Light your torch, grab your sword and step into the dark maw of the dungeon ... of 1981. Game designer Luke Crane (Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel) takes you back in time to explore the 1981 edition of D&D. He discusses the early editions of D&D and what makes this particular edition - the 1981 Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay - so special. Do you think you know what D&D is really about? Can you survive the dungeon and find out?
— summary from the PAX Prime 2012 Program
(Note: a blogger posted an audio recording of this presentation here.)
This talk surprised me the most out of all the panels I attended at this year’s PAX Prime. The title gave me the impression it was mainly a history lesson, but the summary is right on target, and I either didn’t expect or wasn’t aware of a lot of the things Luke revealed.
To start things off, let’s look at a short list:
First Ten (Or So) Years of D&D Publication:
- 1971 Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures. Gygax & Perren, authors. “First recognizable step on the road to D&D.”
- 1973 D&D. (“White Box” edition) Gygax & Arneson, authors. 3 boxed booklets.
- 1977 D&D Basic Set. Holmes, editor. Monochrome blue dragon cover. 48 pages.
- 1979 Advanced D&D (1st Edition). Gygax, author. 3 books. Players Handbook 128 pages, DM’s Guide ≈256, Monster Manual.
- 1981 D&D Basic Set. (“Pink Box” edition) Moldvay, editor. Erol Otis cover. ≈58 pages.
- 1983 D&D Basic Set. Mentzer, editor. Larry Elmore cover. 64 pages.
Holmes’ edition was edited from previous work, mostly that of Gygax & Arneson, and very different. It was pared down, clarified, and refocused. Moldvay and Mentzer continued that trend, all with the benefit of DM experience and the goal of focusing on essentials, two of which were “dungeons” and “dragons”. Contrariwise, Gygax mostly expanded the game and explored other territory with AD&D.
The edited editions were basic sets. Basic sets were for the mainstream market: people new to D&D or to hobby games in general, or non-gaming relatives looking a gift for a gamer in the family. They included dice. Some had pads of character sheets. They covered dungeons only. They mentioned you’d encounter towns once you hit level 4 but kept them abstract until then — a place you came from only in theory and returned to in a narrated postscript when the adventure was done.
Meanwhile, Gygax took things the opposite direction. The hobby was still in its formative years, so this divergence took a sizeable segment of the market with him. Instead of trimming three booklets down to one, he expanded them to three hardcover books with five times the page count. As popular as Gygax’s work was at the time, in hindsight his writing was dry, disorganized, and rambling, and he set the DM in an adversarial authority position. Some examples:
- The “Adventures” chapter in the AD&D DM’s guide covers wilderness, airborne, underwater, and city adventures, along with aerial and underwater combat. Neither dungeons nor dragons are mentioned — not even in the aerial combat section, which used pterodactyls in its example scenarios.
- He put the rules for creating characters in a book that players aren’t supposed to read, as if they could not be trusted to do it without cheating.
- In the section “Conducting the Game”, the first subsection is titled “Control of the Game” and authorizes DMs to use measures such as invulnerable enemies, permanent stat loss, and even arbitrary instantaneous character death to dissuade players from attempting too-unorthodox solutions or rebelling against DM authority.
Moldvay and Mentzer took less draconian approaches (pardon the pun), though still different from one another. The main differences were in tone. Moldvay was warmer. More comforting. He was an encouraging voice at your side. “You know...you’re going to die down there. It’s okay. You can make a new character and join back in. Give it your best shot.”
Menzer was dryer, and his play examples focus too much on solo adventure for a team game. Though the anatomy and technical details in Elmore’s art were great, that art also featured many solo heroes (including cover and frontispiece) — and not just that, but notably weak characters in losing situations or outright defeat.
So Luke focused on the Moldvay edition.
Stat creation: roll 3D6 for each stat, in order, then optionally tweak down less-important stats to raise desired ones at a 2-for-1 ratio. This meant that, without tweaking, there was a 47% chance for each stat to fall in the “average” 9-12 range and provide no modifiers, with a 26.5% chance of being above-average, and 26.5% below. That produced well-rounded characters with roughly 4 moderate, 1 good, and 1 bad stat on average. (There were failsafes. A character with too many low stats could be rerolled entirely, and you could reroll the hit points of a new character until you got at least 3 — though this did not actually add a significant amount of survivability.) In comparison, Gygax’s approach was to avoid flaws. To him, every PC should be an exceptional person who is average or superior at everything because they’re heroes.
The dump stat was Intelligence. It only determined how many languages you spoke. And while languages could be important, Intelligence was the only stat with no numeric bonus or quantitative effect for any class. (It provided no magic bonuses as it does in recent editions of the game.)
Charisma, which is often viewed as the most dump-worthy stat throughout the various years and editions of the game, was super-important in 1981 because it modified the monster reaction check at the beginning of every encounter — and that mattered because you got full XP for defeating or outwitting monsters via any method.
Example: 2nd level party is rushed by a dozen level 1 kobolds demanding money. Most of party wants to fight. Leader is a fighter with a +1 Charisma modifier, throws coins at them and tells them to leave. They take the loot and run. Outcome: full XP for overcoming the encounter. Outcome if they’d fought: likely obliteration.
And just what was the 1981 version of D&D about? Adventure? Fighting? Role-playing?
It was about mapping & exploration.
Luke cites benefits in visualization, creativity, memory, and even information theory (in a loose kind of way). It was an emergent skill developed by the players. It let the players deduce the existence, or at least likely locations, of secret rooms and alternate routes, in a way that was more skillful and more satisfying than rolling against a character skill. It was also a transcendent mechanic — it was both an IC and OOC activity, and had restrictions on both aspects. The mapping character required both hands free and a light source, typically provided by another character. And the party couldn’t be running. The players were told relative directions like “left” and “behind you” unless their characters had reason to know “south” or “east”. The party needed to produce a backup map in case the original was lost, and designate a secondary mapper in case the primary died. The party could not just say, “We leave.” when they wanted to exit.
There’s more. A D&D-oriented periodical at the time analyzed typical modules and discovered that, on average, only 20% of all potential XP came from fighting. The other 80% came from treasure, due to the 1 GP = 1 XP reward rule. Since combat was always risky and frequently fatal at low levels, finding a back door or other alternate way past conflict to a loot goal had a better risk/reward ratio. This led to more varied play than a constant stream of combats. Detailed maps were key here.