Early in the 1980’s I came across a book in the local library, Fantasy Role playing games by John Eric Holmes, and after reading it cover to cover several times, I found myself yearning to play a game called Dungeons & Dragons.
Finally, around 1984, and after much cajoling, I eventually managed to persuade my parents to buy me the D&D Basic Set – after hunting high and low for it that is; remember, this was well before the days of Internet shopping!
I remember sitting in the car on the way back from the shop, clutching the red box tightly in my arms, and once home rushing to my bedroom to savour the moment of the great un-opening. It’s a thrill I still get whenever I have a long awaited game in my grasp!
Before I continue though, let’s take a quick look at the history of D&D’s basic set.
Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular and well known of all Role-Playing Games (RPG’s), and was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. First published in 1974, it saw players creating their own characters and adventuring forth in scenarios run by the Dungeon Master (DM).
Gygax and Arneson both came from war-game backgrounds, and both had previously had a hand in developing games – Gygax published Chainmail, D&D’s Medieval predecessor, and Arneson had created his own, unpublished Medieval variation, which included character classes, experience points, and other innovative ideas that were later incorporated into D&D.
Published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR), 1977 saw the game re-produced in two differing versions – the introductory version, or ‘Basic’ Set as it was known, and the full version, ‘Advanced’ Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). The Basic Set was produced by John Eric Holmes, who re-wrote the original rules into an introductory form, making the game more approachable for people new to the world of D&D, with players able to reach level 3 before taking the plunge into AD&D.
In 1981 the Basic Set was revised and the Expert Set released, expanding upon the Basic Set and extending characters to level 14. 1983 saw it revised by Frank Mentzer and extended further, with the introduction of the Companion Set – levels 15-25; 1984 introduced the Master Set – levels 26-36; finally the Immortals Set – levels 36+. The whole thing was aimed at people who preferred a simplified version of the game, rather than the overcomplicated Advanced rules.
Meanwhile, the AD&D side of things had also seen some changes. In 1989 the 2nd Edition was published, and it saw some radical changes from its predecessor. Gone were the Demons; cast aside were the Devils; Assassins and Half-orcs were put to the sword – all with the aim to rid the game of its negative publicity (more on that later). The rule set though, was still over complicated, and lacked a certain polish that later editions would gain.
The Basic set remained in publication throughout the life of AD&D, though the other Sets were combined into a Rules Cyclopaedia – levels 1-36 – and this remains in print today as ‘Classic Dungeons & Dragons’.
2000 brought about the end of TSR’s support for the Basic Set, as D&D 3rd Edition was released – note the dropping of the Advanced! This version was based upon the d20 System, which is named after the 20 sided die used throughout for skill checks. As this rule set was far more accessible than that of the Advanced version, people new to the game could pick it up with relative ease, and the amount of people using the introductory rules of the Basic set, died away.
Back to my memories…
On opening up the box, which was red (blue in 1977, magenta in ’81, black in ’91, and tan in ’94), I found two books. One was the Players Manual – ‘Read This Book First!’ – and the other the Dungeon Masters Rulebook – ‘Read This Book Next!’ Also contained within the box were a set of polyhedral dice – a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and a d20 – and a white crayon!
For those that remember polyhedral dice from those days, will remember that the numbers were etched into the faces, and the crayon was provided for you to rub over the face, thus filling the etching and making the numbers stand out – I’ve still got the dice somewhere!
The cover of the books, though identical, were jaw droopingly gorgeous to a thirteen-year-old lad, who’s imagination was on constant overdrive anyway. The image of a warrior single handedly taking on a dragon, perched on a mountain of riches, sets the scene so completely. Whenever there is a mention of D&D I instantly recall this piece of artwork by Larry Elmore, and my initial ventures into the game.
Both Elmore and Jeff Easley excellently illustrate the artwork throughout the book. All black and white here, with the Players Manual presenting the better portion of it – there’s a lot more written content in the Dungeon Masters Rulebook.
The Players Manual opens with a section teaching you the basic principles, throwing you into a short, very simple story based adventure, where you start to learn about abilities, combat, and saving throws. It’s a great opener, and it had youngsters hooked from the start – imagine a world where there is very little in the way of fantasy on television; there are no computer games, and consoles the size of a suitcase just about enable you to hit a square ball with a rectangular bat – let’s call it the early 1980’s shall we.
Books were the only place you would have found a fantasy world, and I was (still am) an avid reader. At the age of 15 I had already read Lord of The Rings through twice, and I dreamed of fighting Orcs and other Monsters – battling away to save some great civilisation, or to become the greatest hero of all time. And now, I open this little rulebook, and straightaway it’s fulfilling my wildest dreams!
After quickly progressing through the introductory adventure, the book goes on to explain a little more about how things work, and you conduct a little ‘Town Business’ before setting of in another solo adventure. This time it is of the ‘choose your own adventure’ type, making a decision and reading the relevant paragraph, but using the D&D rules for combat and such like.
This wasn’t my first experience of this kind of adventure. I’d recently played ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’, the fighting Fantasy book that was released a year earlier. But even with this short adventure, I straightaway realised that there was some much more going for D&D than I’d experienced before.
After playing through the adventure, the rules move on to character classes; Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Elf, Magic-User, Halfling, and Dwarf – note that the races other than human are defined as a class, again simplifying things from AD&D 2nd Edition. It then runs through character creation, choosing spells and equipment, rolling for hit-points, and preparing for your adventures.
Looking back through it now, it all seems very simple, but the writing is excellent in the way that the ideas are put across, if a little long winded. I remember I never had a problem in understanding how the mechanisms worked, and how they all fell into place.
The last part of the Players Manual is about playing in a group – deciding marching order, choosing a mapper, tactics, and playing alignments. Alignment, or how a character behaves in a certain situation, is perhaps the most innovative part of the game, especially when compared to anything that had come before. AD&D had a possible nine different alignments at the time; the Basic Set reduced this down to just three – Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.
For people new to the world of Role-Playing this is probably the most difficult concept to get your head around. It’s all to easy to play your first character as yourself, reacting to circumstances, as you would do in real life. Bolt on an alignment though, and you have to role-play within its confinements, otherwise you may get penalised by the DM.
So, if you decide upon a Lawful alignment, you must play your character within the confines of that alignment. A lawful character would never kill an unharmed foe, or steal from their fellow adventurers – they would always try to follow the letter of the law. Whereas a chaotic player leads a random life, sometimes killing, sometimes robbing, and always playing their luck – ‘as long as I’m alright Jack’, springs to mind! Neutral characters believe in a balanced world, treating others as they treat them, and often looking for where the profit is!
Of all the rules in the Basic Set, alignment is the stumbling block. It works in AD&D because you have the further breakdown of good and evil, but here it’s just too confined, making it a little trickier for a novice to understand and play. But even in AD&D the alignment became its weak spot (in my opinion), take a look at the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game to see how well it could have been done – but that’s for another day!
The Dungeon Masters Rulebook starts off in the same vein as the Players did – ‘Bang!’ and you’re straight into an adventure. It’s all laid out perfectly for a beginner, and a new DM who’s never played before needs all the help they can get; with paragraphs highlighted to show which to read to the players, and which to read to themselves. All the monster statistics are presented, and advice given on how to lead the players by suggesting options.
It’s a great introduction into how to run a game, and something I think is sorely missing from later editions of the D&D rule set.
Only level one is completed, but there are a few notes in how to produce the next two levels, and a map is provided for level two.
The DM Rulebook is far more in depth than the players, obviously, as when running a game they need to have an insight into all the rules.
I loved reading the Monsters section at the rear of the book, there are things in there I’d never heard of at the time – Bugbears, Berserkers, Doppelgangers, Shriekers, and the awesome Gelatinous Cube! Just reading about these things made want to start playing straight away, and that’s where I hit a snag!
There was no way in Heaven or on Earth, that my parents would even consider playing a game like this; my Dad likes games of skill – chess, dominoes, and cards – and my Mum simply wasn’t into fantasy, siding with simple board games, or card games. I had no Brothers or Sisters, and none of my friends showed the slightest interested in the game. And of course, there was the stigma that D&D carried with it in those days.
‘…Evangelists see game as front for demon worship’, was the headline in the Daily Trojan! Charges of Satanism, suicide and sorcery were laid at TSR’s door. Parents didn’t want their children anywhere near the game, and it became difficult for those of us who wanted to play the game to approach others, and ask if they were interested – It was like you had a guilty secret that could only be shared with those in the know!
Looking back now, we see how stupid things were, that it was the fear spread by people who just didn’t know or understand what role-playing games were all about – some actually thought people were casting real spells trying to resurrect the dead or commune with the devil! Now in fact, there is new evidence that playing role-playing games actually helps prevent a lot of the things that they were claimed to cause. Dr Megan Connell runs various D&D therapy groups to help children who struggle socially, and there is an excellent interview with her on a past podcast episode of Dragon Talk, which can be found HERE.
So, what did I do? I started by building my own dungeons, and putting together my own adventures. Then I created a party of adventurers and ran them through my dungeons, just to see how it all worked. The dungeons I created were never particularly complex, the Basic Set rules don’t really give enough information to make them so; unlike AD&D, and later just D&D, there isn’t much worldly information contained within its pages. Its big brother on the other hand, contains a wealth of information to draw upon, especially with all the expansion books available.
I did however, take a gain a lot of inspiration from both Dragon Magazine, and White Dwarf, the later published a very informative piece on world building, creating towns and populating them, so of course, I had a go at that too!
I was around seven years later that I actually got to play my first proper game, when I doing Trade Training with the RAF. We played 2nd Edition AD&D, and managed about two sittings before the DM gave it up as a bad job; he was the most experienced player and had volunteered to give it a go, but ended up really struggling with it.
Meanwhile I had come across and purchased, Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game 1st Edition. So I took the reins, and became DM using the Palladium system. I carried on until we all went our separate ways, about 16 months later, and to this day I’ve never run a game of D&D, though I have been a player on several occasions.
So looking back, I think it was those early days spent using the D&D Basic Set, creating my own little worlds, which set me up to be able to run a successful (at least I hope they were) campaign. It led me by the hand into the exciting and magical world of Role-playing, and I’ve never come across another rule set that does it half has good as this little red box set did. And so I owe it huge debt, and to that end, even though it is battered, torn, and falling apart – you can still find it sitting on my shelf!