Thursday, April 22, 2021

How to Make a Lightbulb Again

Mark A. Swanson was a science fiction and fantasy fan who was very active in the 1970s. He was a member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS) and contributed to its weekly amateur press association known as APA-L. Swanson also contributed to The Lords of Chaos, Alarums & Excursions, and Different Worlds, as well as editing The Wild Hunt, a very early and important APA 'zine. 

In APA-L #493 (October 24, 1974), Swanson included a report, entitled "And Swanson Offers to Show Edison How to Make a Lightbulb Again." The report details his experience playing "a new game" called Dungeons & Dragons. He begins:

I have been hooked again, this time by a new game. The game is played basicly [sic] with paper, pencils, and a reeling mind (together with buckets of dice). It is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (which someone probably introduced the LASFS to last meeting, but I'll risk it. Omelots [sic] anyone?)

I'm always fascinated about early descriptions of D&D. Swanson mentions paper and pencils – both of which are included in OD&D's subtitle –  but he also mentions "buckets of dice" (note: he doesn't comment on their being oddly-shaped) and "a reeling mind." There's no mention of miniature figures, which I think is significant. Swanson continues:

In the advanced version of the game, the players took the roles of various exploring/looting parties trying to return from a gamemaster desighned [sic] castle's dungeon with treasure. The gamemaster has a map, the player's [sic] don't. The treasures are guarded by appropriate monsters (gnomes, green slime, orcs, dragons, evil wizards, zombies, giants, etc.) The deeper you go, the nastier the monsters and the bigger the treasures. As you win encounters, you gain experience, which makes you a better fighter, able to go lower. It is played as a campaign game (there are some which are over a year old) with each person performing many quests. If you are killed, you get reincarnated, with a smaller initial stake. 

If you're curious what Swanson means by "the advanced version of the game," he elaborates a bit on this in the coming paragraph. Of note is his statement that D&D "is played as a campaign game" and his allusion to what I can only assume are the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns. I've been beating the drum about the importance of campaigns to understanding how Gygax and Arneson imagined D&D being played for a long time, so it's good to see that perspective vindicated in such an early report of playing the game. Also of note is Swanson's use of the term "gamemaster, which is nowhere to found in the little brown books of OD&D.

The basic (early) game involves wandering through a wilderness on quest, looking for experience and treasure. It mostly involves luck and its proper use. In the basic version, the gamemaster rolls dice to determine what you meet. The basic game also has a shockingly high mortality rate, as might be expected in place where you and your trusty henchmen (40 first life, 35 2nd incarnation, etc) keep encountering such things as evil high priests, 300 bandits, or four balrogs, mere veterans, which is what you start as, have small chance.

From this section, it becomes clear that Swanson uses the terms "basic" and "advanced" as synonyms for "early" and "late," with the former referring to the initial trek through the wilderness to reach the dungeon's location and the latter being the exploration of the dungeon itself. It's certainly an idiosyncratic usage, but, at this early date, most usages will necessarily be unique. His comments about the game's mortality rate tracks with most other early reports of the game I've read, though the references to "first life" and "2nd incarnation," particularly when paired with the comments about getting reincarnated above, implies that such magic was commonplace in this campaign.

On the other hand, in the campaign I'll be continuing Saturaday [sic], I'm about to adventure in company with a friend who, deserted by all but 4 men and the persona of an abscent [sic] second friend, subdued two dragons, got them to market, and is now filthy rich and a second level cleric. The persona was killed by the dragons. Since he has only four men, he's financing a bunch of others while recruits.

Once again, Swanson mentions henchmen, which were a vital feature of D&D even as late as my own introduction to the hobby five years later. I'm amused by the fact the "persona of an abscent [sic] friend" was apparently killed by the dragons. I recall many a game in my youth where similar things happened: "Sorry I couldn't make last session; I had baseball practice. What happened?" "We defeated a dragon and got lots of treasure. And, uh, your character died. Sorry."

Your characteristics (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Endurance, Dexterity and Charisma) are determined by rolling dice on first entrance into the game, after which you can choose the profession fighter, magician or cleric and begin. However, there are three booklets of rules, and I will not try to repeat them here. Very good game, at least as much for the gamemaster as for the players. 

I'm struck by the observation that D&D is a "very good game, at least as much for the gamemaster as for the players." That's certainly been my experience of the years, but I think it's noteworthy that this seems to have been recognized so early.

Thanks to Victor Raymond for providing me with this early account of playing Dungeons & Dragons.


  1. "It is played as a campaign game (there are some which are over a year old)..."

    I know it was 1974 and all, but 47 years later that gets a good chuckle. At this point in my life a whole year on one campaign would be a nice change of pace, it's been mostly one-offs or three-four session shorts adventures for most of teh last five years.

    1. That's too bad. I've found immense pleasure in playing the same campaign with the same players for several years at a time.

    2. I enjoy both long campaigns and short/one-off games about equally, but the last few years just haven't worked out for getting into a steady group - not just solely because of teh pandemic, although it sure didn't help. I suppose I got my fair share of longer games when I was younger anyway - think my longest was about 12 years with mostly the same people involved, and 4-5 was pretty common.

      The advantage to one-offs and short "arc" or "delve" games is being able to try a lot of different systems and play styles. There's so much on the market these days no one could ever hope to try everything. Very different from 1974, that's for sure.

    3. Yea, to me campaign play is the most important thing. Back in my high school and college days though I would do one shots of new games. My high school players came to hate when I showed up with a new game...

      At least these days it's easy to be OK with the fact that you can't possibly try all the games that get published. So it's easy to decide on a core set of games and stick with them, with some occasional experimentation.

      Play by post is a neat way to do some experimentation.

      Several years ago I switched to virtual play (Roll20) because in person play was out of the question for me. It has turned out to be very rewarding. I have a long running RQ campaign fast closing in on 3 years of play. It may not be my longest running live play campaign ever, that should still be the Traveller campaign I ran during my college and grad school years, but longer than anything else.

      My OD&D play by post is fast approaching 8 years which probably is longer than the Traveller campaign, but maybe not. I played in an OD&D play by post campaign that almost made it 10 years (I didn't start at the beginning though) and that is still the longest campaign I've ever been a part of.

      Online, play by post or virtual, has definitely been the way to long campaigns for me making moves not matter and making it much easier to get new players as old ones drop out.

  2. A few other things stand out to me. There's not a hint of your player character ("persona") having an independent personality or goals beyond that of the player, the word roleplaying and any explanation of the concept are conspicuously absent, and there's not really any concept of NPCs except as monsters to kill or flee from. Between that and (apparently) starting with 40 "henchmen" at first level D&D's wargaming roots are really on full display.

  3. Here again, I am vastly outclassed by the contributor and down-page comments following these items.

    But: the creative atmosphere of the game drew us in, we played in the woods (to avoid parental supervision; who wants to pillage and slaughter with your alcoholic mom judging everything you say?) and it was awesome to build a campaign over time, because when you are a kid, time is all you have. That, and the thousand attempts you made at whittling a Baba Yaga's Hut from materials in the woods.

    Then adulthood. Kids. As mentioned above, finding schedule-alignment to draft a good group and nurture a long campaign is brutal. One-offs rob most groups of productive chemistry.

    I found it easier to play chess with my father for 40 years. Different type of campaign. But he mentioned how happy the parents all were when they didn't smell smoke drifting out of the woods.

    I will hardly remember the fires, but you can't beat a battered map and darkened cave. Campaigns rule!

  4. Interesting that early play actually had a wilderness trek to the dungeon. Obviously the proximity to civilization of the dungeon (a feature of both Greyhawk and Blackmoor) didn't get communicated by word of mouth to Swanson's community.

    And yea, even when I started in 1977, the idea of role playing was still not very strong. I'm not sure I really thought much about character personality other than a minor quirk or two until a few years later. Probably inspired at least in part by Glen Blacow.

    I knew almost instantly that D&D was a different sort of game than the war games I had been playing, but initially the "role" playing aspect wasn't really there.

  5. I find his account very interesting, he uses Endurance rather than Constitution, and he puts it before Dexterity.

    In my group in the 80s we always put CON before DEX despite the fact that the rulebooks are the other way around. This had something to do with the character sheets we were using, but I've never seen Endurance before. Does anyone know why that might have been used here?

    1. It's possible that Endurance is simply his misremembering of Constitution. I don't believe he had his own copy of the rules yet when he wrote his report.

    2. We (defined loosely as the younger brothers living in mortal fear of dismemberment if the older brothers were not instantly, blindly obeyed) called the character generation SANDWICH rolls:

      N was filler

      A vastly intellectually-superior older brother decided that Dexterity was what you did with your upper body, while Agility was lower-half (this actually comes from boxing culture) for purposes of navigating bloody combat floors or uneven/mixed terrain while under duress.

      To his credit, that murderous sadistic mentally deranged older brother became an Optometrist.

    3. @ HuckSawyer That description of you older brother does not make me want him anywhere near my eyeballs.

      You guys missed a golden opportunity to make N Naughtiness so you could split between Charisma for "socially acceptable" situations and Naughtiness for "things that stay in Vegas" times.

      There are some other rules out there that split Agility and Dexterity along similar lines as your brother's definition, with Agility being whole-body movement and grace, while Dex was pretty much hands-only stuff like aim, sleight of hand, tinkering, etc.

  6. What a fun jaunt through history! Thanks!

    I agree with you about how remarkable it is that Mr Swanson was more impressed by the number of dice rolled and not by their shapes. It makes me think he was playing D&D using Chainmail's combat rules, rather than using Mr. Arneson's "Alternative Combat System" of Armor-Class-and-Hit-Points, which was introduced on Page 19 of LBB #1.

    The only polyhedron that Chainmail uses is the cube (hexahedron!), but it uses lots of them.

    If I guess correctly, then this is indeed remarkable, since it is only the second campaign I've ever heard of which uses the "Standard" combat system. The Alternative Combat System has become the basis of what is now de facto the only combat system in D&D. It's difficult to find a copy of Gygax and Perren's Chainmail rules these days.

  7. I have made other remarks about this report by Mark Swanson. It may interest readers of this post.