The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983)

After its release in 1974 the Dungeons and Dragons game quickly grew both in popularity and complexity. Within just a couple of years the game was becoming a bit of mess  In addition to 5 rules supplements released in 1975 and 1976 there were many rules that had appeared in The Stratgic Review, and countless common house rules.

In a stroke of genius it was decided to split Dungeons and Dragons into two games. Basic Dungeons and Dragons would be a simpler game designed to lure in new players while Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would incorporate all the complexities of the many rule sources. I don’t think the popularity and importance of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic game to TSR and the gaming industry can be over stated. The gaming explosion of the 1980s was because of the Dungeon and Dragons Basic Set.  In the 80s it was difficult to find a gamer who hadn’t started gaming with it, and near impossible to find a gamer who had never played it. TSR were geniuses for conceiving of this great way to introduce players to role playing games and were fools for ending the product line. If you want to understand why Dungeons and Dragons hasn’t really been growing in the last 20 years, why it has gone from something that nerds of all ages did to something that is primarily for the aging nerds, then look no further than the demise of the Basic Set.

Over the years there were three major revisions to the Basic Set. Today I am going to focus primarily on the last revision. The choice to do this is in part because it was the final and longest lasting revision, but is also because it is the one I know the best.

The Basic Set was a box with the cover shown above. Inside the box were two books (both with the same cover art as the box), one of which said “Read This Book First” (The Players Manual) and the other which said “Read This Book Next” (The Dungeon Masters Rulebook). The box also contained a full set of dice for playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The Players Manual starts with the same kind of fluff that can be found in almost any base rulebook for any role playing game. However, after just a couple of pages there is a huge departure from the norm. Starting midway through page 2, while answering the question “What Role Will I Play?” the book starts guiding the reader through a solo adventure. This adventure lasts all the way to page 22; a third of the book. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook is similarly set up with 10 full pages dedicated to an adventure that teaches a DM how to DM.

There is a strong argument to made against putting this kind of introduction into a core rulebook; once a player learns the game he never again need those pages. (well, they can be used to help teach others; but seeing the game in action can be a better teacher than a good intro) The moment the player has learned the game those intro pages are waste to him; they are either adding unneeded expense to the game, or they are robbing him of 30 pages of content.

But for a game company those pages are invaluable; a proper introduction to a game is vital and a proper introduction to gaming can massively expand your audience. With the typical limited (or no) introduction rulebook very few people who aren’t already gamers will be able to pick up the book and understand how to play.

In my experience I have met countless non-gamers over the years with a tale of picking up a gaming book somewhere because it looked or sounded interesting, but they were completely unable to understand it. Imagine how much healthier the pencil-and-paper rpg industry might be if every rule system had 30 pages of introduction in their core rulebook and a big bold note referring readers to their core rulebook in every other book.

This is why I say that Basic Dungeons and Dragons was the most influential rulebook ever; countless people who were not gamers picked it up and were turned into gamers by just reading it. These people then taught their friends to game, who taught their friends to game. There are people who are gamers today that have never played any version of Dungeons and Dragons who owe their introduction to gaming (and thus the existence of their hobby) to someone getting his hands on a Basic Set 25 years ago.

The Basic Dungeons and Dragons line of products were not nearly as profitable as the AD&D line, which is why in time TSR started to phase them out, and then eventually killed them. But the truth is that it should never have been viewed as a product line that needed to directly pay off; it should always have been seen (and was at first) as a way of marketing Dungeons and Dragons to non-gamers.

Wizards of the Coast seems to understand the historical significance of the Basic Set, but has frequently missed a huge piece of the puzzle. The basic games that Wizards has released in the past have amounted to a $50 one shot adventure; they imagined that someone who has never played before would shell out $50 for four hours of entertainment, and then will immediately follow that up with buying the core rulebooks for another $100+.

The Basic Set was a complete game. It could be played for as little or as long as a group wanted; some groups never upgraded to AD&D. If Wizards or any other company ever wants to repeat the success of the Basic Set they need to create a stand alone product that is both a proper introduction to gaming and a complete game system.

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September 5, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | ,

3 Comments »

  1. I picked up the new red box, i think it makes an honest attempt to make it comparable to the old basic set but I think ultimately it falls short. the old basic set would advance you to 3rd level, this set only goes to 2nd level. plus what was great about the old set was the player book was essentially (no pun intended) a paired down players handbook with detailed class and race descriptions, equipment lists..etc which is not contained in the new red box, although it is a really nice set.

    I get the sense that WoTC would never want any starter set to be more self-contained, as they would want you to move on and purchase more and more product fairly quickly. just look at the number of products in comparison to the old days. you could have eons of campaigns with the basic and expert boxed sets plus the associated modules if you so chose. Now they have 10 products that you need to buy for the “basic game” then they will transition you to the other multitude of core books…but whatever maybe I am just cynical in my old age.

    Comment by middleagedm | September 10, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] weren’t written very well from an instructional stand point. (doubly so when compared to the coloured box sets we had been using) But like any edition change we were able to play largely because we gave up […]

    Pingback by My Life In Polyhedrons – Christmas 1986 « The Red Box Blog | November 6, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] impact. A lot of the adventures we played back then were just the same adventures we had played the summer before – I just fudged numbers to make them AD&D […]

    Pingback by My Life In Polyhedrons – The Solo Campaign « The Red Box Blog | November 13, 2010 | Reply


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