Monday, January 18, 2021

The Enduring Appeal of Basic D&D

If I'd been asked, back in, say, 1981, the name of my favorite roleplaying game, I'd have answered, without hesitation, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There are multiple reasons why I'd have replied this way, perhaps the greatest of which being that AD&D presents a very eclectic but nevertheless compelling fantasy vision informed by the literary tastes of Gary Gygax. Decades later, I still find that my imagination remains thoroughly colonized by ideas and concepts whose origins lie in AD&D. That's not a criticism by any means; if anything, it's evidence of just how powerful a thing Gygax wrought.

Despite this, purely as a game, I don't think I'm speaking uncharitably in calling AD&D a convoluted mess. I don't believe I've ever met a gamer who played AD&D strictly by the book – assuming such a thing is even possible. AD&D's combat rules, for example, are nigh unintelligible and I'd be amazed to learn that anyone who'd bothered to fathom their mysteries gained anything of lasting consequence by doing so. I say this as someone who's on record as liking "rough edges" in games. 

I don't think I'm alone in this doublethink regarding AD&D: simultaneously adoring its ideas and esthetics while feeling its rules are awful. In fact, I suspect this attitude is quite widespread, at least among gamers of a certain age. Equally widespread, I think, is effusive love for Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. Indeed, if I had to hazard a guess, I imagine that, among gamers who call themselves "old school," Basic D&D (or one of its retro-clones, like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials) is being played much more often than AD&D. Why would this be?

It's an interesting question and one for which there are probably as many answers. Speaking only for myself, I would say that Basic D&D's strengths are its flexibility and open-endedness, the very things that Gygax would later claim made it a "non-game," a topic to which he returned on other occasions. Basic D&D (and, by extension, Expert D&D) is intentionally written in a way that is easy to understand (compared to the little brown books of OD&D from which it derives) and encourages individual creativity.
While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable – anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed. This is not to say that everything in this booklet should be discarded! All of this material has been carefully thought out and playtested. However, if, after playing the rules as written for a while, you and your referee (the Dungeon Master) think that something should be changed, first think about how the changes will affect the game, and then go ahead. The purpose of these "rules" is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don't feel absolutely bound to them.

It's precisely this attitude, stated boldly and upfront, that, when combined with its generally simpler and more straightforward rules, makes Tom Moldvay's version of Dungeons & Dragons my go-to version of the game these days. This is true, even when I wish to introduce ideas or elements from AD&D (which is often). 

Obviously, other players and referees will have their own reasons for choosing Basic D&D – and if you're one of them, I'd like to hear why – but the larger point remains: Basic/Expert D&D has become the preferred version of the game for those interested in its earliest editions. I find this fascinating, given how much more common it was, back in the day, to dismiss it as "kiddie D&D." I regret being so contemptuous of it when I was younger and am grateful that I've come around to recognize it for the masterpiece of clarity, concision, and creativity that it is.

40 comments:

  1. Oh yes, B/X is my favorite edition for exactly this reason, and Labyrinth Lord is my favorite retro-clone specifically because I believe it best brings back in all the favorite elements -- classes, spells, monsters, etc. -- from AD&D most effectively without adding all the "fiddly bits" that made AD&D rules well, onerous.

    As I like to describe it, Labyrinth Lord is the best of B/X with the best of the options from the LBB's. And it still is as readily malleable and adaptable as B/X.

    That's another reason I like Castles & Crusades; it gives you all the best stuff from B/X and AD&D but elegantly uses the core d20 System in a way that is unobtrusive and, unlike 3E (and 5E) allows you to tweak the rules without causing cascade failure in the whole system.

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    1. Agreed. I've ran a Castles & Crusades campaign with my friends for years and I chose B/X for my D&D YouTube show. Heck, the first Serial was actually a mix of B/X and C&C rules!

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    2. Actually we found that the Siege Engine kind of broke down around 6th level. It became too burdensome to keep track of primes/not primes/caster level/what ability you save with, etc. At one point we said, "Why aren't we just playing old school D&D?" Sold all my C&C stuff a couple months later and never looked back.

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  2. B/X is by far my favorite version of D&D and Old School Essentials lays it out in a clean and easy to use format. Add in the advanced rules that Gavin has drawn from AD&D and you have an almost perfect version of D&D in my opinion.

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    1. Yeah, that's kind of where I am. Started with basic in 1981, added a bunch of stuff from AD&D, switched to AD&D, but then restarted a B/X/Companion campaign when that ruleset came out. Since them I've always bounced between both, but leaning a bit more towards Basic (via OSE) recently, including the advanced options, and a few things cribbed from DCC, like crits, fumbles, and spell mishaps. What we like about it is that it plays really fast at the table because we know the rules and you don't have as many spells, abilities, and options as straight AD&D, but you have enough. We've even decided to only allow the race classes for non-humans in our upcoming Advanced OSE campaign to preserve that B/X feel.

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  3. For me, Basic just got you closer to the adventure / scenario / action. Time playing AD&D, meanwhile, was much more about leafing through the Monster Manual or one of the many rule extensions to see what an archdevil or like could or couldn't do. So, when I stumbled across some schoolmates playing The Keep on the Borderlands, it was immediately accessible and enthralling. Recently got out my early eighties rules to play a game with my kids during lockdown. Love it.

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  4. And that's why I gravitated to Advanced Labyrinth Lord in the end, although I liked both OSRIC and Basic Fantasy rpg quite a lot.
    And talking of OSRIC, I think it's a better second edition than the actual one in many, many ways.

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  5. PS: James, I recently discovered you have writing credits in 3e-based "Wheel of Time" rpg.
    That would be an interesting story to hear, if you are ever willing to talk about it...

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    1. Yes, I worked on the adventure that accompanied the rulebook. This was back in 2001-ish, shortly after I'd gotten an interview for a permanent position at WotC. I didn't get the position, obviously, but they liked me well enough that, when they need freelance writers, they contracted me for a couple of projects (including one for the Star Wars d20 RPG).

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    2. My curiosity stems from the fact that while I didn't care for 3rd edition nor WoT, I found their gaming offspring oddly compelling.
      It's one of the few books from the d20 I still have a liking for.

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  6. This was my first roleplaying game and whilst I liked Labyrinth Lord a lot as my go to retroclone, I have to admit to being very impressed by Old School Essentials. It is very cleanly presented and even charming in its style and layout. We are currently using it to play B2 Keep on the Borderlands and it works very well.

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  7. I started with Moldvay's edition of D&D in 1982, but like a lot of people I went and bought Mentzer's reboot a year later anyway before being brow beat into AD&D by all the older kids who played it. I have always maintained that Moldvay's iteration of the rules, and by default Mentzer's as well, is the truest form of the game that Gary Gygax originally envisioned. Like a lot of people I imagine, I became steeped in AD&D because that was by default what everyone else around me played when someone said, "We're playing D&D this weekend." In my neighborhood in Southern Ontario back in the early eighties, the pejorative "Basuck" was attributed to BX/BECMI by those older kids, and I was one of the only holdouts who still bought modules and supplements for BX/BECMI, while still doing the same with AD&D. As much as I loved AD&D, I'd have to say it was the simplicity and elegance of Moldvay's approach that made it my favorite.

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  8. I started with Holmes basic, then graduated to AD&D. I never played BX or BECMI, and I still don't see the attraction. Different strokes and all that.

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  9. I begged my folks for the Moldvay set in '82 when I was seven. They returned it to the store the same day once they decided it was beyond my ken. I got Mentzer's red box a few years later in '85. My friends and I used AD&D books as bolt on supplements, but the base system was Basic. I heard Greg Gillespie once describe this style of play in an interview as: Basic as the engine; AD&D as the chrome. That resonated with the way we played it. I remember feeling guilty for using AD&D books, but not playing it by-the-book. Years later I don't have such hang-ups and I realize the elegance of B/X's 2d6 morale system, tight combat rules, and lower power scaling. As far as Basic retroclones go, I like Basic Fantasy becasue it takes out alignment, doesn't use race-as-class, has slightly more forgiving thief skills (more like AD&D), and a few other small tweaks. Similarly, I like Lamentations for the changes it makes to the Basic game, particularly the d6-based Specialist skills which I prefer to the percentile sub-system. After playing Basic clones for the past few years though, I've moved to a stripped-down, '74, white box OD&D - humans only, three classes (cleric, fighter, and M-U), and I use a light background system to influence a d6 "skills" roll if needed. I still incorporate a few things from Holmes and B/X though because of their elegance. If you're looking for someone who's committed to playing AD&D by-the-book, Anthony Huso at the Blue Bard is as close as I've seen anyone come.

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  10. B/X was the bones with just the right amount of meat. AD&D was a fat bastard and you inevitably ended up lopping off big chunks of meat in an effort to manage it. lol

    I have Labyrinth Lord and BFRPG and they are great. But I really love Old School Essentials. The big (little) core book is just gorgeous and so cleanly presented. I also love the tone of Gavin's setting (Dolmenwood) and adventures there in. Sort of a damp, fungal Grimm's fairy tale zeitgeist.

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  11. When AD&D came out we went that route, but it ended up being a mish mosh of AD&D and OD&D. We basically just used AD&D spells, hit dice for classes, magic item lists, etc. More than anything we just used AD&D modules, and played the way we always had with OD&D. When Moldvay/Cook/Marsh came out,I was immediately smitten. I dropped everything AD&D, except for the adventures and went back to OD&D through the lens of MCM, until I found Runequest in 1982.

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  12. The best things about AD&D were lists of descriptions: the Monster Manual, spells in the Player's Handbook, and magic items in the DMG. Those were all imagination-firing and rich. Rule Zero did the rest, for my group of kids anyway.

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  13. Part of the appeal of Basic lies not just in the rules, but also the setting. The Known World is such a compelling setting for gaming.

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  14. That's precisely what I discuss in my video series I've started called "Back to Basic". You should tune in sometime. Thanks for the article and thoughts!!
    https://youtu.be/5U1euT4N9xo

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  15. Well, in the early 1980s, I was willing to *play* the baggy monster that was AD&D, but I refused to ever run it. B/X has always been my D&D of choice.

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  16. I’m the odd man out here, because B/X D&D doesn’t do a thing for me. I find it’s rules too simplistic and it’s flavor too blandly generic. It doesn’t inspire me to want to explore its world or add to its rules. It feels like something you play for a few months and then put aside. AD&D has always been much more interesting, appealing, and inspiring to me. It speaks to my imagination in a way that the B/X version never did.

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    1. I have to second what Trent is saying. The B/X iteration of D&D felt like a dumbed-down imposter for the masses --- allowing for the fact that it was intended to take some of the rough edges off of Holmes/AD&D --- I felt it went too far and lost all of it's strange appeal. My books have sat more or less untouched from 1st publication until this day, whereas the spines on the "big three" AD&D books need a saving throw.

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  17. For most of last year, in my mind's eye my next "dream game" to run in-person when the pandemic is over was a gonzo-esque B/X game. Flavored with stuff from Black Pudding and New Big Dragon and a couple others.

    Strangely though, lately I have been thinking more about Holmes/Blueholme/Zenopus' stuff instead. A pandemic-stress induced flight to deep nostalgia perhaps? (Holmes Basic was my very first RPG as well)

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  18. I loved both for different reasons, B/X is great for teaching, playing and creating your own with bolt on rules. AD&D is a fiddly system, made for tinkering or so I've always seen it.

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  19. I don’t like OSE because the art and layout are downers. We play LL but with significant houserules and Ad&d chrome.

    Great to hear from you James!

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  20. Today my core game is OSE (BX), because fidelity and usability (the best clone ever) + AD&D as a source to expansion, especially because DMG. I think im stay here for a loooong time.

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  21. I grew up playing 2nd Ed in the late 80s till TSR ceased to exist. I now prefer to play BX using LL and/or OSE.

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  22. Been playing a Basic campaign with the kids since 1st grade. They are in jr high now and the MU finally reached 8th level on Sunday! I use the MM for the pictures because they are the best.

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  23. The older I get the more entranced with B/X simple joys I get as well.

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  24. I love me some B/X. I started on B/X and got pulled into AD&D by older kids. Was a time I really got into the “Advanced” version. D&D was a game, while AD&D was an immersion—a world you could almost touch. Your character had a full description: height, weight, age, hair and eye color. There are different kinds of elves? And dwarves…Halflings too! I can be a Fighter/Magic-user/and-a-Thief? If Basic only had a ranger… All ’dem spells! And the monsters come with pictures!

    Something happened during the 3E era, after Wizards rejoined the lines. D&D—just plain old D&D—is cool. First thing I did with all the customization 3E gave us… restrict all the character-race combinations to conform to B/X!

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  25. I'm happy to have found Advanced Labyrinth Lord. I was already doing "Basic engine/Advanced choices" for years, and also recall that's how my older brother and friends played.

    I just couldn't see the value in A's surprise rules, attribute tables, etc. It more or less just added rules that most people thought was garbage that got ignored anyways.

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  26. Lots of good points here. Like a lot of people back in the late 70s, we were playing a hodge-podge of different rules mashed together. We said we were playing AD&D because "Basic was for kids" (even though we were kids). But what we were really playing was Holmes Basic with the 1e Monster Manual and the classes from the PHB and a few of the tables from the DMG. We loved it and it was great. But a few years later, B/X did such a great job of compiling everything into simple rules and procedures that it's my favorite system 40 years later.

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  27. “Despite this, purely as a game, I don't think I'm speaking uncharitably in calling AD&D a convoluted mess....I don't think I'm alone in this doublethink regarding AD&D: simultaneously adoring its ideas and esthetics while feeling its rules are awful.”
    ——
    Yup. The strength of AD&D was not in its rules but its phantasmagorical take on fantasy both in game world concepts and artwork. Pulling from older fantasy, gothic horror, fairy tales, and even old ‘50s B-movie sci-fi (giant insects and gelatinous cubes, anyone ?), there were elements of horror, death, and fear of the unknown in the original AD&D aesthetic that just isn’t there today. And that’s a large part of what attracted me to the game in the first place. So, whenever I want a dose of nostalgia, I refer back to old issues of Dragon magazine and the art books “30 Years of Dungeons & Dragons” and “Art and Arcana,” not the old AD&D rules. Today, in D&D 5E, I find the reverse is true: I’m loving 5E’s simplicity and flexibility of the rules but absolutely hating its animé / Star Wars cantina aesthetics.

    When I got back into RPGs in 2019 after a long dry spell, the first game we played was the original AD&D module “Ravenloft“ using the AD&D retro clone “Castles & Crusades.” Despite C&C filing off the rough edges and dumping most of 1E’s unwieldy rules (psionics, pummeling & grappling, frickin’ •bards•), I couldn’t help but think it was still quite rigid and inflexible in character classes and progression, an area in which C&C hews quite closely to AD&D. D&D 5E, in contrast, is so flexible with the feat system and its modular character subclass system, there’s absolutely no reason to allow AD&D style multi-class characters at all.

    After our C&C adventure concluded, we tried a one-shot of the B/X clone “Dark Dungeons” and I recall having a more enjoyable time rules-wise than I did with C&C. So, yeah: Now that the old wargamer simulationist attitudes prevalent in the RPG golden age are dead and buried in the modern era, it doesn’t surprise me at all that old 80s D&D grognards like me are gravitating back to the Basic game, rather than AD&D again.

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  28. OSE is an excellent distillation of B/X and I love Gavin's art choices.

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  29. Moldvay Basic was my gateway and I'm so happy that legal pdfs are available (and cheap). Somehow, from the very first session, I understood intuitively that this was a *horror* game. In my rural area, support materials were so hard to come by that we happily incorporated anything we could find. What we ended up playing resembled Advanced Labyrinth Lord more than anything else ... a B/X engine with anything you might imagine bolted on. Glorious!

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  30. When I became interested in older versions of D&D, it was AD&D that originally fascinated me. I believe it was the strength of Gygax's writing in the DMG that pulled me in, but it was only when I discovered B/X that I found the edition that "clicked". There is so much content packed into those two thin books, and it is that simplicity that keeps me coming back time and time again.
    In terms of favourite retro clone, OSE is certainly the king for faithful adaptations and ease of use. But there is a soft place in my heart for LL.

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  31. I will say it this way for me, We started before ADnD was a thing. We started with Grayhawk, to me Grayhawk had the elements of modern D&D woven in to the new format. ADnD expanded on those ideas, we used ADnD more as a tool box then a strict set of rules. I have run ADnD many times over the years but I note many players don't know the full scope of the rules, like the combat tables with 5 "20s" or the oberbearing rules etc. I think DnD evolved in to more crunch and rules awaerness in later editions. But if you look Grayhawk is still their

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  32. Yes. BX for the core rules, AD&D for extra stuff. That's exactly how we played it when I was young, even though we wouldn't have framed it that way. It was just D&D.

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