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Dungeon Adventure: The Book of Moldvay

I am going to run an adventure using the 1981 D&D Basic Set. There have been a number of conversations that hit on directly, or indirectly, this set of rules and as it was my first RPG experience, I want to take a look back. More than a look, I want to run the game as is, by the rules as much as humanly possible. One of the things I have realized over the these conversations is that my recollection of the rules has been innacurate. Ten-year old Sean likely is a better teacher / DM of this game than I am now, many decades later. So I hope that he can guide me into some satisfying play.

But why this game, other than nostalgia? Well to be frank, its not nostalgia. I have not played THIS game in decades and I want to experience it again. Also:

  • This gets back to Ron's Finding D&D. It is no accident that I refer to this edition as The Book of Moldvay. Collect Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer and you have a decent, Gospel of Basic D&D. I won't go much deeper than that, its impossible to ascertain which gospel is best or which of the authors is the apostle that Gary loved best, and in any case, is not relevant. This was my inaugural experience amd I want to see how it changes after all of this time.
  • This was my first hack. I do not mean just changing the rules for home purposes, I mean six months after I began playing, I laid out a game called Pommels & Paradoxes. It only took two days to realize that even as a well read 10 year old, game design had a lot more to it than just lowering XP numbers. As a side note, my heartbreaker-in-progress is Pommel & Paradox. One day little buddy, you'll get out there!

Prep Work

I do not have any players (yet, as of this post) and I have a few games I want to start and a few to finish before this gets anywhere, but in this case I thought the prep process might be of interest.

I am not using an adventure of my own or a dungeon module from the box. I am only using what is in the book itself. In the back is a sample dungeon. Part of it is already filled in, but I am discarding that. The game provides random dungeon tables for filling in a dungeon with monsters, treasures, traps, and specials. A test run made for some weird dungeon occupants. 

In the beginning of the text, there are two paragraphs that are important to running this edition of basic D&D. Both are on page B3. One speaks about the rules as guidelines. It explicitly states that after a few trial runs a DM should feel free to change any rule that does not work for them. I won't be doing this even though I am tempted to put in a minimum HP. I may do that if someone with 1 hp gets ganked early on. 

The second talks about the Adventure. The adventure begins at the entrance to the dungeon and ends when the characters leave the dungeon and divide up treasure. That is the goal of the game, to have dungeon adventures. This will be the goal of this game. 

Alignment. I am going to treat alignment as a guideline and encourage the players to consider their alignment in terms of their actions. Do not play Lawful if what you want is a selfish scoundrel. That would be Chaotic. I will not punish players for playing out of alignment or downplaying it. However, I will use my limited discretion as DM to reward playing within the alignment OR playing hard against the chosen alignment. And I will be using alignment language. 

Next step is stocking the dungeon. I may do this on camera just to show the process. Or it is my intention to do so, but we shall see how it goes.  I will put out a call for players before too long.

Actual Play
D&D Basic


I find these honest and rigorously faithful forays into different and/or older editions of any game to be extremely interesting and useful - especially when there is no prior experience of the game or when later experience obscures its specifics.

I hope you are able to share the process. I have no urge to return to any of the D&Ds and have no nostalgia for it, but I am intensely curious about how reading and playing it now affects people. I look forward to whatever reports you share~

Sean_RDP's picture

I tend to agree with you. I have not played it in decades for a reason and am generally moving away from D&D-ish style games. Although some of it is nostalgia, I honestly want to know more what I was nostalgic for. "Why did I like/love/play this game" seems to be a ninteresting question to ask. I will share each step as I can find the time. 

Sounds interesting. I might be available. It was my first RPG back in 1981.

will you be playing with the rules & other stuff from the expert book as well? (excluding the wilderness rules of course). Just curious. 

let me know when you start casting your net and have fun!

Sean_RDP's picture

Thanks! I will not be using the Expert set, unless the game progresses to that point. And I will keep you in mind when its time to call players. Much appreciated.

Ron Edwards's picture

(tidied up from a conversation at Discord; Sean is in the quotes boxes)

I think the Moldvay text misread the Holmes race/class rules entirely. The Holmes text doesn't assign dwarves, elves, and halfings their own respective classes. It specifies which classes those races can take. There's some muddled language here and there, but the process is clear if you start from the beginning. I think treating those groups as classes, so that (basically) class is the single variable, is totally an artifact, based on misreading, which doesn't have any cause or basis in game design at all.

My reasoning that it's an error comes from page 11 in Holmes. Pages 6-7 are unambiguous; you pick a race, then the nonhuman classes are very constrained (dwarves and halflings must be fighters, elves must be magic-users/fighters). But the language on page 11 gets all wonky, "dwarves progress as fighters," that kind of thing, so I think Moldvay read that and some of the other slightly tortured text - maybe the stuff about hit points on page 7, which is not illogical, but hard to read. Anyway, nothing you don't already know, but I thought I'd spell it out for the record.

Now, whether it is a happy accident, that's up to the individual reader, but I don't think I have ever encountered anyone perceiving it as an error. I think if you picked up Moldvay and "that's how you do it" gets embedded, then that's what you perceive as design, and reading Holmes becomes retroactive justification rather than seeing what's there.

I think that is a good way to look at it, and I never saw it as such until I actually read the Holmes texts. When I first read Holmes, I was looking for the race as class and surprised at what I found.

And I do not know if it's a happy accident or not, but it did create an interesting .... design is not the word ... option to play. What I would like to see, if it exists, is Moldvay's reasons for his version, if indeed the reasons are his, because in the interest of "clarifying" the rules, it created an entirely new game.

Ron Edwards's picture

(tidied up from a conversation at Discord; Sean is in the quotes boxes)

I also think there is a clear line of thinking that "basic" D&D is how it was supposed to have been all along, even it radically changes at Moldvay, more so than at Holmes. Because Moldvay reaches back in his intro to the original games, such as they are. And all of that reinforces the idea the this is how it should be done.

When I first encountered the OSR, I was shocked that the version they were teaching most was that version and not AD&D. Up until that time I had held it as alittle game that could, overshadowed by its more commercially viable big brother. Obviously I have since learned that was not exactly true.

I was surprised by the same thing, once the OSR got its feathers good and fluffed up, about 2010. I had missed Moldvay entirely in terms of gaming and purchasing experiences, so barely even thought about it, historically.

I am mostly convinced that in the very early 80s, the Satanic fear-factor specifically targeted AD&D. Lots of boobs, some pubic hair + demons everywhere, no less than ("obviously") Satan himself on the cover of the DMG. I suspect that the Moldvay publication was distributed widely for a few years directly into those very communities which rejected all such things, billed as the "clean" D&D, "for kids." The rural locations as well as the attitudes of its most fervent advocates, especially those who mistakenly claim it as "first" or "original" D&D all point to locally disgruntled, isolated gamers who hang onto Moldvay or Mentzer as a kind of rebel lifeline (Jim Raggi is an excellent example). That explains its explosion into visibility in the late 2000s; before then, like you, I thought of it as a minor curiosity.

(Which is also funny because ultimately Moldvay's presentation is way more underground and subversive than boring Gygax, who drained the juice out of everything, including the demons.)

The art and presentation in Mentzer certainly created a different, though still a bit subversive, vibe than Moldvay. And I am coming around to the idea that it was a deliberate attempt to get around the Satanic Panic.

I see the Mentzer publication differently, as almost entirely sanitized. But that also means I agree with your point. The orange-spine reissue of the AD&D books in 1983 also represents a defense against the Panic. I need to review when demons and devils were either temporarily removed or renamed, it was either then or a few years later.

Ron Edwards's picture

(tidied up from a conversation at Discord; Sean is in the quotes boxes)

Reference: pre-2000 D&D publication history

Mid-80s executive decision-making about the two tracks of D&D must have been a complete mess. "What the hell are we going to do with these?" Even without the ownership mess of the Blumes, Gygax/Mentzer, and (soon) the Williamses. As a tentative thought, AD&D had the convention scene, RPGA, and steady input of user-authored supplements on its side, plus the cachet of being the only "real book, with covers" in the hobby. Whereas the HMM track (please let's not call it "basic") was flatly a better game and probably had wider, more embedded success in retail distribution and in grassroots play.

Funny how people get all bent out of shape about Gygax and Arneson in the smoke-filled rooms of the early 1970s and no one ever talks about the Blumes, who controlled the property entirely from 1975 onwards. It's like how people confound Stan Lee with ownership and executive control of Marvel Comics, when he had neither, ever.

In 1985, Gygax and Mentzer tried to buy out TSR from the Blumes, but by 1986 they were elbowed out by the Williams purchase. Gygax was ousted from the company less than a year later. I know that they were friends and enthusiastic colleagues. I wonder whether the Mentzer D&D would have been the D&D, and AD&D basically left to die, if they had succeeded?

That is interesting. I didn't know about the purchase attempt. That would have caused a sea change I think. As it is, Williams let them go all the way into the 90s with the Immortal Set and Rules Cyclopedia. plus a few other bits and bobs.

Once the Williams ownership was established, that crew wasn't about to let any tiny bit of IP slip, and so went ahead and blithely threw money at anything with the D&D name on it, pumping it out there with little or no interest in logic or design. Maintaining the Mentzer line was merely one such "thing." Remind me, though: did that effort from about 1988 to 1994 produce new material? All I know about are repeated consolidations of the rules.

Right, the last few things were all setting or adventures. There are 4 adventures in the DDA series and the Hollow World setting, but no new rules. And much of the rework ignores the "Immortal" rules, I do believe.

Huh - I didn't realize until just now that Lorraine Williams started at TSR as a hired manager. Quite a flip!

Yes it was. I wonder at what point she decided she wanted to own it. Or that it was worth owning.

According to her Wikipedia article – it’s terrible, clearly copy-pasted from boilerplate sources – I infer that it was very short, less than a year, assuming she didn’t come in with that ambition. TSR was obviously low-hanging fruit, at $1.5 million in debt in 1984, which was real friggin' money then.

By the mid-1990s, the figure I recall was $37 million in debt, although I'd prefer to research that before saying it too casually.

Every time they got some debt, they had to take a loan and make a new book ... and then got in even more debt.

It's venture capital. "Look, we're the industry leader, we're the face of success, so that's why you have to give us money to stay afloat - and be even more successful, because that's what we are!"


Aside from the minor comedy of get-rich-quick-off-IP-inheritance idiots, there’s a real curse here that still needs lifting: the myth of D&D “dominating the industry” or as “the flagship of the hobby.” The mid-1980s to mid-1990s is most people’s formative experience of that myth – and it was all vapor.

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