Sunday, 7 September 2008

White Box Volume I: Men & Magic - First Impressions

The first impressions of an OD&D newcomer to the Game Wot Started Everything Else. I'm just going to note things down in a convenient point-blob style list, as and when they come to me. Don't expect much in the way of coherence; I'm literally just jotting down notes as I scroll down the pdf in Foxit Reader.

  • It's an utterly banal observation, really, but as Milan Kundera once remarked (in one of my favourite quotes), it's often the most banal observations which intrigue and surprise us the most: the cover and title page of Men & Magic make no mention of 'role playing', because at the time it didn't exist. Instead, the game is described in a rather cumbersome and innaccurate way as Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. (It's often complained that 4e D&D 'requires' minatures while older editions don't. Whether OD&D required miniatures is debatable, but you can certainly argue that their use was encouraged.)
  • Gary Gygax, in his dedication, thanks the people who helped expand on the Chainmail rules (what we would now call 'playtesters', I suppose) and then remarks: "Here is something better!" A great line. I wonder if early players realised just how much better this strange new world of gaming was.
  • The Gygaxian writing style is immediately noticeable: enthusiastic, verbose, and unselfconsciously flowery. The sly digs and put-downs that he would become infamous for are present even in the 'Forward' (sic): "Those wargamers who lack imagination", he announces sniffily, "will not be likely to find Dungeons & Dragons to their taste."
  • In its own very simple way the introduction provides one of the most inspiring manifestos for the roleplaying hobby that has ever been written:
    [These rules] provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.
  • Number of players: "At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be
    handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about
    1:20 or thereabouts." I believe that bears repeating, in bold type: The referee to player ration should be about 1:20 or thereabouts. (!)
  • I quite like how IMAGINATION is stressed on virtually every page of the set-up as the key ingredient to a successful game.
  • Another banal-yet-intriguing observation: this was a game about dungeons (hence the title). The referee's job is to map out levels of his 'underworld', people them with monsters 'of various horrid aspect', and create 'a huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane genuises'.
  • Fuck balance. Right from the off, it is explicitly stated that Magic Users are the strongest characters in the game at higher level, but the weakest at the beginning. I'm not altogether sure why, twenty-five years later, that idea suddenly became anathema to the people at WotC. It always seemed like a fair trade-off, to me.
  • I love how one of the key examples of a magic item is an X-ray vision ring: the one thing that geeky 12 year old males prize above all others. I think when I was 12 I would have sold my soul to Beelzebub for an X-ray vision ring.
  • These were medieval military history enthusiasts, alright: not 10 pages in and we're already discussing units of horsed crossbowmen of the 'turcopole type'. Look it up on wikipedia.
  • The iconic dwarf is armed with a sword, not an axe. As somebody who makes a point of always arming dwarf characters with swords just to be contrary, I appreciate that picture.
  • "There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything": you want to be a dragon? Go for it!
  • For some reason, one of the cleric ranks is a 'Lama' - maybe the only intrusion of non-European culture into the entire book.
  • THAC0 was a real Godsend: one look at the combat matrixes and my eyes are already glazing over and I'm beginning to experience brain-stem death.
  • In finest 'Players Handbook' tradition, the section on spell descriptions is about as long as the entire rest of the rules put together.
  • There are naked breasts and a self-confessed "beautiful witch" on page 27; meanwhile, on page 29, there is a goblin who looks...well...nothing like how later editions of the game have envisaged goblins to be. (There is an even more surprising picture of an elf on page 32; I'll Winshot it in to the bottom of the entry, for those who are interested.)
And that's the end. Short but sweet. I wouldn't describe the thing as rules lite in the same way that Risus is rules lite; it's more....what's the word? Rules skeptical? A skeleton is provided, and it's for you to flesh it out. "Why let us do your imagining for you?", as the man himself used to say.

Volume II tomorrow.


  1. I'd say the problem with the weak at the beginning/godlike at the end progression for MUs is that while it might be satisfactory when viewed from the perspective of an entire campaign, during any given session it's going to frustrate at least one of the players--maybe all but one. Plus, if the campaign implodes (not infrequent) or the characters die young (very, very frequent) the MU never gets to experience the upside of the bargain. This puts pressure on the GM and players to work around it, either by accelerating advancement or awarding bunches of magical treasure that substitute for the MUs abilities (so the class becomes more wielder of wands than caster of spells), or knocking off for the day (the so-called "five minute workday") rather than continuing once the MU has run out of stuff he can do.

    I think the game-design goal of making each individual session fun for all the players is a good one, even if I'm not very fond of the way WotC has gone about it.

  2. jamused: You're right in many respects. Although I for one do enjoy the challenge of surviving as a magic user at lower levels. That said, I can see why other people wouldn't. I tend to have quite a mashochistic approach to gaming, I think.

  3. I'm certainly not meaning to put down challenge-based gaming. I absolutely agree that part of the fun for any low-level D&D party is figuring out how to survive and prosper given how fragile you all are and how limited your by-the-book options are. The trick is to give the MU something worth doing every turn as an alternative to hiding, running, or committing suicide (and to reduce the temptation for the player to persuade the party to turtle until he gets his mojo back). It doesn't have to put them on par with the Fighter or Cleric, but it should make some contribution to justify the time the MU's player is sitting at the table while the combat is going on. I've toyed with the idea of letting them cast a spell at will that was equivalent of throwing a dagger; it's essentially what they often do anyway, and spares us the silly image of the MU with his crossed bandoleers of throwing knives....

  4. jamused: Cantrips are one way of doing that. I'd rather give them something to try to be creative with, rather than just a spell equivalent to chucking daggers.

    I think there's a big onus on the DM to provide room for the MU to be creative, too. It helps, for example, to have a fight in an area with lots of props which an MU can manipulate once they've run out of spells.

  5. I've been fascinated by the bell-curve of Fiction-information Provided to Creativity Inspired.

    If you give someone a blank page, they'll stare at it blankly. But if you give them a few ideas, then that helps them respond and make their own. But if you give them the complete detailed history and ethnography of the entire world, they might enjoy it, but if you then say "Okay, _now_ make stuff up," they'll also stare at you blankly.

    For any given person and group (and it's different for different folks), there's some magic balance, some number of elements with some degree of detail and vaguery which maximizes creative return. I'm not sure why that strikes me as so interesting, but I'd really like to have some kind of scale or method for figuring out how much to make up ahead of time and how much to leave unestablished...