Saturday, June 20, 2020

Early Player Reactions to D&D Game Mechanics: The Case of Spells

Reactions to D&D’s first appearance in the mid-’70s combined extreme enthusiasm for the new kind of game with large dose of dissatisfaction for the way the game was written and its poor rules design. Surprisingly to me, some of the most disliked design features remain intact in the game today in its Fifth Edition, decades later.

New players immediately became addicted to the socially shared fantasies that the game enabled, but they could not understand the rules because they were confusingly written, because they often lacked a convincing in-game rationale, and because they did not fulfill the wishes of many new players to simulate fantasy as they knew it from myth, folklore, fiction, comic books, and cinema.

Let’s start with an example from the earliest rules, one that many players have always strongly disliked and yet has survived until today.

Using Spells in D&D

Here is an excerpt from the original “Men & Magic” book (1974) of the original D&D trilogy of books. This is the entire explanation (to put it nicely) for how spells are used in D&D, found on page 19 of that book.

Spells & Levels: The number above each column is the spell level (complexity, a somewhat subjective determination on the part of your authors). The number in each column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each level that can be used (remembered during any single adventure) by that character. Spells are listed and explained later. A spell used once may not be reused in the same day.

You players today who have read fuller explanations of D&D magic and have played it plenty will basically understand what this means. But imagine that you had never seen D&D and this is your sole explanation of how spells work in a new kind of game. Moreover—you can’t see it from this excerpt—the references to “each column” don’t clearly indicate which lists of unlabeled numbers on the preceding pages are the object of the reference.

It’s no wonder that the earliest D&D players made up their own magic systems whereby spells were cast with spell points.

As the game spread around the country, Gygax received many questions by mail about this and other issues. By the summer of 1975, in TSR’s new magazine Strategic Review 1.2 (then just eight pages long), he tried to explain it better in an article called, “Questions most frequently asked about Dungeons & Dragons rules.” He wrote,

Spells:  A magic-user can use a given spell but once during any given day, even if he is carrying his books with him. This is not to say that he cannot equip himself with a multiplicity of the same spell so as to have its use more than a single time. Therefore, a magic-user could, for example, equip himself with three sleep spells, each of which would be usable but once. He could also have a scroll of let us say two spells, both of which are also sleep spells. As the spells were read from the scrolls they would disappear, so in total that magic-user would have a maximum of five sleep spells to use that day. If he had no books with him there would  be no renewal of spells on the next day, as the game assumes that the magic-user gains spells by preparations such as memorizing incantations, and once the spell is spoken that particular memory pattern is gone completely. ln a similar manner spells are inscribed on a scroll, and as the words are uttered they vanish from the scroll.

I think this is clearer than the rules as written, but not very much. The issue of books and scrolls (the difference between them not being explained) obscures the main point. It really seems as if Gygax himself had only a loose idea of the spell rules. In any case, most fantasy fiction fans clearly did not think of spells as equipment bundled up once and shot out like a bullet, but rather as knowledge or abilities or powers. This is clear from the responses of gamers who said the magic system was not “realistic.” Gygax’s typical response to this poor word choice missed their point. He said that magic is not realistic anyway. What they meant was that packing and releasing spells was not how magic seemed to work in the fiction they were emulating. It was not realistic in the sense that it did not represent the fantasy they all had in mind.

The next year, in Strategic Review 2.2 (April 1976), Gygax had to confront the growing problem of confusion about magic spells in D&D. He wrote a substantial article called “The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System.” It is here that he specifies that this is “Vancian” magic, modeling the entire rationale for D&D magic on some of the fiction by a single sci-fi/fantasy author, Jack Vance. (Interestingly, Gygax also mentions magic in Finnish folklore as a source of inspiration for his system, too.) This explanation published in a journal of limited exposure in 1976 is closer to what was needed in 1974.

In a rare show of humility, Gygax initially admits that the rules were not originally clear enough. But he goes on to claim at length that erroneous players ruined it.

This was the conception, but in practice it did not work out as planned. Primarily at fault is the game itself which does not carefully explain the reasoning behind the magic system.

The problem is further compounded by the original misconceptions of how magic worked in D &D — misconceptions held by many players. The principal error here is that the one 1st level spell allowable to a 1st level magic-user could be used endlessly (or perhaps at frequent intervals) without the magic-user having to spend time and effort re-memorizing and preparing again after the single usage. Many players also originally thought scrolls containing spells could be reused as often as desired. Finally, many dungeon masters geared their campaigns to the level of TV give-away shows, with gold pouring into players’ purses like water and magical rewards strapped to the backs of lowly rats. This latter allowed their players to progress far too rapidly and go far beyond the bounds of D & D’s competition scope — magic-users, fighters, clerics and all. To further compound the difficulties, many dungeon-masters and players, upon learning of the more restrictive intent of the rules, balked. They enjoyed the comic book characters, incredible spells, and stratospheric levels of their way of playing. Well and good. D & D is, if nothing else, a free-form game system, and it was designed with great variation between campaigns to be allowed for — nay, encouraged! Of course, there are some variations which are so far removed from the original framework as to be totally irreconcilable with D & D; these have become games of other sorts and not a concern of this article. On the other hand there are many campaigns which were scrapped and begun afresh after their dungeon-masters consulted us or after they read other articles pertaining to the play of D &D as conceived by its authors — just as there will probably be some dungeon-masters ready to try again after reading this far. It is for all of these referees and their players, as well as those who have played the game pretty much as was desired but were never quite positive that you were actually doing so, that the foregoing was written. The logic behind it all was drawn from game balance as much as from anything else.

It seems a lot to expect that all new players of this new game would know the specific fiction of Vance that Gygax had in mind and then also recognize it within the game’s opaque design. The explanation of Vancian magic seems suspiciously like a retroactive attempt to make sense of something after it went wrong.

We also should keep in mind that when these attempts at clarification appeared, it was not in rule books but in Strategic Review, a new pamphlet by TSR, not a venue that would be noticed by the majority of players of the new game.

If we read closely this passage just related, though, we will notice several distinct new developments, as well as an early element of Gygax’s conception D&D—one that would soon disappear.

One point is that Gygax has adopted the term “dungeon master” from the Californian zine collections where it first appeared in 1975. At this time, he evidently was paying close attention to rules variants and he had adopted one of the terms that others developed.

A second point is that Gygax says D&D is a “free-form game system” that “encouraged” great variation between campaigns! This is quite surprising because within one year he would change his mind about this entirely. A year later, players would be getting lectures from Gygax and others at TSR about how to do it right. Players did not take well to that, and they blamed Gygax for trying to create a “one true way system” for a matter of creativity and imagination. This crystallized the first major schism in the role-playing games hobby, which was born out of the unsatisfactory rules first published.

A third matter evident here is that, already in mid-1976, Gygax was bothered by “give-away show” games in which player character power was highly inflated. He wanted D&D to be a long-lasting low-fantasy game. If you wanted high-fantasy super-characters, you were playing wrong.

A fourth matter is his early ideal of game balance. I have not here transcribed the passage that explains it, from this article, but it is clear from it that he meant game balance both between the roles of different character classes and between the DM’s scenario and the characters. He was very eager for D&D not to become a “weird wizard show,” as he put it on the next page.

It seems that sometime in 1976, Gygax got worried that the variations that he had hitherto encouraged were ruining his game and its “balance.” As he increasingly attempted to assume control, he put off players and drove them away.

How players reacted to the original D&D, in their own words

It should be expected that TSR would not officially publicize views of dissatisfaction with Gygax’s design, so one must look at the other early RPG magazines to find what was a very common view in the earliest days of RPGs. It is not surprising that many of those who express dissatisfaction with D&D were designers of other games, who wanted to promote their own products. Players who were happy with D&D did not express themselves except by buying D&D products. And buy they did. Yet it is very clear that the original D&D was, on the side of rules and mechanics, a partial failure, because most players had to use house rules to interpret the many unclear parts.

The views expressed below seem to me all mainstream views from my earliest years of playing role-playing games in the 1980s. Everybody had D&D books, but no players I knew played it after a few forays. There were other games we all like more.

Here is a bunch of examples of early views outside of the reach of TSR, but more could be added, especially from the early zines to which I have no access.

Andrew D. Holt wrote an article for the very first issue of the British RPG magazine White Dwarf entitled “What’s Wrong with D&D… and What I’m Doing about It!” (White Dwarf 1, June/July 1977, pp. 20-21).

When D&D first became available in this country [the UK] we tried it at City Games Club, and rapidly became addicted. At this time the whole concept was so novel that we tended to ignore the less satisfactory aspects of the game. After some time, however, disenchantment with certain aspects set in – these being, in particular, the combat and magic systems, and the ‘party’ effect.”

Holt found that the combat system did not give an “opportunity for the exercise of player skill, and hit probabilities depended only on the ‘skill’ of the attacker and armour of the defender – not on the defender’s skill. Also, armour has the effect of reducing the chances of being hit rather than reducing the effect of a hit (but increasing the likelihood of being hit).”

He also held that the magic system likewise gave too little opportunity for the use of player skill.

Furthermore, “the experience system gives greater benefit for finding treasure than winning fights, some monsters’ priorities differ widely from those in folklore and fiction, there is too much variability in the characteristics of a character, and so on.”


J.Eric Holmes, in Dragon 52 (August 1981, p. 16), commented on his authoring the first D&D Basic Set (July 1977):

When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing the game. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible. There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.

I had disagreements with Gary over some items (I wanted to use a spell point system, for instance), but we kept the rules as close as possible to the original intent.

I have never seen a successful game where one of the players was elected caller and actually did all the talking to the DM. Usually everybody talks at once. The resulting confusion is much more lifelike; one can hear the characters dithering at the cross corridor as the monsters approach.

Holmes was a professor of neurology at USC in Los Angeles, the city that was the early home of spell-point systems. Note that he preferred spell points and disagreed with Gygax about it but abandoned that solution only out of respect for the originator. I would add that Gygax was also the man who would publish his edition of the rules and held tightly the rights to the name, too, so Holmes had little choice. What would D&D have become if more successful explicators of D&D, like Holmes, had been given free reign to improve the system that dissatisfied so many?


The magazine Different Worlds gave a voice to early role-playing game players and designers that would not be allowed to state their views in Dragon. Common themes emerge from the players who were asked to contribute about their experiences playing. Let’s look at some views expressed there and in other RPG magazines that tell us about the initial reception of D&D.


“… I was very dissatisfied with the rambling, disorganized nature of D&D’s rules, which do not leave one with any idea of how to play the game after one has read them. There were other points in the D&D system that annoyed me; for example, the fact that a player’s abilities did not get better with experience but, strangely, the amount of damage he could sustain did!”

Leonard H. Kanterman, M.D., in Different Worlds 1 (p. 10), 1979


“The original rules were a mass of contradictions, vague in the extreme regarding many points key to (our) play, and, in general, somewhat less than useful. I think that the first three weeks saw each of us produce at least two small dungeon complexes each, no two of them run under the same set of ‘rules.’”

Niall Shapero, in Different Worlds 1 (p. 11), 1979


In April 1976, “I sat down where I was and studied them [the original D&D rulebooks] for about two hours. When I had finished I was convinced of several things: (1) that the basic ideas were tremendous, even revolutionary, but that (2) as then written the mechanics of play were nearly incomprehensible… As I stood up I vowed that I would create my own version of the game that I could play immediately and that would correct all the other things I thought wrong with D&D.”

Ken St. Andre, in Different Worlds 1 (p. 12), 1979


“As happens with all beginning D&D-ers, I found things I didn’t understand. The rules ask players to write for clarifications, so I wrote, and Gary wrote back. I guess that times have changed, but in those days… letters were answered, all new ideas were well-treated…”

Steve Marsh, in Different Worlds 1 (p. 14), 1979

Marsh is here recalling the shift in Gygax’s attitude about variants to D&D that took place in 1977. Gygax thought of D&D as “free-form” at first, but he soon became authoritarian about it.


“Please—PLEASE—never print anything written by Gary Gygax. I have read countless articles and essays by him in The Dragon and have searched in vain for any scrap of clarity, usefulness, or sanity in them. And his recent diatribes in favor of the One True Way are nothing less than sickening.”

Tim Walters of Virginia in a letter to Different Worlds 4 (Aug/Sept 1979), p. 34.


“…the game I was playing a lot myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. … the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement – you just rolled dice and died.”

Steve Jackson, The Space Gamer 27 (July 1980, page 9)


R. Mark Chilenskas wrote a letter to Different Worlds appearing in issue 3 (p. 33), June/July 1979. As he offers criticism to the magazine, he remarks, “I am not a Gygax/TSR fan by any stretch of the imagination… it would be better if all articles had application outside of straight D&D.” He refers to the zine Wyrm’s Footnotes that “has ideas for cults and gods that can be used in any universe, including Gygax D&D.”

Note the expression “Gygax D&D.” This clearly refers to the orthodoxy that Gygax promoted but also implicitly to the existence of a great variety of D&D types, which were, of course, the very thing that prompted Gygax to try control D&D. The efforts backfired.


“The only other thing that I will claim credit for is being the first game publisher to state in print that no rules are perfect. Every group should modify all rules (even ours) and adapt ideas from anywhere and everywhere to improve the rules to fit that group’s own tastes and needs. We print rules that fit our needs and will not object to any changes made to fit the needs of others. With all the good stuff around these days, it seems impossible that someone would run any one set of rules without using some systems from some other set of rules. That is why we are all into RPG or FRP. These are the key terms, not the name of any one game.”

Scott Bizar, Different Worlds 5 (Oct/Nov 1979) p. 24.

Bizar was not the first game publisher to state in print that people can modify the rules. Gygax said it earlier. But in 1979, saying this was to express dissatisfaction with Gygax’s D&D authoritarianism and to promote his own commercial alternatives.

“One of my small clique of wargaming friends (mostly converted by me) found a first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. We played it and were immediately hooked. Soon, we had founded an entire cluster of gamers at the local university [UC-Berkeley] who played the game. With our natural passion for diversification, we altered the rules until they were only remotely recognizable as D&D, though we never changed the magic system, that bane of variant D&D players everywhere. D&D was fun, though its flaws were soon manifest, and we played it for some time, with only brief jaunts aside from such diversions as Chivalry & Sorcery (a game in which we ran an entire campaign), and even a short try at Traveller…”

Sandy Peterson, Different Worlds 32 (Jan/Feb 1984)

“[I produced RuneQuest] because there was not yet a reasonably simple but complete system which provided for the needs I wanted fulfilled in an FRP. I had tried D&D but found it confusing, discouragingly illogical, and very unrelated to the world we live in. I wanted something which reflected the world we know in a clean and flexible system.” He credits Ray Turney and Steve Perrin who designed and wrote it, adding, “I laid down some basic requirements, such as no character classes and no experience points and a power point magic system, but they did all the work.”

Greg Stafford interviewed in White Dwarf 17 (Feb/March 1980), pp. 25-26.

“One of the more important features of any fantasy role-playing game is its magic system. Arguments have raged as to which system is best, and as there is no real way of testing the fallibility of each system, the arguments will continue. Not wishing to sit on the fence, I personally believe that the Vancian/D&D system (although credit is due for it being the first) is now a little outdated compared with, for example, the power points system of Runequest. It seems to me more logical for a magic user to use whoever spell he wishes to use, two or three times if he has to as long as his energy holds out, rather than using, say, his sleep spell and immediately forgetting how he cast it. I would be interested to know how many readers use power point magic systems in D&D.”

Ian Livingston, editorial in White Dwarf 21 (Oct/Nov 1980)

It would be possible to give more examples of these opinions. I remember this as the normal perspective among the players I knew in the old days. But today, everybody seems to be playing D&D! It is definitely a surprise upon returning to the hobby.

What do we make of these perspectives?

Players loved the new kind of game when they encountered it, but it only worked if they fixed it. All players of the original D&D rules had to make rulings to impose order for their games out of a messy and sometimes inexplicable rule set. Basically, the original D&D was botched in delivery.

One can’t blame Gygax and Arneson for this, entirely. Yes, we have to give them whatever credit is due for writing what they wrote, naturally, and that includes the parts that did not work. Using earlier ingredients from other games, they had stumbled on a new kind of game and made the concepts available through a kit that could be purchased. Commodifying it and equipping it with fantasy art did help it to spread.

But players are the ones who fixed the dysfunctional rule set in their creative applications of the game. They made role-playing games into a hobby despite the original D&D. If players had not redesigned the rules for their use, there would be no hobby.

When Gygax claimed ownership over what they had done, and over the success that the players had given to his “fantasy wargame for miniatures,” naturally players balked and blamed him for trying to impose his way on their creativity. Gygax had a commercial interest while many early players said that they saw themselves as participating in a new form of art. This put them at odds.

How would role-playing game mechanics be today if the issues that players had with D&D were addressed at the outset? What kind of game would it be if Holmes or other early contributors had had their way? What if rules variants had been published as legitimate alternatives in an encompassing rules set?


  1. I remember very clearly coming up in the era of "the books are the One True Way." "Official" meant something very serious, and playing with "unofficial" material was a good way to an elementary school playground argument. As an adult, the idea of a One True Way seems silly, but as kids we didn't want to play "wrong."

    1. Thank you for your testimony! This is also my memory of D&D in "the old days" of role-playing games. Like many others, I just moved on to non-D&D.