Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 3

So, in my last installment of this series, I pointed out that there have been two different approaches taken for D&D in terms of creating a basic set. The first of these, the Holmes basic set, was essentially a full set of rules that only went up three levels. The second, the Moldvay Basic set, was the first half of a complete game, a game that ran parallel with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to the top possible levels. The rules of this parallel game were less complex than the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (for those who are unfamiliar with the game's first edition, it was a rather difficult game if you tried to use all the rules).

Now that Wizards of the Coast has released a new basic set for 5th Edition D&D, it's worth taking a look at the philosophy and approach of the new approach. Is WotC taking the "just for a couple of levels" approach, or the "less-complex but all-the-way-to-the-end" approach?

The answer, interestingly enough, appears to be that they are simultaneously taking both approaches. What's different here with the two past offerings isn't the contents, it's the medium. The starter kit, which comes in a box and will get sold in stores, apparently takes the Holmes approach. It's only good for a short time; you learn the essential rules and you have some pregenerated characters. You don't have the ability to level them up beyond a certain point, and you don't even have the rules to build different ones. Some people (all of them experienced gamers on the internet) labeled this as crippleware, even though it's a basic set. If the starter set is viewed in isolation, I suppose it's not as robust as the Holmes set. However, let me tell you something, the Holmes set wasn't exactly easy to learn. It wasn't until the Moldvay set that any kind of linearity of concepts really leached into the D&D rules, Basic or Advanced. The Holmes set, like OD&D, was magical. AD&D was rich and epic. Moldvay, however, came up with the first easy-to-learn version. Let's not hear the argument about "kids these days:" I got the XP rules from Holmes dead wrong, and I'd read the Hobbit at age 5, and eventually got a perfect score on the SAT verbal, and went to Harvard. The Holmes rules weren't easy to nail.

WotC has taken the discrete task of "get playing and learn through playing" to a new extreme. Here are your pre-generated characters. How to use them. Go.

At the same time, though, there's the rest of the plan, the other shoe, the parallel strategy, whatever you want to call it. With the free pdf of the Basic Rules, WotC picks up the BEMCI (Mentzer Basic) approach to Basic-ness to accompany the "even simpler than Moldvay" one.

That's enough for this installment -- in the next one I will pick up why the difference between past and present is centered on the medium rather than the content of the WotC 5th Edition Basic.


  1. It's interesting to ponder WotC's new tack from a historical perspective.

  2. I took an adventure which I had originally ran at NTRPGCon a couple of years back using S&W White Box / 0e rules. I ran it this weekend using the D&D 5e rules which just came out. Here was my review.

  3. Great summary on the different approaches. I was one, who early on, considered the Starter Set crippleware because of items that weren't being included... However, after seeing the page count on Basic D&D, it is apparent a business decision needed to be made to keep the $20 price point. Including the full text of Basic would have increased printing costs too much.

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  5. I can't comment on the content of this set, as I haven't read it, but I would like to express that the cover art is greatly improved over other "new school" D&D fare. The pumped-up, spikey-weapon, psuedo-punk flavor of new D&D is a big turn off for me. This cover doesn't have that. Nor does it have to epic, but sanitized "kid's game" flavor of the Mentzer set. I will admit that I miss the acid-trip vibe of Erol Otus' basic covers (my favorites), but I realize that we're way past the 1970's (and early 80's) at this point.

    The cover is not half bad... And those are extreme kudos coming from me.