Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thoughts on the D&D/AD&D Chronology (Part I)

Lots of interesting commentary resulted from my post yesterday about Chris Tichenor's chronology of D&D/AD&D products released by TSR between 1974 (the release of OD&D) and 1988 (the last year of 1e). Today, I'm going to offer my own rambling thoughts on the first part of the chronology, using each year as a touchstone for whatever comes to mind. I'll do a second post on the remaining years later today or tomorrow.

1974
Not much to say here, since it's Year 1 and there's only a single product available.

1975
In many ways, 1975 is the "true" birthdate of D&D, as we know it today, since the release of Supplements I and II was the first appearance of many of the game mechanics and features now indelibly associated with D&D (such as the thief class, for example). It's also also where the creation of D&D's own unique "mythology" kicks into high gear, with the addition of monsters like the beholder, umber hulks, rust monster, carrion crawler, sahuagin, and so forth. The LBBs largely content themselves with monsters from real world sources, but Greyhawk and Blackmoor describe far more monsters who have their origins in D&D campaigns rather than in myths or legends. This is the start of the game's creative self-referentiality.

It's also worth noting that, between them, the two supplements to OD&D constitute more pages than the three LBBs combined: 128 half-pages vs. 112 half-pages.

1976
This is the year D&D was supposed to "end," according to the introduction to Supplement IV by Tim Kask, at least in terms of "official" supplements. That obviously didn't happen, but it's still interesting to consider a world in which Kask's proclamation came true -- where further development of the game was confined to periodicals like Dragon and where published support came in the form of products like Dungeon Geomorphs or related spin-off games like Swords & Spells.

1977
This year is an interesting year. We see the first AD&D product -- the Monster Manual -- as well as re-working of the LBBs into an "intro" product. The only support products are more geomorphs, monsters and treasure assortments, and character sheets. From my perspective, the complexion of the game hasn't changed all that much. The MM is still, in many ways, a support product for OD&D, despite its branding, since the stats are quite compatible (indeed there are some OD&D-isms scattered throughout the text) and the monster format of OD&D isn't conducive to ease of use. Granted, I do think the MM frequently provides too much information for my tastes, but I suspect I'm in the minority on this score.

1978
A big year -- an annus mirabilis, as Delta called it. We see not only the release of the Players Handbook, but also a series of superb adventure modules. Nevertheless, you can detect a shift in the game. The PHB added a fair amount of complexity to the game, both in terms of detail and rules. Likewise, the appearance of modules marks a move away from homebrew adventures as the default way that people played D&D. I don't think these shifts are, in and of themselves, bad ones and I actually think there's much to be said in favor of modules -- in another post perhaps -- but the game is clearly changing by this point.

1979
A strangely sedate year. Yes, there's the release of the Dungeon Masters Guide, which is, in some ways, one of the most important books ever released for D&D. Beyond that, though, support for the game is sparser than in 1978. Only three modules are released -- all classics, again -- and the remainder consists of record sheets and a referee's screen. I can't help but wonder if perhaps TSR was, at this stage, under-staffed and over-worked, which is why you see many new employees in 1980 and '81.

1980
The fourth AD&D hardcover appears, along with a handful of modules, most of which have their origins in convention play, a phenomenon that becomes ever more important to the way the game is designed. We also see the first official campaign setting for D&D.

1981
The Fiend Folio marks the rise of the game as an international hobby. The slew of modules are a varied lot, but what stands out is the presence of so many new writers. The big events of the year, though, are the release of the Basic and Expert Sets, which were the first serious attempts to make the game appealing to the mass market.

1982
Modules have obviously become a mainstay for TSR, which releases nine of them this year. Again, they're a varied lot with a variety of authors, among them Tracy Hickman, whose Pharaoh, while still rooted in many aspects of the old school, points the way to the future of both module design and D&D itself.

10 comments:

  1. "...along with a handful of modules, most of which have their origins in convention play, a phenomenon that becomes ever more important to the way the game is designed."

    I think this is a fascinating topic. I like to think about an alternate timeline where this wasn't the source of so many adventure modules. How would the game evolved where instead the adventure modules were instead structured more like their home campaigns?

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  2. [i]Granted, I do think the MM frequently provides too much information for my tastes, but I suspect I'm in the minority on this score.[/i]

    No, I think that your observation is quite correct but it is tainted with later influences. The secret would have been to mix a standard description with miminal stats then allow for a whole raft of ecology articles to fill the void. Afterall, think about it, if they did not describe the monster in depth - all Vampires would resemble Hammer films renditions rather than any other traditions...the description is what made the monster the monster not merely a pale reflection of some sort excuse for the human condition.

    I like how you also note...
    [i]Modules have obviously become a mainstay for TSR, which releases nine of them this year. Again, they're a varied lot with a variety of authors, among them Tracy Hickman, whose Pharaoh, while still rooted in many aspects of the old school, points the way to the future of both module design and D&D itself. [/i]

    but note there are people like myself who only came into gaming that year therefore our conceptions of old school is still weeded within that multiverse of choice. Modules did not define a campaign (like Dragonlance attempted) but paralled a campaign for younger gamers like myself. We even created a name for it...intra-Campaign material whereby we adapted modules to an ever wider story of our PCs. Some people liked it (those more who were inclined to what would become storytellers) and others did not (those who preferred Hack & Slash). So never equate the rise of the post-1982 module as the death of the old school, rather, it was an enhancement and innovation that helped diffuse old school gaming to a larger audience.

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  3. I never really got the "Tracy Hickman was the future" of modules vibe.

    This is usually accompanied by a strong "Tracy Hickman destroyed the D&D module", which isn't what I think you're doing here James, but it is interesting to me to see him so often used to represent "new wave" D&D module design.

    Yes, his Dragonlance modules are rail-roady, and yes they have plot, but many of them are also site-based, even dungeon crawls.

    I also thinK Ravenloft, despite what I think about the weird horror setting it spawned, it a site based adventure with some mystery elements.

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  4. "I also thinK Ravenloft, despite what I think about the weird horror setting it spawned, it a site based adventure with some mystery elements."

    Just to scamper off on a tangent for a moment, while Ravenloft was weakened (in my opinion) by being a typical TSR "pastiche" setting, it had some excellent individual modules. I recall one in particular about a puppet shop that pushed more than a few of my creep-factor buttons.

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  5. Just to scamper off on a tangent for a moment, while Ravenloft was weakened (in my opinion) by being a typical TSR "pastiche" setting, it had some excellent individual modules. I recall one in particular about a puppet shop that pushed more than a few of my creep-factor buttons.

    I suspect (without doing any research on this score) that gestures toward pure horror gaming were important in the evolution of D&D - as much as anything, material like I6 illuminates the limitations of the D&D combat/action model for certain kinds of storytelling, and the usefulness of mechanics that treat storytelling and narrative control as first-order, rules-governed concerns. D&D is naturally a horror game, to a limited extent, but it's always had adventure-game rules. I suspect there are other mechanism/intention conflicts in D&D's setting/sourcebook history, which might be worth writing about at greater length (with particular attention to cross-pollination between D&D and other, more productive threads in RPG history).

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  6. I think that one of the best, and most overlooked features of the D&D are the Treasure Type tables at the back of the MM, and the unguarded treasure charts in the basic/expert booklets. That, along with the Monster and Spell lists defines AD&D, when compared with the other fantasy RPGs of the time. Think about it, TSR copyrighter all of the typical fantasy monsters, and systems like Tunnels and Trolls and Runequest had to IMPROVISE.

    With regards to horror moddules. I think that the AD&D was trying to become all things to all people in order to compete with the other RPGs covering other types of fantasy.

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  7. "I suspect there are other mechanism/intention conflicts in D&D's setting/sourcebook history, which might be worth writing about at greater length (with particular attention to cross-pollination between D&D and other, more productive threads in RPG history)."

    If you can point the way to your blog, i'd be interested in reading your essay on the subject.

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  8. 1981 also happened to see the publication of the first modules from TSR-UK. James, are planning to look at any of these and of Imagine magazine?

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  9. @Pookie

    The UK series (Saltmarsh, et al) was great. UK 1 is still a favorite. And I have photocopies of articles from Imagine. I wish I had the magazines themselves.

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  10. James, are planning to look at any of these and of Imagine magazine?

    I wrote about module U1 some months ago, but none of the others as yet. And I am sorry to say I've never seen a single copy of Imagine to this day -- a deep regret of mine.

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