Here is another collection of random thoughts related to Chris Tichenor's chronology of D&D/AD&D products. Today's post begins with 1983, an important transitional year in my opinion.
Though my fondest memory of this year is the release of Monster Manual II, for which I still have an inordinate love, the main event was the publication of the Frank Mentzer-edited Basic and Expert sets. My love for these is not great, as I've noted before, but I'm apparently in the minority among gamers, since, by most accounts, these were the best-selling versions of D&D ever. I personally find them too slick and soulless, compared even to Moldvay's rules and there's no question that the esthetics of the Mentzer edition are rooted in the Silver not Golden Age. 1983 also sees the release of a large number of modules, including the conclusions to the "Desert of Desolation" series and Ravenloft, forerunners all to what awaits the hobby in the following year.
With the exception of the D&D Companion Rules, which I actually enjoyed, the majority of this years releases were modules -- a lot of modules, most of them quite forgettable. Among them are the first five Dragonlance modules, about which I've written before. I also notice two other things. First, there are a couple of licensed modules (the Conan ones), but also a great many geared toward supporting the Basic, Expert, and Companion rules sets. That's almost as big a story as Dragonlance in some ways, since it suggests that TSR sees adventure modules as the pre-eminent support product for these lines and, by extension, the primary means by which the game is meant to be played.
Not a good year in my opinion, although many products made their debut, among them Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana, two flawed "classics." I call them classics because I have fond memories of both, as I think many gamers from that era do, even though now, in retrospect, I can what they presaged for the game and the hobby. The Master Rules are thin gruel intended to fill out a schematized business plan rather than any compelling need within the game. There's yet more licensed properties (Lankhmar) and even more modules than 1984. Of these, only Gary's The Isle of the Ape is a stand-out and even it is marred somewhat by its heavy use -- and dependence on -- material from Unearthed Arcana. However generous one is willing to be to 1983 and 1984, I don't think one can easily argue that the Old Ways were all but dead by 1985.
Not one but two hardcover books released this year, both of them largely worthless (though I loved them as a young man). Clearly, TSR had come to the conclusion that more hardcovers equals more cash and ran with that idea, laying the groundwork for what was to come. The Immortal Rules are even less useful than the Master Rules, being effectively a different game entirely and not a particularly interesting or well-designed one at that. If I'm going to play a wacky immortal in training, I'd rather play Tom Moldvay's Lords of Creation any day of the week. Tons of modules, most of them forgettable, appear this year as well. The only standouts in my opinion are B10, which is unexpectedly good, and the Blackmoor modules.
Yet more hardcovers and not very good ones at that. It's also the dawn of the Pre-Fab Campaign Age, with the release of not just the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (which is better than its reputation among old schoolers would suggest), but also Kara-Tur and the GAZ line for D&D (which is more of a mixed bag in my opinion). Lots more modules -- including the Official RPGA Tourney Handbook -- but, once again, only the Blackmoor modules hold much interest.
One more sub-par hardcover, Greyhawk Adventures, and tons of campaign setting accessories, both for the Realms and the Known World. Indeed, the number of actual adventure published this year is negligible, as they give way to setting information as the new cash cow of TSR, something that would reach its fullest flower in a few years. This is also when Castle Greyhawk appears, a module whose origins and purpose remain subjects of much debate more than 20 years later. Regardless of the true intentions behind it, I think it's a fitting capstone to the end of the post-Gygax AD&D.