Giddy off the contact nostalgia from the Rules Cyclopedia and frustrated at being unable to locate my original stack of 1st edition rulebooks, I recently embarked on a quest to reassemble the core texts of my earliest Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
It’s still missing Unearthed Arcana and The Best of Dragon III. I’m still debating the cost-to-gain ratio of replacing the former but am pretty certain the a copy of the latter is buried in the same storage crate I pulled the subsequent volume from (complete with original bloodstains caused by a 1987 paper cut). The Cyclopedia, of course, is subbing for the Basic and Expert Set rulebooks.
Otherwise, this collection of tomes was what my tiny gaming group and I got by with for several months. If it seems a little haphazard, that’s because it assembled by my cash-strapped younger self from various clearance aisles. The actual trio of core AD&D books ended up being the last three I purchased before moving onto Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.
It worked pretty well in practice. Most of the basic AD&D mechanics were rehashed in Oriental Adventures, and it wasn’t that difficult to work out which bits were and weren’t specific to the campaign setting. Unearthed Arcana also had its share of redundancies as minor revisions. Any remaining gaps were adequately filled by the box set D&D manuals and a battered AD&D Dungeonmaster’s Screen provided by one of the other players.
So how did we handle characters such as rangers or halfling thieves in the absence of the official rules? The answer is “we didn’t.” Why would anyone want that vanilla nonsense when they could play as a cavalier or ninja or one of the badass Best of Dragon “NPC” (wink-wink) classes? If someone had their heart set on playing a elven fighter-magic user, odds are they either owned a Player Handbook or had access to one. It didn’t matter if they used my ignorance to take certain liberties, because we were all playing fast and loose with the official rules. (The Best of Dragon IV book is full of ball-point footnotes aimed at juicing most favored subclasses. I don’t remember making them, but I’m certain it wasn’t the only book I marked up in such a fashion.)
While I discussed most of these texts during Role-Playing with the Changes, it has been three decades since I’d given any of them more than cursory skim. That was a long enough ago for specific details to drop from memory, but still recent enough for certain passages or illustrations to induce shockingly lucid flashbacks to my early teens. It’s also quite an experience for my jaded middle aged self to revisit bits my adolescent edgelord incarnation considered awe-inducing.
Andrew, Age 14: “WOW, THIS HIERARCHY OF LOWER PLANE ENTITIES IS SICK AS SHIT.”
Andrew, Age 47: “mother of god, these designers were anal-retentive as fuck”
Despite the warm and fuzzy feelings stirred up by this odd homecoming and the purchase of some polyhedral dice (as much a thrill now as it was in 1986), I can’t envision actually playing the game again — and that applies to any tabletop RPG. It’s not just a lack of time, but also a diminished capacity for regularly scheduled social activities. No matter how much fun they might be at the beginning, it does’t take long before I start chafing over the sense of obligation and think of all the other things I’d rather be doing that evening instead.
If the itch to play does arise, I can usually salve it with another aborted playthough of the Baldur’s Gate games.