Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The magic of Moldvay

My gateway drug into the seductive hobby known as role-playing was the 1981 Basic D&D box set, as edited by the late, great, Tom Moldvay. For my money, page for page, this is still the best iteration of Dungeons and Dragons ever written.

I still own the same careworn copy of Moldvay basic that I bought back in 1981-82 or so. As I look at it now it remains a marvel of utility, organization, inspiration, and playability.

To begin with, Moldvay basic comprises a total of 64 pages. Take away the title page, foreward, and glossary, and you have a total of 60 pages. Heck, there are longer modules than this. By way of comparison, a single issue of Dungeon and Dragon magazine exceeded 100 pages towards the end of their run!

The rulebook is comprised of the following 8 sections:

Part 1: Introduction (2 pages)
Moldvay introduces what D&D is all about, how to use the book, and provides some basic D&D definitions.

Part 2: Player Character Information (10 pages)
Moldvay explains how to create a character, explains the character classes and their abilities, provides a simple list of arms and equipment, and adds an example of creating a player characer.

Part 3: Spells (4 pages)
A listing of cleric, magic user, and elf spells, as well as a brief description of how magic works.

Part 4: The Adventure (4 pages)
Moldvay explains how a party is organized, how to keep track of time in the dungeon, movement, traps, encumbrance, light, doors, and retainers, as well as how to award experience points.

Part 5: The Encounter (6 pages)
Moldvay describes monster reactions, combat sequence, saving throws, hand-to-hand vs. missile fire, morale, and adds a nice example of combat. It's a sobering look at how deadly and unforgiving low-level D&D can be: The hobgoblin attacking Fredrik rolls a 17, hitting Fredrik's Armor Class of 2, and scores 8 points of damage! Poor Fredrik had only 6 hit points, so he is killed. I'm also a fan of the morale rules in Moldvay: Why should every monster opt to fight to the death? The rules explain that you should check morale twice: After a side's first death in combat, and when half the monsters have been incapacitated. Monsters that successfully check morale twice will fight to the death. It's a simple, intuitive system resolved with an easy 2d6 roll against the monsters' morale score.

Part 6: Monsters (16 pages)
The longest section in the book is a listing of monsters, from acolyte to zombie.

Part 7: Treasure (6 pages)
Here is provided treasure types, general advice on how magic items work, and descriptions of items such as swords, potions, rings, scrolls, wands, gems, jewelry, and armor.

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information (10 pages)
Advice on how to choose a scenario, draw a map, and stock the dungeon. There's also a sample dungeon, the immortal Haunted Keep with its mysteriously vanished Rodemus family and band of goblin raiders that have taken up residence therein.

The last couple pages of the book include an afterward, a glossary, and inspirational source material. Several of my favorites are listed here, including Poul Anderson, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Moldvay was obviously a man of refined reading taste :).

In a hobby dominated by massive three-tome, 300-plus page core rules, it is shocking to see what Moldvay accomplished in so little space. Take a look at how short each of those chapters are (4 pages of spells!), and yet, they are all you need to learn

  • what roleplaying is
  • what D&D is
  • how to create a character
  • how to build a dungeon, and stock it with monsters and treasure
  • how to play the game, as both a player-character and a dungeon master

Frankly, it's an amazing feat of economy and clarity. Moldvay basic is playable, as-is, right out of the box. The character record sheet provided in the rules fits on a single side of a standard 7 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. You can open up the rules, roll up a character in 3 minutes, and get started. I know because I did it and had a blast with it many, many years ago.

I'm also a big fan of the presentation, including the organization, writing, and the art. I even like the font! There's some great pieces in here by Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham. I've included a couple samples here. I'd prefer not to launch into a full-scale attack on 3E "dungeonpunk" art, but I do find the style of the art in Moldvay basic far, far more appealing. More than any other of its numerous strengths, this game is inspirational and just wants to be played.

The only two weaknesses I think that you can level at Molday basic D&D are the following:

1. It only goes from levels 1-3. My character is weak. I can't fight dragons and go toe-to-toe with demons. True, that, and for this argument I have no rejoinder. This boxed set is not made for epic, level-spanning campaigns. I would, however, add that, if you couple it with the 64-page Dave Cook edit of Expert (levels 4-14), the companion set to Moldvay, you probably have all the game you'll ever need in a total of 128 pages.

2. It's too basic. Where are the options ? The feats? The skills? Elves and dwarves are classes? And huh, three alignments? Well, this one is a matter of taste. As anyone who pokes around the internet knows, D&D has become divided into two camps--those who prefer their games with heavy crunch and tactical options galore, and those who like to "make stuff up" and let the DM sort it out. At the risk of fence-straddling I'm in a third camp, and frequently vacillate between both extremes. I currently play in a 3E game and enjoy the tactical, battlemat combats, but at other times I find the rules maddeningly and needlessly complex.

But if I had to choose one play style or the other at gunpoint, I'd take the magic that is Moldvay. Because, if I had to, I could make up my own rules and get my theoretical game to the preferred level of crunch. I prefer to think of Moldvay as a toolkit: Here is everything you need to build a house, including hammer, nails, and a saw. There's nothing to say that you can't put more tools in the box. It's a framework made for tinkering.

Moldvay says as much in Part 1: Introduction:

While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable--anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed.

Now that's my idea of options.

Here's a perfect example, courtesy of Trollsmyth, of what you can do with the rules: Shields Shall be Splintered! It's a simple fix that allows you to add "combat crunch" and a bit of realism into the rules, should you so desire. And you can add or cut rules as needed: The foundation upon which they are built is quite sound.

To quote the great Elvis Presley, Moldvay, "How Great Thou Art."


Sham aka Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sham aka Dave said...

Ooops-Let's try this again:

Sham wrote:

I feel much the same way about OD&D, and really Labyrinth Lord is what encouraged me to go one step (or two, counting Holmes) beyond and dive into OD&D. I started with Holmes and never appreciated it for what it was once AD&D was released. I regret never picking up the Moldvay box back when it was published (we viewed it as 'kiddy' D& ridiculous that is now in hindsight).

I think the thing that pushed me to OD&D was 'nostalgia and curiousity'. Then I got sucked into the 'deciphering and researching' aspect (it's certainly not at all user friendly like Moldvay's classic version).

I've since given my copy of LL to my 13 year old, hoping it might encourage him to make a dungeon for me (it hasn't).

I've been tempted to drop a few bucks on a nice B/X box, because I really do appreciate it's nice tight feel. It's put together very well, and visually appealing to me.


Brian Murphy said...

Hi Sham, I've be meaning to look into Labyrinth Lord. I don't know whether or not I'll ever play it, but I enjoy reading rules (almost as much as playing), and I've heard a lot of good things about LL.

If you're of a like mind, you owe it to yourself to get a Moldvay box set, or at least the rule book. It goes pretty cheap on E-Bay, and believe me, if you read it your imagination will be fired and you'll find yourself wanting to run a game.

Plus, I neglected to mention that the original Moldvay box set came with a copy of The Keep on the Borderlands.

trollsmyth said...

It was the Moldvay book that got me started as well. That opening Willingham piece really fired my imagination, though I was also quite annoyed that there were no flaming-phoenix-head spells listed in the rules. And I'm still not sure why you'd cast such a spell at a fire-breathing dragon. ;D

LL is good; it's Moldvay and Cook combined, tweaked a little to avoid stepping on anyone's copyright, and released under the OGL. My next campaign is going to be a hack of Moldvay/Cook, and I'm using my PDF of LL as a template. I'll incorporate my hack directly into the PDF, and give that to my players so they'll have all the rules in one place and won't have to risk their precious copies of Moldvay and Cook.

- Brian

Brian Murphy said...

Okay, so I checked out Labyrinth Lord via their free PDF... what else can I say besides amazing. What a well-done game! Even the font is straight out of Moldvay/Cook. You can tell there was a lot of love (not to mention effort) poured into that project.

Jeff Rients said...

Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert taken together are as close to the perfect iteration of D&D that anyone has achieved. The only thing I don't like about Moldvay's D&D is that starting spells/spells in spellbook rules are the harshest of any edition. 1st level MUs have exactly one spell in their book. That's it.

Rex Venom said...

Every pic in your post Hit Me!
Rock on!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Just found this post after a reference on another blog I was reading. When Advanced D&D came out, we kept many of the basic rules, and I still have fond memories of Moldvay's set.

We ended up with a weird hybrid of Advanced and Basic rules, and stuck with those throughout the 1980s.