Originally posted here: http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/2020/06/becmi-basic-set-review.html
How does one go about reviewing a game I know so well but in a book I know very little about? More to the point how does one review a classic?
Well as my oldest son says, "with determination."
The third set of books to be released as the "Basic set" was the Mentzer "Red Box" Basic that would become the "B" of the BECMI line. So many copies of this set have sold that it has become synonymous with "the Basic Set" and "the red Box" in D&D circles. The set itself contained two books, a Player's Book (to be read first) and a Dungeon Master's Book (to be read by the DM).
Already we have a departure from the previous Holmes (1977) and Moldvay (1981) Basic sets. While those older sets had one book for rules (48 and 64 pages respectively) and an included adventure (B1 and B2 respectively) this set only has the two books. This is not the issue it might seem at first since this set features a rather infamous solo adventure and a programmed adventure that can be used with a DM.
The box set also came with dice, a crayon for coloring in the numbers, and some information about the RPGA.
The Player's Book is 64 pages, color art cover, black & white interior art.
This is the familiar D&D game. The title page tells us that this is Dungeons & Dragons created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The editor, though many will say the actual architect of the BECMI line, is Frank Mentzer. He is so tied to this edition that it is also called the Mentzer Basic book.
While Holmes did a good job of organizing the Original D&D game into something that could be used as and introduction to the game (or too AD&D maybe), it was the Moldvay edition that really tried to make an introductory game to new players. The Mentzer set takes this to the next level by giving us a true introduction to the game.
The target audience is 10-12-year-olds but it takes care not to talk down to the audience, there even seems to be a choice in language to try and educate as much as possible too. TSR expected their target audience to be young, educated, and (for better or worse) male. But I will touch on that later.
Up first you are taken on one of the most infamous solo adventures ever. You are playing a fighter and you have to investigate a dungeon. You meet a cleric named Aleena, and a goblin and an evil wizard named Bargel. The rest is a tale told in many taverns across the known world.
While I have a number of issues with the solo adventure, and I'll discuss those elsewhere, it is an effective tool for grabbing people and getting them into the game. The adventure explains aspects of your character and makes them salient in the situation. In the education biz we call this "situational learning" and it is an effective tool.
After the adventure, we get to the part where your character is explained to you. What the ability scores mean, what the saving throws are for, how to hit with weapons. It is the "what is Roleplaying" section of every other RPG book writ large.
There is another Solo adventure, with some nods to the two M series for solo dungeons.
So now that the player knows the basics of play the various character classes are introduced. Here we have the Cleric, Fighters, Magic-User, and Thieves for humans and Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. The text is very, very explanatory. Great for a brand new player but feels wordy to me now. Granted, these were not written for someone with 40 years of experience. Heck, no one had even a quarter of that yet when this was written so my point of view is out of sync with the design goals of this game.
Looking over the classes I notice a few things. The class descriptions are very self-contained. Everything you need to know about playing a Cleric for example is right there. Including the Saving Throw tables WITH the class. A vast improvement over the constant flipping through pages we had to do with AD&D at the same time. Also, I noticed how weak the thief was then. No comparison to the Rogues of later editions.
The design elements of the self-contained class pages is something we will see again in D&D 4e and 5e. It is very effective and if you are like me and like to print out your PDFs then it also gives you flexibility in organizing your version of Basic.
There is a solid emphasis throughout the book on how playing together, and working together, as a group is the best experience. There also seems a little extra emphasis on how the Players are not the Characters. It feels wonderfully 80s when the was the moral panic that kids would start to act out like their characters and meet the fate of poor Black Leaf and Marci. Today people online refer to their characters in first person and laud their achievements as their very own. What a difference some time makes.
We get to alignment with a strong prohibition against playing Chaotic or Evil characters. Retainers and other topics. There is even a solid Glossary (I mean really who does this anymore? I miss them!) to help in supporting my point of view of D&D as a learning tool. There is even a small section on using minis, character sheets, and other aids. There is even a nod to AD&D to remind players that this game, D&D, is not AD&D.
All the basics are covered. No pun intended. Ok. Maybe a little one.
Everything the player needs to get started. They now just need a DM. Thankfully the next book covers all that.
The art in both books is fantastic. Larry Elmore, Jim Holloway, and Jeff Easley at the very top of their game. They defined how millions view Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, yes I am a fan of the older stylings of Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, and Jeff Dee, but this was at a new level. The art was consistent throughout and all of it wonderful. Sadly it is also a little sparse compared to Moldvay, but I guess there are more pages to fill here.