Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "A New Game with a Familiar Name"

If the results of my poll back in October are any indication, nearly two-thirds of my regular readership entered the hobby within the first ten years of its existence, with a sizable portion of them doing so between the years 1980 and 1984. During that five year span, two different Basic Sets appeared, the first in 1981 and the second in 1983. Being a Holmes man who'd "upgraded" to AD&D sometime in 1980, I had no need for either of the Basic Sets released subsequently, but, TSR fan boy that I was, I nevertheless dutifully purchased both when they were released. That, of the two, I still have Tom Moldvay's 1981 version still sitting on my shelf today probably tells you all you need to know about my opinions of them.

But, back in issue #77 (September 1983) of Dragon, the reviser of the 1983 version, Frank Mentzer, made his case for why we needed a new Basic Set. It's a really fascinating article, both because it suggests that TSR obviously felt some need to justify the release of yet another Basic Set and because of the things that Mentzer says in his piece. It is, I think, a fascinating snapshot of the end of the Golden Age, making it well worth a read if you're at all interested in the history of this hobby and how it changed over the years.

The very first thing Mentzer mentions in his criticism of previous editions is that "you had to find someone to show you how to play." He notes that, in fact, learning from others who had figured out how to play on their own was the norm previously. That's because the game had "a devoted following, people who taught newcomers the ways of roleplaying." Mentzer is absolutely correct about this, as I've noted before. In those bygone days, you entered the hobby by initiation, aided by someone who'd done so before you. In my case, it was via a friend's teenaged brother; I, in turn, taught others how to play. That was the order of things in the late '70s and very early '80s. The 1983 edition is thus an attempt to correct this "flaw" of expecting that you'd learn to play from others.

Mentzer then notes that
the previous editions were not revisions. They were new attempts at using the same methods of organization applied to the original data plus evolution. They were not "revised," merely "reorganized." This one is different.
That's an interesting statement. I regularly point out that Holmes isn't really an introduction to AD&D at all, despite the claims inserted clumsily by TSR, but rather a new edition of OD&D that retains much of the original text of the LBBs. Moldvay is, I think, more of a revision than Mentzer gives it credit for. That said, it's also largely consonant with the LBBs, again retaining verbiage to be found in the 1974 game. The 1983, on the other hand, is even more than a revision; it's a rewriting of the game, using new language to express many of the same ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the language is very simple and clearly geared toward children, which wasn't the case with the Blue Book I first encountered in 1979. Consequently, I recoiled upon reading it and it only further solidified my notion that the D&D line was for kids.

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.

I'll be honest: I was somewhat reluctant to write this particular post. I've gotten a surprisingly large number of requests from readers asking me to touch on the issue of the differences in philosophy between the 1981 and 1983 Basic Sets. But I also know the fondness with which many remember the Red Box and the profound influence it had on them as younger people. So, I hope no one takes this as a knock against the '83 boxed set, even if it's not to my cup of tea. I'm sure there were guys who started with the LBBs who looked at the Holmes set with disappointment, too; that's the way these things go. At the same time, I don't think it can be denied that 1983 marks another change in the history of both D&D and the hobby.


  1. Thanks for that. As a kid who's first D&D rules were the Moldvay/Erol Otus purple box, it's always had a nostalgic aura about it for me. When I switched from WotC to OSR (started with D&D 3.5 but came to a head with 4E), the Basic set was my natural choice, and Labyrinth Lord was getting started. Thirty years ago even with the Basic boxed set I still needed somebody to show me how combat worked, and I don't know if I could have coped with AD&D at the time.

  2. I learned to play using the Holmes Basic Set -- no 'initiation' for me. But my early attempts to run the game now strike me as quite amusing. Among other things, I tried using the maps of the 'Borderlands' and the 'Caves as Chaos' from B2 as a kind of 'game board'. Over time, through collaboration with other 10-11 year old neophytes, I eventually started playing something that vaguely resembled 'D&D'. It was definitely a haphazard endeavour, though.

    I remember reading the Moldvay Basic rules and thinking how much clearer they were than the Holmes rules. I also preferred the layout and art (but these days I like both equally).

    The Mentzer set always left me somewhat cold (mainly because I never liked the work of Elmore and Easley, and did not appreciate the writing style), although the 'choose-your-adventure' style introduction was (and remains) a great idea.

  3. I started off when I was nine with the Moldvay basic boxed set and C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and I had to teach myself. Needless to say, I realized early on that an "advanced" version of the game existed and it was several years before I had enough knowledge and desire to seek out the MM, PHB, and DMG. It was a steep learning curve just to find out what books existed and how they fit into the overall game! I thought that the boxed set was a simplified version meant as an introduction and the AD&D was for more "mature" players. Once I switched over, I never went back. Only now that I'm more mature can I appreciate the "juvenile" boxed sets.

  4. I entered the hobby with the Mentzer Red Box, too, though I had been previously exposed to the concept of RPGs by videogames (namely, the Ultima series.) Despite the simplification and language, and me being 17, we still found playing at the table not exactly intuitive, and we too wondered more than once how to handle movement without any defined "game board." We expected an experience similar to the computer games, but it came as a surprise that the game was infinitely more flexible. Only later I discovered the other editions/revisions, and I always wondered whether I would have been able to pick up the game by myself. Surely the choose-your-path style helped a lot (and I had already been exposed to the TSR Quest books.)

  5. I've recently read through all the pre-2nd edition rules and think that Mentzer produced the best introduction to the game. Holmes is better than the original in clarity, but Mentzer goes the extra bit to make the game cogent and understandable to anyone reading it. It lets you know what the game is about, what typically happens, and some common things to keep in mind when using it. I think if you read the set with an open mind and no pre-conceived notion of the game or any bias as to preference, you can see what a great job Mentzer did.

  6. Usually what one encounters first is what they prefer. Frank Mentzer's red box version of the game was absolutely fantastic for explaining how to play the game for me. I had played one quick game when I was much younger by pestering an older kid on how to play D&D. and he got it terribly wrong. Later one, I acquired the 83 red box and was able to deduce the basic structure of how to play without having to be taught (and given where I was living at the time, there was no one around to explain anyhow).

  7. Metzer was my first RPG, and I moved to AD&D after that because, yeah, it seemed "kiddified". I have often thought D&D in that incarnation was directed specifically toward kids so as to not cannibalize the AD&D market. If Mentzer had instead written for adults using the same method of teaching the game, there may not have been any need for anyone to buy the AD&D releases. What's funny is that NO RPG before Metnzer gives any help for a novice. There's an assumption you already know wtf you're doing.

  8. I started with Moldvay B/X and started acquiring the 1e books a couple years later. But I remember looking over Metnzer set with the air of a scholarly critic and pronouncing it a sound introduction. For me, one of the key elements of AD&D was that there were separate books for DMs and players. The fact that Metnzer followed this seemed a big plus. And still does. If new players understand that one of the people at the table is a neutral referee, and that this person is responsible for knowing and intepreting the rules, it becomes much easier for them to accept that they don't need to read those books at all.

  9. The 1983 edition is thus an attempt to correct this "flaw" of expecting that you'd learn to play from others.

    They have been correcting for this "flaw" for three decades now. If you listen to the interviews with Andy Collins, this was the justification for the massive changes in 4th edition.

  10. If you listen to the interviews with Andy Collins, this was the justification for the massive changes in 4th edition.

    Yep. The need for mentors and a referee are probably two of the biggest impediments to tabletop roleplaying's ever becoming a huge pop cultural phenomenon ever again.

  11. One of the things I appreciate about AD&D is that, in trying to understand it, it forced me to learn about lots of other things. I had to use dictionaries and encyclopedia and other sources.

    On the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with trying to put things in as straightforward a language as possible. I don’t understand the criticism that doing so is necessarily dumbing down or kiddifying. Simpler straightforward language merely means that the game is more accessible to both kids and adults.

    That said, while I don’t find fault with Mentzer’s work, I have a hard time believing that his version is really more accessible than the 1981 edition. It certainly tries harder, but I’m not convinced that it pays off in practice.

    But then, since the Moldvay box and Cook/Marsh booklet where my first RPG books, I will be accused of not being able to be objective about it.

    It occurs to me, though, that the truth is that different people learn best in different ways. Perhaps multiple “basic sets” taking different approaches coexisting would have been even better. Though not practical.

  12. my friends and I learned to play on our own using Holmes, quickly supplemented by the 1e hardbacks. No mentoring for us.

    sounds like you need another poll about presence of mentoring or not. I think people assume that their experiences are the norm. It'd be worth collecting some data on that ....

  13. I can just echo the sentiments of a couple of previous commenters. My intro into the hobby was Moldvay's Basic Set. I had no trouble understanding it. Interesting, then, the justification for the '83 Mentzer Set, which I didn't even realize was different than Moldvay's edition until a few yeas ago (other than a different box cover illo).

  14. I think people assume that their experiences are the norm. It'd be worth collecting some data on that ....

    Sounds like a good idea, although, as I so frequently here, any data I collect here is suspect because of the biases of the blog.

    Or something.

  15. I can never keep the TSR basic sets straight. The one I started with was the one with the dragon on a pile of gold and it came with chits instead of dice. Shortly after we got that one (used), what we called the "basic set" appeared in our local bookstore and we bought it, it was the one with the green dragon and the male and female adventurers facing off against it. Any "basic sets" that came after this one we disregarded completely as we had since migrated to AD&D and considered the "D&D" game an introduction game, as everyone I remember gaming with at the time did as well.

    So I don't know if the sets we played and bought were "purple boxes", "Mentzer", "Moldvay", or whaever, I can never remember which is which (someone feel free to explain it to me if you are so inclined).

    Anyway, the point being, we always considered anything that was not "AD&D" to be for kids and/or beginners and that seemed like a very common thought in the gaming circles I was part of at the time.


  16. Sounds like a good idea, although, as I so frequently here, any data I collect here is suspect because of the biases of the blog.

    Surely the fact that people tend to read/take the polls at gaming blogs that reflect their own experience is a sort of corollary to the observation that people will always tend to favor their initial rule set.

  17. I, for one, am of the opinion that the need to be "initiated" into D&D is one of its charms.

    I understand how this could be a setback from a purely fiscal point of view, but learning to play D&D is like joining a secret club. Or at least that's how it felt in the late 90's in rural Oklahoma.

    Anyway, that was part of what made D&D special to me. We were getting fantastic kicks from things that most folk would never understand.

  18. I, for one, am of the opinion that the need to be "initiated" into D&D is one of its charms.

    I agree -- but I am a Neanderthal.

  19. "The 1983 edition is thus an attempt to correct this "flaw" of expecting that you'd learn to play from others."

    Actually, it worked zounds for me! Back then, when I was 11, AD&D was all the rage in my catholic school (D&D moral panic didn't hit France before the 90's), but I couldn't find a playing group to join: I was the kind of kid even the D&D players shunned -I suppose it made me the bottom of the nerd hierarchy barrel-! So I had to purchase my own game starting kit. I bought the Mentzer red box figuring out (incorrectly) that the the "Basic" game was an introduction to the "Advanced" one. Fact is, this Basic Set perfectly suited my needs: not only did I use it for my own, but I also used it to initiate other players (mostly my little sisters and cousins)and build my first gaming group.

  20. @Cibet;

    The one with chits was the Holmes Basic Set.

    The one with the green dragon, male fighter, female magic-user was the Moldvay edition of the Basic Set.

  21. I'm sure there were guys who started with the LBBs who looked at the Holmes set with disappointment, too

    Waves at the assembled multitude...

    Actually since Advanced D&D started coming out before the boxed sets (the MM predated Holmes), if you had already encountered the game by then, you generally went in that direction and never even bothered with the boxed sets. However in general the play style tended to remain the same as the LBB, just using the AD&D books as reference for prices, spells, magic items, monsters and the like. By this I mean the minutia such as ranges and duration for spells, and the like, tended to get ignored unless it was of vital importance.

    Of course the fact that one set of rules was "Advanced" whilst the other wasn't (and even worse, was issued piecemeal - which was the problem with the LBB and supplements), well... <grin>

    At least that's my experience from the time period. [But also from Australia, where, according to the FLGS owners, the boxed sets were nowhere near as successful as the AD&D line.]

  22. For me, now and for always, Moldvay Basic was D&D. I went onto ad&d, of course, but when I came back, I came back thru 3rd edition and quickly dumped it for Moldvay. Now it's the only D&D we play. It really was my gateway drug to this whole thing. Lots of emotion and memories tied up in it, and I simply hated the new clean, refined Elmore and aesthetic of the later editions. Red box Erol Otus was the only way I wanted to see that stuff. Same with expert edition.

  23. Curious thing, in France, we had Moldvay's red box, then Mentzer's expert - and red box again, but it's only a few years ago I discovered they didn't changed only the cover. Now, I would dream they had translated Cook's expert as well - anayway, I bouight M,etzer blue bbox in english before it was tranlasted and never saw any problem of continuituy beyween the two. So, as neither OD&D nor Holmes were officialy translated (even if Holmes was unofficialy translated twice), a lot of us had to laeran how to play alone with Moldvay and it was just fine.

  24. One other consideration may be that as a result of employing simpler language it might also have been easier to translate into foreign languages.

  25. Akrasia said: "I learned to play using the Holmes Basic Set -- no 'initiation' for me."

    And me as well.

    And I second that a poll on the "yes/no mentoring" question would be interesting. (In fact, I kind of thought James had actually done that previously... guess not.)

  26. Robert Fisher said: "My personal guide to the editions of D&D"

    Robert, thank you for that -- saves me time I've considered doing the same thing. Although my other idea was to show two different parallel branches through "Classic" and "Advanced" D&D on the same time-axis (the main point of contention being where Holmes gets placed, I suppose...)

  27. Yeah, my page obscures the temporal overlap, but it was created primarily as a nomenclature thing. When showing it to people face-to-face who don’t know the history, I usually point out the dates.

    I know I’ve seen a time-oriented diagram somewhere, but I didn’t keep a link.

    I’d probably place Holmes on the non-advanced branch with a dotted line to 1e. Or as a third branch that didn’t continue. B/X seems like it looks more back towards original to me.

    Oh, and another resource for people who might not know of it that I forgot to mention: B Renfrow’s TSR Archive

  28. FWIW, I originally started with the Holmes basic set in 1979, but I prefer the Moldvay edition. So I'm a (rare?) exception to the trend of favouring whichever edition one began with.

  29. @Robert Fisher:
    That chart is a very useful, at a glance, summary of D&D 'Ages', if you will... That should help a novice who's trying to puzzle out the provenance of the game, or someone who's just curious to see how may 'editions' there were.

    I imagine that the belief that one favors the ruleset he/she starts with is based on a perception that nostalgia is paramount over all other considerations.(A charge often levelled at 'retro'-hobbyists.) I'm another exception to this; I was introduced to RPGs through Mentzer, and played mostly my own homebrew system, but I prefer Moldvay/Labyrinth Lord for extended play campaigns(Greyhawk and Ravenloft settings in particular) and utilize Holmes(Strictly Level 1-3, whoever's body lands farthest from the entrance wins, to paraphrase the OG[Mike Mornard]!) for one-shots.

    Moldvay and Holmes seem to assume a level of maturity on the part of the player, which in my opinion neither assumes obscurantist hobby knowledge or retreats into abstrusity.(The Original Adult Fantasy Game. Ages 10 and Up!). Their in-book 'actual play' examples seem to ring truer to me as well. I love the dispute between Morgan Ironwolf and Sister Rebecca over the treatment of prisoners and keeping one's word(to hobgoblins[monsters] at that!).(Pg. B28, Moldvay) I mean, intra-party conflict over ROLEPLAYING: Basic Rebecca refusing to heal Morgan's wounds unless she agreed to release their captives unharmed exemplifies how far it stood above the Mentzer set in terms of character focus. Not to mention the 'world' of Moldvay(and Holmes) seemed more fantastic.... And of course, the suggested reading list, the awesome Erol Otus art, Gods grant Cleric's Spells(and not the 'meditating' of the Mentzer set, and its warning not to delve into 'real world' religions!), etc... And then there's the grittiness, the stark weirdness of Holmes(As well as the encouragement to play as non-standard races and classes!)...

    Cibet's(and others') belief that D&D was the shallow end of the 'kiddy pool' was probably helped along by the fact that, to to the average person(Americans most especially, I'd say), applying the term 'Basic' to something stultified it, whereas Advanced signified achievement, rather than complexity. Note that from Holmes to Moldvay, these rules weren't called 'Basic', per se: they were the Basic Rules(Moldvay later expanded on by Cook/Marsh's with Expert[D&D Expert; is that bottom-shelf? :-)]) However Mentzer's first box set cover says Basic Rules: Set 1, seemingly implying it WAS Basic(at least in in many people's minds), with more Basic Rule Sets to come! The next printing changed that to Set 1: Basic Rules, and of course, reworked Expert followed, along with the other, newer expansions.

    There's no doubt however that the
    Red Box' brought a lot of people into the hobby and should be counted a serious(and long-lasting) success. Among them, many of the members of my gaming groups over the years, I might add. Oh, and as stated above, it was the '83 Set(along with Video and Board Games) that sparked MY interest in RPGs! For which I'm eternally grateful to Mr. Mentzer!

  30. Their in-book 'actual play' examples seem to ring truer to me as well.

    Me too, for what it's worth.