Wednesday, July 8, 2015

For the love of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia

This is part of an ongoing web wide series (well, at least in our neck of the woods, that is) about the role playing games we love initiated by +Charles Akins  over at Dyvers. You've probably seen those pop up all over the place. I have the honor of writing about my love for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Please, enjoy ...

Preamble (because all things start somewhere): As it is with all good things, I happened to come across the German translation of this game by accident. There was one FLGS I frequented regularly (more often than not skipping school, if I remember correctly) and it was a huge mess full of all kinds of nerd love and rpg regalia (including the grumpy shop owner that tends to come with those establishments). My only experience with D&D so far was playing AD&D at conventions. I knew almost nothing about our hobby back then. Well, D&D was supposed to be the Ur-rpg, I knew that much. So when I bought Das Große Buch der D&D-Regeln that one day, it was in total ignorance of what this book really was and in total awe about what it represented. To be honest, I believed for some time that it was to be meant as the pinnacle of D&D as a whole and not “just” of its first edition. I also didn’t know what I was in for and wouldn’t find out for a long time. But it would begin a journey 20 years ago that started with kicking off the longest campaign I had the pleasure of DMing so far and went on until I found myself here writing this. So please, let me tell you a bit about this game I love.

Banged up and used, as a good rpg book should be ...

First cut is the deepest

I believe the first adventure you wrote and successfully DMed yourself is much like your first lover, you’ll never forget it. I had DMed various games before that on and off, but I thought D&D to be something like the premier league of the hobby and when I started reading the RC, I handled it like reading The Holy Book itself. Preached it, too (I think). I showed all the signs of someone who doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with and looking back at myself now, I can see how intimidated I was. This game is huge! The sheer scope of it was mind blowing. 36 levels a character could achieve and a magic-user would need 4.350.000 experience points to get there. That’s like killing 455 huge red dragons and even one of those suckers is supposed to be a major highlight in a campaign. You’d need to change worlds or slay gods in mid-game to get at least a shot at this … 

The D&D RC also had all the rules I never intended to use but was very impressed to see in there: warfare, domain rules or rules to play on an immortal level (to name the big three). This was meant to be a complete set of rules; you’d buy it and have everything you’d need to play for the rest of your life. That’s not entirely true, as everyone will tell you who took a closer look at it, but it’s true enough for someone starting to learn the game.

So I’m not saying I understood all of it (actually I wouldn’t even say I understood half of it …), but I took it very serious and I think that’s what made it work so well for me and the players. I really wanted to be one of those DM’s, I wanted that nerd cred and I’m not ashamed.

Another important minor aspect would be that I’m a huge fan of fireballs and it’s one of those things I somehow exclusively associate with D&D. No other game I played or DMed up until then had done them “right” but D&D (I’d be hard pressed to name such a game today, by the way). My mental image of D&D: a mighty wizard in a dungeon nuking a room full of shabby goblins with a fireball. That’s it. I know, it’s not very elaborate, but even now, writing about it, I want to take the dice and start a game like that, kicking in doors and taking names, ideally while wearing a beard, a book, funny robes and a pointy hat (because that’s how you do it) …

But I digress. And yet, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia was all that for me when I started reading it and would become so much more! All those iconic spells like Magic Missile, Sleep, Web or Haste … mighty warriors and sneaky thieves going on adventures with Halflings, Elves and Dwarves just like in Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit … that Mystara setting at the end of the book with just enough information and maps to make your head spin for days with ideas and possibilities. It’s all there, in one place, daring you to give it life.

This is how they presented Mystara in the book ...
There is a, for lack of a better combination of words, multifarious simplicity within its immense scope. A class on its own is a simple thing, for instance, some with details and facets as appropriate but pretty much a straightforward affair up until level 36. But in concert with each other, things start getting more and more complex until you reach a point where you start asking yourself how many level 36 level characters a world could hold and how the hell they managed to get all those frickin’ xp or what a world was supposed to look like where all this crazy magic is possible or … You get the idea. It’s really a lot to process once you take a closer look.

In the beginning, though, it’s all magic. And this magic holds for the first 3 to 6 levels (as far as the DM is concerned). It’s very easy to evoke, too, so a rooky Dungeon Master needn’t understand the whole thing to make it shine. He’d just aim to quote the shared idea of what D&D should be like and he’d be good to go.

As you can see, there was a lot going on. It was inspiring. I started building my own setting almost immediately, wrote up astrological signs and religions, stuff like that. At some point I decided to recruit players for a game. That first session had 2 players and although I barely remember what characters they made, I know that first adventure I DMed by heart.

The Introduction: somewhere in the Hinterlands of the barony Karameikos, deep in the woods, the wise wizard Ridikulus seeks help with a Gremlin infestation in his tower. The Adventure: Once the players had helped the wizard, he’ll send them on a mission to find Smeet, his useless apprentice, who had been sent to an old cemetery to collect a few rare herbs that only grow in winter on places where the dead are buried. Poor Smeet is already a day late and mighty Ridikulus is a bit worried. Complications: (1) It was set in winter. A strong theme with 30 centimeters of snow in it. (2) Random encounter had been a couple of hungry wolves. A classic, right? (3) It’s two days of travel. Characters had to spend a night outside in the cold. (4) When arriving at the graveyard, they find a camp of some Odal’s Is Crusaders (warriors of a local religion) close by. They seem to prepare an attack. Turns out some evil cleric was raising the dead on this graveyard and the mighty paladin Edell Worfang was on a mission to slay the evil doer (who’s incidentally also, to make it a bit more dramatic, his brother). The group may join the fray and use the opportunity to look for Smeet while slaying Zombies. (5) Smeet really was hiding on the graveyard. He had been there, doing his job, when those sinister guys appeared and started raising the dead from some tombs (the earth being frozen and all that).

It’s good for one or two nice evenings and we had a blast. Second session we had 3 players and when the group arrived back at master Ridikulus’ tower, we had 5 players. All had been ready to travel to the big city for some murder and intrigue and another great adventure has been had (about a murdered human prostitute that had had an affair with a halfling noble, some political pressure and lots of suspects …).

After this adventure, however, the group moved on to greener pastures and we started to play a low fantasy setting in a skill-heavy system (which suited the group better for what they wanted to play) every Friday for about five year. One huge campaign. But don’t ask me about the first adventure with the new system. For me it all started with my enthusiasm for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, everything afterwards was just a transition.

It would be years before I got back to playing this game and yet I believe it needed all that time playing and reading and growing up to really learn to appreciate it for what it is. And it is so much more.

The bliss of simplicity and an old friend

You know, I thought about stopping right here. I already talked about the game in the highest tones I’m able to produce. But it’s only half the story and the other half is as important as the first is. It took the game nearly ten years after those initial two adventures to make its way back to my table. Again it happened by accident. It was a spontaneous gathering of friends and we had been in the mood for something with light rules and fast character generation.

I remembered a starter adventure I owned for the D&D RC (DDA3 – Eye of Traldar). While it wasn’t a particular good adventure, I thought it might be fun to run it as written. It even had some pre-generated characters, which made things a lot easier. Everyone had fun. So much fun indeed, that we gathered two weeks later to finish the adventure and made new characters after that to start a campaign.

The German Character Sheet for the Rules Cyclopedia
is more appealing than the original, in my opinion ...
At the time I’d already discovered a group of bloggers dedicated to keep the old editions alive and kicking. Because of those blogs I knew by then what the Rules Cyclopedia really was in the greater scheme of all things D&D and had some good ideas for house rules, where to find inspiration for new character classes or even whole campaigns. It was only natural to start tinkering with the game.

I would update the house rules regularly, we’d test things in a session and talked about it afterwards and the game started to grow. Better yet, the system took the changes like a pro and that’s exactly what it had been written for. It’s a collection of optional rules and examples what a game of D&D could look like. Since all of it is modular, it’s easy to take one aspect, change it and see how the game reacts.

Most of the time you’ll see quite fast what flies and what not, but what I love about this game is how easily it adapts to changes and how much of this has already been tested one way or another. Runequest, AD&D, the Arduin books, all those role playing games (and many many more) have some DNA of the original D&D and if you take your time exploring those systems, you’ll sooner or later see how it all connects.

As soon as you realize that all of those role playing games have the same source and see what could be done with it, you’d be hard pressed not to admire that one collection of rules. Not because of a specific system they represent, but because of their diversity and flexibility. All earlier versions of D&D’s first edition? They are in there. AD&D? There’s a conversion guide at the end of the book. With this alone and the optional rules presented in the Rules Cyclopedia (like skills and weapon mastery) you can easily build your version of D&D and adapt everything made for the first and second edition with ease.

But there is more. You still have active communities online, guys that never stopped playing and kept producing content, alternative classes, adventures or rules, you name it. Check out Vaults of Pandius (the official Mystara homepage) and you’ll see what I mean. The site is a treasure trove of material and their magazine Threshold is a work of art. The game has been around for decades now and everything you might lack in experience or knowledge can easily be covered by something another fan already did.

Go beyond that and you’ll find it doesn’t stop there. The game has been adapted, cloned, re-written, dissembled and rearranged all over the place. Take the Arduin rules for mana-pools or their critical hits tables, use the hit locations from Runequest or the Call of Cthulhu skill system. It’s all ripe for the taking. If you start there, it’s hard to tell where you’ll end up (but it’s most likely your personal fantasy heart breaker).

Closing words

What else can I say? I love the Rules Cyclopedia. It’s my favorite version of D&D to tinker with. For one, it’s all in one place and you really don’t need anything else than what they did in this book. While being enormous in scope, it still keeps the simplicity of the earlier versions and the optional rules are distinct enough to matter only if a DM wants them to matter. You can totally play this with just the ability scores and class abilities and it works.

Which reminds me, there’s one more thing I love about the RC: it’s easy on the player. It’s something that got lost out of sight for some reason or another, but most of the rules here are for the DM to give his game the depth he needs and wants, while the players have a very low entry level to join the game, as the rules they need to know in the beginning are explained in 5 minutes (or as long as it takes to create a character …).

But in the end it’s the game that taught me how to make it my own, how everything we play is our choice and if we take the time to look closely, it opens up a world of possibilities. And who doesn’t love that?


  1. Brilliant topic about a brilliant game

  2. Hi Jens,

    Great article, I especially liked the personal anecdotes. This is what a game should be all about, the fun you had playing it.

    Thanks too for linking to my article on HeroQuest 2 at Tales of a GM.

    All the best and happy gaming

  3. Awesome article! You know, I saw this for sale on a few occasions, but I was playing AD&D at the time and I had always dismissed this book as "something for basic Dungeons & Dragons." Years later, and especially after reading this, I could kick myself for not picking this up!

  4. My favourite versions of D&D are Lamentations of the Flame Princess and 13th Age, but my favourite official version is the Rules Cyclopedia, if only because it presents not only a complete game in one book -- none of that arbitrary split into three volumes here -- but goes beyond that and gives you loads of information and resources, so you could use this one book to run a campaign for years. It's one of the best things TSR ever published.