Having read the 'core' rulebooks for the game (the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual), I am completely at a loss to understand why this game was ever popular. The rules are complex and badly laid out, the books are extremely dense, and there's no real sense of organisation.
The Dungeon Master's Guide, in particular, was rather shocking. I have occasionally heard this hailed as a work of genius, and that may be so. But if so, it was one of those crazy geniuses that you know is brilliant, but can't follow at all. The book was a nightmare!
Having read this I can say confidently that, had I started with this edition, I would not now play these games. And, in fact, as nearly-heretical as it is, I have to say that the much-maligned second edition is actually the better game, if only because it is significantly more approachable.
As for the popularity of the game, I can only posit three explanations:
- Most people actually started playing under the earlier 'original' D&D or the various 'basic' D&D sets, which had much shorter and more compact rulesets. When they moved to first edition they didn't read most of the new rules, but just continued using the old rules with the new monsters, spells and classes.
- Most people actually started playing under the tutelage of existing players. As such, they never read the rules, but instead just went with the flow. This is basically the 'Monopoly' approach.
- There was a fairly small corps of DMs in those days who had read the rules, and who served as the 'rule masters' for their respective groups. Most people just played under the aegis of these people. (This is similar to, but not quite the same as, #2 - in #2 people would gradually pick up some form of the rules; #3 posits a small, closed circle of 'expert users'.)
Or maybe I'm just old, and jaded, and tired. But a year ago, when I started picking up the first edition rulebooks, I had a notion of running a few games under the system to see how it compares. Having now read through half the books, I'm disinclined so to do. Oh well.