D&D is moving toward a new edition, but to make it the “best” edition, the designers have to look at what worked in all the earlier versions of the game. Our gaming group decided to try Basic D&D for a change of pace and a way to figure out what the ineffable “essence” of D&D really is.
A few times over the past month or two, when player attrition had rendered our usual game impractical, we gave Basic D&D a go. I dug out my old Basic rulebook (with the Otis cover, not the Elmore) and we rolled up some new characters. Many had never played it before and there were some real obvious differences right off the bat.
There were no ability score arrays (which I heartily approve of) and the abilities were rolled in a specific order: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. You couldn’t move your scores. No swapping the 15 wisdom for the 8 strength if you wanted to be a fighter. Options you were either a weak, wise fighter or a weak wise cleric. You could trade point on a two for one basis depending on your class, but that didn’t usually get you very far. Plus you rolled straight 3d6. No dropping of lowest dice here.
The next thing that this highlighted for us: poor survivability. I don’t recall dying all that often in basic when I was a kid. Maybe we fudged our die rolls more often or something. I do remember loving AD&D when we finally got a copy and maybe this was part of the reason.
Let me frame this a bit better: We had a party of four, two elves and two thieves. That’s what the scores decreed. You don’t get maximum HP at first level or any static starting score for HP. You roll your hit die and live (or die) with it. Our four adventurer party had 11 hit points. That’s it – for the whole party. Eleven. Oh did I mention you are dead at 0? No negative HP/dying/stabilizing. Just dead.
It’s really a miracle the party lasted as long as it did. They had no healers. The elves had one spell each – and neither were used in the first session at all. The elves were in plate, with shields and swords and the thieves had leather armor, with short bows and short swords. That meant the elves had ACs of 1 and 3 (read 19 and 17 for later editions). The thieves had 6 (i.e. 14). So the elves were also tanks, each with 4 HP. The rogues were much worse off. And their find traps chance was like 10% – hardly worth having at all.
No character would get a bonus to his attack roll (so to speak – this was pre THAC0 even) until 4th level, when evidently they all would. The main thing that would change for these guys was the number of spells and HIT POINTS! One player actually made a level and tripled his hit points! Those three HP didn’t last him long against giant, angry shrews though. TPK.
The Lost City claimed six characters in two sessions (there were two replacements for earlier casualties); only one character made a level and the party may have found one magic item; and they all died.
It was a hell of a lot of fun!
Even though they were throwaway characters, the players were concerned with their inherent frailness and tried to keep them alive. There was a lot of ingenuity when dealing with traps and potential traps, things that might have been potential traps and negotiations with the city’s denizens. The game was pretty easy to pick up and the fights were quick. The party moved through four levels of the city before they were done in over just two sessions. They didn’t clear all those levels, but they did a pretty good job of it.
I’m not saying I’d want to play a campaign with those rules. I wouldn’t. There are a pile of things I’d want to change just from the elements reported in this article. Hit points. Definitely need more, max at first level at least. Some sort of “dying” mechanic as well, rather than just dead. The 3E change to AC and attack roll bonuses is just so much easier to understand.
Ability scores, definitely going to want some better ones. Though interestingly the bonuses were much easier to get in Basic than in AD&D but they capped out lower. For instance Dex in Basic is +1 for 12-15, +2 for 16-17 and +3 for 18. In AD&D (if memory serves) it was +1 for 15, +2 for 16, +3 for 17 and +4 for 18. So it was much easier to get a bonus in Basic, though the bonus could go a bit higher in AD&D.
The magic seemed weak to the point of being nearly non-existent. I definitely approve of every edition’s efforts to increase the number of spells available to a first level wizard. We didn’t have one, but the only thing he could have used besides his single spell would have been a dagger. No staff, no crossbow, just a dagger with 1-4 hit points and probably a 9 AC. Talk about dead meat.
In any event, this trip back to Basic was fun, but it also made me appreciate the later editions of the game. All of ‘em. I’m really looking forward to getting a hold of the re-releases of the 1E books. I plan to take them and Undermountain and my old basic book to Gen Con this year. Maybe we’ll see some of you there.