BOOK REVIEW: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” by Gary Gygax

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison

The first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, written by E. Gary Gygax, is only one of a trilogy of rulebooks necessary to play the seminal roleplaying game. My original intention was to do a review of this book alone. However, the more time I put into trying to write a review, the more I realized there is really no way to talk about this book without talking about Dungeons & Dragons as a whole. Because this single volume is only one piece of a larger encompassing game, it doesn’t make any sense to just talk about one book. Therefore, this review will not focus exclusively on Player’s Handbook, rather I will also discuss how the volume fits into the scope of the game, along with the other core rulebooks.

My virginity was lost at the age of 12. Not my sexual virginity, my Dungeons & Dragons virginity. That was when I was first seduced by dice and rulebooks.

The first time I ever heard of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), I was in the 6th grade, and within my circle of friends, one of the boys was telling us stories about his uncle playing this really elaborate boardgame that supposedly took days to learn how to play. That was the most vivid thing I remember about it; learning that the game was so complicated, you didn’t just read a pamphlet of rules in 10 minutes, but instead you spent days learning the instructions. At that time, we didn’t understand the concept of a roleplaying game. We thought it was a boardgame like Monopoly or Clue or Chess or Checkers and I distinctly remember my friends and I laughing at the stupidity of playing a game that would take so long to learn. What was the point? We thought it was crazy. What kind of losers are going to waste days just to learn the rules of a boardgame? Why would you do that? How could the game possibly be any fun if it was that complicated?

Over the next few weeks, we learned more and more about it. Players would make up imaginary characters like elves and warriors. Another player, called a Dungeon Master was like a referee or a movie director and he would run the game and play all the other roles of monsters and describe imaginary environments and so forth. Playing the whole game was kind of like a table reading of an improvisational theatrical production, with a medieval storyline, where you get to play a character that you invented yourself. That was starting to sound a lot less stupid and kind of fun! My friend sat in on a game session with his uncle and we heard all about the mythological creatures and magic and wizards and adventures and it started to sound really, really cool. Learning the rules might take a long time, but we began to understand why it was worth it. So, we decided to give it a shot. Among my friends, I believe I may have been the first or second person to buy the Basic boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually, all of my friends played D&D, but in the beginning, I’m pretty sure there were only two of us to buy the original boxed set. We both read the rules and we figured it out and we had a lot of telephone conversations trying to understand what the rulebooks were talking about. And what the hell do you do with the crayon? By the end of the week, we tried to play that first game module, The Keep on The Borderlands, and it was awful. We had no idea what we were doing. We thought the Dungeon Master was supposed to actually read the module verbatim to the players. It was terrible. Total disaster. Wasn’t fun at all. We didn’t even use the crayon to color the dice. Never figured that out until months later. Instead I used it to underline rules in the rulebooks. That was a bad idea. It was a black crayon.

Yet, for some reason, we stuck with it. We didn’t give up on Dungeons & Dragons even though that first game session sucked so bad. I think maybe the simple fact that we had spent an entire week reading the rules made us determined to not give up.

Like many kids back then, we didn’t realize that Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) were completely different games. We presumed they were a progression: Basic to Expert to Advanced. Makes sense, right? We didn’t understand that the Expert Dungeons & Dragons box set was a sequel to the Basic Dungeons & Dragons box set, but the hardcover Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks were not a sequel to the Expert set, they were in fact, an entirely new system of rules.

So, we played the Basic game.

Then we progressed to the Expert game.

Then I became the first person among my friends to buy AD&D.

In order to play a proper game of the first edition of AD&D, you needed a bare minimum of three books:
1. Player’s Handbook
2. Dungeon Master’s Guide
3. Monster Manual

Those three books are the staples, the foundation of the game. As their names imply, Player’s Handbook is for the players. It explains how to create different types of characters and what their capabilities are within the game. Dungeon Master’s Guide is for the referee and it lays out all the rules of how gameplay works from random encounters with mythological creatures in the countryside to rolling dice to determine the outcome of epic battles and swordfights. Monster Manual is a reference book for the Dungeon Master to populate his fantasy world with his choice of hundreds of fantastical beasts from orcs to goblins and of course, dragons. The first edition of AD&D ended up being comprised of over a dozen hardcover rulebooks and I owned them all. However, the other 10 books in question are all optional supplements. Only those initial three are the essential ones.

Needless to say, since D&D and AD&D are different games, when I bought the Player’s Handbook, I was right back to square one. My friends and I had been playing D&D for months and I knew the rules of D&D pretty well. Because we all presumed AD&D was just another expansion, when I hit those hardcover books, I had no clue what was going on. I was completely baffled. And this time, I didn’t have any other friends to bounce chapters off of. Nobody else owned the hardcover books yet. I was on my own. Slowly, I began to realize that this was a totally different game, and it was a lot better! I was really excited and I couldn’t wait for all my friends to get copies of the books too. Once that happened, once all my friends had collected the AD&D books, we left the Basic and Expert box sets behind and never looked back. We were all about AD&D (an acronym which may confuse those of you in the insurance industry).

Reading the AD&D rulebooks was truly kindling the tinder of my imagination. The magical aspect of roleplaying games is that once you read the book to understand the rules, you constantly go back to reference the rules. Simply reading about imaginary spells and monsters and magical items would set the wheels in motion. I’d start to visualize different plots and scenarios and ideas for characters and villages and storylines and dungeon maps and treasures and who was guarding those treasures and why. Over the years, I literally invented dozens of AD&D characters that I never even used in the game. Dreaming them up was just as fun as playing a campaign with them.

The game itself, and the joy of playing it, occupied my time for years. All through junior high, and well into highschool, AD&D was a huge part of my friendships and my fondest memories. During the 6th grade, instead of staying out on the playground during lunch, my friends Jerry Jarzabek, Chip Reynolds and Keith Riggs would sneak back into the school, so we could play AD&D for the lunch period. We had all night gaming sessions with Ted and Chris Smith and Aaron Reitz and Mike Rozack, where we had sleepovers and quite literally played all night until the sun came up. Those evenings are sepiatone Polaroids of cozy sleeping bags fluffed thick as summer clouds fogging the floors among piles of dice and rulebooks. Grand adventures and crazy schemes and silly plots and scary battles and thrilling characters and epic conclusions.

Back in 1983, Player’s Handbook was unquestionably one of the most important books of my junior highschool days. One that I read over and over. One that shaped and informed my social interaction, enriched my imagination, and educated me in new ways to appreciate mathematics, history, geometry, spatial relations, cartography, illustration, and storytelling.

Thankfully, those original three AD&D rulebooks were reprinted in 2013, allowing for an entirely new class of 6th graders to start playing the roleplaying game that started all roleplaying games. The original. The venerable. The immortal. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Pick up a copy for yourself. And don’t forget to buy the dice. Don’t worry, these days, the numbers are already colored in. No need for the crayon anymore.
“The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”
- Gary Gygax