Editions War Part One: Basic
Dungeons & Dragons is the undisputed king of fantasy roleplaying games. It has rivals, but at the end of the day, more people are playing D&D than any other single game. The thing is, not everyone is playing the same edition. And everyone argues about what edition is “the best”, usually using personal metrics to determine it, and deriding everything else. So this will be the first post of a multi-part series where I’ll review each edition using the same metrics, starting with D&D Basic.
As an opening caveat set: I am evaluating these games on a RAW (rules as written) basis, and am not considering homebrew or unofficial modifications. Every game released these days comes with a boiler plate “If the rules get in the way, ignore them!” comment; but that makes the games impossible to evaluate because someone, somewhere, will just say “Well, ignore that then.” or “Make up a new ruling.” So I am disregarding it. These games were written, designed, and produced the way they were because that’s how they were supposed to work. Which means that’s how I’m going to look at them. For the purposes of brevity, I will also primarily be using the core books/sets for each edition; avoiding the expansions as much as possible to reflect what your average player would encounter were they to pick up the materials needed to play. When needed, such as for examining a base world, I will expand past a bit.
D&D Basic was released in its most recognizable form in 1977, breaking completely from OD&D (Original D&D), a game that was still dependent on the original Chainmail miniatures game rules to work. It would be published, updated, and expanded on until 1991, when its final base products would be developed and released. Supporting material would be published until 1993-1994. It was published and supported through the entirety of 1e AD&D, and part of 2e AD&D’s reign. Ironically, this support for the system may have contributed to TSR’s end, as it produced some confusion in the market over products, and also divided their efforts between games in the same genre.
D&D Basic was a stand alone game, providing everything a group needed to play from levels 1-3. Expansions, consisting of Expert (levels 4-14), Companion (levels 15-25), Master (levels 26-36), and Immortal (transcended levels). The Rules Cyclopedia (1991) combined the four leveled sets in a single book. All that is required to play Basic are dice, pencils, paper, graph paper, and the level appropriate sets. There were a number of supporting materials made for this edition, but they aren’t needed to play.
Score: 5/5 D&D Basic is component light, especially if you use the Rules Cyclopedia, and requires little additional material to run at full speed.
This game set the pattern and ground work for the rules for 1e and 2e AD&D, and can be non-intuitive and confusing when compared to d20 and post d20 D&D systems. Once learned, things are relatively smooth running, but there is a learning curve. Miniature models are optional, but encouraged as part of the “experience”; a major carryover from Chainmail. This edition also introduces the use of graph paper for planning dungeons and running combat. The original boxed sets included a “solo adventure” for players, designed for a player to learn the basics of the game, which was a good idea given the nature of the game mechanics. This was omitted in the Rules Cyclopedia, which approached the game with the idea that players could figure it out on their own by reading the rules.
Score: 3/5 D&D Basic is somewhat unintuitive rules wise, but manageable because they have been kept intentionally simple.
Basic puts the Basic in Basic. There are not a lot of options for characters. Player race and class of conflated for demihumans, with Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling being both at once. Only humans can choose a “class”, which are also limited to cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief (with optional druid and mystic classes). Only humans have unlimited level advancement, all demihumans are limited. There are optional rules for demihuman advancement past their level caps, but they are punitive in comparison to human character leveling.
Class development and variation is very low as well. This game was created with the idea that the party would be playing rather specific, narrow roles in a tactical sense, and leaves little space for variation outside of equipment and spell choices. Anything else is player created “fluff”, and/or subject to DM permissions.
Score: 1/5 D&D Basic has the fewest options for characters, and the least variance available of all the editions.
Mystara is the base world for D&D Basic. It’s a fairly standard (by today’s metrics) fantasy world, and may come off as somewhat generic. It was expanded on and developed in the modules, in Dragon Magazine, and in the various supporting books made for the edition such as the Gazeteer series. It was also built up up convention events. Intriguing and trend setting at the time, it never received a cohesive campaign setting book treatment. Mystara is a bit of a conundrum tone wise, with light and serious tones intermixing, sometimes unnaturally (lots of bad paleo-easter eggs, bad references, and attempts to be nerd funny). It also had some interesting expansions, such as Hollow Earth, and some unique monsters. Mystara was never “completed” however, with only parts of one of its continents (there were three) being well described.
Score: 3/5 Mystara is a good base world, but let down by incompleteness, lack of a cohesive campaign setting book, and thematic and tone issues.
Low to Moderate. Within the sets themselves, based on art and descriptions, it is low. The Rules Cyclopedia broke from that, with several POC/minority pics. Within the setting support materials (if you can get them), it rises to moderate, with areas corresponding to Arabic, Mongol, Indian, First Nations (Native Americans), and European cultures being present. There are some stereotyping issues, which is to be expected with material produced in the 1970’s to 1990’s. Among the larger issues is that the game setting embraces the “white civilization vs non-white savagery” narratives. There is no LGBTQ+ material that I am aware of.
Score: 2/5 D&D Basic offers little in the way of POC art or inclusion, but supporting material did offer some diversity. Unfortunately, much of that diversity is undone by bad narratives and stereotyping.
Poor. The last materials for this edition were released between 1993 and 1994. Original materials can be found online from both above and below board sources in pdf format, and hard copies can be found on eBay and Amazon from time to time, and the Rules Cyclopedia is often on sale at DriveThruRPG. But that’s about it. This is not a game you can just go out and buy things for, or expect further official support for. Additionally, bear in mind that it received dramatically less support than its contemporaries 1e and 2e AD&D, so there is not as much supporting material for the edition.
Score: 1/5 D&D Basic cannot be regarded as being “easily” available, particularly because its supporting materials are so rare.
The gameplay in D&D Basic set the tone for future editions to either adhere to or deviate from. Its roots in tactical tabletop miniature gaming are strong, and it implies, in the group adventure section, how a party should be laid out. This, in my opinion, is the point in which the “Standard Tactical Party” (a fighter, theif, magic user, and cleric) was established as a D&D and fantasy norm. It also established the still existent “mapper” job for one player (who draws the map of the dungeon as the party explores it), and the now defunct position of “caller”, a player to whom the other players said what they were doing, who then relayed that to the DM.
The game is unabashedly about dungeon crawling, and doesn’t do much to engage the imagination past “dungeon crawl, recover in town, next dungeon”. The combat mechanics are functional but a bit murky to a new player, and archaic to more experienced players. Follow the script, and things will largely go well. Deviate from it, and you’ll find few options available.
D&D Basic was cutting edge when it came out, and introduced the world to RPGs, but like a flintlock rifle in comparison to a modern rifle, it shows its age. It still works, it can still do the job, but it doesn’t do it as well as its descendents, and doesn’t have the options or capabilities of its descendents. This system has, arguably, the smallest grognard contingent, primarily because it was co-published alongside 1e and 2e AD&D, and was often used as an “intro” system to get people interested in the more advanced systems.
Playing this game is fun for a retro-game feel, but the problem is in the name. “Basic”. It’s very simple, and can be very inflexible to maintain said simplicity; it’s a game that has its charms, but those charms fade quickly these days. The main reasons, as far as I can tell, to play this edition is that either you have been playing it for years and it’s all you feel you need, or you’re looking to have a retro experience. Literally all editions of D&D have more to offer than this system.
Like all defunct editions of D&D, this edition has developed a plethora of fan material, often of varying quality, that addresses some of the issues I’ve touched on in the edition. Mystara has been unofficially expanded on, and there are many alternate classes and new monsters available for those who want to spend the time online to find them. With that said, as a game in itself, D&D Basic is just that, Basic. If you choose to explore its unofficial expansions, or its retroclones/clones, it sheds some of its issues. But RAW, D&D Basic is very much a dinosaur in todays gaming environment.
Final Score: 15/30 D&D Basic is still functional, but for gamers looking for depth, variation, or nuance, it just can’t provide.