Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Praise of the Rules Cyclopedia

Long-time readers of this blog will know I'm not a huge fan of the 1983 Frank Mentzer-edited version of Dungeons & Dragons, even though I retain a lot of fondness for the Companion Rules that are part of that series. The reasons for my dislike are partially esthetic and partially philosophical, but they're not really important right now, because I'm not actually going to talk about those boxed sets in this entry. Instead, I'm going to talk about their 1991 Aaron Allston-edited descendent, the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia.

The Rules Cyclopedia was, in many ways, the final gasp of OD&D, as it was the last time TSR published a version of D&D that wasn't a sub-set or spin-off of AD&D. Weighing in at just over 300 pages, it was also a complete game, containing all you needed to create and play characters from levels 1 through 36. When I say "complete," I'm not exaggerating (much), since the Cyclopedia had rules not just for characters, combat, spells, monsters, and treasures, as you expect, but also rules for stronghold construction, domain management, mass combat, and planar adventuring -- the entirety of the now-missing D&D endgame. With this book alone, you have everything you'd ever need to play endless D&D campaigns.

Some would assert that the original three little brown books are just as complete as this 304-page tome and do so in the span of far fewer pages. There's much truth in that assertion and goodness knows no one needs as much explication as the Cyclopedia provides in order to create and maintain a D&D campaign. However, the truth is that OD&D, despite being first chronologically, is probably the most advanced of all the D&D rules sets. It's not a good fit for beginners or for gamers who aren't accustomed to having to "wing it" at nearly every turn as their campaign unfolds. For such neophytes, books like the Rules Cyclopedia are a godsend, providing just enough detail to be useful as references but not so much as to reduce the whole endeavor to an exercise in bland number-crunching. The Rules Cyclopedia in my opinion strikes a fairly happy medium between the extremes to which roleplaying games can fall prey.

More than that, though, reading through this book, I don't get the sense that it was part of a grand plan to sell more products. Instead, it feels very much like a stand-alone product. Certainly there are many references to other D&D products -- many of them AD&D 2e products, oddly enough -- but these references don't detract from the overpowering completeness of this single volume. When one compares it to the bulk of TSR's output in the early 90s, most of which were clearly intended as mere pieces in a larger product line, the Cyclopedia seems all the more anomalous. It's as if it were someone's pet project that they somehow managed to sneak on to the release schedule in between Volumes 632 and 633 of the Encyclopedia Magica and after the 115th domain book for Birthright.

That's not to say I love everything about this book. Even as relatively slim as it is, it's still too long for my liking and wastes a lot of space on things I'd rather not have seen (like a skill system or an overview of the Mystara setting). Nevertheless, I always keep this book close at hand and enjoy re-reading it every now and then. When I do so, I often have to fight off the urge to start a campaign using these rules as-is. There's just something very appealing about this book, something that's very hard for me to quantify. I suspect it's that the Rules Cyclopedia somehow manages to steer itself between the Scylla of AD&D's complexity and the Charybdis of OD&D's sketchiness -- a sweet spot for many gamers, especially in an age when modern editions of D&D dwarf even 1e in length and complication.


  1. I was happy to see this post. The Cyclopedia version of D&D is probably my favorite, for many of the reasons you mention. In fact, until I picked up the rule book for Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying, I was planning to use the Cyclopedia as the engine for a campaign I'm putting together. That's now changed, but, were I to "do" D&D again as a DM, this would be the version I'd use.

    On a side note, it must remain popular with a lot of people: the prices copies command on eBay continually surprise me.

  2. To my estimation, the RC is the best single volume RPG ever published. It's my "desert Island" game.

    Things like the skills and Weapon Mastery don't do much for me, but all in all I could (and have) run campaigns with it for many, many years.

    I also like the art quite a lot.

  3. There are all sorts of things I could criticize the RC for. There are so many little nits to pick, starting with the poor editing job of the combat section.

    However, while I don't love it as much as the crowd does, and don't see it as the be all/end all of D&D, I find it to be a product I wouldn't want to live without. The sheer scope of it is amazing.

    That it came out in the time period in TSR's existence that it did... D&D being phased out, all products tied into novels and other products, general quality of products at a near all-time low... is nothing short of miraculous.

  4. I should note also, that when it first came out in 1991, it hit the market with a resounding thud. No doubt in part due to TSR's complete lack of marketing and general disinterest in the D&D product line.

    It's only in the last decade that the RC has obtained the cache about it that it has now.

    Its high prices on ebay have as much to due to its limited print run as its popularity.

  5. Huh. I love the RC, but mostly because I love the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master Set version of D&D that the RC grew out of. I never really thought of it as its own version of the game - just a compilation of the rules I was playing with into one handy volume. Even with the superfluous stuff that I never really used (or more to the point, used once and then said "never again" like the Weapon Mastery rules or the skill system).

    And it and Moldvoy Basic/Expert are really the only "older" versions of the game I still revisit (AD&D was never my thing). And since until recently I considered Moldvoy Basic/Expert and Metzner Basic/Expert to be roughly the same game anyway, that's not surprising I suppose. (When I was first bought a copy of the rules for myself I got the Metzner Basic Set and later the Moldvoy Expert Set and that was "my D&D" for a long time as a DM - right up until the RC came out as a matter of fact. I still have trouble thinking of them as in anyway separate games even though I know that a detailed analysis shows a lot of differences. I don't really care - they're D&D as far as I'm concerned and I was always able to make it work.)

  6. I was always a fan of D&D (Original and Basic) and like you did not really care for the Menter-edited books. But the RC has always held something of a soft spot with me. I like that it is so complete and I like the "simpleness" of the game. I came to it not so much when it was released, but many years later when I grew tired of AD&D 2nd Ed. I had an old beat up copy and just recently found a new mint one on eBay; quite the score.

    Today it sits on my shelf proudly between AD&D2 and D&D3.

    I still love the maps and some the Mystara goofiness of it all.

    It is a great game to use as a means to introduce D&D to people.

  7. The Rules Cyclopedia was the first RPG book I ever owned, and I still love it to this day. The skill system is dull, and easily ditched, as is the weapon mastery system (which gets very broken very quickly, if I remember right). I even liked the Mystara section, not for the gameworld itself (it seemed a bit too fragmentary for me), but as an example of the sheer scope that was possible with the rules presented.

    I'm also very pleased that it left out the Immortals rules - you had the rules for ascending to godhood, and a strong implication that that's really where a particular character should be retired from PChood. I never liked the various versions of the god rules in OD&D; it always struck me as a pet Mentzer project crowbarred into the rules when they didn't really fit.

  8. I agree with the sentiments of this post nearly 99%. Just wish the artwork wasn't so godawful.

    Just one more MAJOR gripe, though (other than skills, god-I-HATE-skills-in-D&D): I don't own my 2nd edition PHB anymore, but if memory serves, the Rules Cyclopedia is the FIRST D&D rule book that gets rid of Level Titles for character classes. Which is a crying shame, in my opinion. For the first time, it starts to really lose that D&D flavor and starts to be a toolkit SANS personality.

  9. Heck yes! I am still amazed that the RC is still the one and only /complete/ D&D book. It's among my most treasured items, don't even want my players touching it (thus ruling out much of a chance for running it).

  10. The level titles had already been removed in 2E AD&D and even (IIRC) in the late-period 1E AD&D books -- Oriental Adventures and Dragonlance Adventures -- so it's no surprise they were dropped from the RC. I agree that it's a shame, though.

  11. During my “(A)D&D is a hopelessly obsolete game” days, I still spent many minutes considering a purchase of the RC whenever I went to the mall. Even at the lowest ebb of my enthusiasm for D&D, there was still something appealing about it.

    (Even then, I think I had an inkling that “Basic” D&D was—for me—a better game than AD&D.)

    Having one now, I still really like the idea. Like so many other things, though, I’m not thrilled about the actual implementation. A lot of the stuff therein feels quickly developed and under-play-tested.

    Which, I think it was. From what Frank has said, it seemed he never really played the game he was developing. He was always playing his own mash-up of AD&D and D&D. Almost all the other authors of that era D&D were outside of TSR, as everyone inside TSR was writing for (and playing) AD&D. Which is not to knock on freelancers, but TSR (beyond Frank himself) wasn’t really paying attention to D&D. I suspect a lot of those freelancers were playing mainly AD&D too.

    Anyway, I still prefer something more modest as my baseline, but I do find the RC to be a great additional resource.

  12. I liked the Mystara overview. Not only did I use it as source material for my first campaign, but I feel that new GMs can use all the examples they can get. Usable example dungeons are a rulebook staple, but not so much usable examples of worldbuilding.

    That being said, there sure was a lot of dross in there, IMO. Weapon specialization, proficiencies, away-too-math-intensive mass combat system, etc.

    Nowadays, I use LL for my classic D&D rules set just because it's got such a better meat/fat ratio.

  13. It's rules-moderate and complete nature really makes me wish that the RC could have been the RPG market perennial that it should have been.

    The RC was the perfect book to have a place forever in hobby shops and book stores. Maybe the cover and interior art changes to whatever style the kids are into, but the rules would always be the same. It could have been a generational common point within the hobby, like folks talking about their Monopoly sets.

  14. "It's as if it were someone's pet project that they somehow managed to sneak on to the release schedule." Yeah, that would be TSR's Acquisitions Editor at the time, Bruce Heard. Bruce loved D&D's setting, the Known World (later rechristened Mystara), like a kid with an ant farm. I'm certain Bruce couldn't have put so many D&D projects on the schedule if they weren't selling, but he's probably the main reason they were so unusually ambitious.

  15. I love the RC! It's tied with the 1e DMG as my favourite single D&D book of all time.

    It was the RC that got me interested in 'old school' D&D again. I was running my second D&D 3e campaign 6 years ago and feeling burnt out. I picked up the PDF for the RC and fell in love with a version of the game that I hadn't played in decades. I subsequently tracked down 4 paper copies of the RC (of varying quality).

    Unfortunately, my group at the time refused to play it. (I barely managed to convince them to give C&C a try, and that was a real effort.) These days I'm more focused on developing my own 'swords & sorcery' version of 0e/S&W. But the RC remains one of my favourite versions of D&D. I'd gladly play it again!

  16. "Yeah, that would be TSR's Acquisitions Editor at the time, Bruce Heard. Bruce loved D&D's setting, the Known World (later rechristened Mystara), like a kid with an ant farm. I'm certain Bruce couldn't have put so many D&D projects on the schedule if they weren't selling, but he's probably the main reason they were so unusually ambitious."

    Interesting. We all owe Bruce Heard a great debt!

  17. "Bruce loved D&D's setting, the Known World (later rechristened Mystara), like a kid with an ant farm."

    To digress a bit, the Gazetteer products for the Known World are some of my favorite setting-products of all time: most of them were top-notch for ideas, design, and presentation. I remember talking with (IIRC) Ken Rolston, who said it was a Good thing(tm) that TSR upper management didn't pay much attention to the Known World, since it let the writers do some very interesting things. (I love the secret of the Shadow Elves, for example.)

  18. Anthony: “ was a Good thing(tm) that TSR upper management didn't pay much attention to the Known World...”

    I wouldn’t disagree with that. There are tradeoffs with everything. And while I wish some of the D&D products had gotten more attention in development, there’s no guarantee that more attention yields good attention. ^_^

  19. I think it's pretty telling that the freelancers working on the D&D line and the products they made from about 1988 to 1993 when they killed the line were and are so much more highly regarded than the in-house AD&D products of the same time period.

    You see a similar sentiment among 2e fans, who pretty universally voice the opinion that the best adventures created for 2e were free lance submissions in Dungeon magazine.

    Ugh... If there was ever a company that deserved to go out of business...

  20. Oh, and here's to Bruce Heard!

    I didn't like everything he did with the D&D line. But at least with Heard, D&D got a enthusiastic developer who loved the game. A worthy person to follow Gygax and Mentzer.

    From the time Gygax was exiled to California in about 1982 until 3e came out, AD&D had... ? Tracy Hickman? Zeb Cook? Ed Greenwood? Who?

  21. I picked up a battered RC via eBay (and yes, demand for them was fierce!) ... and later traded or gave it away. Last year, as the OSR began to get under my skin I bought the PDF. I'm glad I did. It is quite a lovely work.

    VerWord: "catalini" -- plural of catalina, an exceptionally large and well-traveled seabird.

  22. "...the prices copies command on eBay continually surprise me."


    *Looks up prices for the RC*

    I had no idea. When it was recommended to me, I picked one up for $10-ish at the first used bookstore I went to.

    Anyway, it's a great book.

  23. "things I'd rather not have seen (like a skill system or an overview of the Mystara setting)"

    Uh...these are two things I love in that book! (...ducks to avoid being pelted with rotten vegetables by the Grognardia crowd).

    I'm so sorry I did not buy it in the day! I was impressed by the book but I was into AD&D2, plus various Chaosium games and going back to plain D&D looked like a step backwards.

    Now I have a (legal PDF) of the thing and I am periodically tempted to hunt it on E-bay and suchlike places...

  24. The first actual D&D rules set I ever owned, I found that the game made a lot of sense as long as I ignored all of the optional rules and classes ("What, you mean to play a druid I have to be a cleric until 9th level? That makes no sense!").

  25. I love the RC so very much. For years it was my favorite RPG. I've always looked at it as a big book of options, never daring to use all of them at once.

    I have never used the skill system. Not because I don't like skill systems, but because I prefer using ability checks.

    I've used the weapon system a few times, but only in action hero style games (Wuxia, and Sword and Sandal style games mostly.) The system works great if you start with the assumption that the characters are meant to have the upper hand. That said I think the wrestling subsystem, and most of the non-mastery combat mods work well in most games (I've gotten a lot of use out of both of the mass combat systems.)

    I have a love hate relationship with the domain rules. I love them in concpet, but in play I can't stand all the charts and book keeping. I keep saying that I'll write a program to simplify things, but I since I so rarely use the rules I just can't seem to get up the motivation.

    The only section of the book I really don't like is the demihuman advancement beyond their level caps. The Demihumans will be advancing in attack ranks at a much slower pace than human characters under these rules. Unless a player realizes this it will lead to a lot of disappointment and dashed hopes.

    Today I tend to play Labyrinth Lord and use bits and pieces of RC when needed.

  26. Say, Mr. Maliszewski, how about an interview with Bruce Heard?

  27. Bruce Heard interview (from 2006):

  28. Honestly, I love the man. His Princess Ark series was like a one-man crusade to keep the gonzo, do whatever's fun facet of published D&D alive in the post-Dragonlance "RPGs are Serious Business and need a Serious Plot and Serious Themes" era when much of Dragon was really a drag.

  29. To be honest, I think the RC might be my single favorite game in the world. There are a couple changes I make when I play with it (additive AC, most obviously), but I think that they're mostly due to my coming into the hobby late enough to be used to them.

  30. Thank you for this. I've long argued that RC was the best version of (A)D&D (though I can see arguments for LBB and 1E). One thing about it that made me very happy was the degree of customization encouraged, both in the rules and in the support materials. In one issue of Dragon, for instance, Princess Ark had a pseudo-Celtic society, complete with druids redone as cleric variants instead of the proto-prestige version. In some other issues, for another example, there was a thorough, common-sense revision of the domain system, explained piece by piece, to make the economics work out better for everyone (instead of being focused on adventurers), which I preferred due to my simulationist/sandboxer bent. ;)

    If only I could convince a gaming group to play it…

  31. Rules Cyclopedia is one of the 5 greatest gaming supplements for any game.

    Aaron Allston is one of the great RPG writers of all time and the RC is, imo, better than the sum of its parts.

  32. I still have this, but have never used it. I'm using Labyrinth Lord as my simple system of choice but I plan to use the RC for if the players ever start rubbing up against the highest levels in LL. No danger of that for a while though, the highest level character we have is a sixth level thief.

  33. I might consider an interview with Bruce Heard at some point, but it's not high on my priorities list at the moment. He's a bit removed from the era of gaming I focus on here.