D&D and d20

In The Beginning, There Was D&D. Well, not exactly, but it often seems that way after so many years. There were fantasy RPGs before D&D, but my personal introduction to the genre took place one day in 1977 when a friend's father announced that he had something new for us to try. It was a game called "Dungeons and Dragons", and it was unlike any game I'd ever played before. It came in a blue box with a picture of several people fighting a dragon on the cover, and inside it was a slim, 8 1/2 x 11 booklet with the same cover picture and several dice which looked nothing like the dice in any other game.

One of the drawbacks of being an experienced player is that it's impossible to capture the thrill of that first session, rolling up characters--I decided to start out as a fighter (it was called "fighting man" then) because it was simplest, just swing your sword at anything that moves--outfitting our new adventurers with basic equipment (including the classic argument over how many people needed to have a 10 foot pole), and then listening with hearts beating fast as my friend's father, the "dungeon master", described what we saw as we descended a damp staircase into darkness.

That first adventure didn't last long--the entire party got killed after we had only explored about three rooms--but my addiction to the game has. The word "addiction" may be too strong (although my father, back when I was thirteen, would have thought it not strong enough) because playing the game does not, like other things that are true addictions, keep you from functioning in other areas of life (at least not once you're an adult). Many people describe D&D, and RPGs in general, as a "hobby", but to me that word seems too weak. Hobbies can take up most (or all) of one's free time, true, but somehow I can't see comparing D&D with collecting stamps.

The game itself has changed a great deal since I started playing. I remember counting the days until the 1st Edition of "Advanced" D&D hit the shelves at the local store, and plonking down my entire allowance for each book. Those books were basically the work of one man, Gary Gygax, and looking back, it shows: each book was painstakingly crafted, and they still (especially the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide) have a wealth of information on how to play the game, even if the rules are outdated, but it was clearly all one person's work, one person's outlook, and one person's opinions. Each book had the air of being the definitive source for the definitive game; of course every individual gaming group had their house rules (and still do), but there was always that sense that, if you weren't playing these rules, from these books, you weren't playing D&D.

During the 1980's, the game grew and altered. It may have been partly because of the infighting that went on between the various "owners" of D&D and its parent company, TSR. It may also have been because the "multiverse" of D&D expanded to include a number of settings in a number of different worlds, each with a distinct flavor and a distinct style, quite different from the "original" Greyhawk campaign that was the source of the personal names and other bits of flavor in the original 1st Edition rules. Then, in the late 80's, the 2nd Edition of D&D came out. By that time our original campaign was not very active, since all its participants had left school and were scattered to the four winds--well, not quite, but it seemed like it. But we (or at least some of us) were still interested in the game, and we took a look at its new incarnation.

Here I will make a confession: from a strictly objective point of view, I think 2nd Edition AD&D was definitely an improvement over 1st Edition. The original edition had been a hodgepodge of rules mechanics which had been thought up over a period of many years, with no attempt at consistency. 2nd Edition started to at least make an effort to bring order to this chaos. But there were still plenty of special mechanics for different situations, and other quirks, and there was also the fact that, in some not clearly definable way, 2nd Edition AD&D lacked the unique flavor of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the game went on, and the proliferation of world settings and supplementary sourcebooks continued--the latter, in particular, to an extent never dreamed of in the days of 1st Edition. A "complete handbook" for every class and race, books on various monsters and the ecology of the underearth, and even, in the 90's, the ill-fated "Option" books. (Some of the latter, actually, I thought were quite well thought out, but they never caught on, and the advent of 3rd Edition sealed their fate.)

Also during this time, the D&D franchise was going through a difficult period of corporate infighting. This ended up with the game being owned by Wizards of the Coast, who had succeeded so spectacularly with Magic: The Gathering. Wizards decided to put out a new edition of D&D--no longer "Advanced" D&D, but simply "D&D". During the 80's there had been a line of "D&D" products alongside the AD&D line, but no true aficionado would have touched them with the aforementioned 10 foot pole, and we were not sure what to make of the planned new edition. Discussions were already underway on the web two years before the release date, and many people (of whom I was one) were wondering, quite simply, what was going to happen to "their" game.

What happened actually turned out to be a good thing in a couple of ways. First, the rules system got a much-needed overhaul, and the underlying mechanics were drastically streamlined. No more asking whether you had to roll a 20-sided die or percentile dice, or wondering whether a high or a low roll was better. No more wondering why a negative Armor Class was better than a positive one. Of course, longtime players like me scoffed at such "improvements"--we knew perfectly well why a negative Armor Class was better, and which rolls required percentile dice, and when a lower roll was better. But since a game needs new players over time to stay alive, and since all these confusing and contradictory mechanics made it harder for new players to learn the game, it was about time they were jettisoned in favor of a better system.

More importantly, at least for me personally, Wizards of the Coast decided to do something that was unprecedented: they decided to put out a license, the Open Gaming License (OGL), that allowed others to publish material for the D&D rules system. To keep it clear that D&D itself was still their property, they called the rules system itself, divorced from any specific game application, the "d20" system (because the basic task resolution mechanic is to roll a d20 and try to beat a target number). They made the rules available in a document, the "System Reference Document" (SRD), that was Open Game Content, and released the whole shooting match to the world, so that anyone willing to abide by the terms of the Open Gaming License could publish material based on it. (They also made available a more stringent license, the "d20 System License", for publishers that wanted to use the d20 logo on their products--but you could still make a straight Open Game Content product without the logo and use anything from the SRD.)

Like a host of other longtime players, my friend Tim Plum and I read the announcement of all this and our mouths watered. At last, an opportunity to legitimately publish all the stuff we had thought up over the years! (This phenomenon provides an excellent illustration of the old saying: "I'm unique--just like everybody else.") If you're interested, you can take a look at our publishing company's website. Now don't get me wrong--we are among the small fish in a pond that has some giant ones in it, even leaving out Wizards of the Coast. But all of us have something in common: we want to make use of an opportunity that has never existed before for our game, or any roleplaying game. And it has already made D&D far more of a cooperative venture than it ever was--which means each of us now feels far more of a sense of having participated in making the game what it is.

The latest "update" of the 3rd Edition rules, D&D "3.5", illustrates this--Wizards itself says that the update incorporates a large amount of feedback from players, and certainly the volume of discussions on the web about this or that nuance of the rules shows that there are a lot of people interested in continuing the feedback. But more than this, there are now actual, credible alternatives for those (like me) who do not want to just take the latest rule set as it is. There is a wealth of OGC out there to choose from, not just different sets of "crunchy bits" (races, classes, skills, feats, etc.), but different mechanics--for example, a variety of alternatives to the traditional D&D hit point system are out there--and even a variant Player's Handbook, Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed.

I still have the "Basic D&D" blue book with the dragon on the cover, and occasionally I get it out and look at it. It seems quaint and evokes a feeling of nostalgia. The game has come a long way from there to the "V 3.5" books on my desk, but it's been a fun trip, and it's not over yet.