Players Handbook (1978), by Gary Gygax, was the first book of rules for the AD&D game. It was published in June 1978 and seen by many for the first time at Gen Con XI (August 1978).
About the Cover.
The cover by Dave Trampier — which shows adventurers looting an idol after killing their foes — is one of the most famous in D&D history. The painting actually encompasses the back cover too (as was the case with all of the original AD&D books) but that picture, which shows adventurers dragging off loot and foes, has never received the same attention.
Because of its fame, Trampier's cover has been repeatedly recreated and parodied. The 3.5e Player's Handbook II (2006), which shows a close-up of the idol-robbing, may be the most attractive homage, but the original HackMaster Player's Handbook (2001) is fun too, because it shows Trampier's iconic scene several minutes earlier, when the adventurers are still fighting the lizard monsters.
Trampier's famous cover was replaced in 1983 by a Jeff Easley painting of a wizard. Most people agree that the later image is more professional, but much less memorable.
About the Other Illustrations.
The illustrations by Dave Trampier and David C. Sutherland III feel relatively scant, especially when compared to the 200 illustrations in the Monster Manual (1977). There also aren't as many iconic illustrations as found in the other two core AD&D books. However, the illustration for Otto's Irresistible Dance is a favorite. It shows an Umber Hulk clicking his heels together while under the influence of the spell — which underlines the use of humorous cartoons in early AD&D products.
About the Title.
There is no apostrophe in the title of the original Players Handbook. This was purposeful. Its usage was considered confusing and graphically unattractive, and so none of the 1st edition (1e) books had apostrophes in their titles. In Dragon #28 (August 1979), TSR Manager of Designers Allan Hammack, bemoaned its loss, saying "Alas for the death of the apostrophe!" and "Using an artistic excuse, they bar its every attempt at propriety and propagate the error. All is not lost, however, for there is a small but determined underground seeking to restore the lost mark to its proper place. Someday ... ."
That day would be the 1989 release of AD&D 2e.
Moving Toward AD&D.
The D&D game began with the OD&D box (1974), which was expanded with four supplements (1975-1976) and additional articles in The Strategic Review (1975-1976). However, by the time that Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976) was published, TSR had already decided that the system — which now spanned a half dozen books and several newsletters — needed to be unified and cleaned up.
A new Basic D&D (1977) came out first, thanks to the singular efforts of J. Eric Holmes, but it was just an introductory book, intended to shepherd new players through the first three levels of play. What D&D really needed was a revamped game for the more advanced players: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The AD&D system technically began with Monster Manual (1977) in December 1977. This compendium of monsters showed off the increased detail that would be present in the new AD&D game, but it didn't give much hint at the game mechanics. That would await the publication of the AD&D Players Handbook (1978) six months later.
Despite the publication of AD&D, Gygax claimed that the original "D&D will always be with us". He thought that OD&D and AD&D served different audiences, and that there was no reason to retire the original. OD&D did indeed remain available into the '80s. Afterward, later editions of Basic D&D (1981, 1983) picked up the mantle of OD&D as the simpler and looser D&D game.
The Players Handbook appeared in 17 different printings from 1978 to 1990. The last few printings actually appeared after the release of the AD&D 2e Player's Handbook (1989) — which shows how much less concerned everyone was about editions in the '80s. It was a far cry from the desperate dumping of 3e products following the release of D&D 3.5e (2003)!
Most printings involved very minor variations. The biggest change came with the 8th printing (1983), which was when the new Jeff Easley cover appeared as part of a general rebranding of the AD&D line. In the modern day, the 1e Players Handbook has been reprinted twice more — once in a miniature collectible edition produced under license by Twenty First Century Games (1999), and once in a deluxe limited edition produced by Wizards of the Coast (2012) to support the Gygax memorial fund. The 2012 edition featured reset text.
A Different Sort of Players Handbook.
The AD&D 1e Players Handbook is very different from its later incarnations. From AD&D 2e onward, the Player's Handbook has been the main rulebook for the D&D game, but in AD&D 1e it only contained the most crucial rules needed by the players. That means that it explains abilities, races, classes, spells, and psionics, plus a few other bobs and bits.
What's astonishing is what's not in this book. For example, you won't find rules about how to actually roll your abilities! The Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) has that! Similarly, there are no rules for combat or even saving throws! Instead the player only got summaries of what the rules systems were like — not the actual systems!
Though this might seem bizarre today, the original Players Handbook was from a different age; players were kept in the dark about the rules of the game, and the game master was the ultimate arbiter of all the game's mechanics.
What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Controversy.
There's a lot of disagreement over whether AD&D is a minor revision of OD&D — gathering together all of its supplements and articles — or whether it's something bigger. This controversy started in Dragon #26 (June 1979) when Gygax rather shockingly said, "there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers." In other words, he was claiming that OD&D was more like Tunnels & Trolls (1975) and RuneQuest (1978) than AD&D! He was very clear in saying this: " It is neither an expansion nor a revision of the old game, it is a new game."
Some folks disagreed, most notably Richard Berg who reviewed the Players Handbook in Strategy & Tactics magazine and said that it was a rewrite of the OD&D game. Gygax took extreme umbrage of this claim in Dragon #22 (February 1979), stating:
"Under the circumstances, one can only wonder why Mr. Berg took the time to write on a subject of which he obviously knew so little. Perhaps it is personal or professional jealousy, as the success of D&D and now AD&D has certainly set the rest of the gaming hobby industry on its collective ear, but that is speculation."
The fans had the ultimate word: when you examine the RPG magazines of the late '70s and early '80s that most of them didn't differentiate much between OD&D, AD&D, and BD&D. Instead, magazine articles were usually written for "Dungeons & Dragons" generally. In the present day, most people would probably still agree that Berg was more correct than Gygax … but it all depends on what you're measuring.
What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Goals.
There is a big difference between OD&D and AD&D, but it primarily lies in the overall vision of the new game. Gygax explained many of his new goals in articles in Dragon #26 (June 1979) and Dragon #28 (August 1979). He said that "D&D is only a loose structure … [while] AD&D is a much tighter structure which follows, in part, the same format D&D does, but it is a much stronger, more rigid, more extensive framework …"
This tighter framework served three purposes:
First, Gygax thought that the tighter framework would keep players from house-ruling D&D. As he explained: "[O]D&D campaigns can be those which feature comic book spells, 43rd level balrogs as player characters, and include a plethora of trash from various and sundry sources, AD&D cannot be so composed." Based on these changes he thought that "players will not be so able to bend the rules nor will the DM be able to bend the rules." This staunch defense of the "official" rules of AD&D would lead to letters-column drama throughout the '80s.
Second, Gygax thought that it would create "a better platform from which to launch major tournaments" — a goal that was much more successful (and less controversial).
Third, Gygax thought that it would better orient D&D toward its actual audience. OD&D had been intended for miniatures players who already had a strong basis in wargaming. Rules that were sometimes guidelines weren't a problem for these experienced players. Now, D&D's loose structure was becoming a problem for the larger audiences brought into the game though Holmes' Basic D&D. Gygax believed that a more structured game would better appeal to a large audience made up of "wargamers, game hobbyists, science fiction and fantasy fans, those who have never read fantasy fiction or played strategy games, young and old, male and female."
What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Mechanics.
Mechanically, the biggest difference in AD&D lies in its level of detail. Everything is much more specific and much better described. The Monster Manual had already made this obvious with its monster descriptions, which were longer and had much more statistics. In the Players Handbook the spell listings (which took up half the book!) showed the same increased level of detail — which now featured not just longer descriptions but also whole new elements, like lists of required spell components.
AD&D also made one other major mechanical change: it increased the breadth of play possible. OD&D play topped out in the first ten levels of play, while AD&D pushed viable play into the teens. As Gygax said, "you won’t run out of game in six weeks, or six months. Perhaps in six years you will, but that’s a whole different story."
Beyond that, the new Players Handbook mainly gathered material from a variety of sources. For example, the ten character classes in AD&D were massively expanded from the three in OD&D, but most of them had appeared before:
- Cleric: OD&D (1974)
- Druid: Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976)
- Fighter: OD&D (1974)
- Paladin: Greyhawk (1975)
- Ranger: The Strategic Review #2 (Summer 1975)
- Magic-User: OD&D (1974)
- Illusionist: The Strategic Review #4 (Winter 1975)
- Thief: Great Plains Game Players Newsletter #9 (June 1974) / Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975)
- Assassin: Supplement II: Blackmoor (1975)
- Monk: Supplement II: Blackmoor (1975)
The bard class (which appears in an appendix) was a bit more of an innovation; though a bard had previously appeared in The Strategic Review vol. 2 #1 (February 1976), the AD&D bard was massively rebalanced — and largely considered unplayable, since it required moving through fighter and thief classes before finally arriving at druidic bardism.
AD&D also increased the list of possible PC races, which were limited to dwarves, elves, hobbits, and men in OD&D. Now the list of demihumans was doubled, with half-elves from Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975), gnomes from Supplement II: Blackmoor (1975) and the totally new half-orcs.
Beyond that, there were numerous small changes, such as: alignments were now ninefold, expanding from the five alignments found in The Strategic Review vol. 2 #1 (February 1976); all classes now got bonuses from strength and dexterity, not just fighters; and various mechanics were re-balanced as part of a more cohesive whole.
Players Handbook was a small production from a small company and it had a fair number of errors in it. Dragon Magazine #35 (March 1980) lists many of them, but surprisingly most of those errors were never fixed in later editions of the actual book. The funniest error in the book is probably the listing of the class title for fifth level clerics as "perfects" — which was presumably a typo for "prefects". This mistake was cut out of the Players Handbook starting with the third printing (1979) or so, leaving 5th level cleric as the only level in AD&D without a level title.
The most far-reaching error in the Players Handbook, according to Frank Mentzer in Dragon #70 (February 1983), was the idea that falling damage was just 1d6 for every ten feet fallen. Apparently Gygax had written “1d6 per 10’ for each 10’ fallen”, implying damage that cumulatively increased, but someone had changed it to “1d6 for each 10’ fallen”. Gygax only realized the mistake while producing the thief-acrobat class for Dragon #69 (January 1983). However, after almost a decade of non-cumulative falling damage, it was almost impossible to get Mentzer's change to stick.
More errors appeared with the publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). Because so much time elapsed between the two publications, they ended up being out of sync with each other. The most notable change was probably that the monk went from using the thief attack table in the PHB to the the cleric attack table in the DMG, however there were other discrepancies between the books. Some were addressed in the "Dispel Confusions" columns of the later issues of TSR UK's Imagine magazine.
Expanding the Outer Planes.
The D&D Outer Planes appeared for the first time in "Planes: The Concepts of Spatial, Temporal and Physical Relationships in D&D", an article by Gary Gygax for The Dragon #8 (July 1977). Players Handbook reprints the Dragon planes in largely the same form. There are 25 total, including the prime, positive, and negative material planes, four elemental planes, the ethereal plane, the astral plane, and 16 outer planes.
The Great Wheel was born!
The entire roleplaying world was in a strange hiatus between the publication of AD&D 1e's Players Handbook (June 1978) and Dungeon Masters Guide (August 1979). During this interim, TSR began publishing official AD&D products, such as the original "G" adventures (1978), but there were no AD&D rules to play then with! To help resolve this issue, TSR published an emergency sneak preview of AD&D rules in Dragon #22 (February 1979), but for the rest of AD&D's rules, players had to wait another six months.
This wait between the books does not appear to have been planned. At one time, Gygax was talking about both books appearing in summer of 1978. This suggests that the intent was to have no gap … let alone a gap of 14 months! The problem was in part caused by Gygax needing a break after the complex ruleswork of the Players Handbook; he wrote the "D" adventures (1978) as a break before moving on to the Dungeon Masters Guide.
About the Creators.
Gygax was the co-creator of D&D alongside Dave Arneson, but the AD&D books would only bear his name … a point that led to legal contention in 1979.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org
. Thanks to the Acaeum for careful research on Players Handbook printings.