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On the hegemony of Moldvay's B&X in the D&D culture of play today

Today, at the discord, I express my curiosity about why Moldvay Basic D&D catalyzed so much the attention today, instead of Mentzer’s BECMI or Holmes’s D&D. Ron recommended checking this with Sean who has the experience of the presence of Moldvay’s version. Sean reacted and triggered a conversation with contributions from James Nostak, John Wilson and Ron Edwards. Here is the full conservation.

This conversation is relevant in the context of this serie of “Finding D&D” posts : https://adeptplay.com/tags/finding-dd

Sean:

@Greg (GMT+2) I will give a short version that we can take to the site if we wish. A couple caveats: I am of course an unreliable narrator; I only know what I experienced in a insignificant Maryland suburb and later small college.

Second one, almost no one played pure D&D/AD&D. Even though memory suggests we did

When I started playing, I had to hunt around for others who played and they tended to play with Moldvay, seasoned with AD&D or they played different campaigns- one AD&D and one Basic D&D. And there was the idea still that Basic D&D was the kids version. The stepping stone to the bigger game and my recollection of marketing suggested it as well.

But the players I knew who started with Mentzer did not stick with role-playing games. The ones who started with Moldvay did

It’s not scientific at all. However, I will point to the modules before the graphical/tonal switch as one reason Moldvay is perceived as more worthy of resurrection than Mentzer. Those modules (Keep on the Borderland & The Lost City as examples) are seen as great examples of the art of the module, whereas the Mentzer era modules that are considered good are not necessarily associated with Mentzer.

I think the association between what D&D was supposed to be and Moldvay appeared stronger than Mentzer, which is I think seen as a reboxing of the original.  Even though they are not the same game.

From my perspective then the reason the OSR seeing Moldvay as the gold standard is that the tonal shift between Moldvay and Mentzer goes unnoticed and so Mentzer is not seen as its own phenomenon.

As far as Holmes, though I was vaguely aware of it, I never encountered anyone who played it for decades. And then I did not think it significant in difference, although there is a huge difference between Holmes and Moldvay.

James Nostak:

Two things about Mentzer that I think deserve some praise: (1) the Basic Rules present an extremely good teaching text for 10 year olds; (2) the Companion Rules makes a serious (if IMO unsuccessful) effort to handle the “okay now your character is running a kingdom” trip that’s been a promised part of the game since the beginning.

Sean:

@James_Nostack to your first point, that new character walk-through at the beginning of the Mentzer player's guide is brilliant, imo. One of the best how to play any rpg I have seen.

James Nostak:

Agreed.  TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes game does a decent job of this too; Harold Johnson is the one guy in common, though I don’t know him from anything else.

John Wilson:

I started with Moldvay at around age 10. Friends of mine had AD&D, and we played together using all our books.  It was years before I realized the two were separate games.

James Nostak:

My recollection of the OSR circa 2008-2010 is that the preference from Moldvay over Mentzer was likely historically contingent.  (1) everyone already knew how to play, so a teaching text from a “less pure” era was less useful; (2) there was a retro-clone of Moldvay, Labyrinth Lord, but not of Mentzer so further development tended to go down that fork; (3) a general preference for the art of Erol Otus over Elmore/Easley.  The OSR was a real small scene in those days, so once a preference got locked in by a few bloggers it became received wisdom

Sean:

And things like hex crawl are a later addition because Moldvay itself begins and ends at the dungeon door.

But it's core OSR now.

James Nostak:

Yeah actually that’s a subtle point: when people say “Moldvay” it’s often shorthand for the Moldvay Basic rules + Cook’s Expert rules which came out a year later.  Cook’s expert rules have hex crawls which was then cemented by the Isle of Dread adventure (written by both of them).

Ron Edwards:

Thanks both of you, extremely! Another factor perhaps concerns the Satanic Panic. In many parts of the U.S., AD&D was the target - specifically the big demons on the covers, nudity in interior art, and much more-or-less literary occultism in the magic. Those were downplayed a lot in Moldvay, and although to my eyes Otus' art is underground and subversive, to many parents' eyes it was probably kid-friendly and cartoony. I am very interested to know whether Moldvay continued to be distributed in regions where AD&D was not, from about 1981 through 1989. It seems correlated to me with the intensity with which many teens of that era clutched D&D to them as their rebellion and also consider it as something which must be protected from harm.

Sean:

I wonder too if there is secondary market effect. Moldvay editions became collectors items during late 80s and beyond. People who lost their stuff went looking fir that edition? People selling their old stuff sold the Moldvay editions? Pure speculation but perhaps perceived scarcity created a heightened cultural significance?

 

I like how this conversation doesn’t end with Sean’s last comments, and how it opens new questions, feel free to contribute in the comments.

Department: 
Seminar

Comments

James_Nostack's picture

Despite my commetns above, I've never really understood why the preference is so pronounced. 

Although B/X and BECMI are extremely different textually and tonally, they're functionally indistinguishable 99% of the time.  I'll grant that BECMI is massively different after Level 15, but I have never once heard of anyone actually playing at those levels.  For the levels that actually saw use, B/X versus B/E was a distinction without much difference.

I've never heard of anyone showing up to a table, and saying, "Basic Dungeons & Dragons, eh?  Cool, cool!  Mind if I roll up a character?  Great!  Wait--MENTZER?!?  Eww, no thank you."  And yet people online acted like there was this great divide of Good Taste vs. Schlock.  

It's a Coke vs. Pepsi argument, and my recollection of the 2008-2012 period was that a lot of the stated preferences came down to (at best) the most niggling, infitesimal pedantry or (at worst) status-mongering.

Sean_RDP's picture

100% agree. I have used them interchanaably through the years. Where it could matter is for folks like us who investigate the nuances, but for the larger conversation none of it matters. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I think you are completely on-target regarding the discourse in the years immediately following the introduction of "OSR" as a term. It was internet catnip and blogger red meat, but frankly, once I separate the naively-idealistic from the willfully stupid from the outright opportunistic power-mongering, the decent content is represented by very few people and sources

[Fairness check: I name Victor Jason Raymond, Shoe Skogen, or others of good ideas and good faith - but I also identify most of them as (i) having come into it after that point, and/or (ii) having more recently left or having been ejected from the circles they were in a decade ago, and those circles were never a good place. I also feel some sympathy for the small clusters of "nice guy OSR," especially scattered around Europe, a bit like the sweet but quaintly irrelevant social activists in the States who want us to understand that "real Christians" wouldn't act like that.]

Greg, I'd like you to consider that your primary question - "why is the Moldvay version apparently privileged or elevated in that specific discourse" - may be settled at this point as well as it probably can be. That's primarily an artifact of the factors that James mentioned, both as quoted in your post and as he commented here. Rather than see the discussion spin into such worthless spheres as "what 'OSR' means to me" or similar, I ask you to provide a new, related question, whatever you like, for us to work on here.

JC's picture

One thing I noticed that in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I found multiple copies of the Moldvay rulebook (not box set) out in the wild. The Mentzer set spilt the rules between two books, one for players and one for DMs. I only saw the Mentzer set in the box or in a set of books at a higher price point.

This was in the late-00s and early-10s, I know the price had inflated dramatically since then but Moldvay was like $10 to 20 bucks for a book. I think store owners thought the binder holes were damage.

Another point worth considering is that the Moldvay sets "online archival copies" had better scans at the time from what I remember.

Ron Edwards's picture

Greg, I don't know if you've seen Staying underground, dungeon or no dungeon. It's a conversation between me and Jon Hastings concerning his reading of Holmes' 1977 Dungeons & Dragons. It's necessarily comparative, so the comments there by Sean and others provide further information and ideas.

This post of yours runs the risk of repeating or recycling what a number of us said at that time, so to move the discussion forward, please check it out.

Greg's picture

I agree that the discord discussion and specially James's answer seems to answer my original questions. 

I just want to aknowledge that I'll come back to this post once I've seen this conversation (that I haven't seen) with Jason D'Angelo, and also the conversation of Find D&D involving John Hastings. I just don't have time this week, but I'm reading and reflecting to formulate new inquiries in the following weeks. 

Hans's picture

This is idiosyncratic and so probably not super relevant to the larger discourse regarding "why Moldvay", but I was a shiny new role-player in 2009 or so when I, with some trepidation, joined the Story-Games.com forum, along with some embarrassing hero worship of Names who posted there. And then wouldn't you know, one of the Names posted about Moldvay. In probably 2011 Luke Crane did a write-up of a Moldvay game he ran for some of his co-workers and it sounded incredible, and unlike anything I had ever imagined "old-school" could be (my experienced touchpoints for RPGs at that point were, in order, D&D 3.5, Dogs in the Vineyard, a smattering of con games, and Burning Wheel). Luke is of course a charismatic communicator.

I remember in the thread some discussion of "why Moldvay in particular", but the answers didn't stick in my memory. The idea that I had to run Basic D&D, and it had to be Moldvay, however, did. ("System Matters" had metastasized in my brain into something like "you must use the exact correct rules and apply them correctly and then everything will be Hot Shit".)

Which is where JC's comment comes in: yep, I bought a copy of Moldvay from a shop in the pacific NW not long after reading Luke's post (JC -- it was RCG, back when it was a dingy hole-in-the-wall and Foster-Powell had yet to be gentrified). Ten or twelve bucks for a battered copy of the rulebook that I read cover-to-cover a couple times, and then used to run B1 - In Search of the Unknown (it was the module that Luke used, naturally). We only played for a couple hours, then took a break, and most of the group didn't want to continue playing, which I was bummed about; I had imagined playing for hours and hours and could have readily kept going. I was experiencing some emergent and exploratory play in ways that I hadn't quite before.

I haven't revisited Moldvay, or B/X since, though I did play some OSE. 

Hans's picture

1981, the year Moldvay was published, was also the apex of D&D sales of that era. D&D and TSR slid continually downward from there until Gygax's ouster in 1985 (I've just read Jon Peterson's Game Wizards about this exact era).

So, the mindshare of Moldvay may in part be due to the fact that it was the version of the non-AD&D game when the fad of D&D was at its biggest, meaning a higher probability that those in the aughts looking back on childhood D&D were looking back on Moldvay.

Sean_RDP's picture

It is possible it then hit the secondary market of (at the time) con swaps/sales and FLGS bargain bins harder than Mentzer or Holmes. 

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