[AD&D and me] What’s this game about?

Posted on September 14, 2011


Previous posts in this series:

1. Intro

2. Gandalminster?

This series updates once a week, with new posts on Wednesday evenings.

Today we cover pages 7 & 8 of the 1978 AD&D Player’s Handbook. That’s right. Two pages.

my favorite demon

Well, then! We’ve gotten through the foreward and the preface, which means of course that we have yet to cover the introduction. I always take it as a good sign when a book has the FPI trinity. Thorough; nay, obsessive–just the way I like it. I said we’d get to discussing the Ability tables this time, but I don’t think so. There’s a lot of meat under the back-to-back INTRODUCTION and THE GAME headings.

The Big Idea

The first description of the game is short and simple:


Or maybe not so simple. That’s a very captivating idea, and I’ll bet it was doubly so (or more) in 1978. But what does it mean for a game that you’re actually supposed to play somehow? There’s no words in here about “collaboratively telling a story,” or anything like that. The closest we get is the statement that AD&D is “an exercise in imagination and personal creativity.”

Every description of the game communicates the sense that the idea of it all is to build, inhabit, and explore a massive fantasy world. This was the concept I had of roleplaying when I started to read the D&D 3rd edition books sometime in the mid-2000s, so this idea at least got passed down, even if it didn’t pan out in play (for me).

The game is meant to be expansive. In some sense, you’re meant to figure out how to play as you play:

Considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on. Being uncertain of how a given situation will turn out, not knowing every magic item available, and so forth, adds spice to the game. Later, this knowledge simulates actual experience, for the seasoned campaigner will have learned through game play. …[I]t is strongly urged that players do not purchase or read the DUNGEON MASTERS (sp) GUIDE.

The full rules are the purview of the DM, and just as your character is meant to grow and change and learn from experience, you’re meant to not worry too much about all the secret rules behind the DM’s screen. You’ll get a sense of them as you go.

Which is important to playing the game well, since as you learn and master the rules you’ll become better at the other big idea of the game, the one that’s not just about inhabiting a world–the description of which is nonchalantly tossed into the 7th paragraph under the heading THE GAME:

A good Dungeon Master will most certainly make each game a surpassing challenge for his or her players.

There we go. It’s a world, but each session you have in the world is supposed to be a challenge.


Hoo boy. There’s some staggering stuff in here, enough to make any adolescent geek’s sexual fantasies about half-orcs dreams about living in a Conan story come true. At least, that’s the promise.

In trying to describe exactly what role-playing is, the book says, “As a role player, you become Falstaff the fighter” (or presumably any other character of your choice). That’s a big promise. What dreamer, child or adult, who liked swords-and-sorcery fiction wouldn’t find that attractive? How about these:

This game lets all of your fantasies come true. …[T]his game is what dreams are made of!

AD&D…is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality.

Mind-unleashing! I can’t even. These are HUGE promises that the game is offering on its first few pages. I’m not interested, here, in whether or not the game can fulfill those promises. The reason I’m looking at them is that examining the experience that the game is selling (and the emotions it taps into when doing that) is just as important for figuring out what it’s about as picking apart the big picture (The Big Idea, above) and what you actually do in the game (So What Do You Do?, below).

What the promises are selling us so far is, well, escapism: Be something you’re not, but that you want to be, in a world far more fascinating than your own. So key to the game, the text tells us, is not just imagining a fantasy world and being challenged in it, but experiencing a sense of being there.

The text also tells us, somewhat flippantly, about how the game will change us, the people at the table.

Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by–and you will acquire gold, magic items, and great renown as you become Falstaff the Invincible!

It’s kind of a funny sentence, isn’t it? Gliding from telling us the game will make us better actors over time right into how our characters will become more powerful over time. A little overweening, maybe–“artful thespians”–but the point is clear: becoming Falstaff also means play-acting like him.

Again, this is a place where what the player does and what the character does gets conflated in the text. Just as before, where your character grows from experience, so do you. How does it happen, exactly? That’s left unsaid.

So What Do You Do?

Finally we come to how the game is actually played. We’ve already been told that we become a character in the game, and further,

You act out the game as this character, staying within your “god-given abilities”, and as molded by your philosophical and moral ethics (called alignment).

Apparently you use your character’s abilities (rules we haven’t seen yet) as a creative constraint to how you act out your character. Your character also has some sort of ethical or philosophical guiding principle (again, haven’t seen it yet) that is supposed to “mold” what you do. In this sentence, alignment seems like it would’ve been an exciting mechanic, in a similar way that Beliefs in Burning Wheel are exciting to me–something that helps you grasp who your character is and also propels you into action in play.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m trying to take the text on its own terms. Of course, we haven’t seen what the game means by “alignment”, and I’m sure that’ll change how I see things when we get there.

This is probably the single most straightforward description for what non-DM players do in the game:

Players build the experience level of their characters and go forth seeking ever greater challenges…

Pretty clear to me. It seems that there are some people who are wont to say these days that AD&D and games of its ilk don’t really tell you what you’re supposed to be doing in the game–but AD&D, at least, really does tell you, and it’s really simple. The problem is that stuff like the above sentence is buried in the middle of rambling paragraphs that stumble from idea to idea. The sentence above should’ve been indented and bolded under a heading saying “What You Do in This Game”.

At least that’s how I would’ve done it, were I there, with my modern design sensibilities intact. Maybe D&D wouldn’t have been a million things to a million people then, though.

There’s not much else on what the players of the game do (and here I’m including the Dungeon Master as a “player of the game”). Though it does say that “[i]magination, intelligence, problem solving ability, and memory are all continually exercised by participants in the game.”

Surprisingly, the text is very specific about what the characters do in this game.

While initial adventuring usually takes place in an underworld dungeon setting, play gradually expands to encompass other such dungeons, town and city activities, wilderness explorations, and journeys into other dimensions, planes, times, worlds, and so forth…

It’s all adventuring and exploration, all the time, and there’s an arc as the characters grow in experience and power. Again, just like the instructions for what players do in the game, this is related in an offhand fashion with the weight of advice rather than a real play structure.

And, well, this seems to be a considered design choice. As the text says near the end of this section:

This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places they are guidelines and suggested methods only. This is part of the attraction of AD&D, and it is integral to the game.

There still is a certain attraction to it, even if I like my game to have rules, y’know? Is there any other way that AD&D could have been? Isn’t this a reason why people who play role-playing games are so free to talk back to their medium, to take it into their own hands and make games dealing with religion, growing up, or 9/11?

It’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?

Posted in: Old-school, Readings, rpg