RPG Review: D&D Basic Rules (8th-11th Printing)

D&D Basic Magenta Box
For me D&D began with the "magenta box" version of the D&D Basic rules. My next door neighbor received it for Christmas, it having become available at Toys R Us and similar stores. During one snow day I was flipped through it and was hooked - to be honest, I was also confused as heck, as were most people who were introduced to it via the rules and without other people teaching them. I'm not certain how typical my experience was - learning the game by figuring it out on my own.

Unfortunately Wizards of the Coast no longer has its old D&D PDFs available for sale - and even when they did they did not have this version for sale - they had the later "red box" Basic set and the previous "blue box" Basic set. To be honest, the red box is probably a better introduction to the rules but I prefer the atmosphere of the purple box.


D&D Basic Red Box

D&D Basic Blue Box














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Though it isn't available via legal download it is not that difficult to find copies of the rulebook at a reasonable price, though a complete set with sample adventure, dice, etc. is much more expensive. For this review I'll actually be covering just the rules.

Overview

The Magenta Basic rules were printed in a 64 page book that was three-hole punched with the idea you could separate the pages and gather them in a three-ring binder, possibly combining them with the Expert rules and Companion rules (which were never actually released until the Basic rules switched to the Red box).

Part 1: Introduction

The Introduction gave the typical overview to what D&D was. Its worth noting that this was the set were this was important information for me, as I honestly didn't know. It does talk about the next sets of rules (Expert and Companion). It gave basic definitions such as parties, experience points, encounters, etc. It discusses one player who is the "caller" whose job it is to speak for the whole party under normal circumstances, something that went away in later versions of the game.

We also get a discussion on what the word "Level" is intended to mean - Experience Level, Monster Level, Spell Level, and Dungeon Level. I find it interesting that Experience, Monster, and Dungeon Level are roughly equivalent - the 1st level of a dungeon is intended to have Level 1 monsters (i.e. 1 hit die or 1d8 for hit points). However spell levels did not follow this trend - for example 3rd level magic-users being able to cast a maximum of 2nd level spells. It wasn't until decades later with the 4th edition did spell level become equivalent to experience level. 

We also get a much needed explanation as to what all the dice were and how to roll them. It did not warn you however that a d4 also doubled as a caltrop.

Part 2: Player Character Information

Here we get the rules for generating characters. We get a discussion of ability scores, classes. hit points, money, equipment, Armor Class, attack chances, and saving throws.

Abilities are intended to be rolled using 3d6 for each score and keeping each roll, assigning them in order to Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. There is no suggestion of rerolling hopeless characters. You were allowed under certain circumstances to increase your main (or prime requisite) ability score(s) by dropping from others on a 2 for 1 basis. 

As I discussed in my review of ACKS, bonuses and penalties are a little bit different than those found in 3.x/4e:


Rating Bonus/Penalty Rating Bonus/Penalty
3 -3 13-15 +1
4-5 -2 16-17 +2
6-8 -1 18 +3
9-12 0

As far as classes go, we have the "classic 7" or clerics, dwarves, elves, fighters, halflings, magic-users, and thieves. Unlike later versions of the game, clerics do not get spells until reaching 2nd level. As a point of criticism, the thief just does not have a lot going for him - they start with 1d4 hit points, just like the magic-user and their thief ability chances are extremely poor. Within the Old School Renaissance community there is some debate about whether the thief should be included, with the argument that the thief tends to add encounters to justify its own existence. My main criticism would be that the thief just isn't all that good at what he's supposed to do.

Magic-users are pretty vulnerable as well, with just a d4 for hit points at first level, the ability to only use daggers, no armor, and only one spell per day.

Alignment is discussed with three alignments - Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, with Lawful usually being considered "good" and Chaotic usually being "evil". There are alignment languages, secret languages of "passwords, hand signals, and other body motions".

Part 3 - Spells

This section describes cleric and magic-user/elf spells. The analogy used to describe the process of memorizing and casting spells is one of a blackboard - the spells memorized are on a blackboard and when cast they can be thought of as erased. To this day I still think of them in this manner.

One thing that is worth noting is that the rules explicitly state that a magic-user only has as many spells in his spellbook as he is able to cast on a given day. For example, a 1st level magic-user only has one 1st level spell in his book and cannot gain another spell until he reaches 2nd level, upon which he gets a 2nd 1st level spell.

The spell descriptions are fairly straightforward and has all the D&D classics - cure light wounds, magic missile, light, read magic, etc. I suppose that the magic-user who starts with read magic feels rather lame until he finds a scroll (the rules indicate the DM can either choose a magic-user's spells, roll randomly, or allow the player to choose - with everything else against the poor magic-user, let the poor guy pick...)

D&D Basic characters can only cast up to 1st level spells (for clerics) or 2nd (for magic-users and elves), though sample 2nd level cleric spells and 3rd level magic-user/elf spells are given for high level foes and spell scrolls. We get our peek at fire ball, letting the poor magic-user see why he's going through the humiliation of low levels...

Part 4 - The Adventure

This section discusses parties, time, dungeon exploration, etc. It advises the party have 6-8 characters. Time is divided into 10-minute turns during exploration. We've got rules for light, encumbrance, opening doors, retainers, traps, experience points, and wandering monsters.

I've been joking at the poor 1st-level magic-user. Looking back, it occurs to me that given a magic-user has little he can spend his money on the use of that money on retainers seems well-advised.

As in other early versions of D&D, every gold piece retrieved in an adventure also yields an experience point.

Part 5 - The Encounter

When an encounter begins, the game switches from 10-minute turns to 10-second rounds. When moving to AD&D I always had a tough time accepting the 1-minute round - the 10-second round always felt better to me.

The rules for combat are a bit different than they are in later versions of D&D. When an encounter begins, both sides check for surprise (if the DM considers surprise possible), allowing for a free round.

Initiative is rolled per round per side, with an option to roll for each character and the monsters he is fighting. DMs are given the option of choosing how monsters react to characters or to roll for their reaction. We've got rules for evasion, pursuit, movement, etc. 

There is no mention as to the possibility of magic spells getting interrupted in their casting - nor is their mention that any declaration is needed. To be honest, I prefer this option spellcasters, especially low level ones, have so much against them to begin with.

As in the original D&D, damage per weapon by default is 1d6, regardless of weapon type. There is an option for variable weapon damage, something that all the games I played in made use of.

One oddity of low level play is all characters have the same chance to hit, regardless of class. This changes in mid to high level play in the D&D Expert rules. There's still an advantage to being a fighter or dwarf, with the ability to wear any armor, use any weapon, and typically have higher hit points.

Finally there is an example combat. I like the use of examples, as they tend to clarify confusion in rules.One of the PCs gets killed in the sample combat, something I recall as typical from examples in old TSR products. Rereading the sample combat, I see a possible error - the monsters being fought lose initiative in the first round and never act - after the PCs attack we move to round 2. The other rounds do not have this problem. The sample combat does have the party speak the immortal words "It's okay; Gary sent us" in an attempt to bluff the hobgoblins...

Part 6 - Monsters

The chapter on monsters is, as one would expect, a listing of monsters, with statistics and descriptions. The Dungeon Master is encouraged to modify statistics and create his own monsters. It is expected that a monster will be found on a level of the dungeon equivalent to its hit dice (i.e. monster level), plus or minus two. One thing I'm curious about is what this means for high-level play - was it expected, for example, that 33rd level characters go through 33 levels of dungeon.(Though if using a megadungeon as the basis for a campaign that seems reasonable.)

For the most part, the monsters represent those appropriate for low-level characters. It does include dragons which would likely overwhelm a low-level party, though it is understandable that in a game called Dungeons and Dragons you'd best include dragons within the game.

Primarily consisting of monsters which are now classics, there are some interesting monsters which did not find their way to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons - at least as far as I can tell. For example, there are some neat monsters called living statues, with some variants bleeding lava when struck.One of the more unusual monsters is the Thoul, a magical combination of troll, ghoul, and hobgoblin. I've no idea where that came from but it does make for a good model for creating your own monsters. There's also the hairy tarantella spider, whose bite can force its victims to dance!

Like many other early D&D versions, among the monsters is a listing for Neanderthal man.. To be honest, I'm not entirely certain if there was some fantasy source for including them so often - perhaps Burroughs' Pellucidar? 

Part 7 - Treasure

At last, the reason for going on adventure! Every monster has a treasure type which is used as an index into tables determining the amount of treasure the monster has, including coin, gems, and magical items. The tables are designed to give treasure appropriate for low-level characters. There is a fair chance of getting a cursed item or a poison potion. In my experience, while players tended to dread testing potions and other magic items, they usually kept the poison potions for their little assassination plots.

One thing I noticed that for items like staves and wands there is no mention of command words, just that to know what an item does a character must experiment with it and use it - incurring any curses on the item.

While read magic seems a somewhat useless spell, it is the only way for a magic-user or elf to read a spell scroll. While per this variant of the rules scrolls cannot be copied into a spellbook, spell scrolls are still awfully handy. From my early games I recall I tended to use the AD&D rules of allowing the copying of scrolls and spellbooks and having more spells in the book than the caster can cast per day. As other blogs have noted, combining various versions of D&D was quite common back in the early days of the hobby.

Part 8 - Dungeon Master Information

This section gives information for DMs. As a novice both to the hobby and Dungeon Mastering, I found this section especially useful when I first started out.

There was guidance on the types of adventures one could make, stocking dungeons, creating NPC parties, etc. Part of a sample dungeon is given, a haunted keep. While not as iconic as the skull mountain in the previous version of the Basic D&D rules, it was still an interesting setting, with a floorplan of one of the keep's towers and a side view showing the dungeon below.

An excerpt from a sample game is given. It features the memorable death of the thief Black Dougal, which has inspired the blog Ode to Black Dougal. I always found something odd about the death - the DM declares "he looks dead" after poor Black Dougal is struck by a poison needle, having failed to detect the trap (did I ever mention how lousy thieves are at low levels?) Without confirming that he truly is dead the players dump out his pack to fill with coins that are in the room. Gee guys, don't shed too many tears on my death...

Inspirational Reading

While not as iconic as the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide Appendix N, there is a reading section here as well. It has most of what can be found in Appendix N along with some additions such as a young adut fantasy literature section (including the Narnia and Earthsea cycles) and some additions to the adult fantasy section such as Heinlein's Glory Road, Larry Niven, Bram Stoker, etc. The young adult section does seem to mark the first time that TSR acknowledged their game had been finding a younger audience than they had perhaps anticipated (and the artwork in D&D Basic is far tamer than what one found in Original D&D or AD&D).

Overall Impression

It is difficult for me to be fully balanced in reviewing this version of the game. It marked my entry into D&D and the whole gaming hobby, so I am definitely biased in its favor.

Attempting to look at it practically, I will say the next version of the game, the more famous "red box", was a far clearer entry into the game, taking extremely great pains to explain everything - and was more clearly aimed at the young adult/teen market. However, I personally preferred the sense of danger this version of the game brought, with the two detailed examples both featuring a PC fatality.

Rules-wise, the game does have many of the quarks that would define D&D up to and including AD&D 2nd edition. Low-level magic-users are incredibly weak, though with the promise of greater power. Thieves are, in my opinion, rather hobbled by their extremely poor success chances, something that plagued them since their introduction in the first D&D supplement, Greyhawk. Even at this early stage the demi-human characters are stated to be limited to 8th (halfling), 10th (elf) and 12th (dwarf) levels, something which doesn't seem all that practical in light of the possibility of 36th level human characters. Indeed when the D&D Companion did finally come out it resolved this by giving demi-human pseudo-level attack ranks. I understand the desire to limit demi-humans but I think it would have been better to have front-loaded the limits and advantages together.

The above sounds rather negative which isn't my intent. For me, this is the game where I started and I got tons of play from it. I still look at it fondly and believe it was a fantastic introduction to the hobby. While the red box variant made things even more basic, I have to confess at times I felt I was being talked down to in that version - though in truth I wasn't the audience for it. Moreover, this version of the rules screams out with inspiration, wanting to be played, encouraging the DM to create things as needed and modify as well. With this version of the rules you could get weeks and weeks of play and with the D&D Expert rules added on you've got plenty for an entire campaign.


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