With the release of the Player’s Handbook, we look back at the history and evolution of the core rulebooks throughout the game’s editions.
The Original Game: 1974–1977
It all started with a little box and three digest-sized books, but those three books weren’t the core rules that have become the D&D standard. Instead the rulebooks in the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) were labeled: “Men & Magic,” “Monsters & Treasures,” and “Underworld & Wilderness.” If you squint, you can sort of see the traditional D&D core rules: “Men & Magic” was largely a player’s book; “Monsters & Treasures” was in part a monster manual; and “Underworld & Wilderness” provided much of the DM’s advice. However, OD&D’s books were mostly focused on specific topics, not on who might use them. In fact, Gygax may have seemed to believe that only the DM would get to see the rules, an idea that would also inform the AD&D rules.
Those original core rules were followed up by four supplements that are better described in “The (Not-So) Secret Origin of D&D”—a D&D Alumni column from last year. These supplements focused heavily on rules, something that wouldn’t be true for the versions of D&D that followed.
TSR published one more core rulebook during the OD&D era: J. Eric Holmes’ Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1977). This introductory rulebook took core rules in a totally different direction by detailing rules only for characters levels 1–3. This allowed Holmes to include all the relevant rules in a single slim volume and to make the game less intimidating for new players. This model of a single, simple core rulebook has never been D&D’s default, but D&D returns to it when publishing a new introduction to the game, such as the recent D&D Starter Set (2014).
Back in 1977, though, TSR was about to shift to a new model for core rules that would standardize the way that the D&D game would be released forever after.
AD&D I: 1977–1988
In late 1977, TSR released its first hardcover, a book called Monster Manual (1977) that was also labeled as being for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. At the time, its monsters were used for existing OD&D games, because it took over a year and a half for TSR to complete its first series of hardcover core rules. It was only after the publication of Players Handbook (1978) and Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) that players could actually play this new iteration of D&D.
The twenty-month gap between the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide is almost unfathomable in the modern day. Modern versions of the D&D game have also had gestation periods of a few years, but that work has usually been done in advance, while a previous version of the rules was still being published. Back in the 1970s, Gygax just wanted to get his game out to the people, and so the core rules for AD&D appeared as they were being written.
Though AD&D created the three-book standard for D&D core rules, those books were somewhat different from what would follow: the Players Handbook was a slim volume that described classes, races, spells, equipment, and not much more; while the Dungeon Masters Guide contained most of the rules, including combat and saving throw tables. At the time, Gygax still thought that the players didn’t need to know the full rules!
Deities & Demigods (1980) was intended as the fourth core rulebook for AD&D, but it never achieved the popularity of its predecessors. This was probably in part because it wasn’t required to play, but it may also have been that it didn’t quite meet its goals. It was meant to be a crucial book that described the spiritual beliefs of clerics, but many players instead used it as a high-level monster manual.
Following the publication of AD&D’s core rulebooks, TSR did not produce rule supplements, like they had for OD&D. Instead they began releasing new monster manuals: Fiend Folio (1981) and Monster Manual II (1983). This would create another important precedent for the D&D game.
In 1985, TSR did a bit of an about-face by publishing two “alternate players handbooks”: Oriental Adventures (1985) and Unearthed Arcana (1985). Prior to their release, the rules for AD&D had stagnated for six years. As impossible as it might seem to a modern player, there hadn’t been any new character classes or other official rule changes for years—with the exception of some Dragon articles. Now, barbarians, cavaliers, ninjas, samurai, and many more entered the fold.
But, those were the last major rulebooks for AD&D. Though the line continued for three more years, and though TSR published five more hardcovers, none of them had the importance of the releases of 1977–1985.
AD&D II: 1989–2000
When TSR released 2nd Edition AD&D (1989), they confirmed the standard organization for D&D core rules. The Player’s Handbook (1989) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (1989) returned, but their content was moved around. Previously, the Dungeon Master’s Guide had been the larger book of the two, but now the Player’s Handbook bulked up. That was because the Player’s Handbook was now the main repository for rules in the AD&D game, with the Dungeon Master’s Guide offering commentary and advice on those rules—and a few mechanical elements of its own, such as the complete list of magic items.
These new core rules also carried D&D to the next level of professionalism: the layout was improved; it was full of graphical images and featured a second color of ink (blue). Full-color single-page images also appeared.
The changes to the game’s third core rulebook were more startling—in large part because TSR decided to publish lots of monster manuals rather than just one or three. In its premiere year of release, TSR published Monstrous Compendiums Volume One (1989), Two (1989), and Three (1989) for AD&D 2nd Edition. Each volume featured monsters in more detail than ever before—including extensive descriptions of the monsters’ ecologies, making them more than just critters to kill.
Physically, the Monstrous Compendiums were also quite different from what had come before. Instead of being hardcover books, they were booklets of perforated pages that could be removed and stuck into binders. The idea was that a DM could have an ever-expanding collection of monsters; it would have worked better if the perforated papers weren’t prone to ripping, and if they didn’t have monsters printed on both sides, making it impossible to alphabetize monsters from multiple Monstrous Compendiums.
Following the core rules, TSR published lots of supplemental rulebooks for AD&D 2nd Edition. Many of them were now connected directly to those core rules: The Player’s Handbook Rules Supplement series (PHBR) contained splatbooks that expanded existing classes, while the Dungeon Master Guide Rules Supplement series was a more motley group of books relevant to DMs.
In 1995, TSR revamped its 2nd Edition books, though it was mainly a graphical update. Around the same time, TSR abandoned its loose-leaf Monstrous Compendium experiment, instead producing a hardcover Monstrous Manual (1993, 1995). Though more Monstrous Compendiums followed, they were now normal books, not packets of pages.
The 1995 revision of the AD&D core rules was followed by several hardcovers that for the first time expanded the core books with optional rules: Skills & Powers (1995), Combats & Tactics (1995), and Spells & Magic (1996) were all listed as Player’s Options; while High-Level Campaigns (1996) was said to be a Dungeon Master Option.
After that, D&D passed from TSR to Wizards of the Coast, who would hold back on core rules of their own until the release of a new edition of D&D.
Meanwhile—Basic D&D: 1981–1994
By 1979, many new players were coming to roleplaying through J. Eric Holmes’ Basic D&D game. Unfortunately, the game was increasingly troublesome: the OD&D game it was based on was being phased out, and it was even less compatible with AD&D. That meant that players had nowhere to go after hitting 3rd level.
To accommodate these new players, TSR published a new Basic D&D Set (1981) developed by Tom Moldvay, and they paired it with an Expert D&D Set (1981) developed by Zeb Cook. Basic D&D again contained rules for 1st through 3rd level, while Expert D&D expanded that with rules for 4th through 14th level. This level-based division was an entirely new way to look at core rules. Frank Mentzer revised Basic D&D again a few years later, creating five level-based core rulebooks (or boxes as the case might be): Basic (1983), Expert (1983), Companion (1984), Master (1985), and Immortals (1986).
Dividing core rules by level gave Mentzer the opportunity to introduce new mechanics in each new box. The Basic Set thus had an introductory adventure meant to explain how the game worked, while the Expert Set included Cook’s rules for wilderness exploration, the Companion Set highlighted domains and warfare, the Master Set described super-power campaigns, and the Immortals Set took things to the next level.
Basic D&D seemingly ran its course in the 1990s after AD&D ascended in popularity, but did have one last hoorah: the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991). This standalone book combined the first four core books into a single volume. Standalone core rules like this are popular in the rest of the industry, but this was a rare compilation of the D&D rules into a single volume.
D&D III: 2000–2008
Wizards of the Coast’s release of the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook at the 2000 Gen Con Game Fair was one of the biggest events ever for D&D. Though the rules were quite different from the games that had come before, the core rulebooks were still arranged much the same. The biggest changes were cosmetic: the rulebooks were now entirely beautiful, with full color designs.
As was common, many more Monster Manuals followed, running from Monster Manual II (2002) to Monster Manual V (2007). More surprisingly, Wizards also produced a Dungeon Master’s Guide II (2005) that focused on DM advice (showing how much the DMG books had changed over the years), and a Player’s Handbook II (2006). Many splatbooks supplemented these core rules, including the Complete class books (2003–2007) and the Races books (2004–2006).
As a whole, 3rd Edition’s vision of core rules was in tune with what had come before, with its main changes being in presentation (and mechanics).
D&D IV: 2008–2012
The fourth iteration of D&D totally innovated the game’s mechanics and its tropes, so it’s not surprising that it also innovated the idea of core rulebooks—not once, but twice.
The Player’s Handbook (2008), Dungeon Master’s Guide (2008), and Monster Manual (2008) that were released in June 2008 were similar to those released for the third edition of the game, except that the Dungeon Master’s Guide was now almost entirely divorced from rules—instead offering advice on designing campaigns and adventures.
Wizards of the Coast more dramatically revamped D&D’s ideas about core rules with its scheduled series of core rulebooks every year. The next year saw the release of Player’s Handbook 2 (2009), Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (2009), and Monster Manual 2 (2009), but after that the series ended with Player’s Handbook 3 (2010) and Monster Manual 3 (2010). These additional core rulebooks expanded the game by detailing new sources of power, new races, and new characters. They also played with Basic D&D’s idea of level-based rulebooks: the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 included descriptions of paragon campaigns and the Dungeon Master’s Guide 3 would have done the same for epic campaigns if it had been published.
Meanwhile, the sourcebooks that supplemented the 4th Edition core books were more carefully organized than ever, including a yearly trilogy of setting sourcebooks and a series of Power books (2008-20010)—D&D’s newest rules splats.
In 2010, Wizards discontinued their yearly core rules to instead experiment with a new core rulebook format: Essentials. This 4th Edition subline imagined core rules in new ways: The Starter Set (2010) was a new intro game while the Rules Compendium (2010) was a new standalone rules reference. Heroes of the Fallen Lands (2010) and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (2010) were smaller player books that each spotlighted certain classes. The Dungeon Master’s Kit (2010) featured the typical advice and rules of a DMG, but also included accessories like battle maps and a screen, while the Monster Vault (2010) focused on monster stats but also included monster counters. Each of those releases was clearly related to D&D’s old standards for core rulebooks, but courageously reimagined them.
Though D&D 4th Edition eventually concluded its official publication, it offered interesting new takes on the concept of core rulebooks.
D&D V: 2014–Present
This year brings the newest iteration of D&D and so the newest iteration on the D&D core rules. The recently released Starter Set (2014) follows in the footsteps of many introductory boxes before it, but the Basic Rules (2014) are something new: a set of core rules for the game made freely available as a PDF.
However, Wizards of the Coast hasn’t forgotten the classics: a Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide will follow, released between August and November—the first non-simultaneous release since Wizards of the Coast published the third edition in 2000.
We’ll soon know how these latest releases compare to D&D’s long history of core rules….