Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set
Author: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Edited by Tom Moldvay
Page count: 64
Playtest Review by Joseph Walsh on 08/15/98. Genre tags: none
A review of the D&D Basic Set??
What the -- ?!?
Yeah, I know, it's been out of print for years. But I just found out it's a really cool game. Wait, let me back up and explain.
Way back in 82, my parents bought me the D&D Basic Set and the D&D Expert Set for my birthday. Yeah, that was when RPG's were almost cool -- heck, they even sold them at JC Penny stores! And it didn't end there. Why, back then you could go into just about any toy store and buy D&D books and figures. But I digress.
I got my very first RPG products as gifts from my parents in '82. Now, I was a die-hard gamer back then, but I was into video games, not RPG's. So, I ended up approaching D&D from the perspective of it being a non-computerized video game. Hey, I was young!
As a result of my not understanding what a role-playing game is, the first few months of gaming were pretty bad. I did some silly things. Things like, if your character dies, he'll pop up at the entrance to the dungeon -- after all, each character has three lives, just like in Pac-Man, right? Oh, and of course the point of being DM is so you can compete against the players. I mean, who ever heard of a game with no human opponent? Yeah, I know, the rules say the point is to have fun, but how can you have fun without competing? Besides, I'm supposed to run all the monsters, so what can I do but try my best to kill all the player characters?
Fortunately, my players stuck with me through that period of ignorance (after all, they didn't know what RPG's were any more than I did), and eventually we grew out of it. But by then, we'd moved on to AD&D 1st Edition, Traveller, and a host of other games.
Now, many many years later, I've since gotten rid of most of my original games collection. I have an extensive collection of original Traveller stuff, and a fairly complete collection of Champions 4th Edition stuff, but not much more. Everything else that I owned before 1992 is gone.
So, my wife and I are at the GenCon auction store this year, and I see the D&D Basic Set -- complete with box, dice, module B2: "The Keep on the Borderlands," "Official RPGA Membership Application," and "Gateway to Adventure," the 1981 TSR Hobbies, Inc. catalog, all for a measly $10. I figure, what the heck? Might be kind of funny to read the rules, and see how screwed up they were. I mean, they had to be screwed up to get me started out on the RPG path in such a wrong-headed way! (The more astute readers will see the fabulous course of Humble Pie I was unwittingly cooking up for myself.)
So I bought D&D. My wife, noting that she'd never played D&D in any incarnation, suggested we get a few of the modules that were going for fairly cheap prices. So we picked up some more of the B series modules and a pack of character record sheets at Crazy Igor's display on the exhibit hall floor.
A while later, we headed back to our hotel room to take a break from the action. As we sat there sipping Cokes that cost way less than the $1.50 per 12 ounces being charged at the Midwest Express Center, my eyes chanced across the bag holding the D&D stuff. I pulled the Basic Set out, popped it open, and started glancing through the rulebook.
A few minutes later, I had been reacqainted with the idea of simple character generation. Roll 3D6 six times, pick a class, buy a little equipment, roll hit points, pick an alignment, slap on a name and you're done. So I asked my wife if she'd like to play D&D for a little bit, since our next game wasn't for three hours or so. She said, "Sure."
So I handed her a character sheet and led her through the process of chargen, which proved to take less than 10 minutes. Then I grabbed a piece of hotel stationery, hand-drew a square grid by using a light touch with the pen, then drew the outline of a small keep using a heavier touch.
Within fifteen minutes of starting, we were ready to play.
I'll spare you a blow-by-blow of the game. Suffice it to say, we spent about 45 minutes playing the game (not counting chargen), and had a great deal of fun. My wife's character, a male fighter, bashed a few skeletons to bits, locked a pack of kobolds in a room, killed one orc, made friends with another, then defeated the two chaotic human acolytes who had turned the abandoned keep into a place of evil. The fighter returned to town a triumphant hero -- with his orc-friend in tow, setting up some seeds for next adventure.
After the mini-session was over, I had to admit it was a blast. It wasn't heavy on plot by any means, but we had a good time. So when we went back to the convention hall, I picked up the Expert Set and a few of the X-series modules. But I was still thinking that D&D was a pretty poor game, and it was just our experience as role-players that was making it fun.
It wasn't until we got home from the convention that I started actually reading the D&D Basic Set's rules book. That's when I found out that it's actually a really cool game. Okay, sure, you have the whole classes and levels thing, plus the alignments wierdness. But, heck, the former might actually be a good thing (see below), and the latter is something that can safely be ignored by experienced role-players.
So what's so great about D&D? Well, for starters, you can get set for a game of it really quickly. Most of the games we play require about an hour for character generation. Which is fine, and helps you to make a complex, realistic character. But what if you just want to play? Why go through all that trouble for a quick game? Wouldn't it be nice if all games provided at least an option for quick, random chargen?
That's where the classes and levels thing comes in. Although I've been a fan of skill-based games since my first crack at Traveller back in '83, the nice thing about classes and levels is that you don't have to worry about making a whole lot of decisions during chargen. You just pick a class, and the rest is filled in for you. Pick a thief, and you know what abilities you'll have. Pick a cleric, and you'll have a given set of abilities. And so on for the other classes.
But D&D's good qualities don't stop there. It's not just a beer 'n' pretzels game. The rules are actually pretty impressive. Granted, there's nothing mentioned about wilderness adventures in the whole book (you have to get the Expert Set for that), but actually that's a nice feature. Why? Because D&D is a really great product for beginners.
But wait, didn't I say at the beginning that D&D had failed to teach us about RPG's?
Yes, and I was completely and utterly wrong. For all these years, I had assumed that it was the product that had failed to teach me role-playing when it was my own failure to understand what it was saying that did me in. The Basic Set actually provides good (albeit basic) guidelines for role-playing. It also emphasizes that the DM is there to make sure everyone has fun first and foremost, and generally tries to get across the idea that the game isn't about hack-and-slash alone. In fact, on p. 51, it says, "A scenario will help keep the dungeon from becoming a boring repetition of 'open the door, kill the monster, take the treasure.'" Elsewhere, the rules imply that only 1/3 of rooms should have monsters, 1/6 should have a trap, 1/2 should be empty, and 1/6 shoyuld have something special -- like an eerie moaning sound, illusory stairs, and so on. They really do make it fairly clear that D&D isn't just about hack-n-slash. And, of course, they expand on the other aspects of! role-playing in the other rulebooks in the line.
The most important factors making Basic D&D a good game for beginners, though, are: 1) the simplicity of it -- even someone with a fairly short attention span can understand the rules to D&D, and 2) the guide-rail rules it provides. The latter is actually the most important aspect. D&D doesn't say, "Hey, go for it! Do anything you want! The DM will figure out how to handle it." No; it tells you exactly what you can and cannot do in the commonly encountered situations.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from p. B25 of the Basic Rules book:
"RETREAT: Any movement backwards at more than 1/2 the normal movement rate is a retreat. If a creature tries to retreat, the opponent may add +2 to all 'to hit' rolls, and the defender is not allowed to make a return attack. In addition to the bonus on 'to hit' rolls, the attacks are further adjusted by using the defender's Armor Class /without a shield/. (Any attacks from behind are adjusted in the same manner.)" [Emphasis theirs.]
That first line is what strikes me the most about the passage. Instead of giving a set of general rules, such as how fast one can move backward and some sort of die roll modifier for attacks from the rear of a character, the game gives a specific rule, specifying the limit of backward motion prior to invoking the Retreat rule, the effects of invoking the Retreat rule, and so on. The book has many rules that were written in the same spirit. And that spirit is the same one used in writing the rules for games like Monopoly.
Why is that good? It's good because it helps people who are new to our hobby and who have no experienced people available to teach them. Granted, not every 13-year-old is going to read the D&D Basic Set and grasp the concept of role-playing. It didn't work that way for me, after all. But, I'd wager that more non-RPG'ers would get a good idea of what role-playing is after reading the D&D Basic Rules than they would reading the typical 300-page rulebooks put out today.
Moreover, more of them would enjoy the experience of playing Basic D&D than would enjoy playing most other RPG's currently on the market. I just can't imagine setting any of my co-workers down and asking them to read a 300 page book in order to play a game, nor even asking them to spend an hour on creating a character. Most people I know wouldn't even bother to /try/ playing a game that had a 300+ page basic rule book and a dozen-odd 100+ page supplements. But if there's no alternative, then those folks will never get into the hobby at all. And that's our loss.
The hobby needs games like the D&D Basic Set. If we want to grow the hobby, we've got to have some games targeted to newcomers: games that are simple, that have basic rules which can be read and understood by the average adult in an evening of reading, and that provide 'guide rail rules' akin to those in the D&D Basic Set. After they've played such games for a while, newcomers will be more willing to read 300 pages of rules, spend an hour on chargen, and all the rest. Then we'll all have more people to game with, the game shops will be doing great business and will be willing to risk some money on stocking an untried game (as will the distributors), the manufacturers will be able to put out more products, and we'll stop losing major manufacturers to bankruptcy and idiotic, non-synergistic buyouts.
Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now, and simply say that if you're looking for a quick and fun game, or if you would like to relive some fond memories, pick up a copy of the D&D Basic Set . . . and maybe pick up a second copy to lend to your non-gamer friends. Who knows? Maybe role-playing will be almost cool again someday.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)