Monday, August 20, 2007

Starting a D&D Campaign - in 1973

[Originally published in OD&Dities, no. 8 (Sept. 2002).]

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of short articles examining the history of D&D by constructing a fictional campaign setting that (hypothetically) started in 1973, and tracing its progress through the years. The simulation of such a campaign will, hopefully, illuminate the development of D&D, as well as
introduce a new campaign setting developed "from the ground up."

Starting a D&D campaign in 1973 certainly wouldn't be easy, since no books with the name Dungeons & Dragons had been published yet at that time. But it wouldn't be impossible. There were several resources a potential DM of the time could have used. The most obvious resource would be the original Chainmail
rules, which had been available since 1969.

Using the fantasy supplement in Chainmail, one could have created wargaming scenarios somewhat close to what D&D would become. Dave Arneson had been running his Blackmoor campaign since 1971, and the rules he was using were closer to what D&D became than Chainmail. By 1973, there were multiple Blackmoor campaigns being run in Minnesota. (1) A copy of Arneson's home rules could have been obtained from any one of them.

Lastly, the Dungeons & Dragons rules WERE being used in 1973, "beta-tested" in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign. The basics rules of D&D – level advancement, the original three character classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user), and the Jack Vance-swiped spell system – had existed since 1972. (2) The D&D rules were being play-tested elsewhere too, for Gygax had mailed out about 75 copies of the rules to other gamers he knew, and many photocopied manuscripts were soon in circulation. (3)

Any one of those copies could have fallen into our hypothetical DM's hands. Many players came and went in Gygax's campaign, including such recognizable figures in the industry as Len Lakofka and James Ward. It is certainly conceivable that one could have wormed their way into an invitation to Gygax's game table long enough to get a good look at the D&D rules from the source itself!

What would a 1973 campaign have been like? Let's assume that, like Arneson and Gygax, our fictional DM would base his campaign on recent fantasy literature. There was little precedent outside of literature, after all, to model a fantasy/medieval campaign on at that time. Lin Carter was still reaming out swords & sorcery anthologies at that time. Watership Down was still a huge hit. (4) Robert Zelazny had just produced Jack of Shadows in 1971 – a book that later made it onto the AD&D inspirational reading list. (5)

Jack of Shadow's world – on which magic works on one hemisphere and technology works on the other – is tempting, and has even been adapted into D&D-compatible scenarios before. (6) The world's cosmology has certain complications for level-based campaigning, however, in that low-level PCs are unlikely to have the resources or abilities to travel between hemispheres easily. Besides, the campaign would seem more original if changes were made to Zelazny's premise. Thus, our DM changes the details so that technology works on the whole world during the day, and magic works at night. Here now is an unusual setting where warfare is fought with gunpowder by day, while magic spells are used by spies and saboteurs at night.

Little alteration would need to be made to the D&D rules (one could argue that magic-users would need strengthening to offset their limited spell-casting time, but that is a subject for another day). The Chainmail rules could easily be incorporated to cover the use of gunpowder weapons by day. Little world detail needed to be worked out before play began – like Blackmoor and Greyhawk, we will assume the Shadoworld campaign started out with the exploration of a dungeon. The campaign would gradually spread out from there, of course, but that is the subject of future speculation...

1. As mentioned by Dave Arneson in The First Fantasy Campaign supplement, published by Judges Guild, c.1980.
2. Confirmed via email with Gary Gygax in 2001.
3. From Gary Gygax's opening article in The Story of TSR, c. 1999.
4. Leading to the publication of the game Bunnies & Burrows in 1976.
5. Found at the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide, c. 1979.
6. Mayfair Games' Wizards supplement, c 1983.

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