Classic RPG Review #14: Dungeons & Dragons Basic

basic rules
by Tom Moldvay (ed.), Eric J. Holmes (ed.)
1981 TSR

Reviewing Dungeons & Dragons more than once may seem a bit superfluous. But there really is a difference between editions. No, really. Gary Gygax his name as a developer is not mentioned in these rules, and neither is the name of Dave Arneson, his co-inventor. That's one difference for example. Why their names are not mentioned, I can only guess. Maybe Arneson was just angry that he wasn't credited enough for his part in the discovery of fantasy role playing. Missed chance, I'd say. And maybe Gygax didn't feel another set of rules was needed – as he had just written the Advanced D&D books.

Gary must have been cross. Eric Holmes even apologized for writing the first basic set, but he felt that the original D&D rules were impossible to understand for normal people. So Gary wrote AD&D. But that still was nearly impossible to understand. So, I guess, that's why Moldvay did the second basic set. And they were right. Without the basic set I would have given up on D&D.

Like in all Dungeons & Dragons games the object is to search, destroy and loot. Mostly loot. And if you have a good time imagining you're a brainless warrior, a charming sorceress or a hairy halfling, so much the better. This is a simple game, but it is one of good old Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery without any real plot, that is.

But that doesn't matter, really. There's a charm to smashing the lairs of evil creatures and slaying them in between looting and counting the treasures. Dungeons & Dragons is good at this stuff. There are ample lists of monsters and treasures, even if it's only a 64 page booklet. And building your own Dungeons (these are the monster lairs you are supposed to loot) is easy. There still won't be much plot, but hey. You can just draw a map on grid paper and dice up the contents of each and every room. Your wrist may be tired of shaking dice afterward, but you'll have something to be proud of.

And making a hero isn't too hard either. The only qualm you might have is that you have to roll up your statistics. And if the dice aren't friendly, you have bad luck for the rest of the hero his life. It will be a short life most probably, but still. It's less fun to play a wizard with only average intelligence, no strength, zero charisma and just a single hit point. Fortunately most Game Masters will let you shake the dice ad nauseum until you are satisfied with the results, or until your wrists give up. Whatever comes first.

The rules are simple, clear, not always realistic and they go only up to level three. Level three is what your heroes will reach after a few games. And then you have to buy the next book, called the expert set. There you will find even more monsters, spells and magic items. And you will learn how to fill up monster lairs that are aboveground. Then your heroes can go looting in the wilderness, too.

Maybe all this looting business isn't all that special, but me and my players loved the game. Though we did start adding plot, and tried to make more of a story between lootings. For some time we even used the AD&D monsters and stuff in our basic D&D games. But then we converted to the Advanced game, because then you could play Paladins and multi-class heroes. That you couldn't do with these basic rules. But we also were sorry for stepping up for a long time. At least I was. The freshness of the earlier games was lost, and instead we gazed a lot at complex tables and flipped through heavy tomes of rules. Boy, did we think we were smart.

Maybe basic D&D isn't the best introduction to fantasy role playing, it still is one of the best introductions to dungeon bashing and looting. Mostly looting. It's fun.

(rules are clear, easy to play, fairly balanced, and not too realistic)
(the freshness of the game still is there, and there's an amazing amount of commercial material you can use to support this basic rule set)
(maybe simple looting wears too thin after a few games, but the rules are so open and accessible that almost anyone could master a game and make it exciting)
(fantasy, with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings, class based – this means you either are of a profession or a non-human race, combat with twentysided dice and separate damage rolls, hero progression based on slaying monsters and gathering treasure, magic accesible to some, with a limited number of one-shot spells that must be chosen before actual play)


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