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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Moldvay Basic Observations Part 3-

Sorry I missed a couple of days, I had some real life get in the way of blogging, not all bad, some gaming was involved. I figure I should probably provide a link back to parts one and two in case you missed them before.

Now, we only really got through the first 18 pages of the book in the last two parts of my Moldvay Basic Observations, but I am confident that we can make it through the rest of the book here in part three because, despite the fact that we still have another 46 pages to go, there really aren't all that many more observations, and most of them are from the next few pages.

Part 4: The Adventure starts on page 19, and is a bunch of useful information for the beginning player and the beginning DM. I was both amused and impressed by the first paragraph, it has the heading beginning the adventure and essentially states that once the players have rolled up their characters and bought their equipment, the DM will tell them what the Adventure is going to be, where they are headed, what they're after, who is with them and what they know about the place. I found this amusing because I have had players over the last three decades that were such a pain in the ass that I wondered why they showed up at the table. I'd drop adventure hooks, usually some sort of hire, and they'd be all "Nope, I'd rather not take your excellent commission to go clear out the Dungeon of Doom, I'd rather sit at the inn doing nothing for the next six hours"; here they pretty much tell you that kind of nonsense doesn't fly.

Next it moves on to optimal party size and composition, pretty standard stuff for old school; it tells you that you should probably have 6-8 characters in the party, that's what pretty much every module said on the cover back in the day; and that you should have a mix of character classes, all the human classes should be represented and, if possible, get some Demi-Humans in the party too for their special skills. The most noteworthy thing here is that it suggests that some players, at the DMs discretion, might be allowed to play multiple characters. I am pretty sure that this was, if not outright forbidden, at least heavily frowned upon in AD&D. It also point's out here that if you don't have enough players you can fill in the ranks with retainers, but I'll get back to them in a bit.

Next we move on to organizing a party; setting your marching order is mentioned first and it mentions having several different marching orders for various tactical situations, which is something I always thought that me and my nerdy friends came up with on our own, but here it is in black and white. Then comes the Caller. Is this where the Caller comes from? I just looked through Holmes and didn't see any reference to a Caller, but I may have missed it, and in AD&D's PH it says that party's should have a leader who will "call" to the DM the party's actions. I never played in a D&D group with a formal Caller and damned few with formal Leaders, although informal leaders often existed. This is the first place I question whether or not people actually played this game with the rules as written.

After the Caller, there is a section on the importance of mapping and how one player should be designated the Mapper, this is a D&D job that I used to see a lot more in the old days than I do now. I can't decide if it's just because every DM on earth got sick and tired of having to describe the room over and over again, or draw sections of map for the "Mapper" to copy or if it was just because D&D moved away from dungeon based adventuring over the last three decades, either way, mapping is practically a lost art and it is frustratingly difficult to reinvent. I do like the way it says here that you maps aren't going to be exactly perfect and not to worry too much about making a perfect, detailed map though.

Next it brings up a controversial subject, use of miniature figures. They are clearly optional, but can enhance play. However, many of us OSR types, no matter how much we loved our old lead miniatures back in the 1980s are still a little gun shy about being slaves to the battle grid. Me, I can go either way, I hated being a slave to the battle grid and it did take me forever to wean my kids off of using miniatures even when we were playing 1st edition AD&D. I haven't used them yet with Moldvay Basic, but I may. I used miniatures pretty much the whole time I played D&D from Holmes through 3e, I only wanted to quit after 3e and now that I have had a break I am OK with them again. The only thing that bugs me is when 3e-isms crop up in an old school game when we're using miniatures, I know it's because we're using miniatures; someone will say something like "Shouldn't I get an attack of opportunity here?" and make me want to smack them.

The last things on the page are Time & Movement, there's not much of note there, except the note at the end that you need a 10 minute break every hour or you'll start getting fatigued and suffer a -1 to hit penalty until you do rest. I don't ever recall seeing that rule anywhere else. The only other fatigue rules I remember seeing in a version of D&D were in Hackmaster 4th edition.

Flipping the page brings us to encumbrance, which fills the entire page and is an optional rule. Sadly encumbrance gives us one of the worst and most enduring game-isms of D&D, the idea that all coins regardless of metal or purity weigh the same, and that the weight of a coin is 1/10 of a pound. Here in Moldvay Basic the basic unit of weight has gone from the Gold Piece (gp) to the more generic Coin (cn). I never really understood why we couldn't just measure weight in pounds, or ounces if necessary, but there you have it. I hear Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a better encumbrance system, and I did buy it in December during their PDF sale, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet; if it is vastly better I will most likely adopt it for my B/X game.

Page B21 starts us off with Light, points out that most dungeons are dark and tells us how long torches last and how long a flask of oil will last in a lantern, reminds us that you need to pay attention to who is carrying the light sources because you can't fight with a sword & shield if you are the one holding the torch and then talks about how Infravision works. Now, when 3e hit the market and we lost Infravision in favor of Low-Light Vision and Dark Vision, I hated that as much as the next grognard; but over time I have come to actually prefer them to Infravision and I'll tell you why- there is always some jerk trying to screw with Infravision, either a player who has seen the movie predator or a DM that realizes that undead are the same ambient temperature as the air surrounding them. Giving a scientific explanation for how the eyesight of fantasy races work is stupid, plus have you ever looked through an infrared camera? Seeing everything like Geordi LaForge or the Predator isn't really all that helpful, plus why does it only work for X number of feet? An Elf or Dwarf's ordinary eyesight will allow them to see pretty much to the horizon, but their Infravision only works for 60'? Sixty feet of visibility is pretty crappy, especially if you can only see stuff that gives off heat. Realistically, deep enough underground the stone and the air are going to be about the same temperature, so the subterranean dwelling Dwarf is still screwed without a light source; he'll be blind, bumping into cavern walls*.

Next we move on to Doors, which has three sections Normal Doors, Secret Doors and Listening at Doors. Normal doors are pretty interesting in Moldvay Basic, because they kind of have some weird mojo going for them. First, they are usually closed, that's cool, I usually leave my doors closed too; but additionally they are often either stuck or locked. Stuck doors any character can take a shot at, but higher strength characters are better at unsticking them, this is where the "Kick in the Door" meme in D&D comes from. Locked doors have to be picked open by a Thief, and the text here kind of implies that if your party Thief fails here, you are just screwed; which makes sense from the description of the Thief and his lock picking ability, but not from the point of view of a dungeoneering party that probably has at least one axe with them. The other odd, semi-magical qualities of dungeon doors are that they automatically swing shut after you open them unless you specifically jam them open and that they will automatically open for monsters unless you spike them shut; and these are the "Normal" doors.

Secret doors have fewer rules regarding them, but there is the interesting clarification that a Character only gets one chance to find a secret door. I remember playing AD&D and having the party know there must be a secret door in an area and just keep searching forever until they found it, that was annoying. Listening at doors gets a mention at the end of the doors section, I am amused by that because that's another one of those semi-lost dungeoneering skills, like mapping. When I DMed last weekend the party remembered to check for traps about 70% of the time, but only listened at one door. This section also has a rules clarification that a character may only listen once at any given door, and that the undead do not make noise.

The bulk of this page though is taken up by rules regarding Retainers, which brings me to a mini-rant- What is the deal with the inconsistent terminology between editions of D&D for the hired help. That's just confusing, why does every damned edition need to change the name? Here Retainers are, mostly**, what you would call Henchmen in AD&D, in 3e they'd be called Cohorts. Why on earth couldn't they pick a term and stick with it? That said, they are a little more interesting to hire on than they are in other editions, they have their own reaction table, which I assume the PC's Charisma modifier applies to, although it doesn't expressly say so. I also find it interesting that they have to check morale after every adventure to see if they will stick with you. Charisma would not be a dump stat in this version of D&D even if the rules supported stat rearrangement.

Skipping way head to combat, did anyone use the rules as written? The DM rolls all the damage dice? Why? Just because only one set of dice shipped with the boxed set? I like the morale rules, they are simple and easy to use, every monster has a morale value. Would I have preferred it to be on a D20 instead of 2d6? Yes, but Moldvay has a lot of 2d6 tables, so I am getting used to it. AD&D didn't get a decent monster morale system until 2nd edition.

Moving on to the monsters in general, there is more variety in low level monsters than in previous editions of D&D or than in AD&D, even some more mid-level ones than I would have expected; and many that weren't in any previously published D&D. The AD&D Monster Manual was only published four years earlier, so I would not have expected too much deviation from it's list, but there is. All of the standard humanoids are there, as are all the minor undead and a bunch of other "standard" D&D monsters, like Stirges, Rust Monsters and Ochre Jellies. Dragons are here too, surprisingly, since the book only covers levels 1-3. There are a bunch of new monsters and monster variants though that I never saw really until I read through this book, different types of Giant Lizard, Snakes, Giant Spiders and the Thoul to name a few.

What else did I skip over before?

Paralysis can be cured with a Cure Light Wounds spell? Does that happen in AD&D? I never heard of it if it does. Here it gets mentioned in the spell description and in the description of pretty much everything that causes paralysis.

The Monster Reaction Table, not every encounter needs to be a combat encounter and another reason why Charisma wouldn't be a dump stat even if the game rules allowed for it. Sometimes a monster might help you out.

Individual Initiative is an optional rule. I can't decide whether or not to use it, because my current group is less wargamer heavy, and therefore less rules crunchy and combat oriented than most previous D&D groups that I have played with, so I think that it might just be too much of a stress builder on combat and make combats more chaotic and lengthy, but on the other hand I think it really helps open up the combat options for high Dexterity characters like Thieves to be able to maneuver into position for Back Stabs, which is never actually called back-stabbing here, but instead "striking unnoticed from behind", or just getting to go first in combat.

Experience points, you get WAY more of them for treasure than for killing monsters, that kind of sets the tone for what's important here, now doesn't it? I actually noticed this when I was figuring experience points for the game I ran last Sunday, gold piece value is king when it comes to XP, killing not so much, magic not at all. AD&D was kind of like this, except that you got the XP for magic and monsters were worth a little more, Goblins in B/X D&D are worth 5XP each in AD&D they are going to be worth an average of 13XP.

Overall thoughts- There is still a great deal of customizability to Moldvay Basic, like there was in OD&D. The number of rules that are presented as optional is reminiscent of 2nd edition AD&D and the rumors of 5th edition D&D's multi-edition compatibility; for example- if you use none of the optional rules presented in Moldvay you have a game that is more similar to OD&D, if you use them all, it becomes much more distinctly it's own version. As an introduction to D&D, and RPGs in general, I think it does a much better job than Holmes basic did, and I mean no disrespect to Holmes Basic, it had a different design agenda; I am told Mentzer Basic did a better job still, but I haven't seen it to say for myself. What I can say is that all of the rules you need to play D&D are in this book, it's only flaw, and this is by design, is that it tops out at 3rd level and then you have to buy the Expert boxed set to go to level 14; which is past "name" level, the theoretical end game stage of D&D, so you really never needed the Companion boxed set, that never got published, that promised levels 15-36.

Now, I suppose I'll have to do some posts on my observations about the Expert side of the B/X equation too, but at least this will be more mixed with review, I had that set back in the day and I used stuff out of it pretty liberally with my Holmes Basic set and my AD&D until everything was taken over by AD&D eventually. I'll need to finish reading it

* unless the assumption is made that Infravision is very, very good and he can see the heat from his body and breath emanating around him and it outlines the walls and stuff, but then you still have the problem of jerks trying to blind Infravision scientifically because they can.

**They might be a 0-level torchbearer, that dude would be called a hireling in AD&D which has entire classes of standard and expert Hirelings. I looked ahead in the Expert book and some of the Hirelings in there are overlapped with the Hireling types in the AD&D DMG, but it didn't include any of the standard 0-level porters and torchbearers that AD&D parties have available to them.

OK, these EBay items arrived today.

Everyone in the OSR raves about this old Judges Guild stuff, I never had any, so when I saw I could snag some cheap I grabbed these.

I know I swore off buying Star Wars stuff, but it was a bargain and I was bidding on a bunch of other stuff from the same seller, I figured if I caught this at the minimum bid and got the combined shipping with any of the other stuff it's be like getting a free item almost. This was the only item I won though, but I got it for the minimum bid.


  1. Dragons are in the Basic Set book because it's Dungeons and Dragons. Doesn't matter if you could successfully fight them or not. If they weren't there, it would have been a glaring omissions to a neophyte who picked it up. "So, it has dungeons but no dragons!" instead of "Wow, dragons are tough, I better go buy that Expert Set so I can make a guy tough enough to beat one."

    1. I get that, but a beginning DM is going to think that it's OK to actually use a dragon on his poor 1st-3rd level PCs, just because they're there in the book. I guess I appreciate the fact that they are in there, they have all kinds of special rules regarding them after all and this book pretty much lays the foundation for all of your future D&D gaming, but I wonder how many senseless PC deaths were caused by their inclusion in the Basic set.

    2. Given the likelihood of a total party kill by kobalds the first time the DM busts out module B2... I'd say not that many.

    3. My thoughts exactly, Peter and Jeffro. As for neophyte DMs using them "accidentally", as it were, Dragons aren't found in the included module, nor are they on the Wandering Monster tables used to populate dungeons in Part 8, so only a DM with enough experience to have exhausted these resources, or ignore them completely, would have any reason to use a Dragon.

      PS thankfully Moldvay Dragons lack that goofy age-based hit points per hit die rule that Holmes used.

    4. I hesitate to mention this, as it's always nice to see new comments on old posts, but I think you mean only a DM too inexperienced to know better would use the Dragons (or other powerful monsters). Maybe your experience is different than mine, but I know that when I was a kid and just started playing, the DMs all liked to use pretty much every monster in the book when they made a dungeon. Now, I started with Holmes, and for some reason my copy isn't right here to check, but I am pretty sure Vampires aren't on the Wandering Monster tables in Holmes Basic; but the first time I ever played D&D, my party got a random encounter with a Vampire on the stairs going down to the second level of the dungeon- TPK. We were all first level, the DM just was making it up as he went along I guess. Not that the game wasn't fun up until that point, and even at that point, I wouldn't still be playing if I thought it sucked when I first tried it, but inexperienced DMs do dumb things because they don't know the rules and they don't know any better.

      I agree age based hit points for Dragons are stupid.

  2. "OK, your character stays at the inn all day instead of going to the dungeon. Roll up a new character that actually wants to be an adventurer."

    Measuring encumbrance in coins seems reasonable to me (although 10 coins to the pound is ludicrous!) since coins are probably the most common thing you are going to be interested in keeping track of, as you determine whether the PCs have enough sacks and carrying capacity to haul the dragon's hoard out of the dungeon in one trip.

    I like 2d6 for reaction rolls, as it gives a bell curve rather than an even distribution, which means monsters are significantly more likely to "wait and see" than anything else, which opens up a lot of interesting role playing possibilities for negotiation, etc. And you can always give bonuses or penalties to the roll if it makes sense for the monsters to be particularly favorably or non-favorably disposed to the PCs.

    I'm really enjoying these posts, as they mirror some of my recent reading (which was the Mentzer Basic and Expert sets, but much of the text is verbatim from Moldvay).