This post runs the risk of a reprint of things I've blogged before, but I'm writing from the hip and not checking what I may or may not have said in previous posts. Since I'm covering my intro to D&D, I know I'll be talking about some of the same stuff. Bear with me. I want to be complete in this series about my experiences with each version/edition of D&D.
This is about where I started in the hobby, BECMI D&D. BECMI, for the uninitiated, stands for "Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortals" which are the titles of the boxed sets that made up this edition of D&D. They began publication in 1983, replacing the Basic and Expert sets by Tom Moldvay, Zeb Cook and Steve Marsh that appeared in January 1981. This series was written and edited by Frank Mentzer, with artwork by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. This triumvirate of talent had no small part in getting me hooked on roleplaying in general, and D&D in specific. In Volume 0 of this series, I talked about how I was struggling with not fitting in, having a broken family, not having much in common with the family I did have, and relocating first from my native Texas to Florida, and then back to Texas. The cruel part was we moved "home" only to be in the other middle school's area, so all the friends I would have been happy to see I wouldn't see again on a regular basis until High School, since both middle schools at that time fed into Round Rock High. No, I was on the other side of town, which meant knowing no one when I began my sixth grade year. I was looking desperately for companionship. Enter D&D.
That first encounter with actual play involved the "Red Box" and "Blue Box" simultaneously. I remember that while Daniel's brother was rolling up his PC with the Basic Player's Manual, Daniel handed me the Expert Rulebook and I was immediately entranced by the "speak with dead" artwork under the Cleric section. My brain tends to write volumes when inspired by a piece of artwork, and this was my first conscious memory of this happening. Suddenly I wanted to play this game more than anything. I wanted to be involved in the sort of magical quests where one might see this situation occurring. It was what I'd always wanted in a creative endeavor. As a kid, I'd assigned my stuffed animals crew positions and imagined my bed was a starship. When I played video games I paid attention to the sometimes ridiculous backstories in the Atari game manuals and comics. When there wasn't a backstory, I made one up to make the game more interesting. Something inside me already knew how to play this game, and I couldn't wait to clatter the dice.
That Summer day in 1986 started something the runs strong in me even today, and if asked my favorite edition of D&D, BECMI is the answer you'll get. I've played each edition that came before and after. I even played '74 D&D with Frank Mentzer DMing at North Texas RPG Con to show us how things really played. I got to play AD&D Oriental Adventures with Zeb Cook. So, I feel like my experiences with older editions are fairly valid given some of my DMs. But my heart still rests with BECMI, and its near cousin B/X. I quickly became a Dungeon Master in my own right. I spent quite a bit of my youth poring over the rulebooks, graph paper, and the mythology section of Round Rock Public Library. D&D and gaming of all kinds became my main hobby. My first RPG that I purchased with my own money was Palladium's Robotech Book One: Macross, but I'd been donated D&D, Traveller, Cyberpunk and other games as the years went on. I played so many more, mostly TSR, FASA and Palladium games but no game company was off the table. Even Yaquinto.
BECMI D&D colored the way I look at RPGs now and forever. Even today, in the age of the full-color glossy hardcover rulebook I still daydream of my games coming in a box with a pair of saddle-stapled books with cardstock covers. Throw in a module, an order form, a module, dice and maybe a crayon. The newest game in my collection at the time of this blog is Modiphius' Star Trek Adventures. It's a monster. Full-color, beautifully illustrated, laid out like an LCARS display. Production value that wasn't even possible in 1983. And yet, I'd have been just as happy or happier to see it in a slim D&D-like box. Why? Well, part of it is my gaming brain's propensity to "run home to mama" out of nostalgia. But apart from that, let's take a look at what the Basic Set in BECMI does. In the 64 pages of the Player's Manual it teaches the player how to play the game through a method very much like the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 80s. As the reader moves through this process, it introduces the core concepts of the game a bit at a time. Throughout, the black and white illustrations by Elmore and Easley give some wonderful looks into the game world. By the end of the Player's Manual, you've learned how the game plays, what classes are available, and what magics can be cast. You're ready to go. 64 pages into Star Trek Adventures and you're still in the fluff section. It's indulgent, and colorful, and flavorful, but the massive tome of a book makes for a daunting introduction to gaming, and is cost-prohibitive. There is something to be said for brevity and concise writing. I admire it all the more because I am obviously not capable of it.
The DM's Rulebook is 48 pages, but manages to give some pointers to new DMs, a sample dungeon, lots of monsters, and treasure. Again, concise and useful while still illustrated beautifully. A bit of Jim Holloway art in the DM's guide. Another favorite artists of mine. The point is that in this box was everything needed for play. The box retailed for $8.99 at Sears. In 2017 dollars, that's $22.50. The Expert Set was another $8.99. So, one could have years of D&D material, including a couple of sets of dice, for a little over2/3 of what the current Star Trek book costs. I know, times have changed. People want slick production, etc. But me? I want a game. A game that won't intimidate the crap out of my players. One where we won't spend most of our time referencing the rulebooks. Basic D&D does that for me. Expert, too. Now, Companion and on? Some complexity added. We'll get to that.
Basic and Expert cover a lot of the same ground as the earlier Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X set, with a couple of tweaks. There was a mandate from TSR to allow the levels of Human characters to expand to 36, this change means there were differences in progression between the two editions, most notably in the Thief skills chart. It also meant that the Demi-Human level limits were a LOT more limiting, and caused the introduction of the Attack Rank mechanic… but I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not sure how deeply to go into mechanics, really, since volumes could be written comparing and contrasting the various versions of D&D out there. But I did say this was my benchmark, this was my center point from which all other D&D deviates since it was the first rules set I learned. So… I guess I’ll take a few concepts and explore them in this post.
OK, so let’s start with the basics. There are six Ability Scores, and the order they are presented is Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. Why is that important? Well, first of all like many older rules sets the default manner of generating Ability Scores is to roll 3d6 in that order. The order can be different between editions, and has caused some good old grognard arguments over which order is the proper order. For reference, Men & Magic, the first book of 1974 Dungeons & Dragons lists the Ability Scores in the order Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, Charisma. In any case, the Ability Scores are 3d6 in order, no re-rolls. This versions of D&D allows adjustments to be made to the Ability Scores by sacrificing points from some scores to raise the Prime Requisite for the chosen class on a two-for-one basis. No Ability can be dropped below 9, and none raised above 18. Dex and Cha cannot be lowered in this way.
Ability scores in this edition have a universal bonus chart, with 3 and 18 having -3 and +3 modifiers to the dice. 4-5 and 16-16 are -2/+2, 6-8 and 13-15 are +1, and the middle range of 9-12 is no modifier. The interesting thing to note here, is although there is technically only one Ability Score Bonuses And Penalties Table (see the Basic Player’s Guide p.36) there are additional tables for Intelligence and Charisma to create some additional information. The Charisma bonuses do not line up with the main table, though the ranges are the same. To the eyes of someone who has never played D&D, this is just how it is- but modern players might lament the lack of a truly universal or mathematical standard.
Once you have Ability Scores rolled, a class chosen, and adjustments made… wait… I forgot to talk about the classes. So, you do actually choose your class between rolling up the Abilities and making the changes (if any) since you need to know what the Prime Requisite of the class you have chosen is. For players of other editions of D&D (or those unfamiliar with the game at all) a Prime Requisite is a score for which your character needs a certain minimum in order to qualify for a given class. High scores in these Abilities mean bonuses to Experience Points, plus bonuses to the kinds of things the class is generally good at. For example, the Prime Requisite for Fighter is Strength, which gives a bonus on hit and damage rolls with melee weapons. This will very much come in handy. Thieves have DEX as a Prime Requisite, which improves their Armor Class and to-hit with ranged weapons. Prime Requisites are important to this edition of D&D insomuch as without the minimum PR, you can’t get into some of the Demi-Human classes, and having a high PR means being more generally effective and advancing faster.
Demi-Human Classes. You heard me right. “Race” is not separate from class. If you’re an elf, you’re an Elf. The class. All player elves are of the Elf class in this edition unless and until you score one of the Gazetteer products or a Dragon Magazine article that gives alternate elf classes. Elf is Elf – all the weapon and armor proficiency of a Fighter with all the spellcasting abilities of a Magic-User. So, there are four human classes. Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User and Thief. There are three Demi-Human Classes to add to that, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling.
Since this was my first experience with D&D, these classes set my expectations of the classes and races in general by which I evaluate all the other editions. I thought Magic-User would be my favorite class by far with the images of Gandalf or Merlin or Kelek in my head- but as it turns out my long love affair with any class turned out to be the Cleric. From this version of D&D onward, even to the D&D arcade games Tower of Doom and Shadows over Mystara and the Amtgard LARP (In the Wetlands, there was a Cleric option) I loved playing Clerics. They could don plate and grab a mace or warhammer and smash foes, heal, turn undead… what’s not to love about the good old D&D Cleric? So I learned Fighters were tough and had the best selection of weapons and armor. Clerics were versatile and being a protector/crusader appealed to me. Thieves were extremely useful but fragile, and needed to level up a few times for their thief abilities like picking locks or pockets to become reliable. Magic-Users were even less hearty than Thieves, not even allowed the meager leather armor of their stealthy companions. At first through third level, even their magic seemed a bit lacking. It wasn’t until we hit that magic 5th level that I realized what a mage could REALLY do.
So, then we come to the demi-humans. Dwarves were fighters with some extra perks that lent to their dwarfiness. See in the dark, detect stonework and grades, that sort of thing. Halflings were also mostly fighters, but had incredible saving throws and a bonus to hit with ranged weapons. In a nod to Tolkien, they were also very naturally stealthy. Elves, though – whoa. Elves had all the abilities of a Fighter and a Magic-User with the wonderful addition of being able to cast while wearing armor. What’s not to like? Well, there were limiting factors. Elves could only advance to the 10th level of experience. Dwarves were limited to 12th, and Halflings to 8th. Now, many campaigns never go that far, but it’s an important distinction in a long-running game.
Balance, how does that work? Well, like many old school games, balance was either not a concern (random ability score generation) or was enforced on a per-situation basis, such as with experience points. Many players are surprised to see the XP charts when they come into the game in 3.x or later. Since 2000, all characters have gained levels at the same XP totals. This was not true before 2000. Remember I mentioned the Thief needed to level a couple of times to get their abysmal starting thief skills into the realm of usefulness? Well, Thieves had the lowest necessary totals to gain levels. 1,200 for 2nd level, and 2,400 for third. A Thief will make 3rd level before a Magic-User gets the 2,500 needed to make 2nd. Elves pay dearly for their ability to use Fighter and Magic-User by requiring 4,000 XP to claw their way to 2nd level. Ouch. This makes for a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when an Elf PC is hit by level-draining undead. Bear in mind that in this version of D&D classes can receive XP bonuses for having high Prime Requisites, Humans have one per class, Demi-Humans have two. These bonuses and penalties can alter earned experience, causing advancement to come more or less quickly based on the character’s natural aptitude for their chosen profession.
Magic is of course Vancian in nature- that is, spells are studied or prayed for during periods of rest in secure areas, and then forgotten when cast. Magic-Users begin the game with one spell per day, and unlike later editions even a high Intelligence does not improve this situation. Magic-Users tend to throw their one spell and then spend the rest of the “day” hiding behind the Fighter. The Spell Book described in the BECMI set is 2’ x 2’ x 2-6”, quite large, but the rules explicitly say it can fit into a backpack or saddlebag. Magic-Users can replenish their spells with a night’s sleep and an hour of study. It is suggested a mule be brought along to carry the spellbook. Also – unless the spells are found or traded for, the DM chooses the spells in the Magic-User’s book. Clerics meditate for spells, and may choose any spell on the list to gain, and may gain spells each morning if sufficiently rested. No meditation time is mentioned. Note that Clerics in BECMI may not cast until 2nd level – and no additional spells are gained for high Wisdom as in other editions.
So, what sticks out? How does it PLAY? Well, it plays wonderfully to my sensibilities, but perhaps I should be a bit more specific. HP totals tend to be low to modern eyes – Dwarves and Fighters have D8 Hit Dice. Clerics, Elves and Halflings have D6, and Thieves and Magic-Users D4. Armor Class runs from 9 (unarmored human with average Dexterity) downward, and negative numbers are possible. In the Basic and Expert books, hit tables are used rather than the THAC0 math that is sometimes associated with older D&D games with descending Armor Class. This is a simple game compared to what came later, though things like Weapon Mastery and Skills are introduced in the Gazetteer series and Companion/Master/Immortals rules. The game itself is quick and easy once a player learns the quirks of the time in which it was written- this manifests mostly in a lack of what a modern game designer would call a “unified mechanic.” To-Hit is d20, roll high. Thief skills are d100, roll low, unless they aren’t. Turning Undead? 2d6. High Hit Points are good, high Armor Class is bad. Learn those things and play is extremely quick. The ease of play of BECMI is my yardstick for D&D. I find 5e, Holmes, and B/X to be comparable, while 3.x, 4e and AD&D 1e are quite a bit more complex. Of course, the way we played AD&D1e we left out a lot of the complexity- but more on that when I talk about AD&D 1e.
The Expert Rulebook included the Known World, what was later known as Mystara. This game world was later expanded by the Gazetteer series, and an AD&D reboot was attempted and abandoned after two boxed sets and some boxed supplements. This is *my* D&D world. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos has been the setting of most of my D&D campaigns. The idea of a culturally diverse game world within a few weeks horse travel (at most) was amazing. It’s fun for me to go back to the Expert rulebook and read the prototype descriptions of this world from which we originally worked. Later I found out it had been outlined first in the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Expert rulebook, but this was where I first saw it. The sample adventure in BECMI includes an old manor house with some very curious traps and features. The suggested adventures in the back range from rescuing an old woman from the things in her attic to more recognizably D&D missions. The map symbols in the books still fire my imagination.
I will discuss the Companion, Master and Immortals sets in a future post, since the lion’s share of my D&D experiences in those first three years were firmly rooted in the Red and Blue boxes. For now, sufficient to say that the Red Box and the Blue Book (box, but there was only one book in it rules-wise) were my touchstone. From here, we’ll talk about the other versions of D&D in the chronological order in which I encountered them. Next up is AD&D 1st Edition. Since this post rapidly grew out of hand – it’s long, and yet I have more to say about Red Box, Blue Box, etc. – I will probably begin to pen “D&D and Me” supplemental, talking about things that strike my fancy or that I recall from my playing and DM experiences. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I enjoy thinking about my experiences with D&D.