TSR 5 Fun Facts about the 1991 D&D Black Boxed Set

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Recently, I've been working my way through the 2004 book 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons as part of a personal desire to read everything I could find about the game's history. While I've found the book to be something of a slog to get through, it does have a few gems tucked away in its pages.

One of those is that it spends several pages talking about The NEW Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game boxed set from 1991, better known to most fans as "the black boxed set."

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While the section talking about this particular product is uncredited (30 Years of Adventure is written by several authors, not including the guest pieces sprinkled throughout the book), several preceding parts of the book – giving an insider's perspective on products that were produced around the same time – were written by Steve Winter, so I'm fairly confident that he's the one who wrote the section on the black boxed set as well. And in doing so, he reveals a number of interesting tidbits about it. You might have heard some of these before, but they're all worth reiterating here. So here's the inside scoop on this all-too-often overlooked piece of D&D's history!

#5: It was the original D&D Fifth Edition

Back in the days of TSR, D&D and AD&D were separate game lines that were produced concurrently. According to Winter's essay, this was done as an attempt to answer the problem of how to draw in new players to what was often seen as an incredibly complicated pastime. "[AD&D] just looked daunting to the novice," he writes. "Stack up all those rulebooks. No one wants to read such a mound of twaddle just to play a game that he or she might not even like! Cut it down to just the Player's Handbook and it's still too much." To that, he explains, the basic D&D game line was the answer.

In that regard, TSR saw Basic D&D as having multiple editions. The first was Original D&D (1974). The second was the Holmes Basic Set (1977). The third was Moldvay's Basic Set (1981). The fourth was Mentzer's Basic Set (1983). Which meant that the black boxed set was 5E before 5E!

#4: It was known internally as "1070"

Although it might have been "D&D Fifth Edition" in a technical sense, that wasn't what it was called during development. "For some reason," notes Winter, "although this game was officially the fifth edition of D&D, it was always known throughout TSR by its stock number: 1070, pronounced 'ten-seventy.' It's the only product that ever earned that distinction."

Winter also notes that the distinction was an odd one. "D&D sets in general were usually referred to by their colors or other distinguishing package characteristics. The original set was "small-box D&D" or "brown-box D&D. The 2nd edition was 'blue-box D&D.' The 3rd edition was 'red-box D&D.' When the 4th edition appeared, also in a red box, it assumed the name of red-box D&D and 3rd edition became 'the Erol Otus set.'" He waxes nostalgic about Otus' artwork before noting that "The 5th edition, then, should have been called 'black-box D&D,' and sometimes it was. Most often, though, it was just Ten-Seventy."

I find myself wishing that designation had been externally known, now. One can imagine the jokes that could be made about kids wanting to go for some "ten-seventy," and their parents thinking it had something to do with "four-twenty!"

#3: It was the pet project of Lorraine Williams

I've mentioned elsewhere that Lorraine Williams, often portrayed as a villain in the story of TSR, was the driving force behind the black boxed set. Winter confirms this, and goes into greater detail, saying that she came up with the format for the boxed set's signature "dragon cards" as a way to combat how intimidating the game's rules-heavy format was:

"SRA (Science Research Associates) changed the way children learned to read in 1957 when it published the first of its individual instruction packets," writes Winter. "In this format, lessons are broken down into small, self-contained steps. Each lesson fills a single, double-sided card. The student reads the lesson on one side, then immediately applies what he or she just learned by working through the exercises on the reverse side of the card. Each student can proceed at a comfortable, individual pace. Lorraine wanted to apply that same method to D&D."

#2: It was written by Troy Denning

A lot of people today know Troy Denning for his novels, which range from familiar D&D properties like Dark Sun and the Forgotten Realms to more popular franchises such as Star Wars and Halo. But while D&D aficionados know that he has quite a few game design credits to his name also, it came as a surprise to me to learn that he was the person who actually wrote much of the black boxed set.

"There was never any doubt in Lorraine's mind that she wanted Troy to create this version of D&D," states Winter. Of course, he also notes that Denning didn't do it alone. "The rulebook was put together by Tim Brown, who along with Mary Kirchoff and Brom was one of Troy's partners on the budding DARK SUN design team." Given that, I have to wonder if another way of referring to this set should be "Denning Basic."

#1: It was wildly successful

Winter is quite forthright about this particular point. "Ten-Seventy was one of the hottest products TSR ever produced, with something over a half a million copies sold worldwide." Anecdotal evidence offers some confirmation here, as the TSR Archive notes that the black boxed set had a second printing before it was a year old. Moreover, fans will remember that it had several "adventure packs" produced specifically for it in 1992: The Dragon's Den, The Goblin's Lair, and The Haunted Tower. And of course, once you finished those and wanted to advance past fifth level (the highest that the black boxed set presented), there was always the Rules Cyclopedia.

While today, D&D boasts sales numbers much higher than this, the black boxed sets sales were (judging from how Winter frames the presentation) truly incredible for their time. "Hundreds of thousands of people who might never have tried D&D in another form, or who knew about it but were intimidated by the rules bulk, bought Ten-Seventy for themselves, as presents for friends and relatives, or even as a means of introducing reluctant friends to a game that they themselves were already playing. It was one of the great TSR success stories."

Given that Ten-Seventy was what got me into D&D, I'm inclined to agree. :)

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Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
#3: It was the pet project of Lorraine Williams

I've mentioned elsewhere that Lorraine Williams, often portrayed as a villain in the story of TSR, was the driving force behind the black boxed set. Winter confirms this, and goes into greater detail, saying that she came up with the format for the boxed set's signature "dragon cards" as a way to combat how intimidating the game's rules-heavy format was:

"SRA (Science Research Associates) changed the way children learned to read in 1957 when it published the first of its individual instruction packets," writes Winter. "In this format, lessons are broken down into small, self-contained steps. Each lesson fills a single, double-sided card. The student reads the lesson on one side, then immediately applies what he or she just learned by working through the exercises on the reverse side of the card. Each student can proceed at a comfortable, individual pace. Lorraine wanted to apply that same method to D&D."
Nice piece. :) This is an interesting part to me. Both for it being something Lorraine Williams apparently got right, and because I remember the SRA Reading Lab product and cards. My folks used those with us when we were kids. Although I was already on to AD&D by the time the Dennings Basic set came out, and never owned it, I wonder if it would have been even easier to learn from than Mentzer Basic, which I started out with.
 

Voadam

Legend
I was only peripherally aware of it, having been very satisfied with B/X for my Basic D&D and so not really paying attention to the B/E parts of Mentzer BECMI or Black Box when they came out alongside new stuff in D&D and AD&D.

It would be interesting to check it out now, hopefully WotC will put it out in PDF sometime.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I remember the art, but I must have been happily playing 2e at the time. I expect one of my friends might have owned it. (It's possible that I sold it as a retailer, too - I started selling D&D for a living in 1993, so if it was still in print by then, I probably stocked it.)
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
I was only peripherally aware of it, having been very satisfied with B/X for my Basic D&D and so not really paying attention to the B/E parts of Mentzer BECMI or Black Box when they came out alongside new stuff in D&D and AD&D.

It would be interesting to check it out now, hopefully WotC will put it out in PDF sometime.

The actual rules are very similar to Mentzer Basic, but with some very odd changes.
• Charisma modifiers go up and down to ±3, making all ability score adjustments uniform. (But partially offsetting this, the monster reactions table is shifted one point towards hostility: a 2d6 roll of 6–8 indicated neutrality in Mentzer and earlier, but in this edition, it's 7–9.)
• Halflings for some reason attack as clerics rather than fighters.
• Mentzer and the Rules Cyclopedia both accidentally omit the natural healing rules. The black box has them: a very generous 1d4 hp recovered per night of rest. (Earlier editions had anywhere from 1d3 to ½ hp per night.)
• There's a very offbeat rule in this edition about filling out small parties with retainers (defined as NPCs with a class and level, rather than mere 0-level hirelings), but instead of being based on PC Charisma, it recommends filling out a party with only one or two NPCs, bringing a group up to no more than 4–6 characters maximum. Very small parties compared to earlier expectations!
• Finally, the biggest change (and quite possibly a mistake, though there are some who argue that it was very deliberate) is to the action economy. In Mentzer and earlier, you can move and still make a melee attack. (Your encounter speed equals one-third your exploration speed, so, e.g., if you normally move 120' per turn through the dungeon, you can close 40' into a melee and still take a swing.) And leaving melee let you either turn your back and retreat at your full encounter speed or make a fighting withdrawal at half that speed. But this book changed that: you could only do one thing on your turn in a combat, including either moving or attacking. And a fighting withdrawal was reduced from half your encounter speed to a mere 5'. Weirdly, the Rules Cyclopedia includes both some of the text from the black box and some from Mentzer, so it contradicts itself when explaining movement and the action economy.
 
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Dante_Ravenkin

Explorer
This was a cool bit of history, thanks! I remember seeing this box a few times over the years (especially in second hand stores) and thinking it was just a D&D board game because of the box size. Today I learned something new!
 


Froderik

Explorer
I'm on some weird personal quest to understand the evolution of (Basic) D&D, so I picked up a couple of incomplete copies of this box in the last month. I left the RPG universe in 1988, so I missed a bunch of stuff until I returned to it in 2020. Now my curiosity is killing me and I'm trying to understand everything I missed. Thanks for all the great info in this thread!
 

mrm1138

Explorer
I remember seeing this advertised is a bunch of the comics I read at the time, and I so wanted a copy of it. Despite not really being religious, my mom was wary of D&D because she thought it might be psychologically harmful. Alas, I didn't get into D&D until 5e.
 



DMsGuild/D&D Classics just released the "Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game" rule set, the 1994 revision of the black box. The file is currently missing the map and two of the tokens, but they've already noted it the description and have requested an updated file (however long that takes). Hopefully they'll release the Black Box scans at some point, too. I'd played one Red Box session for my first time playing, then got my hands on a 2E Player's Handbook (original cover with the Gold TSR logo), tried to cobble together an understanding of the rules between that and the 1E books I managed to get through inter-library loan, then got the Black Box for Christmas that year, finally getting a real start playing D&D - to this day, I feel that the Black Box (and the revised Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game) offered an introductory experience to character creation and role-playing that hasn't been offered since, but that may still be a more effective approach, despite the more complex core system compared to the streamlined d20 system framework.
 

bulletmeat

Adventurer
While I started 1e/2e in 89/90 I bought this when it came out and always wanted to run it. None of the 7-8 people I played w/would try it. They only wanted AD&D 2e. A friend of mine got the RE and had a slight interest but w/out any other players just would not give it a try.
Luckily I still have both (my box & my friends RE) so that once my 3yr is ready we can play!
 

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