I’ve written about and reviewed a lot of OSR RPGs, but I’m not sure why I’ve never gotten around to reviewing an edition of D&D. For now I’ll just review the 1981 Moldvay Basic D&D game; I will first review it on its own terms, then compare it to a couple of OSR RPGs, and which I would likely choose to use. It’s not too hard to find a genuine paper copy on eBay, and the PDF available on DTRPG is one of the better scans available.
As noted this is Basic D&D; in its 68 pages is the foundation for a fantasy RPG, and while there’s plenty of gaming offered it does only go through level 3 for player characters, and relies on the Expert rule-book for continued advancement.
In this short 2-page section we are introduced to the game, as well as some terms used, clarification of the many uses of the term “level”, and how to interpret dice notation. As with the rest of the book this section is written clearly and shouldn’t be too hard to understand, with exception of the many uses of “level”. Even today in OSR games it can be difficult for someone to understand how each meaning is different depending on what context is used, although this game explains it as well as it can be. It’s just an inherent weakness of D20 RPGs IMO that this term is used so much.
Player Character Information
Now it’s time to create a character! In this longer 10-page section we are introduced to the concept of abilities, classes, alignment, and equipment. This section starts with a wonderful 1-page checklist for creating a character, but really it should be combined with the example run-through at the end of the section. This game uses race-as-class, meaning that if you want to play as an elf, dwarf, or halfling, then that’s your class, while a human can choose from cleric, fighter, or magic-user. Some may be confused by not being able to be a halfling cleric or elf fighter, but that’s one of the quirks of this game, as it “simplifies” the choice. Next is alignment, and thankfully instead of AD&D 1E’s 9 possibilities(!) we have the simple 3 choices of Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral. While I personally don’t pay much attention to alignment (players are generally gonna play how they want to), this broad system is still good to have at least for those that need it. Finally it’s time to buy some armor, weapons, and equipment. For simplification everything is listed with a gold-piece value, and while it is indeed simple it’s a bit ludicrous to think about tossing someone a few gold coins for something as basic as a large sack. I like the game’s short list of weapons and armor, but would prefer a bit more equipment listings.
If you’re playing a cleric, elf, or magic-user then you’ll need to read this section. Spells can add a nice bit of spice to a game, and even in this short 4-page section there’s quite a few spells to choose from. The beginning also makes sure to explain the “Vancian” style of spell-casting that follows a “fire and forget” type of casting.
Now it’s time to start learning the rules of the game! It should be telling that this section is shorter (thought not by much) than the following section, and this one deals with everything outside of an encounter! Like the first releases of D&D that this game builds off of, many rules and rulings are left to the DM to decide how to handle, whether it’s to hand-wave and simply narrate a result, or to roll a dice and use its random outcome to help determine what happens next.
First we learn about organizing a party and its size and composition. While a party of only fighters could probably survive, it’s best to have a well-rounded group with non-humans and magic-users included. If the number of players is small, multiple characters and/or retainers can be utilized. One of the slightly-outdated concepts is the party caller, meant to be the primary communicator with the DM. While I can see this being useful in a very large party, I don’t think it’s necessary, and it could make most of the players feel left out and demoted. A still-important member is the mapper, as getting lost could result in confusion or even death!
Next time and movement are covered, and these are important to learn. Related to movement is encumbrance, but this is something I’ve never really kept track of, as long as a character isn’t trying to carry an obviously ridiculous amount. After lights and doors, the game goes over the rules for retainers, DM-controlled (although the game doesn’t make this clear) NPCs who can assist the player characters for a cut of pay and XP. Finally traps, wandering monsters, and giving experience points are explained (I’m not sure why this last one isn’t in the Dungeon Master Information section though).
After reading (and re-reading) this section, it should be fairly clear to most players how to play the game, outside of combat. Many of the rules, like movement and encumbrance, are things that I personally hand-wave most of the time, and I’m sure many others do as well. A lot of it is due to the game’s roots with miniatures, and while they’re still popular to this day I among others prefer just a simple sketched map and maybe one marker just to show the general area the group is in.
This section clocks in at 6 pages, including a page with a very helpful example. While many play D&D just for combat, it’s hard for my eyes not to glaze over having to learn all of these rules, even though most stick to my mind after having played one or two encounters.
First the game goes over distance, surprise, and initiative. The latter is rolled for each side, with the option to roll for each individual combatant. After initiative is rolled are the options for party and monster actions, along with encounter movement, running, and evasion.
Next this section goes over combat, and there’s many different facets to it: attacking, damage, missile fire, savings throws (not sure if this should be here or in the previous section, as they apply outside of combat as well), melee combat (shouldn’t this be before damage and missile fire?), and morale. Whew!; OK, so it’s not a whole lot compared to later editions of D&D or Pathfinder, but again it’s still quite a bit to take in, and most of it won’t click or make sense until actually used in a game.
After reading up on all the rules for combat, of course we need to have a listing of baddies to hack and slash, right?! In this generous 16-page section we get a good variety of monsters to populate the dungeon (and outdoors if one “cheats” before reading the Expert book). Most of these are designed for player characters in the level 1-3 range, but the inclusion of the iconic Dragon is a bit amusing, as its hit dice range (6-11) means that in combat the player characters would probably be slaughtered.
Looking at the first page and a half, there’s a lot of potential stats and information for each entry. Looking at several entries, we see a two-column stat-block (in contrast all OSR RPGs use a single-column stat-block and I find it much easier to read, even if it takes up more space per entry) followed by 1 or more paragraphs of description. Unlike later editions of D&D, we don’t get an exhaustive reading of a creature’s biology, living situations, etc etc. I never cared for that, and I don’t frankly think it’s needed. I just need to know how the creature looks, moves, and attacks. One thing I see again, working mostly with BFRPG, is the alignment in the stat-block. This is an interesting roleplaying potential, especially in very dangerous creatures such as the dragon. Could they be a potential ally, or at least a helpful observant of times long past?
One nitpick I have with the way creatures work compared to player characters is their attacks; many creatures have multiple attacks per round, each with various damage potential (noted as “1-x” rather than the now-normal “1dx”). Granted, I could see this for a dragon or other higher-level badass, but for lower-level creatures, especially those with a large “No. Appearing” possibility, that’s a lot of time spent on individual attack rolls. I’m also not convinced that the damage potential of all of those attacks is balanced fairly against what the player characters can do. Yes I know this is supposed to be a deadly game at the beginning levels, but if player characters are constantly dying because they ran into a group of owl bears, that’s not fun for anyone.
Again this is all criticism for all D20 RPGs, not just this one, and its emphasis on combat. Yes there’s things like morale, evasion, etc. that can help, but at the end of the day if the group isn’t keen on fighting then their advancement, by-the-book, will be severely limited.
Ah the loot, the sweet sweet dungeon candy. Not only is it fun collecting all kinds of fancy coins, gems, and items, they also factor into a player character’s advancement with the “1 gp = 1 XP” rule. This book has a decent selection of items, but it’s quite short compared to all that’s offered in the Expert book and OSR RPGs.
Looking at the tables at the beginning of the section, it’s pretty easy to be confused as to what the hell is going on (one thing I like about BFRPG is its use of lines in its tables, something this book could dearly use!) and how exactly to use them. Luckily there’s a nice 4-step process that explains the process, and while it works pretty well I know there’s plenty of room for improvement and simplification.
Dungeon Master Information
What I consider the best section of the book, here the game clearly explains to the DM how to create an adventure and accompanying dungeon. There is also an example of these steps, but like in the Player Character Information section, this could have been combined to avoid repeated information and to have the example immediately available.
Along with pre-placed creatures in a dungeon, the DM may want to have wandering creatures as well, and there is a page and a half of handy tables to populate the first three levels of a dungeon. Following the example dungeon creation, the book has a nice key of symbols for a dungeon map. This is greatly appreciated, and it’s missing from both BFRPG and Labyrinth Lord! The latter has a set of symbols for outdoor maps, but not for dungeons. I don’t get why they’re missing, but I consider them essential for those new to RPGs, as it shows all the potential things that could be in a dungeon, and can easily spark new ideas. This section ends with a nice short list of DM tips as well as a material list that I find as good as, if not better, than Appendix N.
While I can’t view this game as a complete RPG new-comer, I will say there’s a reason this edition of D&D is so widely regarded, as Tom Moldvay has very clearly and succinctly written a game that at least in the realm of D&D is not too difficult to learn. The design and layout of this edition is also far superior to what came before and after, with just a few small portions that I think could be re-arranged and/or combined.
These strengths are also why most OSR RPGs take after this edition more than any other, regardless of how much or little refinement and innovation they added to Tom’s work. The main advantage of those games is having both the Basic and Expert rules, spells, monsters, etc. all in one book. The closest as far as look, design, and rules go would be Labyrinth Lord, with very few rules differences.
Next would be Basic Fantasy RPG, which makes a number of changes: Descending AC replaced with Ascending (thus negating the need for tables), the “1 gp for 1 XP” rule (thus tipping the scale even more towards a combat-heavier game), de-couples race and class (but it still has the same irritating constrictions), and removes alignment. A few other games, such as Bloody Basic and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, make even further changes. There’s too many other OSR RPGs to list here!
So at the end of the day, if I was going to choose a D20 fantasy RPG to play (and to be frank, with my renewed interest in D100/BRP this is very unlikely), would I choose the genuine D&D over one of the OSR RPGs? The main disadvantage is the two separate rule-books, and while descending AC is a bit of a bugaboo it’s not a huge deal. I do like Tom’s writing far more, and the artwork, besides Steve Zieser’s wonderful work in Labyrinth Lord, is still far more evocative. Maybe if I either printed the two PDFs to bind together and perhaps combine the pages in a logical way I would have my “perfect” D20 fantasy RPG. It’s hard to argue with BFRPG’s and Labyrinth Lord’s (at least art-free) free PDF price, but I would recommend Moldvay Basic D&D not only for the nostalgia but also just to see how D&D was still moving from a hobbyist’s fevered dream into a monster commercial success.