Dungeons & Dragons White Box Edition (D&D)

“Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”

Also referred to as “original D&D” (OD&D), “the collector's edition,” and “the three books.”

Published by Tactical Studies Rules (later TSR), 1974

Written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
Illustrations by Keenan Powell, Greg Bell, C. Corey, D. Arneson, T. Keogh, and David Sutherland.

 

Physical Components:

Three 5 1/2 x 8 1/2" booklets: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, plus a 19-page collection of reference sheets in a white box.

Supporting products in the collection:

Supplement I: Greyhawk, by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, copyright 1976. (The museum holds a 5th printing, 1977).

Supplement II: Blackmoor, by Dave Arneson, copyright 1975. (The museum holds a second printing, 1976).

Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume, copyright 1976.

Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-gods, & Heroes, by Robert Kuntz and James Ward, copyright 1976.

Swords & Spells, by Gary Gygax, copyright 1976.

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Do you think you know Dungeons & Dragons? Those of us who started playing after the appearance of the early Blue Box edition or AD&D in 1977 have little idea of what a revolution the original D&D was, nor how much the game changed in its first three years. We started playing in 1975, just before the supplements dramatically changed the game. This review is based on the white box version, the most common packaging of the original Dungeons and Dragons game. It was originally released in a white box with a wood grain edge.

Original D&D was an odd beast in those days. It could have been called an open-ended, first person wargame, or a set of first person miniatures rules. Just look at the subtitle! It arose out of a set of medieval miniatures rules called Chainmail, also published by Tactical Studies Rules. Chainmail included some rules for fantasy creatures such as dragons and goblins to spice up medieval miniatures battles, or to create army battles for fantasy settings. The miniatures basis for D&D's rules can be seen in the use of inches as a measure of distance (one inch equals ten feet indoors, ten yards outdoors), and the concern over movement rates and time. In fact, the game resolved combat using Chainmail's rules. But D&D was much more than a game of miniatures battles.

The purpose of play was to defeat the monsters in combat and figure out the puzzles set by the referee (usually called the Dungeon Master, or DM), and gain treasures and experience that would help you to gain the power to defeat bigger monsters. Treasure would be used to further enhance one's fighting ability. The eventual goal of building a stronghold was to provide your character with a source of income and men at arms, both of which would more or less directly help you be a more effective monster-killer, or you could move on to a more traditional medieval-style miniatures war with other character's strongholds. Characters were essentially fantasy archetypes. There was no discussion of playing your character, or establishing a personality for him or her. On the other hand, even in this early edition, there are suggestions that opponents might be interacted with outside of simply fighting them: a defeated player character might be turned into a frog by a witch if his charisma were high enough, for example. Clearly, this wasn't a game to be played by a mechanical adherence to the rules. In fact, the rules clearly call themselves guidelines, and advise players that individual DMs should modify them to suit their own games, an attitude that co-author Gary Gygax would later completely flip-flop on for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game.

 

Character Generation

Character generation was simple. You rolled three dice (abbreviated here as 3d6, using the current practice; original D&D had no such shorthand), and assigned the scores, in order, to Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. Another 3d6 generated your starting wealth for the purchase of equipment. You could not alter your scores once rolled, although you could trade off unwanted Strength, Intelligence, or Wisdom for points in your prime requisite (the ability most directly related to success for your character: Strength for a Fighting Man, Intelligence for a Magic-User, and Wisdom for a Cleric), for the purpose of experience point bonuses only. There were only three character classes (Fighting-Man, Magic-User, and Cleric) and four races (Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Hobbit). Yes, the original version of D&D had hobbits. TSR brought down the wrath of the Tolkien estate when they got bigger. One could imagine that TSR's infamous litigious nature was born of their legal troubles with the Tolkien estate. Dwarves and Hobbits were limited to being Fighting-Men, while Elves could be Fighting-Men or Magic-Users, switching roles from adventure to adventure, but not doing both at once—except that they were permitted to wear armor while serving as a Magic-User.

Characters chose an alignment of either Law, Neutral, or Chaos. This was borrowed directly from Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion series, but was barely explained in the rules. Players quickly assumed "Law" generally meant Good, while "Chaos" was aligned with Evil (as the Moorcock books seemed to portray), and that one's alignment should have something to do with one's behavior, but the main game mechanic was that one couldn't use magic items that had a different alignment from one's own. The only real rules mention was that alignment was most important for Clerics, as it had an effect on the type of stronghold you could build, and whether you could cast the infamous Finger of Death permitted only to Evil High Priests. Incidentally, while Clerics had to be good or evil (again, note that alignment didn't permit these choices), there was no mention of actually worshipping a deity. “Cleric” was a generic term, and while the actual religion went completely undescribed, it was pretty clear that Clerics were at least partially based on medieval European Christian warrior priests: they had holy symbols (read “crucifixes”), holy water, and were forbidden to use edged weapons, presumably because these shed blood. Apparently it was okay to bash heads with a mace. Don't ask where the Evil High Priests came from. Even though D&D was implicitly and then officially polytheistic, all clerics still had access to holy symbols and holy water, and were forbidden the use of edged weapons.

 

Magic

Spell casting was much simpler than in later versions of the game. There were six levels of spells for Magic-Users, and five for Clerics, with at most 14 different spells for each level, and usually fewer. You looked at the spell list at the beginning of the adventure, wrote down which spells you had memorized, and during the game, you simply announced when you were going to cast one, at which point the spell was cast, struck from your list and you couldn't use it again until you got home. A first level Magic-User could cast only one 1st level spell for his entire first adventure, so Magic-Users started the game weak, meek, and cautious. 1st level Clerics had no spells at all, needing to reach 2nd level before being able to cast one. There was a cryptic note at the end of the Men & Magic book saying that spell casters were assumed to keep spell books at home, and if they wanted duplicates or had to replace them, they cost 2000 gp per level. (You had a 1st level spell book, a 2nd level spell book, and so forth.) Presumably one could carry duplicate spell books into the dungeon with you to recharge your spells, although this possibility was not explicitly described.

 

Combat

Combat was based on the Chainmail miniatures rules. Characters were rated according to the fighting ability (e.g. “2 men,” “Hero,” “3 men - 1”), and presumably this made sense for Chainmail. For those of us who didn't own Chainmail, an “alternative combat system” was presented, which had two combat tables, one for humans (including Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits) against foes, and one for monsters against humans. Old-timers will remember cross-indexing attacker's level against defender's armor class, finding the target number, and trying to equal or beat that number on a 20-sided die roll. As your character's levels went up, so did his chances to hit, although Magic-Users and Clerics advanced more slowly than fighters did. Fighting-Men went up another column on the table for every three levels they climbed, while Clerics needed four levels to climb on the combat table, and Magic-Users needed five. This sometimes required some mental calculations, as the table was only labelled for Fighting-Men.

Armor served to make you harder to hit, and it also reduced your movement speed. Armor classes ranged from 9 (no armor) to 2 (platemail and shield), with the lower numbers indicating more protection. All weapons did 1d6 damage, from a dagger up to a two-handed sword. Character hit dice were all six sided, with plusses and minuses depending on your character class and level. The DM kept track of the monsters you killed, and at the end of the adventure (or during play), awarded characters experience points based on the value of the monsters they killed and the treasure they accumulated. With enough experience points, a character could go up a level, which meant gaining more hit points, better fighting ability, and access to more spells.

 

The Rest of the Rules

In the second book, Monsters & Treasure, there were essentially 58 types of monsters listed, with stats limited to Number Appearing, Armor Class, Move in Inches, Hit Dice, % in Liar (sic), and Type or Amount of Treasure. Rumor has it that the Arduin Grimoire game “borrowed” so directly from D&D that it took the “% in Liar” literally, and created a monster stat for how likely the monster was to lie to you if questioned! The “move in inches” statistic showed the miniatures rules basis for D&D: all distances were measured in inches, where an inch referred to ten feet indoors, and ten yards outdoors.

On the treasure side, there were 29 types of miscellaneous magic to be obtained (all contained on one table!), along with wands, rings, potions, magic weapons and armor. (My favorite typo was the magic sword ability to detect “meal and what kind.” Detecting metals might be useful, but those kobolds over there look pretty tasty...)

Finally, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures book showed how to map out a dungeon, build a castle, or conduct adventures in the air or under water. All in all, quite a revolution in a small package, and affordable. Ten bucks in 1974, and you had all you needed to play.

Until Greyhawk...

The Supplements

Supplement I, Greyhawk, made a huge difference in the game, and pioneered many of the concepts that are part and parcel of D&D and its descendents today. I loved Greyhawk. The artwork, while still poor, was head and shoulders above the art in the original three books. The cover featured a rather barbaric-looking warrior facing a beholder that looked like the moon with an eye and a few strands of snakes for hair. The inside front cover had a lizard man that became the TSR logo for some years, and I still think it was their classiest one. (The lizardman also looked a lot better reduced to a thumbnail.)

The first bugbear illustration, a bear with a jack-o'-lantern head, was clearly a magical creature to be feared, instead of the large and unkempt goblinoids of later editions. A picture of the otherwise unexplained “Great Stone Face, Enigma of Greyhawk” left me with an eternal and unfulfilled desire to go to Lake Geneva and enter Greyhawk castle's dungeons to see it for myself.

The rules were where Greyhawk really boosted D&D as a game. Greyhawk introduced Paladins and Thieves as characters, gave non-humans more latitude in their choice of professions, and raised their miserable level advancement limits. Split classes (where non-human characters could be two different character classes simultaneously) and half-elves made their first sanctioned appearance. Fighting-Men were now called Fighters. Exceptional strength (an additional percentile roll if you had a strength of 18 for extra combat bonuses, available to Fighters only) made Fighters more exciting to play. Strength gave combat bonuses for the first time, along with better chances to force doors and carry encumbrance. Magic-Users no longer had automatic access to every spell on the list, and had to roll against a percent chance to learn a spell. Spells now went up to 9th level for Magic-Users, and 7th for Clerics. Characters got different sized hit dice based on their class (d8 for Fighters, d4 for Magic-Users and Thieves, d6 for Clerics). Weapons did different types of damage, and +5 armor meant that armor classes could dip below 0 (where low numbers meant better armor, in those days). The famous Magic Missile spell made its first appearance here, giving 1st level Magic-Users a spell that could do some damage. There were loads of new and deadly monsters, and a page of tricks and tips for DMs that were often too fiendish to actually try out. Greyhawk made D&D into a whole new game.

The later supplements mostly gilded the lily. Blackmoor's Monk and Assassin character classes were difficult to play, the hit location system was a terrible book-keeping chore, and I don't know anybody who played the Temple of the Frog adventure included in the book, although I'd always wanted to try it. Eldritch Wizardry was fun to read, with demons and magical Artifacts, but the psionic system was horribly complicated, and our group never had characters of high enough level to face the really cool stuff. The introduction of the Druid as a character class didn't excite most players. Gods, Demi-gods, and Heroes was the most worthless supplement of them all. Supposedly intended as a sourcebook to permit player characters, especially Clerics, a range of choices for which deity to worship, the book provided almost no useful information. It listed a wide variety of pantheons, including the copyright-busting Elric mythos of Michael Moorcock, and Conan mythos by Robert E. Howard, but gave only a very brief thumbnail description of each god/dess which basically covered their appearance, and what they were supposed to be gods of. Then it listed their hit points and combat powers. The information was insufficient for a Cleric to get much into role-playing worship, but the combat stats gave the powergamers a set of targets to aim for. In short order, The Dragon magazine had to deal with letters about the consequences of killing Odin in combat. It could be said that the last two supplements for D&D encouraged the very munchkinism/powergaming that The Dragon and most of its readers claimed to loathe. Eldritch Wizardry supplied a number of powerful magical Artifacts to the game, and although warning DMs not to use too many, it was too much temptation for too many DMs. The gods were merely convenient targets to use them on.

Tactical Studies Rules being a miniatures company, it was no surprise that they'd want to have rules for army-sized battles with D&D characters and monsters. While D&D grew out of Chainmal, it made enough changes to fantasy gaming to require new rules specifically geared toward fantasy miniatures battles. Swords & Spells brought the game full circle, being a set of miniatures rules for army-scale battles in fantasy. I bought a copy, probably because I would have bought just about anything related to D&D, but it had nothing for me, and I've never tried to play it.

 

Summary

Original D&D was quirky. Badly written and poorly illustrated, players were forced to either find friends who could show them how to play, or they ran riot with a million individual interpretations. It was also simple to imitate, and too good an idea to leave alone. No wonder TSR became protective of their money-maker. It was good sense, both for the game and the company, to re-release their baby, with a cleaner set of rules. Once Basic Dungeons & Dragons (for beginners) and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (presumably for experienced players, but not necessarily: see the entry on 1st edition AD&D) were available, there was no reason to keep the original version around. TSR sold it as a collector's edition for some years, probably until they used up their original stock, and the white box was no more.

I had some good years with the white box. It carried me through until AD&D was complete, in 1979. An unusual point for praise was the convenient size, easy to keep on a book case, easy to carry around, with enough extra space in the box to carry a few dice, or hold all the supplements. Years after I retired this game, I came back to it to run one special adventure. When I sent my AD&D party back in time to recover a staff, I used the original D&D rules as a lark. (So far back in time...we have to use the original rules!) My players were a little befuddled by the reappearance of the white box, but the game was surprisingly light-hearted and faster to play than the clunky AD&D. As the adventure ended, however, I was confronted with a question that original D&D never really answered: how did a magic-user get a magic staff to fire, anyway? Was it a button, or a command word, or...

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