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Tabletop Tower: Original Dungeons & Dragons (Tactical Studies Rules, 1974) Part 1

OD&D BOOK I: MEN & MAGIC Games aren't necessarily electronic or even mechanically complex. We talk a lot about classic video games here, but the tabletop gets sorely neglected, and I aim to correct that. A poll or two, along with the resurgence of board games

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OD&D BOOK I: MEN & MAGIC

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Games aren’t necessarily electronic or even mechanically complex. We talk a lot about classic video games here, but the tabletop gets sorely neglected, and I aim to correct that. A poll or two, along with the resurgence of board games and the retro-hipness of D&D placing it back in the nerd limelight, has led me to try something new for 2020. Yes, it’s an excuse to write about D&D, but I will also discuss classic board games and other unplugged entertainment from the 80s and 90s. The focus will primarily be on products/topics from that era, although games that capture that same spirit or theme may be discussed regardless of when they were published.

For my first sojourn into this new analog realm, I will stick with a topic both comfortable and familiar to me: Dungeons & Dragons. However, I won’t be writing about the game’s current (5th) edition or even my favorite (2nd edition “Advanced”). Today we’re going all the way back to the first official published version of the rules, which was derived from wargaming rules and printed in plain white booklets by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The original wargame was called Chainmail, and was used by the Castle & Crusade Society, a gaming group that included Gygax and Arneson. D&D grew from the idea that a fantasy wargame could be scaled down to focus on one Fellowship-of-the-Ring-style group of adventurers, plumbing ancient “dungeons” for treasure while fighting to survive the creatures and traps within. Arneson had much more to do with the idea itself, having written a campaign for his Twin Cities gaming club. Gygax did his best to organize, structure, and fill in gaps. The “end result” is something that in 2020 would most likely be considered “trash” but at the time of its 1974 publishing was a brand new game… a brand new type of game. These paper booklets and the rules within planted a seed that grows to this day, despite ups and downs, Satanism scares, several changes in ownership, and the fact that it requires more effort than Madden or Netflix.

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A far cry from the modern product, the original form of D&D is barely playable, but that doesn’t stop it from holding a place in many an old nerd’s heart. Original D&D is uncompromising, unforgiving, and seemingly unfinished… but we will cover these original books in a series. First, let’s dive into Book I: Men and Magic!

This booklet (allegedly) contains all the info and rules players need to create their heroes and play the game. The introduction starts off with Gygax almost sounding relieved that we’ve purchased the product, half-admitting the rules aren’t finished and flattering us for buying the book in nearly the same breath.

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The book also contains some incredibly questionable art; it must be assumed that this was published on a pretty punk-rock budget. Even by that standard, some of this art is abysmal. All black & white art is from the booklet.

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ORC, BY BILLY, AGE 5

The first section beyond the intro and description of the game itself details the basic options for player characters: which of the three classes (jobs) will you be; and will you be human, or some kind of squashy man, or even a little hey nonny nonny pointy ear man? Let’s break down the choices.

FIGHTING-MAN

This became “fighter” later when the people making this game decided that one day, theoretically, women could conceivably take interest in huddling around card tables in basements pretending to kill goblins. In most fiction, warriors are pretty badass; in OD&D, a fighting-man is the career you choose when none of the others pan out. It’s not a terrible gig, and it’s obviously good for those new to RPGs since the class has only two main assets to track: how close you are to death and how well you’re familiarizing your enemies with it.

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Not from the booklet, instead from the cover of Dragon Magazine #109. Artist: Daniel Horne.

PROS: You can end up with more hit points than other characters. You can use armor and weapons the other classes can’t, which seems badass until the exact moment the magic-user gets Fireball. You also have a slightly more favorable “to hit number” on the charts used in-game, so you’re a bit more handy at actually hurting your enemies with weapons. You level up quickly, requiring less experience points than Magic Users and Clerics, who actually have to learn new shit as they get stronger. Lastly, and yes this is built into early versions of the game: once you reach a certain level, you may build a stronghold and tax people as a baron. Sounds exciting if you like doing accounting with fake coins and roleplaying a cog in the miserable wheel of feudalism.

CONS: You can’t cast spells and you can use very few magical items that aren’t weapons/armor. Those hit dice can still roll low, and rules-as-written, you’re stuck with ’em. Your starting gold will be mostly eaten up by whatever armor you buy and it will probably not be great to start with. You’re in the front. You’re the first to get hit, chomped, scorched, stabbed, and shredded. Eventually you are just a politician with a sword when the spellcasting classes start getting powerful.

MAGIC-USER

This is a wizard, but God forbid they just say that. At least “magic-user” is gender-neutral, but the other class (Cleric) uses magic too, so why name this one Magic User? I’ll tell you why: that’s just about all you can fucking do. At first level, you can do it once, with one spell you know, and no one’s likely to be impressed. Playing a MU in any early version of D&D is a lot like trying to knuckle down and make it through med school or start your own small business. It’s an investment of time and an accepted risk in exchange for a great reward later. In this case, the reward is eventually becoming a legend who no one can fuck with because of all the sick spells you know, and the risk is being murdered by a kobold on your first trip outside because you have 2 hit points and can’t wear any armor.

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PROS: If it’s magic, it’s entirely your shit. You can cast a number of different-powered spells per day based on your level, which starts out as one parlor trick at the start of your career and can end up with you doing some real reality-bending shit. It’s unlikely that you will be unable to use magic items you find, as most of them can be used by M-Us. At higher levels you can even manufacture magic items and research new spells. The idea here is “limitless possibilities.” M-U spells are versatile, and the more potent ones can kill small armies, make the dead walk, or transport you hundreds of miles in a single step.

CONS: Your possibilities at low levels are pretty fucking limited and you are only allowed to use a dagger to defend yourself. Once you’ve used your spells, it’s 8 hours of study and rest before you get them back. You level up really slowly, and up until you get to maybe 4th-5th level you’re mostly an unarmored, well-educated liability on any battlefield that doesn’t have something for you to hide behind. Your spells are written in a book and if something happens to that book it’s not like you can just order another one. You’re fucked. Your magic has two convenient holes in it: restoring hit points and removing status effects (poison, curses, etc). You not only can’t wear armor, but unless you’re an elf and take some serious glass-ceiling action on your career (See below), you never can.

CLERIC

This is the class that the one halfway-responsible and long-game-conscious player will choose, and then end up wiping everyone else’s asses for them while playing. Clerics are holy spellcasters, granted a sliver of their deity’s divine power as magic. They can wear armor and shields, but are only allowed the use of blunt weapons (not that bad of a handicap). Clerics can build strongholds like fighting-men can, they’re just doing it in the name of the church so their shit can be more expensive and they can “tax” more. I always knew it was a racket… The other players will see you as a medic and little else, but you’re the only one of the three classes with any healing magic, so you wanted this. With protective and detection spells on the cleric’s list too, it’s a versatile class that can form the core of the adventuring group… even if the fighter thinks he’s in charge, he’s fucking wrong. You routinely make blood stop coming out of everyone. You’re in charge.

PROS: You get the magic that’s better at keeping motherfuckers alive on your team, and while your spell list is narrower than the M-U’s, who gives a shit? Healing, protection spells, purification… you’re the one who’s making sure bad shit doesn’t happen, or if it does, making sure it’s not worse. You can fight reasonably well and don’t have to waddle around in a bathrobe wielding a switchblade like the M-U. Not only do you get spells, but you can also say a big loud magical “fuck you” to the undead when you encounter them; this is pass-or-fail but can either drive the undead away or just nuke them in-place, depending on your power and theirs. Despite being possibly the safest character class to play in every other way, you also level faster than both the others. And that thing you can do to undead? Theoretically there’s no limit to how many times a day you can try it, it just might not work and you can only try it once per encounter.

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Again, from a later edition. One of my favorite illos in any RPG book. There’s a lot going on here. Artist: Doug Chaffee.

CONS: Your spells suck at offense, but that’s why you have a big mace. Blunt only does put a pretty hard limit on your ranged weapon options. Depending on how roleplaying-heavy the group or campaign is, you may have restrictions or requirements on your character’s behavior because your character is accountable to a godlike otherworldly being who lends them magic. That’s not just a high-five. You’re expected to further that god’s agenda using your borrowed power, and too many fuck-ups can result in you losing all magic and looking very foolish.

Don’t expect to find all the info in one place, or even in the same general area of the book. The classes are briefly described in this section. The experience point tables are after the equipment section, the charts to roll attacks and saving throws are in their own section, and the spell progression stuff is after that. With minimal forethought and planning, all of that shit could have been in one section. But hey, I didn’t invent the game. I’ve just spent 20+ years referencing chart after chart in the books. You get used to it. Just like you get used to psoriasis or a neighbor’s constantly barking dog.

ELVES, DWARVES, HALFLINGS

Unless you get squirrely and speak up, it’s assumed your character is human. Some Dungeon Masters (referred to in early literature simply as “referees”) didn’t even allow nonhumans. I personally fail to see the point, since all three nonhuman options put severe limits on your maximum class level in exchange for some neat-but-not-game-shaking racial perks. One notable exception is the elf, who can be both a fighting-man and an M-U and can wear magical armor while casting spells. Dwarves and Halflings (which are supposed to be off-brand hobbits) both get marginalized: They both may only be fighters (of max 6th and 4th level, respectively). Both, however, get to resist magic etc. as if they were higher level. Playing a dwarf can be good in a big group for their ability to notice traps and secrets underground (this was before thieves were a class, and I’m not sure how they left them out for as long as they did), but there’s almost no point in playing a halfling for four levels just for the better magic defense and the small bonus with missile weapons.

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Real long-legged, Mr. Dwarf. Also, is that tree way in the background, is it in the foreground and tiny, or is this actually the biggest fucking dwarf on record?

Side point here. I began playing this game in 2nd Edition and never understood the idea in early rule sets of nonhumans being limited in their class advancement. No perks to being a human except that there’s no limit on your advancement. Point fucking one, who plays long enough per campaign for that to bear out? No one I know. Point two, if fantasy lit is to be trusted or even lent credence, these fantasy elves and dwarves have lifespans that make us look like gerbils in comparison? I think 3.5 edition D&D is mostly poison to the hobby, but at least it made the races both more egalitarian and more of an interesting choice.

ALIGNMENT

Gygax kept it simple as fuck back in the day: Law and Chaos. Law doesn’t mean just law; it means order, harmony, peace, and ostensibly, goodness. Chaos means not giving a fuck, and that usually extends to morality. There are, of course, nuances and shades of grey within, but you’re not playing this game to write a goddamn dissertation on Immanuel Kant or worry whether you murdered that giant centipede in good faith. Move along.

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Any later-edition player or DM is recoiling like a vampire in sunlight just reading this. This is such a bad idea. A poor idea. Piss-poor, even.

ABILITY SCORES

Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. You generate these by rolling three six-sided dice and recording the scores (3-18) for each ability in order. Yes, in order. Nicer Dungeon Masters let you arrange the scores. Strength has no real hard-and-fast mechanical benefit; in fact, it looks like only Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma have well-defined game effects outside of affecting earned experience (for some fucking reason a stronger fighter learns better, and I’m sure that makes sense to someone). This section needed (And got, in later editions) extensive work.

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Why, yes, two lonely men produced this literature in a basement. How could you tell?

EQUIPMENT

This, sadly, is perhaps the most organized section of the book, and you still have to flip around several tables to get what you need. Starting gold is rolled randomly (three six-sided dice, times ten, for starting money) for each character, so just like in real life, you can suck at being a hero mostly because you can’t afford it. Damage values for weapons are not given because you’re supposed to also have the CHAINMAIL rules handy.

THE REST OF THE BOOK

All the actual “meat” of the info for classes is in this last chunk. So are some vague but seemingly adequate rules fleshing out magical research, as well as the descriptions of the spells for both classes. The descriptions are short – vague enough to allow for long game-stalling debates, but concise enough to let you know quickly what the spell actually does and the effects it has – and the information is packed densely. This was likely a necessity.

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For reference, assume “fewer than seven hit dice” to mean “anything that doesn’t deserve its own theme music.” Also for reference, 1 inch equaled about 10 in-game square feet. Sixty square feet of “fuck you, this combat’s over.”

 

SAMPLE CHARACTER: TOM SELLECK, JR. THE FIGHTING-MAN

We’re going to make a first-level player character from scratch! I’ll be using Notepad for my character sheet since there’s no need for a fancy one, and I’ll be using Roll20 to roll dice so I can show you.

First, let’s go old school rules-as-written and roll these suckers in order:

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Well, fuck. Seeing as a score of 9-12 is the equivalent of “average,” it’s safe to say our character isn’t meant for academic or social greatness. Looks like we’re infantry material whether we like it or not. Let’s name this guy Tom Selleck, Jr. and assume he’s going to be a fightin’ man. Seeing as the in-game effects of my stats are technically fuck-all, we’ll use them for an idea of the guy’s personality. Clearly a dimwit with no common sense and problems making friends, Tom has relied on his average physical fitness and his utter absence of self-awareness to make it in the world prior to becoming an adventurer. How he made enough money to buy gear is beyond me, but let’s roll:

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Well, at least that seems appropriate. Tom’s gonna have shit gear, like the diaper-clown future corpse he is. Speaking of, how easy is he to kill? Let’s roll that six-sided die, because you roll even your first one in OD&D… but don’t worry, we get an extra hit point because we’re a fighting-man!

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Three hit points between ol’ Tom Jr. and the icy black forever-nothing. Just how he likes it, because he’s too fucking stupid to know death is permanent. He thinks all the people he murders are sleeping. He’s gone with that internal narrative since age five. Hey, like it says in the good book: live by the sword, die by the sword in one hit at first level. With that 50 ducats, let’s get our boy some leather armor (15), a shield (10), a battle axe (7), two daggers (6, 3 each), a backpack (5), a week’s standard rations (5), 50′ of rope (1), 6 torches (1), and we are broke.

And since we don’t have extra shit to worry about (or anything to drink out of since I didn’t buy a waterskin), here’s our sheet. Our hero’s all ready to march bravely forth and be slain by a common house cat in one hit.

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Tune in for the second part, when we look at the other two booklets, one of which contains monsters. We’ll even have Tom fight something (and probably die). I hope this provides an interesting change of pace, folks… and be sure to send me hate mail if it doesn’t! Stay Retro!

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bryan.eddy@newretrowave.com

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