Monday, June 1, 2020

BECMI: Basic Set Review

How does one go about reviewing a game I know so well but in a book I know very little about?  More to the point how does one review a classic?

Well as my oldest son says, "with determination."

In this particular case, I am going to review the actual boxed set I was able to pick up a few years ago, the PDFs from DriveThruRPG and I will compare it to the version printed in the UK.

Basic Set (1983)
The third set of books to be released as the "Basic set" was the Mentzer "Red Box" Basic that would become the "B" of the BECMI line.  So many copies of this set have sold that it has become synonymous with "the Basic Set" and "the red Box" in D&D circles.  The set itself contained two books, a Player's Book (to be read first) and a Dungeon Master's Book (to be read by the DM).

Already we have a departure from the previous Holmes (1977) and Moldvay (1981) Basic sets.  While those older sets had one book for rules (48 and 64 pages respectively) and an included adventure (B1 and B2 respectively) this set only has the two books.  This is not the issue it might seem at first since this set features a rather infamous solo adventure and a programmed adventure that can be used with a DM.

The box set also came with dice, a crayon for coloring in the numbers, and some information about the RPGA.

It is helpful to look at the books independently.

The Player's Book
The Player's Book is 64 pages, color art cover, black & white interior art.

This is the familiar D&D game. The title page tells us that this is Dungeons & Dragons created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  The editor, though many will say the actual architect of the BECMI line, is Frank Mentzer.  He is so tied to this edition that it is also called the Mentzer Basic book.

While Holmes did a good job of organizing the Original D&D game into something that could be used as and introduction to the game (or too AD&D maybe), it was the Moldvay edition that really tried to make an introductory game to new players.  The Mentzer set takes this to the next level by giving us a true introduction to the game.

The target audience is 10-12-year-olds but it takes care not to talk down to the audience, there even seems to be a choice in language to try and educate as much as possible too.  TSR expected their target audience to be young, educated, and (for better or worse) male.  But I will touch on that later.

Up first you are taken on one of the most infamous solo adventures ever.  You are playing a fighter and you have to investigate a dungeon.  You meet a cleric named Aleena, and a goblin and an evil wizard named Bargel.  The rest is a tale told in many taverns across the known world. 
While I have a number of issues with the solo adventure, and I'll discuss those elsewhere, it is an effective tool for grabbing people and getting them into the game.  The adventure explains aspects of your character and makes them salient in the situation. In the education biz we call this "situational learning" and it is an effective tool.

After the adventure, we get to the part where your character is explained to you. What the ability scores mean, what the saving throws are for, how to hit with weapons.  It is the "what is Roleplaying" section of every other RPG book writ large.

There is another Solo adventure, with some nods to the two M series for solo dungeons.

So now that the player knows the basics of play the various character classes are introduced. Here we have the Cleric, Fighters, Magic-User, and Thieves for humans and Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. The text is very, very explanatory.  Great for a brand new player but feels wordy to me now.  Granted, these were not written for someone with 40 years of experience.  Heck, no one had even a quarter of that yet when this was written so my point of view is out of sync with the design goals of this game.

Looking over the classes I notice a few things.  The class descriptions are very self-contained.  Everything you need to know about playing a Cleric for example is right there. Including the Saving Throw tables WITH the class.  A vast improvement over the constant flipping through pages we had to do with AD&D at the same time.   Also, I noticed how weak the thief was then. No comparison to the Rogues of later editions.

The design elements of the self-contained class pages is something we will see again in D&D 4e and 5e.  It is very effective and if you are like me and like to print out your PDFs then it also gives you flexibility in organizing your version of Basic.

There is a solid emphasis throughout the book on how playing together, and working together, as a group is the best experience.  There also seems a little extra emphasis on how the Players are not the Characters.  It feels wonderfully 80s when the was the moral panic that kids would start to act out like their characters and meet the fate of poor Black Leaf and Marci.  Today people online refer to their characters in first person and laud their achievements as their very own.  What a difference some time makes.

We get to alignment with a strong prohibition against playing Chaotic or Evil characters. Retainers and other topics.  There is even a solid Glossary (I mean really who does this anymore? I miss them!) to help in supporting my point of view of D&D as a learning tool.   There is even a small section on using minis, character sheets, and other aids.  There is even a nod to AD&D to remind players that this game, D&D, is not AD&D.

All the basics are covered. No pun intended. Ok. Maybe a little one.
Everything the player needs to get started.  They now just need a DM.  Thankfully the next book covers all that.

The Dungeon Master's Book
The Dungeon Master's book is 48 pages, color art cover, black & white interior art.
This book follows the Player's book in terms of layout and scope.

The title page here is largely the same as the Player's Book, but it is a chance for us to reflect on how this game is really the direct descendent of the Original D&D game. Though there is a reminder that Players are not to read this book! Only DMs!

We get right into the roles of a DM here, after covering some brief introductory materials and some common terms and abbreviations.  Looking over these were are still in a time that Pre-Dates THAC0 as a term.

There are checklists of things to do pre-game and during the game and during combat.  It's a nice clear and spelled out version of the same material seen in the previous Moldvay Basic set.  In fact, there is a lot of material here that looks and reads the same.  This is natural since both sets are drawing from the same sources.  It is a bit like reading something you are already very familiar with, but it is still somewhat different and new.  Like trying to read Danish after learning German.  Or maybe more accurately, reading American Spanish after learning European Spanish.

There is a built-in adventure for new DMs that serves the same purpose as the Solo one in the player's book. It is fine, but I think back to my time in running the Keep on the Borderlands and hoe much I learned from that.

The procedures and rules section is all laid out alphabetically. So "Elves" come before "Mapping" and "Time".  Again, I am reminded of the layout seen in 4e and it is obvious that the designers of 4e were fans of this edition.

The next big section is on Monsters.  This section reads very much like the same section in Molvay Basic, some even down to the exact same words.  I don't find this a problem though.  Some people went from Holmes Basic (77) to Cook/Marsh Expert (81) and some people will come from those earlier Basics to this.  There needs to be a continuity of rules. Minus some organization and some clearer directions these are supposed to be the same games.  Yes there are some differences.  I find them to be minor at worst.

Back to Monsters, the section seems to have all the Usual Suspects, give or take a couple.  I did notice that there is much less art here.  I would have loved to have seen more versions of these classic monsters.  An Elmore drawn Thoul? Yeah, that would have been great! Also, this has the only piece of recycled art I have found.  The dragon breath diagram looks the same here as in Moldvay.  That's actually pretty cool.  All new art?  TSR was putting their best on this.  I'll talk more about the art in a bit.

Treasure follows and it is every 1st level character's dreams come true.  Swords to hit those pesky magic monsters! Gold! Platinum! Potions of Healing!! 2-7  hp was all you needed back then to get back into the game.

A nice bit about creating and stocking dungeons with monsters and treasures.  More direction than we got in Holmes or Moldvay to be sure.

We end with some tables for random monsters, saving throws, and a combined index!

The art in both books is fantastic.  Larry Elmore, Jim Holloway, and Jeff Easley at the very top of their game.  They defined how millions view Dungeons & Dragons.  Yes, yes I am a fan of the older stylings of Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, and Jeff Dee, but this was at a new level.  The art was consistent throughout and all of it wonderful.  Sadly it is also a little sparse compared to Moldvay, but I guess there are more pages to fill here.

The UK Edition
The UK edition is a single book about the size of a paperback.  It has the same color (or should I say "colour") cover.  The illustrations are sparse and in this case, all the interior art is by Helen Bedford.

The content is the same, just put into 272 smaller (4.75" x 7.5")  pages. There is even a tiny character sheet that taxes the ability of my glasses.
It sold for £4.95 back in 1986 when my copy was printed.

I am going to spend a lot of time this month covering the legacy of the Basic Set and the BECMI series as a whole.  But this is the set. This is the one people think of when you say "Basic Set."
That's a pretty serious legacy.

Join me all month as I talk about all the BECMI books, boxed sets, and related topics.
This week is nothing but Basic.


Billiam Babble Inked Adventures said...

That UK hardback red book must be have been made exclusively for libraries. All the players I knew (in UK) still had the Moldvay/Cook box or the shiny new Red Box. I think that book must be very rare. Cool review.
-BilliamBabble / Will.

JanE said...

I don't think the UK edition is hardback.
But it is a cool item nonetheless

Timothy S. Brannan said...

It is a softcover.

JB said...

Regarding the “advice on creating and stocking dungeons:”

I don’t find this to be anything more than what is found in Moldvay; the scenarios presented and procedures given seem more or less the exact same. And Mentzer’s Book discards both the “Art of the DM” information and the helpful bibliography found in Moldvay, two sections that informed my skills as a DM when learning the game (the latter through inspiration and stylistic example).