22 March 2011

"Read This Book First" -- Mentzer Reflections, Part 1

The cover has officially come off the book itself, and the front and back are clinging together by a sliver of thick paper stock.

But inside that cover is a "Preface" and a "How to Use This Book".  That's where I'll begin.

The opening lines of the preface are charming and a little ridiculous, at first glance:

"This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine."

I say ridiculous because of the first line.  What kind of game isn't fun?  Isn't that the whole point of games?  But when you read those two sentences as the beginning of, well, a sort of argument designed to show that this particular and unique sort of game is fun precisely because it helps you imagine, then they begin to make a lot more sense.  The rest of the preface is Mentzer's attempt to say what sort of game this is and why it's fun.  It may, in fact, "be more fun than any other game you have ever played."  That's a bold claim, but one Mentzer supports with a basic description of the interactive, collaborative, and open ended nature of D&D.  It's interactive because "you can write the stories."  It's collaborative because it "is a way for us to imagine together."  It's open ended because "it will keep going as long as you like" and "You're the one making it up!" 

The game is also different and, to some extent, difficult.  Even though the preface says "it's not hard" it also says "it takes a little reading and a little thinking", as well as " a bit of time."(1)  The preface also implies that the game takes skill: "It's fun when you get good at the game."  I think this line, in particular, is interesting because it reinforces the old school idea that player skill matters.(2)  The next two lines about knowing about kobolds and dragons also suggest that "metagame knowledge" is somewhat expected.  How else is my character to know what sort of dragons are good and which are evil?

There are also interesting elements in the preface that show the revised Mentzer editions are designed to maintain and expand the popularity the Holmes & Moldvay engendered.  It claims that the game is "nearly the most popular game ever played" and suggests that millions of people have already made it a hobby.  I wonder if that's not, fundamentally, how to view these boxed sets - -maintaining and expanding the popularity of the game by splitting it from AD&D.  Thus, it's made into an introductory game ("basic") while at the same time expanding the game's reach.  I wonder what sort of expectations the TSR folks had about folks reading this book, then eventually moving into AD&D.  That's what we did, sort of.  I can't remember at what point we discovered that there were hardback "advanced" versions of these rules, but I do remember that, at some point, both these boxed sets and hardbacks were at use around our table.(3)


(1) A bit, Frank?  I wouldn't call 12 hour marathon gaming sessions in John Floyd's garage a "bit of time".  But that's my own problem, I guess.  You did say that "you will probably want to spend more time" on the game. :) Yeah, like the REST OF MY LIFE!
(2) I think the argument could be made that current incarnations of the game also involve player skill.  Even with the 3.0 to present editions' emphasis on balance, there were clearly mechanically better ways of making characters than others.  Thus, the idea of "builds."  I'd say that old school games emphasize player skill during actual play, while newer versions of D&D emphasize player skill during character creation -- different skill sets.  I am much better at the former than the later.
(3)  Holy crap.  Did I just write 600 words about the preface?!  With footnotes!  At this rate, I'll get through the BECMI books sometime in 2053.  Something is wrong with me.

6 comments:

  1. Really pleased someone is trying to rescue Mentzer. His red book was the first I ever owned and hooked me from the start. Yet he gets dissed all the time. Hey I like Bargle and Aleena and the fighting fantasy choose your own adventure start.
    Take your time with the posts but looking forward to more!

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  2. Yes, I never owned or read Mentzer but look forward to touring his work with you until 2053.

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  3. Excellent post I must say.. Simple but yet interesting and engaging.. Keep up the awesome work!

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  4. Heya. It's taken years for folks to realize the careful work and nuances that we put into the '83 Basic. Thanx! -- FM

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  5. Wow Professor Pope - a comment from FM!
    What more motivation could you need to continue your Basic Mentzer series of posts!

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