• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

D&D General And You May Ask Yourself- How do I play D&D? Commercialization and the Closing of OD&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is the second in three essays based off of Jon Peterson's book, The Elusive Shift ("ES"). While I will be discussing concepts he raised, I will also be extrapolating from his concepts with some of my own thoughts in these essays. That means some of these conclusions are my own, after reading the book. I also don't want to discuss everything in the book since I really think people should read it.

I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in TTRPGs, TTRPG theory, or the history of D&D get the book. After all, the holidays are coming up!

A. Roots of OD&D- I am un chien andalusia.

OD&D (Original D&D, or 0E ... the original product put out in 1974) was very much a product of its antecedents, and construed by the communities that played it. Which is a fancy way of saying that Arneson & Gygax created the product based upon their experiences, and the people that bought, played, and discussed it were a limited group that interpreted those rules largely based on their prior experiences. This is something that we see ES keep returning to.

So what community did Gygax and Arneson come from? Well, that's obvious. The wargaming community. In fact, OD&D (hereafter, just D&D) wasn't called a roleplaying game- the booklet announced that it was "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencils and Miniature Figures." From that foundation, we had the concept of miniatures that were well-established, along with the debates over Kriegspiel (both free, meaning with few or no rules, and regular- which bound the referee with more complex rules for adjudication) and the small, but established, hobbyist world.

And what community did it go out into? Obviously, the wargaming community! But, in addition to that one, the Science Fiction community (which included fantasy) also quickly took it up. And that's where we get the immediate frisson of debate over what it meant to play D&D ... over what it meant to even be an RPG. In fact, there was not even a consensus over the proper term to use, with FRP (fantasy role play) used instead of RPG early on, and some advocating for terms like "adventure game" instead of "roleplaying game." The wargame community had once set of norms (mostly around competitive play) and the SciFi community had another set of norms (mostly about collaborative storytelling). There was some overlap, but also very different priorities.

In the early years, then, we had people come at D&D from a multitude of perspectives. Why? Well, just look at the rules- at best, they were incomplete. In other words, you couldn't do very much with just the original boxed set - so much was left outside of the rules! At worst, of course, the rules as originally presented were pretty much unplayable, and unexplained. Simple issue like whether players rolled weren't explicit in the rules. And yet, these original rules took these small communities, after they experienced what it could do, by storm. ...but not in the same way.

To understand why, it helps to understand that there was no consensus as to what D&D even was, should be, or could be. To the extent that Gygax was the authorial voice and evangelist, he repeatedly told people to modify it as they saw fit, and to make it their own. More importantly, you had such a diversity of desires and play experiences. For example, you had people versed in free kriegspiel who advocated for fewer and fewer rules; most of whom wanted the game as a black box to increase player immersion. Others who came at the game from a history of playing the game Diplomacy (or had played En Garde) chafed at the idea of referee control, and contemplated a game without any referee at all- just players. Still others would claim that the referee, in charge of the world, could not be neutral, and then divided into camps who either advocated for a referee that was the adversary of the players (the infamous 50%+ mortality rate of the MIT dungeons) or should collaborate with the players (using techniques to "steer" - what we would call railroading, force, or fudging - to ensure that there was a coherent story or narrative to the adventure). There were others, still, who focused solely on the roleplaying aspects of the game, and there are accounts of games that were pacifist or added additional RPing rules or laws- just as there are accounts of games were people dispensed with any RP requirements and turned every game into a "gilded hole" of combat in dungeons.

In short, in the years after the launch of D&D during the 1970s, there was an explosion of creative approaches to what D&D even meant. How it should be played. What the rules were, or should be. Even the smallest details - things like, "Should players roll to attack? Should they roll at all? Do we need a referee? Can we play a game without any dice? Should there be rules to reward RPing? What about skills? Hey, can we have some type of system to allow players to take control of the game and create narrative?" were unresolved.

B. Closing of the System- Your head will collapse if there's nothing in it.

If you've read Peterson's other, more recent book, Game Wizards (also a great Holiday Present!), you know that a lot of the received wisdom about the Gygax/Arneson dispute over D&D isn't accurate. One issue that I don't think he has fully tackled (IIRC, and I welcome correction on this) is the specific reasons for the creation of AD&D. While many people simply assert it was created to screw Arneson out of royalties, I don't think it's that simple (or accurate) after reading the other books. I'd make a more simple claim- Gygax saw that the bread of TSR was buttered by D&D, and he realized that he needed more bread ... in all senses of the word. AD&D wasn't about screwing Arneson, it was about screwing everyone.

Let's back up a second. As I wrote before, D&D sprung from a wargaming culture- a remix culture, where people freely borrowed concepts and rules from each other, then would play with their modifications, and then would occasionally publish their rules .... usually for little money. When TSR started, D&D was jut one of many wargames that was going to be published. That's why it was considered perfectly acceptable for Gygax to tell people to make it their own- to modify it, to change the rules, to do with it what they needed to. And they did!

Rules modifications were everywhere. Tables all played to rules that they made up. What became increasingly common was that people would publish their own rules supplements to D&D (such as the Arduin Grimoire) or, even more worryingly to Gygax, write up their rules supplements to D&D into brand new, and competing, RPGs! Most early competitors to D&D were, in fact, house-rules to D&D that were modified. Some were obvious ... Chivalry & Sorcery started as a D&D campaign. Some are ... less so. Superhero:2044 (the first superhero RPG) was created when characters in an OD&D campaign went to alternate material plane and encountered superheroes.

D&D wasn't just an RPG, then, it was (and I'm borrowing a phrase from ES here) a toolkit for creating RPGs. Which is great! Unless you're Gygax, and TSR, and you see that all these people that aren't you are going to start making money off of your product.

Commercialization, then, was the impetus for Gygax's volte-face. With 1e (AD&D), Gygax announced that he was closing the system (aside- obviously, he wasn't, because it wasn't a complete system no matter how much he claimed otherwise). From that point on, TSR's products were AD&D, and everything else ... wasn't. And then you had the fortuitous timing of two events- the publication of the DMG in August of 1979, and the disappearance of Egbert the same month, which led private investigator William Dear to blame D&D over the ensuing weeks. Simply put, 1e was "complete" at the same time that D&D became wildly popular, and attracted a massive influx of new, young gamers who were not from either the wargame nor the SciFi groups (and, not so coincidentally, launched the first in a series of munchkin/grognard, powergamer/roleplayer debates the continue to this day).

But the echoes of the original debates continued on, because D&D had never closed. People kept treating it both as a commercial product, and as a toolkit. As bizarre as that seems to some (it's both a desert topping AND a floor wax!), that's the history of the product. The product continues to be both a highly commercial product demanding standardization, as well as a malleable product amenable to customization. Whether that makes it a good product at either of those is usually an exercise left for the individual gamer.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad


The 1974 D&D rules are pretty much unreadable to the uninitiated. They are the cheat sheets for people who already knew the game, having it been taught by others, or expanding on their existing familiarity with wargames like Chainmail.
It became clear quickly that TSR had struck gold with D&D, with a huge potential market, but the existing product was not capable to serve that market outside the existing wargaming communities. Making a product that was much more accessible was a commercial necessity to reach potential customers.

The first attempt was the 1977 Holmes Basic Set, which for some reason is probably the most obscure of all D&D editions. What exactly the plans were for this one I don't know, nor am I familiar with what content it actually delivers and how accessible it is. But it came out the same year as the AD&D Monster Manual. I would guess with the Basic Set and the MM, you could run a game out of the box.
The Player's Handbook followed in 1978, and the Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979.

I tried reading the PHB and DMG, and I have to say they are still really esoteric tomes that remained very much incomprehensible to me, though my preconceptions of the d20 systems might have been more a hindrance than a help in that regard.

Now the interesting point that I want to come to is that in 1981, four years after the Holmes Basic Set and Monster Manual, and two years after AD&D was complete with the three rulebooks, TSR created the extremely compact Basic and Expert Sets, B/X. Compared to the three AD&D book, this game is absolutely tiny. The Basic rules and the Expert rules are 64 pages each, which includes all the monsters (2 times 16 pages) and a lot of duplicate material. And also in a font that has probably half the amount of actual text per page.
And it is this version of Dungeons & Dragons that really sold like crazy. To my knowledge, it significantly outsold AD&D, if you include it's second edition BECMI. But it's also a much cheaper product, so I have no clue which of the two games created the most revenue for TSR.

When WotC bought TSR and started work on a new D&D game, they went all out on continuing the AD&D game. I assume because AD&D had the famous settings. Forgotten Realms of course being a native AD&D setting, but also Dark Sun and Planescape.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I was going to add an additional section to this before it got to unwieldy.

Essentially, one of the major axes of conflict for people discussing early RPGs was between those who preferred more rules-heavy games, and those who preferred more rules-lite games (and would often name-check free kriegspiel in the first few years). This same conflict was roughly identical to the one that previously played out in wargaming as a community.

The most amusing thing, to me, was that you had these conflicting impulses largely cancelled out by the commercialization of the game. "You don't need rules" isn't really a great selling point companies that want to make money (like TSR) or, for that matter, for designers that want to sell rival products! While you still had the occasional rules-lite game being put out by more indie-publishers or in zines, within five years of the publication of D&D, you already had lost some of that institutional knowledge and drive.

Which is why you can have the publication of a parody of a rules-lite game in Different Worlds #2 in 1979 (Lord of the Dice). The game is a half-page, and the rules for adjudication in full are as follows:
Whenever the Player wishes to undertake an action with his character, the Gamesmaster rolls the percentile dice. If the Gamesmaster rolls a high number, the character has succeeded in his action and reaps all benefits accordingly. If the Gamesmaster rolls a low number, the character has failed in his action, and must suffer any attendant penalties. If the Gamesmaster is not sure as to whether the roll is high or low, he should roll again until he decides one way or another. The Gamesmaster is, of course, responsible for embellishing upon the results determined via the die-roll.

The irony is that this article, which was a parody, was then used as a model for rules-lite games in the post-Egbert explosion of popularity of D&D by some!

But the same tension is always manifest; you can have Arneson, complaining about how D&D turned out, while hawking books of rules, yet not running his own rules at conventions and instead choosing to run the much more free-form style of play that he was known for.

The maturity of the hobby, in terms of commercialism, arguably led to the bias towards more complexity. IMO- that's not from the ES.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
That is rather obvious, though. If you want to sell more rules, the game needs to have more rules.

You would think so! Obvious things should be obvious!

And yet, from the number of times I have gotten into ... conversations with people on topics such as "No, what type of music is 'good' is not an objective statement," or "Including more and more rules means there will be more complexity," I am not so certain.

Or just look at this thread-



Moderator Emeritus
Or just look at this thread-

Happy Excuse Me GIF

Remove ads