book is reproductions of various drafts & old editions, with some commentary between. The repros are often sepia-toned, not always easy to read, but more readable than available scans. For research into Blackmoor and OD&D, these are invaluable, they're amazing to finally have in a permanent form.

If you care at all about this, the book's the best value ever. If you want a playable thing, this is not it.

I'm going to dive fairly deep into it for some parts, more or less skim others, in multiple posts.

Bonus

The blurb sheet (inside the shrink wrap, but not the dust cover) on the back side is the classic terrible character sheet from 1976, in shiny goldenrod. They sold these in packs of 28(?), for $3-5, when photocopies would cost 5¢/page? TSR never let quality stop them from making a buck!

dnd-sheet-1976pc

Preface

by Jason Tondro ("Senior Designer on D&D", formerly at Paizo; someone check to see if he's been fired from Hasbro yet)

The early rules for D&D are important and incredibly influential, but
they're also confusing and even contradictory; that's how we've left
them. We don't encourage you to try to play 1974 D&D from these pages!
(If you want to try, Wizards of the Coast has edited and republished
the original Dungeons & Dragons "white box" in both physical and
digital formats. These reprints incorporate errata from later
printings of the game.)

Don't play! But spend more money!

This book presents D&D as it was first imagined, warts and all. What
sort of warts are we talking about? One example is including creatures
from other intellectual properties, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's
Middle-earth, without permission; in later printings of D&D, balrogs,
hobbits, and ents were renamed balors, halflings, and treants to avoid
these copyright issues.

OH NO not foreign "IP" used fairly. Only a grifting corporation considers that a wart, instead of just everyone sharing world culture.

Some apologia for the indelicate language of the original games. Which is true somewhat, but excessively overstated here. I'm pretty sure there's nothing in OD&D about "old, fat, not conventionally attractive, indigenous, Black, or a woman" (as he puts it). I want to dissect that a moment. There's no age or weight categories in OD&D. Witches perhaps won't kidnap you if you have low Charisma. There's no Human ethnic groups mentioned except Dervishes, which are regional not ethnic. Strength limitations on women first appear in AD&D 1E; "Fighting Men" is common language for 1970s, a callback to John Carter from 1910s, but not the inclusive term we'd use now.

Foreword

by Jon Peterson (noted RPG historian)

Discussion of the production process, how he selected material.

Readers may note that more material of Gygax's is reproduced in this
volume than of Arneson's. Gygax was quite a prolific writer and
necessarily left a longer paper trail of his activities in the
original D&D period. The collaboration between the pair of them was
not entirely a happy one even before Dungeons & Dragons was published,
and assessing which one of them contributed a given idea can be
challenging. Certain early documents relating to Blackmoor were
published by Judges Guild in The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), though
it also anthologizes material created after the 1974 publication of
the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set with little signposting to
date the age of respective passages. Those documents aren't included
here, though this book summarizes their contents where necessary.

Precursors

A brief pre-D&D history, with "Grayte Wourmes" dragon ecology articles by Gary Gygax, from 1969-1970. These ended up in parts in the Dragon monster entries. These are from Thangordrim, a Diplomacy fantasy variant newsletter; not much time is spent explaining this.

At the time, the way you played Diplomacy was either in person with friends who would soon be enemies, or by mail through newsletters. Send in your turns, wait 1-4 weeks, get results back. You had phone numbers & addresses of other players, so you could negotiate out of band, or could include some text with your turns for all to see. These were typically cheap, run at cost per turn, but Thang seems to have been $3-4 per "game".

Amusingly, Knights of the Dinner Table a couple years back had a storyline where Waco Bob of Hard 8 was still running his 1970s play-by-mail game, on company photocopiers. Manual processing turns every couple weeks. Good man.

Chainmail Fantasy Supplement

Reproduction of the latter half of 2nd Ed, with notes about where spells/powers entered Blackmoor, slightly annoyingly doesn't include the main Chainmail rules, which resolve some problems of OD&D.

Notably armor is listed in classes, numbered ascending:

  1. No armor
  2. Leather or padded armor
  3. Shield only
  4. Leather armor + shield
  5. Chain, banded, studded, or splint mail
  6. Chain mail + Shield, Chain +
  7. Plate armor
  8. Plate armor and shield
  9. Horse, No armor
  10. Horse, Barded

Versus OD&D's Attack Matrix I, annoying descending order, loses the alternatives to Chain, and Shield is reduced in value with Leather from +2 to +1.

2. Plate Armor & Shield
3. Plate Armor
4. Chain Mail & Shield
5. Chain Mail
6. Leather & Shield
7. Leather Armor
8. Shield Only
9. No Armor or Shield

If I were a little more bored, I'd compare the statistical chance to hit from 2d6 in Chainmail to d20 in OD&D, and I suspect there'd be some real anamolies.

Gygax on Armor

An essay on ancient to medieval armor, but he was apparently unaware of Roman Lorica Squamata (Scale) and Lorica Segmentata (Banded) actually existing, and he thought Splinted (Brigandine) had the metal on the outside, actually describing Scale; real-world Brigandine (aka Jack of Plate, or "Studded Leather Armor" which never existed) was small plates sandwiched between leather or cloth.

Anyway, this essay, and the Domesday Book, reveals mostly the encyclopedia-based errors that crept into D&D's armor systems. He has a bibliography at the end, but did he read these, or were they as erroneous?

Arneson's Medieval Braunstein

There will be a medevil[sic] "BRAUNSTEIN" April 17, 1970 at the home
of David Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being
available on the usual basis. Players may come at any time and any
number are welcome to attend what should prove to be an exciting time.
It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll's
bridge between sunup and sundown.

Following is Arneson's May 1972 Corner of the Table (Midwest Military Simulation Association newsletter) reports on Blackmoor, including events in the dungeon, perhaps the first reference. Towns being burned down, town misadventures with hobbits, "Blue" Bill, and a miscreant priest who spends money on tavern wenches.

They were literally playing the same game we do now, which we knew from First Fantasy Campaign (1980), but the dates of the events in there weren't established; now we know it dates back to 1970-2. I need to find more complete archives of Corner.

Pete Gaylord's 1972-3 Wizard of the Woods character sheet shows increasing Level (7 to 8), weapons skills per Chainmail but individually rolled or modified (he's better at Mace, worse at Dagger), and "Personality" stats, Brains, Looks, Health, Strength, Cunning were the 5 main stats before SIWDCCh; originally 2d6 but since updated on the sheet to 3d6. Also has Credability[sic], Sex, Courage, Horsemanship, Woodsmanship, Leadership, Flying (for Gaylord has a dragon), Seamanship; these all rolled 2d6.

Notice that most of these don't have character names; they're usually referred to by the player's name, or a nickname ("Great Svenny" for Svenson), even "Mello the Hobbit" is Mel Johnson. This may be a newsletter quirk, or really they didn't use character names? Type summaries are given as "Dale Nelson (Hero-Magic Weapon)" or "Wesely (Super-Hero-Magic Wapon-Level I Wizard-Super War Horse)". We know Hero = Fighter Level 4, Super-Hero = Fighter Level 8, but the correspondence of Wizard Levels I don't know.

There are roles for everyone and should one suddenly depart
Blackmoor's veil[sic] of tears a new role awaits for you immediately. There
isn't a single player in the Blackmoor Bunch that hasn't had at least
half a dozen lives so don't get depressed if a Dragon steps on you the
firts time you participate it isn't the first time, or the last that
it has happned[sic].

 

As to CHAINMAIL modifications they were fairly minor and the big
change was laying out the DUNGEON for explorations and the like
combined with a maze which you have to map as you go along, thus
offering the possibility of getting lost.

Outdoor Survival

Reprints only the map, Life Levels, and Wilderness Encounter matrix. I think the mechanics of this game are more deserving of study, since they also directly influenced D&D's wilderness movement rules.

Thus ends Part I: Precursors.

What I'm Watching: Godzilla Minus One

Finally out on Netflix (along with most Godzilla films).

G-1 follows the style of GMK and Shin Godzilla by only admitting to the events of Gojira (1954), in this case by being set in 1945-1947.

Failed kamikaze pilot Shikishima watches an island base (a hut and a few engineers) be destroyed by T-Rex-like baby Godzilla. Returning to the ruins of Tokyo, everyone he knew is gone, so he takes in a couple strays. As with most Godzilla movies, the Human story is the least engaging for me, certainly not helped by Noriko being a cipher (stoic Japanese) and Akiko being nonverbal, so we have only pilot's rare nightmares to get inside his head.

He finds work on a minesweeper crew, who have somewhat more personality, and he's productive until they meet the upgraded Godzilla, post Bikini Atoll.

The Godzilla design is fine, perhaps too much spiky, pebbly, obviously CGI-greebled skin. When damaged, it heals back into place, maybe in a different pattern? But you can't tell. I find the texture a little creepy and unsolid; the suits allowed physical changes and movements but remained the same, while the CGI cartoons are all fluid. The head has a reptile/cat look more like the Legendary movies, and the tail/back spines pop up like control rods in a nuclear reactor when he's heating up for a shot. After the nuclear breath, Godzilla's charred, face & chest burned down a significant amount, and takes time to regenerate. That part I like, it's clearly painful to fire it, and takes time, so there's more fighting and mugging for the camera.

The city battles have some real physicality to them, and several callbacks to 1954, but a couple of escapes, close calls, and people who are obviously ready to be stepped on, and then camera pulls back, are not quite as hardcore as Anno Hideaki's Shin Godzilla. Godzilla routinely picks people up in his mouth, and throws them; they're not chewed into pieces or anything. On par with Pacific Rim, and tougher than Legendary's PG-rated adventures.

There's long stretches on ships, and the water does not move well, but it's no worse than the scale-model boats in early movies.

Soundtrack noticeably is pretty weak, and then will have an Ifukube Akira inspired bit which stands out so much.

Japan's postwar government is useless, General MacArthur has Soviet problems, so the citizens of Japan with some decommissioned hardware have to handle Godzilla: A few destroyers with no guns, a prototype fighter, and Doctor Not Serizawa's fairly ridiculous tech weapon. It's a pretty entertaining bad plan, and as long as you don't read some German text you'll have a couple of surprises.

It's a fine Godzilla movie, ★★★★½

I'd rank the best ones now:

  1. Godzilla (1954)
  2. GMK (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, 2001)
  3. Shin Godzilla (2016)
  4. Godzilla Minus One (2023)
  5. Godzilla Singular Point (2021)