A review 15 years in the making
To my mind, there’s just one book that defines the whole D&D role-playing genre, and it’s the one that has shaped my gaming experience more than any other over the past 15 years. It’s the one that kept me pegging for TSR during the Long Dark Night of AD&D, and it lures me still.
Yes, I’m waxing poetical, forgive me.
The D&D Rules Cyclopedia was released back in 1991 as an effort to collect all of the Real D&D (RD&D – as opposed to AD&D; Artificial D&D ) rules from 1st level to the lofty heights of 36th (and beyond) into one place. It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, though perhaps it’s only possible to say that with hindsight.
Cut past the chapters covering Character generation, Magic and Combat, and you’re only 116 pages into a 300+ page book of tightly compressed text. Granted these were more innocent, less graphical times, but that’s the equivalent of the entire d20 PHB in almost 1/3 the pagecount. My battered copy, a victim of thousands of hours of gaming, has post-it notes on almost every other page. This is old-school gaming as it’s best, where Halflings are fat and follow the best Tolkien tradition, and live alongside Elves and Dwarfs as Character classes. As per one of the post-it notes though:
- In my game, the term “character class” is not used. Instead, the phrase “caste” is used to emphasize that this is the calling for the Character as chosen by the Immortals. Caste denotes (roughly) build, skills and general outlook without the stereotyping of Character classes.
Think in those terms, and it all suddenly makes sense! We’d even worked out “casting ceremonies”. The demi-human races of course, had nothing of the sort and just thought the humans to be strange. An Elf was an Elf was an Elf, anyhow.
This is the era of THAC0, of Combat Charts and getting XP for gold pieces. We changed that so Characters got experience for spending the gold – keeping it in a vault got you nothing, but using it to create magic weapons and build Strongholds (more on those later) earned you well-deserved XP.
Not a lot of those first 116 pages of the book will be useful to a 3.5rd edition gamer other than for nostalgia-fodder, but what follows is pure gold. Each chapter of the rest of the book covers topics that d20 has repeatedly tried to cover in entire books, and failed to handle as efficiently or evocatively.
Want a Mass Combat system that’s easy to role-play? Check. Naval, underwater and aerial Combat? Check. Siege Combat. Yep, that’s in there too. And we’re only as far as page 126.
One of the core assumptions of D&D was that the players started to settle down around 9th level. They’d reached “Name” level, probably earning a minor title and a right to claim a section of land (their Dominion) as their own. They could erect a Stronghold – a Castle, Wizard’s Tower, Thieves’ Guild or whatever – and claim lordship over the area. The Rules Cyclopedia has complete rules for every aspect of this, from the costs of building your own Castle to staffing it and handling Dominion events. Add in the Mass Combat and Siege rules, and you’ve the best Realms rules system ever made. I’ve gamed almost 6 months worth of sessions using just the dominion rules, all before Birthright came into being.
Going beyond that we have the obligatory GM – sorry, Dungeon Master – section, followed by Monsters and Treasure and Planes of Existence. All in the one book. To my knowledge the Rules Cyclopedia was the only time TSR/WoTC released a complete D&D system in a single publication (outside of franchises). This is the Holy Grail of gaming; a one-book solution that contains everything required for player and GM alike. WoTC take note! My own gaming group had 8 copies of this book (priced at £14.99, back then) of which at least 3 are still in semi-regular use.
Where d20 D&D falls flat is that there’s no clear path to follow above 20th level; there’s just the messy kludge that is Epic Levels which translates to “same stuff, only bigger CRs”. OD&D took a different path though, promising the elusive path to Immortality and near-divinity. The Rules Cyclopedia had this covered too, including information about how to become one of the Immortals, though not what happens afterwards; that was covered in the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set.
Did I mention there’s also a complete gameworld detailed in the Rules Cyclopedia too? The Known World is mapped and given in overview. It’s certainly enough to get started, and roughly on a par with the flimsy Greyhawk supplement in terms of detail. A map and information about the Hollow World is also given, though it’s little more than a teaser taste.
From the perspective of a d20 gamer, there’s plenty in here to merit the book (or .pdf download) having pride of place on the bookcase. The Mass Combat and Dominion rules are worth the price of entry alone, and translate easily into d20 terms. Add to that the Monsters that didn’t merit entry into the d20 MM (Actaeon, Adaptor, Caecilia, Devilfish, Grab Grass, Melfera, Manscorpion, Mek, Metamorph, Mujina, Nekrozon, Plasm, Robber Fly, Rhagodessa, Sasquatch and Sporacle – I think, though I know some found their way into other Bestiaries) and the chance to retro-game old-style D&D it’s best and you’ve something for everyone.
Of all the rules systems I’ve played over the years, this is the one role-playing game I’d want to take with me to a desert island. Yes, it’s that good.
Best of all, it’s only a $5.95 download from RPG Now. So, what are you waiting for?