Monday, September 13, 2010

Treasure Type B-X

A couple weeks ago I received the complimentary copy of JB's B/X Companion that was my reward for contributing art to the book. Due to an obvious conflict of interest, I won't provide a full review, but I'll just say this: the Companion finally induced me to take the plunge and pick up the 1981 Moldvay/Cook iteration of Basic-Expert (B-X) D&D.

I was motivated in part by the latent completest in me, the part of my brain that said, "Well, you've got the third volume in the series, you might as well get volumes 1 and 2 and put them all in the same box." But flipping through the Companion, I was also motivated by a desire to match up that volume's excellent contents to the rulebooks that I've heard and read so much about in the past few years, ever since plugging in to the Old School blogging community. As a professed admirer of the 1983 Mentzer set, I was curious to see how the Moldvay/Cook set stacked up.

After a couple of days trawling eBay, I found a nice deal. While not quite the bargain hunter's paradise it once was, it's nice to know that eBay's still good for a score now and then. In this case I found not only the Basic and Expert rule books, but also the original modules (Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread) plus Palace of the Silver Princess AND a folio of character sheets all contained in the original Basic Set box. All for 15 bucks. Not bad!

(Incidentally, I love the riot of colors presented by all those covers together.)

At any rate, I waited for the package to arrive, figuring it would be fairly anti-climactic when it did. I'm on hiatus from D&D at the moment and really have no immediate or even intermediate plans to run it (although when I do I'll likely be using Basic D&D, having OD'd on the myriad of houserules, options, and world-building details of my C&C Wilderlands campaign). Imagine my surprise, then, when the package finally arrived and I found myself opening not so much a collection of second-hand books but rather a time capsule.

See, I bought the lot from what looked like a second-hand book dealer. Having worked in a used book store myself, I assumed that the books would be relatively "clean." That is, there would probably be some cover or edge wear, but the books themselves would be more-or-less unused. What I found instead was straight out of someone's well-used game closet. To be precise, Brendan Moriarty's closet, if the name carefully scribed in the inside cover of the Basic rulebook is any indication.

Young Brendan (I say "young" based off handwriting alone, so I'll grant that I may be wrong here) was apparently quite the dedicated Dungeon Master. He made full use of his books, from keying the sample dungeon in the Basic rulebook... making full use of the suggested space to "Draw Your Own Floor Plan" in Keep on the Borderlands...

 The heart and soul of the time capsule, however, is the character record sheet folio. Every single sheet in the folio is filled out by Brendan's redoubtable crew, which comprised no fewer than seven players. Including - gasp! - two girls! Unfortunately, there are no dates on the sheets, so it's impossible to tell when this group was active, but I think it's safe to say it was sometime in the early 80s.

As someone with a degree in History, this kind of stuff is my bread and butter. Constructing a narrative based on fragmentary documentary evidence - whoo-boy, I'm in for the evening! So let's see what we've got...

First, some players clearly played more often than others, or at least played certain characters more often. The highest level character is at 9th level, a fighter named Mr. J. There are two level 6 characters, a level 5, and a level 8 (a magic-user, a dwarf, an elf, and a "theif," respectively). The rest are all first level. The higher level character sheets are obviously well-used and have been subject to lots of changes and erasures, so I'm inclined to think the characters leveled up the old-fashioned way, rather than starting at a higher level from the get-go.

The ability scores, on the other hand, betray obvious signs of alternate methods of generating the numbers; 18s abound on every sheet (an average of two per character). Scores under 10 are vanishingly rare. The single exception is the poor sucker who obviously used the "3d6 in order" method to roll up his 1st-level character (maybe he was a stickler for doing it "by the book"?). He came up with a Strength of 4 and his highest ability, Wisdom, is an intimidating 12. Ouch.

Looking over the sheets I can see evidence of previous characters being erased so the sheet can be re-used. Like the scribbling in the Keep on the Borderlands graph paper, it's an interesting reminder of the days before easy access to photocopiers, to say nothing of home printers and scanners. Another cool detail is that some of the sheets have been three-hole punched for keeping in binders.

Like most groups, some people were more inclined to show their character sheets an appropriate amount of love. Here are my personal favorites from the folio:

"Vicki H." and her Chaotic 1st-level thief "Chochomo." That's a pretty tough-looking customer, Vicki!

(Incidentally, of the girls' character sheets, only one had an Elf named Silver Leaf, and even that had been erased and written over, replaced by a nameless "magics-user.")

The infamous Mr. J, 9th-level fighter. According to the back of the character sheet, he had a talking sword that did 2d6 damage as well as a cloak and boots of elvenkind, along with a diamond ring worth 500 gp. But clearly the best part of this sheet is the character sketch. Check out this action:

Pretty boss, dude.

For all I know, this little time capsule represents "that one summer we were really into D&D" and none of the kids who so assiduously kept track of their hit points, rations, and talking swords ever played again. Years later, when Brendan was cleaning his stuff out of his parents' game closet, he ran across the old D&D box. Maybe he took some time to page through it, smiling at the memories. But then he sold it to a Florida second-hand book dealer, who then put it up on eBay for 15 bucks.

And now it's mine. I promise I'll take good care of it, gang. And maybe it'll get some use and the dusty corridors of the Silver Princess's palace and the slime-coated passageways of the Caves of Chaos will again be lit by the torches of brave adventurers, proud successors to the legacy of Chochomo, Mr. J, Silver Leaf, and the rest...

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