"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

If B/X was the only D&D

I was reading about someone wanting to set up an OD&D game that would focus on the by-the-book original ruleset and trying to see how it played without subsequent interpretations.

This got me thinking about what D&D would be like if instead of the original booklets and Holmes rules coming before the Moldvay and Cook books and the numerous versions after, the Moldvay and Cook books were it. An alternate universe where 1981 was the first year where fantasy roleplaying was introduced to the world in the form of the B/X box sets and, since they are perfect :), no other version or form of roleplaying game was ever published.

How would D&D play if you only had the two boxsets (the Basic and Expert rulebooks, the Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread) and had no experience of 1974 D&D, AD&D or 2E AD&D, or any other forms of roleplaying.

1. Race as class would be a given. This would give the game a very strong focus are archetypes.

2. The implied setting would be different.
2a. Alignment - Three basic ways of life would guide the actions of everyone in the world (lawful, neutral, chaotic).

2b. Alignment Languages would be a definite part of the setting.

2c. Low magic - low power. Especially if you take the conservative view on spellbooks. Fighters would remain relevant at higher levels. Less powerful magic items.

2d. Deities are beyond the scope of monster stats.

2e. Dungeons and wilderness would be populated with NPCs, humanoids, giant animals, dinosaurs, and mythical monsters. It would be missing many of the "iconic" D&D monsters such as beholders, liches, demons, etc.

3. Dungeons would be smaller and scenario specific. I believe that relying on the instructions in the basic rulebook and the examples of the Haunted Keep and the Keep on the Borderlands would give a different feel for dungeon adventures.
3a. The design process for creating a dungeon is outlined as a very systematic process in the basic rulebook. Each dungeon would be designed for a specific scenario or quest, would include one or a few specific monsters and the rest would be randomly generated.

3b. Lots of characters would die facing the forces of chaos in the dungeons.

4. You can never trust NPCs as they may be agents of chaos.

5. Wilderness would focus on small scale and scope - valleys, islands, a barony, etc. and would be for exploration and to follow treasure maps.
5a. The wilderness design process focuses on a micro to macro process. Not far reaching campaign worlds.
5b. The base town is for healing, magic, rumours, retainers, and selling (read fencing) treasures found.

6. High level PCs and NPCs hang out in their strongholds.

7. Lots of sailing around in boats.

8. More structured game play. The Basic and Expert rulebooks are highly formulaic and following it from game session to game session gives a campaign a very distinct feel. It would be quest focused (even if many of the quests are just the PCs trying to become rich) and episodic. Without other roleplaying games to draw from, the mechanical processes given in the rulebooks for everything from moving in a dungeon, combat rounds, wilderness exploration, etc. give everything a very codified, concise, and almost board-gamey feel. And this is not a complaint - it is how I often try to run it anyway.


  1. I like BX. And 0D&D. I think it would be an interesting exercize to play either as-written, although I truly believe D&D was meant to be house-ruled, as there are too many areas without rules.

    Going back to ground on either system would be interesting, in the way that participating in a survival weekend would be interesting. But I don't think i'd want to do that every weekend!

  2. I have been including a handful of house rules in my B/X games but this has me thinking I would like to try to go back to a by-the-book B/X game.

    I don't think B/X has many holes in its rules. I think it is very holistic and can easily be run for long campaigns with no house rules. Once again if viewed without the influence of other RPGs, it includes everything you need for game play. But I can see that in the context of other RPGs it may be viewed as missing a couple of things.

    Given that you like both OD&D and B/X how do you think they would differ in terms of feel and/or game play if they each existed in isolation?

    One big difference I believe would be OD&D would include more "weirdness" while B/X would be more straight medieval-esque fantasy. The old REH vs Tolkien argument maybe.

    Just given the differences in how the rulebooks are written and edited, I also believe that B/X games would be more consistent from table to table while OD&D would be a lot more varied.

  3. If it had stopped at B/X I wouldn't be struggling to understand the advanced physics textbook that is Pathfinder.

  4. I still find it weird that so many people don't realize that the rules in B/X are virtually identical to OD&D. In a very real sense B/X is simply a clarified and refined OD&D. Even in OD&D there were race-classes, they just weren't described as that exactly even though that's what they were. I don't buy the weirdness/Tolkien dichotomy at all between B/X and OD&D. There is nothing inherently different about the sort of fantasy between the two. There are no extra elements of "weirdness" in OD&D, it's just been sold that way recently by some people. It is what you bring to it, nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Dan,
    I somewhat disagree. The monster rosters and magic items inventories differ somewhat if you include the OD&D supplements thus B/X lacking demons and some of the higher power and weirder monsters and the same with magic items.

    Rules wise I agree that B/X and OD&D are nearly identical (as I have mentioned a number of times on this blog) - just B/X is edited into a more coherent text. However, I think that it is this coherence that would make B/X less weird and a more holistic and consistent fantasy rpg.

  6. The first thing I did when I picked up Basic/Labyrinth Lord was do away with alignment languages. I guess I house ruled it right off.

  7. @P_Armstrong: I thought we were only talking about the three first OD&D booklets. I'm not sure comparing B/X to OD&D with supplements is a useful comparison. Just IMHO, of course, but in either case I personally don't see too much in the magic items or most monsters that have a "Tolkien Feel" (except of course for some that are direct ripoffs). As for weirdness, I'd agree that the demons and other additions do add a kind of different feel to AD&D or OD&D + supplements (proto-AD&D). I guess I misunderstood what you meant by weird fantasy. I perceive weird fantasy as possibly including other genre elements like alien powers, alien artifacts, more Lovecraft influence, that sort of thing. None of those are particularly more present in any edition of the game with the exception of one AD&D module.

  8. Even had nothing ever been introduced, someone somewhere along the way would have houseruled the books. Its in our nature to tweek rules and change things; I bet we'd be here talking about someone's specialized fighter class....

    As to the adventures themselves, even with only Isle of Dread and KOTB to go by, someone with some imagination would have created a village, town or city and the rules to randomly generate them, someone would have made a megadungeon, etc. It's too much to assume that as creative as most of our ilk are we would just have stood pat the last 30 years and still be running hte 100th version of Isle or KoTB.

  9. @ Badmike,
    I don't disagree with you. Afterall the B/X rulebooks are very upfront that they are just suggestions instead of set in stone rules.

    This is of course just a mental exercise for the fun of it. Thanks for playing everyone.

  10. Hunh; I'd always thought that alignment languages came in much later, around AD&D.