We've been playing D&D at BWHQ for the past four months. Our group consists of me plus six players: two ladies, four gentlemen. The players have a range of experience with D&D: from none at all to grognardia to having worked on the brand.
We're using the Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert books. Only myself and one other had played this particular edition previously. And I'd only played Cook Expert when I was a lad. I still have that book. Very sturdy, though it has suffered from much abuse at my hands.
The game began as an experiment with +Thor Olavsrud
to understand how "original" D&D was played. Thus we set out to play as close to the rules as possible. While this edition is indeed old—published in 1981—it is a far cry from OD&D. It is, by my count, the fifth edition of D&D (editions being: OD&D, three Holmes editions, then Moldvay). I chose this edition over the Gygax/Arneson and Holmes editions because it contains a defined set of procedures that I could follow, not just for the subsystems, but for the entire structure of play: character creation, the adventure, parley, combat, advancement and recovery. I felt I could play this best as written and thus get closer to how it was intended to be played.
In order to ensure our experience was in line with what the original designers intended, I made sure we used their published adventures. Moldvay edition is the genesis of "Basic" D&D. Thus the B series of modules are ostensibly built for this version of D&D.
We started at the beginning: B1, In Search of the Unknown.
The set up is thin: monsters infest an abandoned secret fortress. I think we all, players and me as GM, found the geographic design of this dungeon arbitrary. It was a collection of rooms on a sheet of paper, not the secret fortress as advertised. I'll admit that I was finding my feet with the game and thus did a poor job running this module. But it lacked a compelling narrative or internal logic. The players duly raided away, but after the third wave of character deaths, they had a dawning realization that this endeavor was pointless. They quit Quasqueton after exploring 80% of the dungeon in three sessions, at the cost of about six deaths: They vowed never to go back.
And then I discovered that B1 was designed for the Holmes Edition of D&D and so perhaps that's why it lacked a little of the cohesion of the later Moldvay edition.
Next we played B2, Keep on the Borderlands. This is a curious module. It skirts the conceit of Basic D&D— only dungeons, no wilderness, no town—by giving a map of the keep/town and small wilderness area. And like B1, this is because B2 was designed for the Holmes edition, and predates Moldvay's publication by a year.
In B2, the characters sortie out from the eponymous Keep to the Caves of Chaos. I want to be careful not to spoil this adventure, so I won't give specifics. Suffice to say, at the Caves they must root out a deeply entrenched, and rather extensive, infestation of monsters and servants of Chaos. I think this module's design is genius. It evokes exactly what this era of D&D is about: exploration and puzzle-solving. The puzzles are geographical, social, magical and physical in nature—on a variety of scales, from tiny objects, to map-wide. Exploration serves to reveal information that serves in solving the puzzles. The design is simple in execution, but surprisingly subtle. One solution opens one possibility and closes the others. When we played, it was easy to make the Caves feel alive. It feels as if Gygax designed this module and then Moldvay reedited D&D to evoke the experience of playing Keep on the Borderlands.
Why is this era of D&D about puzzle-solving and exploration? Because your characters are fragile and treasure compromises 4/5s of the experience you earn, whereas fighting monsters earns only 1/5. Thus if there's a big monster guarding a valuable piece of treasure, the incentive is to figure out a way to get the treasure without fighting the monster. Fight only as a last resort; explore first so you can better solve. This shift in emphasis away from fighting was frustrating at first, but then profoundly refreshing once we sussed out the logic.
Having learned this lesson at the cost of another seven deaths, the group completed B2 in grand style: Their plans were so effective, their exploration so thorough, that the victorious player characters suffered not a point of damage in the final confrontation. And I opposed them with mind-boggling array of villainy!
After their rousing conquest of the Caves of Chaos, we moved on to B3, Palace of the Silver Princess. I chose this module for their next adventure out of many possibilities because: 1) it seemed like something they could tackle without getting shredded 2) it is short 3) it has narrative motivation/cause 4) they're locked in the dungeon 5) Tom Moldvay shares an author credit. I thought those were a good set of features, different from the part-time-day-worker mercenary feel of Keep on the Borderlands.
However, after the gold-standard of Keep, I was sorely disappointed in this scenario. The logic is thin. The puzzles are poorly conceived. The traps are simply cruel and don't make too much sense in the larger ecology of the castle. The map of the castle is pure nonsense as well. If it is a palace, it's rather dank and claustrophobic. If you have to get downstairs, you have to go through the Court Magician's lab. He must love that.
I know some of you will disagree with me on this assessment. And I know this module has a troubled and storied history, but I hoped in vain that Moldvay would elevate it the way he elevated the Basic edition. Alas, he did not.
Regardless of the dungeon's quality, my crack team of adventurers busted the scenario open with a Charm Person spell in session 2. Much to their credit, and my frustration, while they had the solution of the adventure in their power, they continued to explore. Unfortunately, the adventure didn't measure up to their expectations and their exploration only lead them to worse traps and more hideous monsters, without granting a better understanding of the problem they faced.
At one point, they tried to rest upstairs, but were rudely interrupted multiple times. Their desired eight hour rest period turned into a 14 hour bout of exhaustion and flight. That broke them. After that, they went for the goal, and true to form, bashed through the final encounter with nary a hit point lost.
Despite my feelings about B3, I decided to use it as a platform to build their world on. Their characters advanced to level 4 and so it was time to leave the red book and head for the blue: Expert set. After careful research, I discovered the most excellent module, B10 Night's Dark Terror. I modified that scenario slightly, placing Haven (from B3) at the center of its action. I let the group stay at the Palace to learn new spells and weapon mastery (from the black Master book). I let them bank their gold there. And I set up Princess Argenta and Ellis as their patrons. In this newly built world, constructed of a few patchworks of wilderness, towns and dungeon locations, they had done good, word had spread, and now their services were in demand. In fact, I let them choose between B10 and combined campaign of X1 Isle of Dread and X6 Quagmire. They boldly took up the Princess's cause in the form of B10, with only the vaguest promise of reward. I'm proud of them. They did it because they had a lust for adventure, not for empty promises of reward.
I'm nervous about the transition to the wilderness style of adventure, since the beautiful economy of Moldvay's basic rules are rapidly undermined by the poorly implemented ideas of the Expert set. However, this module is so beautiful and detailed, I think all will be well. We already had our first river journey and fight on the deck of a ship. I think I was more excited about the change of venue than the players were.
After more than 16 sessions of play, I think this is a magnificent game. The previous editions have seeds of the hobby, seeds of greatness in them, but this edition is not only a game with digestible procedures, but it is a fully realized vision. A new vision. A vision of a monster-filled world, riddled with dungeons, ready to be plumbed by desperate heroes. It created a perilous world with death lurking around every corner in the form of this dangerous, unforgiving game.
During some of the darker moments of the game, when curses flew and lives ended, my players turned to me and said, "Don't worry; don't feel badly. It's not you. It's the game."
What a tremendous thing to say.
I realized at that moment that this group had done something all too rare in my experiences with roleplaying games. Rather than bending the game to our predilections, we bent our collective will to the game. We learned it, and it taught us. It taught us how to play it, but it also taught us lessons. And though it can be cruel, there is a savage logic operating underneath it's Erol-Otus-drawn skin. Something that we could grasp, even if it hurts a little. Once we divested our modern notions of fantasy—of Dungeons and Dragons, even—and subjected ourselves to its will, we leveled up. Suddenly, we were sharing a hobby; we had discovered something new and our motley crew was better friends for it.
This slim red volume emerged before us as a brilliant piece of game design that not only changed our world with it's own bright light, but looking from the vantage of 1981, I can see that this game changed THE world. This world of dark dungeons and savage encounters slowly crept out into ours, from hobby shops to basements, to computer labs and movie screens. And we're all better off for having adventured in it, even if the game isn't played quite the same anymore.