04 April 2011

Mentzer Reflections, Part 3

I am going to backtrack a bit with my Mentzer reflections, leaving poor Ragnar the fighter wounded and breathlessly staring at Aleena the Cleric, to discuss the "How to Use This Book" (HTUTB) section and the "Dedication" of the Basic Set.  Read together, those two things clearly spell out the direction and rationale of the BECMI project.  They also, I think, point toward some tensions in the game.

My point of departure for all of this are a couple of points made by James at Grognardia.  First, that the origins of D&D lie in it's hobbyist, esoteric nature as wargaming evolved into sword and sorcery role-playing.  Second, that such origins contributed to the creative, free-wheeling, everyone's game is slightly different and that's okay spirit of the old school.  Third, that as D&D grew into a fad with Moldvay/Cook and then into a brand as TSR became a big company, something of all the above was lost (1).  I think the HTUTB and Dedication of the Mentzer set really show this transition, as D&D tries to maintain it's openness while being aimed at a broader audience.

HTUTB starts with the idea that, while you can learn to play this game by yourself "simply by reading the next two sections of this booklet", you really need a group to play.  The best way to learn, according to Mentzer, is to have someone who already knows how teach you.  If you don't have access to an experienced person, then everyone can learn together, ideally by reading the intro adventure separately then coming together to play.  The HTUTB states that someone will have to be the Dungeon Master ("who plays the role of the Monsters") and thus will have to read the other book in the set.

I think the above is a nod to how those of Mentzer's (and, as it sounds, James') generation learned to play -- at the feet of someone who already knew.  One was brought into the game by a friend, or a friend's older metalhead brother, learning from an experienced player.  With the success of the game in the early 1980's, this apprentice-like system could not be sustained and, in an effort to grow the game and the company, steps were made to provide a self-teaching sort of system.  That's the BECMI rules.

The later was how it happened for me, by the way.  No one I knew, except a kid who had mentioned the game before moving away (thanks Ricky Terzo), had played D&D before I brought the Red Box back from Christmas break in 6th grade.  Other kids bought theirs or borrowed mine and we all stumbled through getting almost killed by Bargle together, then quickly making up our own adventures.

Mentzer also notes that all the details about how to play are in this set, but there are others that have rules "for bigger and better games."  It names the Expert, Companion, and Master's sets, giving the levels covered by each of those boxes.  They all fit together to form "a complete system."  One could, I suppose, see this as some sort of master-corporate strategy, doling out treasures and rules to string kids and their money along.  I'm sure a graduated, consistent revenue stream was part of the considerations here, but (to me, anyway) it also makes sense to start simply and add the complexity, especially if the game is going to be self-taught.  And, lest we think we all HAVE to buy everything TSR is selling, there's the next few sentences: "You may use all or part of these rules. . . You may create new rules, monsters, and magic, using these rules as guidelines."  So, make your own stuff up!

Did anyone do that?  By that I mean, did anyone buy this Basic Set, then just make up the rest of the game for themselves?

It's the Dedication, however, that explicitly notes the transition from OD&D to this new iteration.  I had never really noticed it before and likely would not have seen it as remarkable if it weren't for the things I've learned about the evolution of the game from all the OSR blogs.  It's worth quoting almost in it's entirety:

This game has undergone a startling metamorphosis from its earliest forms, written for hobbyists, to the current revision, usable and understandable by nearly everyone.  The original flavor and intent has been carefully preserved.

The game is, of course, dedicated to E. Gary Gygax.  (Also worth noting that Gygax and Arenson are listed as the authors, while Frank Mentzer gets a "revised by" credit).

That's a fairly explicit statement of the changes in the percieved audience and thus, the responsibility of the rules to that audience.  D&D is out of the back room of the game store and into the hands of 12 year olds everywhere.  It's an open question as to whether or not it's possible to preserve the "flavor and intent" while undergoing such a self-admitted change.  My sense is "no."  Or rather one can largely preserve the intent, but not the flavor.  But this Basic Set is the one I began with, so I can't really judge from my own experience.

I promise the next entry will read more like a love letter to a dying cleric ("Aleena. . . Noooo!") and less like a philosophy essay.

(1)  I think I am reading James right here, based on a number of posts he's put forth over the past few years.  He's considerably more nuanced than this, of course, so blame me if you think this isn't 100% correct.  My own exposure to OD&D, indeed anything prior to Moldvay/Cook and AD&D, is very limited.


  1. A magical discourse.
    I was elf (Freudian as I meant to write self!) taught, and the choose your own adventure Menzter start really fitted the time with all those choose your own adventure books.
    Keep the instalments coming.

  2. @ Jovial Priest -- Thanks! I wonder how conscious the relationship between the Mentzer books and those CYOA books were. . .

  3. I had a look at the publication dates a few months back - they appear to be contemporaneous. Warlock of Firetop Mountain 1982. Choose your own adventure books appear to date from 1979. All info from wikipedia the font of all true knowledge.

  4. Self-taught here too. I owe my involvement in the hobby to the fact that the Mentzer set allowed a single interested party like myself some level of access.

    I was just paging through a 1983 issue of Dragon today and there's an article by Mentzer in which he talks about the justification for the upcoming revision. He specifically talks about the fact that previous iterations of D&D don't tell you how to actually play the game, and that the BECMI revision is meant to address that. He makes an interesting point, observing that a game that doesn't tell you how to play it would normally be unmarketable, but somehow D&D triumphed over this handicap through its sheer awesomeness.

    Did anyone do that? By that I mean, did anyone buy this Basic Set, then just make up the rest of the game for themselves?

    I never had the chance to consider the option, as I was given the Expert set first (long story).