Friday, 30 August 2019

Basic D&D: Your Character, The Character Sheet

The Character Sheet

Our Fighter-with-No-Name is no more. Cadman Cadsonn, Lawful Veteran, a Fighter of First Level. I almost went Neutral, after all Cadman values his life and will help others, if that will help Cadman. Or, I could pick Chaotic. Oh. "if I want to take the chance!"

Depending on the printing of the Red Box, new players could be very confused with the tour of the standard BECMI character sheet. I have two different printings. The first is a PDF which states it's a First Printing from May 1983. The second is a First Printing from May 1983. The problem is the character sheet in the center fold of the PDF is not the same character sheet in the center fold of the dead tree version.

Incorrect stats

The PDF version has incorrect Abilities, Hit Points, and Armor Class1. The printed copy corrects the Abilities and Hit Points, but the Armor Class is still incorrect. To the experienced player—as we all are—we shrug our shoulders and maybe correct them.

Only the provided character, and the instruction to use the one provided, has printed these incorrect values. This becomes incredibly confusing and I have 35 years of experience. I did a double take as the tour around the character sheet:

Since your fighter is wearing sturdy armor, your Armor Class is 4; write that number in the shield shape.

Wait. What? The number 3 is written there for me. What's my armor class?

This continues with Hit Points:

In the box above the words Hit Points, put 8.

Wait. The number 6 is written there for me. I'm confused.2

Ability Scores

The tour continues. If, in 1983, you had the uncorrected version of the character sheet you were instructed to "... carefully [fold] along the dotted line and then [tear] along the perforation" you got to this section and compared the table with the character sheet one probably became more confused.

I don't have any negative memories to suggest that these problems troubled me in 1984. It however has provided me with some amusement in blogging today. 


Page 10 introduces players to Ability Score adjustments framed against our "study" fighter. Each is discussed and not much has changed in the game 36 years, only the progression scale. In BECMI the upper and lower bounds of adjustments are 3 and -3, respectively.

Saving Throws

Cadman's Saving Throws are completed for you on the character sheet (and properly reflect a first level Fighter.

Special Abilities and Combat Chart

Cadman is a fighter. He can fight. Fighting is not a "special ability." The special abilities of other classes—and races!—are detailed later.

And we get to the mechanic that introduced me to Algebra, THAC0. THAC0, or To Hit Armor Class "Zero," oft spoken as "THACK-Oh", is shown as a "quick reference" chart on the front of the sheet. In the pages that follow we will get to use this chart a lot. Frank quickly introduces that all creatures have an Armor Class and roll a "twenty side die," adding or subtracting adjustments, to see if you can hit the Armor Class.

We are instructed to turn the Character Sheet over and we will equip Cadman for adventure as well as account for wealth. 'Til next time.

  1. [1] The Armor Class is actually correct, but should not have been printed on the sheet, but blank. We will learn that our fighter buys better armor in part of the narrative leading up to the Solo Adventure.

  2. [2] Six (6) is technically also correct, but again it should not have been printed. Our fighter's Constitution score of 16 gives him a +2 adjustment. This was properly included in the revised printing it seems.

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Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Basic D&D: Your Character, Alignment


Alignment in Basic D&D is far coarser than the granularity introduced in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or AD&D. The evolution of Alignment is fairly well documented.

BECMI can trace its Alignment "poles" to the original releases and many recent "retro clones" or "simulacrums" that seek to capture BECMI or B/X or the Rules Compendium return to this three pole Alignment system.


In Dragon #60 John Lees tried to get very analytical on Alignment in the AD&D ruleset and looked at three factors in any behavior that might be modeled in play from Alignment, morality, ethics, and laws

Basic D&D simply introduces Alignment with: "Take a moment, and think about how your character behaved. The fighter was one of the 'good guys.'" The magic user and goblin were "the bad guys."

In contemporary games of D&D, Alignment still exists and players struggle with the aspects of behavior defined by it. This is, in my opinion, due to the tilting of the scales in favor of story development in the game, and to some extent the rise of "Character Concepts." Adherence to an Alignment gets in the way.

"It's what my character's alignment says she would do!" is a not a joke that we laugh about, it's a real thing.

So, in Basic D&D we are presented with the three Alignments and the common behaviors attributed to them in the context of good and bad guys.

Lawful. Our Fighter-with-No-Name "tries to protect others and defeat monsters." This is a broad behavior that defines our fighter in the narrative. Aleena was too, and besides our Charisma attributes, affects our attitudes toward one another. "...if [our] Alignments were different, [we] probably wouldn't have been so friendly..."

Chaotic. Bargle, and the gobbo, are Chaotic, the polar opposite of Lawful. Interesting enough "most people don't like Chaotics" we're told. Normally. I emphasize normally because, as we will find in AD&D, the almost binary definition of Alignment behaviors creates artificial limits in play as attributable to the above idea that Lawful and Chaotic characters at the table would be morally and ethically opposed. In fact, Frank suggests in the example, only magic could make us get along and cooperate.

Neutral. We find that monsters and NPCs and even Characters can be Neutral. It is a balance, not "stupid"—in fact, we are reminded that the Intelligence attribute has nothing to do with Alignment. Snakes and many animals are Neutral.

THAC0, the movie.

In THAC0 Bill Stiteler, writer-director-producer, reminds us in a scene recalling the Satanic Panic of the 80s, that "most of the time we were good characters fighting evil." Alignment in many ways was a mechanic to reinforce these behaviors.

Cookie Jar Philosophy

Unfortunately, in the subtext of introducing Alignment, Frank is making Chaotic synonymous with Evil. The "temptation" to play Chaotic almost becomes an expectation. In fact, we learn in the history of D&D many of the most iconic characters of players in the development of D&D were in fact Chaotic or Lawful Evil (an AD&D alignment and often compared to Darth Vader, if he had an Alignment).

More on Alignment

We will learn specifics about each Alignment much later in the rules, including examples of behaviors in a game. On the very next page, we will also learn about Alignment Languages! And oh what wonderful debates have been had about that mechanic.

But before that, we'll take a tour of the Character Sheet.

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Monday, 26 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Winning


Frank closes the first eight pages of Basic D&D with eight paragraphs that can be summed up as "We play games to have fun and each player "wins" by having fun."

As our Fighter-with-No-Name succeeded, "[our] character 'wins'." While dying in this adventure was likely off the table, though possible, playing can still be fun. Just make a new character. Here, I think Frank validates that early D&D was quite mortal. Dungeon Crawl Classics succeeds quite well at validating this early play style. But is Frank also providing us permission to "let go" and embrace the mortality of D&D characters at low levels? I think so.

Frank reinforces that the fun of D&D stems from succeeding, as does "winning," but no one loses, as the game does not end. The game "is a little of both" story and game. Dying can be part of a larger story. Yet, as one engages further, learning "more and more" the game will come to the forefront and using the rules "you have learned to use your imagination." 

The encounters, Frank hopes, have come to life your mind's eye. Indeed, for me, 36 years later, they still burn in my mind's eye. I have never forgotten Bargle or Aleena. Elmore and Easley brought it all to life (and in the pages ahead continue too). But maybe Frank plays the story elements of D&D down just a little bit:

[The Story] is another part of the fun in a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game.

For me the story is an equal part of any D&D game I run and the rules—or game—provide a way to frame story. The dice provide the friction to possibilities in the mind's eye. I've said to people, without the rules and the dice, "... then we are just playing pretend." In "pretend" I can affirm or deny any result, or in combat, just declare 'I hit you!' and 'You miss me!'"

We'll look at Your character next time, starting with Alignment and examining the Character Sheet, front and back.

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Friday, 23 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Doors, Thieves, and Story

Locked Doors and the Party

Aleena and Fighter-with-No-Name venture deeper into the caves, avoiding the route the ghouls took and encounter a locked door. There are no dice rolled, only narrative. Aleena asks you to break down the door, to no avail. Aleena laments your weakness and pines for a thief. Ok, she is disappointed at the idea of treasure behind locked doors and suggests next time they bring a thief!

The idea of a party is being seeded by Frank. A thief can pick locks—and pick your pocket! Aleena even seeds the idea that one better be watching your own purse around a thief. Though it's all good intentions or at the very least not Evil. 

Aleena "usually goes ADVENTURING" with a Thief and a Magic User. "...and a couple of big fighters like YOU to handle the rough stuff."

We certainly can read between the lines on this that Aleena is at least an experienced adventurer, so my earlier guess of her being 2nd or 3rd level is not too far fetched.

Bargle, murderous and bad Magic User

Aleena leads our hero further still and you hear voices ahead. "It's Bargle, one of those bad Magic Users," says Aleena. Bargle has charmed a Goblin, the same goblin that ran from you in the cave entrance.

Frank really leans into the narrative. But again, and I've been stressing this throughout these posts: it's circa 1983! There is something about how D&D was played by the Grognards that contemporary players, e.g., 21st century players are rehashing, dare I say "inventing," only they are not. They are at best rediscovering how the game was played and have failed to read the source documents.

But I digress. Aleena and the Fighter-with-No-Name have decided to take the fight to Bargle and the goblin. A quick flip of the pages reveals only two outcomes. As part of the history of the game Bargle and Aleena are touchstones to the past. And there is part of me that wants to reach into the narrative on these pages and change the outcomes. But let's get through the fight and close this chapter

Box Text and a Fight!

Goblin: 2 HP, Fighter: 8 HP

The opening rounds of this fight start with Box Text and some narrative. Throughout the fight Aleena is struggling to find and hit Bargle. Bargle opens the fight casting Invisibility on himself. Aleena hits Bargle at least once with a wild swing, but you, the fighter, are concentrating on the gobbo.

Round 1

The goblin misses his first attack. Because the goblin attacks first, we can draw the conclusion that Bargle and the goblin have Initiative—which is not introduced until much later. The fighter rolls a 6. Again, ability bonuses are not being added.

Round 2

The goblin hits the Fighter. Ouch, two points of damage. The fighter hits with 15. Bargle appears with a Magic Missile ready. He points it at Aleena and it hits. "She wails and falls with a sigh..." 1

Round 3

Goblin: 1 HP, Fighter: 6 HP

Bargle moves to the corner. The goblin hits—narratively, no roll is made—OUCH! The fighter swings and misses!

Round 4

Goblin: 1 HP, Fighter: 4 HP

Goblin swings and misses and you hit with a 15! The goblin falls to the ground.

Round 5

Goblin: 0 HP, Fighter: 4 HP

Bargle casts a spell and as you charge him you feel it in your mind. Roll a Saving Throw vs. Spells. The target is 17.2 The roll is 10. You are Charmed.

Ending #1

In failing the Saving Throw, Bargle charms you, helps you loot the bodies of Aleena and the Goblin, then leads you through the caves toward daylight. He then casts Sleep and you collapse outside. No saving throw, this is all in the narrative.

You wake, find that you've been robbed by Bargle and likely escaped a coup de grace simply because Bargle got spooked, or you guess. But Aleena! 

This ending concludes with you, the fighter, going back into the caves to recover Aleena's body. Chased from the caves by the ghouls, escaping to daylight and recalling the words of Aleena, "...creatures of darkness..." you surmise the ghouls won't follow.

Back in town, you deliver Aleena's body to her church for a proper burial and receive a Potion of Healing as a gift.

You are ready for adventure, if a bit sad at the loss of Aleena.

Touchstones to the Past

I cannot stress enough that Aleena and Bargle have stayed with me thick and thin. 36 years later, I believe there is part of me that still wants to change the words on the page in the narrative, but know that Aleena advanced to become a powerful priestess. And Bargle met a suitably nasty end dabbling in magic he should not have.

Making it all so much worse is that Ending #2 is no different in outcome for Aleena, she perishes. And in this version of the story, you as the Fighter-with-No-Name, can deliver a vengeful blow to Bargle, killing him. A proper burial for Aleena and a Potion of Growth is awarded at the church.

Next, we look at Frank's words on "Winning D&D."

  1. [1] I've been arguing that Aleena is a 2nd or possibly 3rd level Cleric. Magic Missile does 2-7 (1d6+1) points of damage. At 2nd Level, a cleric could have, depending on Constitution, 1-14 HP (2d6+/-3), or 1-21 HP at 3rd Level. As a Cleric, a Constitution of 10-12 could be expected, so no adjustment. Bargle is also 1st to 3rd Level and can only cast one missile. The average HP for 2d6 is 7 and 11 for 3d6, so Aleena is very likely a 2nd Level Cleric with an average amount of Hit Points and Bargle rolled for maximum damage!

  2. [2] This is not right. The narrative specifically states that a 16 or less is a fail. However, the fighter has a Saving Throw vs. Rods, Staves, and Spells of 16. So, a 16 would "save." Fighter-with-No-Name is not a Normal Man after all.

Posted by caffeinated at 9:00 AM in d10

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Charisma, Wisdom and Ghouls


Our fighter's likability is a measure of his Charisma, our newest Ability Score. The fighter has a Charisma of 14. A low score may have meant Aleena would "have been very cautious and might not have offered to cure you!"

This single paragraph of narrative is packing a lot of expectations a new player might not be introduced as the player, but more than likely through the DM and actual game play, especially around Morale and Retainers. It may be enough to say that if you read this for the first time, the ticking time bomb is set for developing expectations of the  Charisma attribute.


Our fighter in this story may lack some common sense with a Wisdom score of 8. This is compared and contrasted with Aleena's 17. In this, we are introduced to how classes have specialties and those specialties are affected by high and low Ability Scores. The dump stat is most casually introduced for generations to come.

Sharing Adventures and Ghouls

Walking together, apparently considering the treasure split, Aleena and Fighter-with-No-Name encounter Ghouls. Aleena explains that as a Cleric, she "has power over these dark creatures." Aleena steps forward with a religious symbol—we know it's religious as it is a symbol the fighter recognizes from a church in town. Her faith turns the lot of them.1

Aleena cautions our hero not to chase them. The turning is temporary.

Doors and Thieves

Our first door is encountered and we will soon know what kind of friends Aleena has.

  1. [1] Ghouls have 2 Hit Dice. Four ghouls total eight (8) hit dice. Not discussed in the narrative is the DM determines the number of hit dice effected by the Turn Undead attempt. Assuming Aleena is at least a little more experienced than our fighter—hell, she practically is teaching the fighter how to survive in a dungeon—at 2nd or 3rd Level, Aleena needs a 9 or a 7 on 2d6 to turn ghouls, respectively of level.

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Monday, 19 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Your introduction to NPCs, Magic and Dragons

Thank you Aleena.

Deeper into the caves you venture. Frank, or the writer, here continues a narrative of your Fighter-with-No-Name carefully navigating the caves. From watching the amount of light from your lantern, to your reaction finding a "beautiful woman," wearing armor and holding a mace—a rod with a metal ball at one end—and "meditating or praying."

Aleena is cautious. She wants to help, but "watches you carefully, in case you are dangerous." Aleena, like you, is "an ADVENTURER!" (emphasis mine).

Roleplaying Prompts

While the conversation with Aleena is forced in the narrative, we are being prompted to carry on a conversation with her. "Stop and imagine what your character would say."

I think we lose these details of early role-playing prompts when discussing BECMI or B/X. Frank is not just creating the narrative of the exploration of the caves, but he is suggesting to the reader to think about encounters in town or the wilderness or a dungeon and our character's place in that world.

He is never explicitly calling role-playing out, but he is giving us permission in his presentation of the story. At this point in the history of the game, I also believe the game evolves from its beginnings in the correspondence of Gygax and Arneson.

Clerics and Magic Users and... Dragons...?

Frank is assuming of the reader that the ideas are new. Aleena explains the role of Clerics in the world without any introduction to religions of the setting. Aleena has the power to cast spells from her meditation and she heals the Fighter! 

Aleena sits down with your Fighter after healing you and discusses Magic Users. Magic is something you know exists, but have rarely encountered in town. Magic Users memorize spells from books, not like Aleena, she meditates.

Aleena waxes on about the dangers of nefarious uses of all magic, clerical or arcane—though she does not use that descriptor—as well as an immersive narrative on Saving Throws versus Magic Wands, Turn to Stone, Paralysis, Dragon Breath! and Spells or Magic Staffs.

This narrative does feel like forced exposition. In my opinion the context permits this narrative. Aleena is explaining the world to our Fighter-with-No-Name and we are coming to like the Non-Player Character (NPC). Elmore's iconic depiction of Aleena is almost burned into our heads. She is armed and in full chain mail armor.

Charisma and Wisdom

We will be introduced next to two new Ability Scores, Wisdom and Charisma, and more denizens of dungeons and caves.

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Saturday, 17 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Your first Saving Throw


By page 3, Mentzer is on a roll to introduce the core mechanics of D&D to new players.1 Your hero follows the goblin's retreat deeper into the caves and encounters a large Rattlesnake amid hundreds of gold and silver coins.

Hints at role-playing are sprinkled in the following instruction, i.e., it's no good to try to talk to a rattlesnake! A "game" of Hit Points attrition is provided with the Snake automatically hitting you, though you have to hit the snake's armor class of 11.2 Initiative is not introduced, so the Fighter goes first.

Let's play. Will you join me?


Snake: 3 HP Fighter: 8 HP

Round 1

Fighter rolls 12 (+2 = 14) 3 Hit! The snake automatically hits! 

Saving Throw vs. Poison or Death Ray... 18! The Fighter saves, having only to roll 12 at 1st Level.

Snake: 2 HP Fighter: 7 HP

Round 2

Fighter rolls a 3! Miss. The snake hits again. And the fighter saves again with 16. Whew.

Snake: 2 HP Fighter: 6 HP

Round 3

Fighter rolls 10. This is a miss! Only because the player has not been introduced to Ability Bonuses yet. The snake misses! Actually, the snake will miss the rest of this encounter.

Round 4

Fighter rolls a 1. No critical fails in this game, yet. The snake misses.

Round 5

Fighter rolls an 8. Miss. Snake dodges and snaps. The dance continues. Your fighter's movement maybe scattering coins about reminding you of the reward.

Round 6

Fighter rolls 15! Hit. The snake is desperate now.

Snake: 1 HP Fighter: 6 HP

Round 7

Fighter rolls an 8. Miss. Snake dodges and hisses, snapping at your thigh, already stained with blood from the last strike.

Round 8

Fighter rolls a Natural 20! Oh, now you're hooked.4 Your swing catches the rattlesnake just below the open and ready jaw, to sever the head from the body!

Healing, Searching, and Economy!

Your fighter's wounds will "heal with a few days rest," but look at all the coins! Of course we should expect a fighter to know the coins of the realm, but the player does not, yet! Gold, Silver, Platinum, and Electrum ("three types of silvery coins") lie about. Searching the room, you also find a small pearl possibly worth 100 gold pieces! And how did this treasure get here? Gygaxian Naturalism of course; some poor fool likely died in this same room.


Deeper still you adventure into the caves, and NPCs are introduced.

  1. [1] Does Mentzer deserve all the credit here in this edition of Basic D&D with regards to the introduction of rules through programmed instruction? It could be argued that his educational background in Math and Physics and musical talent provided some very foundational understanding of instructional editing. He and friends taught themselves D&D in the mid-70s, an act that form cognitive pathways aiding someone not trained in teaching or instruction. Programmed instruction was well understood in the wargaming communities in the mid-70s as well, Avalon Hill's Squad Leader taking this approach to great success.

  2. [2] Is this wrong? Maybe. The Basic D&D Rattlesnake, or Giant Rattler provided in the Dungeon Masters Rulebook on p. 37, has an AC of 5. With the Fighter's Strength of 17, the to hit roll should be 12.

  3. [3] Ability Bonuses are not introduced until p. 10.

  4. [4] You won't know the endorphin rush of the natural 20 for sometime—optionally introduced in AD&D 2nd Edition, but house ruled long before that.

Posted by caffeinated at 11:20 AM in d10

Friday, 16 August 2019

Let's read Basic D&D: Your first adventure

Your first adventure

After almost two years—WTF!?—I'm back reading the 1983 Mentzer Red Box Players Manual for the Basic D&D.

In the opening eight pages, the reader is programmatically, and more than a little procedurally, introduced to the Player Character attributes and more importantly an introduction to adventuring.

The hills are full of caves, possibly monsters, and the murderous thief Bargle. Your character is a strong man or woman (hey, it doesn't matter, we're told this on page 2!), not to quick, but not slow, nor dumb-witted, but adventurous. 

The very first encounter is a bold goblin. Dodging its swing, you prepare to swing. But this is your first game. How do you swing? How do you hit the goblin? You are quickly introduced to the "twenty-sided die," the Hit Roll, and Hit Points.1

The goblin is never going to hit you in this instruction, but you know to hit the goblin you need to roll a 12. Just one hit. The goblin is more afraid of you than you it. It runs away on the first hit. 

Damage and hit points

A new noun. In 1983 D&D was possibly eight years old. Today, we have endless wankery about what Hit Points are? Do they represent anything? Are Tim Kask's words on YouTube worth listening to? Could Frank Mentzer have the gaul to write something to help us? Maybe.

The number of hit points is the amount of damage that a creature can take before being killed. Hit points can be any number; the more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to kill.
Your fighter starts with 8 hp (hit points) and still has 8, since the goblin never hit you. He may have hit your armor or shield, but never got through your protection, so these attacks are still called "misses"—they didn't actually damage your character.

Debate settled. Hit points are an abstraction. Always have been and I've said as much. Immersion and narrative are a function at the table and can be learned, too often the debate starts at and seeks only perfection... to become the enemy of good.


Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and introducing Constitution. Our hero has a Constitution of 16. This positively affects our character's hit points. Write it down and let's learn about Saving Throws!

  1. [1] the shorthand forms of dice, e.g., d4, d20, d%, are not introduced for another eight pages, on p. 12.

Posted by caffeinated at 9:38 PM in d10