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The Long Shadow of D&D
D&D Alumni
James Maliszewski

W e’ve announced the upcoming limited-edition reprints of the original 1st Edition core rulebooks: Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide (the purchase of which help support the Gygax Memorial Fund). To better discuss the importance of these books for the game—and for the entire hobby—Grognardia's James Maliszewski returns for this installment of D&D Alumni.


The hobby of roleplaying games was publicly born with the appearance of three little brown booklets in early 1974. These three booklets, entitled Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, comprised what is now often called Original Dungeons & Dragons (or OD&D), but which at the time was simply known as Dungeons & Dragons. The adjective “original” is appended to the title to distinguish it from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a revision and expansion of the 1974 game, which made its formal debut in 1977 with the publication of the Monster Manual.

In his foreword to the Monster Manual, dated September 27, 1977, editor Mike Carr calls the book “a ‘first’ in the gaming world” because of “its special hard cover.” Difficult as it might be to believe, given the ubiquity of modern roleplaying games with hardcover rulebooks, AD&D was a first in this regard. Indeed, for many years, it was the only example of a roleplaying game presented in this fashion. Equally remarkable was the fact that AD&D’s complete rules were spread over three different volumes, in some ways mirroring the presentation of OD&D, albeit in a greatly expanded form. This presentation not only confirmed the place of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as the most popular RPG of its day but also established it as a top quality one.

Mike Carr uses those very words in his foreword, when he says that the Monster Manual’s hardcover is “another step in our continuing quest for top quality products.” Speaking as a proud owner of those three rulebooks, I can fully attest to the sturdiness of their textbook-quality binding. More than three decades after I originally purchased them, not a single page is loose and their covers have withstood the punishments dished out by being carried in many a backpack over their lifetime. Also noteworthy is the fact that AD&D’s adoption of a hardcover format was at least partially due to the needs of being distributed to bookstores, where they could be displayed just like any other book. This move not only marked a major change in the way the game presented itself but also made it more widely available beyond the toy and hobby shops where OD&D had been sold.

Advancing Dungeons & Dragons

The AD&D project was a massive undertaking that began in 1976, as E. Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, set to work producing what was originally imagined to be a clarification of OD&D, but which soon became much more than that. In his preface to the 1978 Players Handbook, Gygax states that it “was a project which involved varying degrees of my thought, imagination, and actual working time over a period of more than a year and one-half.” He goes on to say that this endeavor consisted of “put[ting] into these works what should be the important parts of a superior D&D campaign, cutting out material which actually adds little or nothing to the game, revising the old, and adding and expanding in the essential areas.”

The three hardcover volumes of AD&D—in order: Monster Manual, Players Handbook, and Dungeon Masters Guide—appeared at a rate of one per year between 1977 and 1979. During that time, AD&D co-existed with OD&D. In fact, AD&D depended on OD&D’s continued existence, since, until the release of the Dungeon Masters Guide, important rules of the game—such as experience awards and magic items, to name just two—were unavailable except through the pages of OD&D. Though both versions of the game continued to exist side by side, the appearance of the Dungeon Masters Guide brought about a shift in the relationship between the two. Gygax, writing in issue #13 of The Dragon (June 1979), stated unequivocally that AD&D was a “different game” than OD&D.

In the same article, Gary Gygax adds that “there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers.” How could he say this, when it seems so obvious how much AD&D owes to OD&D? I used to think his position was patently absurd for this very reason, but Gygax does give us some clues as to what he was thinking. For example, he says that he believed the target audience of OD&D “was principally the same as that of historical wargames in general and military miniatures in particular.” The explosive popularity of the game proved him wrong in this belief, which is why AD&D would be written in such a way as to be appeal to a “broad audience of hundreds of thousands of people—wargamers, game hobbyists, science fiction and fantasy fans, those who have never read fantasy fiction or played strategy games, young and old, male and female.”

Consequently, it was AD&D that became the standard bearer for Dungeons & Dragons in the broader public consciousness. For instance, the New York Times best-selling Dragonlance fantasy novels were based on a series of adventure modules written for AD&D. Likewise, the covers of AD&D rulebooks, in particular David Trampier’s Players Handbook and David Sutherland’s Dungeon Masters Guide covers, became iconic representations of D&D in the minds of even those who never played the game during the days when those rulebooks were available. These three rulebooks (and the game system they presented) became the public face of both Dungeons & Dragons and the wider hobby of roleplaying, which was rapidly becoming a runaway fad at the time.

In retrospect, this popularity is hardly surprising. The AD&D books were not only physically impressive, as I noted earlier, but their content was similarly majestic. Better organized and presented than OD&D, with tables of contents, indexes, and glossaries, they were widely seen as vast improvements over their predecessor. Likewise, Gary Gygax’s sesquipedalian writing style elevated their texts above mere game books, in the process sending a whole generation of gamers scurrying to their dictionaries to look up words such as “milieu,” “dweomer,” and “puissant,”—not to mention Latin abbreviations, such as e.g., i.e, and q.v.—to cite just a few examples I still remember to this day. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have been a game, but its rulebooks were written and presented in a way unlike any other game before or since, which likely goes a long way toward explaining why, even now, this game remains so highly regarded and fondly remembered.

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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