Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Hard Truths on The Nature of D&D’s Evolution

This is one of the coolest things on the internet right now:

Ron Edwards delves into the topic of how D&D was actually experienced by most people most of the time from the seventies on through to today’s mainline derivatives. And note: this is not about what went on in at Dave Arneson’s sand table. And it’s not about people who played in the original Greyhawk campaign with the gang up in Wisconsin. This is about everybody else.  The people who did not have the luxury of being initiated into the tabletop role-playing hobby by somebody who knew somebody that sat at the feat of Gygax himself.

Though that did happen. The rest of us were unlikely to even have a coherent rule set. Ron talks about being confronted with Holmes Basic D&D, a couple of incompatible supplements for the “original” game, the all new AD&D Monster Manual, and the special re-release of “White Box” D&D that was out at right about the same time. How exactly is a twelve year old supposed to sort that out?!

I came along late in the game and my experience was very similar: Moldvay Basic D&D, Mentzer Expert Set, AD&D Oriental Adventures, Gamma World Third Edition, the first solitaire adventure for Tunnels & Trolls, and a handful of Traveller “Little Black Books” made up my “D&D” collection. The Gamma World game rules were half baked and the box included a map from 2nd edition but not the material that would allow you to use it in actual play. Moldvay Basic was not the set that all the other kids were buying by the mid-eighties… and the Mentzer sets were generally perceived as being not the “real” thing. The actual AD&D rules were incomprehensible. Finding the game that would support what you were supposed to be able to do with this stuff was pretty much impossible, for all intents and purposes.

Where does that leave us? The pioneering game that everybody recollects fondly doesn’t really exist. In practice, most of us ended up interpolating a game ourselves and convincing ourselves (or our players at least) that it was the real deal. This was so normal, and so fundamental to table top role-playing that the idea that you could pick up an rpg and play it exactly as it instructs you to and that you might get a better or worse experience as a direct result of how it was designed would have been absolutely incomprehensible to most people most of the time.

And to this day people still sagely explain to the supposedly naive edition warriors around them: it’s the Dungeon Master that counts. A good DM can make even the lousiest rule set awesome. Therefore… system doesn’t matter. It’s bunk, of course. It sounds really smart, but it’s complete bunk. And that sort of quasi-mystical non-thought is a direct result of the most influential game in the hobby being never really designed, developed, and published in the first place.


8 responses to “Hard Truths on The Nature of D&D’s Evolution

  1. Jon Mollison March 9, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    Great point there at the end. Mario Andretti can do hella crazy things with a Prius. You could even haul several tons of product to the market in one. That doesn’t mean that a Prius makes a good race car or a good cargo van. I can make Third Edition games sing like a boy soprano, but that doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD ruleset.

  2. Trimegistus March 10, 2018 at 6:26 am

    While my memories of the era match Mr. Edwards’s pretty well, and I don’t disagree with his analysis of D&D’s role in the hobby . . . I have to say his constant Critical Theory references to religion (and by “religion” of course I mean “Christianity” because he’d never make any snarky asides about Islam) made the whole thing so irritating I had to give up about halfway through the second video.

    • jeffro March 10, 2018 at 10:35 am

      To be fair, I have to read around Jordan Peterson’s allusions to evolution and the documentary hypothesis as well. 90% of the content is with regard to D&D, though. And he actually played most of the less well known games that he mentions as well.

    • Ron Edwards March 10, 2018 at 10:37 am

      That’d be just before I snarked about Islam in second half of the second video, with pictures.

  3. Man of the Atom March 10, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    I remember DM’ing in 1979 by welding together B/X books, the brand new Monster Manual, a beat up Holmes, and a few Dragon magazines. Once I discovered modules, it became the G-D-Q, A, and S series teaching me how to play. Mr Edwards videos pretty much nail how most RPGers I knew learned D&D.

  4. Man of the Atom March 10, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    Parallel to this discussion of TSR choking out competitors, the engineered collapse of comic book distributors in the 1990s (over a dozen smashed down that left 2 — then quickly 1 — standing) also destroyed the channels for indie comics (and almost killed the entire distributor structure). Interesting how the TSR behemoth acted in similar manner to Marvel/Heroes’ World/DC/Diamond. Excellent videos!

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