Reading Original Dungeons & Dragons

If you read this blog, you're probably well aware that over the past decade-plus, fifteen years or so, there's been a wealth of scholarship surrounding the original 1974 D&D rules. I was recently reading over...let's just say, an early printing of these rules, and a few things jumped out at me. There are definitely assumptions we make about OD&D that are based on later developments. Things that were written in AD&D, B/X, even some of the later supplements have colored our idea of "how things are supposed to be."

With that in mind, I'd like to go back and interpret OD&D through the lens of someone who had just picked it up in 1974, without the benefit of everything that came later, without actually having gamed with Gary and Dave, and see what comes out in the wash. This is nothing more than a thought experiement--I'm not necessarily trying to challenge common wisdom about how these things work, but the way they are presented and worded at the source can, sometimes, yield differing interpretations than those commonly held.

I'm not sure how many blogs will be in this series. I'm inclined to believe one per booklet (so three), but it may grow. We'll see.

Also, for this reading, all coyness aside, I'll be looking at the second printing of these rules--a woodgrain print with the correction sheet--to really take it back to the source.

With all that said, let's dive in!

Book One: Men & Magic

The Question of Miniatures

A few things jump out at me right away when reading Men & Magic. First, we see a bit of an identity crisis in D&D that continues to this very day. The cover lists it specifically as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." Then, on page three, it says, "In fact, you will not even need miniature figures, although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought." 

Skip to page four, when it says, "As with any set of miniatures rules, they are guidelines to follow...."

On to page five: "Miniature figures can be added if the players have them available and so desire, but miniatures are not required, only ethstetically (sic) pleasing; similarly, unit counters can be employed -- with or without figures -- although by themselves bits of cardboard lack the eye-appeal of the varied and brightly painted miniature figures."

Would that Gygax and Arneson knew that this would touch off violent debates for the next 40-plus years about "whether D&D is a miniatures game."

Again, this is from the perspective of someone reading the books in 1974, without the beneift of the knowledge we have now. 

Number of Players

D&D assumes a lot of players in a campaign! Any burgeoning DM would be unnerved at the prospect of "At least one referee and four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts." Holy crap, where am I going to find room for twenty guys and gals to crowd around the sand table in my basement!? And how am I going to balance that many personalities working through my dungeons?

Building the Campaign

For the most part, we're pointed to Book 3: Underworld and Wilderness Adventures for campaign building rules, but there's some solid advice in here to help me breathe easier. On page four, it advises that a "campaign be begun slowly... so as not to become bogged down in unfamiliar details at first. That way, your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned." 

Building it step by step, starting small and building, is a great idea. I don't have to put months into building a detailed world right off the bat. I can start off with one village and allow the world to grow step-by-step. Not only will that pace me, but I'll get to learn about the world right alongside my players. Groovy. 

The recommendation, starting on page 5, is that I start with at least "half a dozen levels of [my] underworld," and populate them with monsters and the like. Again, I'm pointed to volume 3 for guidelines on that, so we'll set that aside for now. 

Equipment (to play the game)

Huh. Why do I need a board game for wilderness survival put out by some other company? That's another expense I'll have to incur. Maybe I'll hold off on that one until I finish reading this one and decide if I actually want to play. 

Chainmail? I mean, it's a popular miniatures set, but why do I need it for this game? Seems like maybe Tactical Studies Rules is just trying to push one of their other products. Whatever, though; I've already got it, so that's fine. 

The Question of Elves

Elves are an interesting question in D&D. While Dwarves and Halflings are all fighting-men, with limited levels, Elves can start as either, and switch back and forth whenever they like, but "no more than once per adventure." 

Modern readers, please note, that's the wording. It's not "per day," as we all assume. It's "per adventure." 

To me, a fan of science fiction and fantasy in 1974, with bookshelves full of Ace Paperbacks by Howard, Burroughs, Lieber, de Camp, Carter, Saberhagen, and their ilk, an adventure is defined as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes it's a short story. Sometimes it's a novel. Sometimes it's a chapter or three in a novel. That means if the heroes set out to find the Staff of Marzon to return it to the Wizards' guild in town, if the elf starts off as a fighting-man, he's a fighting-man until they find and return that staff. If the adventure is more open-ended (exploring the local castle dungeons), I guess, as DM, I'll decide when appropriate breaking points are. Maybe each level? Maybe any time they have to leave to resupply and heal. 

Regardless, it seems a given that at some point the elf, after maxing out at hero, will want to continue on as a magic-user until he maxes out at warlock. After all, it only makes sense. Also, I note that it says elves can wear armor and cast spells. It doesn't say that an elf operating as a magic-user can wield swords. My common sense tells me that the elf's fighter abilities are skills he has learned and should follow him when he switches classes. The rules as written would seem to indicate that when he's a magic user, he's a magic user. This is based on the fact that the rules actually specify armor as an exception, and not weapons. 

Hm. It looks like I'll need to houserule the elf. Man, it'd be nice if someone just simplified all this and made demihumans classes unto themselves!

Other Character Types

Holy crap, this book leaves the door open specifically to playing a Balrog (page 8). What are they thinking? Sigh. I know Steve is going to show up and demand to play a freaking Balrog based on the fact that the book says he can do it. Then Tyler is going to want to play a dragon, claiming that the book says "anything they want" is feasible. That opens the door to Davis wanting to be some sort of twisted Ent. I guess I better put some notes down. 

Changing Character Class

Hey, look at that, elves aren't so special after all. Though it's "not recommended," there are very specific rules that allow humans to change classes just like elves, with the only restrictions that clerics and magic-users can't go back and forth. So I can totally have a human who is a fighter and switches classes to magic-user, or even a fighter who switches to cleric and back, and is unlimited in both areas? Nice! But what it doesn't say is, if I start as a fighting-man, but only have a strength of 14, then I switch to Magic-User because of my 16 intelligence, can I switch back to fighting-man, since I already was one, or am I now stuck because I don't have a 16 strength? And when I'm a magic-user, can I still use the weapons and armor I got as a fighting-man? The book isn't clear on that. Again, common sense tells me skills are skills. Can I assume it works like elves do, or are they an exception in their ability to wear armor and cast spells?

Okay, back to the "house rules" notebook....hey, Gandalf used a sword just fine, so maybe he had a level or three of fighting-man under his belt? 

Prime Attributes

There's some confusing wording in here, too. There's all this language about characters "using" other abilities on a 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 basis for their prime attributes. What does that mean? Am I lowering one ability to raise another? Or am I dividing strength by 3 to assume my cleric's wisdom is that much higher just for the purpose of experience? Let's say my strength is 12 and my Wisdom 13. Do I, as a cleric, consider that while my strength is 12, my wisdom is 17, because 12/3 is 4? And does that apply just to experience bonuses, or do I actually assume my wisdom is 17?

On some level, I can't believe it's the latter, becasue clerics can also "use intelligence" on a 2-for-1 basis. That means if my intelligence is 9, that 17 Wisdom suddenly becomes a 21 or 22 (depending on whether I round up or down), or a 21.5 if I just go with halves. 

So what does this mean? Maybe I just add those totals to figure out if I get an XP bonus. That still doesn't make much sense, because the "Prime Requisite +3 or more" maxes out the table, which seems to indicate a Wisdom of 15 is the highest I go for XP bonus, so that 21.5 is largely meaningless. 

Maybe it's either-or? Like, I choose to use either strength or intelligence? 

Ah, wait. Here, on page 11, there's a note: "Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring the category below average, i.e. below a score of 9." 

Okay, this would seem to indicate that I'm lowering one ability to raise another. That makes a bit of sense, but there has to be a clearer way to phrase this. How about, "Clerics can lower intelligence or strength to raise wisdom. 2 points of intelligence yields 1 point of wisdom, or 3 points of intelligence yields 1 point of wisdom. Strength and intelligence can be lowered to 9 in this manner, but not lower."

I'll jot that in my notebook so I don't have to puzzle this out again later. 

I also had to read the table for ability bonuses a few times to suss out that "prime requisite +3" means "3 points above average, or presumably 12." They could've just said "Prime Requisite 15, Prime Requisite 13 or 14, etc."

Geez, now I understand why under "Equipment" on page 5, it says I'll need a 3-ring notebook. I sense I'm going to have as much in notes and house rules as there are words in these three books. Maybe more. 

Again, folks, we're looking at this from a 1974, doesn't have the beneift of 40 years of extra additions, clarifications, and scholarship, perspective. 

Non-Player Characters

Holy crap, now I have to expect my twenty players to each have a retinue of retainers, fighters, and servitors to fight on their behalf? How many personalities am I going to have to balance, here!? I better prepare for some massive rooms in my underworld, I guess. At least the charisma score limits how many human shields they can haul along. Also, it's not cheap for them to hire these meat shields, so there's that. Maybe this will work out okay. 

On the up-side, the loyalty rules seem straightforward enough. This "morale dice" thing, though. Where is it going to talk about what morale dice are? There's a pointer to Monsters & Treasure. Maybe there will be something in there. I guess I could drag out Chainmail and use those morale was listed as an essential "must have" in the "Equipment" list on page 5, after all...


Interesting. I guarantee all of my players are going to take this particular "out" of having a relative handy to grab up all their stuff if they die. I'll have to remember about that 10% tax. 

Basic Equipment and Costs

This is pretty straightforward. The system of how much weight someone can carry is easy and pretty straightforward. Not a lot of calculation there. Seems odd that a character has a strength and constitution score and neither of them figure into this, but that's fine. Maybe I'll work up some ideas on that. 

Experience Points

Interesting calculation, here. So I divide the level of the challenge by the level of the character, and that gives me the percentage of experience points the character receives for the challenge (page 18). Something to remember, so I don't have my players advancing characters too fast. 

Spells & Levels

"A somewhat subjective determination on the part of your authors." Nice. 

Here we have the "adventure" mention again. On page 19 it mentions that the listed spells in the cleric and magic-user tables are "the number of spells that can be used (remembered during any single adventure.)" So these spells are not per day, but per adventure. That means a level 1 magic-user has only one spell they can use on any given adventure. Period. And they can literally only use daggers. Wow. 

Levels Above Those Listed

This literally just continues the level progressions on the tables 2 pages before. Why did they not just include this information on the tables themselves?? Then this whole section could just read, "continue to extrapolate level advancements according tot he patterns on the tables," and be done with it. 

Alternative Combat System

This is pretty straightforward and easy. I will likely adopt it. But it doesn't tell me how much damage weapons do (remember, this is a first-printing booklet in a second-print box--there literally is no mention that "all weapons do one die of damage" on page 19). 

I guess I'll have to look at Chainmail after all. The assumption there is that a hit is a hit. If the Hero in Chainmail is equivalent to four men, that means he attacks four times (but it took awhile to read over those rules to suss that out), and each hit, I guess, does a point of damage, since in Chainmail, combat is measured in "hits." 

Characters are going to be pretty robust in this game. That's good, I guess. 

Books of Spells

On page 35, it says that all characters who use spells keep spellbooks with those spells written in them. That means clerics have spellbooks, too. 

Everything else in the book is pretty straightforward (attack matrices, clerics vs. undead, spell descriptions; there's not a lot confusing in this part).


My own "pretend I'm in 1974" tongue-in-cheek comments aside, there's some interesting things that jump out here: 

1. Are these miniatures rules or not? Let's not argue that one--it never ends well, and it never goes anywhere. 

2. Holy crap, an assumed 20:1 player-to-DM ratio seems like a massive game by today's standards...though I've seen Stephen Chenault do it masterfully at conventions with Castles & Crusades.

3. How elves work, specifically, is astoundingly unclear. Again, we're talking about reading these things without later understanding, and without even the supplements to go by. 

4. Humans can change classes, too, so long as they have at least a 16 in the prerequisite of the class to which they're switching. It seems to me, then, that if you roll a high intelligence, it's best to start off as a fighter, because you can then switch to magic-user later and reap the benefits of both classes. Though the rules aren't clear as to (a): whether you keep your fighting-man abilities while operating as a magic-user (particularly weapon and armor availablility), and (b): what happens if your initial class doesn't have a high prime requisite: can you go back to it, like an elf, or are you then stuck with the class to which you changed? 

5. A lot of the language here could be much clearer, but for the most part all the info you need is there. 

6. Morale dice are mentioned, and the effect charisma has on them is detailed, but nowhere does it say what they are, or where to find them. 

7. "per adventure," rather than "per day" is a serious difference. I mean a SERIOUS difference, and Elves are CLEARLY stated to change when they wish per adventure, not per day. Same with wizards, who are CLEARLY stated to have spells "per adventure," not per day. 

8. There's zero information...ZERO...about how much damage weapons deal, and with the rules pointing to Chainmail, it definitely reads as though a hit is a hit. So if I have 24 hit points, I can take 24 hits from weapons before I go down. Period. That makes magic users a lot more robust at low levels. On average, a magic-user at first level can take up to 3 hits before they drop, whereas in an "all weapons do 1d6 damage" system that would come later, one hit will drop a magic-user. That being said, when you consider that spells are "per adventure," they need to be more robust to survive with one single spell in their repertoire for an entire adventure. 

One could theorize that it was, in fact, intended for weapons to do "hits" instead of points of damage originally, and that the "all weapons deal 1d6 damage" that was added in later printings. In point of fact, checking over the copies to which I have access, "all attacks with weapons deal 1-6 points of damage" does not appear until the fifth printing of the game. 

I posit that this could've been a revision, rather than an errata, though elements in Monsters & Treasure seem to dispute that. We'll deal with that in the next blog.  

In fact, it's not until the fifth printing that the sentence, "A spell used once may not be re-used in the same day." This sentence, likewise, does not appear in the first through fourth printings of the game. 

That means, folks, that up until the 5th printing, spells were used per adventure, not per day, and hits did one point of damage. That marks a major change in game play as of the fifth printing of the rules. 

To further support this idea, neither of the issues regarding points of damage, nor adventure-vs-day for spells is included in the second-print corrections sheet. So it seems they were not an oversight. Nor do they seem to have been corrected in any issues of The Strategic Review. I think it's possible the rules were changed with the fifth printing, possibly due to the way people were generally playing, possibly because Gygax and Co. wanted a clarification (and had always played that way in the Twin Cities), or possibly because people complained about magic users only casting one spell per adventure in low level games. For whatever reason, it seems very possible to me that "per adventure," and "1d6 damage weapons" were not corrections, but 5th-print-plus additions to the game.

These can also, incidentally, allow someone to differentiate between fourth- and  fifth-print white box sets, as an addendum, and something that's not listed in the Acaeum. 

That's all for this blog. I'm sure people will spit and froth at the mouth over it, as they tend to do. But again, these are just my observations, and are based on what's actually there, and seem to have been overlooked up until now. 

Addendum 2/17/2019

It turns out that the issue of dice for damage is, in fact, addressed in The Strategic Review, but not until the Summer 1975 issue (shortly after Supplement I: Greyhawk was published); therefore, the observations I make still stand, regarding how these rules may well have been interpreted by many players. It does, however, lend credence to the idea that "per day" for spells, and "1d6 damage per strike" were a correction, as opposed to a revision. I happily stand corrected on that point. 

I still think that running OD&D with chainmail and applying hits instead of dice of damage, and spells per adventuure, would make for an interesting alternate style of play. And as anyone who has played Spellcraft & Swordplay knows, I like alternate styles of play.

The article, in discussiong Chainmail vs. Alternate combat systems, says expressly that "unless the rules state otherwise, a six-sided die is used to determine how many hit points of damage are sustained when an attack succeeds."

It also, interestingly, is very clear that even with the alternate combat system (which is clearly used given that the Hero's numbers for attacks include 19), characters fighting other men and man-types, including orcs, goblins, etc., attack once per hit die. "Man types" are clarified as "any combat where the score of one side is a base hit die 1 or less." That means your 4th level fighter attacks four times. 

Morale is also clarified in this article, which points either to Chainmail's system or suggests just throwing 2d6, using 2 as "RUNAWAY!!!!" and 12 as "BRING IT!" (those are my words, btw, not Gary's). 

Finally, spells are also here clarified as being per day. It also clarifies, however, that spells can only be re-memorized if the spellcaster has their books with them.

Be sure to check out Part 2! 


  1. I *did* pick it up in the mid-1970's ... and with no foreknowledge of the game (besides a general idea about goblins and dragons). It's hard to explain how it was a paradigm shift to those who've had it around most of their life. You've done a pretty decent job of it. Kudos.

  2. Great fun. More please.

    Many of these conundrums are still up for debate to this day. There are probably majority opinions on how to resolve them but not conclusive answers.

    And most of the principles are dead or in the case of Blume retired.

  3. So it was like in Rules to the Game of Dungeon ( every hit is only a hit.
    In fact at first I thought the 1d6 damage was only for the alternative combat system that uses the d20.
    note: when was the fifth reprint released? because in Empire of the Petal Throne, in the pre-publication version published in the spring of 1974, it already speaks of the 1d6 damage.

    1. Well, we can't take pre-publication manuscripts like Dalluhn into account, because they were on the fringes of the community; few people had access, and they are far more related to Arneson's approach than Gary's. 5th print came out in December of 1975; Greyhawk (Supplement I) came out in March/April 1975, and that takes damage dice into account, but that could have been simply taking the plan to make the shift into account.

      The most damning point that's been brought to my attention (and I'll get to this in my next blog) is that Monsters & Treasure expressly references dice of damage a number of times throughout the text. At best, though, that creates a confusing reference and multiple possibilities.

    2. It's also very valid, even after 5th print, to assume the 1d6 damage is applicable only to the "Alternative" combat system. It is, after all, included in that particular section, and you'd be well within reason, if using Chainmail combat, to go with 1 hit equating to 1 damage. This does, of course, become slightly problematic when you move to the supplements, wherein dice of damage become the standard.

  4. In 1974, I think that counting people as participating in a wargames campaign would not imply all of them around one table all at once. Having 20 or 50 people in a campaign would simply mean that the authors are recommending a limit to how many players a Referee could keep track of without too much difficulty. Again, this is based on a typical wargames group. You might expect anywhere from 2 to 6 players at any one time, maybe even a few more than that, but it would be a special occasion indeed where all of the campaign participants showed up at once.

    I think that some people might have picked up on the difference between hit points and hit dice, and a few of them might even have figured out that a "hit" was a hit die's worth of damage to the hit points pool, or maybe equated it to a fixed 3, 4, or 6 hit points worth of damage. But in most cases, you're probably right that a person trying to work it out for themself would equate a hit to a hit point.

    1. I'm not 100% convinced on the 1:20 thing, as there are a lot of stories about DMs actually running games with that many players from back in the day. That being said, you're probably correct that "campaign" in most cases was taken to mean "the world setting," and referred to all of the different gaming groups a DM might have over several nights of the week, rather than all at once.

      The 1 damage per hit thing rings very true, especially when you consider that the books CONSTANTLY point you to Chainmail, where hits are hits are hits. Period. And there's exactly nothing in Men & Magic to indicate otherwise for PCs. In M&T? Sure, there's lots of references to dice of damage. That could have served as a lightbulb, but it also could've served as additional confusion, since in many places in M&T it's also clarified that monsters are better than PCs (even "men" who are monsters can see perfectly in total darkness, for example). Again, I'll touch on that when I get to M&T.

    2. Not gonna deny that it was done. A friend—in fact, the person whose apartment I game at these days—and I once put up a signup sheet but forgot to explicitly limit the players, so we ended up with about 30. Not a long-lived campaign, though, since one of us, and to this day I am still not sure which of us was responsible, was supposed to have taken the character sheets after a session but lost them. We also made the mistake of trying to treat the large group as if it were the same as a smaller one in the way things were done by the mid-'80s. It wasn't until I started playing miniatures campaigns with old-school ancients miniatures wargamers that I realized there was another way.

  5. This is great stuff. I didn't know most of this, save for the elves, but it does put a lot of "future" rules into perspective.

  6. It is almost certainly untrue that one session would have 20 dudes sitting around a table! My take is that if you had a wargames club and everyone wanted to play, they would all have characters who would tackle the same dungeon, but not all at once.

    But remember the idea of this article is reading the text with fresh eyes - not with the benefit of hindsight and a robust community doing the anthropology together.

    1. Exactly. I think that it's a good idea, sometimes, to step back to the beginning and ignore all the anthropology that's been done, as it can open up things we may have overlooked over years of assumptions, and give a new perspective. Also, I've actually seen tables with over 20 players run, and expertly so. It was a mind-boggling thing to experience.


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