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.
So, after yesterday's post about the first Basic Set, the Holmes Blue Book, let's recap by saying that the Holmes set lacked vital rules for playing beyond a certain point. It wasn't a working but simplified version of AD&D (e.g., missing rangers, some spells from each level, some monsters, some treasure, etc). Rather, it stopped working entirely at a certain point.
The next Basic Set to come out was the 1981 Red Box, "Moldvay Basic," or "B/X." The reason for the "X" in "B/X" was to stand for the Expert Box that a gaming group could move on to once they had exhausted the resources of the Basic Set.
Now, if you've been keeping track of my focus so far, you've probably already guessed the point I'm about to make. The Holmes Basic Set graduated the players up to Advanced D&D. The Moldvay Basic Set (which went to level 3 just like the Holmes set) didn't. It graduated you to something that was effectively a parallel to Advanced D&D, because the Expert set (which I just looked up for information) went to level 14. At this point in time there were two versions of low-to-high-level D&D.
I don't have much to add about 1983 "Mentzer" Basic, also called BEMCI because it contained Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules. I never happened to play this edition (I was a proud-to-play-Advanced-snob even by the time of the Moldvay set), but the Mentzer edition isn't relevant to this particular history because it's essentially a continuation and a culmination of the trend started with the B/X sets -- the creation of a parallel D&D game.
Although there have been other D&D Basic sets, the continuum from Holmes to Mentzer set the stage for two different approaches to Basic Sets, which now that I have established, I'll get into in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!