Originally posted here: http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/2020/06/becmi-basic-set-review.html
How does one go about reviewing a game I know so well but in a book I know very little about? More to the point how does one review a classic?
Well as my oldest son says, "with determination."
The third set of books to be released as the "Basic set" was the Mentzer "Red Box" Basic that would become the "B" of the BECMI line. So many copies of this set have sold that it has become synonymous with "the Basic Set" and "the red Box" in D&D circles. The set itself contained two books, a Player's Book (to be read first) and a Dungeon Master's Book (to be read by the DM).
Already we have a departure from the previous Holmes (1977) and Moldvay (1981) Basic sets. While those older sets had one book for rules (48 and 64 pages respectively) and an included adventure (B1 and B2 respectively) this set only has the two books. This is not the issue it might seem at first since this set features a rather infamous solo adventure and a programmed adventure that can be used with a DM.
The box set also came with dice, a crayon for coloring in the numbers, and some information about the RPGA.
The Dungeon Master's book is 48 pages, color art cover, black & white interior art.
This book follows the Player's book in terms of layout and scope.
The title page here is largely the same as the Player's Book, but it is a chance for us to reflect on how this game is really the direct descendent of the Original D&D game. Though there is a reminder that Players are not to read this book! Only DMs!
We get right into the roles of a DM here, after covering some brief introductory materials and some common terms and abbreviations. Looking over these were are still in a time that Pre-Dates THAC0 as a term.
There are checklists of things to do pre-game and during the game and during combat. It's a nice clear and spelled out version of the same material seen in the previous Moldvay Basic set. In fact, there is a lot of material here that looks and reads the same. This is natural since both sets are drawing from the same sources. It is a bit like reading something you are already very familiar with, but it is still somewhat different and new. Like trying to read Danish after learning German. Or maybe more accurately, reading American Spanish after learning European Spanish.
There is a built-in adventure for new DMs that serves the same purpose as the Solo one in the player's book. It is fine, but I think back to my time in running the Keep on the Borderlands and hoe much I learned from that.
The procedures and rules section is all laid out alphabetically. So "Elves" come before "Mapping" and "Time". Again, I am reminded of the layout seen in 4e and it is obvious that the designers of 4e were fans of this edition.
The next big section is on Monsters. This section reads very much like the same section in Molvay Basic, some even down to the exact same words. I don't find this a problem though. Some people went from Holmes Basic (77) to Cook/Marsh Expert (81) and some people will come from those earlier Basics to this. There needs to be a continuity of rules. Minus some organization and some clearer directions these are supposed to be the same games. Yes there are some differences. I find them to be minor at worst.
Back to Monsters, the section seems to have all the Usual Suspects, give or take a couple. I did notice that there is much less art here. I would have loved to have seen more versions of these classic monsters. An Elmore drawn Thoul? Yeah, that would have been great! Also, this has the only piece of recycled art I have found. The dragon breath diagram looks the same here as in Moldvay. That's actually pretty cool. All new art? TSR was putting their best on this. I'll talk more about the art in a bit.
Treasure follows and it is every 1st level character's dreams come true. Swords to hit those pesky magic monsters! Gold! Platinum! Potions of Healing!! 2-7 hp was all you needed back then to get back into the game.
A nice bit about creating and stocking dungeons with monsters and treasures. More direction than we got in Holmes or Moldvay to be sure.
We end with some tables for random monsters, saving throws, and a combined index!
The art in both books is fantastic. Larry Elmore, Jim Holloway, and Jeff Easley at the very top of their game. They defined how millions view Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, yes I am a fan of the older stylings of Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, and Jeff Dee, but this was at a new level. The art was consistent throughout and all of it wonderful. Sadly it is also a little sparse compared to Moldvay, but I guess there are more pages to fill here.