Monday, March 15, 2010

[Red Box Memories] A Tale of Two Red Boxes

I'm not trying to split hairs here. I'm really not. The gaming hobby is beset by edition wars and "my game's better than yours" arguments enough. But...well, this is an issue that's been sticking in my craw for a while now, and very much so since plugging into the D&D blogosphere a couple years ago.

What is the deal with the uneven reputations of the Moldvay/Mentzer Basic Sets?

What I mean by that is simply the fact that of the myriad introductory boxed sets D&D has come packaged in, there are two that are most consistently cited: the 1981 Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay and the 1983 edition edited by Frank Mentzer. Of the two, despite being almost identical from a rules standpoint, by far the edition that wins the most accolades and elicits the fondest memories is Moldvay, or so it would seem from the collected Internet wisdom. Hell, it even spawned its own retro-clone! Worse, the Mentzer set often comes off as the red (box)-headed stepchild of the two, either disparaged outright or simply omitted from discussion. This despite the fact that it was in print for approximately four times as long as its predecessor. From the volume of virtual ink spilled on the Moldvay set, you'd think that was the edition that sat on store shelves for eight years, instead of the other way around.

Of course, it's telling that according to the Acaeum's site on D&D Basic sets, Moldvay went through four printings in its two-year run, whereas Mentzer went through three in eight years. Assuming the print runs were approximately the same size (and that is a big assumption, I know), that really speaks to the explosion of interest D&D (and all RPGs by association) were enjoying during the early 80s (and the subsequent drop-off as the fad ran its course over the mid- to late-80s).

This is, of course, one possible explanation for why Moldvay gets so much press--simple numbers. Perhaps more people were introduced to classic D&D through Moldvay than Mentzer. Another possible explanation is that more people of a certain age bracket are blogging about classic D&D, and that age bracket corresponds to folks who were around 10-13 years old in the early 80s, thereby establishing a disproportionately strong presence of people with fond memories of Moldvay.

At any rate, clearly I'm not the only one wondering about the vastly disparate reputations these boxed sets enjoy. In doing a bit of Googling before writing this post, I came across a thread on EN World started just a couple months ago on this very topic. Looking through the thread, it seems that the following are the most common reasons cited for preferring Moldvay over Mentzer:
  • Moldvay has a more concise, straightforward presentation that makes it easier to reference in play.
  • Moldvay comes with a full-sized module.
  • With Moldvay, everything's contained in a single book--again, the concise nature of the presentation wins out.
  • ART. This seems to be one of the biggest divides. Either you like the amateurishly surreal art of Moldvay, or the clinical, fantasy-realist fare in Mentzer--and most seem to prefer the former.
  • Most lamely, several posters seemed to prefer Moldvay simply because it was "first."
Despite having made my own "Kill Bargle" shirt (see photo at left), I'm not such a Mentzer fanboy that I can't acknowledge its defects. Out of the preceding list, I'd cite the lack of a module as perhaps the biggest drawback to Mentzer. Granted, there was a small dungeon included in the text of the "DM's Guide", but you really can't substitute for the real thing. Of course, I actually got the Expert set first (long story), and that came with Isle of Dread, so I'd had a chance to pore over a proper D&D module before even laying my hands on the Red Box. As for my feelings on the Mentzer set in general, a poster by the name of Keldryn summed my feelings up pretty succinctly on the above-linked thread:

One of my friends who started playing at the same time picked up a 1981 basic set, and my first reactions were "why on earth did somebody wreck their book with a 3-hole punch?" and "wow, this has crappy art." I have since grown out of the reverence for Elmore, Easley, and Caldwell art, but their artwork defined my early D&D experiences, and I was very disappointed with the artwork in the early AD&D books and modules that I eventually obtained at a later date. The Mentzer set was, I think, a better instruction manual on how to play the game and wasn't spectacular as a reference guide, but that never seemed to bother us at the time. I also liked having the DM's guide as a distinct book, so that I could keep it away from my nosy players (hey, I was 12).

I was going to bold certain parts of that passage that I particularly agreed with, but then I would've bolded about 95% of it (for the record, the three-hole punch thing wouldn't bother me).

At any rate, I'd particularly like to put in my two cents about the art divide. I know it's damn heresy in some quarters of the blogosphere, but the quality of Elmore and Easley's art in the Mentzer set is head and shoulders above the stuff in Moldvay (or, for that matter, the AD&D hardbacks, as Keldryn pointed out). Although I'm not a fan of either Elmore or Easley from approximately the early 90s onward, their work as TSR staff artists in the 80s was pitch-perfect as far as I'm concerned. Elmore's gotten more stilted and mannered over time, and I think that affects people's perception of his overall portfolio. But to my eyes then and now, his work in Mentzer instantly put me in another world, one that was believable and accessible while still being fantastic. As much as I respect Erol Otus now, I think back in my youth I would have found his stuff laughably cartoonish (and even now, his Froghemoth looks like a bit of Terry Gilliam animation--high praise under the right circumstances, but not exactly the sort of inspiration I look for with my D&D imaginings). Much is made of Otus's cover painting on the Moldvay set ("To me it is everything that makes D&D awesome," as one poster put it in the EN World thread), but it is not one of my favorites of his. To this day, on the other hand, the Mentzer set's Elmore cover gives me thrills and reinvigorates my interest in D&D. I'd say it seems that nostalgia is a big factor in these "art battles" moreso than any other facet of the dichotomy.

Another point made in the EN World thread is that Mentzer is far-superior as a teaching tool, whereas Moldvay is the ultimate D&D rules manual, designed for use and utility in play. This, apart from my aesthetic snobbery, goes a long way towards explaining my enduring love for the Mentzer set. As I've written about before, I was a self-taught gamer. No older mentors for me, no sir. It was just me and that boxed set, so it did a great job of introducing me to the core concepts of the game, particularly with its justifiably famous "Choose Your Own Adventure" solo scenario in the player's manual. As someone who came into gaming in part via pick-a-path gamebooks like the Lone Wolf series, it was a format tailor-made for me. Also, by the time I started gaming in earnest, I had picked up AD&D, so my direct gaming experience with Mentzer was somewhat limited.

Then again, getting used to having to pick information out from among several booklets was good training for AD&D, so I can't really fault Mentzer's more scattered layout in that sense either.

One last item of note: 20 years ago, after picking up and digesting the Mentzer Red Box, I was perfectly satisfied with remaining a Basic D&D gamer. I only switched to AD&D not because I perceived it as more "mature" but because that's what everyone else I knew who was into gaming seemed to play. Plus all the articles in Dragon Magazine were geared towards AD&D; I can remember maybe one or two articles written from a Basic D&D perspective that appeared in the back issues I was picking up at the time. So in the end I put my treasured Red Box in the closet and went with the crowd. My reasons for doing so were, ironically, owed in large part to the Red Box itself--it was its own worst enemy, for it convinced me, with a single passage at the back of the player's manual that:

The AD&D game system is different from the D&D system, which you have now. It is also a fantasy role playing game, but is much harder and more detailed.

There are currently six hardback books of rules for the AD&D system. Since it is so much more complex than the D&D system, with established rules for almost everything, it is often used in large tournaments, where accurate rules are needed.

Remember: you are not playing the more complex AD&D games with these rules. You are playing the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game!

Yikes. What's up with that passage, anyway? It's as if the book's trying to convince the reader to stay the hell away from AD&D unless all proper precautions are taken. Be sure to handle those six hardbacks with flame-retardant gloves lest the heat of their complexity burn you! It certainly created a divide in my mind, one that I carried for years after--clearly these were not two sides of the same coin, but two completely different games altogether. And never the twain shall meet, etc. Only relatively recently did it start to occur to me that I could mix my different editions of D&D (thank you Old School Renaissance!).

At any rate, in the end, it did convince me to eventually plunk down for AD&D, so...nice bit of reverse psychology there, TSR.

Interestingly, there's been a much-renewed interest in introductory boxed sets lately. I know James Raggi has cited the Mentzer set a couple times in his discussions of his ongoing boxed FRPG project. And the upcoming 4e "Basic Set" has even used the Mentzer cover in its pre-publication mockup art (or so I seem to recall seeing somewhere). Could it be that Mentzer is finally getting some level of recognition?

Finally, I'd love to hear any and all comments my dear readers may have to put forth, either pro-Moldvay (in the words of, "Sell me on Moldvay") or pro-Mentzer (aka "The '83 Red Box Appreciation Society").
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