Monday, June 30, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 1

Dungeons & Dragons has used the concept of a "Basic" version since fairly early in the game's history. With the game first being published in 1974, the Holmes Basic set came out in 1978, four years later. Together with an expanded Monster Manual, the Basic Set ("Holmes Basic," or the "Blue Book") was an integral part of the marketing plan for the first radical step in rules revisions that TSR was to make: the new "Advanced" D&D. The Holmes Basic set gave players (and DMs) a full and robust set of rules for playing their characters up to third level but no further.Oddly, it contained several monsters far too difficult for characters of low level. For me, that was like heroin. I had to get the expanded, Advanced game so I could fight purple worms and dragons. From the standpoint of marketing, it was brilliant.

The fact that it only went to third level was absolutely fine to us at the time. It certainly meant that we wanted AD&D, but we saw AD&D almost as an expansion rather than something that would cure the "crippleware" of a Basic set that only went to third level. In other words, I don't think it was crippleware; it wouldn't be now, and it most certainly wasn't at that time in history before the internet made us expect everything for free.

Interestingly, Holmes Basic had LOTS of rules that were completely different from AD&D. Those rules have actually been duplicated and used to created an entire game based on Holmes that reached beyond third level. However, these differences were pretty much disregarded at the time, at least by everyone I knew, as the parts that made the game "Basic." For all I know, that might have been what TSR intended. It's interesting, though, because I think the internet would die of nerdrage if WotC's free (FREE!) Basic Game turned out to have such differences as the Holmes Set did to AD&D.

I don't mean to be delivering one of those "uphill in the snow and we LIKED it" tirades -- I'm trying to point out a couple of areas where the lack of instantaneous communication probably affected the relationship between a Basic Game and an Advanced Game in a big way.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Basic Game into the piranha tank of the internet age, and I'm going to take a look at some of the parameters of the game, talking about the entire theory of a Basic Game (and a couple of historical comments about TSR, although I'm very much only a dilettante of D&D's history). For the time being, here is the page with WotC's parameters for the 5th edition Basic Game.


  1. I have no issue with a basic game being marginally different from an advanced game and lacking subsystems explored in an advanced game as it is a Basic game.

    I'll admit I do have a degree of nerd-rage against a "start set" that doesn't include character creation rules (even really simple ones) because to me RPG has always been about creating characters and exploring the game.

  2. I hear that, and I agree that character generation is part of the game's fundamental pieces. On the other hand, I think that the approach of giving character generation rules away free (so that it's in the game, just not in the starter box that will be given to kids under the Christmas tree) isn't necessarily the wrong decision. In addition to generating characters you also have to learn the rules -- one without the other is pointless except in Traveler. Pregens in a box definitely will speed up the "how do I play" aspect of learning the game. So, I think it's perhaps a weak spot in the starter set, but the starter set is only a subset of the Basic Rules package.

  3. Great topic. Holmes' manuscript for the rulebook was titled "D&D for Beginners" which TSR changed to "Basic D&D". These days, WOTC is using 'Starter' set for the limited beginner's set, and "Basic" for the core rules covering all levels. So the meaning of the label 'Basic' has changed a bit. I think their idea of Basic applying to all levels is influenced by players over the years casually referring to the entire BECMI (Basic/Expert/etc) line as "Basic D&D".

  4. TSR's strategies at the time seem completely ad hoc and opportunistic, so the direction of Basic D&D changes three times. Is it so much the expectations of the internet age or the expectations that WOTC itself has created that would lead to dissatisfaction if Basic went in a different direction from Core Rulebook D&D?

    I look forward to reading the rest of your series.

  5. Here are Holmes' own thoughts on the differences between Basic and AD&D, from his 1981 book:
    "Two questions immediately arise. When and how should the transfer from one game system to the other be made, and should the Basic Set be used at all, since the game will outgrow it?

    Let me answer the last question first, since the Basic Set is, to some extent, my own creation. It fairly represents, I think, the game as it was first produced. As much as possible it uses Gygax's and Arneson's words from those first scrambled rule books. It seems to me to be unfortunate that the Advanced D&D does not grow smoothly and naturally out of the Basic Rules, but it doesn't. The combat system is different. Anyone who is going to go on with the game to higher and higher levels (the Basic Set only covers the first three levels of experience) should start with the Advanced D&D and not bother buying the Basic Set. I think I can give this advice objectively, since I have no financial interest in the sale of Basic D&D sets.
    The difficulty in starting with Advanced D&D rules is that it requires not only a bigger financial investment but a much bigger investment of time and effort on the DM's part. Just reading through the Player's and Dungeon Masters book will probably take a couple of days" (pg 84).

  6. Good points Zenopus. Fact is, the Holmes set is fun to play as is up to it's lvel limits...and it fulfils its purpose as the ideal introduction to D&D. It's one of the most well written and easy to understand sets of rules ever published, and if played up to third level, players should be much more ready for more advanced games than if they had never played it. Plus, it has a very wonderful flavor all its own.