Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Just three days left in October...and to make it worse, I'm writing this on my deathbed.

Well, not really. I'm really just very unwell, as I have been off-and-on for three weeks now. It's a tendency, however, to exaggerate things, such as how sick we are, how tired we are, how difficult a thing is ... and so on.

I'm thinking in this case of all the people who proudly hail the "Red Box" set as though it is some genius work of simplicity, an example of D&D brilliantly reduced to its fundamental, important principles, with none of those unnecessary and troubling gray-area mechanics that make other more complicated editions so very, very UN-FUN.

I can recall the first time I saw the Red Box set. Now I have to get precise about what I mean when I say "red box" ... because there's the Red Box set released by Robert Moldvay (1977?) and the Red Box 'starter' set released in 1983. When I hear people say "red box" I have no idea which one they mean. But then, who the fuck can? It's a matter of great humour that the 'basic' game was re-released so many freaking times under the same name between 1977 and 1983, meaning that no two people today can really agree on what the red box set "is." At least when I mention the original DMG, there was only ONE DMG ... and even now, when I refer to it as I often do on this blog, no one that I know has ever mistaken my reference for the bullshit re-title that came out with 3.0-3.5.

But putting all that on a shelf.

Very well. I remember the first time I saw this Red Box set. It was at a gaming shop in downtown Calgary called 'Catch the Wind.' Just imagine, a gaming shop selling D&D that could afford to be in the downtown mall of a city of half a million (Calgary has a million now, but it was smaller then). Every gaming shop I've seen since was in some industrial park somewhere.

It's a rare gamer around now who remembers that place. Catch the Wind's primary business was in Kites - which is even odder for a downtown shop - but they had a wall that was dedicated to roleplaying games. I bought my Unearthed Arcana and my original Deities & Demigods there (the one with Melnibonean & Cthulhu myths ... but sadly my copy is long gone from this earth).

I was with friends when we saw the Red Box set. By then we had been playing AD&D for four years. I believe our general response was, "What the fuck is this?"

The Owner, who was a sort of grumpy hippie-like dude, thin with a bald head and beard, muttered that it was D&D for kids.


That seemed pretty goddamn obvious to us. To begin with, there was that little label on the box that said, "For Ages 10 and Up" or something to that effect (this was 30 years ago), and that was always something they ONLY put on kiddie games. And when we soft-talked the owner into letting us open the box (in those days there was no tape, no plastic wrapping, you could just open shit), we stood at his counter for a few minutes laughing our goddamn asses off at what a bullshit simple-Simon game system it was supposed to be. I mean, seriously! Real players played AD&D with all the rulebooks we could get our hands on.

Hell, it used to be a sort of pride when I'd tromp off to run D&D, pull out my handful off hardcover books and let them drop, THUMP, on the table. It was a way of letting the players know, "Okay, this is fucking serious, and you better bet I know these rules cold - I have freaking memorized them."

D&D was serious to us. Players who vowed to progress their way to being DMs knew they were going to be held on account for knowing those damn books backwards and forwards and we all thought that was damn fine. Why should anyone be allowed to DM if they weren't going to prove they were committed to the ideal?

Over the next five or ten years, the Red Box set was around, sure. It was something someone's baby brother was using to play with his kid friends. It was always for sale at the Cons we went to and yes, now and then we met people who actually played the Red Box. But we just sort of looked down on those people as probably retarded or possessing of some other mental deficiency. It certainly never crossed our minds that anyone would actually preach the Red Box as some sort of superior thing. That was inconceivable.

I even remember one of those embarrassing moments when a relative gave me a copy of the Red Box set because they had "heard I liked Dungeons and Dragons." Major gift failure. I remember I read it all the way through and obtained absolutely not one idea from it.

By the late 90s I had pulled back from 'the community' in every respect. If I ran my world, it was almost solely with people who hadn't played for a very, very long time, or who had never played before. I did not play in anyone else's world. And that's how things were until I came across the on-line community of bloggers sometime around 2007. I'd say there was a 15 year gap in my social memory of the progression of D&D.

When, apparently, reading 400 pages of a text-book (the equivalent of D&D, Player's Handbook and Monster Manual) became so HARD that no one of any reasonable, ordinary willingness to run D&D would actually do it. I mean, seriously ... 400 pages? What the fuck? Am I taking a medical degree here? I thought this was supposed to be fun!


So now I converse with and compare notes with people who play the Red Box set with the understanding that I'm not supposed to look down on them. After all, it's not about the rules, it's about the imagination and the FUN. Nevermind that it would mean - were I ever to play in one of those games - that I'd have to rely almost entirely on the DM's Judgement anytime I wanted to do something that wasn't covered in the Mickey Mouse rules as written. I mean, its not like I have an imagination. It's not as if I'm going to butt heads with the DM every time my imagination includes things that aren't included in a 64-page booklet. It's not as though the DM isn't going to use the tiny size of that booklet to contain my imagination in a bottle. No, that would be inconceivable.

But let's be honest ... I am never going to play in a campaign run with a Red Box set. Even if I were at a Convention (I'd better be a paid speaker there, I don't know why the hell else I'd go ... except possibly to sell a DM's Book I may imaginably write some day), if a bunch of really, really excited people really, really wanted me to play, I'd have to tell them I'd rather pop up to my room, take a swim in the hotel pool, get Vodka'd in the hotel bar or, you know, sleep. Because I really just don't fucking care to play kiddie games.

There you have it. I'm a snob. It's a common failing with experts.


Timothy Brannan said...

Well...not to be the buzzkill, but make sure you check your facts first (granted you did say you were sick).

It's Tom Moldvay, not Robert.
It the Magenta-ish "Red Box" Modlvay set was out in 1980-81.

The Robert Holmes Basic, also called the Blue Basic was out in 1977.

I went through the same sort of "red box hate" you described. Then I got over it. You know what, there is a damn fine game in that Red Box.

Yeah I have D&D (and several other games) committed to memory. But who cares? Red Box is like the Wii, cheap and fun.

And yeah. I do run these things at cons. It's a blast.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My facts?

What the fuck is a fact here?

For every blogger who's out there screaming that this thing was produced on this day and released in this year and put out from this guy, there's ten others who disagree.

I wrote "Robert" because that's what Wikipedia said. I don't really give a shit one way or the other.

Alexis Smolensk said...

On further reflection, I like that phrase, "... got over it." Like it was a disease.

Alternatively, "... got lazy."

Timothy Brannan said...

Ok, so "Robert Holmes" is wrong. That is some Prof. I used to work with.

We don't have to have guesses on dates. Books have ISBNs, Library of Congress numbers, we can look that information up. Get a copyright date.

But otherwise.
Sure. Whatever you need think man.

JDJarvis said...

How do the unenlightened learn if the snobs don't show them the way ? ;-)
I wouldn't play 4e just don't care for it in the slightest, is that snobbery?

JDJarvis said...

I have nothing against basic D&D myself but it's basic, it isn't the whole game, it is a reduced subset of something larger. Not wanting to play the reduced training wheels version of the game makes some sense.
For me the Basic and Expert sets (pre Mentzer) offer enough of the game I'd give a calmpaign a shot, but it isn't "Red Box" once the rules are doubled. Were I DMing such a campaign there'd be a few houserules added maybe so many it would be its own game. Heck, my current D&D game is a house-ruled hodge-podge because no version of published D&D was good enough.

James C. said...

Couldn't disagree more, Alexis. Personally I'd rather take 64 pages of rules that work and build the rest from there then have to trim out all of the useless shit Gygax packed into the DMG and PHBK then have to rebuild the damn thing after that herculean effort. It's not that the Basic Rules were so brilliant. It's one part nostalgia and one part not not being the hot mess AD&D was and is. How much of that DMG do you even use anymore?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Very little, James.

But I didn't get rid of it; I replaced it. And the original was critical in my thinking on HOW to replace it.

I run a very, very complex world. You, a player, have three questions to ask yourself:

How fair is it to the players? How much do you respect it? How much do you trust your judgement there?

I feel my approach to limiting my involvement in my world produces those three qualities, which makes my world superior. I don't believe I could produce a superior world with ad hoc judgements. Moreover, I believe that Red Box set games MUST play like traditional D&D (hack/slash) because there's no room for any higher involvement.

I want more than disagreement of opinion. Disagreement I have in abundance. I want an argument that rationally demonstrates where my thinking is faulty.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Tim Brannan is pissed that I did not immediately recognize that he was absolutely correct when he stated that I was absolutely wrong about the time of the Red Box set's creation. "That is what I get for trying to correct an 'expert' " he says.

I am not an expert in the order and authoring of D&D detritus, of which there is a lot, and over which I have yet to see any definitive agreement. I said right in the post that I had to be precise by "WHAT I MEAN WHEN I SAY" ... because I knew someone was going to correct me. I don't consider the correction either relevant or necessarily accurate - because I did not see a source for the correction beyond Tim Brannan's assertion. It's a shame that Mr. Brannan decided that this particular irrelevancy precludes the chance of anything else I've said being correct or accurate. But there you are.

Don't argue with the point, argue with the irrelevancies. Troll science 101.

James C. said...

Replace it, get rid of it... your argument appears to be more with semantics and attitudes than rule sets.

Here are two absolutes for you: All published versions of the game are serviceable but insufficient. It's always been up to the DM's to make them better.

The fault in your argument lies is pre-supposing that a DM couldn't do what you're doing with the Basic set. Many of your rules actually fit quite nicely on a Basic chassis. I know because I've used them.

By your stated standards AD&D would be just as limited as Basic D&D, only with a few pet classes and a pole arm fetish bolted on. Nothing you argue for above and in the other post was ever addressed by AD&D that I recall.

The best one can say about AD&D is that it was sophomore year for the game. Celebrating it or holding it up as some standard is, at best, only marginally better than gushing about the Basic set. You're better off holding your own game up as the standard, but that's really what all of this is all about anyway, right?

Alexis Smolensk said...

James, you seem to have missed the part where I was already four years into replacing the AD&D rule set before coming across the Basic Set.

You also seem to have missed the part where people scream simplicity! all over the net ... it the OSR warcry. These people don't want a set of precedents (rule negotiations) and expanded gaming. They want the fewest rules possible for the fewest situations possible.

Of course someone could take the Red Box set and do what I'm doing! But the proponents of the Red Box set aren't. If they were doing what I'm doing, then every set and every edition would be sauce for the goose ... and there wouldn't be edition wars.

Apart from the apparent misconception in this post, where my AD&D roots are referenced for what they were 30 years ago, have you heard me hammering the Good News of AD&D?

James C. said...

No, I'm aware of the cries for simplicity... my point is just that it's really not about which rules set you start with, it's about where and when you stop.

Also, the whole "rulings and not rules" approach to me was more about moving the game along than a design credo. I understand that's not how a lot of people take it. Again, the debate to me isn't about from where you started but rather to where you're intending to go.

I should have been more specific above. My first sentence should have been, "Regarding AD&D's superiority as a starting point, I couldn't disagree more Alexis."

Timothy Brannan said...

Pissed? Hardly.

Lord Gwydion said...

Late to the party (yes, I read the other, newer post), but oh well.

Original D&D came out in 73 or 74, around the time I was born. And looking at that disorganized mess of a game, most of the original stuff does appear in the Basic and Expert sets (both the Moldvay/Cook 81 sets and the 83 Mentzer sets). And if you continue on with the Mentzer Companion, Masters and Immortals sets, you do get over 400 pages of rules. Just not all at once.

And it's not all simplistic dungeon bashing games. And it's provided me with just as good of a base to create MY D&D as AD&D would have. Better in some aspects, I'd say.

Now, I've not developed my rules as highly as you have. Never will. Maybe I am a lazy DM in your eyes, but really, I don't give a shit. I'm not doing this to win your approval, just like you're not doing it to win mine or anyone else's save the players at your table. And my players are having fun, enjoying my games. And when something like sheep shearing or forging international treaties comes up, we'll figure out something together.

Trying to start an edition war to get people to think about how they can improve your game doesn't work. It just gets people bogged down in debating the minutia.

Players already do what you are calling on them to do. I've had people leave my games or decide not to play at all because they don't like the simplicity of my rules. Fair enough. I hope they find games they will enjoy instead. I've never had trouble finding players who do appreciate it, and I'm happy to run games for them. Doesn't make one better than the other in my mind.