Sunday, August 19, 2012

Everything old is new again: the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons reprints.

One of the more surprising things that's come down the pike this year, game-wise, was Wizards of the Coast's decision to reprint the original three Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) First Edition (1e) core rulebooks - the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and the Monster Manual. Long out of print, the game had gone through two and a half editions and was about to embark on yet another when these books were announced. The changes made between editions of the game were significant, such that they ended up being different games, at least to some observers. Regardless, each edition retained a significant following of its own, despite the increasing rarity of books and materials for them. Thus, it was a bolt from the blue when Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced they'd be bringing three of the most iconic, and oldest, D&D books back into print.

These three books were not the first D&D books published. The game had gone through a few iterations already by the time the Monster Manual appeared in 1977. The significance here was that the Monster Manual was the first hardbound D&D book, and was one of the earliest hardbound RPG books, period. By the time the last of the three books, Dungeon Masters Guide, was published in 1979, a new standard of production for roleplaying games had been established.

By today's standards, those books, in their original incarnations, are not slickly-produced. A good bit of the art is amateurish. The layout is often simple, if not primitive.

Ghosts and Ghouls, staples of D&D

As the decades crawled by, these books crawled into my psyche. The art became iconic, often due to its primitive nature. It was simple, direct, and had an energy to it born of a passion for the game and its subject matter. The content was remarkable for not talking down to the reader.

Wizardly doings in the Players Handbook.

Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D (along with Dave Arneson), authored these books, and assumed the reader had a strong grasp of the language. I was constantly flipping through dictionaries as I read, way back when, as a 13-year-old, sometimes having to seek out and find even bigger, more comprehensive dictionaries with archaic words. Even then, I ended up learning the meaning of some words purely from context. Years later, when the internet allowed Gygax to field questions from many of his devotees, like myself, he cited a book called Poplollies and Bellibones as one of his sources for many of the obscure words he used. I immediately grabbed a copy when I saw it on a bargain shelf at a Barnes & Noble. I laughed when I read it, out of pure joy at the discovery of what was, essentially, a Rosetta Stone for Gygaxian writing. Even later, I discovered another book that Gygax apparently used for inspiration - The Book of Weird, a book that lives up to its title (and a book which I discussed in its own blog post). Both these books, and the books he listed as inspirational reading for D&D on the famous (among gamers) Appendix N in the Dungeon Masters Guide, give depth and dimension for those who wish to see from whence D&D sprang. The game is firmly rooted in literature, from the whimsy of Lord Dunsany to the swashbuckling of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" books to the atmospheric dark fantasy and post-apocalyptic tales of Margaret St. Clair. Thus, it is no surprise that Gygax developed a style that was learned. His style was also both professorial and conversational. There is a warmth to the prose in these books, in particular the Dungeon Masters Guide, that has caused it to stick with those who've read it for many a long year. Gygax addressed the reader as a peer. That was a big deal to a kid like me.

A nice, serene, and entirely appropriate image from the Players Handbook title page.

Many books were published for D&D throughout the years, yet these three always loomed in the background, throwing their shadows across the years and the editions. The Dungeon Masters Guide became, for many, the standard text for how to run a roleplaying game. The Monster Manual became the model for pretty much any monster book for any roleplaying game that came after; most all of them are variations on its theme. The Players Handbook groomed prospective gamers for what they could expect. These books became a triumvirate of Platonic Solids for gaming books.

As is true of anything in the human experience, some will hotly dispute this assertion. But I stand by it.

 The announcement of the reprinting of these books and their subsequent publication evoked quite a number of reactions: nostalgia from old-timers like me; trepidation from a few who feared the originals would be tampered with; curiosity from those who had never seen them, and had only heard rhapsodizing about their power; and quite a bit of excitement from all corners. Few things ever meet with universal acclaim from gamers in general, but the news of these books returning came damned close.

 First, I'll describe the physicality of the books. The covers are new. Smooth and with a faux-leather look, they use imagery from the original covers, though only a portion of it, surrounded by embossed designs. They are gilt-edged, and include bound-in cloth bookmarks. The paper is bright, with a high contrast between it and the printing on it. From what I've read, specifically in this article, the printing was reproduced painstakingly, as there were no computer files of the layouts for these books. The font and layout was reproduced closely, though not quite exactly, in a meticulous process. A cardstock strap "seals" the books closed, and are printed with a plea to support the Gygax Memorial Fund on the front, and a small reproduction of the original covers and a brief history of the books on the back.

Humor leavened the Dungeon Masters Guide.

There are a few glitches. In some cases, art is reproduced a bit too dark and heavily, resulting in some fine detail being muddied and lost, or is faded in some cases. There was at least one ink blotch that I saw. Thirty years of close perusal make these obvious to me, but may be unnoticeable to others.

Two things that trouble me are not glitches, but are absences. First, the original Players Handbook front cover is a truly atmospheric piece of art, with some adventurers regrouping and planning their next move, while others drag lizardman corpses about so as to remove evidence of the adventurers' passage, while still others busy themselves prying the gemmed eyes from a large idol. This last bit is the image seen on the reprint cover. I miss the entire thing, as it really encapsulates what D&D is about. Second, the back cover of the Dungeon Masters Guide is among the most famous images in D&D - the City of Brass on the Elemental Plane of Fire. It's a weird, garish image, and still fires my imagination, no pun intended. I promise. I realize there was no easy way to include these images given the cover design. The books as printed are a classy package, so I don't think the absence of these two images are a detriment to the books. But I do miss them.

It's truly a pleasure to see these books back in print. I still have my originals, worn and battered, as well as less-worn copies of the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual that I bought in the past few years to help save further wear and tear on my poor old originals. Still, I didn't hesitate to get these new reprints. They're just too nice, and represent an effort to heal a rift between generations of gamers. As strange as it may seem to those who've never played D&D, or any roleplaying game, really, there are "edition wars" among D&D fans, which often get heated, to the point that many online communities have to include a "no edition wars" disclaimer. It's ridiculous, really. But, it is a phenomenon, so it's nice to see something on which so many D&D players across the edition spectrum agree - it's good to see these books. It's good that some of the proceeds go to a memorial for Gygax. It's good to see the current publisher of D&D finally acknowledging and embracing the roots of the game. Plus, the books themselves are like old friends showing back up after being too long away.

1 comment:

  1. I cannot wait to buy these. I hope they reprint the old softcover ones, too, with the red for basic and blue for advanced or the other way around. I want all my old DnD books as we've discussed elsewhere... but I'll settle for these 3 reprints! I just hope they aren't too prohibitively priced.

    We should just be thankful Lucasfilm wasn't in charge of reissuing them...