[Let's Read] Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, by Tom Moldvay

JoshR

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On top of all the talk about OSR/old school, WotC's announced plans for a basic set, the possibility of an RC reprint, and the mysterious test of the D&D page on RPGNow, I've just purchased box sets of Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert (no dice, but B2 and X1 are included!). And I kinda miss the Let's Read OD&D thread. So I thought I'd do a Let's Read of Moldvay Basic, which Mearls has cited as a significant influence on D&DN.

Starting off, the box cover. The cover by Erol Otus is a classic, and while most of my gaming youth was influenced by Elmore, Easley, Parkinson, and Caldwell, it was Erol Otus who first inspired me of the possibilities when I saw this art. It pretty much effectively encapsulates the game: you've got a dungeon, you've got a dragon, you've got magic, you've got treasure, you've got a fighter. And in retrospect it's interesting to note that the fighter wields not the sword of a fantasy hero, but rather the spear of a common footsoldier. I remember being fascinated by the door in the background. Fighting a dragon, of course! Who doesn't want to do that? But for some reason that door in the background of the cover art awoke in me a desire to explore dungeons.

Looking at the rest of the cover, it's notable that the game is called "The Original Fantasy Role Playing Game For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up". As a player and fan of BECMI, it bugs me when some folks decry it as when D&D began being marketed as a kids game, especially when B/X was noted as "Ages 10 and Up". OTOH, you have the curious construction "Adults, Ages 10 and Up". It is almost as if D&D was saying, you can be 10 years old, but you have to be an adult to play this game. Also, the "3 or More" is telling. That's a dungeon master and two players. My current group cancels the session if only three people can show up (not my call).

The cover of the rulebook has the same art within a red background. No classic dragon-ampersand at this point in time. Inside the cover is the table of contents, in hard to read blue ink. The title page includes this art by Bill Willingham. Another piece favored by fans of Moldvay Basic. I like it; it's evocative. But it's a little cartoony, and frankly, I'm detecting a pattern... The game is credited to Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, edited by Tom Moldvay. Holmes gets name-checked with "Previous edition edited by J. Eric Holmes". Art by Jeff Dee, Davis S. LaForce, Erol Otus, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham. On to the foreword!

Two things strike me about the foreword. One is that it is bookended by Moldvay describing his character fighting and defeating a dragon. So, you have dragon fight on cover, dragon fight on title page, dragon fight in foreword. Even though 1-3rd level characters probably shouldn't go up against a dragon, and even if they do, they probably don't want to take it head on. So there's a bit of a disconnect between the game and playstyle that Moldvay describes in the rules, and the game and playstyle presented to a new player on their initial contact with the book. It's no wonder that fans in the 80s took the game in more heroic, high fantasy directions.

The other thing is that Moldvay writes, "Sometimes I forget that the D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel..." There's a lot of this. Anytime "D&D" or "Dungeons & Dragons" appears on the box cover, book cover, forward, or introduction, it's accompanied by a ®. The title page doesn't just say © 1981, it says "© 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981". No disclaimer is spared -- "...are registered trademarks of TSR...", "All rights reserved", "...prohibited without express written consent..." I glossed over it back in the day, but after reading Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World", I can see some of the context. A lot of potted histories of D&D/TSR that I've read recently paint Gygax as the hard working, visionary designer, forced out by the Lorraine Williams and the suits, who then proceeded to sue everyone. But as "Playing at the World" illustrates, already by 1976 C&D letters were flying around, lawsuits were threatened, material was appropriated in shaky ways. Moldvay Basic post-dates the lawsuits between Gygax and Arneson. So it's no surprise to see TSR being absolutely clear and persistent in the declarations of their intellectual property.

Moving on to the acknowledgements, Old Geezer gets name-checked! Also many names I would get to "know" in the coming years: Dave Cook (not yet "Zeb"!), Ernie Gygax, Harold Johnson, Rob Kuntz, Frank Mentzer, and Jim Ward.

Next time -- the Introduction!
 
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ShannonA

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Inside the cover is the table of contents, in hard to read blue ink.
Interesting how all the page numbers are labeled "B1", "B2", etc. They really intended this book to be part of a large set where you'd want to refer to them all in an intermingling way.

Moving on to the acknowledgements, Old Geezer gets name-checked! Also many names I would get to "know" in the coming years: Dave Cook (not yet "Zeb"!), Ernie Gygax, Harold Johnson, Rob Kuntz, Frank Mentzer, and Jim Ward.
Sadly, a bunch of those folks were a few months from getting fired from TSR for bad-think, among them Kevin Hendryx, Paul Reiche III, and the aforementioned Bill Willingham. In other words, TSR was just on the cusp of becoming a real company, with all the problems that ensues.

Lots of other great names on that list, too. Jean Wells wrote the forbidden edition of Palace of the Silver Princess. Lawrence Schick was the one in charge of the Design Department (and thus Moldvay, Cook, and others), also the author of Heroic Worlds, the first great book about the industry. Tim Kask was the creator of Dragon magazine and pretty adamant about it not being a house organ.
 
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JoshR

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Interesting how all the page numbers are labeled "B1", "B2", etc. They really intended this book to be part of a large set where you'd want to refer to them all in an intermingling way.
Indeed. I wonder if anyone ever did that. I was always loath to destroy the covers.

Sadly, a bunch of those folks were a few months from getting fired from TSR for bad-think, among them Kevin Hendryx, Paul Reiche III, and the aforementioned Bill Willingham. In other words, TSR was just on the cusp of becoming a real company, with all the problems that ensues.
Any links to stories or details? What was their bad-think?

Lots of other great names on that list, too. Jean Wells wrote the forbidden edition of Palace of the Silver Princess. Lawrence Schick was the one in charge of the Design Department (and thus Moldvay, Cook, and others), also the author of Heroic Worlds, the first great book about the industry. Tim Kask was the creator of Dragon magazine and pretty adamant about it not being a house organ.
That's right. I was just rereading the story between Palace of the Silver Princess. Kinda harsh that they totally pulled the original and rewrote it, instead of just removing the problematic artwork and fixing some of Well's errors.
 

RedFox

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Oh this is a downright tease! I'm definitely subscribing to this thread, though. B/X is my preferred edition right now*, and I've got two copies of the Moldvay set (a tattered "loaner" copy and one in much better condition I keep to myself). Currently running B4: The Lost City, next session tomorrow morning! :)

I am absolutely in love with that second piece of art, the interior one. I have no problem with the "cartoony" aspect, and in fact there's a bit of perspective warp on the cover art dragon's face that always bugs me despite its appeal to me. There are, however, some really dire pieces in the book as well as really superb ones. It's not super consistent.

I recommend reading the article by Holmes in Dragon magazine #52 about Moldvay's set when it first came out. He talks a bit about dragons in the basic set, and it's a good compliment to an examination of this release. :)

Will you be doing a Let's Read of the modules as well? X1 is my absolute favorite module of all time.

* Though I'm very interested in Swords & Wizardry and Adventurer, Conqueror, King.
 

JoshR

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Oh this is a downright tease! I'm definitely subscribing to this thread, though. B/X is my preferred edition right now*, and I've got two copies of the Moldvay set (a tattered "loaner" copy and one in much better condition I keep to myself). Currently running B4: The Lost City, next session tomorrow morning! :)
I was intending to include the introduction, but it seemed like the post was already getting long!

I am absolutely in love with that second piece of art, the interior one. I have no problem with the "cartoony" aspect, and in fact there's a bit of perspective warp on the cover art dragon's face that always bugs me despite its appeal to me. There are, however, some really dire pieces in the book as well as really superb ones. It's not super consistent.
Yes, I can understand that; the cover dragon's juuuust a bit off. I'll definitely be commenting on all the art, providing links to pics when I can find them. And I should note that I personally have no problem with the cartoony aspect of Willingham's art! There's really like its counterpart in the Expert set, which appears to feature a tiefling PC! ;)

I recommend reading the article by Holmes in Dragon magazine #52 about Moldvay's set when it first came out. He talks a bit about dragons in the basic set, and it's a good compliment to an examination of this release. :)
Hehe. I found that article when searching for an image of the cover art. Nothing tells me that gamers haven't really changed over the years like Holmes griping about infravision in a review of a new edition!

Will you be doing a Let's Read of the modules as well? X1 is my absolute favorite module of all time.
I was wondering if I should go to B2 after this (Full Basic Set!) and then do the Expert Rules and X1, or move right on to the Expert Rules. If you're interested though, I'll happily do the modules!
 

RedFox

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Nothing tells me that gamers haven't really changed over the years like Holmes griping about infravision in a review of a new edition!
Infravision! Complete hooey! ;)


I was wondering if I should go to B2 after this (Full Basic Set!) and then do the Expert Rules and X1, or move right on to the Expert Rules. If you're interested though, I'll happily do the modules!
In my opinion I'd love to see each set done up together. Basic + B2, then Expert + X1. The module for each is a compliment to the rules and vice versa. Particularly with the Expert set and X1, where Isle of Dread really showcases the new wilderness adventure rules.
 

ShannonA

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Any links to stories or details? What was their bad-think?
The stories are pretty scattered. I've got a lot of them compiled in the new edition of Designers & Dragons, of which the '70s book is now with an editor.

As far as I know, there were three main types of bad-think: supporting Dave Arneson, who was just settling a lawsuit with TSR that March; badmouthing management, who at that time was in their own building, away from creative, and thus seemed very out of touch; and questioning management decisions. For example, Bill Willingham and Jeff Dee were fired for questioning some of the old firings.

The Purge claimed somewhere between a dozen and 20 employees, and probably was mostly the result of Kevin Blume coming on to the company as COO.
 

ShannonA

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I recommend reading the article by Holmes in Dragon magazine #52 about Moldvay's set when it first came out. He talks a bit about dragons in the basic set, and it's a good compliment to an examination of this release. :)
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There's an article by Moldvay in the same issue, and it amuses be because one of his main points was that it wasn't easy enough to learn D&D from Holmes' set. Which was the same thing that Holmes said about OD&D when he put together his edition and the same thing Mentzer would say about the Moldvay set a few years later. It's a problem that TSR never really managed to solve.
 

Sleeper

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There's an article by Moldvay in the same issue, and it amuses be because one of his main points was that it wasn't easy enough to learn D&D from Holmes' set. Which was the same thing that Holmes said about OD&D when he put together his edition and the same thing Mentzer would say about the Moldvay set a few years later. It's a problem that TSR never really managed to solve.
I think they did. The Holmes box was a good start, but not perfect. But both Moldway and Menzter's versions were excellent in their own way. Moldvay remains one of the best written versions of D&D, and is very terse, and very clear. It's designed in an incremental fashion, so it's fairly accessible (Basic set first, then the Expert set by Cook/Marsh), but it's not really aimed at the complete beginner. It works best with people who've sat at a table and thrown a few dice beforehand, and want to learn more. Menzter on the other hand is aimed at people who haven't played before, and introduces them to the whole concept with a walk through adventure. Which is why the text can sometimes feel like it's talking down to a more experienced reader. Both are definitely superior to the later Basic sets.

Though the best way to learn to play is to play.

And there was some discussion about the "Adults, Ages 10 and Up" blurb in the OSR a few years ago. I think the consensus was that it was a very smart marketing move.
 

Daztur

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A lot of potted histories of D&D/TSR that I've read recently paint Gygax as the hard working, visionary designer, forced out by the Lorraine Williams and the suits, who then proceeded to sue everyone.
Not that Gygax was a saint but the Blums were calling the shots well before Williams took over.
 
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