Like many of my generation of gamers I started out with an copy of the red-box set. Mine was second hand, found on a market stall and though the box is long gone, I still have and treasure the original books today.
It was a long road from there to here, but though I’d read a lot of “where it all began”, it was not something i’d even experienced myself – so when I got a chance to read the original white-box 1974 rulebooks I leapt at the chance to see where everything started. What I found was completely different from what I had expected.
You hear a lot said about the early rules. They were hard to understand, no-one knew how the game was supposed to work, they don’t stand up to modern-day standards. Well, as I had never before had any experience with the 1974 set, I am coming at the books completely untouched by nostalgia and with a history of many years of rpg’s, wargames and boardgames to help understand.
That was probably the first thing I noticed about the game itself, It really wasn’t as difficult to understand as I had been led to believe. I think perhaps it is simply that the mechanics we are used to today have their roots in these mechanics from the past, so it’s simple for me to see what they are attempting to do, but on the whole the rules felt reasonably simple and to-the-point.
It is obvious from the start that these rules were written by, and presumably for, people with serious war games experience. Some parts were also a little difficult to understand as they expected the reader to be familiar with, and own a copy of, Chainmail and other similar games.
It seemed to me then, reading through the books, that D&D had grown out of their desire to add a larger framework to their fantasy war games. To have characters that grew and became more powerful over time, that had a story to tell. This really resonated with me as it is the same reason I always gravitated to Necromunda and Blood Bowl over WFB or 40k, that sense of drama and consistency.
The aim appeared different too. Whilst the dungeon-crawling is certainly there right from the start and a major part of the game, a lot more attention is paid to what -else- happens. Characters set themselves up as nobility, build castles and raise armies, all with surprisingly detailed and workable rulesets. There are rules for clearing monsters out of an area so your people can live happy, and for making war on other nearby castles and kingdoms.
You can certainly do all this in a modern D&D version, such as 3.5, but the rules aren’t all included in the core book. Supplements such as the Stronghold Builders guidebook are required, and even then the focus is more on building a home base for an adventuring party rather than attempting to forge an entirely new nation in your own image.
As for the rules themselves, they are sparse and far more emphasis is placed on the dungeon master “winging” it. There was a lot less structure in these early rules, something the independent games of today are re-embracing wholeheartedly. Much of the idea for an adventure site seemed to be a dungeon that was constantly changing, expanding, and delving deeper; with the adventures making many delves into the one dungeon and finding earlier levels re-worked and reoccupied, just as challenging as the first time through. Nethack was far closer to the original source material than I ever suspected.
On the whole, reading the original books and understanding the magic of what they were trying to do, in a time when it have never been done before, makes you understand how D&D grabbed generations of gamers and their imaginations in a death grip and refused to let go.
I guess the most important thing I can say about reading through these rules is that despite my shelves of 3.5e material and many other new(er) games available, I still walked away with an urge to sit down and give the original box set a try. It is a very different beast from the D&D of today.