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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.
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Shit, now I get it. 

Thanks Luke, splendid writeup. 
I am really fascinated by your accounts of these sessions.
With this very essay, you have raised the price of the Moldvay Edition on eBay by at least 100 GP.
This gives me a vision of assembling a game group with the last three paragraphs as a philosophy for playing any game.
What, if anything, did you feel you learned about this that you think you'll apply to other work? Other play?
We have to post the pics on your old AD&D screen that you started using lately that has "Remember to be nice" written on the inside! :D
+Matt Snyder What have I learned? The core lesson is as I stated: Make no assumptions. Put aside your biases and play the game. 

I also feel qualified to talk about D&D for the first time in my life. I have gone deep into this monster. I've read all of the early editions: Gygax/Arneson, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer and Gygax AD&D. 

I'm still processing what's happening in the group. The group is often engaged, but not at the level I'm accustomed to with Burning Wheel. Interactions with the system are simple and brief. Either a die roll or two, or the selection of an expendable resource. The engagement via the caller and mapper is also very high. There's a little character play, but nothing as intense as what I'm used to. But the decisions are so fraught with peril, I have nightmares later that night (as does another one of the players). We call it PTSD&D.

I've learned that it's a hard game to run. Not because of prep or rules mastery, but because of the role of the GM as impartial conveyer of really bad news. Since the exploration side of the game is cross between Telephone and Pictionary, I must sit impassive as the players make bad decisions. I want them to win. I want them to solve the puzzles, but if I interfere, I render the whole exercise pointless.

I've a deeper understanding why fudging dice is the worst rule ever proposed. The rules indicate fudging with a wink and a nudge, "Don't let a bad die roll ruin a good game." Seems like good advice, but to them I say, "Don't put bad die rolls in your game." 

To expand on the point: The players' sense of accomplishment is enormous. They went through hell and death to survive long enough to level. They have their own stories about how certain scenarios played out. They developed their own clever strategems to solve the puzzles and defeat the opposition. If I fudge a die, I take that all away. Every bit of it. Suddenly, the game becomes my story about what I want to happen. The players, rather than being smart and determined and lucky, are pandering to my sense of drama—to what I think the story should be.

So this wink and nudge that encourages GMs to fudge is the greatest flaw of the text. It's easily ignored, but power corrupts and all that. The game is fantastic, but it is not perfect. I didn't talk about its lumps in my Ode, but it has plenty. 

As for design specifically…the game seems easily hackable. And it is, in the same way a hotrod is customizable. You can tune the engine, try different tires and even change the chrome, but you can't take it off-road. This game is a hotrod. It is built to explore dungeons. As soon it moves away from puzzle-solving and exploration, the experience starts to fray. There are precious few levers for the players to pull once their out of their element. Heaven forfend we get into an in-character argument at the table, the game is utterly silent on that resolution. Might as well knife fight.

The hacking is endorsed by the game. There's a rule in the DM section at the back of the book. It tells you how to make a call on the fly, then after the session, come up with a rule and propose it to the players.

House Ruling is thus enshrined. I'm fascinated by this. The core game is rock solid, but there are little niches you can modify while maintaining the experience. We modified how firebombs work, for example. I'm sure most people make much heavier modifications more rapidly—because they think they know better than the game. I want to read all of those house rules. In fact, I think WotC should embrace House Rule culture. I think they should publish that slim volume and then create a central repository for everyone's house rules. I'd page through it for hours.

I could ramble on about this game for hours. This post is a paean to the game, but I have more designer thoughts running around my head: Charisma as über stat, functional alignment, encumbrance is awesome, the caller is the best rule I used to hate, mapping is a metagame, bored players, the poor fighter, and why this game is so fucking addicting.
Also, changed the ending. Split the last paragraph into two and rewrote a couple of sentences. My last two points were muddled. Hopefully they're clearer now.
One thing I confirmed (that I've always previously suspected): FUCK NOSTALGIA. FUCK IT UNTIL IT IS DEAD. For me, I need to experience games so i can internalize them. As soon as I feel that haze of nostalgia drifting through me, I know my critical faculties have failed me. Getting the chance to pierce the veil of nostalgia and look at this game with fresh eyes has been a poignant reminder not to pretend nostalgia is knowledge.
Counter to that sentiment is an equally dangerous one. Now that I have undertaken this experiment, I have that terrible urge to claim to know the true D&D. 

D&D has mutated into quite a beast in its lifetime. Everyone who plays it claims to know the truth. The best way to play. I think it's one of the strengths of the game. 

So now that we've gone back and played 1981 D&D we are better D&Ders than 1982 and onward! Right? Maybe. But probably not. 

D&D isn't one thing anymore. It's a broad canopy covering a lot of lesser flora and fauna. This old tree that we've climbed is just one part of it. Getting a feel for how the game was played in 1981 certainly helps me see the current iterations more clearly. And it helps me identify design decisions made in this edition and others. I can see how those decisions have ramified through play, through the culture, through multiple editions.

But, as much as I'd like to lay claim to it, I have not found the one true way. It's a great game, and I encourage you all to play, but it is merely one game out of many.
Great post!  I'm envious.

I would add that I feel that the Keep and the Caves of Chaos are profoundly connected and you can't just skip the former to get to the latter.  A lot of shit that goes down in the Keep will affect what happens in the Caves.
Ha ha PTSD&D!  That's great.  I can't believe nobody has come up with that before.
+Olman Feelyus In the module, yes. But the RAW instruct you to skip it and head right to the dungeon. I compromised and kept the interactions in town very simple and light. Ack. No spoilers!
They do?!  Wow, I don't remember that.  Why build all that detail in and then tell you to skip it?  Bizarre.

I ran it for Gary Gygax Day the year before last and the party picked up those treacherous fighter NPCs to work with them.  I had them attack when the players were in a tunnel, so they couldn't gang up.  The magic user was the one in the rear and the weakest, but the only spell he had chosen (and indeed could choose) was Heat Metal and the treacherous fighting man was wearing plate.  It was a kind of astounding piece of luck or precognition on the player's part.
As far as I can tell, Keep was published at least a year before Moldvay Basic was published. Thus they're not a perfect pairing. IIRC, the town/keep sections were cut out of the B1-9 edition that was published later.
I'd like to talk to you about this at some point via chat or at a con or something. I too have been mucking around with D&D of late (seems that one cannot avoid it), and my observations have been very different. 
Luke, thank you so much for writing this. You say everything I always wanted to say about Moldvay Basic.

The combination of strict procedures, of focused hotrod design (that does that one thing, despite being easily hackable), the crystalization of Gygax's mess into one beautiful (if brutal) and revolutionary game. All these traits remind me so much of the very best games that are being published now that it makes me feel like the years between 81' and 08' were just kind of a lull in game design (which is not true at all of course, but still).

It has warts, but they are forgivable or easily remedied.

I have no nostalgia for it, as I started my gaming in 2000 with the 3E. Discovering Moldvay was mindblowing and likewise filled we with all sorts of revelations about how D&D (and the hobby at large) evolved. I think you can see the seeds of the "it's all about the story"-style D&D in that slip that recommends ignoring the dice, later epitomized in the late 80's/early 90's stuff, especially Dragonlance.
There's something illuminating in your superb post and the conclusions you (and your group) got after playing such a great game like BECMI is.

Your experience, which is also mine and my group's, teaches us all that the hobby had a tremedous involution during the hobby gaming marketing spree in the late '80s, when someone out there up at TSR decided to butcher up a great game with a very focused and coherent design into a kitchen-sink game which pretended and promised to do all of the things you'd expected a RPG to do at the time (and many RPGs of that age already excellently did).
But they lied. All we got were lame adventure modules full of railroading and illusionist escamotages, and plenty of unneeded copycat everyman-fantasy settings. And that trend continued on through the "d20/SRD era"  which only spreaded countless uber-builds and talents and magic items and prestige classes and things...

With those premises in mind, it is obvious that there is a clear convergence between the "indie" rpg movement and the old school revival. Focused design, promises which really deliver, and clever game design are common elements of both "schools", which are, in the end, the same "school": those of the RPG fanatics at the very heart.
Extraordinarily well written article on a subject near and dear to my heart. I was 11 in 1981, so my grasp of the rules was somewhat loose, but I never forget the joy I got from the simple act of smashing heads and taking treasure. Despite your enthusiasm, I probably wont be revisiting the Original Game, but I still love your breakdown of its strengths and flaws. 

Could you do something? I had no idea so many people had edited the game in its first few versions (I simply chalked everything up to Gygax.) Could you break the versions down chronologically, (particularly describing the covers) so we know which is which?  
Loved D&D, got harder to love with AD&D. Still remember Dragonlance modules, Village of Hommlet T modules, and Tomb of the Lizard King fondly though.
Really, one of the greatest reviews of D&D I ever read. I do not like this kind of game experience so much, except in computer games, but it has its own internal coherence. One question: what level have your players reached in 16 sessions? It is a rather long story arc, by modern standards.
+Paolo Guccione, our party of two human clerics, dwarven fighter, human magic user and human fighter are on level 4, Elf is level 3 (due to higher XP requirements).
Responses by person (This should get fun):
+Tommaso Galmacci Are you speaking about modules and boxed sets from the 80s? If so, I disagree with you about the nature of the involution. There were good modules and bad modules, but modules on the whole were beneficial. +Thor Olavsrud believes they were responsible for spreading the culture. They provide a little piece of shared experience that gamers from Italy and gamers from the US can compare. For me (and here is where I think we agree), the involution rapidly begins as they try to make D&D do more and more. Expert sense strains credibility. Companion, Master and Immortal are a series of poorly implemented ideas. But to say it began there isn't true either. It truly begins in 1978 with the publication of the Player's Handbook. Here is where Gygax exercises his true vision. And his vision is not the same as that of Moldvay. Moldvay indicates that there should be no "hopeless" characters. Gygax states straight away that the characters must be heroes, and proceeds to change the character creation math: skewing all stats to 13 or higher. To me, this is a signal that the designer was at odds with his design. Rather than recognizing the good in the original design (and by good I mean "elegant probabilities"), he mucks about with the math and thus sets generations of gamers down a muddled path.

+Chris Carpenter I have a diagram too and it doesn't look like Tommaso's. I'm trying to upload it now.

+Mike Holmes I activated chat in g+ just for you.

+Patrick Marchiodi Yes. I expect you to translate all of the comments! (Just kidding).

And my comments about the game are very general. I didn't expect this to be a vindication of D&D. Only that my group discovered this old game, played it as written and found it profoundly enjoyable. I could properly review the game, I suppose and break it down by segment. 

For everyone who is reading this essay and taking away the idea that D&D is fun and easy, let me disabuse you. This game is hard. It demands focus and discipline beyond even what Burning Wheel asks of you. It is unflinchingly deadly. Between six players, we lost 13 characters in 12 sessions. And that doesn't include archers, men-at-arms and torch-bearers. Such a death toll is unheard of in contemporary games. My girlfriend plays 4e. In 12 months, not a single character has died. These are two different games. And this game does not cater to our modern sensibilities. And that is why we bowed our heads to it. It seemed deceptively simple, and almost friendly. But truly it is a harsh master, laying the lash across our backs as we map, call, fail our saves and get swarmed and killed by kobolds.
Modules kind of stopped after a while though, that was a shame itself. And then there was Wizards of the Coast reinventing the wheel...
"Getting a feel for how the game was played in 1981...": I think I soured on the game back in '81 because I couldn't get into a group playing with the kind of focus you and your players gave to it.  Too much kibbitzing, people picking hangnails, "Gerby" wasting all our time in the dungeon by looking for a demon to whom he could sacrifice his hand.  The thing I like about the Burning books is that they keep reminding players "this game is hard, stay on your toes, keep your head in the game."  I am happy to see Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Neo-classical Geek Revival keep the focus on functional play procedure rather than nostalgia or retro colour.
This is really the first tabletop RPG I’ve ever played and I came in with some ingrained behaviors, mostly assumptions from playing a lot of video games, assumptions I didn’t even realize I had! It took the loss of my second character, one that for whatever reason was particularly dear to me, to make me realize that the hack slash kill die reload from save doesn’t apply to this. There is no save, there is no reload.

I moped for probably the next two sessions. I wasn’t upset with the game, because the game is just the big neutral “it is what it is” – it doesn’t cheat or pretend to be one thing but actually act as another. It’s impartial to a degree that’s sometimes devastating, but impartial all the same. I wasn’t upset with Luke either, because he’s even more neutral – he not only didn’t create the rules, but merely enforces the rules that we all already know. The rules of this world are straightforward. If we don’t check for traps, we risk running into them, and we’re going to be hurt or possibly killed. If we don’t avoid a fight, the dice will fall and we very well may die in the attempt. And so on. Simple. Harsh, but simple.

So when that character was killed, I was deeply upset with myself, because I knew these things (we’d already lost a lot of characters!) and I just kept playing the way I had from the start, ignoring the lessons already put before us. I was the only one responsible for keeping my character alive, and I didn’t. I made him vulnerable. There was an assumption on my part that the game would change to match the way that I wanted to play, and it didn’t. And he died. And it sucked a lot because it was my fault.

And after that death, I gave up – not on the game, but on my own stubbornness. I stopped trying to make the game suit me, because I now knew vividly how that would end. Besides, if I want a game that changes to suit however I want to play, rather than enforces hard and fast rules of environment, I could just play Skyrim. Who cares. So I just accepted the world for what it is, and accepted that if I want to live, I have to play according to those terms. I had to not be the person who just plows right ahead into any fight that comes at me (okay, maybe I still do that sometimes) and so learning how to work within the constraints of the game itself has become the real pleasure.

Picking up a +2 spear from a dead companion, and learning how to attack with it from a distance without endangering myself. Watching our group strategically burn and firebomb the living hell out of anything that moves before they can get close to us. Chugging invisibility potions to safely scout out caves thick with Bugbears. Setting traps for zombie hordes. Taking out bosses with nary a scratch to any of us. I can feel myself learning a skill set. I can watch our little ragtag band of would-be heroes (or gold-hungry mercenaries, rather) getting better and better at what we do. So when Luke told us at the start of this week that people have heard of our adventures and now come from all over to seek our services, I couldn’t help but grin, because damn, we deserve that praise! We earned that praise! It’s absolutely thrilling, and one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in so many ways.

PS: The character I started after that death is level three now, and I am absurdly proud.
Megan Mcferren, absurdly proud is the only kind of proud I respect.
+luke crane Actually, I'm speaking about the latest '80s and most of all the whole 90's, the so-called "Second Reign" of AD&D 2nd.
I think, when speaking of AD&D 2nd, they made a very poor effort to understand the logics, ideas, and creative efforts put on the earlier incarnations of the game by the original designers (and I'm not only talking about Gary G., but also his disciples and prosecutors).

Some things were simply removed from this edition without even wondering why they were there. Think, for example, about the "weapons vs. armors" modifiers in the 1st edition of AD&D: they were NOT optional, and added a LOT of tactical flavor to the game (surely my dwarven fighter took advantage og them during our last Temple of Elemental Evil ride...). Or, think about the initiative rule, which were non overly complicated once understood (surely they might have used a better wording, though).
All of these rules, born to add a distinct flavor to the game and aimed at a very coherent effort, were simply cut off and thrown away and marked as "overly complicated" or "unnecessary".

Then, there was the creativity lack of the 2nd edition authors.
The need to put out a lot of books and boxes obviously proved detrimental for the overall quality of such material, both in substance and presentation.
Boxed sets kept coming one after another, but they were not inspired and driven anymore as they used to be in the '80s. A team of unrespectful authors and poor games designers begun butchering the estabilished imaginary; starting with the Forgotten Realms setting.
The only decent original material of that later age was probably Planescape (which would definitely rock with BW!), but the dramatic and awe-inspiring themes put into it suffered constrained in the boundaries of a hack-n-slash oriented game.

To make a long story short, people at TSR stretched the game beyond its means, revealing all of its faults when confronted with something it was not conceived and designed to do.
Then, it came the 3rd edition, which messed the things up even more severely...

But, obviously, these are only my 2c :)
Good recall Tommaso. Not enough modules, too many boxed sets, reinvention of wheels, agree, agree.
"Make no assumptions. Put aside your biases and play the game."

This. +1,000,000,000 this. I can't think of anything else that has fucked more games I've played than general unwillingness to do this.
+Tommaso Galmacci you realize those "unrespectful authors and poor games designers" were and still are some of the biggest names in the biz, right?  Zeb Cook, Rich Baker, Jeff Grubb, et al. 
If you're following this thread, be sure to read +Megan McFerren's post above. She plays our (Chaos!) Elf. Her perspective on the game is quite illuminating.
I'm tickled pink by the PTSD&D comment, because I've been experiencing the same thing in our John Harper helmed Stars Without Number game (which is by in large 'Moldvay in Space'). The tension between the detailed planning and careful execution and then the crisis moments when control is ripped out of your hands and it all comes down to one or two die rolls is profoundly stressful. And yet the sense of accomplishment of surviving that crucible is amazing.
+Tommaso Galmacci I can't speak to inspiration or the talent of the author's at TSR in the late 80s and early 90s. Planescape, Dark Sun and Forgotten Realms all seem rather beloved. 

I can agree that the tone of the game changed. It became more character focused, more "heroic." This is reflected in the rules, the art and the culture. Moldvay does speak to the idea that your characters should be heroes, but he does so with a light touch. And, once we played the game, we saw that if we were to make these characters heroes, it would be by deed and accomplishment, not due to some inborn nature. The two longest surviving characters have the worst stat blocks. Their players are inordinately proud of these characters. Their deficiencies give them great personality and flavor; they certainly don't detract. Unfortunately, the game rapidly moves away from such storied heroes. As I mentioned, it begins in 1978 with Gygax's PHB and it rapidly progresses outward from there into the Unearthed Arcana and onward.
+Anthony Hersey yes I do, altough I was not specifically thinking about the three you named (well, maybe on of the three's in eheh).
To me, being the "biggest anything in the game business" (or in any business) means nearly nothing. Mainly because of that "business" thrown in. You've got to pay respect for those who did the thing before you. Before thrashing someone else's work you might try at least to understand it.
+Tommaso Galmacci I appreciate your enthusiasm for the subject, but let's try to keep the comments on the topic of the original post.
Thanks for sharing this experience and writing about it so thoughtfully.  I started with B/X D&D back in the early 80s, played some 2e when it came out, then took a long break.  I returned to B/X as an adult, DMing for friends with no paper n pencil RPG experience and it's been very fun.  Playing this edition is like being a character in the first season of the Walking Dead.  You might think you're part of the ongoing story, that's developing with each adventure, but if you're not careful you'll end up being the part of the story that goes, "Then Fred the Elf got devoured."  Story arc done.  
I will attest that playing a fighter is slightly less interesting than watching paint dry.

I'm also big into maps, but the "telephone game" just drives me mad after a bit. 
+luke crane  right, I apologize.

Back on topic, I think playing OD&D, Moldway/Mentzer, or AD&D 1st, and finally AD&D 2nd would lead to a very diverse experience of play.
Never had the opportunity to play OD&D as it was originally conceived, but played (recently) both Mentzer Basic and AD&D 1st, with original rules straight from PHB and DMG (no OSRIC or other old-school reference in).

AD&D prosecuted Gygax idea of the game (after all, he developed the "Advanced" rules because he already felt D&D strayed away from its origins - which mya be true, but in a good way, read later), re-introducing many tactical elements on the rules and a general grim feel to the the game. In Gigax's AD&D there were no "heroes" in strict sense, but filthy robbers, scavengers, rogues, mercenaries, trying to get rich and famous instead of being mauled by traps, spells, and monsters. There was a general toning down of the "human" component of the game, such in the flattening of the stats bonuses to the extremes, meaning that everyone was more or less in the average, except for fairly exceptional (lucky) characters. However, high stats were tricky: you could have guessed that you 18/99 fighter could have charged right into the battle against that hideous monster, but you were proved terribly wrong: you should have died.
There were way more save-or-die or guess-or-die in his adventure modules for AD&D 1st than there were in any D&D game. There were also "adult" themes involved, such as Lovecraftian/cosmic horror, slavery, and the like.
All in all, a very focused design, although not for all the tastes. Later other authors introduced different, more "heroic" if you want, element on the game (still speaking of AD&D 1st). Some rules that were not intended as optional (but it was not stated clear in the books) were dismissed because of actual playing groups never really used them. Initiative rules (both party and individual) were seldomly applied as they were intended to work. The combat begun to shift from very tactic and deadly to more "heroic" and character-exploit-oriented. The challenges in adventure modules were changed accordingly. Just compare a Gygax module (say, "Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth") with a non-Gygax later one (say, to remain on the classics, "Ravenloft"). You'd see save/guess/flee-or-die situations were practically absent in the second, while vastly present in the first.

Moldvay's D&D (and later Mentzer's) on the other hand developed in a more playable, "light", yet still challenging game. Characters were not born of heroic proportions but could at least hope to become, if succesful at surviving. Stats bonuses were smoothed and made significant in everyday actions. Character classes were probably more balanced. Monsters were less lethal than in AD&D or earlier incarnations of the game. Still, the game remained - as you correctly stated after experiencing - a very challenging ones. Low-level characters were supposed to flee most of the times from combats they were not able to win.
My experience with some classical Mentzer-era modules was exactly like yours. B4 The Lost City (written, coincidentally, by Moldvay) was a perfect total party killer but also one of the most beautiful, suggestive and awe-inspiring modules I've ever read. So they were the famous Isle of Dread, or Castle Amber (in which we took a first ride as kids ant then again last year as a full-grown geeks), or many other modules you could name or think of.
The thing I loved in those modules is they were both site-based adventures AND they suggested a vivid world of adventures and whole campaign opportunities. Lost City, Palace of the Silver Princes, Isle of Dread: all of these modules suggested that there was much more stories and adventures to go behind the main plot, behind the dungeon-crawl. Thay were nearly infinitely expandable. I liked it a lot. They stimulated GMs to do what they're supposed to do: develop their own ideas into a coherent game world.
I've always seen 1e as much more in the direction of "heroic" (in the sense of badass characters) than B/X or Mentzer.  1e hit points are higher in many cases, one is encouraged in the rules to roll 4d6 and choose the best 3, or use some other method to get higher ability scores, there is the option to multi-class, etc.  All of these help make your 1st level character more survivable, and differentiate him more from a 0-level character.  B/X has the feel of some random civilians crawling into a hole filled with monsters. 1st level clerics don't even have a spell, haha!
Luke, finally got around to reading this.  Well written and very interesting.  Having started my gaming with the Moldvay edition it is curious and fascinatingly revealing to see someone coming to it so late.  Like a fantasy novelist who only just finally read LoTR.  Anyway I can see why you would choose it over Holmes as a starting point, since Holmes is quite limited in what it covers.  I don't think it is true to say Moldvay/Marsh (Cook was the editor) is more complete than OD&D, it is certainly better written and presented.   However "to understand how "original" D&D was played." you won't quite get there with Moldvay.  Tom Moldvay introduced a number of changes and tweeks to his version of the rules.  I understand and admire what he did, but the design narrowed D&D further than it should have.  Dave Arneson seems to have been okay, with most of the rule changes, but Gary Gygax was not, and would have cancelled the project if had been able to do so. (he had little control at TSR at the time.).  Anyway, in addition to the rules differences, the original game focused much more on what we would now call "sandbox" and wilderness "lair" adventures.  I'd encourage you to try your hand a little OD&D style play for purposes of comparison if nothing else.

I might as well mention my own OD&D kickstarter project, bringing "balance to the force." between the vision of Gygax and Arneson, if you will, and brining in the intentions and house rules of each back to the game.
Hi Daniel, 
Part of the reason I chose Moldvay is because he takes Holmes/Gygax/Arneson out of the basement. He turns a rather quirky collection of hodgepodge notes and rules into clear procedure. I'm all for quirky and weird games, but the best games have clear procedures. 
In fact, I think Moldvay (and Mentzer to a lesser degree) realize Gygax's vision better than he did. Gygax's work on AD&D is embarrassing. Those books are disorganized, poorly written and condescending. Moldvay's tone is warm, his procedures clean. He strips away the cruft and presents the core activity of the game: dungeoneering. 

Speaking as a game designer, I think that is the heroic thing. It's easy to come up with a good idea. Much harder to present a good idea in a clear manner and get that idea out into the world.
And having watched your kickstarter video, I see that you agree with me. You seem to be taking up the role of a modern Moldvay.
Although I rarely say so to avoid offending the Gygax fans (who get ticked at me enough as it is for shining the spotlight on Arneson) I couldn't agree with you more regarding Gygax's writing and the example of AD&D.  However, one of the points I think you're missing is that dungeoneering was never intended as the "core" activity of the game.   Adventuring was.  There are reasons why the three little brown books of OD&D have rules for aerial and naval combat, pages of wilderness encounter tables and rules, notes regarding encounters with castle inhabitants, monster social organization, journeys to Mars, % in lair rules, construction costs, etc.  These things were either entirely trimmed or much de-emphasized in Moldvay/Marsh.   Admittedly, Dave Arneson emphasized extra dungeon play a lot more than Gygax did, but it was Holmes who really changed the tone, albeit unintentionally, with slim rules intended only as an introduction.   Moldvay followed that pattern and when TSR finnaly started to publish adventures, dungeons quickly became the overwhelming emphasis because of how easy it was to make and market them for a mass audience.  Have a look at First Fantasy Campaign to see all the freewheeling stuff those early players were getting up to.
It is called Dungeons and Dragons…

I absolutely see your point. My point is that while the original designers may have wanted an inclusive and expansive design, their best rules focused on underground exploration and stealing treasure. Moldvay brushes away the caked up sand like an archeologist and shows the true beauty of the artifact. Or, more accurately, Moldvay does a fine job editing the rules down to their core game and evoking the brilliance of the original design.

The Basic D&D line is a product line. As you know, each successive product attempted to reintegrate into the game the features you note present in the earliest editions. My assertion is that none of those rules were as well-designed or well-supported as those for the core activity of dungeon crawling.
Funny you should say that.  Moldvay was indeed an anthropologist and would have been well versed in archaeology (me too, but I digress).  Gygax called it "Dungeons and Dragons" true, Arneson called it "Blackmoor" and his manuscript of the rules is titled "Beyond this Point be Dragons" (not dungeons).

I completely disagree that Moldvay edited the rules down to the "core" game.  Again, Moldvay book 1 follows the Holmes edit.  The rules are changed in certain ways (race as class being one of the most game affecting examples) but the content covered in Moldvay is nearly identical to Holmes, which is why book 2 "expert" gives a small conversion note for those using it with Holmes instead of Moldvay.  Book 2 (Marsh) of course expands the content considerably, especially into wilderness adventuring, but in ways often ignored, and almost, but not quite as detailed and rich as those given in OD&D. (%in lair is dropped, frex) So while I agree with you that "extra dungeon" aspects of play were never well supported by TSR, I cannot agree that dungeoneering is the core intent of the rules or that the dungeoneering rules are superior in design to the rest of the game.  Instead I would argue that your views are informed historically by the corporate path TSR took in terms of game support product and by the resulting self reinforcing style of play you choose.  Not saying there's a thing wrong with your choices to run through the B modules - I've done the same, but it isn't fair to the designers to dismiss as peripheral and inferior what was inteded as a large part of the gaming experience when you haven't engaged with that aspect of play.  
I think we can look to Gygax digging his own hole. He wrote AD&D (edited by Mike Carr, if I'm not mistaken). If he wanted to address problems with the game, that was his chance. Not only is the book a muddle, not only does he distort the elegant math of 3D6 stats, but his example of play in the book is a dungeon exploration. Even with his obsession with airborne adventures, he reverts to the dungeon as the core activity of play.

I understand that the designers may have thought their game could do anything. I understand they may have wanted to bend it to a variety of circumstances, but in truth their design had narrow application. It does most things poorly, and a few things exceedingly well—and it odd though it may seem, it's not for the designers to say. You can say your game is about friendship, but if most of the rules are about fighting, then the game is about fighting.
Yep, Gygax had his chance with AD&D and I do agree with your assesement of it.  (Carr edited the PHB, Law Schick edited the DMG and it is very informative to read what he had to say about it and Gygax ) But Luke, as big a figure as Gygax was, it is important to remember he was not the sole designer of D&D.  OD&D really was a collaobartive effort in rules creation between Arneson and Gygax, even though Gygax published his version instead of letting Arneson clarify and edit the rules as he should have done;  Have a look at my write up of BTPBD if you haven't yet I put a lot of the game's history in there  It was Arneson who invented the game in the first place, and much of his game formed the basis of D&D.  Of the 8-10 published adventures Arneson wrote, only one of them (Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor) is a proper dungeon crawl.  Arneson's Adventures in Fantasy game (1978), while obscure and at times overcomplex, also has very little emphasis on "dungeoneering".  The sample adventure is predominently wilderness, with a wizards tower and a dragon's cave thrown in the mix.
Daniel, I think it's very interesting what you're doing. However, I'm looking at this from another perspective: what was published is the game. 

And I'm looking at that game through the lens of a game designer.

I understand Arneson's involvement in the development of the game. The idea that Gygax was solely responsible for the game is slowly eroding. I think that's a good thing! There were lots of voices and they improved the game.
Heh. The only game Gygax was solely responsible of was AD&D 1st edition. Which might be good at some things and have some neat and underrated ideas in, but was, quite frankly, a misorganized mess.
Yes, we could surely agree that, professionally, Gary G. dug up his tomb with his own hands. He was a genius, and probably the most influential person in my life (and maybe in some of yours) as he was the man who started it all, but was too self-referential and egocentric to open up to serious collaborations.

His later efforts were definitely poor pieces of game design. His genius was somehow lost, seemingly he had been never able to organize the turmoil of ideas in his mind.
Read after read of PHB and DMG, UA and other publications like "Master of the Game", his own philosophy slowly emerges, and his genius (yes again, genius) becomes evident, but he failed at making D&D coherent and playable. Holmes, then Moldvay and Mentzer, did it.

It's a shame TSR stopped the D&D line and concentrated all of its efforts on the mediocre AD&D 2nd edition, which laked both the straightness and drive of D&D and the overly complicated, yet somehow brilliant, intuitions of the 1st edition...
Well, Tommaso, Gygax wasn't solely responsible for AD&D, but it was what he wanted it to be nonetheless.  The role playing game he was solely responsible for as far as I know was Lejendary Journeys, but there were a number of wargames that were his designs too.  From where I stand, Gygax's designs were fairly consistent, so I'm not quite sure what you mean about fading genius.  I also wouldn't go so far as to use the label genius either, but he was an interesting guy in any case.  Anyway, if by "the man who started it all" you mean tabletop roleplaying games, you are mistaken, as that honor could go to a couple of other individuals, but Dave Wesely certainly was running his Braunstein RPG years before Gygax.  Likewise, Dave Arneson (one of Wesely's players) went on to create and run his Blackmoor campaign two years before Gygax ever knew what tabletop roleplaying was. Still Gygax deserves credit for co-writing the original rules and for being the games most indefatigable promoter.   
+Daniel Boggs I see your point. Surely I know both of Arneson and Wesely. Just I think Gygax was most influential to the hobby than any of the two, or any other person in those years.
After all he developed AD&D from a branch of the original D&D rules (the more tactical branch, I suspect), and altough with some minor editing, he was practically the sole responsible of its contents. If I had to choose between Moldvay D&D and AD&D 1e, surely I'd choose the first; but AD&D was the prosecutor of the D&D brand line in the 80's and 90's nonetheless.

As far as the "fading genius": I never meant mr Gygax got dumber qith age! What I mean is, he became more and more stuck with his ideas struggling to become the "ultimate role-playing game" he always wanted to send to print, since the times of AD&D which he himslef defined as the "ultimate role-playing game" as opposed to the BD&D. However, he was unable to put those ideas - which were not so groundbreaking after all, some old AD&D mash-up with more modern games point-buy and skill system - into a coherent design.
Lejendary Journeys was, for fair admission of the few people who actually played it (I didn't, but took a look at the rules: a book-keeper worst dream, evenf from a Rolemaster fan like I am POW) disingenious, overly-complicated, and something the "first" Gygax would not be so proud of.

As for the other non-rolpelaying games he wrote and some minor exploits like Cyborg Commando: never read them frankly and I don't think the fame of Gary G. would ever be associated with those titles. For me, E. Gary Gygax is the man who co-authored Dungeons & Dragons and authored Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - the most played tabletop role-playing game of all times.
Gents. I appreciate the history lesson, but please start a fresh thread about it.
hi @ all ^^

on #GenteCheGioca  forum we are "saving" parts of this discussion:,7400.0.html 
So far, only Luke has given permission to copy his posts there (because I only asked him), but now I'm extending the request to all who have written (or will write) here: is it ok if we copy your posts on the forum, for the sake of a complete discussion and context? ^^

Thank you all :)
Yes, you may copy my posts or quote as you please.  :)
actually, it's just a copy-and-paste of your posts Luke, by Moreno Roncucci (don't know if you know him). If you want more detailed information, just ask ^^
I gave him permission. I was curious if there was any good discussion on the Italian site.
+luke crane I also pasted your initial post in a thread about the evolution of D&D through the 5th edition, to strenghten my arguments. The discussion was already flammed and was closed shortly thereafter. But, your post was so interesting that another thread was split from the original one. Unfortunately, it was also locked shortly thereafter due to flame wars...
Seems like you hit the nail in the head of many people after all :)

However, since this discussion goes on so smoothly and politely, it's definitely better to continue here.
luke, I just wanted to let you know that this is now the definitive post I guide people to whenever they ask about older versions of D&D.  You nailed it.
+Marcus Youngblood Keep on the Borderlands. Be sure to play by the Moldvay rule of "no town" until the characters are 4th level.
Of course, what module plays most strongly to the Basic's strengths is going to be a matter of opinion, but Keep on the Borderland was actually written for the John Holmes "bluebook" rules.  Tom Moldvay authored the Basic set, so arguably you might want to try the entry level adventure he wrote for it B4 "The Lost City".  Its a great adventure in any case. 
Hm. Dunno. Lost City is a great module and full of potential intrigue and fun, but it is more confined and less sandbox than KotB.
Still I think the latter might be the very best module to introducr players to dungeoneering and resource management "the old way"...
Thanks for sharing this story, Luke. I applaud trying to play the rules-as-written to understand them. Too often people dismiss rules before giving them a fair shake.

(And as a big fan of Moldvay/Cook/Marsh D&D, I’m always happy to read about others enjoying it.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure how much this tells you about how the game was played at the time, because I never saw anyone actually play it that way BITD. =)

(And the comment above about weapon vs. armor not being optional in AD&D is hilarious since Gary said many times that he never used it. Just goes to show that as much as Gygax wanted to appear to be “the author” it was really the work of a team.)

I’m wondering if you discovered the “state intentions” step for combat which is implied by the casting and defensive movement rules but which doesn’t actually appear in the combat procedures.

In my experience, in-character arguments always get resolved in-character. No mechanics needed.
Thank you for this insightful look at a version of the Grand Ol' Game that too many dismiss as being for kids because of the 'Basic' label.  I'm grateful for your words and honest evaluation even more in light of that fact that you are hard at work on your own fantasy heartbreaker; I appreciate that you chose integrity over opportunity.
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