One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to any roleplaying game is “where do I start?”. When you’ve got a 300 pound gorilla like Dungeons & Dragons dominating the field 30+ years after its birth, it’s only natural that it’s going to come up as a lot of people’s “go to” answer…but with somewhere upwards of 8+ editions (depending on who is doing the counting), that’s hardly an answer.
Over the course of a few articles, I’m going to look at every edition of Dungeons & Dragons I’ve played extensively and run down the absolutely MUST HAVEs for each of them. As you’ll see, it’s often not a very easy question to answer. I do hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts!
Let’s start with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the magnum opus of co-creator Gary Gygax’s work.
Ultimate Gary Gygax Edition
The “ultimate Gary Gygax edition” is pretty much where you should start. Nothing hard about that.
- Player’s Handbook
- Dungeon Master’s Guide
- Monster Manual
- Monster Manual II because key monsters and complete encounter tables make it a strong addition to the first Monster Manual.
I mean, you can’t get more iconic than this. These books are now available through D&D Classics, used copies can be found in vast droves, and the binding on these books had a 50/50 chance of being indestructible…or highly explosive on contact with anything from planet Earth.
Kinda like rolling on those random tables in the DMG…
But What About…?
Yeah, I know. I’m missing Oriental Adventures (pretty wildly different from the core game), Unearthed Arcana (unbalanced much?), Fiend Folio (there’s a lot of garbage monsters in here), and probably a million and one setting supplements and adventures that everyone adores. Hell, I adore some (most!) of them, too.
But (1) we’re talking about NEED here, and (2) AD&D is the premier game for reading arcane rules, grabbing some graph or hex paper, and building your own damn thing for the players to explore. It’s equal parts beer & pretzel gaming as well as tactical Vietnam survival-horror in an underground cave system. While it can be about anything you want it to be, it does best when you use it for what it is: a crazy mashup of Conan, The Hobbit, and The Gamers meets Call of Cthulhu.
Future History: The Power of the OSR
What you need. You can add the following free products (if you’re cool with PDFs), or use them independently and ignore the above list, though you lose out on all of the Gygaxianisms if you do (pretty much the entirety of what makes the DMG so completely mental):
- OSRIC: Old School Reference & Index Compilation (also available at times in hardcover print-on-demand form)
- ADDICT: a PDF that explains initiative in AD&D
Those two free products are certainly arguable, but I’ll always recommend them, because they present some of the intricacies of AD&D in a cleaner and/or (rarely) different light, which I think helps a lot in understanding the “rules as intended” versus the “rules as written.” Even if you can’t see playing anything but the core 3 Gygax-written books, those two PDFs can provide some useful info for your own house rules, or excellent justifications for otherwise obscurely written rules.
What you can steal (shamelessly!). Without diving into the history and technicalities of the OSR, it exists today largely as a way to rewrite D&D without necessarily being a heartbreaker. What this means is that you can look to the OSR to find the bits and pieces you like and use them in your D&D game, or vice versa, finding the OSR game that speaks to you and pulling in whatever D&D tropes you want. It’s almost like a universal language.
But is there stuff you NEED in there? Probably, only you won’t know it until you find it. I’d argue Dungeon World (which has a free Dungeon World SRD you can access) is critical to understanding how to be the best possible Dungeon Master you can be, but like everything in the OSR, that argument will receive nasty retorts in some circles.
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