I 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.