D&D White-Box Set Review

Dungeons & DragonsDungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.


About frater

Author, Software Architect, Husband and Father.
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4 Responses to D&D White-Box Set Review

  1. Jason Imms says:

    Nice dude!

    “As for the rules themselves, they are sparse and far more emphasis is placed on the dungeon master “winging” it.”

    I kind of like the fact that DMs are given more freedom to change things on the fly in newer editions of D&D. While there is a lot about 4e that I dislike, 3.5 and 4e have this in common. It generally means that less time is spent at the table flipping through endless tomes in search of the rules around how deep a player needs to dig a well before they hit water, and more time spent actually playing the game.

    It does require more of the DM at the table, though. Something that some DMs that like their notes and structure may find frustrating. As a player, it means that more game can be had. That’s a good thing, right?

    • frater says:

      I think the “tomes and tomes” issue was more a problem of AD&D 2e than a problem of early D&D in general. 3e was an attempt to simplify and “templatise”, put you in a position where you can “add a fiendish template” to a monster. This results in an excellent, extensible system, but one with a large amount of book-keeping and still an impressive amount of rules. (hence, the dm’s helper +/-2 per circumstance modfier – it was required for when DMs forget rules).

      The original D&D has remarkably few rules of any kind; several systems for simulating specific things they have obviously wanted to do (such as building castles), and the rest is left to the DM to make up on the fly. It was very freeform which could be fantastic if you have a DM who thrives in that sort of situation, but also intimidating and less accessible for a large number of people.

  2. Topher says:

    I’ve got a nice near mint set of the 3 books, supplemental book, and reference sheets that all came inside this “Original Collector’s Edition” Dungeons & Dragons 3-Volume Set which is really the 6th Edition. The box itself is creased and crushed and shows age stains. I’ve seen the books sell for $150 each and the complete set at $350 in fair condition. Are there still collectors out there looking for these?

    • frater says:

      There certainly are, i’d be interested in buying a set myself – though not at those prices 😉

      I suspect you’d be lucky to sell individual books, most collectors want complete sets and I can’t imagine a serious collector being interested in just parts of the full box set. If you want to offload it, i’d suggest checking out rpggeek.com, a lot of very serious collectors hang out there, as well as rpg fans in general.

      I don’t know that you can necessarily hope to get such a high amount, but I wouldn’t say it was outside the scope of possibility.

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