TSR [Let's Read] Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, by Tom Moldvay


You know, reading and following the encounter rules as written would make playing BD&D like following stereo installation instructions.


log in or register to remove this ad


5ever, or until 2024
You know, reading and following the encounter rules as written would make playing BD&D like following stereo installation instructions.


Moldvay always seems to be trying to strike the right balance for spelling things out for newbies and leaving the game open enough to keep it interesting (and consistent with his own free-wheeling play style).

That sequence isn't that bad, and its pretty clear. When you have done it a few times and gotten the hand of things, then you can just run things without referring to it most of the time.

Presumably the combat sequence is coming soon...we will see what you think of that.


We never played encounters by a step-by-step list. We handled encounters just kind of "logically". We played it more like the example story shows it. And speaking of the combat sequence, back in the day, I don't think we ever actually played combats by the step-by-step list, either. It wasn't until a few years ago, that I specifically tried running combat by the step-by-step list. I don't think I ever (as DM) rolled for encounter distance.



Sightseeing? No...Combat.

The Combat Sequence

A. Each side rolls for initiative (1d6)
An 18 Dex gives you a +2 for initiative. Halflings get +1. So a Halfling with 18 Dex gets +3 to a 1d6 roll. That's huge.
In the Mentzer DMR, there is an added Intentions phase before initiative, but Moldvay has no such phase, except for defensive movement.

B. The side that wins initiative acts first (if simultaneous all actions are performed by each side at the same time):
Since the winning side goes through all these actions first, they have a huge advantage. On the other hand, this means that magic-users have a small advantage: they hardly ever lose their spells. If they lose initiative, they can choose not to cast that round.

1. Morale checks, if needed (page B27).
Each monster has a morale score between 2 and 12 (highest in the Moldvay bestiary is 12, lowest is 5). Checks are done at DM's discretion, though the game recommends after the first death on either side and when half the monsters have been incapacitated. 2d6 are rolled and if the roll is greater than their morale score, the monsters flee. DM's can also adjust morale up or down a maximum of 2 depending on the situation (unless the monster's morale is 2 or 12). Morale is an optional rule.

2. Movement per round, meleed opponents may only move defensively (spell casters may not and cast spells).
I'm not sure melee can be verbed! But anyway, this was a big controversy with the 5e playtest. How does a losing party prevent the kobolds from just running around the fighter and killing the mage? Per Moldvay, a character is "meleed" when the enemy is within 5'. This dovetails nicely with 4e's (and 5e's) rules! If a creature comes within 5 feet of the fighter (an adjacent square using 1"=5'), they are meleed and may only make a defensive withdrawal (read: shift up to half movement) or retreat (no opportunity attack in B/X, but retreats must be backward).

3. Missile fire combat:
a. choose targets
b. roll 1d20 to hit; adjust result by Dexterity adjustment, range, cover, and magic
c. DM rolls damage

Here's a shock I either never noticed or had forgotten, but the DM rolls damage! It's pretty standard to roll the damage you cause these days, but this gives me an idea. What if you roll damage you receive? I'll cover missile fire in more detail in a later post, but here let me note that short range gives you a +1, and the top end of short range for even a short bow is 50', meaning almost all combat will be at short range. Man, think of the halflings. Halfling with a short bow and Dex 18 is kicking +5 bonus from 5-50 feet! He's got a THAC0 of 14 at 1st level! Up against your typical goblin, he's hitting on 8 or better! Bow wielding halflings are the s**t.

4. Magic spells (roll saving throws, as needed: 1d20)
More to come in the next post, but Saves are Death Ray/Poison, Magic Wands, Paralysis/Turn to Stone, Dragon Breath, and Rods/Staves/Spells. Dwarves and Halflings have the best saves in Basic.

5. Melee or hand-to-hand combat:
a: choose (or be attacked by) opponents
b: roll 1d20 to hit; adjust by Strength adjustment and magic weapons
c: DM rolls damage; adjust result by Strength adjustment and magic weapons

Here's a typical Moldvay simplification: unless missile attacks are specifically mentioned, monsters will only attack in melee. I can see this being useful to a new DM getting a handle on running monsters, but I suspect it was set to the wayside in fairly short order. On the other hand, while PCs may only attack once in a melee around a monster with a multiple attack routine can use all their attacks within one round of combat.

C. The side with the next highest initiative acts second, and so on using the order given above, until all sides have completed melee.Interestingly, if you assume each PC is their own side, and each different type of monster is its own side (when mixed), you get a combat sequence pretty much like how my regular group plays 4e, except that casters can move and cast in 4e. Any thoughts, preferences, experiences with side initiative vs. individual initiative?

D. The DM handles any surrenders, retreats, etc. as they occur.
Rereading it after all these years, surrender and/or retreat has a pretty big part in Moldvay. And yet, I know when we played, monsters pretty much fought to the death. I think most groups played that way, and that tendency led to morale's attenuation and eventual absence from the game. In retrospect, the game would have been more interesting with it.


I don't think I ever (as DM) rolled for encounter distance.
Well, that's not unusual. The rules say encounters can happen at what ever distance the situation dictates. The roll is just an option for the DM to take if he wants to mix it up/isn't sure.

And I don't think hardly any groups ever went down the checklist point by point, nor do I think were they intended to. The combat sequence is just there as a guide for DMs, particularly the primary audience of people who have never DM'd before, so they aren't overwhelmed.


First Post
Actually stepping through the checklist can have an interesting effect on play. DMs get into habits; every encounter unfolds according to the pattern (conscious or subconscious) in the DM's mind. Following the checklist can break that pattern and suddenly, what looked like another routine encounter becomes something that neither the players nor the DM expected.

What impresses me about these rules is how "modern" they are. There's an almost indie-game feel to them when you read them now, completely different from where D&D went once it became AD&D, 2nd Ed, 3E, and 4E.



Since the winning side goes through all these actions first, they have a huge advantage. On the other hand, this means that magic-users have a small advantage: they hardly ever lose their spells. If they lose initiative, they can choose not to cast that round.

Actually, the advantage is even bigger. If you lose initiative, but aren't hit before your turn, you can cast to your heart's content and never lose a spell. IOW, the only way to stop a caster is to win initiative AND hit him or her. No AOO's to stop casting.


So, a closer look at combat.

Defensive Movement - Once a character is in melee (that is, within 5' of a hostile opponent), their only possible movement is a fighting withdrawal - half one's movement rate backwards. Or, a retreat - full movement straight back, no attacks. The opponent gets +2 to their attack. However it doesn't say that the enemy gets a free attack, like in AD&D. As I interpret it, if you win initiative and decide to bug out, and you have a clear path, you can run away like a Final Fantasy character, but if you have a lower speed than your opponent, they're probably going to catch up to you. If you're faster, you're home free. If you lose initiative, you can still make your run (you made your intentions clear before rolling), but the enemy get's a plus +2 to their attack. The upside is, if you survive, you can take off and they can't follow you unless they win the next initiative as well.

How to Attack - Here Moldvay has the "attack always succeeds on a 20, always misses on a 1". No criticals, but it's interesting to find this in the rules this early; for some reason I'd always thought it came later. Perhaps 1e's combat tables confused me.

This section also has an attack on "unhittable" creatures option. What do you do when you have a monster fighting a monster that can only be hit by silver or magic weapons? Moldvay gives two options. The first is, unhittable creatures can hit unhittable creatures. Alternatively or concurrently, as you like, monsters of more than 4 HD can hit unhittable creatures.

Damage - The first line. "If an attack hits, the DM must determine how much damage the attack has done." How did I miss this? Was it because the guy who introduced me to the game had me roll my own damage? Did I do it like this in the deeps of time, and stop after getting the BECM books, where PCs roll their own damage?

All weapon damage is 1d6 unless variable damage is used. As I've said before, I'd like to start up a game using this rule. However, it does create one of the few holes in the Moldvay rules (and continued into Mentzer, I think). If 1d6 is used for all weapons, no one would ever want to use a two-handed sword, since they would lose AC and have nothing to gain for it (except perhaps role-playing satisfaction?). Two-handed weapons also automatically lose initiative, but as near as I can tell, this only applies if you are using individual initiative and variable weapon damage.

You are dead when HP drops to 0. A day of rest heals 1-3 hp, and clerical spells will heal hp immediately. This is one of my few, few gripes with Moldvay: a higher level character will take forever to heal. Heck, even the classes will differ. Drop the wizard down to 1 hp, and it's possible for him to be back at full strength in one day. Drop a fighter down to 1 hp and it might take him two or three days. What I'd do is just use percentages. Instead of 1-3 hp, it's 10%-30% hp.

Missile Fire - Cover rules are light, and depend heavily on DM adjudication. Moldvay simply explains there's full cover (completely hidden) and then partial cover, which can be a -1 to -4 penalty depending on how the DM judges.

Oil gets two whole paragraphs! One flask makes a pool 3 feet in diameter. Burning oil does 1d8 damage. If thrown and lit on a creature, it will burn and cause damage for 2 rounds before dripping off. A pool of burning oil burns for 1 turn. This is another rule explicitly left to the DM: "That chance of oil catching fire depends on the situation, and is left for the DM to figure out. Touching the oil with a flaming torch should almost certainly cause the oil to light. Other methods may have less chance of success." Holy water basically acts like burning oil for undead (1d8 damage), although it doesn't say anything specific about dripping off.

Saving Throws - As noted above, it's Death Ray/Poison, Magic Wands, Paralysis/Turn to Stone, Dragon Breath, and Rod/Staves/Spells. Or my interpretation: save or die, save to dodge, save to prevent body change, save vs. area effect, and save vs. any other applicable magic. Here we see the first clear indication that adventurers are Special People. The top of the Saving Throw chart is a line for "Normal Man", and their saves suck! Interestingly, their saves are generally one worse than the worst character class save. So the worst PC Dragon Breath save is 16, and the Normal Man saves at 17. But the Normal Man's save vs Paralysis/Turn to Stone (16) is two worse than the worst PC saves (cleric and fighter with 14).

Melee Combat - The Normal Man appears again, now with a THAC0 of 20. Characters start with a THAC0 of 19. Actually THAC0 isn't used, of course, but it's a handy shorthand. The chart also includes a line for 4th or higher level, for NPCs or PCs who've reached 4th level before they've bought the Expert Rules. Initially everyone has the same chance to hit, so a fighter's main advantage is extra damage if the variable damage rules are used. Otherwise, his likely high Str bonus will be the only thing that makes him better at stabbing faces than any other character.

Morale - I've been thinking about player psychology and rules presentation. I think perhaps "optional" might not be the best word. It seems that when a rule is labeled "optional", people reading through to learn the rules probably have a tendency to skip right past it. It probably also carries a certain nuance of "will make your game more complicated". These are perhaps good reasons for Moldvay to have labeled morale as optional. It is an extra thing to keep track of. But using it in a PbEM last year, I found it cut a lot of battles short, and really kept the game moving along.

Retainers do not check morale in combat, unless the danger is unreasonable. I suspect the guideline is if the PCs are thinking about high-tailing it, it's crossed the retainers' minds as well.

Next time - the infamous Silverleaf, Fredrik, Morgan Ironwolf, and Sister Rebecca appear!


Backing up a little bit:

Opening "Stuck" Doors.

This is something that's fallen out of favor in my group, I stopped using the rule somewhere in 2nd edition. I figured if the monsters weren't having any problems with the doors that they go through all the time, why should the PCs? Other folks that started with the "stuck" door rule for dungeons, do you still use it? It *seems* this is something that's fallen out of favor.


Backing up a little bit:

Opening "Stuck" Doors.

This is something that's fallen out of favor in my group, I stopped using the rule somewhere in 2nd edition. I figured if the monsters weren't having any problems with the doors that they go through all the time, why should the PCs? Other folks that started with the "stuck" door rule for dungeons, do you still use it? It *seems* this is something that's fallen out of favor.
I'm not sure if any of the early groups I played with used it. If so, it didn't stick around long. Probably for the reason you cited.


Steeliest of the dragons
Stuck doors: Once or twice as a player. Gives a low level fighter or dwarf something to do besides fight. As a DM, never. If the door couldn't be opened it was locked or barred, wizard locked, etc... not just "stuck." But yeah, back then, once everyone had the rules down and all we wanted to do was kill things n' take their stuff, I think the "stuck door" was just viewed as an unnecessary impediment to getting to the next combat.


5ever, or until 2024
stuck doors: back in the days, a little. In my "next" campaign (always the next one) I would like to carefully track long abandoned areas and use it for those. Well, at least a few times.

morale: I have never made a morale check outside of the few large scale battles we have had over the years, but I do have opponents run away or surrender, (or recently, play dead and then escape) both to make the fight shorter and because fighting to the death, all the time, is beyond unrealistic.


I used them, but only a few doors in the dungeon. We had small groups, and I didn't want to shut off large parts of the dungeon if the dice were cold.


5ever, or until 2024
This is a key area of play style. If you are doing the "tent-pole" dungeon, ie a location that has a pretty long life, then what is not explored today is an opportunity for later.

With the move to more discrete, serial, adventures, you start to loose this. (though it depends on how long the adventure goes for).


Now, morale was mentioned. This is something we used all the time, pretty religiously and it's one of the biggest complaints I have about later era D&D that it was removed.


Four player characters, Morgan Ironwolf (1st level fighter), Silverleaf (2nd level Elf), Fredrik (1st level dwarf) and Sister Rebecca (2nd level cleric) enter a room through a secret door which was detected and opened by Silverleaf. The room appears to be empty. While they are searching it, a second secret door opens (which Silverleaf did not find) and the first pair of 12 hobgoblins walks in.
So, right off the bat we have a nice variety of classes and races, a 5 PC party, and a bit of the exploration that is Basic D&D's forte. I think having one retainer NPC would have been a good chance to show how those rules work, and how the DM would run them.

The DM checks for surprise; the party rolls a 2, the hobgoblins a 1; both sides are surprised. The two groups stare at each other while changing their order into better defensive positions. Since Silverleaf is the only member of the party who speaks Hobgoblin, the other characters elect him as their spokesman. The player who runs Silverleaf becomes the caller. He quickly warns the others that he may have to use his sleep spell.
Here Moldvay introduces the surprise rules. Both sides surprised, so a round where neither can attack. Here's an interesting change: when Silverleaf takes the job of primary interaction with the DM, he becomes the caller. This suggests that the caller is not purely a metagame convention. There's an in-character aspect, as well. This paragraph also demonstrates the relevance of the language rules, something that's become somewhat vestigal since 2e, providing some flavor, but not really part of the game unless the DM makes an effort to use them. With B/X's regular use of reaction rolls, knowing the language of the other side can be a notable advantage!

Silverleaf steps forward with both hands empty in a token of friendship, and says "Greeting, noble dwellers of deep caverns; can we help you?" Just in case, Silverleaf is thinking of the words he must chant to cast his spell.

The DM decides that Silverleaf's open hands and words in the hobgoblins' language are worth +1 when checking for reaction. Unfortunately the DM rolls a 4 (on 2d6) which, even adjusted to 5, is not a good reaction. The hobgoblins draw their weapons, but do not attack. The do move aside as two more hobgoblins enter the room.
Moldvay introduces the reaction rules. Interestingly, he foregoes rolling initiative before the reaction roll.

The largest of the hobgolbins shouts, in his language, "Go away! You're not allowed in this room!"

"It's okay; Gary sent us," Silverleaf answers.

"Huh?" the hobgoblin wittily responds.

The DM rolls a new reaction with no adjustments. The roll is a 3; the hobgoblins charge.
Ah, the infamous "Gary sent us." In contrast to the high, heroic fantasy of Moldvay's foreword, here Moldvay portrays the game much as it is played: with goofiness and bathos.

The DM rolls a 2 for the hobgoblins initiative; Silverleaf rolls a 4 for the party, so the party has the initiative. Silverleaf has already warned the others that he is going to throw a sleep spell if the hobgoblins attack, so the party moves to form a defensive line across the room (making sure that they do not getcaught in the spell's area of effect). Morgan has a short bow ready to fire. Fredrik is getting his throwing axe ready, and Sister Rebecca is pulling out her mace and bracing her shield.
While Moldvay doesn't provide much detail in how to use miniatures in the book, if consider what suggestions he does make, it's interesting to imagine this scenario playing out on a battlemap. He later suggests using a 1"= 5' scale, just like 3e and 4e. This room is 30' x 30', or 6 squares by 6 squares. You can imagine the characters forming a line 5 squares across, effectively preventing the hobgoblins from getting any of the characters in a pincer.

Since Morgan has her bow ready and Fredrik has his axe, they choose their targets and fire. First level characters need a roll of 13 or better to hit the hobgoblins' Armor Class of 6. Since both attacks are at short range, Morgan and Fredrik each add +1 to their rolls. In addition, Morgan has a Dexterity score of 13, so she gains another +1 bonus. Therefore, Fredrik needs a roll of 12 (or greater) to hit, and Morgan needs a roll of 11.
No morale or movement, so we go straight to missile fire. That short range bonus is really helpful in the relative close quarters of the dungeon.

Morgan rolls a 12 and Fredrik rolls a 16 -- both hit! The DM rolls 1d6 for arrow damage and 1d6 for axe damage. Morgan's arrow does 4 points of damage, and the hobgoblin she hit (who only had 4 hit points) falls; the DM announces "Hobgoblin #2 is dead" (counting from the first to enter the room). Fredrik's axe is found to do 5 points of damage, but the first hobgoblin had 7 hit points. The 5 points are deducted from the hobgoblin's total, leaving him with 2 hit points.
Fredrik gets no luck. Even a maximum damage roll would not have dropped his hobgoblin. I note that Moldvay describes the battle so that it works with both 1d6 damage and the variable damage rules.

Silverleaf casts his spell finds that 13 levels of monsters fall asleep. Since hobgoblins have 1+1 hit dice, they are treated as 2 hit die monsters for this purpose. Therefore, six hobgoblins fall asleep; the 3 who are charging, the two coming through the door this round, and one standing just beyond the doorway.
I like to imagine the last goblin, standing next to a buddy, just itching to get into that room and kick some ass, and then just crumpling to the floor as his buddy double-takes.

At least half of the monsters are out of action, so the DM decides to check the hobgoblins' morale. Normal hobgoblin morale is 9, temporarily lowered to 8 in this situation. The DM rolls a 6, so the hobgoblins will fight on.
Moldvay arbitrarily lowers the hobgoblin's morale score. He doesn't explain why the hobgoblins' morale drops here. Perhaps the fact that the PCs have already taken out one of the hobgoblins (which would normally call for a morale check). Or maybe the fact that half of the hobgoblins are down before they've even had a chance to attack! With all hobgoblins in the room incapacitated, the round is over without the PCs coming under attack.

In the second round of combat, the party loses the initiative roll. Another two hobgoblins charge through the door way. Since Morgan still has her bow out, she may shoot at the charging monsters. These start moving from 20' away from her, so the party has time to get their weapons out. The DM warns Silverleaf that if he wants to cast any spells this round, the hobgoblins will be able to attack him before he can do so. Silverleaf decides to get out a weapon. Morgan rolls a 4 (a miss), and the hobgoblins decide to attack Fredrik and Morgan.
One thing I like about the round-by-round initiative is that the ebb and flow of the battle can really change. Here again Moldvay makes a judgment call rather than following the letter of the rules. Goblins have a move of 20', so if he followed the combat sequence strictly, they'd have time to close to melee range and attack that round. However, he allows Morgan to get her attack early.

The hobgoblin attacking Fredrik rolls a 17, hitting Fredrik's Armor Class of 2, and scores 8 points of damage! Poor Fredrik has only 6 hit points, so he is killed. The monster attacking Morgan needs a 15 to hit her Armor Class of 3 (since she had her bow out, which required two hands, her shield was not included in the Armor Class). The DM rolls a 15, and Morgan takes 4 points of damage -- not quite enough to kill her. Morgan has already attacked this round, so she may not do so again. The DM does allow her to drop her bow and draw a sword, so that she may attack in melee combat in the next round. Both Sister Rebecca and Silverleaf can attack, however, and together they kill one hobgoblin.
Again, no luck for Fredrik! The hobgoblin scores maximum damage. Moldvay here demonstrates the lethality of low-level combat in the Basic game, so it's not like he didn't warn us!

The party get the initiative for the third round. All of them choose to attack the only monster in the room. Rebecca and Silverleaf both miss, but Morgan hits (with her sword). She rolls a 4 for damage. The hobgoblin has 5 hit points. But Morgan's great Strength gives her a bonus of +2 on damage, so she scores a total of 6 points of damage, killing the hobgoblin.

The DM decides to check the hobgoblin's morale again. They began with a morale score of 9, adjusted to 8 before, and further adjusted this time down to 7. The DM rolls an 8; the last three hobgoblins drop their weapons, and shout (in hobgoblin, of course), "We surrender! We'll tell you all about this room if you don't kill us!" If the hobgoblins had made their morale check they would not have to check again and would fight to the death.
Again Moldvay adjusts morale, suggesting that using the morale rules and judiciously adjusting the scores when the monsters start dropping helps keep combat from getting too lethal (I daresay one more PC would have gone down if the remaining hobgoblins fought to the death), as well as reducing grind, repetition, and anti-climax.

Silverleaf tells the party what the hobgoblins have said. The characters accept the surrender, and tie up all the hobgoblins and remove their weapons. The helpful hobgoblins not only tell the party where the treasure is, but how to avoid the poison needle trap which guards the lock on the chest.
Alas, too late for that information to help Black Dougal! One interesting part here is that Silverleaf tells the party what the hobgoblins said. I admit, in my regular 4e games, there is a lot of OOC talk. If the DM says something to one character (i.e., the result of a knowledge check), we all "know" it. It's assumed that character tells us, without the player doing so. Meanwhile, during fights, we often discuss strategy and suggest tactics to each other. Here in the Basic rules, Moldvay suggests a different way: virtually all talk is "in-character", and what one character "knows" they still relate to the other players, who have already heard the DM.

Before the party leaves they gag the hobgoblins, to make sure that no alarm will be raised. Morgan is Neutral in alignment, and argues that it is not safe to leave a sure enemy behind them, even if that enemy is temporarily helpless. Silverleaf is also Neutral, but he believes that the hobgoblins are too terrified to be of any further threat. If Morgan wants to kill the prisoners he won't help her, but he won't stop her, either.

Sister Rebecca, a Lawful cleric, is shocked by Morgan's suggestion. She tells Morgan that a Lawful person keeps her word, and that she promised the hobgoblins that they would be spared. Her god would never allow her to heal someone who killed helpless prisoners . . . .

Morgan agrees that killing captives is wrong, and that it was only the great pain from her wound which caused her to say such things. Sister Rebecca casts her cure light wounds spell on Morgan. It does 5 points of healing, bringing Morgan back to her normal 6 hit points.
Moldvay ends with a small demonstration of alignment, plus the mechanics of clerical healing. I get images of Silverleaf looking like the Neutral Hipster fellow on page B11. Typical aloof elf!

Some general thoughts: Moldvay here shows quite a different game from the dragon fighters of the cover and Foreword, but what he does show is a very clear and accurate game for the rules he's presented. Combat is lethal. Characters should try negotiation, not just attacking the "bad guys" on site. Players say goofy stuff. Reaction rolls and morale checks add variety to the game, and keep it from getting bogged down in repetitive combat. The DM doesn't play gotcha; he strives to keep the players informed so they can choose the best options (note his warning to Silverleaf regarding spell casting). He's flexible -- he doesn't slavishly follow the Combat sequence.

The next few parts will be Monsters, monsters, monsters!


What impresses me about these rules is how "modern" they are. There's an almost indie-game feel to them when you read them now, completely different from where D&D went once it became AD&D, 2nd Ed, 3E, and 4E.
I agree. Rereading them after many long years, I can appreciate the faction of the OSR that is about going back to the old games, playing them BTB, and enjoying the play experience that provides. I definitely appreciate that B/X is built on a highly customizable chassis. But it also has a "default" dungeon exploration setting that I find quite fascinating and intriguing.

When we played back in the '80s, dungeons were essentially paths through which to travel to heroic adventure, and our models were cinematic. The "scene" was always well-lit, the challenges at times difficult, but so much that our guys died senselessly, like Fredrik there. But I see in the game now a kind of suspense element, almost approaching horror. The dungeons are dark, so light is essential. They're labyrinthine, so you need the map. You've got to keep track of how much light you have, how much treasure you can carry. You've got to scout ahead so you don't bite off more than you can chew. It's nerve-wracking from the time you enter the dungeon until you can get out again. That's the kind of game I want to play right now.

An Advertisement