Dungeons & Dragons – The ‘White Box’ Limited Edition

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I first picked up my father’s copy of the Dungeons & Dragons ‘Basic’ rulebook in 1985.  I was eight at the time and while I was a good reader for my age, I had trouble comprehending the rules.  Two years later I tried again and this time there was resounding ‘click’ as everything made sense.  My father, surprisingly, then set about creating a campaign anytime he had a spare moment at work.  Some months later with my friend Gregory staying over and participating, I played my very first game of Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m 36 years of age now and I’ve been playing role-playing games ever since that day.  I spent a great deal of time with Dungeons & Dragons ‘Basic’ and ‘Expert’, had difficulty with the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and completely skipped Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (Heresy in the eyes of some).  My friends and I continued to play ‘Basic’ and ‘Expert’ right up to the release of 3rd Edition, at which time we browsed through the books, found them easy to comprehend and promptly bought everything in sight.  I played 4th Edition for at least six months and signed up for the D&D ‘Next’ Beta.  Suffice to say that Dungeons & Dragons and I have a long relationship.

Over the years I’ve developed a desire (Not quite an obsession) with obtaining the core rulebooks from each rules edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  I have most of the ‘Basic’ and the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books (Thanks to my father), 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, 3.5 Edition and 4th Edition.   What I didn’t have was the earlier 1974 release of Dungeons & Dragons, or it’s precursor, ‘Chainmail’.  Many of you may have noticed that Wizards of the Coast have been re-releasing a great many of their core rulebooks lately.  These have been well received by the fans and sales have been steady.  So perhaps it was no surprise that after re-releasing all the ‘contemporary’ rulebooks that Wizards of the Coast might look further back.  Personally I was very pleased to hear of the upcoming release of the ‘White Box’ collection, an opportunity for me to pick up those classic rulebooks without paying a small fortune on eBay for a well loved copy.

Enough about my history and personal collection then and let us instead move on to reviewing this Limited Edition piece.  I’m going to discuss not only the physicality of the product but also the rules contained within it’s pages.

So let’s start with the physical side of things.  First up, it’s a box.  A wooden box.  A really fancy wooden box that you want to put on your shelf and display.  I mean, just look at it, it’s a thing of beauty –

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So what’s inside?  Well once you remove all the packaging cardboard, of which there is quite a bit (This is a good thing) you will notice that the inside of the lid has some very fancy foil artwork.  In the bottom half you will find some molded foam holding ten dice (20 Sided, 12 Sided, 2 x 10 Sided, 8 Sided, 4 x 6 Sided and 4 Sided) and a cavity containing your seven books, a letter from Mike Mearls and some advertising.  The bottom of the cavity is felt lined and has a red ribbon to assist lifting the books from the box.  The entire thing from packaging to craftsmanship is exceptional, it’s clear that Wizards of the Coast fully intended to go the extra mile with this product.  My only ‘gripe’ at this stage is the dice feel a little light in the hand and the paintwork on them, I believe, could probably have been better.  Having said that the original dice included in the ‘Basic’ and ‘Expert’ box sets in the late 70’s and early 80’s where pretty ordinary so perhaps the dice in this box are a homage to that.

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Moving on to the rules now and this is perhaps of more interest to some of you.  The first book ‘Men & Magic’ has an introductory letter dated November 1st 1973.  Reading these rulebooks has really been an eye-opener for me, and it’s amazing to see how far Dungeons & Dragons has come.

 

Book 1 – “Men & Magic”

In modern terms this is essentially your “Player’s Handbook.” At this stage of the game players can only choose from ‘Fighting-Men’, ‘Magic-Users’, ‘Clerics’, ‘Dwarves’, ‘Elves’ and ‘Halflings’.  Your first clue that the original D&D plays much differently from it’s modern counterpart is this section – “Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts”.  Also note that the term ‘Dungeon Master’ hasn’t been coined yet and the player running the show is simply the ‘Referee’.  I should point out at this stage too that these rules recommend you own “Chainmail Miniatures Rules – Latest Edition”.  While I don’t think veteran D&D players would have a problem with this (They can simply use modern rulings if something is unexplained), for any individual (and I really doubt there are any) buying this product without ever having owned or played another Dungeons & Dragons system you may be a little confused in places (However Books 4-7 in this box tend to replace most of the Chainmail rules anyway).

 

Book 2 – “Monster & Treasure”

Sadly this “Monster Manual” doesn’t include my favourites the ‘Otyugh’ and the ‘Gelatinous Cube’.  It does contain a number of beasties though, oddly not in alphabetical order.  Like the ‘Basic’ edition of Dungeons & Dragons this rulebook has the optional rules for subduing a dragon using the flat of your blade, something missing from later editions.  The treasure in this book is very basic, ‘Potion of Healing’, ‘Elven Boots’ and ‘Magic Axe’.  Later books in this box set go into greater detail regarding fancier treasure.

 

Book 3 – “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”

Now we come to the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” of this collection.  It’s a very interesting read and it’s here that you learn that this first version of Dungeons & Dragons is quite different from the D&D you know and love today.  This version of D&D has little to no ‘Roleplaying’ as such.  The game plays out almost entirely as a dungeon ‘romp’ with room after room of monsters, traps and treasure.  It’s much more like a game of ‘Hero Quest’ or ‘Descent: Journeys in the Dark’, a board game essentially, where players simply take turns to move their pieces through a dungeon.  While I’m certainly not saying this is a bad thing (In fact I’m keen to give it a try) it is imperative that I make the point clear that if you intend to purchase and play this game it is unlike later versions of Dungeons & Dragons.  Ironic then that the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons that so many people complained had ‘lost touch’ with what came before is actually more akin to the original Dungeons & Dragons than ever before.  In fact I would go further to surmise that those of you who play and love 4th Edition will probably enjoy this version more than those who are emotionally attached to 3.0 or 3.5.

 

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Book 4 – “Greyhawk”

I was actually hoping this and Book 5 of the set would be campaign settings.  I wanted to really enjoy the early creative works of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  Instead those these rulebooks act more as “Advanced Player Guides” of a sort, adding more classes, rule revisions and advanced rules.  This book is prefaced with an introduction by Gary dated February 1st 1975.  Some of the highlights include the introduction of the ‘Thief’ class, more spells for casters including ‘Magic-Missile’ for Magic-Users and some familiar books (Exalted Deeds and Vile Darkness).

 

Book 5 – “Blackmoor”

This book was Dave Arneson’s expansion contribution, although the introductory letter is still by Gygax and bears the same date as the book above.  This book introduces ‘Monks’ and ‘Assassins’ as playable classes, the ‘Sahuagin’ as monsters and overall has an ocean or underwater feel to it.  Unlike Book 4, this book actually does contain campaign material in the form of a background, town description and several floors of a dungeon complete with maps.  Again the ‘Dungeon Romp’ nature of the game is apparent here, the room descriptions are very ‘clinical’ and read simply as rulings rather than graphic descriptions attempting to create any atmosphere.

 

Book 6 – “Eldritch Wizardry”

This is the first book we come across with an introductory letter from someone other than Mr Gygax.  Timothy J. Kask has dated this one at April 3rd 1976.  The big addition in this rulebook is Psionics.  Unlike more contemporary rules, psionics in this version of the game are obtainable by any of the human classes.  Thus ‘Fighting-Men’ or ‘Thieves’ can, during character creation if they pass the required rolls, also be psionic.  The mind boggles at the potential of a ‘Psionic Thief’. Extended and revised rules for combat, more spells for casters and quite a few new monsters.  There is also a well stocked treasure section which has a few items included that might ring a bell or two – “The Mace of St. Cuthbert”, “The Wand of Orcus” and “The Hand & Eye of Vecna”.  I should also point out in this book we see the term ‘Dungeon Master’ in print for the first time.
Book 7 – “Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes”

This is the last Dungeons & Dragons supplement, as stated by Timothy J. Kask in the introductory letter dated July 4th 1976. The entire book is dedicated to listing, describing and supplying combat statistics for Gods from every mythology and faith.  Egyptian, Indian, Greek, Celtic, Norse, Finnish, Mexican (and Central American Indian) and Chinese are all included in this book.  Of all the books in this set, this one you might be induced to use in your current Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5/4.0 game.

 

This Limited Edition collection isn’t cheap, weighing in with a recommended retail price of $199.  More than anything this product is a collector piece, designed to be displayed proudly on your shelf, and for those who do collect (a great many of you) this is a no-brainer purchase.  I doubt Wizards of the Coast actually intended for anyone to play this game, in fact I’m sure they would much prefer you pick up a copy of D&D Next in a few months time.  For those of you inclined to buy this product in order to play it, be warned, the original Dungeons & Dragons is a different beast to it’s modern descendants.  I was told that stock was extremely limited with only some 130 pieces shipped to Australia.  A quick check with wholesalers shows that some of these are still available so if you are interested I would recommend getting in touch with your Local Gaming Store ASAP.

Overall, I’m very happy with my purchase.  This piece will sit proudly on my shelf next to my other core rulebooks.  I fully intend to attempt a campaign in the near future as the mechanics truly intrigue me, and if nothing else I’ve learnt a great deal about the heritage and humble beginnings on what is undoubtedly the greatest role-playing game ever.  All that remains to be seen now is whether or not Wizards of the Coast will re-publish the fabled CHAINMAIL rules system.

– Toby

“May you always make your saving throw”

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