It’s D&D, Jim, but not as we know it.

So these past days I’ve been looking at the old Basic and Expert rules for Dungeons & Dragons to get some clues how I can incorporate dungeon exploration and wilderness travel in a Barbarians of Lemuria game. There are rules for that in D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder, but they seem incredibly fiddly, tedious, and just plain unfun. So I started to look further out and oldschool D&D really seems to have had a quite strong emphasis on it.

It might simply be because of the kind of stuff that personally interests me, but it always seems to me that most people who write about RPGs on their websites are people in their mid-40s to mid 50s who started with really ancient versions of D&D when they were 10 and stuck with it, while I am one generation later and only got into RPGs when I was 16 and D&D 3rd editon was released. What I have seen of dungeon crawling always seemed pretty dull and pointless, because I always demand for strong stories and roleplaying. But reading other people talking about their really oldschool adventures of dungeon crawlings, it all sounds much more exciting and fascinating. It made me want to learn more.

I had been looking at Advanced Dungeons & Dragons before, but never really got much useful out of it. I am very familiar with the AD&D 2nd edition and the D&D 3rd edition and also reasonably familiar with AD&D 1st ed. and D&D 4th ed. Now I started actually taking a lok at the Basic and Expert sets, and it all just feels very different. Familiar, but definitly different. So I went ahead to learn more about this other version of D&D, and there seems to be quite a lot more about it than I ever expected. Now obviously I don’t know even a bit about the larger history, how it was perceived at the time, who played it and how, or even how the game really feels when you actually play it. A lot of what I am going to write here will be inaccurate, misunderstood, and perhaps even flat out wrong. But I think there are probably quite a lot of people out there who don’t know anything more about Basic D&D than I did and I just feel like sharing some of those interesting things I discovered and learned over the past days. From one noob to other noobs.

Let’s start with some history. Back in 1974, the first Dungeon & Dragons game was released, credited to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It’s a pretty small game of which I know barely anything about. It was a huge success, though, and four years later, in 1978, the brand branched out into two different product lines, which as far as I am aware, even had completely different writing and development staff. Gygax produced the now very famous Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, which greatly expanded on the rules of the original game, while Holmes wrote a new version of the old game which was called the Basic Set, which remained a pretty simple and almost rules-light game that didn’t have many of the new elements that were introduced by AD&D. As many of the older folks tell it themselves, even a lot of self-respecting 10 year olds wouldn’t allow themselves to be caught playing a “Basic” game when there was a much more sophisticated “Advanced” game around. Also, AD&D was written by Gygax himself, who used a writing style that to me feels quite personal, in the sense that he doesn’t make any attempts to distance himself from the work. He isn’t providing a faceless service, he is teaching the game and seeking a (one-sided) conversation with the readers. While the Basic Set was written by “some guy”. The AD&D game went ahead to become the system for Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, and after Gygax had left the company and the AD&D 2nd Edition came around in 1989, the realms continued their rise to fame and being joined by Planescape, Dark Sun, and Ravenloft. When Wizards of the Coast took over TSR, and released their new Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000, it really was a pretty stable continuation of AD&D. Which is why even when you first got into D&D with 3rd edition, most things about AD&D feel very familiar. The same races, the same classes, the same monsters, the same settings.

But the 1978 Basic Set also continued to have a history of its own, one that is virtually completely independent from that point on and which, to my knowledge, never returned to merge with game line that is still around today. I don’t really know much about the 1978 other than it was written by a guy named Holmes. One could rightfully call the game D&D 2nd Edition, but I believe that was never actually done and later developments would make that numbering scheme very impractical.

Three years later, in 1981, Zeb Cook had written the Expert Set, which was an expansion to the Basic Set. Since there had been some stylistic changes, TSR also released a new third version of the Basic Set, written by Moldvay, so the content and style would all match up. This version of Basic and Expert is often abbreviated to B/X, or when people want to avoid any possible confusion the Moldvay/Cook edition. The Basic Set covered the rules for characters from 1st to 3rd level and mostly deals with exploring dungeons, while the Expert set goes from 4th to 14th level and adds new rules for wilderness adventures. (I actually didn’t know until yesterday that this Cook was the same Cook who created Planescape. Pretty cool.)

Two more years later, in 1983, came the release of the Companion Set. And, as the time before, there also came a new version of the Basic Set and Expert Set. These were followed the next two years by the Master Set and the Immortal Set, which gets us the abbreviation BECMI. They were all written by Mentzer, so they are often called the Mentzer edition. Since you can play pretty long campaigns with just the Basic and Expert sets and ignoring the some or all of the other three, this can be clearer than saying you’re playing Basic and Expert. But as far as I am aware, the rules between Moldvay/Cook and Mentzer are extremely similar and the main difference is the new (and quite extensive) introduction added by Mentzer and the pictures.

Then in 1991, all the content from the BECMI sets was combined into a single book called the Rules Cyclopedia. Which, if you counted, would be D&D 5th Edition, while the game that is currently produced by that name is AD&D 4th Edition, and the one called D&D 4th edition a third separate branch of D&D. The Rules Cyclopedia has a very great reputation, but since it includes all the content from the C, M, I Sets and I only care for Basic and Experts, I don’t have any real interest in it or know much about it. It was made by Aaron Allston, who many may know as a pretty famous sci-fi author.

Once I started to give Basic and Expert a try (going with the Mentzer version now, which is BECMI, not actually B/X), it very soon became clear that this is a really quite different and entirely separate evolutionary branch of Dungeons & Dragons. All the basics are still there: You got your six ability scores which go from 3 to 18; you got humans, elves, dwarves and halflings as playable races; there’s goblins, orcs, ogres, lizard men, owlbears, frost giants, and fire giants, and so on; the magic system is the same and the spells all seem familiar.

But that’s where things end and a lot of differences become apparent. Probably the most notable is Races as Classes. In this game, elves, dwarves, and halflings don’t have character classes. When they level up, they gain new levels in elf, dwarf, and halfling. This seems so weird that I think it had always been the main reason why I never really took a real look at Basic D&D. But within the context of the game, it makes some degree of sense, since compared to AD&D, it is very rules-light. The options for humans aren’t very great either. There are only four classes: fighter, thief, cleric, and magic-user and that’s it. At 9th level clerics can convert into druids and I think there is some kind of monk class in the later sets, but that’s it. Like in AD&D, there are no feats or skills. You roll your ability scores, pick a class, and that’s the whole character creation process.

Alignment is also quite a different thing. Like in the original 1974 game, there are only three alignments here. Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. While Gygax added Good and Evil in his AD&D game, Basic D&D kept it to Law and Chaos and says it quite explicitly that Law is basically the same as “good” and Chaos the same as “evil”. It’s slightly different from just nice/prick, but heroes are lawful, villains are chaotic. That’s it.

Though at first glance monsters seem to be pretty much the same and you’ll find nothing unfamiliar in the Basic Set, you can find a few unremarkable additions in the Expert Set, like the devl swine or rhagodessa, which really is just another big spider. But then things get weird. Ever heard of a malfera, mujina, spectral hound, or kryst? And then you step into the truly weird. In the Master Set you get the actaeon, devilfish, hsiao, mek, and nekrozon, and the Immortal Set has the well known demons (though with different name), but apparently no mention of devils. And then later there’s also the Creature Collection, which I might do in my Fantasy Safari series some day. There are some pretty iconic races from the Known World setting shared by these books, like the rakasta, hutaakan, and nagpa, which I believe lots of people have never heard of. There are also numerous notable absences. While beholders are in the books, there are no mind flayers or aboleths. No kuo-toa, drow, or slaad; no githyanki, displacer beasts, or yuan-ti. Because most of these were Greyhawk creatures and were introduced in AD&D. At this point I must admit that the Basic branch of D&D did not remain completely separated from the AD&D branch forever. There are a few monsters that have been included in the D&D 3rd Ed. Monster Manual. Such fan favorites like the aranea, assassin vine, athach, and behir. Araneas showed up a few times because they are spiders and spiders are always cool, but did anyone ever use the others?

Also, did you ever wonder why the Fiend Folio for AD&D is such a weird book? For Basic D&D, it doesn’t seem weird at all. I don’t know exactly how much material was out for the game when people submitted their fan creations for the FF, but in the Known World most of them wouldn’t seem out of place. Did you know that the design of the Borg from Star Trek is taken direct from a race of villains that appeared in the adventure Where Chaos Reigns four years earlier? And did you know that the plot of that module became the movie First Contact? “A group of cybernetic creatures from the future have traveled back through time to enslave the human[oid] race[s]… and you’re here to stop them?” Yes, that’s the plot. And in the world of basic D&D, that’s not even extraordinarily weird.

Another thing you might not know to orignally come from this branch of D&D is the Island of Dread, which was one of the very modules for B/X and became the setting for the Savage Tide adventure path from Dungeon magazine.

It clearly is D&D. The classes, the races, the magic, and most of the monsters, and how the dice are used, and so on. But it also feels very different. Even more so than Dark Sun, and that one doesn’t really have any visible similarities to Greyhawk. It all has a very Pulp feel and much of it is just silly. But other aspects I really quite like.

3 thoughts on “It’s D&D, Jim, but not as we know it.”

  1. One thing about BECMI is that after the expert content, rules bloat sets in really bad and there are lots of dubious mechanical choices added in an attempt to add 22 extra levels worth of content for a system that was really only balanced for 14. The only things really of interest are the Champion and Masters monster lists, maybe some additional spells, but it’s not really a playable game beyond the Expert content.

    If you’re considering ideas on how to run a wilderness campaign, find the Isle of Dread module if you haven’t already. Between the Expert ruleset and the info in the module, you’ll have everything you need to figure out how to run a successful wilderness campaign.

    Also, the first AD&D Monster Manual actually uses the Holmes Basic rules instead of the AD&D rules, so it’s compatible with B/X

  2. Thanks for writing this. I started playing D&D back when I got the Red and Blue “B/X” books from someone who had moved on to AD&D, and I loved being the DM for my friends. The rules-light version was really easy to run as a 10-year old, and as time went on I stuck with it, eventually getting the 5 boxes (and the Hollow World campaign setting) and taking our little group on a monty haul campaign all the way to castle ownership and near immortality.

    I still have the magic item supplement and creature catalog, and even when I’ve moved on to newer versions of D&D (5th edition or Next, reminds me quite a lot of basic) I’ve always taken some of my old favorite monsters from “Mystara” and converted them. Mystara being the name of the original basic D&D setting, although I think only certain modules (or the Gazetteer products) even made that clear.

    People who’ve never played it always get this very strange look when I explain 3 alignments and races as classes, but it worked well enough for a bunch of gradeschool kids. Thinking about this, I’m now remembering my old party’s nemesis Alphaks, subject of several high-level modules, and the many puzzles and battles they had to win in order to finally defeat him. I think they even ended up chasing him through Asgard to 1980’s London at some point. Good times!

  3. I cut my teeth on AD&D 1E back when it was brand new. When I discovered Mentzer’s Expert (in the mid 80s), I had no idea there was a Basic. I got Moldvay’s Basic set at a used bookstore, and used the two together blissfully for years before I discovered there was a different version of Basic. I love the feel of the two together, and they brought that sense of wonder to D&D that I still love. That sense of wonder was lacking in AD&D.

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