Thursday, May 8, 2014

Rereading the Moldvay Basic Set - Part 1

One of the many lofty goals for my return to Dungeons and Dragons this year is to reread all the source material from the era during which I played D&D the first time around (roughly 1982-1988).  There are some great tomes that I can't wait to get to but there are none that are as special to me as the Moldvay Basic Set.  As such, I think it is only fitting that I begin my journey there.

While the Moldvay set may not be the official start of D&D (the original rules followed by the Holmes Basic Set has that distinction), it was the beginning for me.  It was the first book I saw when introduced to the game, it contained my first ever adventure, and it was the first TSR product I ever owned.  Yes, Moldvay definitely represents my starting point on the road to high adventure.

I have so many fond memories of this set.  I wouldn't even know where to begin if I were to try to recount them all.  To me, Dungeons and Dragons is this basic set.  Even in my latter years of playing before the hiatus, I would often forgo my vast collection of AD&D material and return to this beautiful box.  I think it's telling that of the hundreds of items that I got rid of when I decided to stop playing D&D, this is one of the only things that I decided to keep.  It's almost as if I knew that one day I would return and that the treasure held inside that beautifully illustrated box would be priceless to me.  I've lovingly flipped through the pages now and then over the last few years but I have not reread it until now.

Before I get into the revelations I discovered while rereading, I would like to make a comment about the cover.  While not my favorite fantasy artist (that would be Larry Elmore), Erol Otus definitely defined the early days of D&D for me.  His art style is quite distinct (some call it "trippy") and certainly lends flavor to the era.  I'm not sure if it's just nostalgia driving my taste, but for me the cover of the basic box set is the most iconic piece of art in the Dungeons and Dragons line.  I don't think many others would agree with me though.  The covers of the DMG, PHB, or any of Larry's works would probably be at the top of the list for most readers.  But for me the content (dragon, treasure, underground dungeon, etc...), action (a wizard and warrior in combat with a dragon), and colors of the Erol Otus cover all combine to evoke the essence of what the game is all about.

Now for the rereading.  I sat down with pen and paper to reread the manual and take notes.  I wanted to absorb every minor detail and compare the written word to my uncertain memory of the past.  I knew I was bound to be in for some surprises.

For this particular post I will cover the forward along with the first two sections - the introduction and  character creation (the other sections will be covered in future posts).  I may also say a thing or two about the art in each section.  To me, the art is just as important to the experience as the text and I do not want to ignore it.

I will not bore the reader with a blow by blow account of each section.  Instead I will comment on certain rules, interesting passages, and most importantly, items that I either do not remember or ignored when I was younger (either consciously or subconsciously).  I promise to keep the comments short and succinct.  After all, this is a blog and not a scholarly work.  Who has time for that?


I never bothered to read all the extra stuff in the front of books back when I was young.  If it came before chapter one then it did not exist for me.  What a pity.  If I had read the forward back in 1982 however, I would have discovered that what I was holding in my hands already had quite a history.  I would have leaned that I was reading a revised version of the first basic set edited by J. Eric Holmes.  Back then I was unaware that OD&D and a previous version of basic D&D even existed.  To be honest, I did not know the Holmes set existed until about two years ago when I won a copy on eBay.  I thought it was nothing more than an alternative early cover.  That's what I get for not reading!


   *  What the D&D Game Is All About
   *  How to Use this Book
   *  Definitions of Standard D&D Terms
   *  Use of the Word "Level"
   *  How to "Win"

The intro does what most introductions are designed to do.  It tells one what is in the book and what to expect.  For new players, the Moldvay introduction does a good job explaining relevant D&D terms, how to use the dice, and how to "win", or rather that one does not actually win at the game.  While sufficient, a better explanation with great examples would have to wait a few years until the Metzer set arrived.  Still, the mood is set and the reader should be ready to move on.

What I never noticed before is the mention of a Companion Set for levels 15-36.  I found it interesting that an additional supplement was visualized well before the Metzer revisions that eventually saw the publication of the Companion Set.  Maybe it's a good thing that I never read that little bit of information.  I would have been waiting many years before I could finally get my hands on the promised set.

This is one of my favorite illustrations in the book.  For me, it accurately portrays what was going through my mind whenever I was creating a character.

Player Character Information

   *  How to Create a Player Character
   *  Character Abilities
   *  Ability Score Adjustments
   *  Hit Points and Hit Dice
   *  Bonuses and Penalties Due to Abilities
   *  Character Class Tables
   *  Character Classes
   *  Character Alignment
   *  Cost of Weapons and Equipment
   *  Languages
   *  Inheritance
   *  Hopeless Characters
   *  Example of Creating a Player Character

This is standard character creation stuff.  The section tells a player how to create a character step by step.  The instructions are easy to follow and directions on where to find the relevant information for each section is clearly written.  While good, I think the Metzer revision does a much better job here as well.  I think it's the examples that set the two apart.

I've always been bothered by warrior on the right with no mouth.  I wonder if the absence of one was a mistake or a deliberate omission. 

What I did not realize until rereading is that the basic premise for character creation is quite different from what players expect today.  Instead of picking a class and building the character's ability scores around that choice, the opposite was true back then.  Ability scores were rolled in order and the character's class was chosen based upon the results.  Good luck if you wanted to play a demi-human.  Rolling the scores required, and in the order required, took no small amount of good fortune.

Of course the rules are really just suggestions, as Moldvay points out in the introduction.  Dungeon Masters and players are not required to follow those strict guidelines while rolling characters.  I'm not sure how many DMs actually forced players to create characters in that manner.  I can't remember if that was the case when I first started playing.  Considering that my first character was an elf, I would guess the answer to be no.  Certainly later on when I became a DM, I did not enforce the rule.  After all, it was a game and I wanted my players to have fun and play the character that most appealed to them.  I suspect that many other DMs felt the same way and either altered ability scores on the fly or created less stringent house rules governing character creation.  I wonder what caused the change that took place in future editions that allowed the player more freedom when creating characters.

Some of the interesting rules that I did not remember are:
     *  The opportunity to adjust ability scores (this would have been quite useful)
     *  The +1 to hit given to Halflings on missile weapons (a nod to Tolkien I would guess)
     *  Following alignment change a character immediately forgets the old alignment language
     *  Experience bonuses for meeting certain ability score requirements

A black and white view of alignments - pun fully intended.

The section ends with a step by step example of creating a player character.  In this case we see the creation and introduction of Morgan Ironwolf.  Years later she would be pitted against another character created in a basic set example, but the story of Morgan vs. Aleena will have to wait for another day.

Just as I suspected, rereading Moldvay was both rewarding and surprising.  I'm looking forward to covering the next few sections.  I wonder what treasures await discovery there.

I'll close with a few questions:

*  What cover artwork do you think most defines Dungeons and Dragons as a whole?
*  If you played this set, were you aware of the option to adjust ability scores and if so, did you exercise that option?
*  Have you ever played a character that was rolled up strictly according to the basic set rules?  If so, did he/she survive?

You're comments and questions are certainly welcome on this blog.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Hello again, and thanks for doing this series! I never really played classic D&D when I was younger but I've gained an appreciation for it these days. I've always been an Advanced player ;-)

    As for you questions: the cover art for the orange spine 1E AD&D books defines the game for me. The stat adjustment rules were in the AD&D rules right? That's how I personally knew about them. And we never strictly kept to the rolling rules of any D&D version.

    1. The orange spine covers were wonderful as well. My favorite would be the cover of Unearthed Arcana. If we are talking just the core books then I would have to chose the DMG.

      I'm not sure if the stat adjustment rules are in AD&D. I flipped through the Players Handbook and the DMG and I did not see themt. Granted, I was about to fall asleep at the time so I could have easily overlooked the appropriate section. If you (or another visitor) happens to find them, please let me know the page number. I'll take a look myself tomorrow and see what I find out.

      Thanks again for reading and participating Anthony!

  2. I started with Holmes, but Moldvay was the first set that I owned and was "mine".

    People go on and on about Aleena, and I get that, but my first D&D girl was Morgan Ironwolf!

  3. Morgan Ironwolf was quite the warrior. I think she would have gotten more love if Moldvay would have fleshed her out a bit more. A sample adventure like the one in Metzer Basic would have done the trick I think.

    Still, the fact that there is even a debate about Morgan vs. Aleena makes me happy!

    Thanks for reading!

  4. For me, the Holmes cover is IT! It was the very first image of D&D I ever saw (as a black & white flyer posted at my grade school, if you can imagine) and also the version I first owned and played. It still inspires a child-like sense of wonder and adventure whenever I see it. My original box survives, too.

    I don't remember anything about adjusting ability scores, but Holmes was honestly pretty hard to follow for an 11 year old with only one brief intro to the game.

    My first character, name unknown, had pretty mediocre abilities and was promptly killed as he casually strolled into the Vault of the Drow. My friend Robbie was just trying to quickly show me how the game was played before we left on a trip the next day. His dad ran a hobby shop and gave me the Holmes set on our return and I was left to try and piece it all together until I managed to find some guys who played. I think that this is what influenced me in character creation: The heroes should be HEROIC! We used to roll dozens of characters until we got one that was playable with at least one 18 in a prime requisite. We did roll for hit points, however.

    1. Holmes: I have the box set but really have never looked at it closely. It's on my list to read at some point this year. As I go through it and post, please make sure you contribute to the discussion. I'll be very interested to hear you thoughts and memories.

      I simply cannot imagine playing Vault of the Drow as my first adventure. I think I've lost more characters in that series than in any other published module. I can say this though - I'm sure it was a learning experience. Ha!

      Thanks for reading.

  5. This was my introduction to D&D as well. So, is this the "pink box"? I remember the artwork. My brother and I had no concept of "How to play". We were so used to board games. I had also (a little later) bought Traveler. Unfortunately the concept of the RPG did not "click" with me. My brother ended up actually playing a couple of sessions with friends. It wasn't until a few years later that I dabbled in a game held upstairs in a game store. Upstairs they had a authentic looking recreation of the bridge of the Enterprise. I found the people playing D&D to be very welcoming. But it still did not click with me.
    When I was much older I bought a set of 3.5. Then it clicked, I learned and I played. I also experienced the fun and the terror of DMing. Most of my experience is 3.5
    But the original pink box put a splinter in my brain and even though I never played that early Basic edition, I have very fond memories of the books and the artwork. If only I'd had known of more experienced players who could have better ushered us into this hobby at that early age.
    Currently I have all the 5E books and am preparing my first campaign as a DM (I last played over 5 years ago using 4E). This old edition brings back a special time in my life when my brother and I were exploring our options for adventure games that were more rich and exciting than the games we were used too. Thanks for this visit down memory lane.

    1. My pleasure! There's something very powerful about nostalgia. It brought me back to tabletop games years ago and I'm still going strong.

      Thanks for reading and good luck with your 5e game.