Wednesday, 21 December 2011

1983 & Beyond: Defending Basic Dungeons & Dragons

This excellent article at Grognardia convinced me to finally get round to writing brief defence of, what to me is, the original Dungeons and Dragons.

The 1983 set's focus on self-teaching and simple language probably made sense from a marketing standpoint. Given how well the set supposedly sold, I can't really fault TSR for going in this direction. At the same time, though, there was clearly a shift happening, away from adults and teenagers as the target audience and away from initiation as the means of entering the hobby. Likewise, the adoption of a unified esthetic (all Elmore and Easley artwork) that, while attractive, seemed to narrow rather than broaden the scope of the game. In short, the 1983 Basic Set marked a definite change from what had gone before. (James Maliszewski)


I briefly discussed my initiation in D&D here. In short as a person in my very early teens I got the red box Basic Dungeons & Dragons after reading an advert at the back of Proteus magazine. Fighting Fantasy for me was my gateway drug to nerd heaven.


[caption id="attachment_544" align="aligncenter" width="439" caption="D&D Basic Set (Source The Acaeum"]D&D Basic Set (Source The Acaeum[/caption]

Before this I had only heard of Dungeons and Dragons via the film E.T, where I believe a game was being played.

Jame's main complaint seems to be that the new edition, a fairly significant revision of previous versions, dumbed down the game too much for kids and removed the need for a mentor to teach the next generation how to play.

Possibly in America it was easier for people to find a group to play with and to learn from. Growing up in mid eighties Fife - not so easy to find a group, I thought.

Being a child I thought the Basic set was excellent. After reading it once I didn't really understand, but I knew it was something wonderful.

I managed to teach myself to play and to run D&D. Not very well but somehow. The rules were nice and simple(ish) and most of the character types fell into classic fantasy archetypes. So much was missing (skills, feats, many powers) that you had to fill in the blanks with role playing and character, without even realising what you were doing.

The main problem with the Basic Set was that it was so ... well basic. It is probably telling that the first thing I did after getting the Basic Set was arrange a trip to Edinburgh (a major feat for me back then) to purchase the Expert Set. The blue Expert Set came with a wilderness adventure that served as a model of what an adventure should be, without just being a hole full of monsters and treasure.

The two books together, for me, serve as an exemplary example of RPG design. Being sufficient to give me the tools to create and run games and a barely sketched out unnamed world to run them in.

Why I Loved The Basic Set, Then The Expert

The cover artwork was stunning.

[caption id="attachment_937" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Basic D&D - Cover Detail"]Basic D&D - Cover Detail[/caption]

What is there not to love. It has it all:

  1. Dragon, tick!

  2. Mighty warrior, tick!

  3. Treasure, tick!

  4. Hints of dungeon, tick!

Covers it all really. Also in fantasy art terms what it is missing out is the classic chainmail bikini babe warrior. IIRC most of the interior art avoids this particular example of cultural sexism.

Once inside the players manual we start with a brief introduction  to what role playing is. Then straight into a solo choose your own adventure style of thing. Which coming from a Fighting Fantasy background was excellent.

Basic D&D at this stage may have been simplified and aimed at younger people but this was it's advantage. I was a young person with no experience of proper RPGs, it was just what was needed.

After this was a section on character creation. For years I thought race as character class made sense, well as much as anything in D&D land. There again I knew saving throws made no sense at all but we still had them.

Red Box D&D just covered the first three levels of any character class.  This kept the amount of information that needed to be absorbed by a complete newbie to a minimum. Back then people who were not complete newbies had Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to fall back on. I did have a look at a copy of AD&D round about this time and did not like the look of it at all.  The books were too big and frankly there were just too many tables. Demi-humans as a race and not a class, what madness was this?

Each class had a nice clear section explaining how it worked, what abilities it had a normally a few illustrations by Larry Elmore. Larry's work is fabulous, to see it is to love it. Also Snarfquest. Your first level Magic User only had one spell, woe betide the party that did not look after the Mage. The spell was almost always Magic Missile.

There were only three alignments, lawful to chaotic.

There was a nice section on how to play and RPG and some basic party tactics. Then the combat system which boiled down to if you can hit it you will hurt it. Combat was very abstract there was no real attempt at realism, that fashion came later. Combat was only really bothered about the blows that counted. The ones that could potentially do harm. It was up to the Dungeon Master to described all the near misses and armour denters.

Skills and feats, apart from the thiefly backstab, did nto really exist. Combat primarily consisted of hitting things with sharp bits of metal, magic, sharp magic metal or running away from the Rust Monster.

[caption id="attachment_947" align="aligncenter" width="223" caption="Rust Monster"]Rust Monster[/caption]

To this day the rust monster terrifies me.  Probably they're the reason I considered running a Dark Sun campaign many years later. Far less scary when metal was in such short supply.

The Dungeons Master's Guide for the Basic Set covered the kind of things you would expect. The rules were thin enough to allow for the easy creation of house rules, also the game was forgiving enough to let you drop stuff that would slow down play. We never bothered with encumbrance really unless it was OTT. Also we had the natural twenty always did full damage and a 1 ran the chance of a weapon break, or other worse disaster, thing.

Scanning the rules again I can see that we never once used retainers despite the rules all but begging you to.

Then the Expert Set happened.

The Expert Set had this.

[caption id="attachment_948" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="My First Fantasy World"]My First Fantasy World[/caption]

Tied in with this page from the included module you had everything you needed to explore a world.

[caption id="attachment_949" align="aligncenter" width="231" caption="A Fully Rounded Fantasy World"]A Fully Rounded Fantasy World[/caption]

The rule book was divided into a player's section. Which really just showed how characters could develop and extended the charts on one hand. Then they talked about 'Name level' characters being able to build  strongholds and become actual powers and figures of import in the land. The land which had an entire continent described on one three columned page.

The new rules in the Dungeon Master's Section, yes still the Dungeon Master, were an extension of what had come before. More monsters, better spells, more complex adventuring ideas and a very bare skeleton of demi-human societies.  Enough to feed the imagination without over regulating it.

For me the new scary monster was the Displacer Beast. Like a feline Hound of Tindalos, with tentacles!

I shudder in horror.

What I liked about it then, and now, was that only the bare minimum had rules. Combat, Magic and Thief skills. Everything else had to be roleplayed. If the fighter wanted to check for traps there was nothing to stop him.  He or she would have to explain to the DM what they were doing, then the DM would say what happened next, maybe after rolling a few spurious dice.

If the thief wanted to check for traps he could use his skills for the sneaky tricky ones but she could still poke every section of the tunnel floor with a stick or hold up a torch and look for mystery drafts irrespective of the dice and skills. As we never had skills D&D encouraged you to think about what you did and how it was done.

The rules were slim enough to be memorised and jotted down on your single sided hand written character sheet. Combat was fast. Party banter was lengthy.

Today's World

The game I have run most of recently is Savage Worlds. A nice and simple system and good fun to play for a few sessions. Despite the brevity of the system players still tended to play by their listed skills.
"I'll do a perception check for anything magical in the room"

Then all the others would look at their noticey perceptiony type skills and shriek:
"We'll do a notice, perception, arcana check for anything magical in the room."

All of them madly rolling dice like a gambling Yahtzee addict yelling "Passed with a raise!" and looking at me like their words meant anything.

I would say something like:
"In what fashion do you use your skills to look for magic?"

I would be stared at like I was a burping drain.

Eventually I cracked and dropped them all semi naked into dungeon cells with a 50/50 chance of having a dagger to keep them company.

They fairly quickly learned to describe what they were doing after one of them fell down a classic pit trap and almost died there and then. After that they described how they carefully stared at the ground when they were walking down a new corridor. Which of course left them open for the wall of spears.

Later they began to consolidate there skills. On finding a large wooden chest one of them carefully said he would examine it for traps and waited for me to roll. I calmly informed him he found no traps at all.

He said "I'll open the chest."

"How?" I said.

After a couple of minutes he acted out carefully opening the chest with a long stick at a distance while another stood behind the chest ready to slam down the lid in case something horrible came out.  Which was lucky for them.

When they later found an unmarked potion no one presumed it would be something nice.

At this point I had the feeling of running a 'proper' game.

Fast, Furious and Fun.

I think people like myself were the target audience for this version of D&D. There is probably a good reason why it was advertised on the back of a Choose You Own Adventure magazine.

I must have played Basic to Master Level Dungeons and Dragons for over ten years before other things got in the way. Despite all the other system I looked at and played occasionally it was always our go to game.

Any game system is what you make of it I suppose. Pick one, use it, make it fun.

Alter, Amend and Adjudicate.


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