Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)

Last year I did a forum thread about reading through all of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert rules for the first time, after having flipped through it briefly and being quite impressed by what I saw. Looking over it again, I think it turned out interesting enough to preserve it here for the future.

D&D Basic

Lets’s do this really thoroughly. Let’s begin with the cover.

First thought: It is red. Though the art is changed in the Mentzer version two years later, the red color is kept, resulting in it being called the Red Box. (As there’s also the original White Box and the Forgotten Realms Grey Box.) It really does stand out. The art is very well done, especially when compared to the cra… less sophisticated art of AD&D 1st edtion. It has a fighter and a mage fighting a dragon in a dungeon. That dragon looks angry, the fighter has his spear raised, and the mage is about to throw her magic missile.There’s also a torch providing dramatic fire and the dragon is standing in water so it splashes around. This kicks ass! This could only be more awesome if the dragon was breathing fire. Also nice to see someone with a spear instead of a boring sword, but that’s just me. The shield is wrong, but whatever. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the artists personal style, but he really seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make the picture communicate the contents of the book. It’s not just some guys standing around posing for the artist while looking menacingly. It actually tells you what the game is about. And it’s red! You don’t need to know what Dungeons & Dragons is and with this cover you’ve already taken in all the art before you even read the name at the top. It looks a bit unsophisticated compared to modern cover art design, but I think sdjusting for the different styles of different periods, this is probably the best RPG cover I’ve seen so far.

I also like “For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”. Nice touch.

Next is the whole table of contents on a single page. Very nice. And then we get the credits OH MY GAAHH…!


I said the only way the cover could be more cool is if the dragon were breathing fire. This one does! And this wizard is throwing his magic missile and it’s also a dragon! The dude with the bow is about to shot the dragon into the mouth and the dwarf is under the dragon, raising his hammer to smash its knees. And that elf chick blocking the dragons breath with her shield while looking cool? Totally badass. Let me put on the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack before I continue writing this.

Why is this picture here on the credits page? This isn’t really telling us anything or illustrating something that is explained on that page, like most RPG art. It’s simply there to make the page not look as empty. So why not put something there that gets people hyped up for them game after they are already curious from the cover?


Okay, let’s get to actually reading the book. It has a short foreword, which I usually don’t read, but since the interest here lies not just in the specific rules of the edition, but how it is related and compares to all the other rules versions, let’s give this a look. There is a bit of nostalgic musing about OD&D (if you can call it that after just 6 years), but Moldvay spells it out specifically that OD&D was written for experienced wargamers. The primary goal of this revision of the rules was to make them accessible to completely new players, who are not familiar with these types of games at all. Many of the changes were made in direct response to letters send by players to TSR with questions about specific elements of the rules. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention the Holmes version that had been released 3 years later. Perhaps he was including it with “the original D&D rules”? As I mentioned before, I don’t know anything about OD&D or Holmes Basic, so I am unable to even guess.

He also dedicates a short paragraph to say “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions”. He encourages to make changes, “particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination”. Which certainly is an important thing, especially with games of this period. But I think to completely new players who barely have any understanding of the rules as they are written at this point, this doesn’t really seem like particularly helpful advice. It seems a bit too much “yeah, whatever” to me. A few more sentences on explaining that it’s best to first fully understand the rules and using them for a while before trying to improve them for the personal requirements would have been a good idea. However, since this game is very compact and quite simple to begin with, it seems much less of an issue than with many other, much more complex games. The chance to accidentally cause a chain reaction as whole structures of rules collapse with rules on which they are build being taken away seems quite low here.

In the Aknowledgements, there’s special thanks to Frank Mentzer who helped with organizing the rules. He’s the one who would do the revision of this revision three years later.

Part 1: Introduction

This is two pages of the basic “What’s a Roleplaying Game” stuff. Usually I’d skip this, but here it might be interesting to take a closer look. It already mentions the Expert Set, as the two sets had been developed as a pair. The Basic set is for characters of 1st to 3rd level and deals mostly with dungeon adventures, while the Expert set will cover the 4th to 14th level and have rules for adventures outside the dungeon. It also announces the Companion set with rules for 15th to 36th level, which actually got released only 4 years later, together with a revised Basic and Expert Sets.

It’s recommended to remove the staples and cut the double pages up into single pages and make a ring binder out of them. So in theory you could later do the same with the Expert (and Companion) rules and have all the spells and monster together. For that purpose all the pages are numbered B1, B2, B3, and so on and then you’ll get the pages X1, X2, … from the Expert Set. But I do have my doubts if that actually would lead to a well organized binder, since with several monsters on every page you couldn’t get them all alphabetically. And I believe the Expert set has a few bits of errata but doesn’t duplicate the whole section of rules, just the specific paragraph. If I remember it, I’ll check it after having covered all of the Expert rules.

And here we do have a longer paragraph adressing how to judge whether to change a rule and advising on thinking it through carefully. Very nice.

The section “Definitions of Standard D&D Terms” begins with READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY. In ALL CAPS and bold. Why no excalmation marks? Though will most of this section is most likely completely obvious to anyone reading it now, it probably was very important at the time of release and the intended audience. It explains not just things like Dungeon Master or Player Character, but also much more basic things like “party”, “dungeon”, “class”, and “adventure”. These are all now very common terms, but they are still technical terms, and not something that could be assumed to be instantly understood.

It also introduces the task of the mapper. The mapper is a player whose job it is to make a map of the dungeon as the party explores it, based on the description by the GM. It explicitly mentions that the map made by the mapper will be inaccurate and get even more so the further the players explore. While the idea of moving around with a shoddy map certainly is a lot of fun, making that damn thing sounds like a huge pain in the ass. It also requires that everything is done on grid paper for the mapper to have any chance of creating something that has passing resemblance to the actual environment, and that path has let us down to tens or hundreds of thousands of very implausible floorplans. In a game that is really just about exploring a dungeon and nothing else, it might have some excuse to exist. But once you start expanding into stories, grid paper maps really become much more of a burden than a useful prop.

The other role is the caller, which I think we know simply call the party leader. Every game with more than 3 PCs I’ve seen very quickly developed a party leader, but it was never an official position and there wasn’t any election or appointment. It just worked out that way. Here it is made much more official and exists on the border of ingame and metagame. The players may be debating and talking as much as they want, but it becomes actual ingame action only once the caller tells the GM what they are doing. I’ve never been quite sure what the purpose of this was. Probably might have something to do with groups reportedly being regularly pretty big, and I almost never run games with more than four or five PCs. I also always play only with good personal friends. With a group of mostly strangers for a one-shot game, getting things orderly and civil might be a lot more difficult, and if you then also have 10 players on the table, I can see it being a great reduction of work for the GM if he can have all the kindergardening outsourced to one of the players. For a home game with a few friends, it seems superflous though.

And, I kid you not, a quarter of a page dedicated simply to the many uses of the the word “level”, so that people don’t get too confused by it. Come on, guys! You obviously realized it was a problem! You are directly adressing that problem here. It was 1980, you still had an opportunity to fix this mess and introduce a few more terms to clear up the ambiguity of the language before it becomes standard terminology throughout all RPGs and video games. But no! You just had to keep doing it. At least it doesn’t seem to have caught on to say that monsters have a level. They simply have Hit Dice (or later a Challenge Rating). I think at least in AD&D, there is also a “monster level appropriate for a given dungeon level”, and a dungeon level does not just mean which story of a building it is, but also it’s difficulty level, as it is appropriate for PCs of a given character level. No surprise that this concept has been almost entirely forgotten in modern games.

Next is a simple explaination of dice notation. There’s also a short paragraph on explaining how to read the d4 and how to throw it. Though in my experience, players rolling dice too weakly so that they don’t really roll on the table is a significantly more rare problem than throwing dice with way too much force. Gamer Protip: Buy couches with enough floor clearing to fit a fist under it.

Finally a short paragraph on “How to ‘Win'”. Here we already see the term referee making an appearance. Which in my oppinion is the second worst term to use for a gamemaster after “storyteller” because you can not be an impartial judge if you also play the opposition and have the goal of making the game most fun. But that’s a completely different topic.

Part 2: Player Character Information

Now we’re getting to the real meat. This section of the book has 10(!) pages. The first one is a quick summary of the character creation process in 14 steps, with many of the elements getting explained in detail later throughout this chapter. It also has a sample character sheet which would fit on a large index card.


There is another, more fancy looking character sheet for a different sample character later in the book, but this one is entirely functional. Spellcasters might record their prepared spells on the back and thieves need a bit of spaces for their thief skills, but this is really all the numbers your character has. If you use the system to calculate attack rolls from 3rd edition, you even need a lot less. Which is one of the reason why I love B/X so much more than any other editions of D&D. This is just nice.

Ability Scores

The six ability scores are the ones we all know. But their order is somewhat different to what you most commonly see now. Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. I believe the reason for this is that in OD&D there were only the classes fighting man, magic-user, and cleric, and Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom where their prime ability scores respectively, so they come first. Everything else comes after them. Not sure if it was originally planned that way or someone just noticed later that you also could arrange them into three physical and three mental scores instead. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

Ability scores are generated by rolling 3d6 and assigning the numbers in the order in which they are rolled. This is something I always considered to be incredibly dumb. Why not let me play whatever type of character I want? Especially in AD&D, where you need to have certain minimum scores to play a class at all, and often those were pretty steep. I remember someone caculating the odds and posting them a while back, and the chance that you would be able to pick paladin as a class was around 2% and for a bard 0.14%. But here in Basic, it’s actually quite different.

To play a dwarf, you need to have a minimum Constitution of 9, to play an elf a minimum Intelligence of 9, and to play a halfling and minimum Constitution and Dexterity of 9, and that is it.

Another factor is that the effect of very high or very low ability scores is less significant than in 3rd edition. Only an 18 or a 3 gets you a modifier of +/-3, which each have a chance of just 0.5%. The chance for a 16/17 or 4/5 are a lot greater, but that also just results in a modifier of +/-2. For every ability score, there’s a more than 90% chance that you will have a +1 or -1 modifier, which really doesn’t make much of a difference. And you can play a fighter with 5 strength and a wizard with 4 intelligence and they still work. In 3rd edition, making a spellcaster with less than 13 in the main ability score is pretty pointless unless you know the campaign will only get to 4th level or so because you’d never be able to learn the higher level spells. In Basic this is not a problem and your ability scores don’t affect the effectiveness of your spells at all. A spell cast by a 5th level magic-user with 3 intelligence is identical to the spell cast by a 5th level magic-user with 18 intelligence. Your stats may suck, but as long as you want to play human, your choice of classes doesn’t get restricted.

If you think your ability scores are really badly distributed for your class, there is some room to make adjustments. Constitution and Charisma are always locked for some reason. These can never be changed. However, you can take 2 points from your Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom scores and reduce them to as low as 9, and in turn get 1 point to add to your prime ability score of your class. Dexterity can not be lowered, but if you’re a thief or a halfling, you can raise it with points taken from the other scores. So if you rolled very high Wisdom but really want to play a fighter, you can reduce your Wisdom and bump up your Strength a bit.
The rules say if you’re stats are all below average (meaning below 9, I assume) or you got two or more scores below 7, that character is not really cut out for adventuring and you can roll new stats. And of course, if you have a somewhat lenient GM you probably will get allowed to roll again if you really want to play a certain type of character and the stats you have are just total crap for that.

Having seem ability score modifiers in AD&D, I was pleasantly surprised how clean they are in Basic. It pretty much works like 3rd edition, with each score having a single modifier and those modifiers being the same for all six abilities. The difference is that modifiers only go up to 3 instead of 4 and that not every 2 point increase gets a +1 modifier. Instead you have 4 ability scores with a modifier of +0, 3 with a modifier of +/-1, 2 with a modifier of +/-2, 1 one score with a modifier of +/-3. An exception for some reason is Charisma, which has only a +2 for a score of 18 and a +1 for 16/17. No idea why, and I personally feel like changing that to make all abilities match.

If you always played with point buy, you might have wondered why there are even ability scores at all, if everything you ever use is just the modifier. (True20 thought that too and dropped the scores.) Here you can see the reason. You can not roll dice to get a result of +3 with a 0.5% chance and a result of -2 with a chance of 4%. The ability scores are really just a step in the process of generating the modifiers. Once you have the modifiers, there are really very few reasons to write the dice results down on the character sheet at all. Meeting minimum scores for dwarves, elves, and halflings is the only situation in Basic I can think of now.

I actually quite like this system. It is pretty arbitrary and random, but since the results matter so little, it doesn’t seem that bad. If I really want to play a figher, having a -1 strength modifier instead of +0 doesn’t have to stop me. I think I would probably drop the minimum scores for nonhumans, which don’t really seem to have any reason to exist at all, and allow players to reduce and raise any ability scores they want. Dumping charisma is a risk, but that can easily be compensated by allowing players only to raise a score to 12 and only to lower them to 9. So you can’t produce any modifiers through adjusting, just move the scores towards +0. (I read that in some retroclone, no clue which one.) With those changes, there is very little reason why a player would have to reroll scores.

All classes have a Prime Requisite Ability Score. This score (Strength for fighters, Wisdom for clerics, and so on) affects how many XP the character gets. With a very high score, the character always get +10% more XP and with a very low score always -20% less. Which given the XP needed for each class level seems rather pointless. If a character would get +100% more XP than others, he still would always be just 1 level ahead of them. With +10% he just sometimes gets a new level one session earlier than the other PCs, but quite often not even that.

I think it’s a holdover from OD&D, where ability scores almost didn’t do anything. Making an 18 Strength fighter get +30% XP compared to a 3 Strength fighter might have been seen as a way to make them matter at least somewhat. I see this thing getting ignored a lot, and I certainly wouldn’t bother with it. Calculating XP is annoying enough as it is.


Finally we get to character classes, where some of the really big surprises are hidden. There are only seven classes in total. Cleric, fighter, magic-user, dwarf, elf, and halfling. This is one thing that for a very long time made me stay well away from Basic. Dwarf as a class? What is this nonsense? What about my dwarf cleric and my elf thief? Why?!

As to why, I just don’t know. The elf is basically a fighter/magic-user that gets the abilities of both classes but takes double the amount of XP. Which as I mentioned is not that much of a difference, he just lags behind one level and gets sweet powers in return. The dwarf is just a fighter with better saving throws who can’t use two-handed swords and longbows and takes +10% more XP to level up (again, nothing). Halflings are the same and also get +1 to ranged attack rolls and have a 2 in 6 chance to be stealthy. Dwarves have a maximum character level of 12, elves of 10, and halflings of 8. But since in B/X maximum character level is 14th anyway and there isn’t much gained after having reached 9th level, it barely matters.

So why even bother? If you don’t like race as class, the most simple solution is to just ignore it and let everyone be cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief. I also like letting players pick fighter/mage as a fifth class. Why not? The actual racial abilities are laughably minor and I’d let players have them with any additional XP requirement or giving humans something to compensate. The benefits are so miniscule, they are really just flavor and don’t matter.

Let’s look at the four main classes:

Clerics get d6 Hit Dice, can use any armor and shields, and all weapons that don’t have an edge. The non-edge restriction is rather arbitrary and something I would ignore. It’s flavor, nothing else. In 3rd edition it was a bit odd that all clerics automatically got proficiency in heavy armor. But in Basic (and AD&D), there are no armor proficiencies. Magic-users don’t use armor because it interferes with their spells and thieves don’t use heavy armor because it interferes with their stealth. Since clerics don’t need to move freely, they can wear whatever the hell they want. Which includes the most heaviest types of armor. Clerics can turn undead, but a funny quirk is that they get their first spell at 2nd level. At first level they are simply low-hp fighters who can turn undead.

Turning undead is pretty cool. Because the cleric can do it every round. All day. There’s rules how to determine if a type of unded is affected by the attempt and if yes how many, but nothing more than saying that they run away. At 2nd level, skeletons are automatically turned and the cleric can not fail at turning them. At 3rd level this also applies to zombies.

Not much to say about fighters. They get d8 Hit Dice, can use all weapons and armor, and have good hit chances and saving throws.

Magic-users are the same wimps we all know. Perhaps even more so. Hit Dice ar d4, they can use no armor or shield, and only wield daggers. And they also have only a single spell on first level with no bonus spells for high Intelligence? Casting a spell and then shoting a light crossbow all day? Luxury! Basic wizards didn’t even get crossbows. Or slings. Or darts. Cast one spell and then go home. Or use scrolls and wands. Those are a really big important factor in this game obviously. I wonder how often they’ll show up in the standard treasure tables.

Thieves got renamed to rogues in 3rd edition and bumped up to d8 Hit Dice in Pathfinder. In Basic they are noncombatants and only get d4s. They only can wear leather armor and no shields, so aside from their Dexterity score they have almost no defense against attacks either. And given the way ability scores are generated, their Dexterity might not even be high. The main thing of thieves are their thief abilities. The first is Open Locks. This one is rolled only once per lock. There is no retrying. The roll simply indicates if he can pick the lock or not. It’s not how well he did. Same with Find or Remove Traps. Pick Pockets got one of the highest chances of success, but those are still too low to be really woethwhile. And being as fragile as the thief is, getting caught is really dangerous at low levels. The chances for Move Silently are also not promising at all at these levels. Since the thief almost certainly will be heard and has crappy hp and armor, I don’t see many situations where it would be worth to even attempt sneaking. He can also Hide in Shadows, which is different from the 3rd edition Hide skill. It’s not simply staying out of sight (for which there are no rules), but standing motionlessly in the shadows when there is no actual cover. That is a lot better, but again the chances at low level are abysmal. There is also Climb Sheer Surfaces which allows a thief to climb surfaces that are otherwise unclimbable for other characters and here he actually got very good odds around 90%. However, failing means falling from half the height the thief tried to scale and every 10 feet of drop deal more damage than the thief gets hp per level. Finally, the thief has a chance to hear very faint noises. The chance for that is 2 in 6, which isn’t too bad. But it raises the question, why are we bothering with percentage rolls if we could simply roll 1d6 all the time? Or at least 1d20, because the percentages are all in 5% steps. There is no reason at all to dig out the d100.

When a thief attacks an enemy while being unnoticed, he gets +4 to the attack roll and deals double damage. Which is nice to take out guards, but after stabbing an ogre or owlbear he better run very fast because that one sneak attack is his one real chance to take out an enemy. I actually kind of like that and see why they made the thief class the way they did. In many modern games, rogues are pretty much like fighters who dodge instead of wearing heavy armor. And also get a huge load of other special abilities. Which makes the fighters often appear a bit pointless. By making the thief a wimp, the fighter retains his status as the primary frontline fighter. The cleric also isn’t looking too bad in a fight, but as we see later, their magic is really much more limited than the spell of magic-users.

Overall, characters are extremely fragile at first level and it doesn’t get much better at 2nd. There are no maximum hp at first level, but the book at least recommends the optional rule that 1st level characters may reroll any 1 or 2 on their hp roll. How very generous. Max hp at 1st level is something I would almost certainly use. Being so fragile does have a very interesting and major impact on gameplay. Fighting is never a good idea. Even if it’s just kobolds who you outnumber two to one. There is a considerable chance that you are getting killed, even if the party wins.

Running away really becomes an option!


I think that actually makes the game a lot more interesting than less. Going from encounter to encounter to grind monsters for XP isn’t just a bad idea, it’s outright insane. Playing with the minimum amount of fighting makes a quite different type of game. Especiall when it’s still essentially a dungeon crawl.

What I don’t get is the crappy chances for thief skills. If failing would mean shrugging your shoulders and let the rest of the party charge into the room to join the fight, it wouldn’t be so bad. But almost any enemy worth sneaking up on is also pretty likely to instantly kill the thief right where he stands. Hiding in Shadows is just as good as praying. Opening Locks and Searching for trap is something you’d do because there is no harm in trying. But it’s also unlikely to make a difference at all. Once you get into the 70-80% range it becomes worthwhile, but that’s only once you made it to 9th level. I think at first level the chances should at the very least be 40-50% and then increase slowly. Starting at 10-15% seems rather pointless.


Next we get a three quarter page on alignment. Good and Evil alignment where introduced by Gygax in AD&D. Holmes Basic also had them, but from what I heard that version of alignment is even more weird than any others. Moldvay Basic here goes back to the basics. Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. Just as it was in the sources of Micheal Moorcocks eternal champion books. I believe in OD&D it wasn’t even explained what alignment is. Moldvay goes through some trouble of explaining what it means. And his answer is very simple: Law = Good, Chaos = Evil. Now Moorcock is a famous anarchist activist and probably had a lot more thoughts on that topic, but for Basic D&D, this is how it is. Neutral is the weird form of actively neutral and trying to keep either Order or Chaos from getting the upper hand. Which makes sense when you’re dealing with Order and Chaos, but since those mean Good and Evil here, it doesn’t really make sense at all.

So what does alignment do and what is it good for? Pretty much nothing, actually. It’s just there playing truck. Standing in the corner and stinking. As far as I am aware, it does not have a single mechanical implication.

Well, there is one actually. Alignment languages. An idea so dumb that even 3rd edition ditched it. Somehow all Lawful characters know the language of Law and and all Chaotic characters the language of Chaos. When a character changes alignment, he immediately forgets the language and learns the one of his new alignment. No further explanation given. This really feels like they somehow had to carry over this concept from AD&D (where Gygax obviously had great plans for it, but somehow accidentally forgot to actually tell anyone what those might be) but had no idea what to do with it. So you can be lawful. Yay?


Finally the equipment list, which is one page long. Of which a good deal is a picture of a weapon rack. It’s really just a price list, though, as weapons don’t have any stats. (Different damage types are an optional rule later in the book.) It’s not a long list that really limits itself to the basics. There is “spear” and “other polearm” and that’s about as differentiated as it gets. There are two sizes of axes, three missile weapons, three sizes of swords, and three blunt weapons. Then sling and dagger, and that’s it. Armor also have an armor class. There are Leather Armor (AC 7), Chain Mail Armor (AC5), and Plate Mail Armor (AC3), and also the Shield (AC -1).

Making all attacks deal 1d6 damage seems like a simplification that is rather unnecessary. We already have d4s and d8s to roll hit points, might as well use them for weapons as well. But I really like how brief these lists are. Since the only stat of armor is the AC, having simply light, medium, and heavy is good enough. How exactly they are constructed is pure flavor and does not need to be part of the rules. Addings lots of little -1 modifiers here and there also isn’t really going to make a difference to what happens in the game. So this game doesn’t bother with them and I very much approve of that.

We have now reached the end of page 13. Everything is really done in a very brief way.

One more thing worth mentioning here, because it’s actually neither here nor anywhere else, are skills. There are none. The only thing that kind of resembles a skill is forcing open doors, which is done by rolling 1d6 and adding the strength modifier. It works basically the same way as the thieves Listen ability. Since there are no skills, and I think they weren’t really a thing in in AD&D either at that time, there isn’t any explanation of what to do instead. LotFP pretty much takes this rule for opening doors and makes it into a universal skill system. Roll on a d6 and if the result is within the range of 1 plus the appropriate ability modifier, you do it. I personally would go with a base chance of 1 and 2, just as it’s the case with opening doors here. You just should avoid calling for roles for things that are so easy everyone could do it or so hard nobody could do it.

Part 3: Spells

The next part is the spells for magic-users, elves, and clerics. And here things start to get… well, at least very different. The whole chapter is only four pages long and that includes all the rules for preparation.

The actual rules for preparation are half a page. I don’t have the 3rd edition books anymore, but I think there it was at least a double page with a smaller text size. The rules are pretty simple, simply because they don’t bother with any tiny details for special cases. To prepare spells, a caster needs to be well restes, which is “usually an uninterrupted full night’s sleep”. Like everything in this book, it’s a judgement call for the GM to decide what interruptions are considered significant enough to make the caster not “well rested”. The full night sleep is an example, the “well rested” is the important part. Memorizing spells takes one hour. That’s all the rules on that subject. Most of that half page is introducing new players to the concept of preparing spells, but that’s the same stuff we have in all editions.

Clerics can prepare all the spells from the cleric spell list, but magic-users and elves have their spell books. All it says about spell books here is that a 1st level character has one spell in the spellbook, a 2nd level character two spells, and a third level character three spells. Which happens to be the same number the character can prepare each day. Which sucks, as not only has the first level wizard only one spell per day, he also can not switch that spell to any other between days. An interesting rule is that either the GM decides which spells are in the spell book, or he allows the player to make the selection. I assume this is both to let the GM keep certain spells out of the game until he wants to, and to help new players with picking good spells without reading (and understanding) all the spells that are available. It still could have been phrased better like “the DM can decide that certain spells can not be selected or make suggestions what would be a good spell for the campaign”. 1st level magic-users are already screwed enough as it is. No need to make that single spell per day, which they can not switch out, a spell that the player doesn’t like. There are no rules for how many spells fit into a spellbook or how to add new spells from scrolls to the spellbook, at least at this part of the book.

But let’s look at the spells directly now.

Cleric Spells

Clerics get one 1st level spell at 2nd level and a second 1st level spell at 3rd level. Which means there are only 1st level spells in this book. Eight of them, to be precise. The list looks a bit underwhelming: Cure light wounds, detect evil, detect magic, light, protection from evil, purify food and water, remove fear, resist cold. In 3rd edition pretty much all of these spells completely suck, and I think in AD&D they are not much better. Cure light wounds seems the only thing that anyone could ever possibly want to prepare. But reading those spells, there are many surprises.

Cure light wounds is what we all know. It heals 1d6+1 points of damage from a creature touched by the cleric. There are no rules about delaying the touching to a later round or anything like that, so the spell needs to be cast while standing directly next to the target. Alternatively, this spell can also remove any form of paralysis from the target instead of healing hit points. That’s really not bad. Especially considering that ghouls have three paralyzing attacks every round. You are basically allowed to prepare two different spells in the same slot. Very nice.

Detect evil is very different from what I know from 3rd edition. It has a range of 120 feet and automatically covers everything the cleric sees within that range. There is no concentrating on specific areas and then having to warm up for three rounds to get accurate information. You simply see all creatures glow within the range that have “evil intentions”. There is no evil alignment in this game and so evil intentions are left for the GM to define. It explicitly says it that way, and also says that the players need to be informed in advance what definition the GM is using. So this spell is not about detecting alignment, but about detecting hostile emotions, which is both much more useful in action, but also reveals much less information about the targets in general. You don’t know if the person is a terrible person who regularly does bad things to people, or if he is feeling hostile just right now. It does not even have to be hostile against the caster, just hostile to anyone. But the best thing about it: It last for 1 hour. No concentration or anything. Cast it and for one hour you see anyone in 120 feet with evil intentions highlighted. This can be very useful in detecting ambushes.

Detect magic is similar. It only lasts 20 minutes, but during that time you get all “enchantments” highlighted within 60 feet. This includes both magic items and active spells.

Light is not a joke either. The illumination has a radius of 15 feet and the spell can be cast at targets 120 feet away. You can cast it at anything, including a creatures eyes, which makes it completely blind and unable to attack for the duration of the spell. Which is 2 hours. Using it as a torch is the least interesting and useful thing you can do with it. When fighting in darkness, you can cast it at a distant enemy and then have your archers kill him and all his nearby friends from a safe distance. So much better than the level 0 spell from 3rd edition.

Protection from evil works mostly as you know it, providing a +1 to saving throws and -1 penalty to attack rolls against “monsters” of a different alignment than the cleric. Summoned or magically created creatures can’t touch the cleric at all as long as he does not attack them. The spell can only be cast on the cleric himself and not any other ally, but it also lasts for 2 hours.

Remove fear is weird and seems poorly explained. The spell calms the target and removes all fear. If the target is running away from something because of magical fear, it gets a saving throw to end the magical fear. Isn’t it automatically removed anyway? And it has a duration of 20 minutes. Does that prevent the creature from being affected by fear? You also need to touch the target, which isn’t really useful if its running away.

I looked the spell up in the Rules Cyclopedia and there it says that the reversed version of the spell has a duration of 20 minutes, but reversing is a concept that gets only introduced in the Expert rules. This implies that the fear calming effect is instantaneous. It also says that the saving throw (which can get a pretty high bonus) applies to effects that don’t usually allow saves. So I assume if the effect normally does allow a save, it’s automatically removed. Which is reasonable and makes sense, but still has that annoying limitation of requiring touch.

Magic-User Spells

Magic-users have spells of 1st and 2nd level and twelve of them each.

Charm person has always been “pretty good”, but here it’s more like “incredibly awesome”. The spell makes the target see the caster as its best friend. But in this version, you can give the target specific commands and it will obey almost everything that isn’t completely against its nature. It also works against all human-like creatures, which includes ogres and pixies, which increases the range of possibly targets significantly beyond what works in 3rd edition. And the best thing is that the spell lasts until the target makes a saving throw. Targets with Intelligence scores of 13+ get a save once per day. Targets with verage intelligence once per week, and targets with Intelligence of 8 or lower once per month!

Say hello to my little ogre friend!

This spell is incredible! Free meat shields for everyone! As a 1st level spell! If I would play a wizard, this would be my first level spell and then I’d simply play my thrall as my character until I get more spells. However, it can be removed by dispel magic and then things might get nasty if you keep too many minions around.

Magic Missile is unusual. It mostly does what you know, but it has a duration of 10 minutes. None of the many B/X retroclones I have use this version, but it’s still in the Rules Cyclopedia and there it explicitly says that the missiles stay with you until they are all shot. However, there is no explanation at all to whether you can shot them the same round you cast the spell or if you can shot all you missiles at once, even though characters can usually only shot one arrow or stone per round. However, the writer felt it necessary to spell out that you could shot the missiles all at the same target or several different targets, which would be unnecessary to say if you can shot only one per round.

My interpretation would be that you can shot any of your missiles right when you cast them, or keep any of them for later as a ranged “weapon”. What I find a bit silly is that you go from one missile at 1st level straight to three missiles at 6th level. Where’s the two missiles at 3rd or 4th level? That seems like an obvious house rule.

Read language lets you understand all written language. Unlike comprehend language from 3rd edition, it doesn’t affect speech. It lasts 20 minutes, which is good to read medium length text, but you won’t be able to read all inscription in the entire dungeon. Interestingly, it also lets you crack codes and decipher treasure maps, which is very powerful. But then, why would a document with vital enemy information appear in an RPG if the PCs are not supposed to read it? And even if you crack the secret language, all the names and things known by the correspondents not explicitly spelled out again wouldn’t mean anything to the caster. So it’s not really a plot breaking spell if the GM takes some care.

Read Magic I will treat in some detail at the end!

Shield is very nice in this version. Since there is no mage armor spell, it lasts 20 minutes and protects in all directions. It also gets the magic-user a very good armor class.

Sleep has always been a great spell and this one is too. Best thing is that it lasts for 40 minutes to two and a half hours instead of just a few minutes. This makes it actually useful for taking out guards and getting in and out of the place before they wake up. It can take out 2d8 HD of creatures, which is not bad given that pretty much all normal guards in the game will be only 1 or 2 HD. A range of 240 feet is also not bad, so you can cast it at targets from very far away without being seen by them at all, which makes it even more useful for secretly breaking into places.

This game makes even ventriloquism look like a fun spell. It allows you to make your voice come from somwhere else within 60 feet, but it has a duration of 20 minutes. There can be so much fun had with it, especially when you’re also invisible.

At 2nd level, continual light is the same as light but has a 30 feet radius and lasts forever until dispelled. And you also can cast it on a creatures eyes. I’d probably always keep a bag with 10 continual light stones with me as a magic-user. Just in case they might come in handy.

ESP is a bit like detect thoughts, but also quite different. It doesn’t detect general states of emotion, but actual thoughts. Once cast it lasts for 2 hours, regardless of what you’re doing else, which is very nice. But unlike 3rd edition detection spell, this one has a very long warmup time. It only works in a single direction (which I would say would be a pretty narrow line a meter or two wide) and you need to concentrate for 10 minutes before you start hearing any thoughts in that area. And if there are multiple creatures in that area, it takes another 10 minutes of concentration to isolate a single mind and actually be able to hear its thoughts. It can go through 2 feet of rock, which would be most normal walls and include pretty much all doors. But taking so very long to charge up, I am not sure what it would be really good for.

Invisibility is awesome. Because it lasts forever, until you attack or cast a spell. (Any spell.) On the downside, it does also make everything you carry invisible, but only as long as you carry it and things don’t become invisible when you pick them up. Still, unlimited time is awesome. It also has an amazingly long range of 240 feet, which allows you to cast it on allies you can see, but who are unable to get to you because enemies are in their way.

Levitate is a bit lame, as it always is, and this version only works on the caster and can not be targeted at anything else. However, it will last for at least 90 minutes and even longer for higher level casters. Which makes it very useful to float up and drop ropes for the rest of the party in difficult caves and the like. It has its uses.

Locate object lets you detect the presence and direction of a specific type of object, as long as it’s within 90 feet (plus 10 feet per additional caster level). As I read it, you can either have it detect an object that is as specific as you want to. You could search for “a ring with the seal of the royal family” (likely to lead you to a member of the royal family who is imprisoned somewhere nearby) or simply “stairs”. The spell will you show you the direction to the most nearby thing that matches the specifications. Could be a pretty neat spell, but one I’d only want as a scroll, not to prepare.

Mirror image lasts for one hour. It creates 1d4 illusionary doubles of the caster and as long as there are any left, all attacks will always hit one of the illusions. However, simply making an attack will automatically hit an illusion and destroy it, so that balances out. It basically negates the next 1d4 attacks against the caster.

Phantasmal force is probably the most complicated and also versatile spell in Basic. It’s not in 3rd edition and I’m not sure if it’s even in AD&D. This spell allows you to create an illusion with the volume of a 20 feet cube. The range is an impressive 240 feet, but it will only last for as long as the caster doesn’t do anything else. However, that can also be a a very long time of several hours, as the situation requires it. If you create the illusion of a thing, it ends when touched. If you create a monster, it has a lowly Armor Class of 9 (or 11 if sensible math is used) and any hit against it will automatically end it.

Alternatively you can also make the illusion of an attack, like a magic missile, a thrown anvil, making your fake dragon breath fire or bite, and so on. These illusionary attacks deal illusionary damage if the target fails at a saving throw against them. They will realize that they are not actually injured, petrified, or dead after 10 to 40 minutes, but during that duration they behave exactly as if they were.

Web is always a fun spell, at least in theory. I think the original third edition version was a nightmare to figure out. This version is easy. It only has a range of very short 10 feet, but when cast it lasts for 8 hours. The webs fill a 10 feet cube and all it says it that it takes 20 to 80 minutes for a normal human to break through. With gauntlets of ogre power it can be done in 4 rounds and very strong creaturs like giants can do it in 2 rounds. It does not say what happens if you stand in the space when the web is cast, but says that it can be burned in 2 rounds and everyone in the web takes 1d6 points of damage. So apparently, if you have it cast on you, you’re trapped with no saving throw or anything. It doesn’t say if you can attack or cast spells, but my hunch would be no. Which makes it extremely powerful. Rules Cyclopedia offers no elaboration either.

High Level NPC spells

Player Characters can only reach 3rd level in basic, but there are also rules for 6th level clerics and magic users. These are provided with three additional spells each.

Bless is a second level spell here and can be cast on everyone within 60 feet, but only outside of combat. This can potentially be a pretty big group of people and the effects last for one hour. (Not the laughable 1 round per level from 3rd edition.) The targets get a +1 bonus to attack rolls but also to damage. And since normal damage for most attacks is 1d6, that +1 is not completely pointless. The random +1 bonus to saves against fear is here instead a +1 bonus on morale checks. And that reveals what it’s for. This spell is for boosting armies of henchmen and minions. Morale will be explained later, but basically any time something dramatic happens to monsters, NPCs, or henchmen in a battle, they need to roll morale or run away in panic. (PCs don’t because they are badass.) That +1 to morale can make quite a difference. And that +1 to attack and damage also can be quite the game changer if you somehow got yourself 50 archers with +0 to attack and 1d6 damage. Given the 1 hour duration it might be considered worthwhile to cast on a group of 4 PCs. But if you have a small army, this is pretty awesome.

Hold person seems ridiculously powerful as a 2nd level cleric spell. It has a range of 180 feet and if the target fails its save, it’s out of action for 90 minutes. Again, person here includes ogres and pixies. It says the target is paralyzed, so a cure light wounds spell should actually negate it, which makes it much less scary. The spell can be cast at a single creature, which then gets a -2 penalty to it’s saving throw, or at a group of any 1d4 targets.

Silence is fun. Range is 180 feet and it lasts for 2 hours. It creates a 15 feet radius of silence, but it doesn’t actually block sound. It just prevents the making of any sounds in the area. Everyone inside can still hear normally any sound that comes from outside. Downside is that the caster can not end the spell before the duration is up, so it’s use for sneaking up on enemies is limited. You can sneak up perfectly, but then you’re unable to cast spells, as is anyone nearby. Which in turn means a cleric could cast it on himself and then go beat up a magic-user with a mace. Lots of pros and cons, which makes it a very interesting spell to get creative with.

Magic-users get dispel magic as a 3rd level spell and this one is a beast. It’s basically magical emp that whipes all magic within a 20 feet cube area. It does not affect items, but immediately ends “any spell effect created by a magic-ser, elf, or cleric”. Which could mean it ends active potions and the like as well. GM call, but I’d say it does. If the spells were casts by casters of equal or lower level, they automatically end. If cast by a caster of higher level, there is a 5% chance per level of difference that a spell stays active. Which usually will be a pretty small chance. The 3rd edition version is a lame joke compared to this.

There is also fireball, which is exactly like it always is.

Fly is fly. It can be cast on any crerature that is touched and lets it fly at a speed of 120 feet per round or hover in place for 1d6 x 10 minutes plus 10 minutes per caster level, which is pretty good.

Read Magic

What is this shit?!


Read magic takes 10 minutes to allow a magic-user to read magical words, runes on a item, or scrolls. They need to use this spell to make use of any magic spell scrolls they find. Since you can go through a whole pile of scrolls in 10 minutes, you need to cast it only once. But why do you have to cast it at all? The only thing this spell does is prevent characters from use the scrolls they just found immediately. You could prepare the spell in one of your 3 spell slots, but then you’ll never know if you should cast it immediately or wait a bit more until you have found some more scrolls.

Low level magic-users totally suck. There are plenty of things about them that suck just by themselves, but they get a whole dozen or so of them at once. Why?! It’s completely pointless! Do you want us to only use charm person and play a monster until 5th level? What were they thinking?

If at least you could get a bunch of scrolls as reserve and use your slots as free recharging spells, it would at least be playable. But you can’t buy scrolls and the Expert Rules only let you make scrolls once you’re 9th level. Once you no longe need them. Yes, many of these spells are pretty awesome. But why only one?! And why lock all scrolls.

The only way to make magic-users playable is to put lots of scrolls into the dungeons. But it never mentions that anywhere in the GM advice sections. You could roll for them randomly, but then there’s a 1 in 8 chance that every scroll you look at is cursed. Suggested curses are being turned into a frog, having a monster appear next to you and get immediately surpise attack (I got 2 hp and AC 10, yay), or just falling over dead where you stand. Scrolls can make magic-users playable, but any time you find a scroll you need to play russian roulette first. And then you have to unlock it with another spell. What were they thinking? Did anyone ever force these writers to play a 1st level magic-user?

Also, magic-user is a crap name. From here on they are wizards.

Any GM who uses the read magic spell needs his license revoked.

Notably absent

There is no identify. Identifying magic items is entirely by trial and error. Potions can be analyzed by trying their taste. But when you do that, there’s a 1 in 8 chance you need to make a saving throw or instantly fall dead as soon as it touched your tongue.

But we’ll get to the magic item section later, where I will rant for a lot more.

Part 4: The Adventure

We now have completed the entire character creation and character options sections and get to the actual rules of the game. On page 19.

This is a very lightweight game.

The suggested party size is 6 to 8 characters. Which I personally find to be the absolute upper maximum that still works. 4 or 5 works much better in my experience, simply for very basic human group dynamics. It has been my observation, and I’ve seen similar claims from people who study these things, the way people interact with each other as a group has a magical tipping point that seems to be about 6 people. When it comes to discussions or team work, a group apparently can only have 6 active members. Once you have more people in the room, they become an audience, but don’t really participate in any meaningful way. It seems that the human brain can only handle 6 people talking at the same time and once that limit is reached people instinctively shy away from joining. I’ve seen that in school for many years, but even more noticable in University (where you often have random groups with people who have never met before). In a class with 10 people, there are 4 or 5 who do 95% of the talking, and in a lecture with 700 people 95% of all hands that go up are always the same 6 people. (And yes, I am usually one of these.) Not just during a single lecture, but through the whole semester.

And with RPG groups it is just the same. I generally don’t make any more invitations once we have 5 players (though allow for one or two more if they really want to join), and especially when I got players who are not generally people who take much initative to make themselves heard. To get those people to really get into it, 4 or even just 3 characters work much better.
However, OD&D and Basic were not really conceived as games of story building but as dungeon crawlers, and I guess if you run it like that, the problem is not as significant. I still find it somewhat odd to suggest 7 players as default. However, Moldvay did call 6-8 as being enough “but not too many”, so he also isn’t advocating any 12+ player armies. A thing that I find very strange is that he encourages parties with fewer players to have multiple characters per player and not to use retainers instead. This seems like the perfect reason to have retainers in the first place.

Next he goes again into some detail about assigning players as caller and mapper, which I already talked about before. Miniatures or other figures are suggested, but they are really not part of the rules in any way. Simply as markers to remember which characters are currently in the front, middle, or back of the group.

Time and Movement

Tere we get introduced to the time unit of the turn with some more detail. A turn is 10 minutes long and represents the time needed for various tasks. Like searching a 10 by 10 feet area, checking a door for traps, or put a treasure into bags. While exploring a dungeon, groups cover about 120 feet of distance while they are checking out the walls and doors and make a map of the area. Conveniently, long lasting spells all have their durations in turns, as are the durations for torches and some other things.

I generally like this idea to track time very much. Tracking time in a game where sometimes a few seconds can take hours to play and weeks be covered in a minute, measuring time by how much the characters did is a great idea. But the duration seems totally off. 10 minutes? Many of the examples for a turn action could be done in 10 seconds if done swiftly or in a minute if done with care. At that speed you are covering 4 meters per minute. Or one meter every 15 seconds. That is just way too slow. All the mapper needs to do is to keep a sketch that shows all the intersections and locations of recognizable landmarks. He doesn’t have to reproduce accurate blueprints for the entire dungeon. Those are potentially handy for detecting false walls and secret rooms, but is that the regular procedure for sneaking through a castle? And checking a 3 by 3 meter section of floor really shouldn’t take 10 minutes, nor is stuffing fold into a bag. And it would be a really super-complex lock that takes 10 minutes to pick.

The idea is great, but the units seem to be completely off. Maybe make turns 1 minute and multiply the duration of torches and appropriate spells by 10 for a quick and dirty fix.


Here the game does one very quirky thing, that is actually pretty smart. The basic unit of weight is the “coin”. Prices for normal equipment are negible and magic items are not sold for money. So you’re never dealing with any items that are very light but highly expensive. And since most stuff you pick up and put down are coins, the weight of a coin is also the basic unit of weight. For weapons and armor the price in gold coins and the weight in coins are different, but after 2nd or 3rd level you’re not really going to buy any of those anymore. But calculating the weight of treasure is hugely important all the time and simply using the rule “1 gp of treasure weighs 1 coin of weight” makes everything a lot easier.

Encumbrance is completely independent from Strength and the same for all characters. Up to 400 coins is unencumbred, up to 600 slowed down to 75% speed, up to 800 coins slowed down to 50% speed, and up to 1600 coins down to 25% speed. For speed during encounters that makes sense. But when exploriring the dungeon, the speed is about all the other activities you do while moving, not about the speed or the length of your steps. With heavy encumbrance, exploration speed is down to just 1 meter per minute. This is silly. But that’s a problem with exploration turns, not with encumbrance. I think this encumbrance is quite good, though I personally use a system that surprisingly seems to cut all weight values by about 20. That means smaller numbers to count, but the system is otherwise working the same way.


A torch or lantern provides light in a 30 feet radius (twice the radius of a light spell and the same as a continous light spell). Torches burn for one hour, which is actually (and probably coincidentally) a pretty realistic burn time for torches. Oil lamps burn for 4 hours before needing refilling.

Infravision is explained as being able to see differences in temperature. It’s useless in normal or magical light. All nonhuman monsters have it.

While some animals like some reptiles and insects can see infrared, someone explained to me a while ago while humanoids can’t have it. Because mammals have the eyes inside their body and their bodies are very warm, the inside of the eyes is also very warm. And therefore producing a lot of infrared radiation. We permanently have a bright infrared light source in our eyes, so even if we had the ability to sense these wavelength, we wouldn’t be able to make out any faint light sources meters away from us. It’s like looking out of a brightly lit room during night.

But well, magic!


The rules on doors don’t make any sense.

NORMAL DOORS: Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked. A lock must usually be picked by a thief. An unlocked door must be forced open to pass through it. To force open a door, roll 1d6; a result of 1 or 2 (on 1d6) means that the door is forced open. The roll should be adjusted by a character’s Strength score adjustment. The number needed to open a door can never be less than 1 nor greater than 1-5.

Once a door is opened, it will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open. Doors will usually open automatically for monsters, unless the door is held, spiked, or closed with magical spells.

I think it’s supposed to mean that a thief can attempt to pick a locked lock, but if the door is stuck or the thief can’t open it, someone needs to try to force it open with a 2 in 6 chance, modified by the Strength modifier.

Doors do not usually fall close by themselves, especially not rusty and half rotten wood doors. And why on earth would all doors automatically unlock and unstuck themselves for monsters?

This is nonsense. The GM should take a few minute to check that no monster is accidentally locked in.

Everyone can search for secret doors. The chance is 1 in 6 and for elves it is 2 in 6. Checks are only made if a player says he is checking a specific area and it also is the correct area.

Also, everyone can try to listen at doors. The chance is 1 in 6 for humans and 2 in 6 for demihumans. Thieves have a special chance determined by their thief skills (which is also 2 in 6 or better).

Turns out B/X does have a rudimentary skill system included after all. I wonder why it wasn’t said anywhere that for any action not covered by special rules, player should roll a d6 and get success on a 1 or 2? LotFP does just that, except that the odds are reduced to 1 in 6, which I find needlesly restrictive.


All characters can attempt to hire some assistants to follow them to adventures. The number of retainers a character can have is determined by the Charisma score, ranging from 1 to 7. I’ve occasionally seen people argue that this is a lifetime limit and everyone can have only one retainer at a time, but in the Basic Rules that very clearly is not implied at all. Regularly having to hire new retainers is actually expected. All characters can do that. At 1st level. Without having to take a 6th level feat or jumping through any other hoops.

Retainers work for pay, which is to be negotiated by the player and the GM. However, no guidelines are given for what makes an average pay, only that very good or very bad offers make it easier or harder to find someone who wants the job. Once you found someone and made an offer, you have to make a 2d6 reaction roll to see if the appliant accepts, which I find a bit unnecessary. However, if the roll is a 12, he gets a permanent +1 bonus to morale as long as he keeps the job. There are no limits to who can be a retainer, only that they can’t have a higher level than the PC when hired. Again, it’s left entirely up to the GM to judge what would be good NPCs for the job.

Retainers are not super greatly devoted to the PC and after each adventure they might quit and go back to a safer occupation. This works just like a morale check and the greater the Charisma of the PC, the better the odds to keep the retainer. But these generally are people who come and go and even characters with 18 Charisma will have to find new retainers on occasion. (Or much more often, if they tend to die a lot during adventures.)

How the retainers get paid is up to the players, but they always get only half a share of the XP.


One thing I found very odd when I first heard about it is that you get 1 XP for every gold piece you bring back from the adventure. Which actually makes a huge amount of sense and has a major impact on gameplay. First, with no magic to buy, there isn’t really much opportunity to spend your money. (Though the Expert rules have some options.) But also, getting rewarded for treasure makes it very attractive for the players to raid a dungeon and carry off as much as they can while avoiding fights with dangerous monsters. This results in a very different style of playing.

Magic items are useful to the characters, so they don’t also get them any XP.

You also get XP for monsters, but depending on how the players approach things, they might be a relatively minor fraction of the total reward. I really like that it says XP are gained from monsters that are “killed or overcome by magic, fighting, or wits”. Killing is explicitly not the only option and you don’t actuallly have to defeat them. You need just to overcome them. As always, what that means is up to the GM, but I actually find these things a lot more obvious in actual play than when you try to come up with hypothetical cases that are very ambigous on purpose. If you got ridd of a monster that was a problem for the party, you usually know it.

It’s recommended to treat monster as one level higher than they actually are if the fight was unusually tough. Which I would read as the monsters having some important situational advantage. It also says that the players might get some XP for fights which they didn’t actually won if “they learned something from it”. Again, this is very situational, but one thing I could think off would be fighting off a monster that tried to ambush the players and then retreated to try again later. Not really defeated, but still something accomplished.

The XP for all the treasure and all the fights is added up and then generally split equally among all PCs (with retainers counting as half a character each). How the players decide to split the treasure and pay out the wages to the retainers is left entirely to them and doesn’t affect the XP that everyone gets in any way.

And the standard special rule: You can never get enough XP at the end of an adventure to level up twice. If you get enough XP, your new XP count is 1 point below the next levelup.

Part 5: The Encounter

This chapter covers all the rules for combat and the initial encountering of monsters or NPCs.


During encounters all time is measured in rounds of 10 seconds, I clear contrast to exploration, which is done in turns of 10 minutes. Why AD&D was using rounds of 1 minute I never understood, but the 10 seconds here make much more sense and have become pretty much a standard for most RPGs of this type.

Since encounters almost never run over 60 rounds (though I did see a report of an AD&D fight against a lich that ended in round 60 with one out of a dozen PCs still standing), every encounter is considered to take up a full turn, when it comes to measuring the durations of torches, active spells, and similar things where time matters. Patching up cuts, casting healing spells, securing prisoners and finishing off any enemies that are not quite dead yet is assumed to take up the rest of the turn after the actual fighting ended. This does make tracking time sound pretty easy. The GM only needs a small piece of paper to check off every new turn that begins while in the dungeon. Checking again and looking at the Expert set, there’s actually only a single spell with a duration that is counted in rounds. All other durations are counted in turns, so there’s a good chance they could last for two or three fights, even for 1st and 2nd level casters. In 3rd edititons most buff spells and the like would only last a round or two, which is a huge difference. It also means you almost never need to keep track how many rounds the encounters are taking.

Encountering Enemies

1. Roll for Wandering Monsters: At the beginning of every turn of exploration, the GM will make a roll for wandering monsters. The odds for that happening and what type of monsters it would be is dealt with much later in the book.

2. Exploring: The party does any of those things mentioned previously as part of exploring. Moving down corridors, checking for traps, searching rooms, opening locks, and so on.

3. Number of Monsters: If a random encounter happens or the PCs open a door or come around a corner that leads them to monsters or NPCs, the number of creatures is determined. Sometimes it’s already been determined by the GM or the adventure in advance, or it’s rolled with dice specified by the monster entry.

4. Distance: If the distance of the encounter is not obvious, which most likely is the case for random encounters, the distance at which the encounter happens is 2d6 x 10 feet. Since it’s 2d6, distances in the middle range are much more likely than at the extreme ends, so you’ll usually have the encounter at a distance of 60 to 80 feet, which seems reasonable.

5. Surprise and Initiative: The first step in determining surprise is to check if it’s obvious. If the PCs just had a big fight next to a flimsy wooden door, any monster or NPC right on the other side of the door will not be surprised. Similarly, if the PCs are kicking open the door with shields raised and bows drawn, they also won’t be surprised. But if the players make it seem like they just casually stroll into the next room, they would need to make a surprise check. Like most things, purely a judgement call by the GM.

If any side might be surprised by the encounter, 1d6 is rolled. On a 1 or 2, the group is surprised.

If both sides are surprised or no side is surprised, nothing special happens.

If one side is surprised but the other side is not, the unsurprised group gets a free round of actions.

At the beginning of each round, both sides roll 1d6 to determine Initiative. The side with the higher result goes first, the one with the lower result second. You could also have three or more groups in a fight for various reasons, then it just works the same.

Initiative counts for the whole group, and it is rolled again at the beginning of each new round.

Rolling Initiative for every single combatant is mentioned as an alternative option.

6. Reactions: It’s now up to the side that goes first to decide what they want to do. For the party, the most common options listed are immediately starting to fight, running away, trying to talk with the other group, or just waiting what they will do on their turn.

For the monsters, as always, the GM first checks if their reaction would be obvious, given the situation and the scenario of the adventure. If the monsters are just random creatures passing through, a reaction roll is made with 2d6. That such a random creature would attack immediately is quite unlikely. Instead it may more likely be hostile towards the party but not immediately start a fight; prefer to get away without a fight and retreat; or simply keep standing where it is, uncertain what it should do and waiting what the PCs will do. There is also a small chance that the encountered creatures are happy to meet other people and greet the party on friendly terms.

This sounds a lot more interesting than instant attack. Supposed the players see three goblins down the corridor and the goblins decide they look like trouble and disappear back behind the corner from where they came. Do the players run after them to catch them before they get away? If the players don’t know if the GM planned for the goblins to be on patrol with orders to raise alarm at their camp, or if this way or it was just a random reaction roll, things get very exciting very quickly.

Run away! Run away!

Regular movement for characters with no encumbrance and no armor is 40 feet per round. If encumbrance rules are used, characters with leather armor move at 30 feet and those with heavier armor at 20 feet. When just running, movement speed is three times the basic encounter speed. They can run for 30 rounds (5 minutes) but then have to take a break of 3 turns (30 minutes), which like everything that is measured in turns seems way too long. If they have to fight during that resting period, they get penalties to hit and damage. The problem with this is what happens when they had been running for 29 rounds, as that isn’t mentioned at all. You surely don’t need 30 minutes of rest after running for one round.

If the party goes first and decides to run, the reaction roll is made just as if the monsters had started the encounter. Only if the monsters are actually hostile will the pursue the party. And if the result is “hostile, but not automatically attack”, the GM has to decide if it would make sense for the monsters to pursue. If our three goblins would roll “attack”, they would charge right after the party. If they roll “hostile”, they might instead go and warn their friends, as their chance to actually defeat a party of adventurers is pretty slim.

The “rules” here are very simple, and it’s a good example of how much of the book is actually just guidelines for how the GM could deal with the situation. A bit of guidance, the specifics are left to GMs based on the actual situation in the game.

If the fleeing group is faster than the pursuers, the pursuers will give up as soon as the fleeing group is out of sight. If it is the other way round they will catch up very quickly, given that speed is always given in 10 feet per round steps. It’s just very simple math of how far they will get before being caught. (Though they might reach a safe location before that happens. Like Han Solo chasing stormtroopers on the Death Star.) If the players try to shake of a faster pursuer, they have a good chance by throwing stuff behind them. Food will stop hungy monsters who want to eat them, smart monsters might stop to pick up spilled bags of treasure. Burning oil is usually enough of a deterance to make most pursuers give up.

Combat Procedure

Now to the actual fighting.

As mentioned before, Initiative is rolled every round. If you have surprise and then also win initiative in the next round, you can cause a lot of damage before the enemy is doing anything. Which can be good for the players, or very bad.

Once initiative has been decided, the very first thing every group does is to make any morale checks in response to what happened since their last combat turn. Usually those are triggered by a fight turning lethal or the side having lost half their number since the start of the encounter. Morale is checked for every combatant individually, not for whole groups. Player charactes never make morale checks, but any retainers they have with them might.

Next the group first does all their moving, then all their bow and crossbow shoting, then all their spell casting, and then all their melee attacks. The exact order of which player goes first and second is irrelevant and up to the players to work out among each other. But first everyone has to have completed their moving for the round before those who want to make ranged attacks make their attacks. And those who want to make melee attacks have to wait until after all the ranged attacks and spells are done.

Then the other group goes through the whole process, and any third or fourth group and the round is done. An interesting case is when both sides roll the same number. In that case everyone moves at the same time, all ranged attacks are made at the same time, and all melee attacks made at the same time. There is no more explanation given, but I think the only way this could actually work out is to apply damage and spell effects at the end of each three phases. Archers can shot each other dead, spellcasters can take each other out, and melee fighters can kill each other. But if an archer shots a spellcaster, the spellcaster is dead before he casts his spell. Otherwise the whole trouble of stating that ranged attacks go first, casters second, and melee attacks last would be completely pointless. Even in a regular round, the intention clearly seems to be that an archer can not wait until the swordsmen done all their attacks befor deciding which of the enemies that are left standing to shot at.

If a character is “in melee” at the start of the turn, his movement options are limited. He can move at half speed with no penalty, which could be very slow if the armor already reduced the speed to 20. If a character who starts in melee wants to move any greater distance (up to three times normal, like regular running speed), he can’t make any attacks that round and all enemies get +2 to hit and ignore his shield.

Characters who cast a spell can’t move at all.

If a character starts in melee range to an enemy and wants to move, he has to proclaim it before intitiative is rolled. If you win initiative, the penalty to armor for running away doesn’t matter because you’re gone before the others have their turn.

The Expert Set also adds that anyone who casts a spell must decalre so before initiative is rolled for the round. If you lose initiative and get hit on the enemy turn, the spell is lost. If you can decide to cast or not only after initiative is rolled, you already know if you might possibly get injured before your turn, or if you are completely safe. If your side wins initiative, your spell goes off before any enemy does anything and so your risk of the spell being wasted is none.

Attack Rolls

B/X uses the old TSR way of making attack rolls.

1. The attacker rolls 1d20 and adds any modifiers from Strength, magic weapons, or magic spells. (Still with me? This is how we all know it.)

2a. The player consults the “to Hit” list on the character sheet and looks which Armor Class is the maximum that roll is able to hit. He then tells the GM “Is it enough if I hit AC 5?” (Wait, what? Why?)

2b. The GM opens the rulebook and looks up the Monster Attack Table. He finds the column that matches AC of the target and the row that matches the Hit Dice of the Monster, and located the spot on the table where the two meet. (This sounds bothersome…)

3b. The table provides the GM with a number. If the roll from step 1 was equal or greater to that number, the attack was a hit.


Really, there is not a single excuse for this I can accept. This is dumb and wrong. Some people who have been using this way of calculating hits have said that it is really not hard once you’ve done it a few hours and then it’s as simple as using the system introduced in 3rd edition. Well, the system used in 3rd edition is understood immediately and does not require training time. Also, nobody has ever complained about the 3rd edition way being too confusing or having unnecessary steps.

Someone explained it best a week or two ago on

“If THAC0 had never been invented and we’d had BAB from the beginning, I don’t think anyone would have felt the need to create THAC0.”

By the way, THAC0 is a simplified system introduced by AD&D 2nd edition. I believe this one here and in 1st edition is even dumber. I can not understand how nobody thought to fix this back in 1974. Why did it take 25 years until someone finally repaired this junk. The conversion is so laughably easy. The results you get from switching to the 3rd edition system are 100% the same. The outcomes are identical, but instead of taking three right turns you simply make one left turn.

Imagine what could have become of RPGs if they had not been burdened with this sh.. for 25 years?! I don’t deliberately go looking for terrible games, but this is the dumbest way to roll dice I’ve ever seen in my whole life! At least I would be able to read the tables here in Basic. Those in AD&D 1st edtition are even much worse.


There is no excuse. Don’t use it! Ever!

Hit Points

Once you’re at 0 hit points, you’re done. If you’re too scared of a 1d6 damage hit being able to kill you, get away from the enemies when you’re under 6 hp. Yes, many characters won’t have more than 6 hp until 3rd or 4th level.

Saving Throws

Saving Throws are also a bit weird, but the mechanic is actually not bad. There is no target number like a DC to resist an effect and you also don’t have any bonuses on your saving throws. Instead, your saving throw isjust a number between 20 and 1. When you make a saving throw, you roll 1d20 and if the result does not exceed the number on your character sheet, you’ve been saved. If the result is higher, you suffer the effect. The nice thing about this is that it doesn’t really matter what ability scores a spellcaster has and what level. A little 2nd level wizard has just as good a chance of his spell hitting as a 12th level wizard. There are a few effects that add a -2 modifier to the roll because that save is supposed to be harder than usual, but that’s it. I actually quite like it. It’s simple and fast, and you don’t have the whole 3rd edition mess of optimizing your save DCs.

What I don’t like about saving throws are the utterly insane categories. d20 games have Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Everyone grasps those immediately and always knows which one applies.

In all TSR games, the categories are “Death Ray or Poison”, “Magic Wand”, “Paralysis or Turn to Stone”, “Dragon Breath”, and “Rods, Staves, and Spells”.

Okay, poison, paralysis, and spell are easy. I can also assume that “Death Ray or Poison” applies to all effects that make you drop dead or at least sick, unless it comes from a spell or magic stick. But don’t death rays always come from spells? “Paralysis or Turn to Stone” probably means everthing that keeps you from moving. But what about a hold person spell? Are there poisons that can paralyze you? And why “Dragon Breath”, how often do even encounter dragons? Why is magic wand a different category than all other sources of magic?
Why is this book torturing me like this?


Stars Without Number uses spells that work the same way, but have the categories “Physical”, “Mental”, “Evasion”, “Magic”, and “Luck”. That makes much more sense and I recommend anyone to use that instead.

And here is the point where I tell you that I love this combat system.

Why? It’s totally insane!

Yes, it’s a big pile of junk, but a pile that can be made totally wonderful by just making tiny adjustments that take maybe a minute of work.

Kick out that retarded attack roll system and silly saving throw categories and replace them with something much easier, and it’s a wonderful game. The odds to do anything in actual play are completely the same, gameplay does not change in any way. Just without the pain.
I like the initiative system because it makes everyone pay attention to what’s hapening all the time. If players know that they won’t be doing anything for the next 3 minutes, they regularly start entertaining themselves with other things. And when it finally does come to their term, they have no idea what they will do because they have to check out the new situation first. With group initiative you also avoid that annoying part of having to write down a list with all the characters and enemies in an order that makes sense. This very quickly grows into one or two minutes of confusing accounting, right in the moment when everyone is drawing swords. This should be the most exciting moment of the game, not a 3 minute break to reenact a stock exchange.

Everyone having one action per round is also nice. And also there is no grid! Grids are bad. They make players go into chess mode, not into imagine a scene mode. Fighting becomes static and sterile that way. We’re not playing battleship or global thermonuclea war, we’re playing killing dragons with swords! It’s supposed to be exciting action, not staring at symbols on a grid.

What I am missing is any indication to how you would run situations where the one side in combat is surprised but not immediately aware of the other sides presence. The surprise system only covers which side is quicker and realizing they have to draw their swords

Part 6: Monsters

With all the rules covered, we are now at page 29. This is a very long chapter with a length of 15 pages!

“Monsters might be friendly or unfriendly, wild or tame, normal beasts or fantastic. The DM will choose, from these monsters, the friends and opponents of the players.”

Now that’s a very interesting thought to begin this chapter with. As mentioned in the previous section, the reaction of any creature that hasn’t a default reaction to the players because of the scenario, can be made determined by a 2d6 roll, which has an equal chance of it being hostile and friendly. Kobolds, harpies, and red dragons might be Chaotic, but they don’t have to be enemies. And using the alignment system, if the party is Chaotic, they might very well be friends. Lizardmen and berserkers are neutral, and Neanderthals even Lawful. That could indeed lead to very interesting situations. There are a few published adventures where the players can ally with humanoid monsters, but then it’s usually part of the story plot. Making it a random roll for some groups of creatures encountered in dungeons sound actually very exciting. Running into a group of elves that is simply exploring, and not knowing if they are friendly or attack on sight, or having a group of ogres that turns out to be friendly would change quite a bit, I imagine.

Stat Blocks

Monster stats are amazingly simple. This is what pretty much each stat block looks like.

Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 1
Move: 120 (40)
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: 1d6 or weapon
No. Appearing: 1-8 (3-30)
Save As: Thief 1
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: U (A)
Alignment: Chaotic or Neutral

Since attack rolls require looking up a chart, the chanced to hit are not given in the monster description. Saves also need to be looked up separately. If the rules would use a sensible sytem for these, you could simply add the information without adding any additional lines. Instead of “1 weapon”, you’d write “1 weapon +1” and using d20 notation you could even put the info from the damage line into the attack line as well.

There are no ability scores. Skills and feats don’t exist, so they don’t take up any space either. Now bandits are very simple enemies, but even the stats for an oldest type of red dragon just look the same.

Armor Class is how we all know it, except that the standard human with no armor has AC 9 and the number gets lower as the protection improves.

Hit Dice are always d8, regardless of what type of creature you’re dealing with. Hit points are not indicated by the stats, as it’s meant to be rolled for every creature individually. If that really makes much of a difference, I am not sure. For a 2 HD creature, you might sometimes get on 2 hp and sometimes 16 hp, which makes it very unpredictable for the players to judge how many hits it will take to go down. But once you go up to greater numbers of HD, some statistical effects start to become more pronounced and it’s extremely unlikely that you ever run into an 8 HD creature with 8 or 9 hp. 96% of these creatures will have 23-49 hp. And since the damage dealt by the players is also rolled with dice, you have a double randomness, which I suspect won’t feel very different from single randomness. So if you want to, you could write the average for each creature next to the HD in your book. Saves a little bit of time. But there’s noting bad about rolling it for every monster either.

A very important thing to notice is that it is only the Hit Dice that determine hit points. There are no Constitution modifiers, and for many of the bigger 3rd edition and Pathfinder monsters, those are actually the main source of hit points. Just to give an example, the balor demon from AD&D (they aren’t in B/X, but it’s a good example everyone knows as a huge scary monster) has only 13 HD. Which is an average of 58. In 3rd edition it has 290 hp. However, at the same time, there is no two-handed power attacking with a +5 demon bane bastard sword in B/X either, so the amount of damage dealt out by players is much lower as well. Suppose you got a 14th level fighter with 18 Strength and a +2 greatsword and he would still only deal 1d10+5 damage. In 3rd edition, many players would barely accept that from their 1st level fighter. Overall, damage and hit point numbers are much lower everwhere.

Hit dice are also the only thing that affects the chance the creature has to make its attacks hit.

Hit dice also define the XP players get for defeating them. However, every special ability adds a few more XP to those from the number of HD. Listing the number of XP for an unmodified creature in the stat block would not have hurt anyone.

Move sets the speed of the creature. The small number is for encounter speed, the larger number for exploration or running speed. To be honest, I don’t know if there is any situation where one would ever use the encounter speed, because if you’re in melee you only can move at half speed or you run at tripple speed.

Attacks work as they always do. Humanoids always have only 1 attack, but many beasts have more. Usually they have one bites and two claw attacks because they have one mouth and two front feet, but that’s a bit of a silly reason. However, many of these creatures are also often encountered heavily outnumbered by the party, so giving them multiple attacks per round gives them a chance to actually do some damage before they are killed quickly.

Damage is always given as a range, which is a bit needlessly complicated. 1-4 and 1-6 obviously mean 1d4 and 1d6, but when you have something like 3-12, there really wouldn’t be any harm in just writing 3d4. Usually it’s not a problem since it’s always d4, d6, d8, and d10 and you rarely have more than three dice, but still. Why do the slightly more complicated way when there’s an obvious easier one. (But that is of course a question people at TSR would never, and apparently have never asked.)

Sometimes damage is given as 1-6 or weapon, which means you use 1d6 (the standard damage for all weapons), or the specific damage dice used by the optional rules for different weapon damage.

There are several forms of special damage. The most common one being poison. All poison is save or die. Which is absolutely brutal. However, the neutralize poison spell from the Expert Set does revive any character who has been killed by poison if cast quickly. The saving throws against poison are usually the best for all classes, but even then there’s a 50-60% chance that any hit by a poisonous monsters is instant death at low levels. See a tiny snake? Everyone run like hell. Even the 12th level dwarf.

Paralysis seems almost as bad. It doesn’t kill you, but you’re paralyzed for 20 to 80 minutes. So if your allies are defeated or have to flee, you’re also dead. But! in this edition the cure light wounds spell can neutralize paralysis, which makes it a lot less scary. And a healing potion works too.

The only creature with energy drain in the Basic Set is the wight. If he hits you, you lose a level. No save. It says the Companion Set would have means to restore lost levels, but apparently the Expert Set won’t. Sounds brutal, but even though you don’t get a save, you don’t instantly die if you have more than 1 level, which makes it less scary then poison, I think. And given how XP works, you’d catch up to the rest of the party relatively quickly. Yes, of course it’s absolutely brutal, but it doesn’t look so bad in comparison to the rest of the game.

Charm attacks are interesting. If a creature is charmed, it will obey simple commands from the monster and try to keep the monster safe from harm. However, the target will be too confused to use spells or magic items. It also says that a charmed creature can not make any descisions by themselves. The charm lasts until the magic is dispelled or the monster dead. It’s still a very nice ability to have for a creature, but it’s not too super terrible for the rest of the party. Your wizard will not shot you with a fireball. The thralls of the monster are all acting like simple dumb brutes. Since the charm lasts forever, there’s a great amount of opportunities for adventure to save people charmed by the monster.

Acid damage is caused by gray oozes and ochre jellies and once you have it on you, it stays on you until washed off. It also will destroy armor after a while.

The Number Appearing shows the number of monsters that are likely to be encountered. Most monsters have two numbers, one for wandering monsters and one for monster lairs. Lairs are not just where a monster sleeps and keeps its treasure, but often actually whole strongholds or villages. Which explains this joke:

If you don't know Munchkin then there is no helping you.
If you don’t know Munchkin then there is no helping you.

When you’re in a dungeon and run into some goblins, it will be 2d4 goblins. But when there’s a whole village of them, it will be 6d10. In most dungeons, especially at 1st to 3rd level, it is very unlikely to find a lair in a dungeon. But I believe the Expert Set has rules for random monster lairs in the wilderness and there this number will be very important.

As I believe I mentioned before, “Dungeon level” does not mean the same as the floors of a building. The two are often treated as the same, which I find a bit silly, but the dungeon level. The 1st dungeon level is meant for 1st level parties and populated by 1st level (1 HD) monsters. Which explains this joke. If monsters are encountered on a dungeon level higher or lower than their HD, the number appearing should be increased or decreased a bit.

Monsters will Save As characters of the same level as their HD. Usually they use the saves of fighters, but some also use the saves of other classes when it seems more appropriate. For example bandits save like thieves and pixies save like elves. I think in AD&D they got their own saving throw progression, which makes sense, but I actually like having a bit more differentiation. A nymph should have different saves than an ogre, even though their Hit Dice are similar.

However, since the categories of saving throws are completely random, it probably doesn’t really make much of a difference. If you had fortitude, reflex, and will saves, it would make a lot more sense.

Morale I have mentioned before. When a fight turns lethal or a side has half its people, 2d6 are rolled to see which of the monsters or retainers start running away. Most monsters fail their checks by exceeding 7 or 8, but some are a lot hardier and take an 11 to flee or might never flee at all. (Though an orderly retreat or negotiating a truce might still be an option for them.)

Treasure type indicates how much treasure a creature will usually have. Type A to O are usually for lairs and apply to the entire population. Type P to V are what is carried by individual monsters, which often is just a bit of pocket chance. Only type U and type V might have any magic items with them and the chance for that is extremely low. But more on that in the next chapter.

Monster stats are one of the things I really love in old D&D and really don’t like in any d20 games. The first time someone thought “maybe we could make monster stats just like character stats”, I can see how everyone was “Yeah, let’s try how that would work out”. But as soon as they actually tried to playtest that with more than just wolves and goblins, they should have realized that it was a really terrible idea. The amount of work it takes to make custom creatures from scratch is enormous, though I admit that skill ranks are by far the biggest offender there. Making your own B/X or AD&D monsters is laughably easy. Can be done in a minute or two and if it needs to even on the fly, though probably it won’t have a lot of interesting special abilities. But creating King Kong would take no time at all. It has 12 HD, an AC of 2, and makes 2 attacks per round with 1d10 damage each. Saves as a 12th level fighter, moves at 180 (60), and has Morale of 8. Done.

I really love this, and even given how much crap I gave the attack tables and saving throws, this is one of the really wonderful things that makes this game worth looking at.

Since the stats are so short and the special abilities requireing very little explanation, the next 14 and a half pages contain 102 creatures. Which is really quite a lot to keep 1st to 3rd level characters occupied for a very long time. A lot of them are the very basic stuff like bears, wolves, rats, spiders, and lions, but even then there’s still plenty of real monsters. I’ll only go through some of the most interesting ones.

One of the first is the carrion crawler, one of the very oldest true original D&D creatures that has been around from pretty much the very beginning, unless I am mistaken. It has been in all WotC editions I think, but I feel like it didn’t get the same love as in the older editions. 3 Hit Dice and Armor Class 7 isn’t that bad, but this critter got 8 attacks per round. It doesn’t deal any damage, but if it hits, you need to make a save or be paralyzed for the next hour or so. As long as it’s under attack, it will keep trying to paralyze any remaining attackers, but once its left alone, it starts eating those it paralyzed. 8 paralyzing attacks per round seems really brutal, and the reason for that being that it has 8 tentacles in its face is silly, but I think it’s actually a very well done creature. This one is to make players panic without actually wiping them all out instantly. 8 attacks per round is super scary. But on a hit they get to make a save and if they suceed nothing happens. At 1st or 2nd level, any hit can easily be deadly, but this one only paralyzes. Only if the entire party is defeated does anyone actually start getting hurt. Given the brutality of this game at low levels, this is actually a very easy monster that looks a lot more terrifying than it actually is. Very well done.

The giant centipede is poisonous, but one of the few such creatures that doesn’t kill. Failing the save against its bite make a character ill for 10 days during which movement speed is halved and it can not fight at all. This might be a good way to introduce players to how bad poison can be without killing a character immediately.

And there’s dragons. Which really is a bit insane, given that in this set characters can only be 3rd level. But it’s Dungeons & Dragons so there have to be dragons. They are relatively moderate threats though, compared to other editions. There are six types with white dragons having 6 HD and gold dragons having 11 HD. To make younger or older dragons, the GM simply has to give them up to 3 more or fewer HD. Only gold dragons are lawful, but white and blue ones are neutral. Like in other editions, they know a few spells, but even the gold ones have only 4 spells at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level each. They have two claw attacks and also one bit, and that last one does a very large amount of damage.

But the most terrible thing about them is their breath. They can use it three times per day and it will cause as many points of damage as the dragon currently has hit points. You get a saving throw for half damage, but given even the moderate amounts of Hit Dice of these dragons, the damage caused by an uninjured dragon is just massive. You pretty much have to get the jump on them and deal the higest possible amount of damage you can before they use their breath. If the dragon is starting hostilities and you’re anywhere close, you’re almost certainly dead. To fight a dragon you have to spread out so that the breath won’t hit too many people at once, but people will die. If you fight a dragon, some of the party will not survive it. And that’s not when things go bad. That’s the best case scenario. Which I have to admit is really quite cool for a game where death is expected to be frequent. Once the dragon has breathed 3 times or has taken a lot of damage, the situation changes and the odds become a lot better. But in any case, dragons are freaking scary. As they should be.

Can’t have D&D without a rust monster either. They got pretty high HD and very high AC, which makes them a huge pain to kill. And of course, there is the rust thing. Any nonmagical metal that comes in contact with a rust monster immediatel disintegrates. +2 weapons have an 80% chance to be reduced to +1, and +1 weapons have a 90% chance to become nonmagical. And that’s really it. No fancing avoiding the antennas or item saving throws. If you hit the rust monster or the rust monster hits you, the weapon or armor is done.
However, it can’t actually hurt you. A 1st level wizard using his fists would take a long time, but he will eventually win unharmed. People with no armor and wooden clubs would be much faster. Or use slings and stones. Once you figured out that it doesn’t harm people without armor and who have no metal weapon, it’s not really any threat anymore.

Shadows deal 1 point of strength damage for 80 minutes with each hit. Which is interesting as I havn’t really seen any creatures that affect abilities scores at all so far.

Werewolves have an animal form and a human form. In animal form they can only be hurt by silver or magic weapons, but can be repelled by throwing wolvesbane in their face. This also works in their human form, but then they are also vulnerable to normal weapons. They have a pretty nasty bite and can summon 1d2 wolves to their help, but are otherwise not too terribly dangerous. Which makes them really great for small adventures where it takes more than just fighting the beast.

The rest of the monsters are the usual suspects. Goblins, kobolds, orcs, ogres, lizardmen, troglodytes, harpies, ghouls, zombies, skeletons, wights, owlbears, and medusas.

Part 7: Treasure

Usually these parts of the books are just shopping lists of stuff, but here there’s also a lot of interesting explanations and advice.

Wealth is for buying weapons, armor, and hiring mercenaries. “Magic items will usually give a character abilities not normally posessed and are useful on later adventures.” Important thing to know. Which 3rd edition seemingly did not. Good magic items give new abilities. They don’t slightly increase the statistical chances for abilities the characters already have. Such items seem cool, but don’t acutally “do” anything. And 3rd edition has a lot of them. But then, that game has a lot of numbers for every tiny thing. And the more it becomes about calculating and optimization, the more you lose sight of the actual things that are happening in a fight. If everyone has +3 swords and +4 armor and the monsters and enemies have numbers to compensate for that, then why do we have them in the first place? They do nothing except not making the characters underpowered. It’s so much easier to just not bother too much with them to begin with. Great magic items give characters new abilities.

The book advises that any significant treasures should be written down before the game starts, not rolled when the players open the treasure chest. This way the GM can figure out where these items would likely be found. If a group of bugbears has a magic sword, it would most likely be found in the cold dead hand of their leader. Magic scrolls might be found in desk drawers instead of a coffer with coins, and so on. Good advice.

If you roll treasure randomly, there’s a big fancy table of all the many different treasure types from A to V. Given that each has a percentage chance for copper pieces, silver pieces, electrum pieces, gold pieces, platinum pieces, gems, jewelry, and magic items, I think it’s a bit overkill. Having 8 or 10 categories would most likely been have completely sufficient, you don’t need to have 22. And in the end, everything except magic items is just money. The only differences between them is their weight. Finnding big piles of copper coins isn’t as fun as small piles of gems, but still it’s simply cash (and XP). When reaching the carrying limit, you first take all your gems, then all your platinum, then all your gold, and so on until you’re full and go home. Given than 100 copper coins are worth 1 XP but weigh 100 coins, I don’t see them making any difference. And we could do without electrum and platimun too. But that’s just table-hating me.

Type P-V are stuff individual monsters have on them when found alone, but those are barely worth mentioning. They are just pocket change and don’t come in handy chunks of 1,000s. I guess after 3rd level or so nobody would really care to check corpses for money anymore. If you strike gold (by finding platinum), you might get 80 XP to be shared among the whole party. Yay…

GMs can also just simply place treasure as they see fit. An interesting little note here is that it says that players should get about three quarters of their XP from finding treasure and only the remaining quarter from defeating monsters. Conveniently, there’s also a little table with the average amount of worth for treasure types A-M. Since these are for lairs of monsters, those numbers are huge. A type J lair is only a tiny 25 gp on average, while type G is 25,000 and type H 50,000. Type H being the common dragon hoard.

If you want to randomly pick a magic item, there’s also tables for that. There is “swords”, other “weapon/armor”, potions, scrolls, rings, “wands/staves/rods”, and finally the rest. Since this is just Basic, the weapons and armor are all +1, though some swords also might have a special bonus against certain creatures. I think the 3rd level fighter with a +1 sword with +3 against dragon will be super happy about it.

As I mentioned before, the is no identify spell. Everything is trial and error, except for scrolls which require a read magic spell by any wizard or elf who wants to use them.

There are 8 potions, which each have a duration of 70 to 120 minutes. Which can last through several encounters.

The potion of diminuition shrinks you to tiny size, which is implied for sneakily scouting ahead. You’re so tiny that you can’t fight at all. (But could cast spells.)

The ESP potion works just like the spell, which is not very well.

The potion of gaseous form turns your body into a magic mist. But not any of your equipment. That stuff all lands where you stood while you can fly around. Which I think is a wonderful idea.

The potion of growth doubles your size, but it doesn’t say if it doubles your mass or your height. Since the only difference is that you deal double damage with melee attacks, it’s probably just mass.

A potion of healing works just like the cure light wounds spell, which means it also can remove paralysis instead. I really love this rule.

The invisibility potion is also just like the spell. Which in this case is awesome. It says the GM can allows players to split a potion of invisibility up into 6 parts, reducing its duration. But it doesn’t say to how much. I would probably go with 1d2 turns.

A potion of levitation also duplicates the spell. Since it’s a potion, it’s not limited to wizards, though.

And finally we got the poison. Which has a 1 in 8 chance to be in any randomly generated potion bottle. Since all poison is save or die, I think this is absolutely stupid. Because the only chance to test a potion is to see what happens if you swallow a bit of it. Though as a GM, I probably would not be able to give any reason why players might not keep a mouse farm and give a drop of every poison to six mice to rule out that it’s poison. (Which means, that’s exactly what I would do as a player.) Still stupid. Finding a treasure should not be russian roulette.

Scrolls can have one spell, two spells, three spells, be a scroll of protection against undead or lycanthropes, a treasure map to a cache of gold, a treasure map to a magic weapon, or a curse.

A protection scroll creates a 5 foot radius area around the person who reads it like a spell, into which either undead or lycanthropes can not enter. Everyone can use them and they will last for 1 hour, except when someone inside the area attacks any of of the creatures that are held off. If they do, the protection ends completely for everyone. It repells only a limited number of creatures, which I assume means it will repell the first creatures that will try to cross beyond the edge. Can’t imagine that it would fail completely if more creatures are near. Since the best case scenario is repelling 2d12 worth of skeletons and zombies, they don’t seem very useful, though. Maybe you just roll a 5 and how is that going to help you against a group of undead you are afraid to face in a fight?

Treasure maps sound really fun. They are notes that contain hints where the monster has stashed some gold or a magic item somewhere in the dungeon. It’s an extra treasure the monster can not use against the party in a fight, but comes with the downside that you need to figure out the instructions and then also have to reach the spot. Which might be a small adventure in itself.

Cursed scrolls are just as dumb as poison potions. They are not quite as instantly deadly, but many of them are still pretty mean and require a high level spell to remove. At a random chance of 1 in 8, that’s just way too bad. 1st level characters need these items the most. Don’t make it save to identify them only for high level characters. Bad design!

Next there are six rings.

The ring of animal control allows the user to automatically get control over a few normal animals. The control lasts as long as the user concentrates on it and can see the animals, but it can only be used once per turn. Why would you want to control normal animals? To bring you those keys from the hook on the other side of the bars or to bite through a rope. Could be very useful.

The rings of fire resistance and invisibility work just like the spells. The later is activ for as long as it is worn, but can only be activated once per turn. Pay attention to the wording! As I see it, you can turn it on, wait for the end of the turn to recharge and go exploring. When you then do something to disable the invisibility, you are able to immediately activate it again.
The classic ring of protection +1 gives a bonus to Armor class and all saing throws. Of +1. Except for the AC, which is a -1 bonus because the attack system is weird and makes no sense.

A ring of water walking allows you to walk on water. No further rules given. Could actually be pretty neat when dealing with underground rivers and flooded tunnels. Could you sit or lie on water? Ask your GM. (I would say yes.)

The ring of weakness is cursed. Because we can’t have any magic items that won’t screw you when you try to figure out what it is. It only reduces Strength to 3, which only affects attack rolls and melee damage. Getting a remove curse spell to lift the curse could be a challenge, but at least you’re not dead and can still run away from danger without help.

Wands can be used my wizards, staves by clerics, and the only rod in this book by anyone. Which is a nice idea, but I think the Expert rules make wands and staves the same thing again. All of them have 1d10 charges, their number is unknown, and they can not be recharged. So every use might be your last. Seriously? I know I am not the only one who keeps hold of his 10 potion of fire resistance and never uses them because I might really need them later. With those I at least know how many uses I have left. If any use could be the last, I am never going to use any of them ever!

The wand of enemy detection makes all enemies within 60 feet glow. Even hidden and invisible ones. Works a bit like the fairy fire spell from AD&D but with a much larger area. Actually a very nice thing.

A wand of magic detection makes all uncovered magic items within 20 feet glow. This seems for wizards who don’t have the detect magic spell.

The wand of paralyzation is OP! Everyone within a 60 foot long beam get paralyzed for an hour unless they make a save. This rocks. So sad it might just have a single use.
The staff of healing casts cure light wounds unlimited times, but any creature can be healed by this staff only once per day. Still, for any small village this would be a holy artifact of divine glory.

The snake staff is funny. A cleric can fight with it like a staff +1, but on command it turns into a snake that will coil around an enemy and hold him for 10 to 40 minutes. The snake can be injured and when it’s killed the staff is destroyed. I like this thing. It’s really just paralysis, but much more interesting in action.

The rod of cancelation has a single use and will destroy a single magic item. Probably best used to destroy an evil artifact or magic lock or something like that. You can even use it as a weapon to hit the evil clerics crown of infernal doom or something like that.

There’s also a couple of other random magic items.

The bag of devouring looks like a normal sack, but everything put into it disappears after an hour or two. Since it’s most likely going to be gold, that’s probably not too bad.
There is also the bag of holding, which looks like a normal small sack, but can hold items up to 10x5x3 feet big. Since that’s the size of a bed or a sofa, they probably meant inches. It can carry 10,000 coins but will only weigh 600 coins.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen a broom of flying actually been used anywhere in D&D at all.
The crystal ball lets you see any place or object for 10 minutes, three times per day. Since it only shows you the place of a thing, but not where that place is, and you only get half an hour out of it per day, it’s not actually as super powerful as you might think. Unlike in movies or books, there might very likely nothing important happening while you’re watching a place. It might give some clues, but very little explanation. Also no sound, it seems.

An elven cloak and elven boots give you a 5 in 6 chance of not being seen. Since thieves actually completely suck at being silent and unseen, these really do give the character unique special abilities. When you attack, the effect is turned off for the rest of the turn. Which for any fight means for the rest of the whole fight.

The gauntlets of ogre power are another old classic. They increase strength to 18. You also can make unarmed attacks with fists for 1d4 damage and can carry 1,000 more coins of treasure, which is quite a lot, assuming it means all your encumbrance ratings are pushed up by 1,000 and not your maximum limit when you’re already super heavily slowed down.

There’s a helm of alignment changing, but since alignment does pretty much nothing, it simply makes the character a bit more unpleasant to be around at the most. And it might even be neutral.

The helm of telepathy allows the wearer to communicate with any creature within 90 feet. I assume this is for talking with people who don’t speak your language.

The medallion of ESP works like the spell, except that it can be activated much, much quicker within just one round. However, there is a 1 in 6 chance that instead everyone within 30 feet hears the thoughts of the user instead. Not really sure when you might possibly use that. Maybe when you’re in an ambush and try to get useful information from the enemy leader. But the chance to screw up is way too high to use it secretly.

The rope of climbing is much cooler than the rope of Galadriel. This one can climb up any wall or tree by itself and then tie itself to something all by itself. Really extremely useful thing. Maybe the best item of the bunch. More easily stored than the weird broom.

Other than the poison potion and the cursed scrolls, I am pretty happy with this chapter. I really quite like all the items

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information

And already we’re at the very end of the book, which closes with 9 pages of additional information and advice for the GM.

Making adventures

It begind with a quick overview of the general steps of creating an adventure for your group. There is a short mention of the B-series modules, of which many have become quite a bit famous. B2: Keep on the Borderland had been part of the Basic box sets since 1979 and B4: The Lost City, B7 Rahasia, and B10 Night’s Dark Terror are also quite well known.

The first step in creating an adventure is to pick a background scenario, to “keep a dungeon from beconing a boring repitition of ‘open door, kill the monster, take the treasure.'” Which a great number of adventures in the past 35 years didn’t really accomplish. “A good scenario always gives the players a reason for adventuring.” Take that, sandbox grognards.

The ten examples are very basic backgrounds like “clear ruins of monsters”, “investigate stronghold of Chaos”, “rescue prisoners” and so on. Pretty basic stuff, but if you don’t already have seen a good numbers of adventures or are well read in heroic fantasy, this probably was still quite helpful.

The second step is to decide on a setting, by which here is meant castle, cave, mine, crypt, temple, or town. So effectively what kind of dungeon you’re having.

Third is to decide what special monsters that won’t be wandering monsters you want to have in the adventure and then you start making the map. That is very good advice. Build the dungeon around the primary inhabitants. Don’t start with a floorplan and then think what might be found in it. It’s recommended to do the dungeons on graph paper, so that the mapping player would be able to replicate it based on the GMs description. As I mentioned before, I am not a fan of this practice. These floorplans always look fake with their 10 feet thick walls and 90 degree corners everywhere, and I don’t see any fantasy heroes trying to accurately measure every room they come through to make precise blueprints of the place. I am much more in favor of flowchart maps.

And last there’s a couple of ideas where to put all the treasure and some traps.

Wandering Monsters

By default, the book recommends to make a check for wandering monsters every 2 turns (20 minutes). A 1 on a 1d6 means that the party runs into someone or something. There are three tables for wandering monsters for the first, second, and third level of a generic dungeon, but GMs are encouraged to make their own custom ones. A polar bear is not supposed to be found in a desert tomb. Even wacky early D&D did not say that one should do that. When it happened it was the GM using the tools from the books wrong. Wandering monster tables should not simply be customized for the environment, but also for the specific dungeon. In an abandoned castle inhabited by goblins, a lot of the wandering monsters should be patroling goblins. These books make way more sense than people give them credit for. At least B/X. The AD&D PHB and DMG are an unreadable nightmare.

The next couple of pages are an example how those guidelines could be used to make an actual small dungeon.

Other Advice

And finally a bit more than a page of other random pieces of advice. Here there’s some of the more interesting things to find in this book.

It says that the GM should be fair without favoring either the party or the monsters, but also that the main task of the GM is to see that the adventure remains interesting and fun. Killer GMing is not encouraged at all.

If players want to do something for which there is no rule, the advice is to set a percentage of how likely the GM judges that idea to work and then make a d100 roll. Alternatively, if the player wants to do something for which one of the ability scores might help, the player could roll 1d20 and succeeds if the number does not exceed his ability score. Why put this on the last page of the book with a bunch of other random bits and pieces? I think this should have been right in the front when ability scores were first introduced.

Already back in the 80s, it appears to have become established that the GM makes up things on the fly when needed, and when a player does not like it it can be debated after the game. But not in the middle of the game. As players, people should just accept that what the GM says goes for the rest of the session. Of course you can mention concerns about the GMs descision and point out flaws, but when the GM insists to do it that way, don’t start an argument about it now. It needs to wait until later.

One of the pieces of advice is that generally PCs should have reached 2nd level after three or four sessions of play. If not, the GM should probably be a bit more generous with treasure, and if the party is already at 3rd level there is probably too much of it. This is really mostly just a thing of personal preference of the GM, but I think it’s interesting that this also matches pretty much exactly how I always approached it. One level every four sessions seems to be pretty good. I wonder if that’s coincidence, or if there’s something about these games that makes that pace work really well for some reason.

Miniatures are mentioned as an option, as is the recommendation of 1 inch squares if playing on a grid, but these things are usually not present in the rules at all. I think by making them default, 3rd edition went off in the wrong direction.

Finally there’s a glossary and some recommended books, and then we’re already at the end at page 64.

Even given how much problem I have with many of the ways the results of dice rolls are calculated (attacks, saving throws, thief skills), I think that this is overall a very excelent RPG. Most importantly because it is so very short and has so very few rules. As a GM, I just want to ask the players “What do you want to do?” and then have them make a single dice roll to see if it worked or if they got into some kind of trouble. And this game does this really exceptionally well.

I did some testing with some custom monsters I’ve made by running a fight against four PCs I’ve made for the level and with the kind of gear I want to be able to defeat the monster, and running the fights was extremely quick. A whole round of dumbly making melee attacks until one side was dead took maybe half a minute each. In actual play it obviously takes longer as the players are considering other options, but the dice rolling itself goes extremely quick. The group initiative system having a great part in that. Making and then changing the stats for the monsters also takes no time at all.

If you want to break a door, climb over a wall, or anything like that, it’s a single roll. If a thief wants to sneak past some guards, it’s a single roll. I don’t need to roll perception for every single guard and make adjustments based on their distance to where the thief is sneaking and the light conditions, or anything like this. One roll and you get your result.

I really don’t like the magic system, but I don’t like it in any version of D&D. At least this version of the system gives the spell very long lasting durations, which makes them a lot more useful than the other editions I’m familiar with.

Once you clean up the rules (for example using LotFP or Basic Fantasy), I think it’s probably my favorite game there is.

6 thoughts on “Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)”

  1. Thank you for writing such a comprehensive overview.

    I was really enjoying it until I got to the part where you unnecessarily harshed on descending armor class and the to-hit tables. Now this is coming from a guy who very much prefers ascending AC, thinks it superior in every way and finds it the one major flaw in Moldvay Basic that lessens my enjoyment of the game.

    First, comparing it to 3rd Edition is not fair because one of the goals of 3rd Edition was to do away with many of the clunky ideas of previous editions of D&D. One of them being the to-hit tables.

    Second, why it took them so long is a good question, however, Moldvay Basic came out in ’81, less than 7 years after the original edition. Yes, other game companies were already coming up with other ideas but this system was still working for TSR and thousands of players, so why change it?

    And third, D&D was a system that grew out of tabletop wargames, which were heavily based on charts to start with. The designers used the tools they had and transformed them into a new type of game. The to-hit charts got carried over.

    (Oh, ignore my third point. I guess originally the intention was that in order to hit you needed to roll 20 minus AC. So AC2 would be 18 or higher. But for whatever reason this didn’t make it into publication.

    Now, just to be clear, I’m not arguing with your contention that ascending AC is superior, I just think that perhaps you should view Moldvay Basic as a product of it’s time, an improvement/clarification of the original D&D game, and not compare so it unfavorably to later games that benefited from the lessons it taught. Hindsight is 20/20.

    1. I might have been overly dramatic, but I still completely stand to my judgement. Attack rolls are terrible.

      A while back I read something about AC originally going no better than 1, and that this made it quick and easy to use. But very early on AC was expended to go higher than that to accomodate for levels above 9th and that broke the whole thing. At that point it should have been ditched, but it wasn’t. And I consider this terrible design.

  2. I very much agree with the last sentence of the review. A cleaned up version with ascending AC is just about perfect in my eyes.

  3. Well poison potions aren’t great, I don’t think they are bad either, as long as you have the detox spell, their threat is kind of null, and low-level parties that might not have detox performing animal testing seems super on point and interesting, like give the goblin a sword to see if it’s cursed.

    So with the saves, at least on second addition, it’s done as in order of specificity, so a “hold” spell, is more specific than a spell, so you use the paralysis save, but also thinking back, it’s pretty idiosyncratic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *