DUNGEON LIFE BEGINS AT 40
Updated: Mar 24
As part of our celebration of the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons B/X we sent Matt Thrower to speak to two of the game's designers David “Zeb” Cook and Stephen Marsh to find out more about both the game's genesis and its enduring appeal.
Role-playing changed forever in 1977. That was the year Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hit the shelves. It transformed what had been a popular supplement for the miniatures game Chainmail into a hobby in it’s own right. But there was a problem with this new vision for the game. Split into the same three core rulebooks we know today it was complex and it was expensive.
To resolve this issue its publisher, TSR, hired fantasy author and neurologist John Eric Holmes to produce a new basic version. The idea was that after this simplified introduction, they would move to AD&D. But then in 1981, Tom Moldvay further revised Holmes' edition into a distinct set of rules in its own right, a set of rules which would become known as the B/X (for Basic/Expert) Edition. It would be the start of a journey that continues to the present day, and the next step was taken by designer Dave “Zeb” Cook.
‘TSR was always looking for ways to reach the mass market,’ he recalls. ‘That meant making it easier for everyone to understand and get into the game. It was a conscious effort to make the game easier for younger players. We lost a lot of sales because the AD&D rulebooks were so intimidating they never even started playing.’
But there was more to it than just complexity: moving the game into a boxed set was also a clever marketing decision. ‘A set of hardbacks were expensive, and most often got racked among all the other books which wasn't where you went to look for a game. A box set with a couple of booklets was much more approachable.’
Moldvay’s original Basic rules only contained material to get characters up to level three. That’s where Cook stepped in, leading the project to use those foundations to develop the Expert half of the set which would take characters to level 14. He wanted to make sure it wasn’t just about adding more powers and abilities. ‘I wanted it to be fun and I really did hope players would learn how to do a wilderness adventure,’ he says.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. ‘This was the biggest thing I had tackled at that time,’ he reveals. ‘It was a lot of responsibility and we were all still so new to the whole job of creating games that we didn't even know how big a job we had taken on. I don't recall any great humorous moments, but there were definitely moments of panic. Mostly, it was “omg, this is a lot of work and how are we ever going to get it done in time?”’
WE WERE ALL STILL SO NEW TO THE WHOLE JOB OF CREATING GAMES THAT WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW BIG A JOB WE HAD TAKEN ON
Stephen Marsh, a game designer and lawyer who’d been involved in D&D since its original edition and who served as lead writer on the project, picks up the theme. ‘I just wanted to do a good job. I was handed a “basket of stuff”, just material lying around the office in a basket: think of a slush pile. And I was glad to find out that I was free to ignore all of it, which I promptly did after getting updated by Zeb Cook. I'd never encountered a slush pile before, and thought initially I was supposed to use all of it!’
For many whose first experience of role-playing was the Basic D&D boxed set there were some peculiarities in the stripped-down rules. An oft-commented one is the way that non-human characters - elves, dwarves and halflings - were distinct classes in their own right. You couldn’t be an elven cleric, for instance: all elves were a mix of warrior and wizard, without excelling at either skill.
According to Marsh, this originated in Chainmail. ‘An elf could be used as a fighter or a magic user in a battle but the role was chosen in advance,’ he explains. ‘No one played them that way. They all played elves as fighters and magic users at the same time, more or less. The obvious solution for that in D&D was to just make an elf class that had the abilities and experience points in line with the way it was played.’
This was considered for revision when Moldvay took over the rules. ‘Tom and I discussed changing to the race system,’ Cook reveals. ‘But we ultimately decided the single system was better for something that was supposed to be basic. We felt that the interplay of two decisions, race and class, right at the start was overloading the beginning player. So keeping it simple, to one choice, reduced the opportunity to create a bad first experience.’
For the Expert set, Marsh had plans to expand the concept to offer players more options. ‘I wanted to add Gnome Dream Mages,’ he tells me. ‘They were similar to illusionists, but with some significant differences. And Dwarven Forge Masters, a type of cleric. That never came about.’ He did contribute the psionics rules for AD&D, and considered adding a B/X version to the Companion set, which followed Expert. “But there was only so much room,’ he shrugs.
“I WANTED TO ADD GNOME DREAM MAGES”
Marsh is also credited with bringing the concept of Good and Evil to the AD&D alignment system in addition to the somewhat esoteric options of Law and Chaos from the original edition but that was also barred. ‘I was given strict instructions to generally not go beyond the original three brown booklets as much as possible,’ he explains. ‘So I didn’t expand alignment, even though my expansion was in The Strategic Review.’
The 1981 Basic edition came with a module, Keep on the Borderlands. So it made sense for the Expert set to do the same and for it to be a wilderness adventure, allowing groups to make full use of the new material. The result was Isle of Dread, authored by Zeb Cook himself along with Tom Moldvay.
It’s often listed as among the best adventures for B/X, but Cook was modest about the praise it has received. ‘It was popular for a simple reason,’ he opines. ‘Since it came in the box, there were a lot of them out there and we didn't give you a choice of anything else to use. So a lot of people used it and a lot more people played it. If that's your first experience with a new system and wilderness adventures, you tend to remember it, and hopefully fondly.’
Cook would author several other adventures for the system, the best known of which is a two-parter made up of Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death. Cook used the first of these as a primer for novice DM’s. ‘It took on some basic challenges a lot of DM's faced and showed how they could be set up,’ he explains. ‘For example, it was basically a road trip: the story was about getting from here to there. So it gave an example of how to have a story that wasn't set so much to a specific location, but was a series of events that built the story as you went.’
It also featured something that would become a staple in many adventures: a big set-piece scene which still let the heroes be key players. ‘Cinematically, it was a giant battle and the characters could easily have just been more bodies in the fight,’ Cook says. ‘My solution was to make them feel important by setting up several scenes that were portrayed as critical moments where the players' actions would be the key difference. So hopefully they got to be the heroes surrounded by a sea of extras.’
B/X as a system is still played today as part of what’s become known as the Old School Renaissance or OSR. It’s an approach to adventure role-playing that frames it as much as a challenge as a story. Character creation is fast and players are encouraged to enjoy the difficulty of weak stats and come up with clever solutions to traps and combat encounters. The DM, in turn, has to run the game as a fair adjudicator.
For Marsh, this is partly a question of practicality. ‘The actual old school way of play was so varied that it pretty much can encompass just about any style of play,’ he recalls. ‘At the same time, the Renaissance tends to be purer. That is, people tend to be much more likely to hold to the rule set rather than mix and matching, which was more common back in the day.’
“I'M NOT SURE ANYTHING IS GENUINELY OLD SCHOOL UNLESS IT IS ARGUING ABOUT THE PROPER WAY TO PLAY THE GAME”
Cook agrees. ‘I'm not sure anything is genuinely old school unless it is arguing about the proper way to play the game,’ he laughs. ‘Ever since the start of RPG's, groups have played the game differently. Everything from style to interpretations of ambiguous rules and homemade rules for all those holes created a range of different flavors.’
Speaking of which, it’s common for modern OSR games like Labyrinth Lord and The Black Hack to tweak the B/X system with their own tilt. Cook is happy to see modern players building on his work.
‘The rules were never perfect or set in stone,’ he says. ‘In many ways it means we achieved one of our goals, to encourage DM’s and players to make the game their own. Other changes are based on lots of years of common knowledge about role-playing. Back then we didn't have that info or experience.’
Cook went on to help another TSR design stalwart, Jeff Grubb, bring one of D&D’s inspirations, Conan the Barbarian, to the tabletop. The Conan Role-Playing Game was based on, of all things, the rules for Marvel Super Heroes. ‘At the time, the management was looking for ways to expand RPG offerings with the idea that we would somehow reach untapped and lucrative markets,’ he explains. ‘Conan was a shot at that. I admit I pushed it because I like Conan. I grew up on it. In my youth Conan and Tarzan reprints were among the most common fantasy titles you could find.’
Cook also authored the Oriental Adventures hardback for AD&D which was met with critical acclaim at the time, but has since been criticised for its cultural stereotyping. Cook understands the anger. ‘I cringe at some of the writing,’ he tells me. ‘The world changes and hopefully we become better for that.’
“THE WORLD CHANGES AND HOPEFULLY WE BECOME BETTER FOR THAT”
The split between AD&D and the B/X system was abandoned when the whole product line got a huge overhaul in 3rd edition D&D. But for many older players the current 5th edition feels like a return to the sensibilities of those more innocent days. Cook is among them. ‘I think it’s part of the swing toward easier, faster play that is epitomized by old school games like B/X,’ he tells me.
Marsh has similar feelings. ‘5th Edition plays like some house ruled campaigns I saw,’ he recalls. ‘Read Sean Summers’ write up of Samurai in the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. They had abilities, like magic users had spells, and would fit right into a modern 5th Edition campaign. I think 5th edition is fun.’ Fun enough that he runs a game of it every year at North Texas RPG Con alongside a B/X game, the latter part of an ongoing campaign.
B/X remains the cornerstone of Cook’s hobby time, also at conventions. He finds the system a good fit for organised play. ‘I limit convention games to 4 hours, so B/X allows me to get the play going quickly,’ he says. ‘The rules are simple and so iconically foundational that even players unfamiliar with the system can pick things up very quickly.’
There aren’t many role-playing systems that can claim a dedicated fan base, rules reprints and ongoing popularity 40 years after they were first released. But the work that Moldvay, Cook and Marsh put into B/X has ensured its place among the classics.
For Cook, a lot of that success is down to its flexibility. ‘I think that in the main the idea of keeping it more open and less rigid endured,’ he tells me. ‘I'm a big fan of “less is more” type of rules, and D&D kept up that spirit.’
And as far as its longevity is concerned, he is typically modest.
‘We hoped it would become a proper line,’ he muses. ‘And I guess we managed to do that.’
Fancy exploring dungeons like it’s 1981, then both the Basic & Expert D&D rules are still available as PDFs from DriveThruRPG.com ... or if you’re incredibly lucky as a box set at a second hand shop or flea market.
Feature cover art by Dungeon Baker
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2
Want to know what happened next to D&D B/X, check out our feature on the game's curious afterlife