About a week ago I stumbled on a forum thread in which some veteran fans went through all the setting material of the Known World/Mystara setting, which had been the default setting for the B/X and BECMI editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Knowing nothing about that world I took a peek out of curiosity and quickly got very much interested. I had some vague familiarity with some retroclones based on it, mostly Adventurer Conqueror King and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and even though they looked very well made, they just seemed very weird. Very much unlike D&D as I had known it for the 10 or so years before I left it behind me.
But now I got myself really interested in that old game, mostly because it seemed pretty rules light, and the amount of complicated rules had always annoyed me the most about AD&D and made me leave behind 3rd Edition/Pathfinder and look for greener pastures. And I really hate the magic system so much that I never want to run any edition of D&D again and only play it if someone else is GM and wants to run it. But I am still very much interested in how that game really worked and what I can learn from it about running rules light games and how to make dungeon exploration as exciting as the tales I often read. So I got myself the original Basic and Expert rules as pdf and went ahead to really learn how that game actually works and was supposed to be played.
To recap, the original Dungeons & Dragons game was released in 1974. Just four years later we got Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, in which Gary Gygax himself greatly expanded on the original rules. To quote some British writer: “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” At least among people who prefered the much more simpler rules, which continued to get their own new editions with the Basic Sets. The first came in 1978 and was followed by another one in 1981 that also got an Expert Set, which later led to the abbreviation B/X. The in 1981 there was a new version of both the Basic and Expert Sets, which were also expanded on with the Companion, Master, and Imortal Sets, now known as BECMI. That’s the edition I am talking about here, though I think the Basic and Expert sets have pretty much the same rules in both B/X and BECMI, and I am probably going to limit it to that, with the other three sets not yet having been rereleased as pdf.
BECMI has the same ability scores we’ve always known, but the usual order is different: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. It probably was changed later only because someone realized there are three physical and three mental scores and thought it was neat to have them ordered three and three. The method to generate those six scores is the old classic brutal roll 3d6 six times and write the results down in order. I always wondered how that would be fun. Even if you do 4d6 drop lowest in order, you still end up with scores that very much limit what character class you can take and your character might not even be actually good at it. I also noticed that all classes have a Prime Requisite ability score that indicates how much experience the character gets. With a 13 in your prime, you get +5% more XP and with a 16 +10% XP. With an 8 you get -10% and with a 5 even just -20% the normal XP. If my fighter is already weak, why punish me even more with giving me less XP?
So I kept looking around some more and made an interesting discovery. Ability scores do almost nothing else. Strength does not give you a higher chance to hit or make you do more damage. Wisdom does not make you more resistant to spells or more perceptive. Intelligence does not allow magic users to cast more spells per day. These things are all fixed by class and level. And in that light, the Prime Requisites do make sense. Instead of giving a high strength fighter a bonus to attack and damage, you get new levels slightly faster and new levels make you better at fighting. That seems like a perfectly reasonable approach to ability scores, even though I think no other game since did it that way. Where things got weird is AD&D, where the ability scores affect a lot of your character abilities, but you still got that high Prime Requisite experience bonus at the same time. You get the benefit twice. It’s redundant. But as an alternative to bonuses and penalties to certain actions? Sure, why not?
And in light of that, I also have much less of a problem with the six ability scores being randomly generated. The numbers you get don’t force you into any class. Having a low score in your Prime Requisite does not make your character weaker. You can have a ridiculously weak fighter or a very low intelligence magic user and they can be played just as well. You level up somewhat slower than the other party members of the same class, but that’s all. You still can play any class you want to play. To play a dwarf, elf, or halfling, you need to meet minimum scores, but these are only 9, pretty easy to reach. Again, AD&D is different. Ability scores matter a lot in AD&D, but you still get to play with randomly assigned stats. This more than ever confirms me in my view that Gygax was not actually a great game designer. He got that idea, which was a totally awesome idea, and he was chiefly responsible for getting that idea to a wider market, which was super freaking mega awesome and is an accomplishment that can’t ever be praised enough. But I think he was no genius and just as clueless as everyone else at the time when it came to game design. All those “improvements” that AD&D introduced really were not well thought out for the most part. Again, his importance for the business and the hobby can not be overstated, but I think as a game designer he’s totally overhyped. And the editing of the AD&D rulebooks is just terrible.
Probably the greatest oddity about Basic and the one that always kept me away from taking a real look at it are the character classes fighter, cleric, magic user, thief, dwarf, elf, and halfling. Why dwarf and elf as classes? How does that make any sense?! Why can I not play a dwarf cleric or elf thief? But trying to understand this game, even if I don’t want to play it, made that approach not appear that stupid at all. Juse like ability scores don’t make a lot of difference, so do classes. I think BECMI can be reasonably called a rules-light game because it follows the paradigm of “unless there is a reason why a character can’t do a thing, he can do that thing”. There are no skills, there are not feats, and aside from spellcasting and thief abilities, there aren’t really any class features. An elf may not be as good a fighter as a fighter, or cast as much spells as a magic user, but he can fight and he can cast spells. A dwarf may not pull of as amazing feats of sneaking, climbing, and disabling traps, be he can sneak, climb, and disable traps. As there aren’t really any rules for that, it’s left entirly up to the GMs discretion whether the player characters can pull it off or not.
As I mentioned in a post earlier today, clerics in D&D can fight in heavy armor, because they don’t have a reason not to. In 3rd edition it’s a special ability that doesn’t really make sense for clerics. But in Basic everyone can put on all armor. Except for thieves, because they must stay mobile, and magic user, because it interferes with their spells. Everyone else can wear what they want.
Hit Points are surpisingly low. Fighters get 1d8, clerics 1d6, and thieves and magic users 1d4. This result does get adjusted by the Consistution score, which is one of the rare cases where the ability scores make a real difference.
Clerics have the ability to turn undead and at second level learn how to cast spells, which are strictly for protection and quite limited in number. They also have the limitation that they can only uses maces, clubs, hammers, and slings, but no reason is given why.
Fighters can use all weapons, and that’s pretty much it.
Magic Users are called magic users and I have no idea why. What’s wrong with wizard or mage? They can use a dagger and nothing else. Their only ability is to cast spells, and infamously only a single one per day at 1st level. Which makes them really terrible in combat, but out of combat they are just as useful as anyone else. You got hands, feet, a mouth, and a brain. Make yourself useful in talking with people and finding ways around obstacles just like the others.
Thieves can use leather armor, all ranged weapons, and one handed melee weapons, and as I mentioned before have very little hit points. The book even says that thieves are not suppose to get into close up fights, just like mages. I think AD&D beefed them up to d6 and Pathfinder even to d8, which I think was a mistake. It makes thieve a kind of warrior, which originally they really were not meant to be. But then, in 3rd edition/Pathfinder everything is about combat. Very interestingly, thieves have the ability to find and remove traps. There is no ability to disable traps. After all, once you have found a trap, everyone is able to block the arrow hole or put a plank over the hidden trapdoor. You don’t need a thief for that. One very interesting thing is that thieves can only try to open a lock, find a hidden trap, or remove a trap once. If they fail, they fail. We got a result: The thief is not able to do it. Why keep rolling again and again until a higher number shows up on the dice? What the dice roll does is not to decide how good the thief was at his attempt, but it determines if this is a kind of lock the thief can open or a type of lock he can’t open. At lower levels, the chances are pretty slim, though. So are moving silently and hide in shadows. How I see it, sneaking around is always an option. However, thieves have a chance to stay undetected in situations where everyone else would be spotted. Even if that chance is just 10% at first level, it’s a nice bonus that other characters don’t have. Normal sneaking, just like everything else, is left to the GM to decide. There’s of course also good old backstab, which gets a +4 to the attack roll and deals double damage.
Dwarves are basically fighter, but with much better saving throws and can also see in the dark. As a limitation, they can not use two-handed weapons other than shortbows and crossbows.
Elves are fighter/mage characters and require twice as many XP as fighters to level up. They can use all weapons and armor and have just as many spells as magic users do, but after first level will always be of much lower level then these. They can see in the dark and are immune to paralysis by ghouls, which really might be the most random special ability ever.
Halflings are also basically fighters with fewer hit points and can only use small weapons (which includes shortbows). They get +1 to hit with ranged weapons and to initiative and their armor class is treated as two better when fighting large humanoid monsters. When hiding in bushes they have only a 10% chance of being spotted and in dungeons they can hide on a 2 in 6 chance. Which makes me wonder why thieves have to bother with percentile dice when you could just use d6 instead?