Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set
Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set Capsule Review by Sergio Mascarenhas on 16/02/03
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
FANTASY SERIES #3: This is a game. G-a-m-e. A fantasy role-playing GAME. If you're in search of getting a life… look elsewhere.
Product: Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set
Author: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
Company/Publisher: Soctip SA and TSR
Page count: 64 52
Year published: 1989
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Sergio Mascarenhas on 16/02/03
Genre tags: Fantasy
The present review is part of a series of reviews of fantasy games. By fantasy I mean pre-modern fantasy involving low levels of technology (up to the equivalent of 15th century Europe without gunpowder guns), magic and fantastic creatures. After the review you can find links to the games that were covered before.
BEFORE WE START
I decided to buy my first RPG (RuneQuest) based on comparative reviews published by two French magazines, Casus Belli and Jeux & Stratégie. Among the alternatives was D&D and AD&D. The info I collected in several numbers of these magazines directed me to RuneQuest as the best alternative at the time (this was 1983). I was lucky to find a playing group and even luckier because that group played RuneQuest. My first contact with D&D – actually AD&D – only took place some years latter and was brief and superficial. I had no drive to buy products from TSR. After all, I had a superior product, didn't I?
Somewhere down the line someone decided to publish in Portugal the translation to European Portuguese of a boxed set called Basic D&D – red box and covers. Since there were (and aren't) rpgs published in my country, I decided to buy it: One must support the hobby. Now here I am, reviewing it.
The box contained two books, dice and maybe other things I no longer remember. Since the meat were the books, I'll only focus on these. One is called Players Guidebook (PG – 65 pages including one inner cover, the back cover and less a page of publicity) and the other Game Masters Guidebook (GMG – 55 pages including inner and back covers). (Yes, "Game" Masters Book. You must remember that I'm reviewing the Portuguese edition and the translation to my language turned "Dungeon" – a word that has no direct translation to Portuguese – into "Game".) I don't know exactly to which edition of Basic D&D does it correspond. Each book has a one-page table of contents. The PG has a one-page glossary. The text is in try columns in a small print. Colour is only present in the cover. I like the art. The writing style is nice, unpretentious and clear. The translation is good, even if I may have doubts about the transition into Portuguese of the names for some creatures and spells.
If you read my column (The Travels of Mendes Pinto) you know by now that I favour an organization of game materials that separates generic data from Game Master specific data. You further know that I like to have a solid introduction to the game that puts the players in their pants as soon as possible, even allowing for a playing experience where the basics of the game are presented before going into the details of the system and setting. Well, this is exactly how Basic D&D is organized.
The main problem is that some basic rules – I'm thinking in terms of action resolution here – end spread through the book since they are advanced as they occur in the examples of play. The intention to be pedagogical went too far in this case.
All in all, it deserves a 4 for form.
The first section of the PG (according with the books, this should be read first so I start with it) has seven pages dedicated to a presentation of roleplaying with D&D done "in-player" and "in-character". This section is followed by 5 pages where there is a more in-depth explanation of the different descriptors of characters and a solo adventure. I liked these three sections a lot. They have a good narrative style that explains by example the what and the how of roleplay, introducing the "role", the "play" and the "game" aspects to a complete initiate.
The main section of the PG is dedicated to character creation. It describes the seven character classes (cleric, fighter, magician, thief – all human classes –, dwarf, elf and halfling). What is characteristic of this system is that each class presents several advantages and disadvantages in such a way that they are more or less complementary to the extent that a players' group should include characters from different classes. This is often criticised since it is perceived as limiting and stereotyping roleplay. And is defended as providing strong models for character development and player interaction.I personally think that both sides are right. It depends on the style of play whether the class system is an advantage or a disadvantage. I like this in its proper perspective. More on this latter.
Character classes are related to the attributes of the character. These are characteristics (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma) – rolled on 3d6 –, hit points (rolled, vary with class and increase with level), saving throws that protect the character against several dangers (that vary with class), Armour Class that represents the ability to avoid suffering damage (depends on armour and dexterity), To Hit Armour Class that crosses the ability to hit of the character with the Armour Class of the adversary, Alignment (Lawful – Neutral – Chaotic) and class-specific capabilities.
All in all character creation is fast and simple. The PG complements character creation with several pages of useful playing directions, especially from the point of view of the novice roleplayer. It laso provides several pages with tables of useful data.
The characters evolve by class levels. The Basic box provides the first 3 of these in the GMG. I don't know about what's in the companion Expert box (often mentioned in the Basic books), but I consider that what's there in these two red-covered books more than enough to roleplay. I'll explain why latter in the review.
The GMG complements the PG with information specifically directed at the GM. This includes useful directives on how to game mastering (part of it organized in terms of a step-by-step scenario), description of monsters and treasure. Most of it is useful stuff directed at the beginning GM.
So far I didn't speak about the action resolution system. This is the worst part of Basic D&D. The first problem is that, in the intention to be didactical, the book ends by spreading the action resolution rules by several places. This makes it hard to get a clear picture of the whole. This is a minor problem, though. The critical issue is that this game has not one but several ways to handle action: There is d20 of the attacker vs. THAC of the defender for combat (itself a needlessly complicated rule); d20 vs. saving throw rank for Saving Throws; the Priest's special ability rolls on 2d6; the Thief's special ability rolls on 1d100 (except for one ability that is rolled on 1d6). This is illogical and confusing.
The Basic D&D books have a well defined and clear concept of a roleplaying fantasy game. They stick to it and deliver it, no more, no less. If it wasn't for the illogical multiplication of resolution systems I would give it a 5 for substance. Being the things the way they are, I give it a 4.
THE FUN FACTOR
I know the many criticisms that have been and are advanced about this game. I think they are not reasonable. Basic D&D is a good roleplaying game. As I said before, it does what it is done to do. And this is to allow a group of people to spend some hours having fun in the pants of some clearly defined characters. The key word is "game". BD&D is, above all, a game. When I see discussions about roleplaying I often see people forgetting that our hobby is called roleplaying games, not simply roleplaying. BD&D does not forget about this.
This means that BD&D is targeted at people that want to amuse themselves in turn of a table. It is the Monopoly of roleplaying, not the chess; the WizWar, not the Diplomacy; the Risk, not the Advanced Squad Leader; the Magic: the Gathering, not the Bridge.
BD&D is there for the fun factor. That it delivers. In my opinion that is enough to give it high marks. Of course, one should not have more expectations than what it sets out to deliver.
My impulse to buy the BD&D box was closer to charity than to a true desire to play it. After reading the books my intentions changed. This is a game I would willingly play. That's the greatest compliment I could make it.
I want to…
* Re-read the books: Yes, yes, they make for a good read that makes one wish to play it. 5.
* Be an occasional player: Certainly, it may be fun. 5.
* Play in a campaign: It can be done. I'm sure I can use just the Basic Set to play a character in a campaign. But there are better options. 3.
* Be an occasional game master: Why not? After all, it's just for the fun. 5.
* Game master a campaign: No. Definitely no. I can get even simpler systems that work better for ongoing play. 1.
PREVIOUS REVIEWS IN THE SERIES
Hero Wars: http://www.rpg.net/news reviews/reviews/rev_3385.html (technically not part of the series, I've included it because the game falls into the scope of games I'm reviewing)
RuneQuest 2: http://www.rpg.net/news reviews/reviews/rev_7969.html
RuneQuest 3: http://www.rpg.net/news reviews/reviews/rev_8012.html