The first copies of the boxed three-book OD&D set rolled off the presses in January 1974—and the re-release hits the store shelves this week. In today's D&D Alumni, we look back at the "original" edition of Dungeons & Dragons, including its first booklets and supplements.
Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1974
The original D&D box (1974), by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, contained three booklets: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness. Looking back at the original D&D set from the 21st century, it’s interesting both for what it contains and what it doesn’t—especially when compared to modern editions of D&D.
Men & Magic
introduces the character classes of D&D for the first time. Surprisingly, there are just three: the cleric, the fighting-man, and the magic-user. The lack of subclasses is predictable in this early iteration of D&D, but the absence of the thief is much more shocking. Gygax would write that class up half a year later for Great Plains Game Players Newsletter #9 (June 1974).
Everything else in Men & Magic is a subset of what you’d find in later D&D edition.
- There are just four races: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs are all missing and would have to await the publication of AD&D (1977-1979).
- Similarly, there are just three alignments: law, chaos, and neutrality. OD&D gives almost no advice on how to use them, but readers of Michael Moorcock’s tales of Elric (1961-Present) would understand what these original alignments meant. J. Eric Holmes’ first edition of Basic D&D (1977) is the one that added the good and evil alignments, creating the classic two-axis system—though later editions of Basic D&D went back to OD&D’s simpler system.
- Finally, spells max out at 6th level for magic-users and 5th level for clerics.
The combat rules in Men & Magic are also quite spare. That’s because OD&D recommends the use of D&D’s predecessor, Chainmail (1971), for combat. D&D grew immediately out of Chainmail when Dave Arneson used it to run adventures in the dungeons of Blackmoor; Men & Magic shows how closely aligned those two games still were, back in 1974.
As a result, the only combat rules actually published in Men & Magic are contained within one page that details an “alternate combat system”: a 20-sided die is rolled and compared to AC; if it hits, 1d6 of damage is done. It’s obvious how much has changed when one compares this to the complex, tactical simulations in more recent versions of D&D!
Monsters & Treasures
, as the name suggests, contains a list of monsters followed by a list of treasures. Humanoids, demihumans, the undead, and mythological creatures fill the monster list, but the first few iconic D&D monsters are also introduced: the purple worm, the invisible stalker, and a variety of jellies, puddings, slimes, oozes, and molds. There of course are dragons, too: black, blue, green, red, white, and golden. They all have their classic breath weapons, and it’s noted that golden dragons are lawful—showing that dragons had already evolved into their classic form very early in the game’s history.
The magic items are also quite recognizable. Monsters & Treasures includes weapons, potions, scrolls, rings, wands and staves, and miscellaneous magic; it’s surprising to see so many classic categories already present. There are also many classic items, like: flaming sword +1, +2 vs trolls, +3 vs undead; and a brazier of controlling fire elementals.
The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures
may be the most interesting book because it reveals the earliest ideas about creating RPG adventures. The first half of the book, which talks about dungeons, shows how to create a beautiful dungeon with complex interconnected levels of the sort that wouldn’t come back into vogue until the ‘80s. It even details a sample level, which was the first published dungeon ever. The idea of wandering monsters also originates here.
The other half of the book talks about adventuring in the wilderness—another idea that didn’t come into much use until the ‘80s, with the publication of David “Zeb” Cook’s Basic D&D Expert Set (1981). Rather amusingly, OD&D suggests the use of Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival (1972) game for outdoor movement—showing that OD&D was still figuring out what it meant to be a standalone game.
All told, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures is just brimming full of innovative ideas. One of the later sections discusses the construction of castles and strongholds, something that didn’t see much attention until the release of the Basic D&D Companion Set (1984) a full decade later. Another section on naval combat wouldn’t be fully addressed by the AD&D game until such 2e supplements as FOR3: Pirates of the Fallen Stars (1992), Naval Battle Rules: The Seas of Cerilia (1996), and DMGR9: Of Ships and the Sea (1997).
The fact that TSR was still mining OD&D for ideas two decades later show just how innovative it was.
The Four Supplements: 1975-1976
When OD&D debuted, it did so as part of the miniatures wargaming industry, which was very small and largely hobbyist. Though miniatures rules were sometimes revised and republished, they weren’t often supplemented—nor were the board-based wargames that larger companies like Avalon Hill and SPI were publishing at the time.
TSR acted like most miniatures wargaming companies in 1974 by immediately moving on to new games: the Napoleanic Tricolor (1974), Warriors of Mars (1974), and Star Probe (1975). However Gygax had already realized that the OD&D rules could be supplemented—thanks to that thief class he’d written up. As a result, TSR decided to begin publishing rules supplements for OD&D; in the end, there were four.
Supplement I: Greyhawk
(1975), by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, led the way. In many ways, it completed the OD&D rules. Most notably, it expanded the “alternate combat system” out to seven pages of text, breaking OD&D away from its Chainmail origins. Cleric spells were expanded to 7th level and wizards spells to 9th, creating the limits that would be used throughout the AD&D run of the game.
The game also officially gained two classes. Thieves (reprinted from Game Players Newsletter #9) filled out D&D’s four core classes; while paladins introduced the first subclass to the game—and established fertile ground for expansion.
Greyhawk also began to really establish D&D’s milieu—separate from Moorcock, Tolkien, or any of D&D’s other inspirations. Many more iconic magic items appeared, such as the holy sword +5—which would soon become the holy avenger. However it’s the monsters that are the most memorable. These included: the beholder (created by Terry Kuntz, and called “Sphere of Doom” in the original artwork); the blink dog; the bugbear (curiously depicted with a pumpkin for a head, reportedly due to a miscommunication between Gygax and the artist); the carrion crawler; the displacer beast (inspired by an A.E. Van Vogt story); the Chromatic and Platinum Dragons; the rust monster; and the umber hulk. Four of those monsters later became product identity in the d20 SRD (2000), showing Greyhawk’s staying power.
Supplement II: Blackmoor
(1975), by Dave Arneson, offered an alternate view of D&D. In part Arneson’s point of view comes across through the two classes that he introduces in Blackmoor: the monk (a cleric subclass) and the assassin (a thief subclass). Both would be core parts of D&D through the ‘80s. They also moved D&D in interesting new directions: the monk offered the first hint that D&D could be used for something other than pure western-Medieval gaming, while the assassin suggested that players could be evil (even more so than the thief). Blackmoor’s other notable rules addition is a hit location system, something that was expunged from D&D immediately thereafter.
Through his Blackmoor gaming sessions, Arneson helped create the dungeon delving at the heart of D&D. Thus it’s appropriate that the rest of Blackmoor is taken up with TSR’s first published adventure (and the first professionally published D&D adventure ever), “The Temple of the Frog”. This was the part of Blackmoor that was the most groundbreaking, because for the first time ever it showed how one of the D&D creators actually ran the game. It also provided the first hints at the campaign world of Blackmoor, including its science-fantasy technology.
Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry
(1976), by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume, was the final book of actual rules for OD&D. It included one more class, the druid (a cleric subclass suggested by Dennis Sustare), and rules for psionics (by Steve Marsh). Much like Arneson’s expansions in Blackmoor, these new rules weren’t strictly required to make the OD&D game complete, but they’d nonetheless be an important part of the D&D game through the end of the’80s.
However Eldritch Wizardry is more historically important for the continued expansion of the D&D milieu through new creatures and magic items. For the first time ever, it introduced demons to the D&D games—including Types I through VI and the demon princes Demogorgon and Orcus. Artifacts also premiered, including many notables such as Baba Yaga’s Hut.
These artifacts also provided the first insights into the world of Greyhawk; though Gygax had named the first OD&D supplement after his world, that book contained no campaign details. Now, readers could learn about the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the Mace of Cuthbert, the Sword of Kas, and others.
Finally, where the covers of previous OD&D volumes had been printed with just two colors of ink, Eldritch Wizardry was graced with a full-color cover. It showed that D&D was on its way up, less than two years after its first printing.
Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes
(1976), by Rob Kuntz and James M. Ward, ended the classic OD&D series. It wasn’t a collection of rules, but instead a book of D&D stats for deities. This would set the pattern for D&D deity books through the end of the ‘80s—with gods being powerful NPCs that could potentially be killed.
Ironically, the relatively low level of the deities in Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes was meant to strike a blow in the level wars that raged through D&D communities in the ‘70s; TSR felt that characters should be relatively low level, while some “Monty Hall” GMs instead gave much more experience and gold. As editor Timothy Kask said in the introduction:
This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?
If anything, the book had the opposite effect, as killing gods now became possible in “Monty Hall” campaigns. It’d take until the ‘90s for this issue to be resolved, when deity books published for AD&D 2e began describing avatars instead of the gods themselves.
TSR could have set a model for the roleplaying industry with these four early supplements—and indeed some publishers mimicked the model: GDW followed up Traveller (1977) with a series of rules Books (1978-1986), while the Arduin Trilogy (1977-1978) was followed by many more Grimoires (1984-1988, 2002). However, most early publishers instead followed the model created by Judges Guild (and adopted by TSR after the OD&D run): they published lots of adventures.
The Rest of the Original: 1975-1980
Though the three-book OD&D set and its four supplements form the core of the OD&D game, TSR published several related books in the ‘70s.
That began with the seven issues of TSR’s The Strategic Review (1975-1976), a newsletter that contained official articles for OD&D. Most notably the ranger, the illusionist, and the bard classes all premiered in The Strategic Review. Though The Dragon (1976-Present) also featured many OD&D articles in its first 20 or so issues, it was run by a separate division, TSR Periodicals, and thus wasn’t as official.
Swords & Spells (1976), by Gary Gygax, wasn’t exactly an OD&D rulebook; instead, it introduced a new miniatures combat system, to replace Chainmail. Still, OD&D and S&S could be played together.
Finally, the original Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1977), by J. Eric Holmes, was meant to be a prelude to OD&D, taking beginning players through levels 1-3 before they graduated to OD&D. When Tom Moldvay wrote the second edition Basic Set (1981), it instead made Basic D&D into its own game.
OD&D was published in seven printings from 1974-1979. After that it faded away—replaced by AD&D (1977-1979) and the second edition of the D&D Basic Set (1981). Until now. The OSR has made all old things new again—and thus Wizards has made OD&D available once more. It’s a fine bit of history, and also a surprisingly simple game system when compared to the more complex tactical systems that have followed.