Thursday, August 21, 2014

The D&D Basic Set - Epitome of Table Top Role Playing

In January of 1981, TSR released one of the best role playing products ever published, a concise new Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set.  This Set came in a cardboard box with two booklets, the Basic Rules and Adventure Module B2 : The Keep on the Borderlands.  It also came with a set of polyhedral dice, a crayon to color in the numbers and usually a catalog.  D&D and AD&D were extremely popular at the time, and hundreds of thousands of new players bought this Basic Set and learned how to play a role playing game using it Basic Rules and module.  In this blog post, I would like to discuss the extraordinary rule book that came in that set (and sold separately), the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Rules.

From Holmes to Moldvay

This was not the first time TSR had released a Basic Set.  In 1977, the first edition of the Basic Set was edited from the original Dungeons and Dragons rules by Dr. J. Eric Holmes.  However, this 48-page rulebook was only intended as a stepping stone to AD&D.  The First Revision Basic Rules were fairly rudimentary, taken from the more intelligible portions of the original D&D and its supplements.  It was intended for players, once they mastered the basic game, to advance to the much more detailed but mostly incompatible ruleset of AD&D.  There were no provisions for taking characters beyond level 3, and although OD&D rules could serve for the higher levels, there were no instances in the text referring the player to OD&D, even though OD&D was still being sold.  It included some weirder rule variants such as dexterity to determine initiative and five alignments (Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Neutral, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil) that would not be seen in later revisions of the Basic Rules.

However, by 1981, these OD&D derived rules really were too simplistic for the more sophisticated role-playing popularized by AD&D.  They were not working as well as an introduction to the advanced game, and players who wanted to play past the introductory levels and did not want to start a new campaign were also left in the lurch.  The powers-that-be at TSR made a decision to revise the Basic Set with more rigorous, but still simple, rules and allow it to be expanded with an Expert Set to levels 4-14 and eventually a Companion Set with rules for higher levels.  The task for the all-important revisions to the Basic Set was assigned to Tom Moldvay, hence this set is usually referred to as Moldvay Basic.

Moldvay Basic has been praised for its straightforward organization.  Using the Table of Contents and the Index (both printed on the inside of the cover), you can navigate to the Introduction, Creating Player Characters, Spells, Beginning Adventures, Combat, Monsters, Treasure and Magic Items, and How to Dungeon Master and a Sample Dungeon.  Finally, there is a list of books containing source material and a glossary.  In this it owes a substantial debt to Holmes Basic, which used mostly the same organization.  All this was contained within exactly 64 pages.

TSR let no space go to waste, the Table of Contents was printed on the inside of the front cover and the Index was printed on the inside of the back cover.  The organization of the Basic Rules was almost completely mirrored in the Expert Rules (also 64 pages), so you would for example find the sections on Monsters in the same place in each book.  Both books were 3-holed punch to fit inside a binder.  As there was no Dungeon Master Screen available, this was very useful when the DM needed to reference the rules.  Just the simple ability to find something quickly was well-appreciated, especially compared to AD&D with its rules spread out over three hardcover rulebooks or OD&D with its three little brown books and four supplements.

While Holmes's Basic, still remained the underlying material for the Moldvay Rules, several changes brought it into line with AD&D and similar systems of the time.  The two most obvious changes were that each ability score had its own set of modifiers and they on a uniform scale of -3 to +3 or -2 to +2.  This would become influential in the Third Edition of D&D in 2000.  The second change was the (optional) variable weapons damage rule.  More monsters suitable for low level parties to fight were included.  More text was used to give clearer explanations in Moldvay's Basic.

Observations on the Basic Rules

In virtually all versions of D&D prior to 3rd Edition, Magic-Users are exceptionally weak, almost useless, in the early levels.  They especially get the shaft in Moldvay Basic.  Not only do they only use a d4 for hit die, they can wear no armor, carry no shield and can only use daggers for a weapon.  At level one they can only cast one spell before resting, and by level three they can only cast three.  At the low levels, an elf is a much, much more defensible choice.

Clerics do not get spells until level 2, so their use as healers will be non-existent at first and very limited throughout the Basic Rules because they can cast a maximum of two spells per day.

Monsters are comparatively lethal in Moldvay D&D.  They use a d8 for hit die, just as Fighters do.  Clerics use a d6.  Clerics also get poorly served because they do not get spells, including the crucial cure light wounds spell, until level 2.  However, in AD&D, while monsters use a d8 for hit die, Fighters use a d10 for hit die, and Clerics use a d8.  AD&D clerics get access to spells immediately.  Many animal monsters have three attacks per round such as 2 claws/1 bite.  All PCs in the Basic game attack once per round.  However, they all share the same attack to-hit rolls for the first 3 levels.  In AD&D, Fighters will enjoy improved attack rolls by level 3.

The four basic character classes are present, the Cleric, the Fighter, the Magic-User and the Thief.  They are the basic types of characters for just about any Medieval RPG.  Thieves have a slight benefit because they can use any weapon over Thieves/Rogues in other systems.  Races and classes are combined in D&D.  A dwarf and a halfling are variants of fighters.  An elf is a Fighter/Magic-User, with exceptionally high experience required to advance to the next level.  Unlike the regular four character classes, they cannot be selected unless certain (modest) ability requirements are met.  Also, unlike the regular character classes, which may advance to any level, these classes are limited to the 12th, 10th and 8th level, respectively, for dwarves, elves and halflings.  While this allows dwarves and elves to advance comfortably alongside their human counterparts in the Expert Rules, halflings will be left behind.  By the Companion Rules, covering levels 15-25, they will not be able to keep pace, although "attack ranks" were included to lessen the gap.

Speaking of the Expert Rules, it is explicit that a crossbow takes one round to reload, so it can only be fired every other round.  (The Basic Rules did not mark bows as a two-handed weapon with the rest of the two-handed weapons, but if common sense does not convince everybody that it should be, in the Example of Combat it is explicitly stated.)  The Expert Rules, released simultaneously with the Basic Rules, also have better saving throws for Dwarves and Halflings, so they may be used in preference to the Basic Rules.

Combat was designed to be very streamlined.  It boiled down to initiative, morale, movement, missiles, magic and melee.  A round is ten seconds, and a character can move 10-40 feet, depending on encumbrance.  Everyone attacks once per round in the Basic and Expert Rules.  Except for spells, a combatant can move up to his round limit and attack.  Once in combat, he can only move with a fighting withdrawal or retreat.  Within 5' of an attacker, the attacker can only melee.  It is implied that things like changing weapons or quaffing a potion can take the place of movement.

Character Creation

In character creation, the most important random part of the process is to roll ability scores.  Officially this is done by rolling 3d6 for each attribute in the following order, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma.  The first four are a prime requisite for the basic classes, Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief.  Then classes are selected and adjustments are made.  For a party of six adventurers, which is a good number, here are a sample of dice rolls for Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha.

Player 1 - 8 ; 8 ; 11 ; 12 ; 11 ; 15
Player 2 - 13 ; 6 ; 10 ; 13 ; 12 ; 13
Player 3 - 10 ; 11 ; 7 ; 8 ; 12 ; 7
Player 4 - 7 ; 12 ; 8 ; 12 ; 14 ; 17
Player 5 - 9 ; 12 ; 12 ; 8 ; 8 ; 15
Player 6 - 4 ; 10 ; 15 ; 11 ; 13 ; 10

Note that while none of the human classes have ability score requirements, a Dwarf must have a Con of 9, an Elf an Int of 9 and a Halfling both a Con and Dex of 9.

Now when it comes to adjustments, you can reduce Strength, Wisdom and Intelligence by 2 to raise your Prime Requisite Score by 1, you can only raise Dexterity if it is a Prime Requisite and cannot lower it.  Additionally, you cannot raise or lower the two attributes that are not a Prime Requisite for any class, Constitution and Charisma.

For Player 1, his best PR score is a 12 in Dex, so that would tend to make him a Thief.  He could subtract 2 from Wis to bring his Dex score to 13, earning him a +1 bonus to his missile fire attack rolls and initiative adjustment and a -1 to his AC.  As his Str score is low, he would probably function best as an archer.  He is fairly dumb.  If he makes the adjustment, he will get a +5% bonus to Experience if he chooses the Thief class.  He can be a Dwarf or a Halfling, but not an Elf.

For Player 2, his Str score of 13 would suit him to be a Fighter, but his Dex score would equally suit him to be a Thief.  Unfortunately he cannot make any adjustments because his Int and Wis are too low.  He will enjoy a +1 on bonus to melee hit and damage and opening doors rolls and the same bonus from Dex as Player 1.  Even if he slashes his Str score down to 9, he will still enjoy the same bonus at Dex 15 as Dex 13.  He is dumberer, but gets the +5% XP bonus if he chooses the Fighter or Thief class.  He can be a Dwarf or a Halfling, but not an Elf.

For Player 3, he has no particular standout score and can make no adjustments.  He can be a Fighter or a Magic-User, but suffers from a Dex penalty of -1 and a Wis penalty of -1 to magic-based saving throws.  He can be an Elf or a Dwarf, but not a Halfling.

For Player 4, he has a great score for Charisma, the most useless stat in this game by far.  He gets a +1 HP for hit points every time he rolls for hit points, but Constitution is not otherwise useful.  Since he has equal scores in Int and Dex, he can choose to be a Magic-User or Thief.  However, because Int can be lowered while Dex cannot, the Thief class would be optimal for him.  He can improve his Dex to 13, earning him the bonuses described above.  His -1 penalty to melee attack rolls, damage and opening doors and -1 to magic based saving throws would keep him off the front lines.  He can be a Dwarf, an Elf or a Halfling.

For Player 5, his Int and Wis scores are identical, so he could choose to be a Magic-User or Cleric.  However, his Con score gives him a -1 to HP, which weighs against his being a Cleric because Clerics are expected to take a place on the front lines.  If he does decide to be a Cleric, then he can reduce his Int and raise his Wisdom to earn a +1 to save on magic-based saving throws and a +5% bonus to earned XP.  He can be an Elf, but not a Dwarf or Halfling.

For Player 6, his high Wis score would suggest that he should choose the Cleric class.  However, his pitiful Str score gives him a -2 on his attack and damage and opening door rolls, making that class choice quite possibly a lethal choice even with a Con bonus.  If he lowers his Wis score to 9, he has 3 points to distribute to either Int or Dex, making a better choice for a Magic-User or Thief.  He can be either a Dwarf, Elf or Halfling.

The probability curve for rolling 3d6 gives a bell curve with most scores being rolled in the 8-13 range.  The results obtained should be representative of what real people would actually roll their characters.  With the human character classes alone, these ability score rules can seem a bit too grim.  None of these characters are superheroes by any standard.  The demihuman classes make things a bit more interesting.  While they get underpowered by the higher levels of the Expert Rules, their better skills make them more likely to survive the early levels.

Conventional wisdom would require that a party have at least two front line Fighters, at least one Cleric.  Thieves are useful for cautious parties, and Magic-Users need to start somewhere.  Magic-Users do have several good first and second level spells.  Since the Players have to form an effective party to survive, they cannot all be Thieves and Magic-Users.

Player 1 will be a Thief.  Player 2 will be a Dwarf.  Player 3's scores are pretty pathetic, but he will be an Elf.  Player 4 will be a Magic-User.  Player 5 will also be an Elf.  Player 6 will be a sling-wielding Cleric.

Despite being a prime requisite for Magic-Users, Intelligence is not a particularly useful stat according to the Basic Rules.  Strictly interpreted, the only difference between a Magic-User with an Int of 18 and an Int of 3 is the bonus/penalty to XP and the number of languages spoken.  Languages spoken generally only affect Charm Person spells, since the caster must be able to speak the language of the charmed creature to issue it commands.  A bonus/penalty to Wisdom, by contrast, will have a far more practical effect for any character.

There are only two more dice rolls for character creation, money (3d6x10 gp) and hit points.  Each class gets to roll their own hit die for hit points, whether a d4 (Thieves and Magic-Users), a d6 (Clerics, Elves and Halflings) or a d8 (Dwarves and Fighters).  As an option, the Rules allow a DM to allow anyone who rolled a 1 or 2 for hit points at the first level only to roll again.   I would suggest this rule to be a necessity, because the 1HP character will die very quickly.

Player 1 rolled a 1 on a d4, so she can roll again.  She again rolls a 1, so according to the optional rule, she must roll until she achieves a 3 or a 4.  On her third roll, she rolls a 3, thus her Thief has 3 HP.  Player 2 gets lucky and rolls an 8 on a d8, giving his Dwarf 8HP.  Player 3 is also lucky and rolls a 6 on a d6, giving him 6HP.  Player 4 gets a 1 on her first roll, but a 4 on her second roll.  As she has a Con bonus of +1, her Magic User has 5HP.  Player 5 rolls 2s on a d6 on her first three rolls, but on her fourth attempt she gets a 5, but due to a -1 Con penalty, she only has 4HP.  Player 6 rolls a 2 then a 3, so with her Con +1 bonus, she has 4HP.  Thanks to the optional rule, each character has far better odds of survival than a strict rule requiring the acceptance of any result.  Player 5 could conceivably have ended up with 2HP even with the optional rule due to her.

Even with these relatively decent overall HP scores, characters can die with one good hit from a monster. Monsters will have similar HP and their attacks will do similar damage as the PC's attacks in the first levels.

Creating a character can be done in ten minutes or less, assuming the DM has reasonable familiarity with the process.  In fact, assuming each player has to create one character and has three six-sided die, they can be ready to go in an amount of time shorter than it would take to read this section of this blog entry.  Games can therefore start quickly.

The Keep on the Borderlands

The second module of the Basic Series, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, was included in the last printings of the Holmes Basic Set and all printings of the Moldvay Basic Set.  The module was originally designed by one of the fathers of D&D himself, Gary Gygax.  This module was one of the few direct contributions he made to classic D&D.

Like Gygax's only other introductory module, the AD&D module T1: The Village of Hommlet, the module details a "friendly" area and "monster" areas.  In T1, the friendly area is the Village of Hommlet; in B2 it is the Keep.  Gygax gave a lot more detail to Hommlet than the Keep, primarily because Hommlet was intended as the base for a series of modules, whereas the Keep was only intended for a one-off adventure.  The player is invited to create some Keep NPCs and floor plans for the Keep's minor structures.  B2 has a larger page count than T1, and it is not just because there is a fair amount of redundant information from the Basic Rules in B2.  The dungeon in B2 is larger at 64 rooms than T1 at 35 rooms.

Gygax put a lot of effort into describing the "friendly", base areas in his modules.  People are given sufficient stats and equipment to allow them to fight, if necessary.  Since the human characters at the base are generally more powerful than the monster characters in the dungeons, it would be quite the challenge for an evil beginning party to try to use the friendly areas as their dungeons.  However, this is only out of bounds if the DM says so.  In B2 you could conceivably unite the monsters in an alliance and try to storm the Keep.

Its precessor, B1: In Search of the Unknown, did not have predefined encounters or treasure, but allowed the dungeon master the freedom to place monsters and treasures in rooms and provided him lists to choose from.  However, a DM could stock too many or few rooms with monsters or treasure, thereby making the module too difficult or too much monty-haul.  B2's set encounters should give a model of balance for a beginning game.  Additionally, the use of monster lairs (kobolds, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears and gnolls) demonstrates that there was some thought given to monster ecology in writing this module.  Even though just about every low-level semi-human monster shows up here, there are still skeletons and zombies for a Cleric to turn undead later in the module.

Influence of the Set

The most important function of a beginner's game is to draw the new player in, keep him interested in the game and want play more of it.  That way the company can get him to want to buy more of its RPG products.  A beginner's game must strike the balance between being sufficiently interesting to keep the new player's interest without overwhelming him with options and rules and complicated procedures.  When there was no separate D&D for beginners in the 21st Century, this is something D&D struggled with.  Holmes was too Basic, Moldvay's gave a better representation of what a more rigorous system could accomplish.

With Moldvay's Basic Rules and the accompanying Expert Rules by David Cook with Steve Marsh, the Classic D&D edition of rules had pretty much been established.  From 1983-1985, Frank Metzner authored new five rulebook sets, and in addition to new books for the Basic and Expert Rules, he covered levels 15-25 in the Companion Set, 26-36 in the Master Set and even advanced the game to immortality in the Immortals Set.  However, outside a few minor tweaks, the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh rules had been adopted wholesale without changes.  With the exception of the Expert Set, Metzner required two rulebooks and substantially more pages to cover the same material.  His Basic Set focused more on teaching the game through lengthy individual role-playing scenarios, introducing concepts as they progressed.  His Basic Rules (in two volumes) are not nearly as easy to reference as Moldvay Basic.

The character record sheets for these editions of D&D, (available separately), are a model of simplicity.  Everything you need to know about your character can be contained on one page.  New sheets may need to be used as your characters progress in levels.

The next, final major issuance of the Classic D&D rules came with the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, edited by Aaron Allston.  For the first time, the rules for all mortal levels, 1-36, were included in one hardcover, bound book.  The rules were tweaked some more, and more information from the various world supplements and a few AD&D 2nd Edition-inspired additions like skills.  A few sections from Metzner's rules like Artifacts and Jousting were not included.  A companion boxed set by Allston, called Wrath of the Immortals, replaced Metzner's Immortals Rules.  There was a further compilation of the Basic Rules, styled the New, Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game and later, the Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game covering levels 1-5, to accompany the Rules Cyclopedia.

Classic D&D was the longest lasting complete edition of D&D that TSR ever published.  If you consider that the system was essentially laid down with Moldvay's Basic Rules, this edition was continually in print and remained relatively unchanged for at least fifteen years (1981-1996).  Further, with the Expert Rules of Cook & Marsh, the D&D game was essentially complete for most players.  From my experience, relatively few people continued campaigns until their characters reached the highest levels, whether they were D&D or AD&D.  At very high levels, (above 14), the game is much less challenging than at lower levels.  If the campaign started characters at the first level, by the time the characters were around the 14th level many players would prefer to go onto new campaigns.  D&D characters achieve a rough level of power equivalent to their AD&D counterparts just a few levels above 14, so much of the potential of the Companion and later Rules went unused.

One thing I definitely want to mention about Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert is the truly striking cover design to the these Sets by Erol Otus.  My favorite TSR artwork was before the company hired professional, oil-on-canvas artists like Larry Elmore and Clyde Caldwell (although I do appreciate their artwork when it comes to the fairer sex).  Among the period prior 1983, Otus's work was undoubtedly the weirdest of the bunch, especially his color work.  Other great Otus' color illustrations around this time can be seen for the covers of Deities and Demigods, I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, A2: Secret of the Slaver's Stockade (rear only), A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords (rear only), A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan (monochrome and color versions both), D3: Vault of the Drow (later printing), L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (rear only), S1: Tomb of Horrors (rear only, later printings), S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (including illustrations booklet), S4 : The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, X2: Castle Amber, the AD&D Monster Cards, AD&D Dungeon Master's Screen (after first printing), Vampire : Game for the Hunt for Dracula, Alma Mater, Gamma World Referee's Screen and Mini-Module, the High School Role-Playing Game,  and Dragon Magazine, including his only cover, issue #55.  His illustrations had an organic, even "slimy" feel not seen in other artist's D&D artwork.  His illustrations often seemed like something out a nightmare, specifically of the H.P. Lovecraft variety.  His style would fall out of favor and his work would not be seen again on a TSR or WotC product again after 1982.

There is a lot going on in the illustration for Moldvay's Basic Set.  You have a female magic-user and a male fighter fighting some kind of dragon which rose up from an underground lake.  The magic-user has a type of torch in one hand and a green ball of magic spell in the other, while the fighter is armed with a wooden sheild and a gold-tipped spear.  There is an open treasure chest between the human characters.  The characters are clearly in a cave-like dungeon with carved steps leading up to a constructed door flanked by columns.  That cover was parodied more than once, including by Otus himself.  It presents a more dynamic image than on the Holmes Box Set, and there is more going on than in later cover illustrations of later Basic Sets.

1 comment:

  1. wow and i thought i was the only person in the world with 1- tandy 1000sx from radio shack with cm-11 and sierra homeword processor and sierra games like thexder and black couldron all bought from radio shack and 2- d&d

    my experience though as a kid with d&d is that i bought the paper back b/c it had dice in, but what the other kids were actually playing were AD&D we did now know there were different and a lot of incompatibilities.

    there were a lot of things i didnt care for ad&D one of which was unlimited levels. you could go to level 10, 0000.

    i found the rules still to be a bit confusing for magic users. i understood they could cast 1 spell from a spell book, but can it be any spell from the list? ditto cleric.

    today with video games i think d&d is just a memory.

    personally i thought of ways to make it "better". i.e instead of hit points going up every level, which made no sense, i would have armor add to hit points. i.e buying chain mail or plate mail adds hit points. limit levels to around 10.

    i don't know if it makes sense for a cleric to have amor and mace like weapons.

    IMO one of the more straightforward rules was star frontiers. but with like 80 hit points and guns only doing d10 damage it took a lot to kill someone.

    the funniest game for me and my friends was marvel super heros even in the early 80s wolverine was hugely popular.