D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The Mystara Gazetteer Series

gaz13aIt has been quite some time since I’ve written an article in this series. The purpose of the D&Development posts is to discuss some of the biggest influences on me as a Dungeon Master from the earliest days of my time playing D&D. Previously, I’ve looked at favorite settings, books, the animated show, and even non-D&D novels. (You can find a list of the previous articles by clicking on the D&Development header above.) Today, I wanted to bestow some praise on the Gazetteer series of accessories, detailing the world of Mystara.

During my junior high years, unlike many of my friends and fellow players, who preferred AD&D, Basic D&D always had a soft spot in my heart. It wasn’t until 2nd edition that I really made the transition. As a result, in 1988 and 1989, when I was moving from junior high to high school, I was still entrenched in Basic through and through. As rich as the boxed sets and Basic adventures were, I was perfectly happy reading them and using them in my games. I did envy the greater options available for classes, spells, and skills from AD&D, however.


The Gazetteer series came along, and went a long way towards filling in the blanks of Basic compared to it’s Advanced sibling. Several new classes, particularly for non-human characters, became “official” with no house-ruling required. A system for skills was presented throughout the series, adding even more options for characters. Like any good supplement, the Gazetteers included many new spells, as well. From a rules perspective alone, the Gazetteers were amazing, and gave Basic a depth that, by this point in my DMing career, I craved.

But there was far more to the series than just “crunch”. The “fluff” was amazing, too. I spent hours and hours reading about all the different locations, people, and cultures across the default D&D world, which I now knew was called Mystara. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the first GAZ I ever picked up, gave details about the world that were only hinted at in the Expert set and other adventures. I set many of my adventures in the town of Threshold, which was obviously a pretty good home base for players to adventure out of.    It was a fairly standard fantasy setting, but I didn’t see any problem with that at the time, and still don’t today, preferring to set my 4E campaign in the Nentir Vale.


The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, great as it was, wasn’t enough, so I picked up other Gazetteers when I could. The supplements dedicated to non-human races truly hooked me on the series. The Elves of Alfheim, the Dwarves of Rockhome, the halflings in The Five Shires, and especially The Shadow Elves were incredible. The cultures were at once fantastic and yet still believeable, and went a long way towards distinguishing between one elf or dwarf from the next, which was difficult with the whole “race as class” issue in Basic.  I remember reading The Crystal Shard, and thinking how odd it was that Drizzt was dark-skinned, instead of light, like true underground elves were. I realize now how backwards that really is; the shadow elves were the imitation of drow, not vice versa. In any event, I read and reread these Gazetteers time and time again.

Perhaps the highlight of the series was GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar. Far more than what you might think from the title, this Gazetteer included rules for PCs of all the major humanoid monster races. Yes, you could finally run a campaign with a kobold, a goblin, an orc, and a troll as unique playable races. It was hilarious fun. The inclusion of the game Orc Wars was just gravy. I know PC dragons, a la the memorable Council of Wyrms boxed set, might be more epic, but it couldn’t have been more fun than humanoid PCs. Think the A-Team, but with bad grammar and bloodlust, and you’ll have a good idea of how much fun a monster campaign can be.


The remainder of the Gazetteer series was solid, though not as memorable as those I’ve already mentioned. Most of these books were basically D&D interpretations of real-life cultures, ranging from Vikings and Native Americans to the Greeks and Romans. It may seem at first glance that this practice was like putting a square peg in a round hole. In my experience as a novice, I found the material to be easier to assimilate into my memory because of the real world associations. It’s far easier to remember that Ylaruam was like the Middle East than it is to remember all the different factions in Waterdeep, for example. I’m not sure if this ease of use was the intent or not, but it made the Gazetteers very useful for me either way.

Overall, I have many fond memories of the Gazetteer supplements, and remember using them so much they were practically falling apart. All of the extra classes, skills, and spells added much-needed depth to Basic D&D, and the lore and other background information was extremely useful in my early campaigns. It was also fun to simply read through, whether I used it or not. I’m hopeful that the Gazetteers will be released digitally at dndclassics.com soon. If they are, I will enjoy rereading them, reliving the memories of my youth, and perhaps even running one more monster PC mini-campaign again someday!

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: DragonStrike

It’s been a few months since my last D&Development post. In these retrospectives, I like to discuss some of the most important influences upon me as a D&D fan. Generally, these are things like my first rolepaying experience (Ravenloft), a favorite campaign setting (Dark Sun), or genre-related media (the Dragonriders of Pern, the D&D cartoon). Today, we go ona different track, with a product that wasn’t so much profoundly influential as it was a guilty pleasure: DragonStrike.

In 1993, I was in my second year of college, and had been employed at a small Waldenbooks store for several months. It was a time in my life I look back on fondly. As a student, living at home, but working 20-30 hours a week, I had a decent amount of disposable income. Couple this with the discount I got on any purchases at the bookstore, and you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I was buying a lot of stuff. This was the heyday of TSR’s output, with lots of campaign settings, supplements, novels, and adventures coming out regularly. It seemed like each week, I was spending a big chunk of my paycheck on D&D stuff, and loving every minute of it.

Though I was purchasing plenty of 2nd edition AD&D material, I still had a fondness for Basic D&D. When the Black Box set and the Rules Cyclopedia hit the shelves, I purchased them immediately. I was especially fond of the Black Box set. This was the new, easy to master D&D Basic set, with a slick map and cardboard stand-ups for characters and monsters. It might seem quaint now, but I had never really used a map like this for my D&D sessions. Mostly, our group used graph paper mapping and if we used minis at all, it was for formations, marching orders, and that sort of thing. Using a map made D&D seem more like a board game, and this was appealing to me.

Since I loved this Basic set quite a bit, you can only imagine how I felt when DragonStrike arrived at my bookstore. It was so much better than the Basic set, from a components perspective, at least. While the former included only one map, and cardboard stand-ups, the DragonStrike game had no less than four colorful maps, plus a set of plastic miniatures. DragonStrike had a sheet of cool tokens, plus character cards that weren’t paintings, but rather photographs of actual actors! I’d seen nothing like it at the time, and this sort of thing is still pretty rare.

The most unique inclusion to the game was a VHS tape. This video was about half an hour long, and used the same actors from the character cards in a sort of low-budget dungeon crawl. A narrator explained what was going on, and introduced some of the basics of role playing to new players. I was far from a new player, but I still thought the video was awesome. Especially considering the use of brand new computer generated effects, which were eye-popping at the time.

I remember reading through the rules over and over again, and playing through all the solo adventures. I never played DragonStrike with my regular D&D group, though I did use the maps in my campaign from time to time. I spent quite a bit of time with some younger kids from church one summer, and played the game with them a few times. They were probably around seven or eight years old, and they really enjoyed it. I can’t imagine they had more fun playing it than I did running it, though!

Looking back on it now, DragonStrike is a delightfully cheesy artifact of the time period in which it was created. The video is unintentionally hilarious, with ham-fisted acting and the worst CGI effects I’ve ever seen. The miniatures are in garish colors, just as many toys of the era were. But I still look back on it fondly. DragonStrike may not be the most important thing TSR ever made, and most people will hardly remember it. Lots of different D&D “starter sets” have been introduced over the years, but in my opinion, none will ever have as much charm and personality as DragonStrike.

Thanks to rpggeek.com for images and YouTube user catjams for the video!

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: Dragonlance

It’s been a while since I wrote a D&Development post. While I have already covered two of my favorite campaign settings, Ravenloft and Dark Sun, I’ve only mentioned today’s entry, the world of Krynn, in a few posts here and there. I’ve wondered why this is so; I consider Dragonlance to be one of my favorite D&D-related things of all time. However, I am more of a fan of the novels than the actual gaming products, so perhaps that explains my lack of Dragonlance coverage so far. Nontheless, I am still quite fond of the setting from a gameplay perspective.

I was born in 1974, so by the mid 80s, when Dragonlance first hit the shelves, I was actually able to earn some money on my own. I mowed lawns and assisted my mother with her cake decorating business, using the money on trips to the mall, where I would usually hit up the comic shop, arcade, and bookstore. Looking for new Adventure Gamebooks one Saturday evening after we’d worked a wedding all day, I noticed a bright red book with an awesome title and even better cover art: Dragons of Autumn Twilight. This book served as an introduction to fantasy literature for me, and boosted my interest in D&D, too.

I read all three of the Chronicles books that summer, and to say that I enjoyed them would be an understatement. The characters were so interesting to me; I realize they are archetypal and not especially complex, for the most part, but that didn’t bother me at the time (and doesn’t get my feathers ruffled too much now, either). The carefree kender Tasslehoff, the gruff dwarf Flint, the noble Knight Sturm… I loved them all. I adored Raistlin and Caramon, which should come as no surprise to anyone, and was especially intrigued by the way magic worked on Krynn. The idea that it was physically exhausting for Raistlin to cast spells, especially more powerful ones, was quite different than the wizards I had seen in video games and movies. This made the fanciful elements of the book seem so much more realistic.

While the series has been criticized for its black and white depiction of good versus evil, I had no problem with it. The heroes worked together to help others and save the world, the villains were mean and treacherous, and that’s how I liked it. Classifying mages into colors by their alignment seems goofy on the surface, but it seemed ordered and structured, logical, somehow, to me. It might just be the nostalgia goggles affecting my judgement, but Dragonlance was so different than anything I had read, these flaws didn’t bother me at all at the time, and seem only minor upon rereading the series today.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect was the focus on dragons throughout the story. The idea that there were different kinds of dragons, each with a different breath weapon, habitat, and disposition, blew my mind. Of course, this all came from the Monster Manual and other D&D products, but I’d never seen it used in a story like this. A large-scale war, with dragons, both evil and good, Knights and draconians, wizards and warriors, all in conflict with one another, was fascinating. My daydreams were filled with such images for many months.

I continued to read the Legends series, and loved it. The blending of time travel with the fantasy genre and the tragic tale of Raistlin’s attempt at godhood kept me turning the pages at a frantic pace. My appreciation for Dragonlance was so great that I found myself buying the game products, even though they didn’t really work too well with the Basic D&D set I was most familiar with. Reading the events of the Chronicles books in module form was interesting to me, but my favorite was DL 5 Dragons of Mystery. I poured over this sourcebook for more information about the world of Krynn for many hours.

I only ever played in one Dragonlance campaign that I can remember. There were only three of us, and we all took on the role of magic users. I wanted to be (surprise!) a neutral human mage. However, during an introductory solo play session detailing my characters Test, Dalamar himself appeared and offered to take me as an apprentice if I would don the black robes. I of course accepted, and the campaign thus began with a party of three wizards, one of each color robes! When you are thirteen, it doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

While most of my Dragonlance memories are fond ones, there is one that still bothers me to this day. I have a tendency to get almost obsessive over one thing at a time, and focus on it to the exclusion of other activities. I am better about it now, but when I was younger, this caused some concern for my parents. During the height of my Dragonlance-crazed years, my father called the school librarian and asked if the books were appropriate for a junior high student. She declared the books to be “too adult”. Perhaps she was just buying into the anti-D&D hype (which my parents did not, thankfully) but in any case, my parents took away the Dragonlance books from me.

I was devastated, to say the least. While I know my parents did a great job raising me, I still disagree with this one decision. They should have read the books themselves first before taking them away from me. While I certainly went overboard with Dragonlance books, I don’t think it was unhealthy at all. I ended up just moving on to the next big thing, probably comics or Nintendo, and obsessed over that instead. Within a few years, my parents relented, and I purchased and reread the books again, though at a more reasonable pace. It wouldn’t be the last time I would enjoy doing so.

The best Dragonlance experiences I have aren’t childhood memories, but are much more recent. Several years ago, I shared my Chronicles books with my oldest son, and he enjoyed them, and the Legends series too, though certainly not as much as I did when I was a kid. Over the past year, my youngest son has really enjoyed anything to do with D&D. He recently bought a copy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight for his Kindle. He will turn eleven next month, a bit younger than I was when I first read it. He loves the book. We’ve had great conversations about it, and it’s interesting to see how his opinions are so different than mine. Tanis is his favorite, and he wrote a character report about him for school. Sharing one of my favorite book series with my children has been an amazing experience, one that I will treasure forever.

I owe a great portion of my identity as a Dungeon Master to the Dragonlance saga. An emphasis on dragons and a clear line between good and evil are appealing to me, and I find myself using both concepts in my games often. While I have not followed many of the newer books, I still reread the first two trilogies every few years. While I am disappointed in the lack of Dragonlance products for 4th Edition, I’m hopeful that many of the classics from the past will be reprinted or released digitally soon, and will be easily integrated into D&D Next campaigns.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: Endless Quest and AD&D Adventure Gamebooks

It’s time once again for a post about the biggest influences on me as a fan of Dungeons & Dragons. This time around, we’ll look back at the world of that distinctly 80s item, the interactive gamebook. More specifically, we’ll discuss the TSR branded gamebooks: the Endless Quest series, and the more game-like follow ups, Super Endless Quest (also known as AD&D Adventure Gamebooks).

Like most every kid who grew up in the 80s, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. You’ve likely heard of them, even if you never read one. These books don’t read straight from front cover to back cover, but instead present the reader with choices at different points in the story. These choices send the reader to different pages, where the narrative unfolds in various ways. You an read the same book over and over again with different outcomes each time. As a kid, I found the concept fascinating, and sought out as many Choose Your Own Adventure (hereafter abbreviated CYOA) books as I could find.

The CYOA books were a smashing success, spawning the development of other, similar lines. Two of my favorites were the Time Machine and Be an Interplanetary Spy series. Time travel was a natural fit for exciting adventures, and I read Search for Dinosaurs over and over again in the summer of 1984. The Interplanetary Spy series focused more on puzzles, mazes, and other brain teasers, often requiring the reader to write in the book. I still have my battered copy of The Galactic Pirate.

TSR got in on the gamebook action, too, starting with the Endless Quest books, the first of which hit bookstore shelves in 1982. I was immediately drawn to these books. Not only did I love the gamebook format, but the cover art was amazing! And of course, they were branded with the Dungeons & Dragons name, which I was familiar with from the cartoon. Unsurprisingly, I read as many Endless Quest books as possible. Dragon of Doom, in particular, was quite memorable for me. I picked up my copy at a bookstore in a mall in another city we were travelling through.

Pardon a brief aside: when I was young, going to a new bookstore was like entering the tomb of King Tut; who knew what exotic new treasures could be found within? I pored over the shelves of every library, grocery store, and newsstand I could, looking for the next great book. Finding something I hadn’t seen before was such a thrill. Now, you learn about new products weeks or months in advance, and I’m not sure if that is as big a benefit as it seems to be on the surface.

In hindsight, it is clear that, aside from cashing in on the gamebook fad, the primary purpose of Endless Quest was to get kids involved in TSR games. Dungeons & Dragons was the most popular, for sure, and so most of the EQ books were set in the world of Greyhawk. But there were also a few Gamma World books. Interestingly, a handful of books featuring licensed characters like Conan and Tarzan was available. The 2nd person perspective of Endless Quest, as well as the decision making aspects, made the transition from a book to the full-fledged RPG a smooth one.

The Super Endless Quest line made this natural progression even easier. This series changed its name to AD&D Adventure Gamebooks early on in the run, and for good reason. These books provided a bookmark that doubled as a character sheet, including such concepts as hit points, spells, and inventory management. There was even a little bit of character customization, where you could spend points on different ability scores. In essence, each AD&D Adventure Gamebook was the same thing as the solo adventure from the Mentzer Basic set: a fantastic introduction to role playing games.

My favorite Adventure Gamebook was, without a doubt, The Soulforge. The reader took on the role of Raistlin (yes, THAT Raistlin) during his Test at the Tower of High Sorcery. At the time, this was the only account with the details of what happened to Raistlin during this intriguing part of Dragonlance history. Isn’t it odd that such an important part of Krynn’s lore was only found in a gamebook until later detailed in an “actual” novel? Other memorable books in this series were Master of Ravenloft, The Sorcerer’s Crown, and Gates of Death. This latter book was purchased for me as a reward by my aunt, after I helped her clean my grandparents’ house all night while we listened to the La Bamba soundtrack over and over again. (Isn’t it odd how memory works?)

The AD&D Adventure Gamebooks were a big part of my development as a fan of role-playing games. When I couldn’t get together with the group, I could still go on an adventure just by opening the pages of one of these stories. While the TSR books were always the ones I sought out first, I also voraciously devoured the Lone Wolf books and even a few Fighting Fantasy entries. Such was my mania that I even developed a few new characters for use in my gamebooks. Gamebooks were an excellent outlet for my creativity, and ignited a love for roleplaying games in me that is still unquenched more than twenty years later.

I highly recommend readers who are interested in Endless Quest or other gamebooks to check out Demian’s Gamebook Web Page. Though a bit hard to navigate, it’s a tremendous storehouse of information, and was where I found the pictures in this post. Thanks Demian!

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The Dragonriders of Pern

Last week, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Anne McCaffrey. As most of my readers undoubtedly know, McCaffrey was a prolific science-fiction and fantasy author. Her Dragonriders of Pern series is her most popular work, and it had a great influence on me as a D&D playing teenager. It is only fitting, then, that I dedicate this month’s D&Development to Anne McCaffrey and her glorious dragons.

I came upon the first book in the series, Dragonflight, when I was in junior high. I was in the thick of my Dragonlance fandom, voracious in my consumption of dragon-related material. While browsing at a local bookstore, the spine of the book caught my eye, most likely due to its mention of my favorite fantastic creature. The cover itself was what sold me on the book. Michael Whelan’s illustration of an enormous, majestic, golden dragon soaring through a green sky struck me as incredible. I was a fan of the D&D art from the time, but this painting was much different, totally intriguing me.

Though the book was categorized as fantasy, it was really more science fiction. There were no magic spells, wizards, and no orcs or goblins. There were, of course, dragons, but these magnificent creatures were far different than their D&D counterparts. Telepathically bonded to their riders, and able to teleport at will, the dragons of Pern were quite alien and yet somehow realistic. The different colors of dragons didn’t relate their alignment as in D&D, but instead represented different sizes or genders. Small greens and blues and even the larger brown and bronze were each dwarfed by the golden queens. The dragons were friendly and intelligent, working with their riders to defend Pern from the threat of dangerous space-born spores called Thread. These dragons obviously played against the stereotypes in fantasy literature, which I’m sure was McCaffrey’s intent.

As impressive as the dragons were, the real appeal of the book, to me, came from the richly detailed setting. The society of an agrarian culture by itself would be quite mundane, but the ever-present danger of Thread, which consumed all living matter it contacted, made the stories compelling. People lived in fear, hiding in caves or stone buildings as the Thread fell. Bases full of dragons and their riders, called weyrs, were scattered across the world, in order to best patrol the skies. An elaborate, almost military system of defense had developed over the centuries. But during a particularly long period without the fall of Thread, all but one weyr had been abandoned, and the dragonriders were barely able to survive, since most people considered Thread to be a myth. This was where the story began.

All this background information might sound complicated, and it really is. But to me, this just goes to show you how imaginative and yet natural the world of Pern was. McCaffrey had created a speculative, yet very believable world. This is what the best science fiction is all about, in my opinion. By carefully crafting a world that was fantastic and different, yet still made sense, McCaffrey’s Pern became one of my favorite settings in any medium.

Though it wasn’t the typical D&D world, the Pern books certainly ignited my imagination in a way that few other series ever did. The political intrigue and strong characters from the books would sn influences on my campaigns. I used good dragons in my stories often, many of whom acted like or were even named after those in the Dragonriders novels. I have tried to keep my campaigns as logically consistent yet still fantastic as the Pern stories, though I of course cannot hope to live up to such a high standard.

Recently, I reread the entire Dragonriders of Pern series from the beginning, and my enjoyment of it as a thirty-something adult had not diminished from my teenaged fervor. The books are every bit as good as I remembered them, and frankly have aged better than many D&D novels I read in the same time period. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey, for creating such a rich, lovingly detailed world to share with the rest of us. You will be missed.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: Dark Sun

Yesterday, I went to an old friend’s house to play board games and visit for a while. The conversation turned to games we had been playing lately, and I mentioned that I had just played the new D&D board game, The Legend of Drizzt. After I shared my thoughts on it with him (short version: it’s awesome), I opined that they should make a Dragonlance D&D system game next. My friend disagreed, and said Dark Sun is the better choice.

This awakened many of my memories from almost twenty years ago. The summer of 1992, right after I graduated high school, was one of the best of my life. It was really the last time that many of my circle of friends would have a significant amount of time with one another. For that summer, we had a great situation: several creative, intelligent D&D fans with lots of imagination and free time on their hands. For a couple months, we had near-daily sessions of gaming, most all of them set in the blasted lands of Athas.

Dark Sun was the hot new campaign setting of the time. It was so different from what had come before, totally unique, that we found it totally intriguing. The older, popular worlds of Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms may have had some minor differences from one another, but they all shared the standard basic fantasy elements like grey-bearded wizards, stodgy dwarves, and knights in shining armor. Dark Sun totally turned the standards upside down, in many different ways, from the races to the monsters to the brutal desert setting.

There were no grumpy, bearded dwarves on Athas, nor were there green-clad forest-loving elves (since there were no forests). Kind-eyed, Hobbit-like halflings smoking pipes were replaced by a savage, minuscule race of deadly cannibals. Some races in Dark Sun were more at home in the Monster Manual, like the half-giant, thri-kreen, and aarakocra.

Even the classes were wildly different. While there were still fighters and thieves, magic-using classes were significantly changed. Arcane magic came in two flavors, defiling, a quick and dirty method which drained the life force of plants and animals nearby, or preserving, which was more difficult to use yet avoided damage to the environment. The populace feared all defilers and preservers, since misuse of magic was what had changed Athas into a hot, dreary wasteland. Divine magic was non-existent; priests instead drew power from the elements, including the hybrid elements of sun, silt, rain, and magma. The templar class, servants of the Sorcerer Kings, also had cleric-like powers drawn from their masters. Removing the gods themselves from Athas was a bold move that added to the unique nature of the setting.

Perhaps the most appealing part of Dark Sun was the increased power level of the characters.  I am a min-maxer at heart, and there were ample opportunities for making optomized characters on Athas.  Due to the harsh conditions, the races had all evolved into sturdier, stronger versions of their Player’s Handbook selves. Ability scores ranged much higher than the standard cap of 18, so most Athasians were like superheroes compared to normal D&D characters. Topping it all off was the psionic ability common to the setting, allowing interesting powers and abilities to all classes and races. It was a power gamer’s dream, and we loved every minute of it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible art and design work of the Dark Sun setting. The detailed, visceral work of Brom adorned the cover of most Dark Sun products, and it perfectly captured the savage, alien feel of this wasted world. I wonder if Dark Sun would’ve made such an impression on me if another, more traditional fantasy artist had been featured. Dark Sun adventures were quite different than the standard 32-page stapled module, including two small spiral bound books, one each for players and DMs. Again, it felt different and new compared to the previous products released by TSR.

As was the case with most campaign settings, there was a set of novels released for Dark Sun. The Prism Pentad was a series of five books detailing the world and its major characters. The Rome-inspired city-state of Tyr was detailed, with its gladiatorial area, scheming nobles, and many different layers of intrigue. It was an excellent introduction to Dark Sun, and surely added much to our enjoyment of playing D&D in the world of Athas.

Computer games set in the Dark Sun world were among the best available at the time. They boasted excellent, full screen graphics, with a turn based combat system very similar to the tabletop rule set. The first game, Shattered Lands, was followed by a sequel, Wake of the Ravager, in which you actually fight the tarrasque. Yes, that tarrasque. It’s one of my favorite boss battles in any video game I’ve ever played.

After I started playing D&D again earlier this year, I was thrilled to see that Dark Sun had been released for the 4th edition version of the game. I’ve not had the chance to DM a game set in Athas as of yet, but it’s something I’d love to do someday. Dark Sun twisted the fantasy genre in many different directions, altering it and adding to it in a way that made for what I consider to be the most unique campaign setting ever released for D&D.


D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The D&D Basic “Red Box”

The first real Dungeons & Dragons product I owned (apart from Endless Quest books, I suppose) was the Basic Rules “Red Box” set, pictured above.  I distinctly remember driving to my local Waldenbooks to purchase it with some hard earned lawn-mowing money.  According to this ad from the time over at Grognardia, the total cost was likely just under $10.  This modest sum was easily the best money I have ever spent in my life, providing me a lifelong hobby that set my imagination on fire and sparked my creativity in a way nothing else ever really has.

As I’ve discussed here before, I had watched the D&D cartoon and played a bit of the original Ravenloft during recess at school.  My interest in D&D was quite high, already, but when I saw that glorious cover image for the first time, I was totally enthralled.  That dragon is huge, and check out those claws and teeth!  Look at all that treasure lying around, it’s like the ground is carpeted in gold.  And how brave this warrior must be to take on such a powerful foe alone!  The sword, the shield, the awesome horned helm, and best of all, the fact that you couldn’t see the fighter’s face.. that could be me!  It was too much for my 11-year-old mind to take.

I had to know what was inside this tantalizing scarlet box.  You could pick up any book off the shelf, stand there, and sample it for a while.  But this was a boxed set, wrapped in an unassailable plastic barrier.  The thrill of the unknown, of all the secrets of playing this mysterious game, added even more to my desire to own it.  After a couple of weeks mowing the grass, my dad provided the cash and a trip to the store, and I finally had it in my likely trembling hands.

I couldn’t wait any longer; on the car trip home, I opened the box began to read the books inside voraciously.  I marveled at the odd dice, and wondered what the crayon was for.  For weeks, I poured over every page of both the DM’s and player’s books, reading important parts over and over.  The sheer amount of content was amazing.  The illustrations were phenomenal.  I was totally hooked on Dungeons & Dragons, and would play it in some form for over a decade.

Last fall, I picked up the Castle Ravenloft board game, and it piqued my interest in D&D again.  While killing some time at my friendly local gaming store one afternoon, I decided to look at the used RPG section.  Lo and behold, there they were: a copy of the DM’s Book and the Player’s Book from the very set I had loved so much in my youth.  $3 each, and in decent enough condition.  I grabbed them, and spent the next few hours in a comfortable haze of nostalgia.  The new Essentials Red Box came out shortly thereafter, and just like that, I was back into playing D&D regularly again after fifteen or so years.

Looking through the Basic Set books now is an interesting experience.  Every page brings back some memory.  I’m struck by how well the books do what they are supposed to do: spark a new reader into becoming a dedicated player.  The introductory solo adventures, laid out very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, were a good way to introduce the concept of D&D to a newbie.  The progression of terms and gameplay elements in these adventures is very smooth, and quite logical, naturally building from one to the next.  Classes first, then ability scores, followed by hit points, the attack roll, then saving throws, and so on.

The story of the first adventure, with a beautiful cleric, hideous ghouls, and a foul magic-user named Bargle, was intriguing.  After the tragic ending of that tale, the second adventure was more open-ended, with many different options, and I remember playing through it over and over again.  Mapping out the dungeon was a key skill, and it was full of classic foes like rats, goblins, skeletons, and of course the dreaded rust monster, a level 1 fighter’s worst nightmare.  By the time you played through both these adventures, you were quite ready to create your own new character to go dungeon crawling again!

The picture above, from the cleric class description, is one of my favorites.  She looks tough, ready for anything, like someone it would be dangerous to mess with.  The scrapes on her shield and armor indicated she was a veteran dungeon crawler.  Many old-schoolers prefer the quirky, almost trippy art of Erol Otus and the other early D&D talent, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Elmore and Easley.  Their work literally defined my expectations of what fantasy as a genre really was.  The Red Box is full of black and white illustrations by these two, and this only adds to my appreciation of the set.

The Dungeon Master’s book was what really inspired me.  The sample dungeon provided just enough scaffolding and assistance to guide a new DM, but still allowed for plenty of customization.  After all, you were to create the third level of the dungeon yourself, including the final confrontation with the hated wizard Bargle.  Dozens of creatures, from the mundane to the monstrous, were available in the back of the book, with full stats and descriptions.  I don’t know exactly how many dungeons I planned out on sheets of graph paper using the guidelines in this book, but I’m sure it was far more than I ever had the chance to actually run through with players.

The Basic Red Box is probably my favorite Dungeon & Dragons product of all time.  It paved the way for my journey through the Expert, Companion, and Master sets, and then on to 2nd Edition AD&D, with side tours through Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and Dark Sun.  Even after my hiatus from playing D&D, the Red Box played a big role in getting me back into the game again.  Copying the look and feel of this set to introduce Essentials was a brilliant move.  If the intention was to get lapsed D&D fans to return to the fold, in my case, at least, it was a smashing success.  It’s amazing how much pleasure and fun I’ve had over the years from this game, and it all started with this little Red Box.