Art of the Genre: D&D Basic Boxed Sets

Art of the Genre: D&D Basic Boxed Sets

‘Basic’, it’s a term I always took as a kind of derogatory statement regarding the type of D&D that I was first introduced to. I mean, why wouldn’t someone think that since there was an ‘Advanced’ version of D&D out there with all those wonderful hardcover books?

Everything you need is right at your fingertips!
Everything you need is right at your fingertips!

Well, that might have been the case, and eventually I would convert to those lofty hardcovers, but in my fundamental and formative years I played from a ‘box’ that provided everything I needed on my path to adventure.

I have a special love for TSR’s Basic rules and the boxes that provided them. They are kind of like a browning picture of you riding a bike before the world was more than school and what to play afterward. I’m reminded of simpler times when there weren’t multiple editions of the game, when the internet wasn’t weighted down with reference materials for feats, powers, prestige classes, and the like.

In the ‘box’ I had it all, the player’s book with the classes, the experience charts, and the equipment. The dungeon master’s booklet provided the finer points of the rules, the monsters, and the treasure I’d be able to find after hard-fought battle.

Those were heady days, a time when I thought a +4 sword [not a longsword, bastard sword, or scimitar but a simple sword] was the endgame, the prize that made me epic in everything I’d do afterward. With such a weapon I’d be Conan, Elric, Fafhrd, and Arthur all in one.

It's never wise to have three magic-users in a party...
It's never wise to have three magic-users in a party...

If I wanted to be a legendary race like an Elf, I simply was one, nothing else. Nope, Elf was a class, not a race, just like Dwarf or Halfling. These fabled creatures were already built as either fighters, wizards, thieves or the like, and no added rules needed to overcomplicate the matter.

Perhaps it’s the lack of complication that makes this system ‘Basic’, but I find a bit of genius in the simplicity. Remember, these manuals are credited to have been written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, so if anyone can get this stuff right, it should be those two men.

Really, this is ‘it’ for adventure, and for a perfect induction to it. Let’s take a look at a couple of introductions, first that of the original printing of Basic as brought to us by Tom Moldvay in 1980. Tom writes:

I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit. I unwrapped the sword which the mysterious cleric gave me. The sword was golden-tinted steel. Its hilt was set with a rainbow collection of precious gems. I shouted my battle cry and charged.”

Races are classes in 'Basic'
Races are classes in 'Basic'

Check it; Moldvay hits the nail on the head with this intro, the maiden, the hero [you], and the dragon. It IS Dungeons and Dragons after all, right? Anyone already grabbing for their dice? You should, and they’d be right there in the box, all polyhedral, molded-plastic, and empty numbers ready for your colored wax pencil to fill them in.

Not to be outdone, Frank Mentzer bangs out another clear winner with the updated 1983 edition. Frank provides us this:

Your character stands atop a grassy hill… the sun glints off your golden hair, rippling in the warm breeze… you absent-mindedly rub the gem-studded hilt of your magic sword, and glance over at the dwarf and elf, bickering as usual about how to load the horses… the magic-user has memorized her spells, and say she’s ready to go… a dangerous dungeon entrance gapes at you from the mountain nearby, and inside, a fearsome dragon awaits. Time to get moving…

Bang! Sign me up, oh, and a lovely touch by Frank to show the reader that they’re still the same warrior who got the gem-hilted sword from Moldvay’s first edition intro. Here, Mentzer adds to the pot, the inclusion of more characters, presumably your friends, creates an even deeper sense of wonder. Come on, who wouldn’t want to take on that ‘dangerous dungeon’ from the comfort of their own living room with a pizza and cold drinks?

It's all about the reward... and I love the look of it!
It's all about the reward... and I love the look of it!

The first edition box also contains one of the single greatest adventure modules of all time, B2 [B is for Basic] Keep on the Borderlands by Gygax. It is the perfect module for starting players, the suggested levels being 1-3, and inside these well-aged pages Gygax does what he did best, design a perfect dungeon crawl.

Here, players journey to the edge of civilization, a last bastion to humanity in the rocky wilderness known only as ‘The Keep’. From this secure local, they are able to explore the countryside before going back to ‘The Traveler’s Inn’ for rest, new equipment, and to tell tales of high adventure. If they are good enough, they will finally make it to the Caves of Chaos, a wonderful delve filled with all manner of rudimentary PC fodder like kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins and even a nasty minotaur.

My first adventure, and the lady I shared it with...
My first adventure, and the lady I shared it with...

B2 is the ideal addition to the Basic setting, the style simplistic yet open enough for bigger interpretations. It also acts as the foundation for further adventures, this wild frontier certain to hold countless foes and hidden treasure if the PCs just take the time to look.

Speaking of included adventure, yes the 1st Edition game included the full B2 module, but the 2nd Edition changed up the formula with a more user-friendly premise. It added a module walk-through as well as breaking up the game book into two distinct booklets, one for the players and one for dungeon masters.

I, of course, went for the Players Guide when my box arrived in the mail, this being the now classic ‘red box’ that has recently been revived by Wizards of the Coast in a new 4th Edition D&D format instead of the venerable ‘Basic’ rules. I believe, however, that such a creation goes against the very fundamentals of what the ‘Basic’ stands for, but I digress.

As for me and 2nd Edition Basic, I used the guide in the beginning pages to take my very first baby steps into a whole new world. It’s so simple that by Page 3, the paragraph title ‘Your First Adventure’ propels you into the game as follows:

Your home town is just a small place with dirt roads. You set off one morning and hike to the nearby hills. There are several caves in the hills, caves where treasures can be found, guarded by monsters. You have heard that a man named Bargle may also be found in these caves. Bargle is a sort of bandit, who has been stealing money, killing people, and terrorizing your town. If you can catch him, you can become a hero!

All that treasure and no one to spend it on...
All that treasure and no one to spend it on...

Again, we’ve just had the whammy put on us. In one fell swoop, TSR has thrown us head first into a solo adventure. On Page 2 we were told to write down 17 Strength, 11 Dexterity, and 9 Intelligence as well as a backpack for camping, a beautiful sword, chain mail armor, and a dagger tucked in your boot. Seriously, that’s it, and you’re off.

In this fashion, I absolutely became the character Larry Elmore pictured at the steps of that bone-strewn cave entrance. I followed him through his first adventure, my first adventure, and thank you Mr. Elmore for painting such an insanely beautiful NPC for me to fall head-over-heels in love with [Note: The ‘Elmorian’ thin nose, small pouting lips, and textbook chin… yes, they never fail to capture me].

Her name was Aleena, a cleric, which I found out had to do with healing people of lost hit points. This skill turns out to be about as handy an ability as one could have in a dungeon, trust me.

By Page 5 I found out Aleena could also turn the undead, meaning she could make zombies flee from you instead of bite you to death. This new feature to her already incredibly useful and lovely character furthered my love affair, and I was sure I’d be marrying her and having many little fighters and clerics before this story ended…

That is until Page 6 when the black-robed magic-user Bargle killed my beloved with a summoned arrow. Alas, even running Bargle though and taking a bag of treasure that obviously weighed twice as much as I did couldn’t ease the sting of her loss… although it did help.

Beautiful, tough, and wise, the perfect Basic cleric
Beautiful, tough, and wise, the perfect Basic cleric

After that, you’ve done it, played a round of ‘Basic’, easy as pie, and from this point forward the game takes more and more form as the story grows. Basic should keep any new player busy with a comfortable ease, a smooth system of rules, and very few headaches you can’t figure out with a bit of imagination.

I say if you have this old box, or see one at a convention, pick it up and play a round just for fun. It will be a couple hours well spent because as any role-player knows, adventure is only a dungeon away.

Ah, and as there’s no Critical Hit this week and the newest property by Laubenstein/Taylor is still in the development stage. Still, I want to include my very favorite Larry Elmore black and white from the Basic Players Manual. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over the years, because to me it simply doesn’t get any better than this.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I had no idea there was such a cool solo dungeon in the basic rule set edited by Frank Mentzer. I started with Holme’s D&D basic set and after a while moved onto AD&D. I picked up Moldvay’s basic set and David Cook’s expert set, (just the books, not the complete box sets) later on, but never purchased any of the other boxed sets or their books after that.

After reading your essay this week, and seeing Elmore’s artwork, I regret not purchasing Mentzer’s edition. I’ll keep my eyes open for this while I’m looking for that SF module with David Trampier’s artwork. 🙂

I am curious to learn what new project you have in store for us as well as where Critical Hit might be going. Any chance you could drop a few not-so-subtle hints?

Theodric the Obscure

Great stuff, Scott! I, too, have been in a nostalgic gaming mood of late.

[…] when I started my rather epic quest in the realms of RPGs, just like discussed in my discourse on Basic D&D’s Red Box, I of course played a fighter. As a matter of fact, I was so obviously unoriginal, I stole Frank […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x