an early bad review of D&D

April 18th, 2013 by paul
This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Issue #3 of the Strategic Review had this editorial from Gary Gygax:

EDITORIAL

Donald Featherstone once said in WARGAMER'S NEWSLETTER that he believed Arnold Hendrick's chief talent and claim to fame lay in his "pinching" of Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame - alluding in all likelihood to similarities between Mr. Pratt's game and the set of rules for naval miniatures authored by Mr. Hendrick. I concurred with what was said in WARGAMER'S NEWSLETTER, and when the good Mr. Hendrick "reviewed" CHAINMAIL in a highly uncomplimentary manner I ignored what was written, for surely most hobbyists could be assumed to be able to read this "review" for what it was worth and in light of Mr. Hendrick's talents otherwise. As an example of the comments he made regarding CHAINMAIL, the most amusing was his assertion that heavy cavalry was rated too high, imagine! In a period where the armored horseman dominated the field of battle, heavy horse are too strong! Anyway, the learned Mr. Hendrick subsequently "reviewed" DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, again in a very uncomplimentary manner - after all, he had gone so far as to play a game of
D&D as a Cleric, completely armed with such edged weapons as spear and arrows . . . Again, this so called "review" was so obviously inaccurate and biased that I ignored it completely, although numbers of letters and telephone calls from irate D&D fans who had read the comments and wished to let me know that the
"review" outraged them assured me that Mr. Hendrick would not escape totally unscathed. Eventually the magazine which retains Mr. Hendrick as a "reviewer" did print a contrary opinion - how could they ignore a counter-article written by Mr. James Oden, President of Heritage Models, Inc.? This brings me to the point
of this editorial. The axe that Mr. Hendrick has been grinding so loudly and long has been exposed.

Possibly in light of TSR's success in publishing miniatures rules and games, Mr. Hendrick has decided to begin peddling a line of his own creations. If these creations are as well-thought out as his "reviews", as learned and clever, they will be rare products indeed. However, being inclined towards fair play, I invite any readers who wish to submit reviews of any of these sets of rules, and as space permits we will publish as many as is possible. Note TSR is not having one of its writers or designers review the products of a competitor. If we receive several reviews for one set of rules we will publish that which is most thorough in our opinion, regardless of what its recommendation is, and as an editor's note include the conclusions of any other reviews of the same work so as to give all opinions expressed to us from disinterested reviewers. After all, could one expect honest and fair reviews from a source directly connected with a competitor of the product being reviewed? Certainly not. As an author of rules and games I have refrained in the past from reviewing the work of other writers and designers for just this
reason. This policy will be continued in the pages of SR, despite less scrupulous methods employed in the magazine which carries Mr. Hendrick's "reviews". We will depend on you for product reviews, and when we plug our own staff it will be clearly labeled as an advertisement.

Gary Gygax

I believe this is the first recorded case of "Gygax spleen" directed at haters -- we'll see more of it over the years.

I don't know about you, but reading this editorial made me want to read the original review!

I tracked down Arnold Hendrick's review from this dragonsfoot thread. Not sure what publication it was originally in... The Courier? Someday I'd like to find it and see Mr. James Oden's rebuttal.

Rules Review
BY ARNOLD HENDRICK

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS BY GARY GYGAX & DAVE ARNESON
three soft-cover volumes, totalling 112 pages, with five chart sheets, availible from Tactical Studies Rules, 542 Sage Street, Lake Geneva, W.I. 53147 for $10.00

Subtitled "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures," these booklets attempt to outline a system for "playing" the kind of fantasy adventures one previously read about in paperpacks. The concept is remarkably interesting, since the same person interested in matching himself against Napoleon or Manstein might also find comparisons with Conan or John Carter enjoyable.

The "game" is played by various adventurers and a referee. The players, starting in near total ignorance, attempt to adventure in the wilderness around them, or in dungeons and underground chambers beneath them. The referee is informed of each action, and after consulting the maps he has made, the basic tables and information in the booklets, and his own imagination, gives the player a response. Those who rememeber Korn's "Modern Warfare in Miniature" will see the parallel, although Korn's rules were much more tightly constructed. Here, introductions are made into many possible areas of interest: finance, magic, fighting ability, language, and monsters of every type and description (from goblins, orcs, giants, and dragons to the more esoteric manticores, chimeras, wyverns, and the hollywood mummies, purple worms, green slime, grey ooze, and black pudding).

For personal combat, "Chainmail" is referred to, but the multiple-damage characteristics of characters in this game does not fit with the life-or-death struggle in "Chainmail", and neither gives a clue for the effect of missile fire, save perhaps the firer's normal ability is extended up to the range of the missile weapon, with restrictions and special options as allowed in the multi-figure section of the "Chainmail" rules. The resulting mess in interpretations is enough to tax the patience of most gamers to the extreme. Worse, personal combat is the area receiving the most attention, things go downhill from there.

Play in person is usually impossible, since the referee can only show the adventurer the terrain he is crossing at that instant, plus whatever is in his sight. Only large battles are suitable for the tabletop. The optimim solution seems to be play by phone, or when distances are too great, play by mail. For those without gasoline to visit their fellow wargamers, or without a car, Dungeons & Dragons can be very, very interesting indeed. For example, in a test adventure recently concluded, the Acolyte Dorn from the village of Thane ventured into the ruins of Takator, opting for an underground Dungeon adventure instead of an above-ground wilderness expedition. After finding numerous doors beyond his strength to move, he finally opened one that woke four ghouls, who charged him directly. The well-equipped Dorn (with mail, shield, spear and crossbow) was allowed to fire by the kindly referee, and then strike first with the spear. Being rather handy with weapons and things, Dorn neatly felled two of the ghouls, but was then touched by the third, a circumstance which petrified him, while the ghouls proceeded to kill him, thus turning Dorn into a ghoul. So much for the Acolyte Dorn. Better luck in the next life!

Beyond the problems involved in play (find an intrepid referee), the other discouraging factor is price. These booklets are roughly comparable to "The Courier" in physical quality, but at $3.50 each are priced rather high. Worse, all three are necessary. Graphics, considering the format, are decent, with some excellent illustrations, but some space could have been saved without compromising appearance.

In general, the concept and imagination involved is stunning. However, much more work, refinement, and especially regulation and simplification is necessary before the game is managable. The scope is just too grand, while the referee is expected to do too much in relation to the players. IF you need ideas to help you along into your own fantasy adventure games, these booklets will be of use; otherwise you ten dollars will be wasted. I do not suggest these to the average wargamer.

Gygax was mad because he felt his game was being attacked by a lesser game developer, and because he perceived a lack of ethics about Hendrick's journalism, but let's be fair: Hendrick's review is not the biased screed I had been expecting. His understanding is as shallow, but perhaps not more so than most reviewers of most games. He doesn't see that D&D is an entirely new type of game that can't be judged by wargame standards; but that's hardly surprising in 1974.

Here are some interesting points in Hendrick's review:

"These booklets attempt to outline a system for "playing" the kind of fantasy adventures one previously read about in paperpacks. The concept is remarkably interesting, since the same person interested in matching himself against Napoleon or Manstein might also find comparisons with Conan or John Carter enjoyable."

It's so interesting how important the John Carter Martian novels were at the beginning of the hobby. Gygax himself wrote rules for Martian adventures (John Carter is level 13). Carter has really fallen off the map: he has nowhere the kind of name recognition of, say, Tarzan. The John Carter movie did nothing to change that.

"Vastly too much has been attempted in these booklets, with very little detail, explanations or procedures." This is an entirely just description of the original D&D books. OD&D is the framework of a game. It's pretty difficult to play without making a lot of interpretations on your own. In fact, it's not really a game in the traditional sense: more of a set of guidelines for making games. Imagine if Clue came with vague instructions on drawing a map of an English manor, and instructions on making characters ("Appendix I: Forms of Address" "Appendix K: Colors"). OD&D is a game you have to unpack yourself over years of playing.

"The optimim solution seems to be play by phone, or when distances are too great, play by mail."
I love the idea of Hendrick playing solo D&D over the phone with his spear-carrying cleric, while his referee moved figures around a detailed castle model (no doubt on a sand table). He really hadn't made the mental switch from a wargaming table to a shared fantasy.

"The well-equipped Dorn (with mail, shield, spear and crossbow) was allowed to fire by the kindly referee, and then strike first with the spear."
As Gygax sneered, Hendricks missed the section about cleric weapon restrictions. But fighting alone against four ghouls, he needed all the help he could get.

Hendrick does come off as hapless n00b in this review. I hope Gygax's army of fanbois weren't too tough on him.

By the way, Arnold Hendrick is actually a pretty interesting guy. After a little more work in boardgames and RPGs, he went into computer gaming. He worked on Sid Meier's Pirates, one of my favorite games ever, and seems to have been a driving force behind its respect for period detail (perhaps because of his knowledge gained while "pinching" Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame).

Hendrick also worked on Darklands, which I never played, but I remember thinking it looked awesome based on its ads in Dragon magazine. Darklands seems to have sunk under the weight of featuritis, some of driven by Hendrick's interest in obsessively modeling period detail. (Gygax was luckier. His obsession with polearms didn't drag down his entire game.)

Check out this interview from 2009.

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8 Responses to “an early bad review of D&D”

  1. Jake says:

    Fascinating!

    There’s a lot to respond to here, but I wanted to mention that Darklands was my favorite computer game in 1993, and it is available (in an unfortunately buggy port) at gog.com. The obsessive period detail (and totally open-ended, wayyyyy ahead of its time sandbox gameplay) is its chief selling point.

  2. Darklands was, in fact, AMAZING. I would love to see it updated.

  3. SAROE says:

    Pratt’s Naval Wargame was for WWI & WWII battles, so I don’t know how helpful it would have been for the Golden Age of Personal Entrepreneurship.

    But his review is seems eminently reasonable for the time. The fourth paragraph is dead accurate.

    His viewing it as a wargame is justified by D&D’s subtitle ‘Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures’.

    Since the example of play only deals with the REF(eree) and the CAL(ler) and no other player is allowed to speak-I can see how he came to believe it was to be played one-on-one. It’s kind of amazing anyone learned how to play this by just using the 3LBBs.

    Mostly, this makes Gygax come off as a petty little jerk. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I was always a Dave partisan-coming from the Twin Cities.

  4. Michael "Gronan" Mornard says:

    Gary sounds, frankly, like pretty much every wargame writer of the period. The difference is that the course of events and passage of time have resulted in the bloviations of hundreds of others being lost over time.

  5. Michael "Gronan" Mornard says:

    I wish I still had some old DIPLOMACY magazines of the period, or the copies of “Strategy and Tactics” from back when it was a miniatures gaming journal full of editorials on how “those stupid Avalon Hill map and counter child games are ruining real wargaming!”

    Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose.

  6. Jon Peterson says:

    The review by Hendrick was printed in the Courier, Vol. 6 No. 6.

    The rebuttal review by James Oden appears in Vol. 7 No. 2. Oden begins by saying, “A game is meant for enjoyment whether it be a wargame or one of the new ‘fantasy’ games that are now appearing on the market.” An early recognition there that D&D might not exactly be a wargame. He goes on to address the key question: “is it fun”? He addresses this mostly from the perspective of a game seller, using sales as a means to assess the public’s judgment about what is fun. “From my point of view, I can now say that I have never seen a set of rules that have sold this well for this length of time with one exception.” (He means the WRG Ancients rules.) Ultimately, Oden won’t vouch for the quality of the rules himself, as he says, “I personally do not even care for the period,” meaning the medieval/fantasy setting. But he does conclude: “if you want to sit down with a game and have fun for a change, I cannot recommend them too highly; just don’t take them too seriously.”

  7. paul says:

    Funny! The rebuttal seems only mildly more positive than the original review.

    Oden’s conclusion is a good one and I will take it as a reminder to myself!

  8. Rory Rory says:

    Ouch, I’m glad my first foray into D&D didn’t start and end with a fight against 4 ghouls.

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