Thursday, May 05, 2016

Throwback Thursday Gaming: Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons

"I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave.

Sometimes I forget that D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I'm reading or a movie I'm watching."

Thus opens the Tom Moldvay edited Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, and with those words my own fascination with the role playing game hobby began. It's a simple - even simplistic - introduction to a fantasy tale. It begins with that most cliche of story lines, the rescuing of a maiden, which was stale even at the time the rules were being published. It was such a stale trope that the film Dragonslayer, a rare truly magical fantasy film from the 80s, used a reversal of that cliche as a central component to its narrative. But the imagery of "smoldering red eyes" and "fangs larger than daggers" was more than enough to capture my childhood imagination.

It is often said that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12," meaning that what each reader considers the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the literature they read when they were 12 years old. While there is some small amount of truth to that, I do have a fond spot for the fiction I read when I was 12 and I was briefly under the nostalgia induced delusion that the 80s Fright Night was better than the more recent remake, but it isn't always the case. In fact, my favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy - and those I think are canonical "Golden Age" classics - are stories I read in my 20s and 30s. What's ironic is that the stories I read in my 20s and 30s are the "traditional" classics, while the stories I read when I was 12 where the avant garde rebels. My 12 year-old Golden Age is Moorcock's Elric & Corum, Donaldson's "Land," and Cook's Black Company. It wasn't until I was older that I gained a true appreciation of Tolkien, C.L. Moore, Kuttner, Heinlein, Asimov, Burroughs, Howard, and so many others.

Given my referential baseline of Fantasy literature - Moorcock, Donaldson, and Cook - it might seem odd that Moldvay's Basic set would be the one that set my imagination alight. The book's line art, most of it by Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, Dave LaForce, and Jeff Dee, is a far cry from gritty and looks closer to the art that would be featured on the D&D cartoon than it does to the covers of a Black Company or Elric novel. Even odder is that by the time I came to be introduced to D&D, the Mentzer edition was already in publication, and the Jeff Easley art it featured was much closer to the fantasy images my readings brought to mind. Yet, to this day, when I think about what is best about D&D, I think about the Moldvay rules.

Tom Moldvay's editing of the Basic Set presented the D&D rules in a clear and easy to understand manner that left little ambiguity in my young mind regarding how the game was played. Having read the Original Little Brown Books that were the first public presentation of the D&D rules, I now understand what a remarkable task this was. Yes, Moldvay was following in the footsteps of Dr. Holmes' first Basic Set and was able to stand on the good Doctor's shoulders. Dr. Holmes first Basic set presented D&D's rules in an intelligible way, but the rules were written for the older teen to adult gamer. Tom Moldvay's rules, as should be evident by the fact that his "Appendix Moldvay" of recommended readings is filled with Young Adult and Kid's Literature, were designed as an introduction for the young gamer. That's what makes the edition so strong. It presents rules that could be described as arcane and mysterious, in a manner that most 10 year olds could begin running a game within a couple of hours...and they'd be enjoyable hours of reading. Not just because of the clearly written prose, but also because of that lovely line art.

Do yourself a favor. If' you've never read this edition, go back and read the Moldvay Basic Set. It's a bargain and well worth giving a try.

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