Biblyon Broadsides

Gods & Monsters news and old-school gaming notes.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Nothing will be restrained from them, which they imagine to do

Jerry Stratton, December 24, 2016

Basic D&D

Merry Christmas from 1981!

A while back, Erik Bader wrote on Google+:

I finally dug out my beat up old 1st ed PHB for a decades-later reread and I was surprised to realize most of the rules to actually play the game aren’t in there! You can’t really roll up a character (the instructions it says are in the DMG) and you can’t hit a monster (again, in the DMG).

Now, the DMG didn't come out for what… a year or more later, correct? What the heck did players in 1978 do with this book in the meantime? 

As I recall, the only piece of information really necessary from the DMG for creating characters was how to roll stats, and I expect players in 1978 just continued to roll stats however they rolled them before, probably without evening noticing it was missing. I know I had trouble separating “what we did” with “what the rules were” back then whenever playing in a new game group.

I came a little after 1978, but had a limited budget. So our group used Holmes (our DM, who introduced us to the game, already had it) and the PHB1, and never noticed anything odd with that. At the time, we were overcome by a spirit of discovery and creation. It was all about “what can we do next”, not “what's holding us back.” We barely if at all noticed anything holding us back.

It wasn’t just us in our little gaming subculture that people felt that way; it was in many ways a spirit of the times. Many of my friends were out in their garages forcing their cars to do things the manufacturers never intended them to do. In Ham Radio and CB Radio no rig was complete without some customization to take it up to 11.

And, closer to home, it was very much a programmer’s perspective, and of course many of us were also amateur programmers at the time, on a TRS-80 Model I, Apple ][, Atari 400, Commodore 64, TI99/4 or so on. Those computers really couldn’t do much, but that’s not the way we looked at them. We were always on the lookout for what more can we do? It’s absolutely amazing the kind of video game clones we got on those old computers. The TRS-80 Model I was black and white, with 128x48 “pixels”—that’s like playing a game on a four-tenths-inch by one-tench-inch square of my current mobile phone—and yet we managed to have fun playing Pac-Man clones, Armored Patrol clones, Space Invaders, and much more.

The text adventure craze came about because it provided great game play beyond the limits of the actual hardware of the time. If the computer’s graphics didn’t match what our brains expected, we would harness our brains to create what graphics we wanted.

Which is, of course, a lot like tabletop roleplaying.

That’s why it’s difficult, today, to answer questions like Which D&D is the Caverns of Thracia compatible with? We rarely, if ever, asked ourselves that question at the time.

It would be like asking which version of D&D Frank Herbert’s The Jesus Incident is compatible with. Whichever one we happen to be using right now.2

Two can play baseball even when it rains

Portable baseball games were literally a single pixel of light moving toward the player, and batting was pressing a single button. I was paid $150 for that game.

We took it up and we mashed it all together, and, except for TSR, even the rare stuff we bought knowingly mashed things together. Thracia itself used house rules during its playtesting, was written with AD&D in mind, but then, because TSR didn’t allow licensed AD&D adventures to use house rules, was published for D&D.

TSR, of course, unknowingly mashed things together. I never cared one bit whether an adventure was written for D&D or AD&D, and I can’t recall anyone ever saying, you can’t use that Dragon article, it was written for a different version!

It wasn’t even a matter of going through it and marking up changes. We just used it.

Much of the game was played by example and learned by example. Especially at the beginning, and the rules backed it up. Go back to OD&D’s Men & Magic, and nowhere does it tell you how experience points are calculated. It gives an example, and lets you decide the rule based on the example.3

In the BX line, many of the books came with the pages pre-punched for putting in a three-ring binder. The box photo on this page isn’t my original box: I don’t have it any more. I cut the spine and created my own rulebook in a binder, a combination of Basic, Expert, and custom stuff pages on college-rule, wide-rule, and tractor feed sheets.4

Every new book was an additional option. It struck me as weird, when 3rd edition came out, that converting characters was a thing. Even given how different third edition was, I don’t think we would have bothered converting characters if it had come out in the seventies or eighties. We would have just kept using the old characters with the new rules. Any inconsistencies would have added flavor to those characters and to our game.

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, I got the Moldvay Basic set for Christmas; I’d been introduced to the game two months earlier. I didn’t ask for the boxed set—I just asked for Dungeons & Dragons. It was all the same to us, for the most part. I spent much of Christmas Day drawing maps, creating weird monsters5 and trying to figure out where this thin booklet would take me.

Merry Christmas, every one!

  1. The PHB was provided by us players, after I bought it from my aunt and uncle’s souvenir store where my cousins had convinced them to put in a TSR corner.

  2. Apparently, James Cameron feels the same way.

  3. Mind you, a later supplement, Greyhawk, called the obvious interpretation “ludicrous”, but rapidly overturning previous rules was also a feature of the day.

  4. That binder is long since lost, and yes, I would love to have that sucker back.

  5. Some of which, like the Petraiad, I still use. And of course the aforementioned Hooded Dashers, Nerve Runners, and Spinneretts.

  1. <- First level calculations
  2. NTRPGC Adventure ->