Monday, 24 January 2011

Book Review – What Is Dungeons and Dragons?

Slammer Kyntire is a fighter. Some days ago, together with a few friends, he was searching for the Sword of the Sorcerer in the ruins of the ancient shrine of Kollchap when he was surprised by a band of Hobgoblins. The adventurers managed to escape, cutting down two of the creatures, but in the ensuing pursuit Slammer's arm was hit by a crossbow bolt. Back at an inn, Zhod the priest heals the injured limb, while secretly the fighter plots for the day when he can buy back his father's farm from the landlord who has seized it and enslaved his family.

Thus starts Butterfield, Honigmann, Parker's 1982 book “What Is Dungeons and Dragons?”, a copy of which I've owned since discovering it in a second-hand bookshop in Wales in the late 80s.

WIDD is a strange book of of two halves. The first is almost a User Guide to the Moldvay/Cook edition of the Basic rules, a very in-depth commentary upon the rules and method of play. Whether this is intended as a primer to buying and playing Basic D&D or as an explanation to already baffled customers I can't decide. The second half is reminiscent of Ian Livingston's “Dicing With Dragons” in that it dedicates a chapter apiece to the likes of miniature figures, other games and computers (unsurprisingly hilariously dated).

So a game of two halves and to continue the bad football commentary metaphors we'll start early doors with the D&D-specific parts.

Match Preview

Famously Jackson and Livingstone were nagged by Penguin Books to write a general guide to Role Playing Games and couldn't be bothered, producing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain instead. Livingstone sort of relented later with Dicing With Dragons which was the sort of book that Penguin wanted but it was published (for reasons beyond my ken) by someone else.

So perhaps WIDD is Penguin's attempt to get that original book written and on bookshelves. It was published by Penguin's young adult imprint "Puffin Plus" in 1982 and written a trio of ex-Etonian schoolboys, John Butterfield, Philip Parker and David Honigmann. I'm not sure why their ex-school is important but every single article on the book you ever see anywhere mentions this fact so I'm not one to break this much-loved Brit Old Skool tradition.

Unsurprisingly it was overtaken by events very rapidly, particularly in it's chapters about the use of Computers and reviews of other available fantasy games but most sneakily in it's dedication to the Moldvay/Cook version - my copy is a fourth edition from 1984 and Mentzer Red Box was released in 1983 so WIDD was still in print when technically obsolete.

Anyway it looks the business, slim paperback, orange spine (reminiscent of SJ's Fighting Fantasy) and traditional Peter Andrew Jones cover illo.

First Half - Basic D&D

The first half is an odd sort of user guide and commentary on the Basic D&D rules. It seems to want to teach the reader how to play, but without obviously removing the need to buy Moldvay and therefore crash headlong into TSR's legal department. We follow the PCs Slammer Kintyre (you will of course be familiar with his brother Muller), Hofta Nap (MU) and Gripper Longshanks (Thief) through character generation and advice on equipping the PCs.

This is really in depth. It's easy to picture a brief essay on How To Roleplay and a sketchy treatment of how D&D characters are rolled up but this book goes into great detail on all manner of things that must be of absolutely zero interest to the casual reader such as alternative characteristic generation, PR experience percentage bonuses, 2-for-1 attribute swaps and alignment languages.

Despite all this it's clear that we aren't dealing with what a later generation might dub "vanilla" D&D. The authors recommend scrapping "Race As Class" so that Gripper Longshanks is not merely a Thief, but a Halfling Thief (yes, a Halfling called Longshanks...). They include a random height and weight table similar to that of Tunnels and Trolls and their writing is full of things apparently lifted from their home campaign - the Mesta Desert, the rival Magician Colleges of Khan and Dokhon, the Albine Empire, Rockmen, 6' poles instead of 10' - I wonder if any novices read this before getting D&D and then wondered where this fantasy world had gone...

Highlight of the first half is the chapter on Dungeon Design and it's included 23-location example dungeon "The Shrine of Kollchap".

The authors are clearly great fans of what we now call Gygaxian Naturalism - here's a apposite quote:

The DM decides that in one particular area there are some Giant Rats which feed on small insects and vermin. Giant Rats are preyed on by Giant Ferrets, and so it is likely that in the same area some of these creatures would be found. In a nearby room, a man might have set up camp with the intention of snaring the ferrets and selling the skins. A group of bandits, hearing of this trade, could try to take it over, and so the DM might place some of these in the area. The Giant Rats and Ferrets might have been a source of food for some Goblins who are now annoyed at the threat to their food supply.”

Kollchap itself seems quite well remembered and appreciated by the Brit Old Skool scene. Personally upon returning to it for the first time in donkey's years (an non-ISO unit of measurement equivalent to "A Long Time") it seems a very tough dungeon for first level Basic characters. A party that enters the ruins above ground risks attack by two Hobgoblins before entering a tunnel with 11 Normal Bats and then passing a secret door behind which 4 Orcs (one with 8hp!) wait ready to slip out behind the PCs and jump them from behind.

There are ways around each fight (scouting the above ground area out to avoid ambush, ducking to let the bats escape, locating the secret door and spiking it shut) but of course this is a beginners book aimed at beginners, so I imagine most novice parties will just blunder in regardless.

After all this potential TPK-age we get a 4th level Chaotic Cleric as a BBEG - to my eyes this scenario is a good one but more suitable for a large 2nd level party or even a small 3rd level one.

Kollchap notes the first occurrence I've noted of the mechanism of putting an upper limit on the number of Wandering Monsters that can be encountered - Entry #1 is 1-6 Skeletons (20) with the 20 being the upper cap of how many can be encountered ever.

Going back to the comment about bits and pieces of the author's campaign sneaking here - here's the Rockman their example of the art of DM-created monsters. It differs significantly from the anthropomorphic stalagmite of the same name found in AC9 Creature Catalogue.

ROCKMAN – AC5, HD 1+2, MV 90', ATT 2 fists, DMG 1-4/1-4+Special, No. App 1-4, SV F1, ML12, Treasure – See Below, AL:C

The Rockman is an animated humanoid, made of red-coloured stone. It is created by the magicians of Khan and will attack magicians of the rival college, Dokhon, on sight. If the Rockman rolls a natural 20, the character hit must Save vs Petrification or be turned to stone. If a character tries to hit a Rockman with an edged weapon and rolls a natural 1, the weapon is broken and useless. Powdered, dead Rockman can be used as Dust of Petrification against creatures of one hit die or less.

After the Kollchap scenario is finished, there's a very neat section showing a run-through the dungeon. It's the typical, fictional example of play you used to find in every single RPG ever printed but WIDD does it in a very clever fashion.

All the left-facing pages contain an after-action report in the style of hack fiction, familiar to us all from the OSR blogosphere after-action reports and amateur press association stuff.

The right-facing pages are mostly blank except for when the author wants to show how the dramatic outcome on the opposite page occurred (rules, dice rolls, DM judgements etc.)

It's nicely non-linear in that including the ruling and dice in line with the text (in the form of massive parentheses section or text boxes) would break up the flow of the prose but this doesn't and I find it's much more readable and attractive to a novice - the story (poor though it is as would be expected) is uninterrupted and gives a better feel for the immersion that good gaming produces with bringing everything to a shuddering halt every thirty seconds.

An excellent idea. More people rip this off please.

Halftime - Have some Bovril. (I won't, as it's foul stuff drunk by Brums and I'd rather wait around for the halftime scores to appear on the big screens in the hope that the Wolves and the Villa are losing).

Second Half - Not Basic D&D

"Figures & Other Accessories" talks about painting, converting and collecting miniature figures and the unsurprisingly unillustrated text is not the ideal medium for such (a problem some of the single digit issue numbered White Dwarfs suffer from). Brief mention of WD and The Dragon, zines and the first three Basic D&D scenarios. Of historic interest only really.

"Computers" suffers from probably being written sometime during 1981 and so appearing in print ten minutes before the Spectrum, C64 and BBC Micro go critical mass overnight in the UK. The 1984 print date of my copy makes this built-in obsolesce even more obvious - even retrogaming enthusiast Coop (who sat down and played Sega Master System Fantasy Zone and S.D.I. for a hour last week) hadn't heard of any of the mentioned games back when I first read this.

Not even of historic interest.

"Further Complexity" is a good chapter, sensibly discussing in which direction (Expert or AD&D) a DM should take his campaign. I suspect the authors are quite modern in their preference for Expert with the following telling and catty statement upon 1E - "They are suitable for those DMs who wish to run a rule system rather than a game." (However this chapter doesn't seem to take account what really happened which was that a great number of us stuck with the former and looted the latter wholesale).

"Other Worlds" talks about other games, drifting off into non-RPG territory with mentions of games like Sorcerer's Cave, King of Dragon Pass and Killer.

Finally there's a long bibliography of suitable fantastic fiction which will please the purists who lament the lack of such in modern games. The usual suspects are found here although a secondary list includes names such as Ovid and Plato, therefore demonstrating the benefits of a classical education (that ex-Eton thing again) - the Other Worlds chapter even highlights the influences upon Mystic Wood as being "The Faerie Queen and Orlando Furioso"...

After Match Report in the Sporting Argus

It's a good read with some interesting little glimpses into the world of one group of British players in the late 70s/early 80s which is perhaps all you can ask from a 28 year old book which was doomed to obsolesce very quickly. I still find it strange how in depth it is when discussing the Moldvay/Cook rules and would be interested to find out what a non-player thought of this when flipping through it in 1982 or 1983.

If you want to acquire a copy from the usual source of OOP book acquirement then be aware there are at least three different covers for this book. The most common one in the UK seems to be the cover at the top of the post (mine, although not my scan), there is also this alternative UK cover;

and this one which is suspect is North American - it's certainly bad enough to be American.


  1. A D&D wizard called "Hofta Nap"? Really? I suppose "Mustapha Kip" would have been racist or something.

    I don't think I've read this book, but I'm sure I've seen that example of play format somewhere before, so someone ripped it off.

    "Indulge in the fastest-growing fantasy cult of the 80's!" Oh dear.

  2. I had this book when I was a kid, maybe 12 years old, and I remember it very fondly. I wished I could play with such an excellent group, and I think I later used the dungeon. It was a very mature introduction for people who otherwise had picked the game up at 12 and were playing with other 12 year olds.

  3. This book still has pride of place next to my "Sorcery" and Advanced Fighting Fantasy. I did have it filed with my D&D books, but it got sick of their relentlessly upbeat attitude and moved back to hang out with its dodgy orange-spined mates.

    WIDD? is a great intro to the game (although I still had no clue about megadungeons afterwards...). As with all the best introductory gaming stuff WIDD? talks slowly and clearly, but at an adult level, and it expects its pimply, oikish readership to make the effort to keep up.

    Livingstone sort of relented later with Dicing With Dragons which was the sort of book that Penguin wanted but it was published (for reasons beyond y ken) by someone else.

    DwD was published in 1982, so it's contemporaneous with WIDD.
    (/comic book guy)

  4. Hey, nice review! Loved this book as a kid (and never knew there were 2 other covers) and stole most of the refs for the campaign world (Albine Empire etc.) to create my own for Red Box Basic D&D (Frank Mentzer). The Shrine of Kollchap adventure was cool, and I also remember enjoying reading the whole chapter on Dungeon Design.

    I guess the closest that Fighting Fantasy got to doing something like this for Puffin was Steve Jackson's FF: The Introductory RPG, and that the publication of What is D&D? pre-empted Ian Livingstone having to seek another publisher for Dicing with Dragons. A similar book which I just bought via eBay (in hardback!) is J E Holmes 'Fantasy Role-Playing Games', which looks like a likewise enjoyable historical read.

    Lastly, these three writers went on to write the 3 volume Cretan Chronicles gamebook series for Puffin a few years later.



  5. Unfortunately I lost my copy of this book whilst on holiday in Wales.

    Only joking! But it is missing from my collection of gaming books. I always suspected it was intended for teachers and parents worried about what little Zhu was getting up to with those funny dice and his mates in the attic when he said he was "playing Dungeons and Dragons".

  6. Great introduction to D&D - I started off with MMII and had no idea what I was doing. WIDD combined with Red Box cleared up a lot of stuff and made it much easier to understand for a 12 year old ... still have my copy

  7. Oops! What I meant was that Livingstone went on to write Dicing With Dragons later on from writing Warlock of Firetop Mt., not later than WIDD's publication date. Dicing With Dragons is next on the list to be looked at BTW.

    I didn't know the authors went on to do the Cretan Chronicles but in all honesty I don't recall ever seeing a copy of those books.

  8. Thanks for the nostalgia trip. I loved this book as a kid, although mine had the second cover, of a red dragon. Maybe 'cos I was in the East Midlands?
    "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"

  9. More info on Cretan Chronicles here:

    They were sort of part of the same line of Puffin/Penguin "adult" gamebooks, like Steve Jackson's Sorcery! and Alexander Scott's Maelstrom RPG book. Certainly they were same size and "jagged-spine" format.



  10. "A D&D wizard called "Hofta Nap"? Really? I suppose "Mustapha Kip" would have been racist or something."

    He name was Hotfa, not Hofta, so I don't think this stands up.