Looking Back at Basic and Expert D&D

covers of the Basic and Expert D&D Box setsI started playing D&D with the original 1981 Basic box set edited by Tom Moldvay* and “graduated” to the 1981 Expert “blue box” edited by David “Zeb” Cook. My cousin David and I played the hell out of those games when we were kids. The hints of mystery and adventure hidden in the very rulebooks. The amazing art by Jeff Dee, Dave “DSL” LaForce, Erol Otus, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham (who, for me, define the core of D&D art). The fonts. The Keep on the Borderlands and its blue maps and “bree yark” and its glossary. The Isle of Dread and its hex maps and the permanent mind-controlling monsters at the end that turn the PCs into sleeper agents. These rules took a crowbar to my brain and broke open the doorway to what eventually would be my professional career.

I miss the energy of this game. Yes, I’m sure much of it is nostalgia for playing as a kid–but having played in Monte Cook’s OD&D game back in Seattle, those old games are still fun to play, with a different feel. The simplicity of these rules is appealing. Don’t get me wrong, I like that D&D/Pathfinder has fun fiddly bits like skills and feats, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of the ability to customize a character like that, but the B/E rules are definitely easy to pick up, play, and enjoy.

And I especially like that the Expert rules stop at PC character level 14**. It’s interesting to note several things about that stopping point.

  1. Most people consider the “sweet spot” of D&D to be levels 6–12 (where the fighter gets multiple attacks, the wizard gets fireball, and you eventually get access to raise dead and teleport). The B/E rules let you play all of that range.
  2. These rules stop before the game’s math really starts to break down (which happens in the teen levels). AD&D 1st and 2nd edition still had this problem, so did D&D 3rd edition, and so does Pathfinder. I ran a high-level PF campaign, I’ve personally seen what happens. It can be tedious, and it can be ugly.
  3. If your character gains a level about every 4 game sessions, and you play once a week, playing from level 1 to 14 is 52 weeks–a whole year! One of the Wizards of the Coast pre-3E survey results was that people tend to start a new campaign every 6 to 12 months, so B/E letting you play 1–14 in a year lets you play through an entire campaign (i.e., a typical modern campaign experience).
  4. Clerics and magic-users top out at 5th- and 6th-level spells, respectively. That gets clerics up to commune and raise dead (without the need for better versions of those spell concepts, like resurrection), and the magic-user gets death spell, disintegrate, and stone to flesh (without bringing in the weird ones like spell turning, power word spells, wish, and so on. In other words, you got some pretty serious badass magic at the highest levels… and the GM didn’t have the weirdness of trying to think up challenges for a character who can cast multiple wish spells per day (level 18+ wizard).

I wonder what it would look like if you had a D&D-like game that focused more on the “sweet spot” and didn’t eventually create Superman-level PCs where the math is bent or broken. Anyone know of an OSR game, D&D clone, or something that fits that bill?

* Nowadays you’d call it “magenta box,” to contrast it with the 1983 “red box” edited by Frank Mentzer.

** Yes, technically it said you could advanced past the last line of the class table (level 14), and had “suggestions” for advancing up to level 36, but that was just a stopgap set of rules explained in half a page while you waited for the D&D Companions rules to be published. The actual Expert rules stopped at 14.


11 thoughts on “Looking Back at Basic and Expert D&D

  1. I don’t know of an OSR clone that does this, but I haven’t been that deep in them–I’ve just run these when I wanted the fix. Those are the copies I’ve got and cut my teeth on. The _disintegrate_ art from the Expert book is burned in my brain; I concur those artists really defined D&D for me, too.

  2. From those exact boxes to the fond memories to way I now look at high level play, you just took thoughts floating around my brain and wrote them here. Scary, but fun!

  3. I don’t know of any rules systems that cover that upper-echelon level well; most of them either escalate into the minutae of epic bookkeeping or descend to the tedium of oh-yay-another-hit-dice-why-am-I-doing-this.

    In an ongoing high level campaign that’s been on the books since 1989, we’ve dealt with it by changing the playing field – at one point we were offered the opportunity to sacrifice levels for ability score bonuses/special abilities to round out and buff up the characters. At another point a suitably epic doomsday device dropped every high-level personality on the planet back to 9th level – the ensuing social and political chaos brought life back to the campaign and set everyone scrambling to find their balance and recoup their power loss. Retirement is always an option, of course.

    I don’t see any mechanical way to regulate or even out the game at these higher levels in a way that works for everyone. Threats that make the game engaging lose their luster at higher levels – another apocalyptic threat, another monster that kills you permanently with or without a save, or deals cosmic amounts of damage, or levies some otherwise permanent threat against you. Because at some point you know you will become a victim of the dice regardless of skill or power. A 1 is always a 1. At that point in a campaign the challenge of the DM is to tailor the game challenges to the player rather than the character.

    Thus, I think ultimately the responsibility lies with the DM and the group to find a way to keep those high level games interesting for that group. And this makes sense, in a way; the upper tier PCs should be game-changers, the movers and shakers of the campaign, exerting their influence on a much larger scale.

  4. For some OSR games that cover that level 1-14 sweet spot (circa) i would recommend ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System) or Blood & Treasure. These two games are both REALLY good, and both, IMO, in many ways really focus on the “sweet spot” of D&D play. They are both rather B/X like, also in their level range, but they also both contain a lot more different options thus allowing for more customization compared to B/X (maybe you already know these rulesets, but since you asked).
    B/X is still massively cool too (Labyrinth Lord with Advanced Edition is also really good IMO)

      • You are welcome.
        I will add that you should also check out Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyberborea (goes to level 12), and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (goes to level 13).
        Where as the other games i mentioned (ACKS and B&T) are, IMO, based on a mostly B/X style engine with added classes, stuff, options, these two games i mention now are, IMO; more based on an AD&D-level-of-complexity engine, though much cleared up and well presented.
        All four games offer some really cool stuff.
        But, i recommend especially that you check out ACKS, every (classic) D&D gamer should read that! :)

      • Hi again
        Just want to correct a mistake I made. Blood & Treasure actually goes to level 20, i remembered it as only going to 13-14th level. Still a very good system, love the way it does saving throws/skills, and its basically a 3.x SRD done with B/X style mechanics (though more unified). One could always cap it at level 14 or so, without problems.
        I will also add, that ACKS tries (very succesfully imo) to cover different ‘tiers’ of D&D gameplay, but ALL within the sweet spot lvl 1-14 range: The title referes to these tiers: adventurer, conqueror, king (and refers to Conan too, of course). There as great “end-game” mechanics that don’t go into the usual “epic-level” (and/or just 15-20th level…) problems. in ACKS this “end-level” is all about kingdom and domain management, and there are lots of good tools for this, that can be used by GM’s in other systems too.

  5. Pingback: Project Pentagon: The Leveling “Sweet Spot” | Sean K Reynolds

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