Saturday, July 2, 2011

Commentary: Dragon Magzine #52, Moldvay Basic D&D Boxed set

You can read the article uninterrupted in my previous post today. I have added my own commentary to the Moldvay self review of the 2nd edition D&D Basic Set. My comments are in italics.

by Tom Moldvay
Editor, second edition
D&D® Basic Set rules

Why was a new edition of the D&D® Basic Set rules needed?

First of all, it was necessary for the Basic rules to be in the same format as their sequel, the D&D Expert Set rules. Otherwise, it would be difficult to use the two sets together, as they were meant to be used. The D&D Expert rules build on the D&D Basic rules, they do not replace them.

This makes great sense from a strictly cohesive brand presentation and rules format.  Interesting that Zeb Cook’s expert rules seem to have preceded Moldvay’s basic? Even more interesting is if true, Cook’s Expert rules must have started the change in format and goal from Holmes’ basic rules. Holmes Basic seems like a cleaned up intro to the LBB game.  B/X feels more like a complete revision.

Second, good as it was, the earlier edition still had minor flaws. The large number of questions received by TSR Hobbies showed that many areas of the D&D rules were still difficult for beginners to grasp. It was necessary to reorganize and re-edit the rules, keeping in mind that most new D&D players are not hard-core gamers and have never played a role-playing game before.

While the LBB’s were more  the realm of experienced gamers and the Holmes version tried to provide a bridge between LBB’s and an entry level product, it’s clear that Holmes’s Basic set was still too difficult for the masses to consume. I don’t believe that is a fault of Holmes, so much as one of TSR. With the Holmes Set, they knew they needed an intro set, but did not want to stray too far from LBB’s.  The Moldvay edition is clearly an attempt to go mass and be a true introductory RPG set of rules for kids.  While not called out, the Holmes Basic cover art (knight, wizard, dragon) feels better for intro game imagery than the EO cover of Moldvay. Certainly the Mentzer Basic edition Elmore cover is the most professional and “best” from a Mass Market appeal view.

Third, the market has changed since the earlier rules edition. The first D&D market was made up of game buffs and college students. Today, the majority of D&D players are high-school and junior-high students. The new rules edition takes into account the younger readership in its style of writing.

Again the market seems to be the driver here.  Realizing the influx of young people interested in playing, and having not made a rules set able to let them play, the Moldvay boxed set attempted to become that introduction.  As a wee lad of 11 who started with this box set I can say the tone, rules layout, and description’s were perfect for me. I learned to play and understand RPG’s because of this set. I am sure other’s learned from LBB’s or the Holmes edition, but this set feels like and reads like a true introductory set more so than the other two.

Fourth, the TSR staff had answered thousands of rule questions; play tested countless dungeons at conventions, and received myriad letters detailing players’ experiences with D&D game rules. Because of the accumulated experience of the staff, and the help of the gamers, we could now pinpoint which rules needed additional clarification. When I edited the D&D Basic rules, I tried to stress clarity, simplicity, and conciseness. The organization of the rules was particularly important since the rules would set the format for all other rule books in the D&D system, such as the D&D Expert rules.

Brilliant, Moldvay/TSR knew in advance where the trouble spots were in learning and designed/edited a rule set to cover those questions a newbie might have. Second they insured the Basic rules would naturally flow into the expert rules.  These long visions for rules development allowed for player growth, ease of player transition to more complicated rules, and insured a cohesive presentation and tone to new players.  That is no small feat, and one I have not seen executed as well since.

One important point to keep in mind when reading the D&D Basic rules is that they are not hard-and-fast rules, they are rule suggestions. The system is complete and highly playable, but it is flexible enough that Dungeon Masters and players need not fear experimenting with the rules. DMs and players, by mutual consent, are always welcome to change any rule they wish, or to add new rules when necessary.

This is one place I have to disagree with Moldvay.  When trying to teach someone the basics of play one should focus on presenting hard and fast rules.  When you say these are the rules…but you don’t have to play this way, I think it adds to confusion both for players and a new DM.  I remember arguments pretty early on over the rules because of this flexibility which derailed some games.  I think this sort of flexibility is better left to Expert rules which assume a certain level of comfort and knowledge.

Because of this rule flexibility, individuals who learned to play using the original D&D Collectors Edition rules, or the earlier edition of the D&D Basic rules, can use the new edition without changing their campaign.

Not sure how many veteran players needed this?

Much of the work put into the new edition was in reorganization. Whenever possible, step-by-step instructions were given because that type of direction is easiest to understand. Numerous examples were added, because examples often clarify rule descriptions.

A strength of the rules was the play examples which not only give a flavor to the game but show the mechanics in action.  We referred to these a lot for clarification when learning.

The edge of the booklet was drilled with holes so that it could be placed in a notebook, thus cutting down on the usual wear and tear the rulebook takes.

Never liked this and people who did put them in binder wound up with ripped books.  Second you created a boxed set, and by the very nature of it being boxed, it implies the game lives in the box.   Otherwise why make a box?  Odd decision and shows the gamers are in charge.

The rules were organized into a number of different sections which logically build on one another, are easy to follow and read, and are easy to find by using the Table of Contents. Furthermore, the general section headings will remain the same for all rulebooks in the D&D system. All gaming terms are defined before the actual rule sections begin, and the definitions are repeated in a glossary.

This was exceptionally helpful in learning and referring to the rules, especially for a beginner.  Again the great design and fore thought to make D&D a unified rules set split into learning step books was a great decision. 

From a sales perspective you are going to get people to purchase at least 2 boxed sets to play.  Versus AD&D where really only the DM needs all the books, and a player should only have one the PHB.  As these boxes and rules books each contain player and DM info together, everyone should have a boxed set. 

I think something similar could (should) be done today, break the game up into levels: Starter 1-3, Basic 4-7, Intermediate 8-11, Expert 12-15, Advanced 16+.  Then create world boxes, or monster boxes, or campaign boxes. This creates a lot of shelf space spread, insures multiple purchases, and lowers the knowledge/ reading retention required. In fact one could create dungeon boards and sell card booster encounter packs. This may not work for old gray gamers—but they will buy stuff anyway, you goal is acquisition of new blood.  The Basic set did that, and could again if done with the same forethought and design principles.

Finally, the rules were indexed. My favorite two sections of the rules were Part 8: Dungeon Master Information and page B62, dealing with Inspirational Source Material. Much of the information given in these two sections is new.

Great reference for simple instructions on how to play and where to find ideas.

Many players feel that becoming a DM is difficult. I tried to make it as easy to become a DM as possible. After all, DMs like to play too, but if there is only one DM per group, that person never gets the chance to play. Novice DMs are given detailed instructions and as many helpful tips as possible.  The rules include a description of typical dungeon scenarios and settings. They give suggestions for common types of room traps, treasure traps, and special trap types. They provide a simple system for creating an NPC party.

These were extremely helpful and easy to understand.  That many gamers still use these charts 30 years later is a testament to Moldvay getting this spot on.  Its simplicity, elegance, and usefulness have stood the test of time brilliantly. As a whole these tools allowed you the novice to try your hand at making a game like the designers.  Think about that. You go to a store and no other game of the time Monopoly, Risk, Bonkers, Life, Othello, Panzer Blitz, Battleship, etc. let you get in and really make your own game world and adventure in it.  It is the single greatest strength of RPG’s, relying on player imagination, that still makes them a viable and long lived gaming platform.  Moldvay’s DM section opened that door for me and blew me away.

Finally, they outline a sample dungeon, designed so that, if desired, one section could be played immediately. I also enjoyed sharing my favorite books and authors with readers. I have always found books to be excellent inspirational material when designing adventures. I am sorry that, because of space considerations, the list could not have been longer.

These are the haunted towers, and again another brilliant design decision.  One tower was ready to explore and the second was left to you the budding DM to experiment with!  You could see how the expert did it, and then have a go yourself!  I think I have stocked that tower a dozen different times.

 The Basic D&D game rules are directly based on the original Collectors Edition rules. The original rules gave the first gaming system for fantasy role-playing and, in my opinion, the D&D game rules remain the best fantasy role-playing rules available to game enthusiasts.

Here Moldvay is kissing the ring and probably trying to stem the worry of the Old Gray Gamers.  I don’t necessarily think this is necessary to say, and could cause confusion as they are far and away a streamlining and clarification of the original LBB’s.  Having read in succession the LBB’s, then Holmes Basic, then Moldvay in more recent years I really see Moldvay Basic as the Homo Sapien evolution of the D&D rules.

I am proud to have edited the new edition of the D&D Basic Set rules. It was our intent to retain the flavor of the original game while improving upon and extending the rules, so that the game could be more quickly and more easily enjoyed by new players. I believe our efforts were a success.

Mr. Moldvay’s edition was a tremendous success, and historically an important corner stone in the growth and foundation of RPG gaming as a whole.  It codified, cleaned up, streamlined and presented in a simple way the complexities of game with no board, no pieces, and no winner.  These rules presented a revolutionary game that could last hours, days, weeks, months or years and was only limited in the end by your imagination.  A game which 30 years later remains as fresh and inspiring to me at 41 as it did to my when I first tore off the plastic wrap in 1981. 


Desert Scribe said...

Excellent commentary on the designer's notes, and looking back now, I agree. However, at the time, this edition always seemed to talk down to me--maybe because I didn't actually see it till a year or two after I received and figured out the Holmes set, and at the same time I started getting into AD&D.

Fenway5 said...

@DS-Thanks! I do not believe my views nor experiences are the summary of D&D experiences by any means. Everyone came at the game from a different direction. It's part of the nature, and I think strength of the hobby.