Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Retrospective: The Challenges Game System

Most gamers, I hope, know that Tom Moldvay was the editor of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, as well as the writer (co-writer) of two of the greatest D&D modules of all time, The Isle of Dread and Castle Amber. Some of them may also know that he wrote a RPG about world-hopping called Lords of Creation (which I hope to discuss in this space sometime soon). But how many realize that he wrote an 8-page restatement of AD&D in 1986 under the name The Challenges Game System? I was dimly aware of the existence of this game, although I can't say for certain how I was made aware of it or precisely when. Regardless, I'd never actually seen a copy until this week, thanks to a reader of this blog.

Challenges appears to have been self-published by Moldvay through a company called "Challenges International Inc." It's a thin booklet consisting of 8 pages of rules and charts, some endpapers, and a cover. In its brief introduction, Moldvay explains that Challenges
offers an easy-to-play alternative to fantasy game systems which are becoming increasingly complex. All of the basic information needed for play is organized into 8 pages instead of scattered among hundreds of pages of several expensive books.

The Challenges Game System is intended to be a foundation. Game Masters and players can add whatever they like to the system. They can change any rules they want. But the 8 page guide will still remain a basic reference aid, a place where essential information can be quickly found.
I liked the cut of Moldvay's jib to begin with, but this introduction only increased my affection for him. Succinct and without pretense, the introduction is unambiguous on the side of those who see published rules as guidelines for the creation of a roleplaying game fashioned to one's own taste.

Of course, reading through Challenges, it's also unambiguous that Moldvay is taking aim at late era AD&D 1e. The system presented in its 8 pages is largely identical to that of AD&D (with a few interesting wrinkles), stripped down to its essentials and presented far more coherently. Characters have six ability scores: Muscle, Dexterity, Stamina, Willpower, Wisdom, and Charisma. These are generated by rolling 2D6+6 nine times and choosing the best six rolls, arranging them as desired ("Player characters are heroes, not average individuals," Moldvay notes to my disappointment). Scores of 18 -- which would be more likely under the suggested method of random generation -- get a further percentile roll to distinguish them, much like exceptional Strength in AD&D, except that it applies to all ability scores. Ability modifiers are not rationalized -- they vary by ability -- but, outside of the highest percentile scores, they're fairly small, generally +1 or +2.

Challenges presents five classes (warrior, sorcerer, cleric, thief, and mirager -- an illusionist) and five races (humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and hobbits, the latter of which Moldvay claims is based on "British folklore" and makes no reference to Tolkien whatsoever). Races are mostly cosmetic in their differences, with a few gaining special level-dependent detection abilities, infravision -- yes, that term is used -- and, in the case of dwarves, a penalty to Luck rolls, which is the Challenges equivalent to saving throws and is a single score, as in Swords & Wizardry. Classes are simple and straightforward in their presentation, with individualized XP charts. Characters start with maximum hit points (+ Stamina bonuses, if any). Thief abilities are generalized into "Thief Skills" and "Stealth," each governed by a level-based percentile score. Spells are highly simplified -- a line or two description reminiscent of OD&D's presentation.

Combat is where Challenges differs intriguingly from AD&D. All classes have a base attack number, which is what they must roll on 1D20 to score a hit, thus eliminating the need for combat charts. This number is modified on the attacker's side by Muscle or Dexterity, as appropriate. On the defender's side, it's modified by Dexterity and armor. Initiative, however, is a simple 1D6 affair, modified by Dexterity. As optional rules, the amount by which a character exceeds or misses his target number can have additional effects, from bonus damage to dropping one's weapon. Bonus damage also introduces the concept of "wounds," which are persistent combat penalties until healed in order to simulate injury without overly complicating the system.

Challenges also includes rules for turning undead, monster attacks, and multi-classing. It lacks any rules for equipment beyond armor and some basic weapons and includes no example monsters or treasures, the implication being that most of these would be described in adventure published for the game. So far as I know, there was at least one, possibly two, such adventures published, but I have never seen them, so I cannot comment on their contents. As presented, Challenges is not quite a complete system, but, if one has other D&D materials handy, it'd be easy to fill in the gaps.

I suspect that's what Moldvay assumed players would do, which does make one wonder why he bothered to produce this guide book at all. That's not a knock against Challenges, to which I am rather favorably disposed, but I wish I knew more about the circumstances under which this RPG was produced and what Moldvay's plans were for it. As it is, it's close enough to AD&D that I'm not sure it'd stand up to an assault by TSR's legal department, so what was he thinking? On the other hand, as a distillation of AD&D -- a kind of "AD&D Lite" -- it's quite well done and a reminder of how, in practice, many of us played 1e. Nowadays, I have Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so there's little need for something like Challenges, but Moldvay was doing this in 1986, years before anyone else. It's a fascinating historical artifact and a reminder to me, as if I needed one, that Tom Moldvay was a clever and imaginative guy and it's a pity he doesn't get lauded as often as he most assuredly deserves.


  1. Does this count as the first "retro clone"?

  2. I'd love to get my hands on a copy of this.

  3. I echo what Matt says above. I'm dying to find a copy of this. I've been looking for years... (envy)

  4. A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  5. I wonder what the distribution was for this. I've never heard of it.

  6. Does a character's level have any bearing on chances to hit an opponent (or avoid being hit) in this system? Or is the base attack number for each class static?

    Do monsters have Hit Dice, or are they treated as if they were a particular player-character class? Are monsters given any rules at all?

  7. Blogger Anthony said...

    I wonder what the distribution was for this. I've never heard of it.

    Mail Order from Gamescience (and presumably convention sales as well). GS in the 80's served as a publishing collective fol a lot of small press stuff, listing it in the catalog newsletters crammed into every product and the dense, tiny-type ads they'd run in magazines.

  8. Thanks for writing about this! And thanks to whoever sent you a copy.

    I think Tom’s motivation is self-evident. AD&D was too complex. Mentzer D&D had become arguably just as complex at this point as well.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if—like the JG universal system, and Rob’s CU system, and TLG’s sword & sorcery system, and OSRIC—it wasn’t just a way for him to publish AD&D adventures.

  9. Gordon,

    Attack numbers increase with level, so a Level 1 Warrior has a 20 base attack, while a Level 2 one has 19 base attack, and so on.

    Monsters don't have Hit Dice, just hit points (called Life Points in Challenges). The more LP they have, the lower their base attack, so, in principle, it works nearly identically to D&D's Hit Dice-based monster attack table.

    Beyond that, there's not much more about monsters. I get the impression each monster entry would include specific rules on how to use its abilities, but, never having seen one of the game's adventures, I can't say for sure.

  10. James,

    Any tips about how one might acquiring a copy of this work? I can't imagine there's much of a used market. Has anyone contacted the Moldvay estate (widow?) regarding a re-release?

  11. Cusick,

    I have no idea how one might get a copy. I owe mine to the kindness of a reader.