Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rereading the Moldvay Basic Set - Part 3: The Adventure

This post looks at the Adventure section of the Moldvay Basic Set.  As was the case with the previous sections, I found myself reading a lot of material that either I did not remember from those early days or simply ignored for whatever reason.  Of course, that is the very thing that makes this project so much fun.  Rediscovering all the bits and pieces of information is like going on a treasure hunt.

Now that players have rolled up their characters and chosen weapons and spells, it is time to play the game.  Part 4: The Adventure offers rules, tips, and guidance on various subjects dealing with actual game play (except for combat).  I'll quickly go through each section and make a comment on any interesting material.

Party Size and Composition

Six to eight characters is the recommended size of a party, according to the author.  I'm not sure how that number was originally arrived at.  Did this number makes its way into Moldvay from OD&D or Holmes, or does it make a debut here?  Whatever the origin, I rarely remember having that many players at the table.  When we did, it was great fun.  But more often than not, there were just a few of us on an adventure.  We may have played more than one character each to bring up the number of PCs though.  Moldvay actually supports such a concept.  He does caution players to keep the characters separate however, and not share knowledge, items, and treasure between them.  Sounds like an early reference to metagaming to me.

The ultimate D&D party?  

Organizing a Party

This section covers some of the physical aspects of the game.  These are tangible elements that for the most part, a player can touch, see, and/or feel.

Marching Order 
I remember this clearly from the old days.  We would all jockey for proper positions when turning in our marching order instructions to the DM.  Melee characters were placed in the front to absorb damage and strike physical blows.  Squishy thieves and magic-users belonged in the center to avoid becoming a target.  And some foolhardy soul was "elected" to guard the back from the inevitable ambush.  In the beginning we simply used pen and paper to mark our positions.  Later we adopted miniatures to represent our characters.  Our combat was never "tactical" however.  Miniatures were not used to mark exact positions on a playmat which is commonly done today.  Encounters were played strictly in "theatre of the mind" mode.  Our miniatures were used only to physically represent the spatial relationship to each other.  My how times have changed.

The Caller
I still find it hard to believe that this was actually an element of the game.  While having one person speaking for the entire party sounds like a well-organized method of exchanging information between the DM and PCs, I personally think having a caller destroys the feeling of immersion in the game.  We never used a caller and I suspect that was the case for many others players at the time.  We each spoke to the DM about our character's actions, thus assuming the role of a dashing warrior or mighty wizard.  Doing so made us feel a connection to the unfolding story.  Using a middleman would not have had the same effect.

I find this particular text about callers very confusing:  "The caller is usually a character with a high Charisma score, and should be near the front of the party, where the character would be able to see what the DM describes."  If the caller (the player, not the character) is speaking to the DM to relay the party's actions, why is a high charisma score needed?  Is the caller trying to charm the DM in real life?  Does the caller need a high charisma to score in order to inspire moral in the other players?  Of course I'm being quite sarcastic but what the hell was Moldvay thinking here?  A thief with a high charisma score played by a shy quiet teen would not make a good caller, while a fighter with a six for charisma played by an outgoing good speaker would be perfect.  None of this makes any sense to me.

Along the same lines, positioning the caller near the front of the party is silly as well.  Sure, the caller's character may be able to "see" what the DM describes but guess what...the players around the table are not deaf.  They can hear what the DM is describing as well.  Am I missing something here?  Please enlighten me!

Unlike the caller, we did believe in mapping.  That doesn't mean that we liked doing it though. We did realize that it was a necessary evil however.  Having a record so that we could escape a dungeon alive wasn't part of our reasoning.  I think that back then we were more concerned with finding rooms we may have missed so that we could amass more treasure.  Had we possessed enough maturity and/or brains to run from obviously superior foes, we would have had a map to guide a hasty exit.  Usually we just held our ground and died horrible deaths.  Even then, the map would come in handy.  Unless the DM demanded that we hand over our scribbled, faintly geometric patterns that barely resembled a map, we knew we had a clearly marked route to the previous party's location of demise.  Hopefully our hard earned stuff would be somewhere nearby just wanting for recovery.  "I got dibs on the dead guy!"

Some mappers spend entirely too much time trying to replicate the DM's map.  Game play is constantly interrupted to repeat room and hall dimensions to get the details exactly right.  A better method, I think, is to sketch a general overview.  Instead of exact details, a rough sketch showing general spatial relationships would be much better.  The photo above is a perfect example of this method.  It was taken from this thread on the Dragonsfoot forums discussing this very subject.  Our maps looked a lot like that.  Whether it was because we were trying to speed up game play or because we were terrible artists remains a mystery.

As I mentioned above, the use of miniatures in Moldvay is not the same as using them in today's RPGs.  Positioning is relative and not designed to represent tactical situations.  With that being said, I have no doubt that we moved our figures towards an enemy miniature while shouting a battle cry every chance we got.  There may not have been five foot squares, but it sure felt tactical to us.

Moldvay discusses time in more detail in the next chapter.  It is only glossed in this section.  Just like combat, time is relatively abstract.  There are no detailed actions that take X amount of time like in many modern RPGs.  Basically you can travel the equivalent of a character's movement rate or search a 10x10 foot area in a single 10 minute turn.  Everything else a player might wish to do is determined by the DM and a player's imagination.  This may seem too vague and ambitious by today's standards, but I think it allows for much more flexibility in game play.

A base movement rate of 120' per turn is the standard.  Moldvay mentions that the rate may seem a bit slow, but he reminds us that it is assumed that characters are exploring in dark dingy conditions and trying to be wary of dangerous creatures.  I think 120' is actually a bit on the fast side when one considers the size of the dungeons in those days.  Twelve squares per turn is moving along quite nicely.  A lot of ground would be covered in a short period of time.  If the optional encumbrance rules are used instead, then the movement rate seems more reasonable to me.

I have always loved this rule.  It's a great roleplay opportunity and also a chance for the DM to throw in a few surprises.  According to Moldvay, characters must rest for one turn (10 min) for every 5 turns of being active.  Written more eloquently, the PCs must rest for 10 minutes every hour or suffer a -1 on all "to hit" and damage rolls until they do rest.  Bring on those wandering monsters!

Scale Movement
We never used this rule.  In fact, I pretty sure we were not even aware of what it meant.  I find it interesting that Moldvay, who really refined D&D for the gaming newcomer, still provided a link to the past of D&D's wargaming roots.


Two optional rules are included in the set to provide for more realistic movement.  Instead of the standard 120' per turn movement rate, DMs can adopt movement rates bases on the type of armor worn or based on the total weight in items carried.  It is interesting to note that while each of the optional rules are quite different, they end up being very similar when the mechanics of each system are examined more closely.

The easier of the two options can be found on the table above.  Movement rates are determined by the armor worn.  It's simple, quick, and elegant.  A character with light armor can move faster than a character with heavier armor.  No surprise there.  Add treasure to the equation, and those same characters move a bit slower.  Makes sense doesn't it?  It's not terribly realistic but it works well enough for game play.

Encumbrance option two involves adding up the weight of each individual item.  This total is then used to determine the proper movement rate.  Two items of note here.  One, weight is provided in coins and not pounds.  Each item is given an equivalent weight in coins with the understanding that it takes 10 coins to equal a pound.  The reasoning behind this system is not provided by Moldvay but I suspect it exists somewhere.  Given the emphasis early adventures and modules had on finding treasure, my guess would be that it has something to do with the amount of treasure characters are able to carry.  Just a wild guess though...

The other item of note is that the same movement rate is usually arrived at no matter which of the two methods are used.  There is some inherent slop built into the system that allows for a character wearing leather armor and carrying normal equipment to have the same speed whether the quick and easy method was employed or each item was added up individually.  I did not realize this back then. Now that I've tried a few of my own examples, I think it very probable that I would choose the first option if I was teaching new players.  It's fairly accurate and speeds up character creation.  As players became more experienced then I would probably switch to option two so as to penalize players trying to carry extremely large loads of treasure from the dungeon.


Not much to say about his section except that I find torches and lanterns to be as integral to the D&D adventure as swords and armor.  Though many players (myself included back in those early days) completely ignored the limitations of light spread and duration, carrying a light source just feels right on a fantasy adventure.   When rolling up characters, I would often go without better armor if my starting money roll was low just so that I had enough gold to buy a lantern or several torches.  I love the thought of my character standing in a dark room holding a flaming brand aloft to allow the light to slowly reveal the treasures of ages long past.  Either that or I am a pyromaniac and I don't realize it. 


It's interesting what Moldvay says about doors.  For some reason, they are usually locked or difficult to open.  I'm assuming the reason is mainly for game mechanics.  After all, a thief can't hide in the shadows all the time.  They have to get their moment to be on stage.  But I've always wondered why every door was locked.  Do all the goblins in the dungeon each have a key?  Hmm...   


Retainers are a must at low levels unless the party is large enough.  Moldvay Basic is absolutely brutal.  One arrow from a koblold archer or one unlucky saving throw when exposed to a trap is enough to end a character's life.  Retainers help to strengthen a party with additional numbers or by providing much needed role support.  Need a cleric?  Hire one.

Hiring retainers also provides an opportunity for roleplaying.  Moldvay suggests that the retainer NPCs go through an "interview" process provided by the players.  Good DMs will make for an entertaining session as the PCs explain to the potential candidates their expected duties, rate of pay, fees, and other offers.  Based on this information and the RP of the players, the DM can use the table below to determine the outcome.  The better the offer (and hopefully the better the roleplaying) then the greater the chance of acceptance.  Even if the offer is rejected, a great RP opportunity still exists as to the reasons for the rejection.  Who knows what situation may develop from that.

A clever little mechanic is clearly hidden in plain sight.  If the roll is particularly low, further attempts by the party to hire retainers in the town will suffer a negative adjustment.  Again, roleplaying opportunities abound as the players try to recover a soiled reputation and hire much needed help.

As a final thought on retainers, I find it interesting that Moldvay advises the DM not to allow beginning players to use them.  He feels that new players will use retainers as a crutch.  While that may be so, I'm not sure that I agree with him.  Given the brutal nature of the game, I'd rather have newcomers rely a bit on the hired help than get discouraged by frequent early deaths.  Perhaps the mindset was different back then (I certainly can't remember).  But I have to think that if new players today were introduced to this version of the game they may quickly become bored or frustrated.  Few modern games are as lethal as Moldvay Basic and losing a character is never a fun activity.  The rate at which death can happen may be completely foreign to players of modern RPGs where low level characters start off as "heroes" rather than some poor slop with a rusty sword.  I'm not saying that every character should survive an adventure.  How boring and predictable would that be?  New players should be given a reasonable chance to survive if they play well however.  Retainers can tip the balance in their favor.


I'm not even sure where to start here.  Traps are the bane of old school players.  The devious designs of quick painful deaths are a joy to the DM however.  Why are traps so frequent in the older editions?  What is the historical reasoning for filling a dungeon with so many clever instruments of death?  Is it from the literature of the period or from wargaming?

Whatever the reasoning, characters have very little chance of finding a trap.  A one in six chance (two in six if playing a dwarf) is not very good odds.  If one is unlucky enough to encounter a trap that has not been located, better not roll a one or a two on the six-sider.  Doing so may end your beloved character's life in a less than pleasant manner.

I lost my fair share of characters back in my day to traps.  Each time I did so I walked away from the session feeling very unsatisfied.  Death by trap was not the way I wanted to go out.  Losing my "hero" in such a manner felt cheap to me.  As a result, when I starting DMing, I cut down on the number of traps in the game.  I'd even remove some of them from published modules.  If characters were to die, I wanted them to go down heroically.  Lying impaled upon sharpened poisoned spikes at the bottom of a ten foot pit leaves little epic material for songs and lays about the recently deceased.  I used just enough traps to keep the PCs on their toes but not so many that they felt permanently paranoid.

Giving Experience

Everyone's favorite post game activity was dividing up experience points (and treasure).  It was a time to bask in the glory of a completed mission or another day survived.  It was also the time to hopefully gain a level and some extra oh-so-important hit points.  

Monster XP is determined by using the table below.  Monsters of a given hit dice are worth the same amount of points as a base value.  Depending on any special abilities, that total could go up (the bonus is added for each asterisk beside a monster's name).  What I failed to read/remember from my first years of playing was that a party did not have to actually kill a monster to gain XP.  Moldvay states that DMs may give XP to players for overcoming a particular monster or encounter using wits rather than blades.  I like this rule for two reasons.  For one, it encourages players to think about an encounter rather than just rushing in for a hopeful kill.  Brute strength is not the only way to defeat an opponent.  And two, it promotes roleplaying.  PCs may be able to accomplish a task without resorting to melee, which always carries a high risk of death in Moldvay Basic...especially at lower levels.  Of course, when I first started playing I only cared about hack and slash and getting XP the old fashioned way.  It wasn't until a few years before my hiatus that I began to see the fun of roleplaying and interacting with an opponent rather than slicing or shooting everything in sight.

When dividing experience, Moldvay writes that DMs have the latitude to give extra to players who overcome difficulties and/or solve problems.  He also states that better players can be the recipient of extra XP.  I'm not sure exactly what is meant by "better" players but in my later years I would provide XP for better roleplaying.  I have to assume that is what the author meant.

Well I've gone on and on way to long.  Reminiscing about the old times tends to cause me to do that.  Before placing the reader under a sleep spell (save vs. boring text or snooze), I'll end this post here by asking a few questions.

*  What do you think is the best party size and composition for Moldvay/Cook D&D?
*  Do players that use Moldvay today use "tactical" style combat with maps and squares or is it primarily still abstract combat/theatre of the mind style?
*  Callers....yes or no?  If yes, what does a high charisma score do for the caller?
*  Are mappers still utilized or is it assumed that the players have marked their way out with chalk or some other device?  Or do they simply look at the awesome 3D miniature dungeon created by the DM and move their miniatures out?
*  What method of encumbrance do you prefer?  None, armor dependent, or individual coin weight?
*  Any good/gory trap death memories?

I look forward to your comments and answers.  Thanks for reading!



  1. re: caller at front with charisma. The impression I've always understood is that caller is parties point/face person so when they encounter another group in dungeon it would be caller's charisma which would modify reaction check and subsequent parlay. 'Kill things on sight" was not assumed. Also in front as parties of 6-8 players plus hirelings can take up 20-40' of corridor space and characters in back would not see what DM is describing, even if the players heard it.

    As far as using callers. When party is just exploring with no goal or knowledge that would impact decision; it greatly speeds play to have one player decide if they go left / righ, open which door first, etc. Otherwise every choice takes 20minutes of discussion. The caller (and I don't ever think they were intended to) doesn't represent all the players to DM. They, of course, still describe their individual actions when it matters. Such as when its time to get all Medieval on some kobolds. But, most time, everyone is assumed to be saying "follow the guy in front". "Leader" might be another name for caller, although, that implies more control and responsibility than "caller".

    Encumbrance & Exploration Speed. I've never understood nor agreed that weighted down characters should modify **exploration** speed. When most of the time is spent mapping, poking around, moving slowly, listening etc. The slower encumbered characters would have no problem keeping up with snails pace of 12' per minute! Encumbrance should only affect tactical or flight speed (which I believe was players base move per round?).

    I encourage "box and line" maps, boxes for rooms, lines for connections between. Maps are 80% for finding your way, which box and line does fine and is very fast.

    1. Well said and good points. Now that you put it in that light it makes more sense. In Moldvay Basic though, wouldn't charisma pretty much be a dump stat for each of the character classes since it is not a prime requisite? Probably so. Still, I guess the player with the highest of the "lows" would be the man to make the call.

      Thanks for your input and more importantly, thanks for reading?

  2. Ultimate party? 4 halfling thieves (?) and no cleric? Their wizard doesn't even cast fireball or magic missile and has delusions of being a fighter, just because he has a magic sword.

    I like the caller idea if you're running you're running a group of six to eight, just to keep things moving quicker. Mapping is hard on the players, who don't know where they are, and the DM, who has to describe everything in detail. I'm thinking alternate methods, including giving the characters a map of some sort to start, is the way to go. I look at encumbrance as a just use common sense sort of thing, don't bother adding it up.

    1. Who needs a pure cleric when both your ranger and wizard are multi-classed with healing abilities? Ha! I can't argue your logic about the four thieves though.

      I see you're point about a caller helping to move the game along. I have to admit that it would be much more efficient.

      Thanks for your comments! It's always interesting to read another's viewpoints.

  3. I theorize that both the notion of having 6-8 characters and the idea of using a caller are artifacts from the brief but glorious days when D&D was in full fad mode. I think the writer assumes a situation in which you will have far more people who want to play the game then you have participants who know how (DMs by default). In theory then, the caller helped the newbie DM manage the chaos. Remember that Moldvay was writing in a world before Moldvay Basic was available, and while J. Eric Holmes certainly made strides in making the concepts of the game accessible to the public, most people at the table would have had only the vaguest notion of what was going on mechanically.

    Today, I tend to think of role-playing in terms of trying to attract people to the hobby, create, and maintain interest (particularly with my middle school groups). That's one of the reasons that character-mortality (and high-lethality traps) came to be viewed as a problem rather than a simple fact of the game (like pieces being lost in a chess match). Evidence? Zeffan, the sample dwarf Fighting Man from module B1 "In Search of the Unknown" could have a maximum of 8 hit points at first level, whereas the unnamed level one dwarf fighter from 2008's Keep on the Shadowfell had 31 hit points, could survive to -15, and had twelve 7-point healing surges per day (which could be used even when unconscious).

    * Best party size and composition for Moldvay/Cook D&D?
    Where best = most effective at clearing rooms and recovering treasure then Elves. Elves in platemail with sleep spells. The more the better :)

    * "Tactical" style combat with maps or abstract combat?
    Abstract, though sometimes supplemented with minis for the under 10 years old group.

    * Mappers?
    Heavily contingent on the group. My adult group is left to solve the problem of mapping and escape routes completely on their own. My middle school groups (by far the shortest attention spans) get the maps sketched for them. My 10 and under group is shown a series of tiles or sketches which are then removed from the table as they leave the area. They take map-making pretty seriously.

    * What method of encumbrance do you prefer?
    Generally none, depending on players to be reasonable, but I'm experimenting with limiting characters to a set number of items they can carry (maybe six or seven). A sack of coins = 1 item, a ring is too small to matter, a quiver of 12 arrows = 1 item, chest = 2 items, etc.

    * Any good/gory trap death memories?
    Hmm ... there's this pit-into-deep-water trap in B1 that if tripped can extinguish the party's light sources, force the fighters out of their armor, and deposit the party in the lower level of the dungeon (blind, injured, unarmored, and lost). It's an indirect killer and is among my favorites.

  4. I always felt the best party size is about 6 characters (number of players is a different matter) regardless of edition. Six is large enough to hold their own and small enough not to seem like a small army. With six characters, it always seemed to be 3 fighter types, 1 magic-user, 1 cleric and 1 thief, with variations.

    I'll admit to being a miniatures person, so we usually played with minis on a wet/dry erase battlemat for tactical situations. However, the grid was simply there to assist the DM is sketching the room or encounter area and mostly to help with rules lawyers and players whose characters were in one place and then suddenly "appeared" in another with no explanation (cheaters). The modern trend toward chessboard/board game style movement and tactics was never our style. That reminds me too much of Candyland!

    We never used a designated caller (player) but usually had a generally agreed on leader (character).

    Our parties always mapped, even if it was pretty rough sometimes. It made retreat and finding your way back much easier. I've never used 3D terrain in play (even though I own some) because it always seemed way too limiting and I feel it stifles the imagination.

    We played pretty loose with encumbrance. I agree with Jarrett's idea: Generally keep it simple and use common sense.

    I have blocked all memory of hideous traps from my playing mind! I actually prefer a puzzle, problem, riddle or trick to a trap any day. I do remember a talking statue that posed a question that gave us fits as every wrong answer resulted in a massive electrical shock. I don't think anyone died though.

  5. Your pics/scans of the rulebook are perfect for making a DM Screen.