Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 30

It’s been a while since I compiled any old school Dungeons & Dragons threads from Twitter, but that’s because I hadn’t posted any for quite a while! I finally have another four threads to post, with some truly classic products. Let us begin…

Eldritch Wizardry (1976), by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume. This one is one of the most famous and infamous of the “0th edition” D&D products!

Okay, first off: THAT COVER. Though early D&D had a lot of demonic nudity in its early editions, this was the only cover that sported a naked woman. According to Shannon Appelcline over at DriveThruRPG, this cover was heavily debated before release.

Probably the only cover that would come close to this again, and stir up as much controversy, way Day of Al’Akbar (1986). This adventure was criticized for trying to draw attention with its buxom ladies on the cover.

This was the third and final supplement to “zeroth edition” D&D, after Blackmoor and Greyhawk. This volume, cryptically, is said in the introduction to make the game less “predictable” again, presumably by the addition of more magic, monsters, and powers.

This volume marked the first appearance of the Druid as a character class, and with it, all the original character classes that people know from D&D had finally been introduced.

One of the major — and rather bizarre — editions to D&D was psionic powers. All the names of attack and defense modes were introduced here. (I’ve never really understood how psionics became such a big part of early D&D.)

Another major addition was statistics for the various types of demons, which have largely remained unchanged since. Eldritch Wizardry also introduced Orcus and Demogorgon, demon lords who would torment many a group of characters through the years.

The other major addition in this supplement was artifacts: magical items of unfathomable power. Complete stats weren’t even given, and were left for the DM to fill in, presumably so players peeking at the book wouldn’t know what to expect! Most of the famous artifacts that would eventually appear in the Dungeon Master’s Guide appeared here first, such as the Hand and Eye of Vecna. “Vecna” is, FYI, an acronym of “Vance,” after the fantasy author Jack Vance.

This would be the last of the original D&D books; already at this time, new compilations of rules were being devised, which would become “basic” and “advanced” Dungeons & Dragons!

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987), by Greg Costikyan. Let’s look at another classic roleplaying game, of a very different nature!

This was the first Star Wars RPG, and one that was eagerly awaited for years by RPG and Star Wars fans like me! Of course, it came years after the “last” film in the series, Return of the Jedi, and Star Wars fever had cooled significantly. Even Star Wars novels had largely disappeared, and wouldn’t come back in a big way until the 1991 Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn.

I suspect this is why a company like West End Games was able to grab the license to produce a Star Wars RPG: very few people were paying attention anymore!

West End Games spared no expense in production, though, with many full color plates in the main book such as this lovely title page.

The Star Wars RPG was tailored to bring in new players, including a solo walkthrough adventure to teach people what an RPG actually is!

For characters, many archetypes are provided, ranging from aliens to Jedi to politicians to smugglers to boisterous kids! The base stats are provided, and then specific skills can be chosen to customize.

The mechanics of the game are worth noting, as they’re quite different from D&D and designed for lightning fast play. For ranged combat, you roll the dice for the relevant skill, and have a difficulty based on range. If there’s a hit, damage dice are rolled for the weapon and strength dice for the target. Depending on the difference in the rolls, the target can be stunned, wounded, incapacitated, or mortally wounded. The target can also opt to use a dodge reaction, in which case they roll dodge dice and add this to the difficulty to hit. They can always do this, but every dodge reduces any further actions for their turn by one die.

This is the neat thing about combat in the SW RPG: you can make as many actions as you like in a combat round, but each action reduces your overall effectiveness by one die. There’s an interesting cost/benefit analysis in weighing your attacks/dodges!

Starship combat works in a similar way, and stats for the most familiar ships are given.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without including the Force! Force abilities and lightsaber attacks are described in detail, such as the old faithful telekinesis.

The main RPG book also includes some stunningly charming full-color advertisements that really give a feeling of a lived-in universe, quite important since at that time, there wasn’t as much SW lore as there is now.

Because of this lack of lore, The Star Wars Sourcebook was released the same year, giving details on spacecraft, vehicles, creatures, aliens, stormtroopers, and named characters in the universe.

It looks like a lot of the illustrations for the Sourcebook were drawn from concept art from the original movies.

Overall, it is a really neat system! A new system was published by Wizards of the Coast from 2000-2010, and a third system appeared from Fantasy Flight Games in 2012. But the original West End Game system is dear to my heart.

Chainmail (1971), by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. What came before zeroth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Chainmail did, and I finally got myself a copy of it!

Chainmail is where D&D all began. It started with Jeff Perren writing up a brief set of miniatures rules in 1970, which he shared with Gygax. Gygax expanded the rules and they were published in several magazines in 1970.

Gygax then met Don Lowry, who had founded Guidon Games, and he signed a publishing agreement. The first edition of Chainmail was published by Guidon Games; my 3rd edition is of course published by TSR.

Chainmail included a quite detailed set of rules for medieval warfare, and we’ll see that many of the rules made their way into D&D, most notably stuff in the “fantasy supplement” that we’ll get to…

Even reading the introduction, one is struck by the welcoming nature of the prose; Gygax’s writing is pretty recognizable here, as he would write similar things about D&D in the future.

One HUGE thing that would make its way into D&D; note how Gygax describes the rules: “it is always a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter.”

I learned a bit about the history of wargaming in the introduction, too; I had never heard of a “sand table,” in which wet sand is used to easily mold terrain to your liking!

Chainmail introduced the sort of turn sequence that would make it into D&D: an initiative roll, in which the high-roller has the advantage. In Chainmail, though, the winner could opt to move last, to see what the opponent would do. This sort of system made it into Star Frontiers.

One could also use an optional simultaneous movement system, where each side secretly writes their moves down, and then they take half of their movement at once, adjusting for unexpected clashes and “pass-through” fire.

Note the morale check rules! This is something else that carried over to early D&D: the need to roll to see if your enemies (or allies) panic and break ranks or surrender. In modern D&D, this is usually done through role-playing instead.

Man-to-man combat also was a lead-in to D&D: standard Chainmail involved a single figure representing many soldiers. These modified rules allowed for one-on-one fighting to be resolved.

But the biggest thing is the Fantasy Supplement which allows a player to “add a new facet to his hobby.” Ironically, that “facet” would overtake all other aspects of Gygax’s work, and the hobby itself! Also note the thought that you can “devise your own ‘world.'”

Many standard monsters from fiction and legend are represented like orcs, trolls, and goblins. There is also a list of spells, and it is really neat to see which familiar D&D spells appeared first in Chainmail!

Magical weapons also appear here, and even the familiar +1 to +3 magical swords! d20 dice weren’t even used yet, but the idea of swords with “plusses” carried over.

Chainmail was one piece of the puzzle that eventually became D&D. The other piece was the gaming of Dave Arneson, who started with the Chainmail rules but added the roleplaying aspects like leveling and character classes. Arneson had worked with Gygax on another wargaming project, the two talked about fantasy gaming, and the rest is history!

PS in original D&D, movement was exceedingly slow. A round was a minute, a turn was 10 minutes! This seems to also be a holdover from Chainmail, in which mass combat rounds were a minute at a time, representing lots of action at once.

X2: Castle Amber (1981), by Tom Moldvay. Here we have another classic, though one that is probably less well-known than others!

This was the second “Expert Set” adventure, following X1: The Isle of Dread, that was packaged with the Expert Set. Expert adventures feature more powerful characters, more danger, and more wilderness adventures.

Castle Amber didn’t quite fit that mold! It largely takes place inside the cursed Castle Amber, in a mysterious other dimension called Averoigne. The castle is the cursed eternal home of the decadent Amber family.

The Amber family still inhabit the castle, and all have distinct personalities and hostility levels — though all are insane. For instance, one leads a Wild Hunt through the castle gardens.

The characters are transported to the castle unexpectedly and mysteriously, finding it surrounded by a mist that will kill them. Their only choice is to explore the castle thoroughly, where they find clues on how to break the curse and get home.

The castle is filled with strange, horrific, and deadly encounters, such as a throne room filled with skeletons frozen in the poses they held at the moment they died.

Fitting with the unpredictable nature of the castle, however, many events are beneficial. A strange banquet, if eaten, can provide permanent benefits to abilities — if a course of the meal doesn’t kill them outright.

Eventually, the PCs find a way to escape into the Province of Averoigne itself, which they must explore to find key magic items for breaking the curse and returning home.

If you’re a pulp fiction fan, “Averoigne” might sound familiar! In fact, Castle Amber is inspired by the works of Clark Ashton Smith, and the module is the first licensed D&D product, with official CAS estate approval!

The exploration of Averoigne involves encounters with events from CAS’s stories, including a truly titanic colossus that will destroy a village without the players’ intervention.

The story, by the way, is “The Colossus of Ylourgne.” And the colossus is what is featured on the cover of the module!

Castle Amber is also exceptional in the large number of new monsters it introduces. My personal favorite is the brain collector, which will remove character’s brains and add them to itself for increased power.

Castle Amber has had a surprisingly large impact on D&D. The Amber family was incorporated into the magic-user nation of Glantri in the D&D Mystara setting, as one family of scheming, power-hungry nobles.

In 1995, “Mark of Amber” was released, a sequel of the original adventure set 30 years later!

Finally, we should note that Goodman Games released a 5th edition remake of Castle Amber in 2020! Castle Amber is one of the true D&D classics.


Well, I hope you enjoyed this set of old school D&D posts! More to come soon… uh, sooner than this post came!

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