Our gaming group has had a fun couple of sessions playing Moldvay Basic D&D (I’m calling it B/X even though we never used the Expert rules) in the past two weeks. B/X was a game I never played or even owned in my youth, I started with Holmes Basic and, like most people back then, quickly moved on to AD&D 1e. When I got back into role-playing around 2009, it was first with Swords & Wizardry White Box. B/X never really hit my radar until a few years later, when I joined in on some play-by-post games on the Labyrinth Lord forum. Some of the first games I ran for our gaming group were Labyrinth Lord games (the Village of Larm).
Later I was able to add B/X to my collection thanks to EBay – a Basic Boxed set with B2 and dice, an Expert booklet, and a copy of X1. I perused the books and modules but never played them. Labyrinth Lord and BFRPG seemed to scratch the Basic itch for a time. But lately I’ve been steering away from the retro-clones and back to the original games they were based on. The easy availability of the PDFs is one reason. Even if the players don’t have the original books, they can get a PDF for five bucks or so. Another is just for something different, and also to see what I’ve been missing all these years. I am sure none of my observations are new, a trip around the old-school forum-verse and blogosphere will turn up many, many discussions on B/X. But when did that ever stop a blogger!
Towards a More Understandable OD&D
The first thing to note about B/X is that it is a wonderfully clear restatement of OD&D. It fills in the gaps left by that game and clarifies a lot of poorly detailed rules. Holmes Basic tried to do this as well, but it still had problems, mostly left there due to the hackish insertion of AD&D-isms (still, Holmes has hands down the best prose and introductory dungeon of any edition of D&D). Labyrinth Lord was a restatement of B/X, but there is a lot that is different about Labyrinth Lord, and it largely forgets the OD&D base that B/X was forged from, both in rules and feel. B/X keeps the coin encumbrance of OD&D (it’s a shame all of the B/X or OD&D retro-clones discarded such an elegant system in favor of tracking equipment weight in pounds, effectively ensuring no one would track encumbrance) and also keeps the coarsely-grained OD&D alternative attack tables. It keeps the underworld adventuring rules and three-point alignment. It clarifies the Chainmail morale system that is only referenced in OD&D, fully details the combat system, keeps the four core armor classes, and fills in rules around retainers and morale. It keeps intelligent swords and stronghold encounters. Oh, and level titles! B/X keeps the OD&D level titles. All while still explicitly making sure you know that you can make this your own game.
The D&D game has neither losers nor winners, it has only gamers who relish exercising their imagination. The players and the DM share in creating adventures in fantastic lands where heroes abound and magic really works. In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure. – Tom Moldvay, from the forward to Dungeons & Dragons
As an aside, this was in sharp contrast to Gary Gygax, who by now had come out as strongly against taking any such liberties with AD&D (see Dragon #26).
What do you mean I can’t play a Halfling thief??!!
Race-as-class is perhaps the largest deviation from OD&D, but as a simplification of “Halflings can only be fighters” it is an understandable change for the time. It also fixes the issue of low level caps and deals with the multi-class Elf by giving players a single advancement chart to use. I used to dislike race-as-class, but I can see the appeal if you think of the demi-humans each as their own bundle of special class skills. There are also plenty of additional race-classes for B/X, and should one of your players want a thief-like Halfling I’m sure you can find one.
Crack Suicide Squad
Another way B/X deviates from OD&D is in the dungeon wandering monster tables. In OD&D you have a meta-table, used to determine which level of monster table to roll on, then the actual monster tables, one for each level of dungeon. In B/X you have the latter but not the meta-table, so wandering monsters become much less threatening. You can no longer encounter a wraith or gargoyle and TPK on dungeon level 1, for example. If you’re a player this is probably better, still it does give quite a different feel to a dungeon crawl. Mike Mornard, a player in Gary Gygax’s original D&D games from the 1970s, has said that wandering monsters in OD&D were meant to be terrifying. In B/X they are definitely less so, still the game itself is quite deadly as written. In our first game, we had three PCs die in a two-hour session.
When am I Gonna be Level 2?
While the character and monster XP charts in B/X are similar or identical to OD&D (using supplement I, Greyhawk for monster XP), advancement will be slower unless the DM fudges rolls on treasure tables, or follows the advice in the rules to place special treasures before using the tables. The treasure tables are nerfed in B/X as compared to OD&D when it comes to values of individual gems and jewels. These are the best way to carry wealth out of a dungeon in OD&D, and the gem/jewel value table in Monsters & Treasure can lead to some pretty hefty value rolls, giving huge XP gains at low-to-mid levels. Not so much in B/X.
Loads of Resources
The nice thing about B/X is that there is a metric shit-ton of freely available material to use in games, just due to the popularity of Labyrinth Lord and BFRPG. The Dragonsfoot website has a whole section devoted to Classic D&D resources, and Wizardawn has some insanely useful generators just for B/X. I also link to a few B/X character generators on this blog.
I bought the PDFs for Basic and Expert D&D a while back. I’ve been wanting to play a Basic/Expert game for the sheer nostalgia of it, just going back and forth through the PDFs as I play. The illustrations and the layout are great.
Thanks for pointing out how the Basic encumbrance rules differ from Labyrinth Lord, with encumbrance being measured with coins instead of pounds. I missed that. Playing Labyrinth Lord it is so time-consuming to have to use a spreadsheet to measure pounds and keep track of encumbrance. Also, plate armour costs 450 gp in Labyrinth Lord but only 60 gp in Basic, giving those characters who can wear it a better chance of survival.
I’ve finally learned how to use the Black and White Classic icons for mapping on Hexographer and they would be so appropriate for a Basic campaign. I might have to start a solo Basic campaign soon and put the results up on my blog.
Oh, right I forgot to mention the plate armor cost being another way B/X is like OD&D. Almost every starting PC can afford it unless they roll badly on starting gold. On the encumbrance, I once played in a Lab. Lord/Barrowmaze game where the LL had us track our exact encumbrance to the ounce. It painfully extended the character creation process, which is supposed to be of the nicest things about these games. Your solo sessions are great fun to read, I’d vote for a B/X series!
Encumbrance is relatively easy to switch from cns to lbs, simply remove or add a zero. It also makes it easy to add items to the game if you know the weight in lbs. I have never understood why people have so much trouble tracking encumbrance, it’s simple math.
Characters can easily obtain platemail armor, but I always point out that, given its encumbrance, it is a trap. The characters will not be able to flee an encounter if necessary, unless they are fleeing something extremely slow.
Thanks for the comment. I agree the math is simple. But it’s not the math I object to – it’s the fact that if you follow those encumbrance systems as written, they instruct you to add up the weight of all your equipment – water, torches, rations, oil, etc. Encumbrance fluctuates as these things get used up or replenished. In both OD&D and B/X, they let you assume your miscellaneous gear always weighs 80 coins. That’s a nice simplification. So why not just say, convert that to pounds and assume 8lbs. encumbrance for all that misc. gear? Well, (speaking of B/X now) then you would have to re-convert that to coins to determine how much of the 1600 coins you have left to carry. Or convert your coins to pounds weight (or kilograms, or stone, or whatever system you use) and do it that way. And if you find 157gp that equates to 15.7 pounds, and you end up rounding, since no one wants to track decimals. It all seems so pointless of a conversion exercise – coins are the end goal (most XP comes from treasure in OD&D and B/X), and you can carry 1600 of them per the rules. So just track coins. That’s why when I run OD&D I simplify this even further and just track treasure weight, allowing a “reasonable” amount of other gear, armor and weapons.
I agree there is a tactical choice to be made with respect to plate armor, and I’ll add the additional drawback that you can’t swim in plate armor. But I think the choice is interesting depending on how you want to play your character. It’s why in my equipment packs, the Fighters and Clerics can choose plate or chain, and if they choose the latter they get the extras (bow or holy water), since chain is cheaper.
Chuck Barchuk said:
Doug, what do you prefer between B/X and FMAG? I love both but not sure which I like more. Would love your thoughts and how you personally compare the two.
Tough question. If you can’t tell from the above, I’ve warmed to B/X lately. Our group just started a B/X campaign (using OSE – I’m playing in it, not running it). But the biggest appeal for me, as a guy who loves OD&D, is that (as I mention above) B/X is a nice clarification and re-packaging of OD&D. As far as FMAG, that, too is a great re-packaging of OD&D, with its own quirks – but a lot is different there as compared to the original. My FMAG games tend to be infused with house rules to pull it more towards the original anyway, so I guess I treat it more as a base to build from rather than a complete game. Which after all was the original intent of S&W White Box which FMAG was based on. I’m rambling a bit, but for now I prefer the original games over the clones like FMAG, to include B/X. And, since I mentioned OSE – that is so close to B/X I think of it as original B/X with errata, not as a new/different game.
Chuck Barchuk said:
Interesting. Thanks for the response. Yea I’m currently in a Keep on the Borderlands campaign using OSE as well. I love it! But…that being said FMAG was my first experience with OD&D. I’ve never played any of the original games. I actually have your FMAG house rules. Are those the rules you still use? And if so, which ones pull it towards the original? Again thanks as always for entertaining my questions. :)
I still use those house rules for FMAG. Off the top of my head, these rules are from OD&D, or closer to OD&D than the ones in FMAG:
– Coin encumbrance
– Elves moving and firing bows without penalty (-2 for other PCs)
– Stationary archers fire twice per round (you can half-move and attack once with a bow otherwise)
– Spears do double damage when set against a charge
– Only Fighters get the STR bonuses
– Ability point swap rules
If you’re interested in reading the original OD&D rules they are pretty cheap in PDF format at DTRPG (you can find them online also if you search). It’s useful to read the first three books, then the first supplement (Greyhawk) to see how much changed with that supplement and how it set the bar for future games, including B/X – it added things like variable hit dice, multiple monster attacks, variable weapon damage, multi-classing, the thief class, higher level spells, and much bigger ability bonuses.
Which reminds me of my one gripe with B/X, the ability bonuses. I think they are too big. I much prefer the smaller ability bonuses capped at +1 used in the original 3 OD&D booklets and in FMAG. I also prefer d6-based HD for all classes. I mentioned it before, but my forum would be a great place to have these discussions and get feedback from other players and refs, if you are so inclined, stop by and say hi. I may post something on this topic anyway, it is very interesting.
Chuck Barchuk said:
Yea I love your site here. There’s just a treasure trove of good stuff to look through. I primarily grew up playing BX and BECMI. With FMAG I’ve gained an interest in OD&D even though its not entirely OD&D like you said. It fills in some blanks that make it a bit more complete. Like you I love that the bonuses are smaller. I love that you’re basically using a d20 and d6 for everything. I love that fighters are the only class to benefit from high strength. It really makes them the best at…well…fighting. Now I do love race as class from B/X so your house rules you wrote up for that are amazing. I love how easy it is to modify the rules to your liking. I love the single saving throw. I could go on but I share a lot of the same likes and gripes that you have. And you’re right I definitely need to read the original OD&D rules. Anyways thanks again. I’ve been on a FMAG kick as off late and just having a great time. Currently running my wife (Silverleaf the Elf) and my son (Sneaky the Thief) through Tomb of the Serpent Kings. It’s been great!
Thanks, Chuck! I’m glad you find the site useful.
Mark Hyde said:
Just a quiet note for future vistiors to this brilliant resource of a blog post. 🙂 The original code author has taken back management of Wizardawn resources – new link.
Thanks, I’ve updated the link!
S&W Core Rules 4th printing is pretty much this. 7-9th level spells could be ignored when rolling for scrolls and NPC spellbooks. The likelihood of a campaign lasting to the point that that the players reach the kind of level needed to cast them is….well. Could be worth having a POD made of the first half of the book for a player’s section and give them that. Hmmmm….now you got me thinking.
Thanks for the comment. Very true, unless the players start at higher level to begin with, or they play a lot (rare nowadays as you allude to). I’m a big fan of player’s guides/quickstarts, it’s considered normal now that everyone has a full rulebook or knows all the house rules, but back when the hobby first started, players did not know much about the rules at all. “Tell me what your character does, and I’ll tell you what happens” is a fun way to play, and I think a player’s guide with just the needed bits to get started is a perfect way to do this.
Oops, I thought I was replying to your post re: using B/X as the base for your OD&D. To me S&W Core does that perfectly well, the bonuses only start at 15 compared to B/X 13 and are only as large at 17 & 18, which are really very rare to roll. I ordered a perfect bound POD of the first 70 (71?) pages of the S&W Core Rules with the covers so the players can have their own reference at the table. I’ll post a pic in the forum when it comes good or bad as a review of the printer. Always been a fan OD&D+Greyhawk as the DNA of D&D and separate player & DM books. S&W Core is edited so well and so concisely I consider it the succesor to B/X. I love Iron Falcon too but I like art and modern things like AAC, AB and S&W less chaotic treasure hoard generation compared to OD&D. OSE is great too but I couldn’t ignore the value proposition, got the entirety of a complete rule set (softcover) for 21 CAD and free shipping by Prime. Oh and that epic Peter Mullen cover is legend. :) Thanks for the great blog, stole your equipment packs and encumbrance rules, hope you don’t mind, haha.
Hey thanks for the compliment! I’m glad you find some of this stuff useful. I also like the lower ability score bonuses in S&W Core (and Complete, basically the same as the 4th printing of Core plus the extra classes and a few extra rules). Love to see the pics of your player’s guide when they arrive!